The postfeminist play with gender in which differences are elided can easily lead us back into our "pregendered" past where there was only the universal subject—man.
Tania Modleski, Feminism Without Women
While the mutable world of postmodernism has been applauded in some critical circles and heralded for its progressive thrust (Hutcheon, 141–68), in other arenas it has been treated with suspicion. Feminists have been loathe to relinquish the category of "woman" for fear that the act subverts their analysis of patriarchal culture. E. Ann Kaplan notes that "much of what people celebrate as liberating in . . . postmodernism is . . . an attempt to sidestep the task of working through the constraining binary oppositions, including sexual difference" (43). And Barbara Creed observes that the "postmodern fascination with the . . . 'neuter' subject may indicate a desire not to address problems associated with the specificities of the oppressive gender roles of patriarchal society, particularly those constructed for women" (66).
It is clear how this debate might inform the case of High Heels . It is a film that, no doubt, entails gender fluidity, but (we might inquire) fluidity for whom? Ultimately, it is man who has that prerogative, not woman. Almodovar can dabble in the "woman's picture." Dominguez can imitate a
female. And Chon can "become" one. The only hint of movement in the opposite direction is the androgynous demeanor of Marisa Paredes as Becky. But what she resembles is not so much a man, as a man impersonating a woman—like Dominguez as Lethal. Hence, what passes for difference is, ultimately, the same—like Luce Irigaray's notion of the Freudian "Dream of Symmetry." B. Ruby Rich makes a similar point in her observations on postmodernism: "In all the talk about transvestitism and transsexualism there's little acknowledgment that even the world of gender-bending is male dominated—it's just that here men rule in the guise of women" (73).
There is also a fetishistic strain to High Heels that works against the film's claims for an unconventional vision of sexuality (despite Kinder's deeming such fetishism "fetching" [1992, 41]). Aside from shoes, the theme privileges the prop of earrings: pendulous objects seen to hang from a women's body, as though in "compensation" for that which does not . In the opening scene of the film, as Rebecca awaits Becky's arrival, she remembers that her mother bought her earrings on a childhood trip. We learn that they were made of horn—a substance associated with male animals. It is this jewelry that Rebecca fondles and wears on the day of her mother's return—that gets tangled in Becky's hair. Later, when Rebecca takes her mother to the nightclub, Lethal and Becky exchange mementos: she donates one of her earrings (a stand-in for the lost penis) and he offers one of his "tits." In the later scene of Becky performing on stage, she wears huge, dangling earrings that graze her shoulders. In all these cases, Becky seems linked to a fetishistic object that "substitutes" for the male genitalia. This bespeaks a masculine view of woman as signifying a distressing, physiological "lack." Only a man like Dominguez (in drag) can constitute a woman who is "fully equipped."
Rebecca, too, seems haunted by a phallic lack, which is overcome by her appropriation of a gun (a familiar symbol). In the film's opening credits, drawings of high heels and guns are juxtaposed—linking the two fetishistic items. Furthermore, a Sight and Sound cover (announcing a review of High Heels inside) reads "Almodovar's Stiletto Heels"—again coupling shoes with a phallic weapon (this time a knife). Significantly, Rebecca hides the gun in the chair in which Manuel used to sit—emphasizing the physical and semiotic proximity of the firearm and the phallus. It is this gun that she delivers to the dying Becky, so that her mother might mark it with her own fingerprints and false guilt.
In forcing the gun on Becky, she turns the latter into the archetypal Phallic Mother—a classic figment of the male child's imagination. Sigmund Freud referred to this fantasy in 1928, while discussing the fetishist's inability to accept his mother's genital "omission." But, in discussing this phenomenon, Freud implies that the fabrication is present in normal masculine development. As he notes, "[T]he fetish is a substitute of the . . . (mother's)
phallus which the little boy once believed in and does not wish to forego" (215). Thus, Rebecca is placed in the position of a "transvestite" daughter—whose psychic essence is male. Obviously, she finds the ultimate Phallic Mother in Lethal and his masquerade as Becky.
Clearly, this fantasy is equally powerful for Dominguez, who, in his role as cross-dresser, makes a similar maternal disavowal (Kulish, 394). His problematic relation to his own bedridden mother surfaces in scenes in which he is depicted in her home. The narrative context is unclear, but it is entirely possible that they still live together.
But need the fetishistic drift of the film be read as masculine? While some feminists have raised the possibility of female fetishism, it bears a different cast than the male variety. In an article on lesbianism, Elizabeth A. Grosz makes the point that, rather than disavowing the "castration" of their mothers, young girls may deny their own (47). It is this disavowal that is translated into female fetishism. The "narcissistic" woman may compensate for her own perceived "lack" by vainly making a fetish object of herself (through excessive costume, makeup, jewelry, etc.). The "hysterical" woman will compensate by selecting a part of her body for fetishistic "disabling" (e.g., paralysis). The "masculine" woman will dissociate herself from femininity by seeking out women with whom she can act "like a man" (47–52). None of these cases of alleged female fetishism are dominant in High Heels —where women are linked to phallic objects—a configuration more closely tied to men.
Significantly, we find the same male bias in the writing of a critic who pioneered discussions of transvestitism and film: Parker Tyler. In Screening the Sexes , he sees male cross-dressing as replicating the symbolism of sexual intercourse, which he describes from a masculine perspective: "When, with the surrogate of his penis, a man penetrates a woman, he wears her body . The penis dons the vagina via the vulva and wears the womb as a headdress. . . . In dynamic terms a curious kind of transsexuality has taken place" (217).
Hence, male cross-dressing is appropriate, as he already "wears [a woman's] body" (like some hatted Ziegfeld girl) in coitus. (In the world of the 1990s, the notion of a man "wearing" woman's body has disturbing associations to The Silence of the Lambs ). When Tyler talks of conception, his metaphors are somewhat modified: "In 'planting the tree' of his body, the male transplants it . . . duplicates his own penis in the opposite direction. . . . [T]he woman, as the penetrated one, herself senses this exchange of penis orientation as a transference, or 'transvestitism.' Hence at the crux of the act of potency, she becomes the penised one and, as such, one who wears, has donned her own vagina" (217–18).
Thus, it is only through access to man's penis that the woman can "wear" her own organs—which are, otherwise, worn by him.
In many ways, High Heels replicates Parker's scenario. It is Dominguez
who makes love to and "wears" Rebecca's vagina in the dressing room of the club in which he cross-dresses. It is he who will later implant his "tree" and "seed" in her—thus, "permitting" her to wear her own sexuality.