It’s Sigfried Kracauer week in Film Theory! That means reading, among many other things, his classic essay “The Little Shop Girls Go to the Movies”. So far I’m finding that I love his style — it’s hard not to get carried along by the rather impassioned polemic that is played out in powerful prose. And for the most part, I think I agree with some or many of his arguments (let me get back to you on that once I’ve had several class discussions on this past weekend’s reading) — but I am troubled by the gendering of “Little Shop Girls”, particular in its equation of the female spectator with a disparaged and low-brow mode of artistic and cultural reception. Kracauer may be a mighty polemicist, but he’s no feminist.
“In the endless sequence of films, a limited number of typical themes recur again and again”(Kracauer, 294). “Little Shop Girls” is organized around Kracauer’s scathing attacks on these stereotyped film forms he sees as glutting the Weimar cinema, presenting with admirable rhetorical strategies a series of eight typical modes, “textbook cases…subjected to moral casuistry” (Kracauer, 294). One of these examples was particularly fascinating to me, in that it essentially outlines a historical-Germanic version of (500) Days of Summer — that is, Kracauer has written a 1920s description of the infamous Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, in critiquing what he has christened “The Golden Heart”. It’s not too long, so I’m taking the liberty of including it in full:
“A young Berlin wholesaler, an industrious manager of a first-rate company, visits a business friend of his father’s in Vienna; the paternal friend’s firm is going to pieces because of the disorder in Austria. The quest would leave, if it were not for the business friend’s daughter, a sweet Viennese gal who makes it clear to him that there are other things besides management: the waves of the Danube and the wine gardens specializing in new vintages. With delight the young man from Berlin discovers his dormant feelings. He cleans up the company, which will soon be turning a profit again, and gets the gal for home use.—Even without close-ups, this course of events would be believable. Whether in the city of waltz dreams or on the beautiful beaches of the Neckar—someplace, but not here in the present, the rich are falling in love and discovering in the process that they have hearts. It is not true that they are heartless: films refute what life would make one believe. Outside business—which admittedly would not be the right place for heart—their hearts are always in the wrong place. They are brimming with feeling in situations where it is of little consequence and are often unable to do as they like, only because they waste their feelings so uneconomically in private affairs that their supply is continually running out. One needs to have experienced the tenderness and gentleness the young man from Berlin expresses to the Viennese girl under the Stephansturm in order to understand once and for all that his brutal behavior on the telephone does not indicate a lack of sentiment. The camera reveals this. What he really loves is operettas, and what he really longs for is an idyllic retreat in which, undisturbed, he can open his poor heart, which he has had to close off in all other situations. If there were no Viennese woman in the to keep his heart from interfering in economic matters, it could in a pinch, be well accommodated by the record player. Through films, one can prove on a case-by-case basis that with rising prosperity the number of emotional nature preserves is constantly growing. The little shopgirls learn to understand that their brilliant boss is made of gold on the inside as well; they await the day when they can revive a young Berliner with their silly little hearts.”
While this obviously differs a bit in the details, the overall scheme he lays out kept my mind’s eye fixated on a Joseph Gordon-Levitt in lederhosen, who instead of The Smiths “loves operettas” and “really longs for…an idyllic retreat” to the 1920s German equivalent of Ikea. Kracauer’s every invocation of “the little shopgirls” began to look like a long string of aspiring Zooey Deschanels and Kirsten Dunsts and Natalie Portmans.
It is interesting enough in itself to note this evidence of the early genesis of the MPDG trope, but what intrigues me more is the way it is critiqued. These days, Anita Sarkeesian and others in the feminist and/or media blogosphere tend to take the trope to task (along with its perpetuating screenwriters/directors/et al.) for it’s limiting and fairly unrealistic portrayals of women, to the point of arguable misogyny. Kracauer’s position is obviously not in line with this post-third-wave-of-Feminism understanding: his contempt for a female audience that is just as two-dimensional and frivolous as the 1920s-equivalent MPDGs on screen in clear. His contention with the archetypes, while based in a similar understanding of their un-reality, is more largely focused on the economic and class disparities that he sees, distinctions which he highlights at the expense of the equally present gender inequalities and unfair portrayals of “little shopgirls” and the type of women they are looking to on the silver screen.
Like I said, Kracauer isn’t exactly a feminist. But at least he can get riled up about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and her Wimpster, which makes for good reading.