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Matter Out of Place

Reading Dirty Women

1My title comes from anthropologist Mary Douglas’ assertion that dirt, when understood as “matter out of place” simultaneously implies both the existence and the contravention of an established order or system and that this in turn establishes dirt as symbolic (35). Further, Phyllis Palmer has written that dirt is “a principal means to arrange culture” (139). This paper suggests both that dirt has a function in cultural constructions of gender and that action films featuring a female protagonist provide a fertile site for investigation. Normative white femininity traditionally eschews direct contact with dirt thus bringing into play interactions between work and gender. This article begins to question what it is that the appearance and disappearance of dirt signifies for the understanding of femininities in the particular cultural practice commonly recognised as action films.

2One need only observe advertisements for cleaning products or compare shelf space taken up by personal hygiene items for men to that taken by similar items for women to understand the continuation of the gendered nature of cleanliness. Women are expected to keep not only the environment but themselves clean as a measure of their femininity. Indeed, obsessive cleanliness formed a part of Friedan’s feminine mystique. Not only must transgressive women such as the eponymous protagonists of Thelma and Louise die, but also they must die unwashed, driving a dirty car into a hole in the ground, being pursued by a dust cloud. Having trespassed on the masculine territory of self-defence and free movement this can be their only end. Linda Williams points out that all they are guilty of is of behaving “in the time-honoured tradition of most American heroes, violently and without reflection” (27). Further, the women who suicide into the Grand Canyon at the end of the film are distanced from the two in the bright, iconic, self portrait from the beginning and it is this shiny vision of femininity that was central to the film’s promotion. They have driven west, away from civilised society, ultimately facing e what “the western still tells us and what we still continue to buy…that reality is blood and dust and death and a cold wind blowing” (Tompkins 99). The signs of the exhausting exertion of sustained non-capitulation and the adherent grime of the road they have travelled are plain on their faces. Like Ripley, once they are truly fighting alone they begin to accumulate layers of dirt on their skin. Unlike Ripley they can neither return from their nightmare nor separate themselves from their actions. Relentlessly pursued, they cannot stop to wash off the dirt just as they cannot eschew responsibility for what they have done. They have become dressed in the dust of road, no longer on it but of it.

3Another discourse is in operation in conjunction with the gender skewing discourse of dirt. Whenever one addresses a change in the colour of skin one engages with the discourse of race. Audiences are conditioned by Hollywood cinema to view non-Anglos in film as a potential threat. The darkening of the hero’s skin by dirt renders him or her as a perpetrator of violent acts. When the necessity for violence is over the hero cleans up (whitens up) to return to society. I am thinking here of the heroes of Stallone’s Rambo and Willis’s Die Hard series who followed Ripley. As their actions became increasingly violent they become progressively filthier. Rambo in particular, it is suggested, becomes more ‘primal’. I am not suggesting that filth is an issue involving gender, race or class in a simple way. Rather, these three issues are, as in most cases, intricately intertwined here too.

4By the time Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley traversed her first revenge narrative, Alien (1979) through the frontier of space, I would suggest that dirt had become a marker of the gendered action hero. The character of Ellen Ripley was originally written as a man, writer and director Ridley Scott asserting in the DVD commentary that the script was left unchanged when Weaver was cast. In Alien, Ripley plays the part of film theorist Carol Clover’s Final Girl. Clover writes that in slasher/horror films the survivor begins as the pursued, feminised victim of a male oppressor but in her ultimate triumph occupies the position of the traditional masculine avenger (35-37, 158-59). That is, she saves herself. It was new, too, that this ground breaking female hero battled against the monstrous femininities of the alien and ‘Mother’, the ship’s computer, to survive. Marking Ripley’s transgression into the strictly gendered territory of the solitarily courageous, increasingly frequent close-ups of her grimy hands and sweat-drenched face fill the screen.

5Alien begins in the pristine white of the sleep chamber reflecting the mainstream science fiction convention that contrasts the absence of dirt in the artificial space environment of the space ship with planet-based presence of dirt. It is Ripley who refuses to let the scouting party back onto the ship citing contamination procedure, underlining cleanliness and purity as a cultural ideal with women as its gatekeepers. The film ends in the white escape pod where Ripley immediately strips to her underwear, discarding the soiled outer layer of clothing. After one last ‘unexpected’ confrontation Ripley is shown clean and further feminised by the silk robe she is wearing and the soothing motion of stroking the cat (the only other survivor) on her lap. As she records her report she reverts to the role of Chorus, setting her apart from the action. Finally she is seen once more inside a sleep chamber as she was in the beginning. Returning to the gendered confines of ‘civilisation’ she must wash off the (masculine) signs of her struggle and return to sleep as if it were all a nightmare.

6Through Rambo, Die Hard’s McClane and other male action heroes the begrimed body has arguably become a signifier not only of survival but also of persistence and courage in the face of tremendous odds. Persistence and courage are gendered values. Thus, I would argue, its signifier, the dirty body, is similarly gendered. In Alien, Ellen Ripley, having triumphed through survival, reinstates her femininity (signified by cleanliness) and returns home. Ripley’s actions have been unobserved, her battlefield contained and her enemy (she thinks) proven tangible and finite. Isolated in space and relieved of being the object of the male gaze within her narrative by the deaths of her colleagues Ripley is free to begin a new discourse (and to found a new, female action tradition). Instead she takes a shower.