Gender, Performativity and the Erotic in the Movie Erin Brockovich
For this academic movie analysis project paper, I have chosen the movie “Erin Brockovich” and what the movie reveals about performativity and the erotic. The research problem I investigated is the erotic power that all of us, not just women should be free to feel independent, powerful, and courageous regardless of our class or gender. Relying on others to do some of the heavy lifting for us should not be a part of who we are. A person who has emerged into the erotic can do anything that another person can do. Individuals that are raised in a lower-class setting, with very little assets should be able to achieve success, if they feel that they have the power and will to do so.
This is a true story based on the life of Erin Brockovich and her erotic leadership role in the research that exposed contaminated water in a small town in Hinkley, CA. Due to Brockovich’s performativity act (“if there is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender, then how can women change the “expressions” by which they apparently mean “acts”, (Lovaas & Jenkins, 2007, p. 59). Through Brockovich’s erotic ethics, the case ended with a $333,000,000 settlement with the energy corporation Pacific Gas & Electric Company. PG&E leaders faced a public relations crisis because they knew that being exposed would raise questions about their honesty and ethics from the public. When Brockovich does her research and finds that many families in the Hinkley community have health problems, from headaches, to miscarriages, to gastrointestinal cancer, she is empowered to do more research which shows the link between these health issues and hexavalent chromium in the water.
How it works
A brief summary of my interpretations while working primarily with chapter 5, “The uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”, Lorde writes, “There are many kinds of power, used and unused, acknowledged or otherwise. The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives, (Lovaas & Jenkins, 2007, p. 87).
Gender defined is “the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex”. Feminism defined is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. Class defined is “a group sharing the same economic or social status”. I interpret these statements that the erotic is a source in each one of us, not just women. We suppress the feeling and associate it with just women, but it is throughout society.
Lorde doesn’t imply that the erotic is just about sex, she clearly states that it is a spiritual and emotional sense of ourselves. She goes on to distinguish society’s view of pornography as a sensation, without a feeling. I interpret that the erotic is untapped power within each of us, a love that can bring us to better understanding of ourselves and those around us. Once we have the courage to feel the erotic, our deepest joys and feelings will be a standard to continue to achieve while we grow to realize the full worth of the power within ourselves.
In this paper I am studying the uses of the erotic as power as presented by Audre Lorde. Lorde (February 1934-November 1992), was the author of more than a dozen books of poetry and poise, recipient of national and international awards and a founding member of the Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press”, (Lovaas & Jenkins, 2007, p. 87). Lorde’s writings addressed topics that are as important in society today as they were during her time. She is known as an influential woman of color, a lesbian, a mother, a partner in a inter racial relationship and feminist.
Gender, Performativity and the Erotic is an important topic to investigate because when we study gender identity, we learn that gender and sex are not natural, they are the products of workings of powering in societies that exist in institutions, communication and general practices among the masses. This brings to attention Judith Butler’s concept of ‘performative’ when Brockovich relies on Butler’s concepts of identity and performance at the private investigator’s office. This scene shows how Brockovich uses gender performativity and the role that patriarchal society played on her as a female character. What is her place in this patriarchal society? We will look at how gender performativity determines a character’s identity but also to how gender identity is unstable and constructed socially and culturally.
What I knew about gender, performativity and the erotic before I did this study has little to do with how we are learning about it in this class. I used the terms “sex” and “gender” interchangeably. I assumed, like many people that, once we know the sex of a baby, we know it’s gender. An infant born with a penis is a boy and one born with a vagina a girl. I’ve learned that gender is more complex and is an interrelationship between more than one dimension. “Gender is not something one is, it is something one does, an act, or more precisely, a sequence of acts, a verb rather than a noun, a “doing” rather than a being”, (Lovaas & Jenkins, 2007, p. 55). The experiences of our own body, how society places labels on gender and how people interact with us based on our body is another dimension. Identity, which Butler says is our deeply held internal sense of self as male, female, a blend of both, or neither; who we internally know ourselves to be.
Brockovich shows the erotic power it takes for a woman to stand up for a cause and be noticed in a man’s world. She uses her cleavage, long red hair, and tight clothing to get what she wants. She knows she is beautiful and sexy, so she performs a role to meet her ends. Masry (the lawyer) asks Brockovich, what makes you think you’re going to walk into the energy company’s office and find more documents and proof of what we need, she says, “they’re called boobs Ed”, (DeVito, Motion Picture. Erin Brockovich). ‘Foucault demands that the project of asking whether approaches to sex are repressive or permissive be replaced by a project of examining how sex is put into discourse. His model of power as productive requires that power does not just say ‘no’ and enslave free subjects, but rather produces knowledge, categories and identities to manage and regulate power’, (Stryker Whittle, 2013, p. 318).
In “Everyone’s answer is the only answer”, bodies, like all cultural products, go through periods, phases and even fashions. Consider the breast in the recent American landscape. Only a few decades ago the duckbilled breast, as shaped by the tortured duckbill shaped bras, was the standard of beauty. Shortly thereafter, large full breasts were seen as beautiful and the height of femininity. This brings to mind how the definition of masculinity and muscularity have changed, (Stryker Whittle, 2013, p. 550).
In the film, ‘Using the Erotic to do Our Work’, Lorde says, “there are many kinds of power, used and unused, acknowledged or otherwise. The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. –Audre Lorde, from “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”. Here we see how we present our gender performativity to society, others who are influential have the ability to shape it if we don’t use our erotic expression. Brockovich did not allow gender roles to force her to conform to the current gender norms in the movie.
How advancing the knowledge of society with regards to Gender, Performativity and the Erotic will lead to new ways of understanding is to incorporate Lorde’s message to view the erotic as a means to empower women who feel silenced, specifically, African-American lesbian women. Society must ask questions of young people, all students included, to put Lorde’s theories about the erotic into conversations. How does a woman express and utilize her erotic power? Everyone is different; therefore, it must be pointed out that how a woman expresses her erotic power varies based on the social, historical, cultural, and gender norms of her upbringing. Lorde also discusses these “phallocentric systems,” describing them as structures of self-abnegation that attempt to suppress the feminine voice (Lovaas & Jenkins, 2007, p. 89).
In court, Brockovich was looked down upon for being divorced, unemployed, and a single-mother of three. She doesn’t seem to have a chance at winning the case against a rich, white male professional who crashed into her. The jury’s eyes quickly show her that rather than empathizing with her, they blame her for her situation and become condescending. Later at Masry’s law office, Brockovich continuously voices her unfair treatment and refuses to leave the office after he fails to return her calls, stating “there are two things that annoy me, being ignored and being lied to. Frustrated by her persistence and ecocriticism, Masry offers Brockovich a job within his law firm, (DeVito, Motion Picture. Erin Brockovich).
After asking Masry for a job, we see an instance of desperation in the movie, Erin steps in close to Ed and speaks in a low voice that combines her strengths with desperation, she says, don’t make me beg. If it doesn’t work out; fire me, but don’t make me beg, (DeVito, Motion Picture. Erin Brockovich). People who feel susceptible and incapable of protecting themselves need defense mechanisms, like being erotic, tough and invulnerable. This is how Erin is at the beginning. And her eroticism excludes any possibility of romantic love. She instantly feels that romantic love could lead her to being hurt, and she can’t deal with those emotions after the life she’s had.
‘Erin Brockovich’ is essentially a film about empowerment. As she becomes genuinely strong, she no longer needs her defense mechanism of erotic toughness and invulnerability. Therefore, she can become vulnerable to love. ‘If sex is experienced as enhancing a shared sense of power, it is an avenue to transcendence, to deepening our relations with the world, (Ellison & Douglas, 2013, p. 177).
A gender role that we can examine in the movie is Brockovich’s boyfriend George, who is not any of the three children’s father. George is taking care of her kids and trying to take care of her too, but she refuses. George offers to support them, she says no. Here is an example of a gender role assumption, because Brockovich is a woman, she is expected to put her children first and stay home to take care of them. We know that femininity has been associated with passivity and objectification, masculinity has been linked to active agency. Men are valued and rewarded when they become men who know what they want and go get it themselves. “For a ‘girl’ who is compelled to ‘cite’ the norm in order to quality and remain a viable subject, femininity is thus not the product of a choice, but the forcible citation of a norm, one whose complex historicity, is indissociable from relations of discipline, regulation, punishment, (Lovaas & Jenkins, 2007, p. 66).
George is threatened here because Brockovich is earning her own money, she will no longer need him, her uses of the erotic have empowered her to be her own person. A similar idea is in Phillips Wealth and Democracy, that wealth affects the politics of a country, a functioning national corporation. The vicious cycle of wealth affecting politics, politics affects wealth. Phillips says, ‘if you cannot afford to speak your thoughts, they will not be heard’. “Of course, women so empowered are dangerous. So, we are taught to separate the erotic from most vital areas of our lives other than sex. And the lack of concern for the erotic root and satisfactions of our work is felt in our disaffection from so much of what we do. For instance, how often do we truly love our work even at its most difficult? The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to the exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need -the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment” (Lovaas & Jenkins, 2007, p. 88).
Here we see the exoticness in Brockovich come out. Early in the movie, she is putting all of her survival strategies into play, she shields herself from any emotion, especially from men. However, she absolutely needs George to babysit, and eventually begins to rely on him; this puts her in a position to realize that not all men will treat you badly and there is good in loving a person. She is beginning to let her guard down and ease up on the performance of her eroticism; one who shows it by being uncaring and undisciplined. We see how difficult it is for Brockovich to come out of this hard shell, mainly because she has used is as a form of survival in society.
Brockovich dual character arc is displayed here, she goes from feeling exposed and incapable of protecting herself to strong, and along the way she drops her protective eroticism, especially in the area of sexuality and emotion; this has been a big obstacle for her in the past. To summarize Brockovich’s character arc, in character arc 1, she is going from feeling exposed, powerless and incapable of protecting herself to strong and erotic. Character arc 2, she goes from fear of vulnerability in love to feeling the erotic as power to be vulnerable and in love. We often think of plot as being about structure, but our notions of character and character arc tend toward the more airy-fairy. Surely, character arc is something that must evolve organically from the characters themselves, (Weiland, 2016, p. 38).
It can also be seen that George’s patriarchal values include his desire to save her kids heartache from the time they spend away from their mother and he wants her to be free to spend some of that time with him. In a masculine mentality, George wants to control Brockovich. Eventually, George threatens to leave her if she doesn’t give up her job. “As women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and non-rational knowledge. We have been warned against it all our lives by the male world, which values this depth of feeling enough to keep women around in order to exercise it in the service of men, but which fears this same depth too much to examine the possibilities of it within themselves. So, women are maintained at a distant/inferior position to be psychically milked, much the same way ants maintain colonies of aphids to provide a lifegiving substance for their masters, (Lovaas & Jenkins, 2007, p. 88). George felt that he was in competition with Brockovich’s desire to put the uses of the erotic into action; George was threatened by Brockovich’s powerful, strong, independent mentality. He wanted to take care of her, a masculine role that is typical of many men.
Brockovich feminist mentality not only focuses on her sexuality, her uses of the erotic and strength, it serves as a reminder to all strong-willed determined gender roles not to fall into the patriarchy beliefs of society. If you are willing to work hard and fight for your rights whether they are LGBTQ, feminist, masculine or both; genders should have the equal right to do and be who they are.
My interpretation of this motion picture movie is a good examination of feminist eroticism and power. People can use the points in the movie to discuss theories of the erotic, the erotic as power while reflecting on feminism regardless of culture within their families. Also, the value of not judging a book by its cover. Lastly, everyone it seemed was being silenced, Brockovich was being denied a voice at first. No one at PG&E wanted anyone to get hurt, but they didn’t want to be exposed either.
In conclusion, Erin Brockovich sets the stage for the movie’s anti-corporate politics to follow as the film documents a successful class action suit against the energy corporation Pacific Gas and Electric Company for their cancer-causing environmental pollution, (Dewaard, 2013, p. 148). The audience is presented with substitutes of their own beliefs and desires regarding the injustices in institutions and society. Though Hollywood liberalism is often and rightfully decried as self-serving and self-righteous, we can, and we should question some of the main ideological threads in American society, marking politics as part of the main stream (Dewaard, 2013, p. 69).
Why the topic of the erotic as power truly matters is because despite the efforts of so many LGBTQ activists; Advocacy to control and contain the stereotypical thinking in society in many people, even now in 2019 is minimal. Many harbor negative beliefs about what is right and what should be about a person’s gender, sexuality and freedom to choose. Men and women should have equal rights. It is truly a gift to the student body that KU has the LGLBTQ Resource Center and a place where people can go to and feel comfortable. It is great to read in Chapter 12, that mechanism to secure legal recognition of gay and lesbian relationships including domestic partnerships and civil unions have been emerging more. I sincerely hope that more education is made available to help people understand at a young age the diverse body of sexual ideologies in the LBGTQ communities around the world. I for one, have learned a great deal and consider myself to be open minded and accepting of just about everyone.
- Dewaard, A. (2013). The Cinema of Steven Soderbergh. Indie Sex, Corporate Lies, and Digital Videotape. London, UK: Wallflower Press.
- Ellison, M. M., & Douglas, K. B. (2010). Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for theological reflection. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox.
- Lovaas, K., & Jenkins, M. M. (2007). Sexualities & Communication in Everyday Life: A Reader. Thousand Oaks (CA): SAGE.
- Stryker, S., & Whittle, S. (2013). The Transgender Studies Reader. London: Routledge
- Smith, Adam, and Alan Krueger. The Wealth of Nations. New York: Bantam Classics, 2003
- Weiland, K. M. (2016). Creating character arcs: The masterful authors guide to uniting story structure, plot, and character development. Scottsbluff, NE: PenForASword Publishing.