Another view: Shame and gender

There’s no doubt that Shame is a bold, captivating portrait of a sex addict’s life in New York. The visual style is stunning, Michael Fassbender’s performance – bizarrely unrecognized by the Academy – is mesmerising, and the film really captures the essence of New York onscreen. But its portrayal of women is less than flattering, and this is worth noting. Yes, the focus is on the character of Brandon and his addiction, so we are meant to sympathise with him and see women through his eyes. Fair enough. And Brandon’s no misogynist – he’s certainly the good guy when contrasted with his lecherous married boss. Still, does a film about a man’s sex addiction have to keep female perspectives so muted to tell its story? I think in 2012 we could do a bit better.

You’ve got to admit it’s an awkward one for heterosexual women watching the film, for whom Brandon is a real-life nightmare. Brandon seems like such a catch; an attractive and considerate man, however, he finds open communication difficult, is intensely emotionally unavailable and has a voracious sexual appetite (albeit to a pathological degree). Any ladies out there, hands up if you’ve been with such a man? The memories aren’t pleasant, I’m sure. Women who’ve had such experiences learn to go into defensive mode around men like Brandon, but the film skilfully forces its audience to put their guards down. Nevertheless, the result happens to be those women feeling male domination all over again.

Of course the film needs to include women who fulfil Brandon’s desires – but there are two key female characters who provide important counterpoints to this, women in his world whose voices he actually hears: his colleague Marianne (Nicole Beharie) and more crucially, his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Yet the contrast between these two and all the other women is simply not strong enough to make a difference; not enough to un-mute women in his story.

It’s unfortunate that our introduction to Marianne is sexualised early on when Brandon fantasises about her naked while checking her out at the office; from that point on, we already know that their fledgling relationship is likely to be doomed. During their one and only date Marianne establishes herself as a smart, sensitive girl who doesn’t automatically swoon in Brandon’s presence. However in the aborted sex scene which follows, the camera is statically dispassionate, automatically prioritizing Fassbender (because we know him better) and denying us access to Marianne’s feelings while she struggles to get close to him. Sure, Brandon’s breakdown feels remote but Marianne’s reaction manages to be even more obscured. At this crucial moment, she seems more like a plot device exposing Brandon’s frailties rather than a living, breathing woman.

Sissy’s voice could have added greater balance to an uneven film, yet she is also reduced to functioning as a narrative mechanism rather than a full character. As with Marianne, the film introduces her to us in a way that undercuts her; we first hear Sissy on Brandon’s answerphone, and it’s left ambiguous whether she’s another of his female conquests or someone more substantial. It’s a provocative choice but it also throws her character under the bus – she’s initially presented as an unhinged sexual threat to Brandon so explicitly that it’s difficult to see her side of the story without prejudice.

When Brandon bursts into the bathroom because he thinks Sissy’s an intruder, she doesn’t cover herself up. If Sissy had been a bit less brazen, covering herself up partially yet still enough to make Brandon uncomfortable, we might care about her a bit more. I mean, what sister stands unabashedly stark naked in front of her brother? Is Shame an issue film about a sex addict or about incest? Enigmatic obfuscation is one thing; manipulative red herrings are another entirely.

Also, she’s wearing a hospital bracelet, but this is never addressed – in fact, most audience members probably missed it, seeing as there was no close-up or dialogue about it. Again, here’s a missed opportunity to give Sissy more of a voice, instead of marginalizing her as just a projection of Brandon’s. Did she have an operation? Attempt suicide? So did Brandon never visit her at the hospital meaning she had to come to him?

We next hear her on the phone, desperately professing her love to someone leaving her, though by this (still early) point of the film the damage to her character’s been done. That scene’s not quite enough for us to accept that she’s the inverse of Brandon and have equal sympathy for her. Even her big moment – a bar blues rendition of ‘New York, New York’ – is ultimately upstaged by Brandon and his maudlin release of a single tear. Sissy, like her brother, is love-starved but emotional and expressive rather than cold and silent; however, the way she’s presented in the film, we are pushed to favour Brandon’s control and detachment over her messiness and vulnerability.

In the end, despite Carey Mulligan’s committed performance, Sissy, like Marianne, is more catalyst than character. She mainly serves to expose and challenge Brandon while acting as a foil – she’s addicted to attention/affection rather than carnal pleasure. Thus her self-destruction isn’t in itself important, because it simply sparks Brandon’s self-destruction (if indeed we are to view Shame as a message film about sex addiction). It’s a bit of a pity, really. Remember Jodie Foster and Cybill Shepherd in another New York film about emotional and psychological dislocation? They could have been mere dressing on the window of Travis Bickle’s mind, yet Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader made it clear that these three-dimensional women existed outside their warped protagonist’s jaundiced perspective. In my humble opinion, Shame’s idolatry of Brandon keeps it just short of being a fully accessible and truly brilliant film.

11 thoughts on “Another view: Shame and gender

  1. piccia

    Brilliant, brilliant insight Cathy. Thank you. The only point I don’t completely agree on is Marianne: to me, their date was the epitome of a bad date. There was no chemistry at all between her and Brandon and I felt no warmth at all towards her bland, uninspiring, utterly uninteresting character. She is made to reveal nothing about her personality – she does not appear to have one – and she is only desirable because of her beauty. She still serves the story in exactly the same way, even with this interpretation, also because we know that she wants the opposite of Brandon from a sexual encounter. And my view on her does not change your analysis at all – in fact, it might even strengthen it. Thanks again for a wonderful piece.

  2. FilmFatale_NYC

    @Piccia. I respectfully disagree. Beharie’s performance was the bright spot of “Shame.” Marianne was intelligent, confident, and unapologetic about who she was. I think the first date scene was pitch perfect–it captured the awkwardness of actual first dates. Of interest, that scene was totally improvised. Originally McQueen had six pages of dialogue written, but on the day of the shoot, he tossed it out and told Fassbender and Beharie fly off the cuff. I will also say that Beharie’s character was a breath of fresh air–in an industry where black actresses are limited to playing domestics, welfare queens or the typical “Angry Black Woman”, Marianne reflects a more authentic portrayal of modern black women.

    1. Ashley Clark

      I’m with you on this one FilmFatale_NYC. I think Beharie was a definite high spot, and I was gutted that we didn’t get more of her. Obviously Fassbender was ignored at the Oscars – which is insane – but I think Beharie’s unfortunate that there was no talk of a Supporting Actress nod for her; she was that good. Instead – in the year 2012 – look at the high-profile black female role up for an Oscar: Viola Davis playing a maid. Now THAT’s a shame.

    2. piccia

      @Ash, @FilmFatale_NYC – I see your point, let me explain myself better: mine is not a comment, much less a criticism of Beharie’s performance at all, just my reaction to her role in the story. I still fail to see where was the warmth or engagement between them at the restaurant, and the fact that her personality did not shine through for me does not mean that she didn’t have one (I correct myself). Rather, just that her companion was not able to get the best out of her. I know I have certainly been on similar bad dates where I listened to myself being ‘bland, uninspiring and utterly uninteresting’ because of being in the wrong company. Personally, I never saw the scene move on from that first-date-awkwardness, which it did portray very well. I thought that the merit of the scene was precisely that: they are having an awkward date because he is unable to truly engage. But this does not mean that the scene wasn’t a good one, or not greatly acted. In a way, I probably am trying to say that I see Marianne as another missed opportunity for a female character – just like Cathy says, and you both. So I guess in the end I agree – but perhaps for different reasons.

      1. Cathy Landicho Post author

        @Piccia, @FilmFatale_NYC: I was happy – well, perhaps more relieved – that Marianne’s personality was a breath of fresh air in the film, with the added bonus of her being a woman of colour in an otherwise white cast. But I can also see where Piccia’s coming from, because I think that in the context of the film, Brandon’s relatively innocent interactions with Marianne are dwarfed by his numerous sexual interactions with women. This resulted in implicitly putting more pressure on Beharie to deliver the emotional sensitivity we didn’t see in the other women (excluding Sissy, whose emotions run off the scale).

  3. ExBerlinerin

    Cathy, what a great piece. I watched the film a couple of times now, and still really love it. To me, the film is mainly about the isolation and loneliness inhabitants of big cities like New York experience. To be honest, I didn’t find either gender portrayed more or less empathetic. The women in the nightclub are out seeking the same quick thrill as Brandon and his male colleagues; the blonde Brandon has sex with after the failed intimacy with Marianne similarly seems to act out of loneliness, and without any real feeling. We had the Marianne discussion with Piccia after the film, and I actually liked her. She brought a glimmer of warmth into his life, with her innocence and oblivion to his nature. It was an awkward date because her romantic expectations and his discomfort in clouding his sexual desire for her in the necessary rules of dating simply didn’t match.

    I thought Sissy’s performance of “New York, New York” was a turning point in the film. Whereas she was the nagging and slightly disturbed little sister beforehand, her rendition of this well-known and normally joyful song really puts her into the centre. She carries so much sadness and crushed hope that made me cry like Brandon. It also connects the two, because the lyrics about making it in the big city are so contradictory to what we have learned about his addiction and loneliness, despite his success at work. She conveys the pain in both of their lives, and he feels it.

    Brandon’s sex addiction and Sissy’s self-harm are symptoms of a horrible childhood “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place”), a way to take control of their lives. And I agree, there was a hint to incestuous behaviour, when she tries to climb into his bed and when he jumps on her, half naked. It seemed to me like they were involuntarily perpetuating childhood behaviour, where they might have found comfort in each other when the parents were absent or violent. We can only guess.

    There was one other important female character in the film: the married woman on the subway, framing the film on either side. She seems as much a predator as Brandon himself, with her open attempt of seduction. By the end of the film, she initiates the same behaviour we have known from Brandon from the start, only this time we aren’t sure whether he will control his addiction. I also thought it was interesting how gender roles are blended completely when Brandon goes on his sex spree from gay club to threesome with prostitutes. I thought that when Brandon’s face in that last hellish sex scene becomes so mutilated in his ecstasy, McQueen almost likens Brandon to the devil, while Sissy in her hospital bed actually looks as innocent as an angel. I really felt for them both, and thought Mulligan was brilliant.

    Sorry for the long comment, the film is certainly VERY thought-provoking. 🙂

      1. Ashley Clark

        To elaborate a little more than that, I totally welcome the gendered perspective on the film because ideas around spectatorship and contrasting interpretations are really important. However, the main thing I took from the film was similar to your experience, as you quote: “the isolation and loneliness inhabitants of big cities like New York experience”. As I went on about at great length in my own piece on the film, it was the way that McQueen and Bobbit made New York look and feel – and how the city framed its characters – that grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let go.

    1. Cathy Landicho Post author

      Thanks for the long comment! I really wish I could view Shame as mainly about the isolation/loneliness of New Yorker-types… but the focus on sex addiction brought gender issues forward in my mind, and it kept me from fully enjoying the film. Perhaps if Brandon was addicted to something else – drugs, alcohol, work, anything really – it wouldn’t matter so much. But sexuality and gender are so inextricably linked and I just wish Shame appeared to be more aware of that, because it was such a thoughtful and thought-provoking film otherwise.

      1. ExBerlinerin

        I totally understand your viewpoint Cathy. I love when film does that, creating debate! We are all from different walks of life and have our own back stories which inform the way we see things and react to situations.
        We really need to go to the cinema together again soon, followed by drinks and discussion. x

  4. Candice Frederick

    i have to say, I’d never call this film uneven. like many great films, you’re to come to your own conclusion about the story, and the back-story, in this case. as for the women, i think they float in and around brandon’s life on purpose, for the story. but i do think they serve definite and distinctive roles to both the story and brandon.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s