Posted on July 22, 2015

Cat People (1942): Coding Lesbianism Via Otherness

Elizabeth Erwin

For every lesbian horror victim, such as Brandy in Hallow’s End (2003), there exists a murderous lesbian, such as May Canady in May (2002), to remind us of the perversion traditionally associated with lesbian desire. Previously we looked at how Dracula’s Daughter coded its lesbian narrative in order to escape censor from the Legion of Decency. This week we will take a look at how Cat People (1942) established markers of “otherness” in order to code its queerness.

Just as in Dracula’s Daughter, the main character of Cat People, Irena Dubrovna, struggles against a part of her true identity she fears will render her an outcast. Irena, a Serbian immigrant, believes she is descended from a cursed tribe in which any woman who has her passions aroused will shape-shift into a killing panther. Irena’s life is complicated when she impulsively marries Oliver, a New York architect. Unable to be intimate with him for fear of the curse, Irena is sent to a psychiatrist in search of a cure. The audience is left guessing whether Irena’s paranoia is the result of sexual repression or whether her fears may be well founded.

For Irena to be perceived as a monster, she must be positioned outside of acceptable societal boundaries. One way to achieve this is to pit her differences against the other characters. Robin Wood, in Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, defines “Otherness” as that which violates a repressive society. He argues, “All the Others of white patriarchal bourgeois culture-workers, women, gays, blacks-are in various ways threatening, and their very existence represents a demand that society transform itself.”[i] But because Irena’s lesbianism is coded, Cat People must establish her “otherness” in more obvious ways.

29CatPeople_innerbigIrena is marginalized due to her status as an immigrant. Not only does she speak with an accent and enjoy foreign foods but she also embraces the stories of her homeland, which strike the other characters as silly at best, and psychotic at worst. This stands in stark contrast to scenes of Oliver and Alice who are seen dismissing Irena’s Serbian myths while enjoying cuisine of a decidedly American flair. And yet, it is Irena’s internal battle that most sets her apart from the normal society to which she aspires. The scene in the psychiatrist’s office illuminates this conflict when Irena says, “I have no peace for it is in me.”

The film also casts Irena as an “other” in the way it highlights her inability to have heterosexual sex. When the movie begins, Irena is lonely and looking for a friend. She finds one in Oliver who quickly requires more of Irena. It is his requirement of a physical relationship, instead of the platonic one Irena would enjoy, which prompts her to turn into the monster. When Oliver’s demands push her to seek treatment from Dr. Judd, it is to reestablish for Irena what it means to be a wife, indeed what it means to be feminine. Irena’s death is brought about by her realization that Oliver is no longer in love with her. As she has now lost her societally acceptable role of wife, Irena is suddenly devoid of her feminine boundary. Her acquiescence to Dr. Judd’s overtures, which she knows will result in her death, becomes a moment in which death is deemed preferable to being a single female with unnatural longings.

imagesThere are a number of instances in Cat People that can be read as being deliberately coded through the use of “otherness.” In one telling scene, Irena explains the mythology behind the curse to Oliver, which sets up the lesbian undertones. Irena’s story of her village being overrun by “wicked people” who did “dreadful things” echoes the story of Sodom & Gomorrah. Given the specific references to religion throughout the film, this association is not accidental and helps to contextualize for the audience the perverse nature of the sexuality with which Irena struggles.

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 11.07.41 PMWith that reference in mind, the scene that then transpires in a Serbian restaurant takes on a new dynamic. Irena and her new husband are celebrating their wedding when a woman who has been staring at her throughout the dinner approaches Irena. Not only does the mystery woman refer to Irena as “my sister” indicating an awareness that they are of the same tribe but there is a palpable fear on Irena’s face which suggests concern that her new husband will perceive a connection between her and the mystery woman. This fear of association and discovery would certainly resonate with a gay and lesbian audience in this time period.

Cat+people+4Adding to the dynamics of this scene are the words used by party observers to describe the two women. The woman who approaches Irena is deemed outside the norm for her physicality by the two men at the table when one says, “Look at that woman. Isn’t she something?” to which his friend replies, “She looks like a cat.” This exchange is preceded by an exchange in which Irena is labeled as possibly being “odd.” On the surface, these exchanges appear innocuous but to a queer audience in the 1940s, a female being labeled “odd” would function in much the same way as a gay man being called a “sissy.” That Irena returns home after the exchange to scrub herself clean of the label is a clear indicator that Irena recognizes (and loathes) the otherness that she sees in herself.

tumblr_lab0138Ico1qzom5do1_1280According to Noel Carroll, it is not enough for a monster to simply be threatening. A monster must also be impure. The coding evident in each film suggests the innate desires of each woman are something to be feared and something by which to be repulsed. Barbara Creed extends Carroll’s argument about the monster in Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection by arguing that, at its core, the monster is always imbued with the feminine. Using Julia Kristeva’s definition of abjection, that “which does not respect borders, positions rules” and “disturbs identity, system, and order, Creed introduces the idea of the “monstrous-feminine.”[ii] She writes,

All human societies have a conception of the monstrous-feminine, of what it is about woman that is shocking, terrifying, horrific, abject.”[iii]

It explains why women function so well within the context of horror. They are, by both their roles (mother) and class (perceived weaker sex), so clearly situated within certain boundaries that any pursuit outside of those boundaries renders them an immediate threat.

The assumption that Irena possesses lesbian feelings is especially threatening because, to the audience, it implies a castration of the masculine identity. She is not a woman who desires men, which suggests that she is not a woman who needs a man. She is an “other.” Yet, for societal boundaries to maintain intact, and for women to accept these boundaries, neither the desires nor the needs of these “others” can be allowed to persist.

[i] Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 160.

[ii] Barbara Creed, “Kristeva, Femininity, Abjection,” in The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism. Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 1993), 8.

[iii] Ibid., 1.

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