As in matters of the heart in general females are more susceptible to the passion than men.
--G. Stanley Hall, Adolescence (1904)
Jealousy is, on several counts, more inexcusable in a woman than in a man.
--E. B. Duffy, What Every Woman Should Know (1873)
Envy is concealed admiration. An admirer who senses that devotion cannot make him happy will choose to become envious of that which he admires. He will speak a different language, and in this language he will now declare that that which he really admires is a thing of no consequence, something foolish, illusory, perverse and high-flown. Admiration is happy self-abandon, envy, unhappy self-assertion.
--Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death in Salmede Vaerker (1843)
Why don't you look in the mirror ... huh? Look. You're in a different league--I know that. You have this great personality, you've got this great style, you run your own business. You're always going to find somebody. You've got to be stupid to think that you won't.
--Hedra Carlson to Allison Jones, Single, White Female (dir. Barbet Schroeder, US, 1992)
Though previously at the center of much feminist debate, today the notion of penis envy seems more deserving of obsolescence than sustained analysis and critique. Yet this concept, formulated by Freud in 1914 as a structuring principle of gender differentiation and well assimilated by popular culture today, remains something of a shibboleth to be reckoned with by feminist readers of psychoanalytic theory. Most objections to penis envy within feminism have been made from the standpoint that the concept entails a "characterization of feminine sexuality as deficiency." (1) While accurate in singling out a stereotypical view of femininity subtending the concept of penis envy, this critical tendency points to an equally commonplace approach to "envy" itself: one treating it as a term describing a subject who lacks, rather than the subject's affective response to a perceived imbalance or inequality. In other words, the traditional feminist critique of penis envy regards envy as saying something about the subject's internal state of affairs ("deficiency"), as opposed to a statement by or from the subject concerning a relation in the external world. Rey Chow's comment on Gayatri Spivak's invocation of the affect provides a useful example of this traditional approach. Responding to Spivak's own criticism of Julia Kristeva's "ethnocentric sense of `alienation' at the sight of some Chinese women in Huxian Square" (a moment Kristeva describes in Chinese Women), Chow writes,
While I agree with [Spivak's following] observation, I find [her] formulation of these other women's identity troubling: "Who is speaking here? An effort to answer that question might have revealed more about the mute women of Huxian Square, looking with qualified envy at the `incursion of the West'." Doesn't the word "envy" here remind us of that condition ascribed to women by Freud, against which feminists revolt--namely "penis envy"? "Envy" is the other side of the "violence" of which Fanon speaks as the fundamental part of the native's formation. But both affects--the one of wanting to have what the other has; the other, of destroying the other so that one can be in his place--are affects produced by a patriarchal ideology that assumes that the other at the low side of the hierarchy of self/other is "lacking" (in the pejorative, undesirable sense).... The fate of the native is then like that of Freud's woman: Even though she will never have a penis, she will for the rest of her life be trapped within the longing for it and its substitutes. (2)
Chow's discomfort with Spivak's use of "envy" assumes that the term is being used in the same way it has been traditionally used in patriarchal culture: as a static sign of lack and deficiency, rather than a motivated affective stance. Yet the parenthetical qualification of this deficiency (so it becomes lack "in the pejorative, undesirable sense") points to the fact that there may be forms of lacking signaled by envy that are not necessarily pejorative or morally coded; forms that are in fact the consequences of political and economic disenfranchisement. By aligning the affect Spivak attributes to the peasant women's gaze with penis envy, a particular situation of "not having" produced by a complex set of material relations inclusive of, but not limited to patriarchal ideology, becomes reduced to an illusion wholly circumscribable within a Western discourse of sexual difference. (3) Moreover, by describing envy as the "other side" of hostility or violence, thus replacing an aggressive stance toward owners of property with a passive state of deficiency marked by longing or desire for property, Chow, like Kristeva, seems to pass over what Spivak finds in the Huxian peasants' silent stare at the white European intellectual on tour--namely, antagonism. For insofar as it involves converting one's philic relation to a thing desired to a polemic relation to the subject who possesses it, isn't envy primarily an oppositional way of responding to a perceived disparity? Moreover, isn't it the only emotional category defined specifically in terms of addressing this relation? (Anger, for instance, is not necessarily directed at disparity, though it does offer one way of responding to it.)
Given envy's potential to draw unenvious people into class conflict ("Who does not envy with us is against us!"), (4) why is the subject's enviousness so frequently assumed to be unwarranted or petty? Or dismissed as overreactive, even delusional or hysterical--viewed constantly as a reflection of the ego's inner workings rather than a trajectory directed outward? Unlike anger, another affective support of oppositional consciousness with the capacity to become "a legitimate weapon in social reform," envy lacks cultural recognition as a valid mode of publicly recognizing or pointing to social disparities. (5) Though the first affective response signals that the problem I am responding to is really there, verifying it to others, the latter suggests that it may in fact be imaginary, or not significant enough to merit the nature of my response. Hence, once it enters a public domain of signification, one's envy will always seem unjustified, frustrated, and effete--regardless of whether the relation it points to is imaginary or not. As Rom Harre points out, "Emotions are strategic. They play roles in forms of action." (6) The fact that we tend to perceive envy as designating a condition of the subject, rather than the means by which the subject actively recognizes and responds to a particular relation, suggests that the dominant cultural attitude towards this affect converts its fundamentally allocentric orientation into an egocentric one, stripping it of its polemicism and rendering it merely a reflection of deficient and possibly histrionic selfhood. Socially uglified and moralized to the extent that it becomes fundamentally shameful to the subject who experiences it, envy also becomes stripped of its potential critical agency--as an ability to recognize, and antagonistically respond to, potentially real and institutionalized forms of inequality.
It is impossible to divorce the pervasive ignobility of this affect from its feminization, which may explain why the envious subject is so frequently suspected of being hysterical. As historian Peter Stearns has argued, while "jealousy was dramatically transformed into a female characteristic" in the nineteenth century, in the twentieth century this feminization was accompanied by intensified social prohibition against the affect's articulation. (7) Female subjects were thus "dispositioned" by envy in more than one way, since it confronted them with a set of paradoxical injunctions in conforming to the gender norm: that femininity entailed being naturally envious or prone to jealousy but also never envious or prone to jealousy. If by the twentieth century women were viewed, due to historical and cultural precedence, as "more susceptible to the passion than men" (according to the psychological expertise of George Stanley Hall), the same passion was increasingly viewed as "more inexcusable" in women than in men (according to E. B. Duffy's prescriptive bestseller What Every Woman Should Know). (8) In this sense, the feminine subject, positioned as a naturally envious subject prohibited from asserting this aspect of her socially defined identity, in speaking of herself would be forced to speak, as Kierkegaard suggests, "a different language." Focusing on envy not just as the negative affect placing female subjects in this disjunctive position, but as a mode of negative or "unhappy self-assertion," this essay examines how rhetorical acts organized and informed by a similarly emotive relationship between subjects and property (call it an "unhappy possessiveness") contribute to--but also enable critical interrogation of--existing gender norms. (9)
If the moralization and feminization of envy operate in conjunction to suppress its potential as a means of recognizing and aggressively responding to social inequalities, casting suspicion on the possible validity of such response and converting the subject's oppositional agency into a reflection of petty selfhood, this should alert us to the possibility that such forms of negative affect tend to be stripped of their critical potential particularly when the impassioned subject is female. Envy's concomitant feminization and cultural devaluation thus points to a larger cultural anxiety over antagonistic responses to inequality made specifically by women. As we shall see in the next section, this anxiety over female antagonism within feminism comes to a particular head when concerning representations of antagonistic relations between women.
"Who Killed Feminist Criticism?"
It may seem like poor taste and timing to use a reading of a film like Single White Female as a way of addressing issues of conflict in academic feminism today, particularly since the film has undergone a vogue in critical response that has already passed. For in its blunt characterizations of an idealized femininity (white, middle-class, heterosexual) and a bad or threatening, working-class, and putatively lesbian one, embodied respectively in the figures of Allison Jones (Bridget Fonda) and Hedra Carlson (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Single White Female inspired numerous feminist and queer critiques almost immediately upon reception, all of which "justly attack the film for its potent misogyny and homophobia" and several for its attitudes toward class and race. (10) More recently, Karen Hollinger contextualizes Schroeder's film as part of a "major backlash" in response to the political conservatism of the 1980s and 1990s; a backlash she finds rendered visible in the popular re-emergence of the "manipulative female friendship film." (11) Grouping Single White Female with other mainstream American thrillers released the same year, such as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. (dir. Curtis Hanson, 1992) and Poison Ivy (dir. Kat Shea Ruben, 1992), Hollinger argues:
These films often rejuvenate antiquated stereotypical representations of female relationships from woman's films of the 1930s and 1940s. They represent women's friendships as plagued by jealousy, envy, and competition for men, and they teach women to beware of and fear one another. By focusing so strongly on conflicts between women, they obscure other issues related to women's position in society, relieve men of any responsibility for women's problems, and suggest, instead, that women should grant men primary importance in their lives because they are the only ones upon whom women can rely. (12)
Given that Single White Female's plot turns on an initially happy domestic alliance between Allie and Hedy gradually becoming "conflicted" to the point that envious Hedy ends up bludgeoning Allie's best friend and neighbor and leaving him for dead, stabbing Allie's boyfriend through the eye with the heel of a stiletto pump, murderously chasing Allie with a grappling iron, and being killed by Allie with a screwdriver in the back, it is hard not to agree with the assessment above.
But should we not focus strongly on "conflicts between women," as Hollinger's statement also seems to imply? Even if the foregrounding of antagonism takes place at the exclusion of other issues (as any act of "focusing" necessarily entails), is such an emphasis in itself indicative of an antifeminist agenda? One would hope not, given that "conflicts between women" are precisely what keep feminism as an oppositional discourse and critical praxis viable today. In the wariness it betrays, however, Hollinger's statement usefully points to the fact that the representation of female conflicts remains a particularly loaded issue for feminists, particularly when these antagonistic relationships often gain greatest cultural visibility through hyperbolic, violent narratives fitting the paradigm above. There is a legitimate cause for fear, then, of female conflicts being subject to representational manipulation by feminism's outside; a fear reflected in Susan Gubar's reference to "a culture all too willing to exploit disagreements among women in a backlash against some or all of US." (13)
But how are polemic "conflicts between women" within feminism figured by feminists themselves? For an example we can turn to a controversial debate between Gubar and Robyn Wiegman in Critical Inquiry 24-25 (1998-99) concerning the very topic of polemic antagonism's role in academic feminism. (14) In this exchange, murder is invoked not just once, but twice--both times at the beginning of each critic's essay. In both cases, the reference to violence is both immediate and strategic, as if to provocatively induce the same "thrill" associated with the thriller genre. Originally called "Who Killed Feminist Criticism?" Gubar's "What Ails Feminist Criticism?" starts with an explanation of why she decided not to use the more graphic and accusatory title; Wiegman begins her critical response to Gubar by invoking Amanda Cross's Murder without a Text, a mystery novel featuring "a seasoned feminist scholar bludgeoning a student to death." Since both essays characterize the nature of the feminist disputes they discuss as fundamentally "generational" and Wiegman's text specifically addresses her previous relation to Gubar as student, it is difficult not to read the latter's invocation of the Cross story (older feminist kills younger feminist) as a canny way of reversing the roles of murderer and victim assigned in Gubar's essay (younger feminists kill older feminism), as well as a way of foregrounding the murderous scene of "feminist betrayal" Gubar's text calls forth only to quickly disavow by substituting illness ("What Ails?") for the original image of violence ("Who Killed?"). (15) The culturally familiar narrative of generational injury and betrayal between women invoked by both Gubar and Wiegman (though in a much more ironic and self-conscious way by the latter) also bears a striking resemblance to the narrative of Single White Female's 1950 predecessor, All about Eve (dir. Joseph Mankiewicz). For utilizing thriller imagery to dramatize generational disputes or "betrayals," and in being framed by subsequent commentators as a conflict between an older feminist and a younger feminist previously the student of the former, the Gubar-Wiegman debate not only recalls the Amanda Cross story cited by Wiegman, but the Mankiewicz film's depiction of the antagonistic rivalry that develops between all older theater star (Bette Davis) and the younger woman (Anne Baxter) who begins as her admirer and pupil. If the themes of envy and (in)gratitude in this film may remind some readers of Melanie Klein's eponymous 1957 essay, (16) the Kleinian implications of the Gubar-Wiegman exchange are reinforced in a letter by "Amanda Cross" (Carolyn Heilbrun) herself, describing the debate as a mother/daughter dispute: "another battle in the war of generations" ultimately explicable in terms of infantile aggression. (17) As Cross/Heilbrun writes,
My initial astonishment at finding my story quoted in Critical Inquiry soon dwindled to dismay as I understood the rudeness offered to my [seasoned feminist scholar] character, Beatrice Sterling, was not far from the tone Professor Wiegman chose as appropriate for addressing Professor Gubar, who had fought early feminist academic battles when Professor Wiegman was at her mother's knee.... Why Professor Wiegman agreed to answer Professor Gubar in such a mode is explicable ... chiefly upon maternal principles. (18)
Between Gubar's essay and Wiegman's, then, we have an accusation of allegorical "murder" by a seasoned feminist scholar, and the allegory of a seasoned feminist scholar who murders her accuser. …