A VIDEO ESSAY
King Vidor’s 1937 film, Stella Dallas, inspired heated debates in feminist film theory about the relationship between women’s films and female spectators. In one of the most lasting contributions, Linda Williams suggested that the film, a poignant melodrama about maternal sacrifice along class lines, creates the potential for a “divided female spectator” and for a double vision.
Williams speaks of a divided spectator in the sense that we are capable both of identifying with Stella’s (Barbara Stanwyck) tears over her sacrifice and of remaining critical about the systems of power that have produced her false choice. So when Stella stands in the rain, pitifully dressed and crying as she watches her daughter’s bourgeois wedding from the sidewalk, we cry for Stella and we curse the habits of class and custom that have made her unwelcome on the inside.
Stella’s own gaze, however, is what interests me most. Even in these stills we can feel the intensity, fixity, and affective power of her gaze, frequently showcased in the film.
These days, in Dallas, I’m lured by another woman’s gaze. She’s Stella, too. And like Stanwyck’s Stella, Gillian Anderson’s Stella provokes a kind of divided gaze. I for one want to fold her into my politics and claim her icy femininity for the cause. But despite Stella’s clever proclamations and exquisite poise, the strangled necks, dead eyes, and bruises repel me.
There has been much debate about whether a television series about the aestheticized murders of women by a wounded therapist hunk can claim to be feminist. But instead of engaging with it, I created this video, which lingers on Stella’s gaze. Unlike the rest of us, and over and over, Stella refuses to look away. And more important than what Stella sees is how she claims the entire world—its death and gore, its stars and landscapes—for her vision.
We can’t help but stare.