The Monstrous Feminine in Holes
A common thread in ancient mythology and psychoanalysis, ‘the monstrous feminine’ is the idea that women and their sexuality are perceived as evil or threatening to men. This was originally applied to film by Barbara Creed, who found a direct correlation between Freudian and Oedipal concepts and the on-screen presentation of women. While Creed’s concept of the monstrous feminine is usually demonstrated in horror films, it is clearly illustrated in Andrew Davis’ family friendly flick Holes. The young protagonists, Stanley and Zero, must escape the power of a cartoonishly evil female warden at a detention center for misguided kids. By doing so, they come of age and become accepted by their peers as masculine. The film also ties in the tale of Kissin’ Kate Barlow, a female outlaw who roamed Camp Green Lake in the nineteenth century. She kisses men on the cheek with her bright red lipstick before killing them. Her sexuality is represented as dangerous, a key characteristic of the monstrous feminine. Both the Warden and Kissin’ Kate are seen as emasculating, “castrating” figures, threatening to all of the men surrounding them, even the young boys at Camp Green Lake. The boys come to measure their masculinity in relation to the dangerous “other,” femininity, and can only come of age when they have vanquished the feminine evils. This abjection of the “other” plays into the underlying elements of masculinity in Holes, and how the protagonists are only seen as heroes once they have achieved it.
The Warden of Camp Green Lake, played by Sigourney Weaver, has a mysterious and commanding power. As the only female in the entire camp, the Warden is what Creed refers to as a “castrating” figure. The monstrous feminine concept is deeply rooted to sexual difference and the relation to the fear of the sight of the mother’s genitals (Creed, 1.) The woman becomes the “abject” or “other,” related to men only by their lack of male genitals, causing fear in the man. Several times throughout Holes, the Warden uses her femininity and sexuality to frighten and metaphorically “castrate” men. This is demonstrated in a scene where she applies snake venom nail polish in front of Stanley and Mr. Sir. Her shiny red nail polish is inherently feminine, and strategically combined with the poisonous snake venom. Here, she strokes Stanley’s face almost sexually. This relates to another Freudian concept – the fear of the mother, as well as sexual attraction to the mother. Soon after her exchange with Stanley, she turns to Mr. Sir, and as a sort of demonstration, strikes him across the face. He says nothing, and the venom leaves scars across his face for weeks. Here, we see the monstrous Warden castrate and emasculate the most stereotypically masculine man in the camp (Wannamaker, 27.) For Stanley, this disturbing scene “combines sexual arousal for a mother figure with violence and fear, further heightening his Oedipal struggle (27.)” She frightens him to make him dependent, just like all of the other boys and men at Camp Green Lake.This triggers the over-arching narrative of the film, in which the boys must escape the camp and control of the Warden.
The Warden is symbolically tied to the mythical yellow spotted lizards depicted throughout the film. They are fantastical, deadly, and like the Warden, incredibly poisonous. They are cleverly juxtaposed with the Warden’s presence, as they hide under her hammock as she soaks up shade under the camp’s only tree. The lizards tie in to the Freudian psychosexual concept of “the toothed vagina,” which Creed mentions in her original analysis of the monstrous feminine (1.) This connection solidifies the Warden as an emasculating figure – the spotted lizards represent “the vagina that castrates.” By juxtaposing their deadliness with the Warden’s femininity, it becomes clear that the Warden’s power is as deadly (if not more so) than being bitten by a deadly, highly poisonous lizard (Wannamaker, 29.)The boys then feel the need to overcome the “poisonous woman” in order to become masculine. Similarly, after he is stricken by the Warden, Mr. Sir must work to seem masculine again. He overcompensates in his demonstrations of masculinity to the boys – he insults them, refers to them as “Girl Scouts,” and increases their punishments so that he can be seen as a man again. This inherent need to vanquish the Warden and her femininity leads into Stanley and Zero’s coming of age journey, and what Wannamaker refers to as their journey to “gain access to the power of the Phallus.”
Like many young adult and children’s films, Holes is a coming of age story. According to Wannamaker, the story is inherently Oedipal, characterized by the classic separation of boys from mother figures. In Holes, femininity is vanquished altogether (17.) Immediately upon Stanley’s arrival at Camp Green Lake, Mr. Sir puts an excessive amount of emphasis on masculinity. He tells the boys that digging holes helps them “build character.” While the film somewhat mocks this idea, but also makes it clear that digging the holes did, in fact, help them build character. Stanley and Zero are transformed by physical labor and brutal conditions, coming out of it as stronger and more masculine. This reinforces the idea that traditional ideas of masculinity are crucial to coming of age and becoming strong (18.) When Stanley digs his first hole, he is markedly more feminine – he is weak and malleable. Over the course of time, his calluses harden and he becomes strong. Stanley and Zero can only become men by vanquishing the femininity inside themselves, as well as the femininity that surrounds them. As Wannamaker notes in her article, “Holes often treats feminine traits, symbols, and characters as frightening, disgusting, or excessive ascepts – like the gaping holes in the landscape – that need to be filled in, silenced or expelled.” The holes at Camp Green Lake are representations of the Warden’s excess – an entire camp devoted to finding a long lost treasure that may not even exist. Stanley and Zero’s coming of age journey is, in reality, a journey to escape this feminine excess.
At Camp Green Lake, the boys take on ritualistic and strange behaviors. They give each other masculine nicknames, such as “Caveman,” and “Armpit.” The hole-digging in itself is ritualistic. They tell stories about digging in order to reinforce common experience between then (Wannamaker, 20.) Stanley is accepted into the group because he mimics this ritualistic behavior. This includes spitting into the holes when they are finished, which can be read as a strange psychosexual image in itself. The other boys at the camp reinforce this standard of stereotypically masculine behavior. Stanley steals a bag of Mr. Sir’s sunflower seeds to impress them, purposefully putting himself in danger for the sake of their approval. This proving of masculinity is crucial to the construction of “hegemonic masculinity.” The other boys at Camp Green Lake let Stanley into the realm of masculinity, separating themselves from the feminine Warden and the harsh “feminine” landscape. One of the key ideals of the “abject” is separation – by attempting to prove their masculinity to each other, the boys separate themselves from the feminine. Abjection is the “lacking” – the lacking of male genitals, which the boys then must compensate for and fill in – filling in the metaphorical “holes” that characterize femininity.
The holes in the landscape indicate barren-ness, emptiness, and dryness – that is the Warden’s territory. After Stanley and Zero leave the camp and become stranded in the desert, they find shelter at “God’s Thumb” – an oasis mountain that undeniably serves as a phallic symbol. In fact, “the story of God’s Thumb is part of Stanley’s patriarchal inheritance” (Wannamaker, 29.) The story starts when Stanley Yelnats I finds God’s Thumb after being robbed by the monstrous Kissin’ Kate Barlow – the story is passed down through generations. God’s Thumb is wet, fertile, and full of life in comparison to the desert. Wannabaker goes as far as to compare the greenery and lushness of the mountain to pubic hair “adorning the base of the Phallus (30.)” The boys are given strength at God’s Thumb – they drink muddy water and eat raw onions to sustain themselves. Later, the onion’s metaphorical significance becomes clear. When Stanley and Zero take refuge in a hole, the deadly yellow spotted lizards surround them. However, the lizards are deterred by the pungent onion smell that has followed the boys from God’s Thumb. Therefore, the masculine, phallic “thumb” and its nourishing onions have protected the boys from the poisonous, feminine, lizards. After this, the audience finds out that Stanley has patriarchal inheritance to the treasure has been seeking for years, and the monstrous feminine is finally, symbolically, vanquished. Wannamaker insists that the boys have finally been accepted into the “phallic order” and have successfully vanquished Vagina Dentata, or “the toothed vagina,” symbolic of the Warden and her castrating power (30.)
The issue of femininity in Holes may seem straightforward enough, but is inherently complicated by the inclusion of the 19th century female outlaw, Kissin’ Kate Barlow. Wannamaker refers to her as an “archaic mother” – an ambiguous character who takes on both monstrous and nurturing characteristics. She is either the “tamed, domesticated, passive woman, or the savage, destructive, aggressive woman” (25.) The archaic mother represents both life and death. Initially, Kate Barlow symbolizes a traditional, feminine motherhood – her teaching profession and canned peaches are a safe, nurturing form of femininity. However, after the murder of her black lover, Sam, she transforms into a “monstrous” representation of female sexuality, kissing men with her red lipstick before she kills them. She robs Stanley’s ancestor, emasculating him and denying him his ancestral inheritance. By doing this, she emasculated the four following generations of Yelnats’, triggering the events in the film. However, she continues to contradict her own character. When Stanley and Zero are stranded in the desert, they find shelter in a small hole and half buried boat – what Wannamaker refers to as a “womb´” – a welcoming place for Zero and Stanley to take shelter (25.) There, they find Kate Barlow’s canned peaches. Zero quickly makes up a name for them – Sploosh. The Sploosh, along with the onions, nourishes the boys and allows them to live, therefore entering the “Phallic order,” as established by Wannamaker. This continues to be a contradictory image, because while the Sploosh is life-sustaining, it also gives Zero food poisoning and causes him to throw up.
Despite these contradictory images, there is no doubt that Holes champions traditional, heterosexual masculinity.The boys define themselves in relation to femininity. They purposefully cast off traits within themselves that they find feminine in order to be accepted as men in the “Phallic order.” This journey is symbolically Oedipal. The boys at the camp literally leave their homes and their mothers to become surrounded by other men and boys, who all represent ritualistic, hypermasculine forms of manhood. They are posed in stark opposition to the Warden, and attempt to cast off all feminine traits in order to “vanquish” her (Wannamker, 17.) Wannamaker also notes that because the film is so surreal and unrealistic, that it constructs gender in less politically correct ways (16.) The film portrays its male heroes as perfect role models – “they are the best possible role models because they are masculine, yet also kind and sensitive; because they break the rules, but only when unjustly by adults; and because they seem to be bad boys, but ultimately are revealed to be good kids who love their moms” (16.) Stanley and Zero are everything all at once, presenting an impossible paradigm of masculinity. The boys are represented as nearly flawless, standing strong against the threat of all things feminine. Part of the Oedipal struggle is to negate the feminine in order to define oneself as masculine, a very clear part of the subtext in Holes.
Holes approaches issues of femininity and masculinity in infinitely interesting ways. While it seems to be a gentler approach to a coming of age story, the film undeniably creates gaps and “holes,” forging distance between the genders. This leads to abjection – where the feminine is seen as the “other.” This is the psychoanalytic foundation for Creed’s monstrous feminine concept, where the feminine other is feared because she is a threat to men. This idea plays a key role in the gender relations of Holes, from the evil Warden and the ambiguous outlaw Kissin’ Kate Barlow, to the way the boys at Camp Green Lake measure their masculinity. The film is rooted in sexual difference, and ultimately, metaphorically aims to put the monstrous woman back in her “place.”
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