The female characters in John Ford’s The Searchers and Seven Women, Hamlet and Fight Club suggest that the early stages of culture are created organically by an internal ‘feminine’ process. This is not the same as an ‘organic society’ where each individual serves as part of the societal bodies functions. It is the cultivation of culture that these women represent. This will be examined by analysing the abstract ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ archetypes1 of the characters Dr Cartwright (Seven Women), Ethan (The Searchers), Jack (Fight Club) and Hamlet.
The Transition to the Feminine
The transition to the ‘feminine’ will be explained using Dr Cartwright (Ann Bancroft) and her wounded ‘femininity’. The ‘masculine’ will be examined in the outward actions of the male characters Ethan (John Wayne) in ‘The Searchers’ and ‘Fight Club’s’ Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). This will involve the impact that the female characters Debbie and Marla on these overtly ‘masculine’ characters. The ‘Fight Club’ Narrator known as Jack2 and Hamlet will be used as an example of the unfulfilled men in the middle, trapped between their internal ‘feminine’ and outward ‘masculine’ attributes. Hamlet and Jack will be contrasted and compared using the female characters of Marla and Ophelia and their ‘masculine’ responses to females in their cultures.
The internal process of culture is for the purposes of this essay the ‘feminine’ aspect of culture. In this concept of ‘femininity’ it is the internalised nature of the characters persona. This is something that is potentially being created and recreated at any given moment in both character and culture. Yet it is not self sustaining. It needs to grow and it needs to be fed. It needs to continually push outwards in the form of ‘masculinity’. The ‘masculine’ nature is the externalised outward behaviours of a person and culture. This is the core of the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’ attributes. The ‘masculine’ response to trauma, tragedy and drama in medieval times was to mount a horse with a lance and charge off in a state of aggression to overcome the problem and/or enemies. This is the external nature of the ‘masculine’ archetype. John Wayne’s character Ethan was a prime example of this.
This is not to say women were incapable of ‘masculine’ behaviour. Dr Cartwright in the first two acts of John Ford’s ‘Seven Women’ (Lofts, Greene, & McCormick, 1966) was a good example. Her arrival in the fort dressed like an early incarnation of an ‘Indiana Jones’ style adventurer leads the audience to perceive her as a strong, independent and ‘masculine’ woman. She dresses like a man, drinks from a bottle, uses cigarettes obsessively as a social barrier and intentionally defies the cultural stereotypes of women. Just as Cartwright uses cigarettes to create a barrier between her and the world, Agatha and the other women use religion and the fort in a similar manner.
The only character who manages to break through this barrier of Cartwright’s smoke is Emma. This is evident in the scene where Dr Cartwright is woken and told that Emma is sick. Her first instinct was to smoke a cigarette. She puts the cigarette in her mouth and moves to light it, but she does not light the cigarette. She throws it away. Dr Cartwright would not have done that for any other character at this point in the story. There was a seed planted by Emma’s ‘feminine’ presence. This was also evident in an earlier scene where Dr Cartwright touched Emma’s arm in a rare act of ‘feminine’ kindness. Dr Cartwright remains a strong woman throughout the film. In the final act she finds greater strength in her ‘femininity’. This ‘femininity’ is most evident after she makes the pact with the Mongol leader and metaphorical devil Tungha Khan. After she makes the agreement she goes into her room to seek solace in solitude not unlike ‘The Handless Maiden’ seeking solace in the forest3 after having her hands chopped off. This is a form of ‘feminine’ initiation equivalent to the heroic actions of the ‘masculine’.
Dr Cartwright’s action resulted in the demise of her own life, but succeeded in the continuation of another life. This was the newly born baby. One life ends and another continues. The pregnancy as a biological process also works as a clever metaphor for the internal creation of the ‘organic culture’. As one culture comes to an end another culture is created. The culture of the Christian mission was over. The culture of the nun no longer had the authority it once had. Forts were becoming a thing of the past and the horse and cart were being replaced with the automobile. Along with the death of Dr Cartwright is also the demise of the Cart in itself. One ends but another continues reinvented in a new form. One culture is born out of the last in a continual process of death and birth. This is what could symbolically be called the conception of an ‘organic culture’.
Dr Cartwright’s solution to saving the group was to embrace the ‘feminine’ aspects of her character that were previously denied. This was in not going in to conquer her enemy but by compromise. This was to neutralize herself along with the villain. The ‘feminine’ heroic action of Dr Cartwright was not of violence or destruction in the sense of Ethan through the majority of ‘The Searchers’. She did not want to triumph over evil or seek revenge. She wanted to diminish the opposition of two forces of their illusory battle (Johnson, 1993, p. 80).
Ethan on the other hand did not hesitate to shoot out the eyes of a dead Indian and send the Indian soul into purgatory or scalp the villain Scar. Thus resorting to the same levels of the Indians he despised. He even wanted to kill the person that Debbie (his beloved Niece) had become. This was until he got to the moment where he had to choose. He could not kill her. This was most likely due to his unspoken oath to the restoration of the community and family. This was a community and family that he had no place in. He could not rejoin the community but he could help to restore and bring balance back to the culture.
Ethan had an oath to his cavalry that had no current purpose. This was a useless and unfulfilled oath that may have only been an illusion of an oath that concealed him from the real truth. This gradually gets stripped away along his journey. This started with giving away his medals and cutlass to his brother’s children and using his coat to cover the dead body of his elder niece. But he had a greater oath to Debbie. This was to protect her life. There was a paternalistic aspect to this character that had been suppressed by another potentially illusory oath. This was an oath of revenge. In the choice to allow Debbie to live Ethan had to give up an element of this ‘masculinity’ that he held onto for years during his search and
perhaps even before that. This was possibly dating to his time in the cavalry. He could either project outwards externally and shoot her, or pull her into the internal world of his ‘feminine’ archetype.
The ‘feminine’ was there to balance Ethan out. This was arguably the part of Ethan that helped to restore the community. The ‘feminine’ aspect may have only made up a small percentage of Ethan’s character. It may not have been there in force but it did provide him with something that was necessary to his internal faculties. Debbie was arguably the representation of this. She was small, undernourished and there was only a small trace of the Debbie that once was. It was this tiny remainder of the former Debbie that saved Ethan by reigniting an undeveloped element of his character. Ethan’s internal functions were then
carried over to restore the community.
Hamlet on the other hand was too focused on his internal reflections. He lacked the ability to externalise these aspects of his character in the way that Ethan could. He was continually trying to act in an outward and external manner but his ‘femininity’ kept pulling him under. The man was torn between two worlds and only began to externalise in the ‘masculine’ sense in act five of the play. This was in the challenge to a duel from Ophelia’s brother Laertes. Hamlet lacked the benefits of certainty throughout most of the play. He even refers to himself as ‘one part wisdom and … three parts coward’ (Shakespeare, 2005, pp. act iv, scene iv).
This is not to say that Hamlet was effeminate and this is in no way a reflection on his sexual orientation. This simply means that he had ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ attributes that were unbalanced. Hamlet could not balance the two and ended up in a state of self-destruction not unlike Jack/Tyler from Fight Club. The tragedy of Hamlet is that he couldn’t find his way out. Jack found his way out of this situation in a manner that could easily be missed by the casual viewer. This imbalance is especially noticeable when compared to John Wayne’s character Ethan. Ethan was also unbalanced but in a very different manner.
“Only after disaster can we be resurrected” was one of Tyler Durden’s memorable lines. He was only half right. The logical step that was missing that the above mentioned characters of Ethan and Cartwright understood was that it was not disaster in and of itself. It was the higher calling of their oath that provided them with ‘post-destruction’ power. They had to pay a price and accept certain truths to move into the next stage of development. Tyler Durden was the one trying to set the price and thereby removing the freewill in others that he appeared to cherish in himself.
On the flip side of Tyler Durden was Marla Singer. These two characters were essentially the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’ aspects of the character we only know as Jack. Tyler begins to emerge early in the film during one of the office scenes in a brief subliminal image next to a photocopier4. Tyler only officially manifests in a fully-fledged persona after Jack meets Marla. He appeared to have no idea how to deal with Marla and seemed to be threatened by her presence. Marla’s introduction to the audience was when Jack had his face nuzzled in Bob’s breasts. The only other female character of note was Chloe who was dying of cancer and posed no real threat. Out of a response to the ‘feminine’ that he was threatened by emerges Tyler. Jack not unlike Hamlet was trapped between Marla and Tyler.
After Jack returned from the airport to discover that his apartment has been destroyed his first impulse was to call Marla. This triggered an explosion in his
mind. Her ‘feminine’ sensuality triggered something that he did not entirely understand. He denied this instinct, hung up the phone, and then called Tyler.
Calling the girl would have been the correct and logical course of action. This explosion of ‘femininity’ propels him towards a violently ‘masculine’ sense of anarchy. This was Jack’s aversion to love. A better example of Jack’s aversion is in the group meeting where Marla gives him a very sensual embrace. Jack begins to slip into actually enjoying her close contact and her warmth before emotionally and physically withdrawing and telling her that he cannot cry in front of her.
Jack’s treatment of Marla was not unlike Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia. “Get thee to a nunnery” was Hamlets response to Ophelia. Jack’s response was “If I had a tumor I would name it Marla”. This was one of the key lines in the film. This line may sound darkly comical on the surface. Look a little deeper into the statement. Compare Marla to a Tumor. There is something growing inside of Jack’s psyche that he wants eliminated, but he does not know what it is. Examined in conjunction with Chloe (the sexually starved cancer patient) and it could be argued that for Jack women are cancerous. If Marla was the tumor then Tyler was the illusory cure. Jack had this wrong. Marla was not his Tumor, Tyler was. Phonetically, Tyler sounds somewhat like tumor. Tyler was arguably the antithesis to Marla and his rejection of ‘femininity’. Similarly, the book and film were more than likely the author’s antithesis to the modern feminist movement.
Jack already had problems and Tyler was already beneath the surface. Jack had narcolepsy and similar disorders. These were all emotional problems as diagnosed by his Doctor. It was his response to Marla that propelled him into the creation of Fight Club. This is the ‘masculine’ response that was discussed earlier. The medieval Knights will mount a horse and go charging off, Ethan shoots out the eyes of dead Indians and scalps his enemy, but Jack has no horse, no lance and no gun. He didn’t even have a sword to meet the challenge set for him such as Hamlet had. Jack had an IKEA catalogue, a fridge full of condiments, and a repressed ‘masculine’ and ’feminine’ identity. The only tools he could utilize in his emotional release of ‘masculinity’ were in his fists. In a way this is more brutal than the actions of Medieval Knights, Danish Princes or Cavalrymen. There was a primal nature that he tapped into via Tyler in a response to a culture that drained his identity out of him. Jack was like Hamlet minus the prestige and class, with an ‘Oliver Twist complex’5 thrown in for good measure.
Jack’s salvation was in Marla. Marla may not have had Ophelia’s propensity to sing, but her surname was Singer. This may only be an odd coincidence, but there are strong similarities between these two characters. Similar to Ophelia singing, going insane and committing suicide after the rejection of the man she loved, Marla also attempted suicide and cried out for help. She did this on more than one occasion, such as in having Jack perform a breast exam and her story about the used bridal gown. Just as Hamlet did not
want to help Ophelia and rejected her. Jack was incapable of helping Marla. It was Tyler who helped Marla. Tyler prevented Marla from killing herself.
Ophelia on the other hand died. This led to Hamlet’s death by Laertes conspiring with Claudius to poison Hamlet with the tipped sword. Marla lived. She was also Jack’s reason for wanting to abandon Fight Club in the forth act. The more attached Jack became to Marla, such as in the above example of performing the breast exam, the more anarchistic Tyler became. This eventuated in the form of ‘Project Mayhem’. Without Marla’s living presence Jack’s chances of finding his way back from the mayhem were minimal. In fact, there is a strong probability that he would not have come back at all. It was only in Marla’s presence that he regained consciousness after shooting himself in the face. He was ‘resurrected’ after the ‘destruction’ by the ‘feminine’ representation of Marla Singer.
The importance of the breast exam scene relates to two subtle themes. The first is the cancerous woman theme as represented by Chloe and the “my tumor named Marla” line. The second and possibly the most important aspect of this scene and perhaps the entire story was that it was Jack and not Tyler performing the examination. Tyler was not needed to do this for him. Jack was present in this moment and he did not retreat as he did early in the film such as in Marla’s embrace. It was from this point that he began healing the rift and finding a balance between his ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ archetypes. Touching her breast without disassociating was the beginning of Jack’s initiation to Adulthood. This culminated with Jack shooting himself in the face to eliminate Tyler.
Thus the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’ are tied together synthetically. One cultivates the culture and the other propels that culture forward until it needs reinventing or re-conceptualizing. This is not unlike the creation of a baby as exemplified in ‘Seven Women’. There cannot be one without the other. They bring balance to each other and if one is eliminated then the other will not be far behind. Of the male characters discussed in this essay the one who failed to come to terms with his ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ aspects was Hamlet. Ethan was saved by Debbie and Jack was resurrected by Marla. Hamlet lost Ophelia and consequently lost his life. Dr Cartwright also lost her life. The distinction between Dr Cartwright and Hamlet is that she made a choice after finding strength in her ‘feminine’ aspects and not rejecting them as Hamlet attempted to do in his treatment of Ophelia.
When this synthesis breaks down, such as in the case of Hamlet, there can be no reinvention of that persona. This same rule applies to culture in an analogical sense. The elimination of the female would spell the extinction of the male and vice versa. As stated earlier it is the cultivation of culture that the ‘feminine’ represents and the women discussed in this essay are a good example of this. In each of these stories of Hamlet, Fight Club, Seven Women and The Searchers there was a seed planted by female characters very early in the stories that did not come to fruition until the final act. It was the power of the females igniting the metaphorical spark that propelled these characters forward. This allowed them and their culture to develop and to reinvent.
1 This is an emerging concept that has some loose similarities with Jung’s Anima/Animus and
2 For the purposes of this essay Tyler will be seen from Jack’s perspective and therefore needs to be addressed as his own character due to the fact that Jack was unaware of what Tyler really was.
3 The Handless Maiden is a Fairy Tale about a Miller who makes a pact with the devil that he will give up his
unborn daughter on her sixteenth birthday in exchange for better crops and prosperity. The devil chops off her hands and carries them away. Betrayed by her by newly prosperous family, the handless maiden is content for a time, until a growing sense of desperation sends her out to the forest alone.
4 Subliminal images of Tyler were inserted into five scenes early in the film leading into his official introduction.
5 ‘Oliver Twist Complex’ is not sociological or psychology terminology. It follows the theory that some people from broken homes will perceive themselves to be emotionally orphaned and unloved despite empirical evidence. Perhaps the nearest explanation in sociology would lie with John Bowlby’s work on maternal deprivation and the growth of love.
Johnson, R. A. (1993). The Fisher King and The Handless Maiden: Understanding
the Wounded Feeling Function in Masculine and Feminine Psychology. San
Francisco: Harper Collins.
Lofts, N., Greene, J., McCormick, J. (Writers), & Ford, J. (Director). (1966). 7
Women [Motion Picture]. USA: Metro Goldwyn Mayer.
Nugent, F. S. (Writer), & Ford, J. (Director). (1956). The Searchers [Motion
Picture]. USA: Warner Brothers Pictures.
Palahniuk, C. (Writer), & Fincher, D. (Director). (1999). Fight Club [Motion
Picture]. USA: Twentieth Century Fox.
Shakespeare, W. (2005). Hamlet. England: Penguin Books.