Cat People and the Anxiety of Co-Presence

Deborah Linderman begins her article “Cinematic Abreaction: Tourneur’s Cat People” by identifying “two strictly oppositional paradigms that regulate the play of the text; one such paradigm, which we shall refer to as Paradigm A… is a paradigm of psychoanalysis insofar as it establishes a matched set of exorcising male figures which function to probe the central hermeneutic of the narrative, the mystery of the cat woman, and to demystify that hermeneutic. The other, the B paradigm… has to do with the construction of the cat fantasy itself, linked in ways that will be specified below to cinematic production and representing a teratology of the feminine and of evil.” (73) The combatting ideologies aligned with the respective paradigms are, upon first reading, in turn aligned with characters in the text along strictly gendered lines, with the central male figures – Oliver and Dr. Judd – serving as mouthpieces for Paradigm A, and the predominant female figure, Irena, serving to interrupt their masculine, western, rational sphere by attempting to inject the ideology of Paradigm B into it. This reading – admittedly, my own after having first read Linderman’s essay – quickly finds its limits in the undeniably central figure of Alice, in whom these paradigms seem to be co-present. If anything, Alice is in fact more readily aligned with the A paradigm, insofar as she shares Oliver and Judd’s rational convictions as to the nature of Irena’s affliction, and moreover is shown to occupy the masculine/rational sphere in hers and Oliver’s shared interest in model ships, with, of course, the important exception that she is a woman.

This opens the door to reframe our understanding of Cat People not as an interplay of clearly distinguished ideological factions, but rather the interplay of these ideologies within single characters – indicatively Alice, but, more compellingly, Irena too. To this end, Linderman describes Irena in terms of a subject existentially split between these two seemingly unassimilable ideologies: “admixed, heterogeneous, a composite body,” (76) and later, “both trash and exorcist, excluded object and would-be excluder.” (77) Put succinctly, “Irena’s wish to ‘be good,’ or to put it otherwise, to assimilate, locates the textual split between good and evil intrapsychically. The good Irena situates herself in the masculine paradigm as one of its collaborators… The text constructs her much more insistently, however, as excluded and indeed phobic object” (77-78). The disparity in the insistence with which Irena is constructed as masculine collaborator vs. feminine cast-aside accounts for the cursory misread of the film as one of good men vs. bad Irena, but also speaks to a need on the text’s part to insist on Irena’s very badness. Equally telling is the lack of issue made of Alice’s composite nature; her reinforcement of the dominant, masculinized ideology seems not to be at odds with her own status as woman, or so the film would like to have us think.

While the film on the one hand seems to discourage the viewer from interpreting it as a tale of two competing, gendered ideologies, one might still take a step back from this reading and see a philosophy of gender nonetheless present in the film’s insistence on the heterogeneity that marks Irena. This heterogeneity – indeed, this compositeness – is, pointedly, only available to the female characters in the text; Oliver and Judd are content in their homogeneous occupation of only the A paradigm (content, that is, until they are forced into confrontation with the composite figure, when Judd is mauled and the panther freed). The anxiety surrounding Irena is not strictly an anxiety of the feminine, since it is one in which Alice shares and one which Oliver doesn’t exhibit towards Alice despite her femininity; it is better understood as an anxiety of co-presence, of the composite, of the abject as that within each of us which threatens to interrupt our own supposed coherence of identity (homogeneity). Thus we seem, in a way, to have returned to my initial misinterpretation of the text as one of masculine versus feminine, but only insofar as the feminine is itself heterogeneous in Cat People. The essential difference between Alice and Irena is the extent to which each of them has succeeded in disavowing or abjecting that part of herself which fails to cohere: Irena understands it to be always co-present even with her “good” form who “situates herself in the masculine paradigm,” while Alice unabashedly occupies this male paradigm, seemingly successful in casting out the heterogeneity that structures her as female subject. This adoption of male ideology on the part of the female subject calls to mind Mary Ann Doane’s metaphor of the transvestite: “Thus, while the male is locked into sexual identity, the female can at least pretend that she is other – in fact, sexual mobility would seem to be a distinguishing feature of femininity in its cultural construction. Hence, transvestism would be fully recuperable. The idea seems to be this: it is understandable that women would want to be men, for everyone wants to be elsewhere than in the feminine position.” (“Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator,” 81) With this quote in mind, we might thus understand Cat People as presenting two models of femininity: the “good” and the “bad” female; the woman who comfortably slips into masculine ideology, and the woman in whom female subjectivity persists, co-present with her attempted occupation of the masculine order.