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VIDEO ESSAY: Women in the Works of Martin Scorsese

by Nelson Carvajal and Max Winter
February 7, 2014 12:56 PM
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The first time I saw After Hours (the first of 9 or 10), I was 15, and I had no idea who Martin Scorsese was, or even that he had directed the movie. I saw it in a shopping mall in north Dallas, an unlikely place, perhaps. I was surprised, as a 15-year-old boy, to discover a man had directed it; I had assumed it was directed by a woman. Why? Because women ruled the show. The female characters in the film—Catherine O’Hara’s manipulative Samaritan, Rosanna Arquette’s vulnerable and elusive temptress, Linda Fiorentino’s frequently topless sculptor, Teri Garr’s threatening sociopath with a beehive—lorded it over the men. Who represents “the stronger sex” in this film? Griffin Dunne’s hapless wanderer, John Heard’s sad-sack bartender, and, two pieces de resistance, Cheech and Chong’s local burglars. The film chronicles a trip into the New York demimonde, as such a place ruled by women. And how does the journey end? Dunne is sealed in a plaster statue—by a woman. He manages to break free, but still. Such it is with many of Scorsese’s films: while we cannot call these works matriarchal, by any means, in the struggle between men and women, everyone gets punished. No one comes out on top. Scorsese rolls out dramas for us to behold, in which men act badly towards women, women are aggrieved, men charge off in a cloud of exhaust, and there is no indication that the director, in the background, has chosen a side.

And so it is with many of Scorsese’s films. When Lorraine Bracco’s Karen chews out Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill for standing her up in Goodfellas, she doesn’t do it privately: she does it publicly, in front of a rapt crowd, the most rapt audience member being Hill himself, half-smiling as his future wife screams at him. Even the ever-so-famous restaurant tracking shot, in which Hill leads his girlfriend into a mobster-hangout restaurant through the back way, showing his knowledge of the place off to her and then showing her off to his friends, presents as a grand, performative display, too over-the-top to be believable as anything but a subtle critique of the way men may place women on pedestals in an effort to cripple them. In Scorsese’s films, this doesn’t work, or at least not smoothly; most of the men in Goodfellas, indeed, end up either dead or emasculated. Scorsese pulls an even grander stunt in Taxi Driver; the two main female characters in the film, Jodie Foster’s teen prostitute and Cybill Shepard’s politician, serve little other purpose than to cast Travis Bickle’s tremendous personality problems into relief. He views these women as icons of purity, figures of worship, points of escape—but in reality his interactions with them only drive him further downwards by reminding him of how far upwards he has to climb.

And yet throughout these films, Scorsese watches: he does not opinionate. In one of the most seemingly humiliating scenes from Wolf of Wall Street, a woman is covered in money, quite literally, but she notably remains standing and even banters with her sleazy Wall Street assailants during the process. When DiCaprio’s Belfort dares his wife to throw a glass of water on him, the moment is near-comic: Belfort is scared, genuinely scared, of a glass of water. Could he, despite his success, be powerless in this arena, in some sense? Yes, he could. And when his wife states that the skirtage around the house is going to be “really short” after a heated argument, it’s no joke, rather a statement of power, an assertion of privilege.

Regardless of how raffish, aggressive, or un-controlled Scorsese’s characters may be at times (and Wolf of Wall Street has come under heavy criticism for just this quality), his dramas take place on a grand scale, in which largeness is the point. When Sharon Stone’s Ginger struts through Casino, she knows all eyes are on her, and Scorsese knows it, too, and yet his camera is not objectifying her: he’s showing our objectification to us. Her collapse, similarly, is immense, and theatrical, and threatens to swallow the movie at moments—and yet this fall from grace is a stage in a story, not a stage in a director’s thought process. It is appropriate that the film that put Scorsese on the map, or at least pushed him towards it, was Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the tale of a woman’s slow journey towards self-respect. Viewed this way, historically, we come to a surprising conclusion: that a man whose films have largely been about a male-dominated world might have been showing us that world only to reflect women's views of it.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

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  • Racheal Hawthorn | February 21, 2014 2:19 PMReply


    Ah you didn't include that did you.

    Shame shame shame.

  • Dina | February 9, 2014 11:51 PMReply

    I would like to counter this with a clip reel I recently put together, based on my research on the representation of women in Scorsese films (search "Scorsese clip reel" on Vimeo - I was not able to post a comment with a link). From these clips, you can see the many ways women (and younger girls) are rendered powerless, mentally, physically and verbally abused, threatened, demeaned and objectified in his films. Your view is an interesting one, but it's not what I see, as a female filmmaker and film professor, when I study his films.

  • Dina | February 11, 2014 10:14 AM

    Max, men are certainly treated poorly in his films. However, they're ultimately in the position of power, and the story is always theirs (with the exception of "Alice"). Scorsese has been quoted on his self-admitted inability to "understand women". He is a master in so many ways, and I do admire those other aspects of his work, but he unfortunately falls very very short in this area.

  • Max Winter | February 11, 2014 12:57 AM

    Thanks for this suggestion. You might well be right. But don't men go through the same treatment in his films? Just in a different context?

  • Kevin B. Lee | February 10, 2014 11:56 PM

    Dina, I think this video quite vividly proves your point (whether or not it intended). I just watched your video on Vimeo and it was absolutely revelatory. I hope the editors of this site post it to offer a fuller account of Scorsese's treatment of women characters.

  • Marek | February 8, 2014 4:09 PMReply

    An Essay about Women in in the Works of Martin Scorsese without Cybill "Betsy" Shepherd?

  • Terry | February 8, 2014 12:33 PMReply

    After Hours is one of my favorite films. After watching it again after a long absence, I came up with an interpretation that I hadn't noticed before. Feel free to tear this one apart but the Paul character/Griffin Dunne is a gay man deep in the closet and the night in Soho is a potential journey of self-realization, that he completely botches. Each of the women that he meets offers him a version of shelter and romantic affection, yet Paul manages to get in conflicts with all of them very quickly. The women, most of whom are interested in Paul either romantically or at least sexually, seem to speak a language that Paul doesn't understand and he responds with unprovoked anger and hostility. But he manages to communicate with the male characters, such as the John Heard character, far better. At one point, he meets a middle-aged gay man on the street, who also gives Paul shelter, yet he too gets tired of Paul's nonsense and finally asks him to leave. Paul winds up on the run from everyone, with the women leading the lynch mob, but he's sort of on the run from himself. A final woman, June, gives him shelter again, and is the one who entombs him in the sculpture, enabling Paul to be dropped off like garbage from Cheech and Chong... right back where he started at his miserable office job. He's learned nothing from his journey, goes back inside the office, and is right where he started. He's screwed up the lives of everyone he touches that night, with Rosanna Arquette even ending up dead, and he'll probably continue to wreck havoc wherever he goes.

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