OTI Online
Summer 1994

Is The Piano A Feminist Film? "Yes" by Rebecco Shugrue,
"No" by Carolyn Gage

YES By Rebecca Shugrue

bell hooks argues in Z Magazine that The Piano falls short of being a feminist film because it advances the sexist assumption that heterosexual women will give up artistic practice to find "true love." But I believe that the mute Ada makes no such sacrifice. If anything, her desire for the rough-hewn neighbor Baines, who purchases Ada's piano as a means to lure her presence, illustrates an ambition to "have it all": love, sex, and self-fulfillment through art. The fact that Ada loses interest in music when she is locked away and made a prisoner by her husband is understandably human. She is, after all, depressed and heartsick; temporarily powerless to act.

Nevertheless, Ada is far from weak. From the moment we are introduced to the Scottish widow, it is clear that she is strong-willed and self-sufficient. Her daughter and her piano fulfill her needs for companionship and expression. Unfortunately, when she arrives in New Zealand for an arranged marriage, her husband has a complete lack of understanding as to the central role of music in her life. Stewart thinks that, like a pet, Ada -will somehow come to love him if he simply acts the part of a man—caring for her material, but none of her emotional needs. Leaving her piano on the beach he tells her, "I'll be back in three days; perhaps we can start fresh then." He, like Baines, wants Ada to show him some affection. But unlike Baines, he wants her not because she moves him, but because she is his wife.

In the bartering scenes, where Ada uses hex sexuality in order to buy her piano back from Baines, his physical size suggests he has power and she does not. Rape is clearly his prerogative. Yet somehow Ada holds her own against him. Forget her "pale and corpse-like" body described by hooks; when Ada plays for Baines, her music is her strength, her will; her power is her passion.

Listening to Ada, Baines desires to be the object of that passion. This is what makes the bartering scene so powerful. Ada wants her piano and is willing to sacrifice her body to get it. How much her body is worth, how far she is willing to go, is up to her. Take away the fact that Baines is physically bigger for a minute, and it becomes clear that Ada really has the upper hand. She is getting what she wants; Baines is not. The more assertive she is, the more despondent Baines becomes. "I want you to care for me, but you can't. So go," he tells her, later giving her back the piano. Suddenly, without an audience to play for, Ada predictably falls for him.

These scenes raise the fundamental issue of equality in the bedroom. Campion addresses the problem of romantic love within the context of a sexist and misogynist world, where domination (by men) and submission (of women) is both eroticized and considered normal. By casting tiny Holly Hunter with stocky over-built Harvey Keitel, the physical inequality inherent in this relationship is striking. The specter of rape is ever present.

In my view, The Piano is a feminist film because it gives us a version of female sexuality that is much more than a woman's "positive surrender" to men. It shows us the power of female passion to make music, touch souls, and defy hierarchy in the bedroom. In short, it shows the power ot women to be heard, and whole, in a man's world.

NO By Carolyn Gage

The Piano is a gorgeously shot, utterly repellent film about a woman trapped between two rapists: a sleazy, blackmailing rapist and a violent, possessive rapist. The woman "chooses" the sleazy, blackmailing rapist, falls deeply in love with him (apparently because her experience of coerced sex was so hot) and ends up blissfully married to him in a cozy English cottage. And in case the misogyny of this scenario isn't enough to turn you off, there is an extra fillip of able-ism at the end: the woman, who is mute and communicates very effectively through sign language, is taught to speak by the sleazy rapist—thereby consolidating the film's claim to a happy ending.

So why am I wasting paper reviewing this silly film? Because it is by a woman, because this woman is obviously a brilliant cinematographer, and because she started to say something important.

What she started to say was something about a woman in patriarchy who decides to stop speaking and channels all of her passion and all of her love into her piano and her daughter. Jane Campion, the filmmaker and screenwriter, started to say something about male trivialization and appropriation of women's art. She started to say something very important about men as enemies, as colonizers.

The violent rapist—the woman's husband by an arranged marriage—refuses to pay for her piano to be transported to his home. The sleazy rapist then buys it from the violent rapist, transports it to his bungalow, and allows the woman to play it as long as he can masturbate to the music—or to the sight of her bare elbow, or to the feel of the hole in her stocking—or whatever it is that turns him on.

This is the first 20 minutes. Campion, a woman artist with a passion and a gift, is telling us something. And then she forgets what it is she was saying as the film deteriorates into sex, violence, and the romanticizing of rape. Or does Campion really forget?

Let's look at the scene right before the movie derails into a pro-rape piece of hetero-patriarchal propaganda. The woman has finally confronted the fact that the sleazy rapist is not really interested in piano lessons. He has taken the piano hostage, to force her to submit to his sexual torture. We see a few moments of her literally unspeakable agony at the horror of what men do to us around the things we love. And then she makes up her mind: she will play along. In fact, she quickly transforms herself into a hardnose negotiator. She will "buy" back her own piano one key at a time. She learns to negotiate for more keys as he escalates his sexual demands.

Freeze frame. What is this scene saying?

It is saying that a piano is a heavy, valuable object—one that women cannot move by ourselves. One that takes manpower, man-money to move. Like, say, a feature film

And Campion is saying we have to accept that there will be a price extorted for having access to that piano. And that price is that we will not be allowed to play for our own pleasure, but that as we play, we will have to find a way to titillate and gratify the men who paid for moving it. And perhaps—melody by melody, film by film—we will one day be able to buy back our own autonomy.

And as Jane Campion plays her magnificently beautiful grand piano of a film, the men in theaters all over the world can engorge themselves on the messages of male supremacy in the film.

And the women in the audience? We will have to console ourselves with the usual last-minute lies: the lie that the victim's mute reproach will be sufficient to stop the most violent of rapists in midzip; the lie that the violent rapist—after it's too late—will come under the spell of the mute woman's moral integrity; the lie that a woman can exercise control over her victimization by willing herself to fall in love with the least violent victimizer. And finally, the lie that she will be abundantly rewarded for all ofher passive suffering and for the sacrifice ofher daughter by converting the rapist into a savior who will take her away from his world of self-created horror; who will replace her mutilated body parts with lovingly-crafted sterling silver prostheses; who will cherish her daughter; who will encourage the art he debased as an instrument of prostitution; and who will help her find her voice through his language.

And will we women be consoled? Alas, yes. Not because we are stupid. Because, like the woman in the film, we are colonized.

So Jane Campion tells us what she is going to have to do right before she does it. And for her selfish pleasure of exercising her cinematographer's art at the highest level ofresources, she has degraded herself and her art by putting both at the service of the rapist-pornographers of the culture. What has she gotten for her pains? First place at Cannes. That should be good for at least two keys, if not three.

But heed your own metaphor, Jane, lest along the way to buying back your art, you should end up like your heroine— with your faculties amputated by the rapists. And there will be no sterling silver prosthesis for a woman's severed soul.

Rebecca Shugrue is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, Boston studying the role of women in politics.

Carolyn Gage is a lesbian playright and screenwriter based in Sonoma County, California.

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