“Long live the new flesh.”

Side Effects – A brief commentary about the ‘fallen woman’ in film

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[Warning: Spoilers. I cannot discuss the film without exposing certain elements. There are twists in the film so if you proceed beware.]

About: Side Effects is a 2013 psychological thriller-neo-noir film directed by Steven Soderbergh from a screenplay written by Scott Z. Burns. The film stars Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Channing Tatum. The film concerns the ramifications of an event following a young woman being prescribed antidepressant drugs.

This is more of a commentary on how dominant cinema marginalizes women than a review of Side Effects.

Side Effects is a good example of how mainstream film punishes the fallen woman. Traditionally, women were killed off in film for having sexual desire. The fallen woman used to be a prostitute or a female that had sexual knowledge outside of marriage. I was thinking about the melodrama, Camille (1936). Marguerite, played by Greta Garbo, is a courtesan in Paris. She falls in love but ideology dictates that she must be punished. She dies of Tuberculosis.

The term “fallen” was nevertheless most often conflated with sexual knowledge, particularly for women at a time when their sexual innocence was socially highly valued, indeed insisted upon. As the term narrowed to imply any socially unauthorised sexual activity, including pre-marital or extra-marital sex, whether initiated by the woman or not… 

Look, there is a lot written about the ‘fallen woman’ in literary fiction and film theory so I won’t regurgitate it here, I’ll just say that this film is an excellent companion or example of how the formula is played out. My evolution of the theory is in regarding how the fallen woman is depicted today. That is new.

Ideology is not overt. There is nothing that blatantly says that the fallen woman must be punished. Ideology creeps in and does its work.

In mainstream film, aside from being killed, women are often punished by being institutionalized or labeled crazy. In life, I am very suspicious when women are called hysterical – there is an awful tradition here. History is filled with real examples of taming shrewish women by lobotomizing the opinionated or contrary woman to keep her quiet. In film, we don’t necessarily need to see violence being done to keep women docile and quiet.

Sexual desire is no longer taboo in film but sexual desire that is placed in outside of a mainstream context is. Often the female is punished for being a lesbian. Women who don’t need men are the ultimate fallen woman. A woman who kills a man and is a lesbian is a double whammy nono.

In cinema, the fallen woman is one of the earliest representatives of the female prostitute, and the theme had great appeal during the silent era. By the mid 20th century, when women had access to a variety of jobs … their sexual activity was no longer necessarily associated with moral corruption …

Rooney Mara plays Emily Taylor, a woman who is punished by putting her in a mental asylum. What she does is absolutely heinous; the script makes her evil, conniving and duplicitous. She is constructed, as all fallen women are, as deserving what she gets. She actually deserves to have a trial. The ideology of the script simply does away with her. She is silenced.

If I were not aware of the story-flaws this would be a good film. The acting, directing, cinematography are very good and some of the actors are my favorite but I know that the story is contentious. The ‘twists’ go hand-in-hand with the story flaws. I cannot separate them. I really don’t like the treatment of women here.