Huffed Masculinity. The Female Threat in Cain's "Double Indemnity"

Term Paper 2016 17 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Interdepending Dualities: Males and Females
2.1 Rubin’s Definition of Sex and Gender
2.2 Masculinity in the 1930s
2.3 Overstepping her boundaries: The Femme Fatale in hard-boiled Fiction

3 Hard-boiled evidence against Phyllis
3.1 Outwitting the System: Phyllis’ and Huff’s wits vs. Keyes’ Wits
3.2 Desperate Housewife: Phyllis’s subversion of Mr. Nirdlinger’s masculinity
3.3 Phyllis as the Embodiment of Death

4 Conclusion

5 Works cited

1 Introduction

Double Indemnity was first published in 1935 and affirmed James M. Cain’s status as a novelist. By reading it, one can learns why but that is not the only observation that can be made. It is noticeable that Phyllis, the Femme Fatale of the story, constantly oversteps the boundaries of her gender, thus posing a threat to men. The question that started this Term Paper was: How much of a threat to patriarchal masculinity is Phyllis and is this threat contained? The thesis is that Phyllis subverts patriarchal masculinity in two spheres, the business sphere and the domestic sphere and by doing this, threatens it. The goal is to look at several instances where she does it and deduct if the threat she poses is contained or not. In order to prove this thesis, a very short overview of the concept of sex and gender will be given which is a basic concept in cultural studies and needed when moving on to discuss masculinity during the 1930s. This will be followed by a look at the term hard-boiled fiction as it was perceived back then and the main character and the femme fatale of said genre. The literary analysis consists of a look at the world itself by using Huff’s casino metaphor, a closer look at Phyllis’s and Mr. Nirdlinger’s relationship, concluded with Phyllis’s motivation. Based on the theory and the analysis, it will be discussed if the female threat is contained or not and an outlook will be given.

2 Interdepending Dualities: Males and Females

2.1 Rubin’s Definition of Sex and Gender

According to Gayle Rubin’s sex/gender system, sex is biologically constructed while gender is socially and culturally constructed (Berensmeyer, 116).

2.2 Masculinity in the 1930s

In 1936, Terman and Miles created a masculinity-femininity-test. Back then it was seen as “a major breakthrough for applied psychology” (Penner, 41), yet it is important to keep two things about this test in mind: First, Terman’s “interest in eugenics”( Penner 41) influenced “his conception of gender”(Penner 41). Second, “aggression was thought to connote boldness, self-confidence, and masculine-sure-footedness.”(Penner 46). Said test was an attempt to prove gender stereotypes scientifically. Masculinity was measured on a scale and people that “enjoyed masculine hobbies” (Penner 43) received higher scores than people with artistic hobbies. “For Terman and Miles, ‘mental deficiency’ is analogous with homosexuality”(Penner 44), so homosexuals got very low masculinity scores.

This test gives a good insight about the so-called masculinity problem America had to face in the 1930s. After World War I had ended, American women had “seen the European way of life without being under strict control all the time” (Nyman, 68) which led to the end of “many traditional taboos and cultural restraints” (Nyman 69), especially when female workers competed with men on the labor market. After Black Tuesday in 1929 when unemployment and poverty increased and “by 1932, one of the bleakest years of the Great Depression, at least one-quarter of the American workforce was unemployed.” [History.com Staff, New Deal].

When Roosevelt’s New Deal was executed, the government was placed “into an official caretaking role that had once been delegated to the family” (Cassuto, 76), which changed the dynamics of families and with it the domestic sphere. It must be considered that the “feminine was often associated with idleness and the finer things in life – art, poetry, music, furniture, fashion – which were the rewards of masculine labor” (Penner, 33). The government was suddenly the caretaker of family, taking over the main job of the man, reducing the so-called reward of man’s labor. Philip Abbott argues, that “a redefining of masculinity” (qtd. in Abbott, 25) took place; that being a man “no longer rested upon material acquisition but public stewardship” (qtd. in Abbott, 25). This conception clashes with the conception of the ideal male of early twentieth century America that “appears to be one of achievement” (Nyman 64). But most men were in a difficult position since economic success became almost impossible to achieve. According to Nyman it “has been suggested that the masculine culture felt threatened by emasculation and feminization” (65) thus the question for Feline was: “[H]ow was a man to be manly in the twentieth-century world?”(qtd. in Nyman,65).

Besides the social problems, there was also a literary crisis going on. Many male authors followed the so-called genteel tradition which had a “didactic interest in fostering moral character” (Penner, 34), was “promoting religious beliefs”(Penner 35), and had “the promotion of manly virtues – including censoriousness and the advocacy of stern Victorian morality”(Penner 35) in mind. During the 1930s “the literary Left launched an all-out frontal attack on all writers who were associated with the genteel tradition.” (Penner 33). Genteel critics labeled writers of the genteel tradition as “”prissy”, “old-maidish,” and a host of other epithets for effeminacy.” (Penner 35). It came to a “populist shift toward genres” (Penner 33) in literary which also included “hard-boiled fiction” (Penner 33) besides other genres. “It is significant that literary style suddenly becomes a political issue during the Depression.” (Penner, 27). Shaw says that a new type of detective story was needed, “one that set aside the genteel features of ‘golden-age’ detective fiction for an emphasis on the corruption and violence that seemed to characterize the rapidly growing metropolis.” (qtd. in McCann, 43). According to Penner “the literary world could no longer ignore the reality of the class struggle” (26) Dominant was “the theme of remasculinization, which dominated American literary culture” (Penner 40) thus one particular kind of masculinity had to show up in literature and that was the tough guy, “whose popularity accelerates during the 1930s” (Abbott, 26), not only to remasculinize America, but also as “emphasis on the male experience” (Nyman 35) and as a “later link in the chain of fictions of American masculinity” (Nyman 35). It will be shown, given Cassuto’s findings that “scholars… have generally agreed that crime fiction is about social control” (Cassuto 3).

2.3 Overstepping her boundaries: The Femme Fatale in hard-boiled Fiction

Usually people refer to eggs as hard-boiled. Applying this to the genre this term “can also be read as a veiled reference to the feminine-market fetus, or egg; thus, the hard-boiled male is never mushy or soft and reacts against feminizing forces by retaining phallic hardness at all times.” (Penner 51). Hard-boiled is a telling name often associated with Cain’s fiction that suggests “that Cain’s male characters possess a particular type of masculinity that is distinct form the norm” (Penner 50). It is seen as “being unfeeling and callous” (Penner 50) and as “antithesis of the archetypal feminine.” (Penner 50). These statements go hand in hand with Nyman’s claim that the “hardboiled protagonist can be seen as a representation of the period’s hegemonic masculinity.” (61). In the 1930s many men probably wished to be tough like characters in hard-boiled fiction if we consider David Madden assumption that “the hard-boiled hero is a reaction to harsh economic circumstances” (qtd. in Penner 52). Circumstances that helped shape the dark world of hard-boiled crime fiction. According to Oates “the detective is all that men are not, the proper object of their envy, adulation, and desire. He is the wish-fulfillment fantasy of the (male) reader of the genre” (qtd. in Penner 52).

What about hegemonic femininity and the female reader? By taking a look at the other side of the spectrum, we see that for women there was so-called sentimental fiction which imagined “the ideal of separate male and female spheres” (Cassuto 69), “proselytizing for the virtures of the female domestic sphere against the male-gendered, market-driven public domain” (Cassuto 69). Its main theme, in Dobson’s words, was “the desire for bonding” (qtd. in Cassuto 68), which could be reached by sympathy which “ties sentimentality and domesticity together” (Cassuto 69). Another typical, boiled-down basic theme can be “victory through defeat and strength through weakness” (Casssuto 72). It sounds logical for writers of hard-boiled fiction to try to have their stories be the opposite of that: “a literature targeted at men that emphasizes combative individualism and which is systematically suspicious of sentiment” (Cassuto 70). While hard-boiled writers turned away from this kind of fiction, they regretted “the absence of human connection in their worlds” and “gesture… back to a place where such ties are possible” (Cassuto 70). Hard-boiled fiction thus gives us the “male point of view” (Cassuto 68) and is “about the threat to traditional ideals of home and family in the age of urbanization” (Cassuto 68) and “the fate of the domestic impulse in a new world of bureaucracy” (Cassuto 68). “The hardboiled character feels that he has to try to survive or die alone, to decide alone for his own actions and future.”(Nyman, 32), in simpler terms: The tough guy is a man who is in control. However this control can easily be taken away from him. This is the point where the Femme Fatale comes in. A Femme Fatale is “a woman who is sexually attractive but cruel and dangerous to men who have a relationship with her” (MacMillan). It is because of her that men commit crimes but how does she do that? By using “sexual charms” (Jaber 19) in order to “gain power and control.” (Jaber 19). These charms involve the female body as well since it “has a double function: It is the center of the male gaze and it is also a means through which the woman gains power”(Jaber, 26). Furthermore it is “an object of desire” (Jaber 26), thus it is “seen as a threat, a danger that has to be regulated.” (Jaber 26). The regulation is done “through a complex system of interconnected cultural, social, legal and medical discourses” (Jaber 31) in order to “pathologize, sexualize, and medicalize women’s criminality, thereby rendered it “abnormal” and “deviant”, the polar opposite of “ideal” or “pristine” womanhood.” (Jaber 31). Yet “by breaking the binary of good-passive womanhood, hardboiled crime fiction resists the “ideological discourses of femininity”” (Jaber 31).

3 Hard-boiled evidence against Phyllis

3.1 Outwitting the System: Phyllis’ and Huff’s wits vs. Keyes’ Wits

In hard-boile crime fiction, the world is a “violent world where traditional moral codes do not always have the significance they are supposed to have. Hence the characters learn to take it; they do what survival requires them to do” (Nyman 30) In DI, the entire story is told from Huff’s perspective written by him. He prepares it for Keyes and it is supposed to make sure that the reputation of their insurance company does not get damaged. His reason to confess is Lola because throughout the story, he falls in love with her (DI 80); he even says to Keyes that “if you let them beat her, I’ll–kill you.” (DI 102). Going by Genette’s terms, it would be autodiegetic internal fixed focalization, meaning that the reader gets Huff’s subjective view on the entire case. This becomes apparent when looking at the casino metaphor on page twenty-three. As it will be proven in this chapter, this passage speaks for the entire work itself because it gives the reader a concise summary of the story and Huff’s perspective.



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Cain Femme Fatale double indemnity masculinity gender Huff Phyllis



Title: Huffed Masculinity. The Female Threat in Cain's "Double Indemnity"