Vanishing Women: Magic, Film, and Feminism

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Duke University Press, Apr 1, 2003 - Performing Arts - 239 pages
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With the help of mirrors, trap doors, elevators, photographs, and film, women vanish and return in increasingly spectacular ways throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Karen Beckman tracks the proliferation of this elusive figure, the vanishing woman, from her genesis in Victorian stage magic through her development in conjunction with photography and film. Beckman reveals how these new visual technologies projected their anxieties about insubstantiality and reproducibility onto the female body, producing an image of "woman" as utterly unstable and constantly prone to disappearance.

Drawing on cinema studies and psychoanalysis as well as the histories of magic, spiritualism, and photography, Beckman looks at particular instances of female vanishing at specific historical moments—in Victorian magic’s obsessive manipulation of female and colonized bodies, spiritualist photography’s search to capture traces of ghosts, the comings and goings of bodies in early cinema, and Bette Davis’s multiple roles as a fading female star. As Beckman places the vanishing woman in the context of feminism’s discussion of spectacle and subjectivity, she explores not only the problems, but also the political utility of this obstinate figure who hovers endlessly between visible and invisible worlds. Through her readings, Beckman argues that the visibly vanishing woman repeatedly signals the lurking presence of less immediately perceptible psychic and physical erasures, and she contends that this enigmatic figure, so ubiquitous in late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century culture, provides a new space through which to consider the relationships between visibility, gender, and agency.

  

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Contents

Surplus Bodies Vanishing Women Conjuring Imperialism and the Rhetoric of Disappearance 18511901
17
Insubstantial Media Ectoplasm Exposure and the Stillbirth of Film
61
Mother Knows Best Magic and Matricide
93
Violent Vanishings Hitchcock Harlan and the Politics of Prestidigitation
129
Shooting Stars Vanishing Comets Bette Davis and Cinematic Fading
153
Afterword
189
Notes
195
Works Cited
219
Filmography
233
Index
235
Copyright

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About the author (2003)

Karen Beckman is Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Professor of Film Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

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