Feminist Review

, Volume 74, Issue 1, pp 116–119 | Cite as

Old wives' tales: feminist re-visions of film and other fictions

  • Janet McCabe
Book Review

Old wives' tales: feminist re-visions of film and other fictions Tania Modleski; I.B Tauris, London and New York, 1999, £14.95 PbK, ISBN 1-86064-386-8 (Pbk)

How women tell stories within patriarchal structures that exclude their voice is a question that feminist scholarship has wrestled with for some time. Recent criticism, in particular, has challenged earlier essentialist arguments rooted in semiotics and psychoanalytical theory, to interrogate how the category of ‘woman’ intersects with other categories, such as race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, and national specificity. Tania Modleski's previously published work (on women's popular genres and feminist criticism) has itself contributed to this current trend, and Old wives' tales represents a valuable intervention into feminist (film) theory and popular culture which pulls together and builds on her earlier contributions.

Modleski commences her book with a polemic blast against what she sees as ‘a newer generation's perception of earlier feminism as bland, monolithic, and wholly repressive’ (Modleski, 1999: 3–4). Raising objection to how the younger critics denigrated the ‘boldness’ of earlier feminist debates adds to her previous discussions on how ‘postmodern feminism’ has problematized the speaking subject within feminist critical theory (Modleski, 1991). Difficulties of speaking and asserting female narrative authority thus emerge as key issues to be interrogated in her latest work.

The book consists of nine distinct essays, including pieces on public controversies, contemporary genre films, romance novels, racial mimicry on stage and film, and autobiography. Each chapter is relatively self-contained and can be read in isolation. Yet, and as the Old wives' tales title indicates, the book coheres around ‘how the stories that women tell get legitimated or discredited’ (p.8) and how feminism rethinks these stories and contests the public and private fantasies that they produce. The (political) crisis of narrative legitimacy – women's stories that are denigrated by men as well as other women who support patriarchy, how feminism reclaims those stories but also relegates others for not adhering to a feminist agenda – that Modleski aims to highlight is for me persuasively argued.

Adopting an interdisciplinary approach (psychoanalysis, literary criticism, postcolonial and gender studies, and feminist theory) to understand generic forms of story-telling helps Modleski link the disparate topics. The first part examines the transformations taking place within female genres (melodramas and popular romances). Analysing how language was used in the US Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas sexual harassment hearings reveals how race and class separates women and can render stories suspect. The Senate testimony given by Hill (an African-American lawyer) becomes submerged by black male (Thomas' ‘melodrama of suffering black manhood’ (Modleski, 1999: 19)) and white women's stories (his wife's suspenseful thriller involving Hill's obsessional love for her husband). Fantasies of patriarchal seduction and violence against women inform Modleski's reading of Jane Campion's 1993 film The Piano. Beneath the erotic pleasures of being owned (interlaced with a postcolonial narrative of land seizure and territorial exploitation) lies a repressed narrative about a daughter's jealousy and failed possession of the mother. Modleski explores further erotic fantasies of dominance in the female reading pleasures of Harlequin romances, a despised genre that she has long worked to make credible (Modleski, 1984).

The second part focuses on how women artists are moving into generic territory traditionally considered a male preserve. Reading Sandra Bernhard's blackface mimicry in Without You I'm Nothing (John Boscovich, 1990) through queer theory and the American minstrelsy tradition allows Modleski to suggest how Bernhard uses impersonations of African-American artists as a self-conscious strategy to explore sexual identities and lesbian desire anew. African-American playwright/performer Anna Deavere Smith employs mimicry in her one-woman shows based on controversial public event (race riots, sexual harassment). Mimicking those she has interviewed and continually traversing ethnic/gender borders enables Smith not only to provide insight into how mimetic processes function to constitute identity but also challenge ‘the authority of the speaking subject’ (Modleski, 1999: 102). The next two chapters focus on female interventions into specifically male genres – the war film and western. Nancy Savoca's Dogfight (1991) and Maggie Greenwald's movie about a frontiers woman who dresses as a man, The Ballad of Little Jo (1993), challenge strict male/female binary systems to create what Judith Butler has called ‘gender trouble’ (Butler, 1989).

The collection continues Modleski's concerns with popular culture and women narratives – how they speak and make known public private experience and fantasies. Her interest extends to her own tales about her parents. Incorporating letters and reminisces with psychoanalytical and cultural theory, her stories about dying parents are told with poignancy. However, this personal touch leads me to my reservations about the book. She is, for example, particularly vitriolic in her romance chapters. I find her acrimonious response to criticism, her feeling of being hung ‘out to dry’ (Modleski, 1999: 66), and her diatribes against the current generation troubling. For one thing it gives the book, in the words of Julianne Pidduck, a defensive tone (Pidduck, 2000: 127). However, my discomfort may prove instructive. It strikes me that the simmering discontent speaks volumes about the problems feminist theory still face in speaking to – and disagreeing with – itself. Returning to the books' Old Wives' Tales title, there is a sense that what may be at stake here is the very discourse of feminist critical theory. Modleski's long participation in feminist scholarship gives her insight into the intricacies involved in such a dialogue while revealing the inherent dangers of it as she performs a similar act of reductionism on what she calls the apoliticalism of ‘postfeminism’. Read as a mediation on the continued struggles of feminist narratives under patriarchy I find the book compelling.


  1. Butler, J. (1989) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  2. Modleski, T. (1984) Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women, New York: Methuen.Google Scholar
  3. Modleski, T. (1991) Feminism Without Women: Culture and Criticism in a ‘Postfeminist’ Age, New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  4. Pidduck, J. (2000) ‘Review article’ Screen, Vol. 41, No. 1: 125–131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Feminist Review Ltd 2003

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  • Janet McCabe

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