I have been interested in Dorothy Arzner’s life and work for a number of years now, so imagine my surprise when I came across the mention of an autobiography—albeit unfinished—,available for purchase online. The short document—it is less than 30 pages—unfortunately ends before Arzner begins her career as a film director. Despite this, the reader learns a number of important facts regarding the director’s early life in California. For instance, we learn of Arzner’s troubled family history: her parents separated and her father forbade any contact between Dorothy and her mother. Young Dorothy was transplanted a number of times during her early years, her father sending her to distant relatives after hearing that her mother might try to take her children away. Her mother’s mysterious absence left an undeniable mark on Arzner’s existence: “There may have been a reason for not letting her see me”, Arzner writes, “but it all seemed wrong and mysterious then and no one ever said anything against her and there were no explanations so the mystery grew” (118). Arzner tried locate and see her mother latter in life, but to no avail. What she found was her grave, indicating that her mother died some eight or ten years after the separation. “For many years”, Arzner continues, “I used to imagine that when I grew up I would romantically find my mother, very much like the storybook experiences of which I had been reading” (119). Arzner mentions Madame X—the play by Alexandre Bisson— as “a good example of the period”, but one immediately thinks of Sarah and Son (1930), Arzner’s own take on the maternal melodrama. Of the film, Arzner writes that, at the time of making it, she thought of herself as “sophisticated”, and was therefore “afraid the story might be too ‘corny’”. In the end, however, Arzner felt that her own experience of a similar situation gave the film “a living quality that was unique and fresh”.
Another interesting snippet from the biography is Arzner’s comments regarding Cecil B. DeMille. “De Mille”, Arzner writes of her encounter with the famous director, “was having a great time for himself, dressing and acting a part he reveled in” (131). The Cleopatra (1934) director “presented a formidable and unique character to the studio. He would drive up in a grey Pierce Arrow roadster, with red leather seats. There was nothing like it about. He was at the wheel and beside him was a uniformed Japanese chauffeur, who jumped out and opened the door for him and then followed just a few steps behind as DeMille strode through the gate speaking to no one, and dressed in a well-tailored gabardine Norfolk suit with leather puttees. It looked a little odd to me at that time”, Arzner remarks, “but now I realize it was showmanship” (129).
Arzner was a very keen observer, and a master at adapting to fit particular situations. This encounter with DeMille, and what she observed of the famous studio director, gives us some insight into how Arzner built her own image as a successful film director.
In a rare interview given after retiring in the 1940s, film director Dorothy Arzner unambiguously claimed that, in making Christopher Strong (1933), she was more interested in the male titular character “than in any of the women characters”. Yet, Arzner, the only lesbian director working in mainstream Hollywood at the time, has been tasked with “proving” her independence as a director with a unique, female, point of view through the depiction of strong female characters struggling with the constraints of heteronormative patriarchy. Indeed, rediscovered in the mid-1970s by emerging feminist film theorists, Arzner’s films have been scrutinized to identify the “female”, “feminist” or “feminine” signature present in her work. According to Andrew Sarris, “[Arzner’s] only ideological edge from a feminist point of view may turn out to be the spectacular spinelessness of her male characters” (1977, p. 387).
My preliminary research, however, indicates that Arzner was not only not interested in feminism but that she repeatedly rebuked interpretations of her work in terms of feminism, or even in relation to her identity as a woman. I therefore believe that the conceptual framework that has thus far informed the critical analysis of Arzner’s work stems from concerns that were of greater importance to film critics and theorists than to Arzner herself. Having said this, her films indisputably bear the signature of an original and unique film director. Taking my cue from Arzner’s own interest in gender performance and transgender practices (both in her personal life as a butch lesbian and in her film work), I propose to reassess Arzner’s work using Trans theory.
While Sandy Stone (1992), Susan Stryker (1994) and Judith Butler (2004) have pointed out the difficulty for trans experience to be articulated within discursive practices heavily determined by gender binarism, Eliza Steinbock (2012) has recently raised the possibility that cinematic language might be more amenable to trans utterances.
Critical work on Arzner is disproportionately scarce given her importance in American film history. In additional to a handful of articles, only one monograph has yet been published; Judith Mayne’s Directed by Dorothy Arzner (1994). The book is primarily concerned with off-screen information: biographical details concerning the director’s life and production information regarding key films. My research will offer the first discussion of Arzner’s entire body of surviving work. In addition to advancing a unique way of interpreting her films, this research will contribute to the dissemination of knowledge about Arzner’s contribution to American film. The research will also constitute a new way of conceiving lesbian cross-gender identification in film.
Emerging in the 1990s, Trans studies has developed, sometimes in opposition, often times in conjunction with Queer, Feminist and Women’s Studies. Since its inception as a field of study, it has been anything but stable and non-contentious. First associated with transsexuals, the term “trans” has come to cover a great range of realities, from various kinds of sex and gender bending, to degrees of transitions, from medically-assisted transformations to cross-dressing and “passing”. Recently, and in an effort to de-medicalise trans reality and shift the focus away from visible, exterior manifestations and the perception of others, it has also come to include less visible phenomena, such as personal narratives, identification and fantasy formations. Important volumes have recently taken stock of the developments and constructive debates animating the field (Elliot, 2010; Enke, 2012; Hines & Sauger, 2010, Halberstam). Trans studies has unquestionably contributed to an inclusive understanding of gender identity, one that challenges common assumptions of what, among other things, being a woman or a lesbian can mean. As a deconstructive practice, “[T]rans marks not only gender trouble but also category trouble” (Noble, 2007, p. 169).
For the purpose of this research, I understand “trans” as a politically charged umbrella term that refers to any gender practice or identity that disrupts, challenges or transcends conventional gender assumptions and fixed gender binary. Trans studies seeks to disturb (at least temporarily) fixed but alienating gender categories that tend to prevent us from acknowledging realities that fall outside said categories. Indeed, beyond unsettling stubborn gender categories, one advantage of trans studies has been to allow for new forms of knowledge to emerge. I am interested in trans theory as a functional term and in its tools as heuristic devices for interpreting Arzner’s films and elucidate some of their possible meanings.
The goal of this research is twofold: provide a fuller account of Dorothy Arzner’s body of work and develop the theoretical grounding of a trans-feminist film theory and cross-gender identification in film. A hermeneutical analysis, the methodological framework guiding the research is a historically-conscious textual analysis of Arzner’s surviving body of work. By this I mean that close analysis of the corpus remains central but is also contextualized by cultural, historical and biographical information. Interrogating trans conceptualisations of embodiment, agency, subjectivity and desire, the research will engage in dialogues with feminist and gender studies in order to come to a more complex understanding of gendered authorship. Using trans studies, my aim to re-center gendered authorship around notions of subjective gender positioning rather than materialist and biological determinants.