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INTERview: Hilary Neroni

The author of The Violent Woman discusses film and fury

By Amanda Waite Article published June 23, 2005

Hilary Neroni 2005
Fatal femmes: Professor Hilary Neroni's new book examines the psychological perplexities of murderous women in mainstream film. (Photo:Bill DiLillo)

Hilary Neroni, professor of film and television studies, met with the view on June 17 to discuss her new book, The Violent Woman: Femininity, Narrative, and Violence in Contemporary American Cinema (SUNY Press), which explores the recent emergence of violent female characters in mainstream productions. Previously confined to particular genres and historical situations, the violent woman can now be found across genres in contemporary film. The trend began with the release of Thelma and Louise, the 1991 film about two women who run from the law after killing a man who tries to rape one of them. The film sparked a public debate about violent women — a reaction, Neroni says, that mirrors the hysterical public response to real female murderers like Lizzie Borden and Susan Smith. In her book, Neroni explores the disruptive quality of the violent woman, paying particular attention to how the narrative of the film itself is affected by the presence of these traumatic characters.

the view: How did you come to write The Violent Woman and get it published?

HILARY NERONI: The idea for the book came to me in graduate school in a class at the University of Southern California. It was a class on gender and representation, and it was one of those really great classes where everything connected, everything gelled. At that time there was this trend that I talk about in the book of an explosion of these violent heroines across genres in mainstream cinema. I was fascinated by them, so I wrote this paper on it in that class. I got an incredible reaction… people were excited about it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I actually wrote my dissertation on a similar topic. Since then, I’ve basically written a new, different book on the same topic. I sent it to SUNY Press and other presses. One of the reasons that it’s at SUNY is because they are supportive of psychoanalytic theory, so it was a nice fit there.

What is it about violent women in film that inspires you to study the phenomenon?

I think that the reason I was drawn to talking about the violent woman is because she’s an extreme of the strong woman. You could do a similar study of strong, dramatic, women characters in film, but I think that the physicality of violence makes a nice extreme example that shines a very bright light on all these machinations of the ideological workings of masculinity and femininity and how very strongly ideology and Hollywood needs (masculinity and femininity) to be complimentary… Also, I was very fascinated how historically, until this moment, the violent woman had been confined to particular genres and was linked to historical moments of crisis and tension between genders that have been very well documented by theorists and historians, like after World War II or during and after the suffragette movement in the teens.

In your book, you discuss violent women as traumatic and show how films depicting violent women frequently attempt to heal that trauma by forcing women back into more familiar gender roles or by splitting the woman’s violence from her femininity. What do you think this reveals about the status of women in society today?

I tend to look at Hollywood films as the workings of contemporary ideology. There are trends going on socially, and Hollywood is reacting to those trends. Because it’s mainstream and it’s part of ideology, it at times works to contain those trends. But sometimes, by accident or not, it ends up celebrating a trend. I think that it’s not always a one-to-one indication of exactly what’s going on, but it’s an interesting indication of tension and angst. These days, it would be hard to imagine an action film in which a woman doesn’t do something to help the hero, whereas in the 80s, even the first Terminator film, it was very common to have the woman just along; she’s not someone who would help out. Today, I think every audience member starts to be frustrated if a woman is just hanging out — if someone’s in trouble and there’s a gun lying there and she doesn’t pick it up. It’s interesting to see how our expectations have changed. I think film is an important place to look at in terms of what’s happening in society. Gender roles are changing, and the movies are dealing with it in their own way.

Your book offers analyses of the violent female characters in Thelma and Louise, The Long Kiss Goodnight, G.I. Jane, Courage Under Fire and Tomorrow Never Dies, among other films. Are there any films that have been released since you sent the book to press that you would have liked to have written about?

Well, Mr. and Mrs. Smith just came out, and that would have been a great one to talk about…and then there’s Kill Bill, which I have in a couple of footnotes in the book, but I would have liked to talk about that further. Million Dollar Baby, which I was kind of mad at. Three quarters of the way through the film — one of the only mainstream, big blockbuster films with a woman boxer in it — she becomes a complete quadriplegic! You’ve got to be kidding me! Those films would have been fun to talk about, but that’s one of the things about a book like this one when it’s on a topic that clearly keeps going; the films keep going.

It must be rewarding to see that your work is still relevant…

I just keep waiting for mainstream Hollywood to prove me wrong! But it doesn’t.

Moving from the specific to the general, why do you think it is important to study film?

We walk around in our day, and everything presents on a screen. Our computer screens, our iPods, our telephones often, and then we watch television or go see a movie. Our days are so drenched in screens, so I think it’s essential for students to study film and television and be able to analyze video games and internet and film and television as texts and be analytical about the way in which ideology and society is working within these texts rather than just consuming them as entertainment. I think it’s the essential thing to study. It’s our contemporary existence.

The last time you spoke with the view in 2001, you talked about your hopes of developing a film major at UVM. The film and television studies major will be launched in the fall. How do you think this will affect the way you teach?

First of all, I’m incredibly excited about it. For me, creating the major was about allowing something to be official that existed underground anyway. We had these minors who were taking sometimes three times as many courses as they needed for a minor and hanging out outside my door 24 hours a day. They all wanted to do individually designed majors, and now there’s someplace for them to live — in the film and television studies major. I don’t think all of the sudden I’ll see all of these more enthusiastic students, because I can’t imagine how I can have more enthusiastic students than already exist here. For me, having the film and television studies major will make everything run more smoothly. When students come and ask me, “How can I take more film?”, I can just say, “Do the major.” The nice thing about the way we set up the courses is that it’s pretty rigorous, which is my preference, but we can also teach courses toward our interests. I think it will just make everyone’s life a lot easier.