The writer is someone who plays with his mother's body . . . in order to glorify it, to embellish it, or in order to dismember it.
Roland Barthes, quoted in Susan Suleiman, Subversive Intent
Clearly, High Heels remakes Imitation and the star scandal surrounding it. But how does it reproduce motherhood? Elsewhere, I have shown how the Sirk film charts the impossibility of female parenting: if Lora is damned as uncaring, Annie is guilty of overprotecting; if Lora is faulted for putting profession before home, Annie is chastened for making a career of domesticity. While the narrative begins by establishing Annie and Lora as good versus bad mothers, it ends by equalizing them in failure (Fischer, 1991A, 14–21). Whenever the women have troubles with their daughters, Steve steps in. When Lora departs on a film shoot, Steve is left in charge of entertaining Susie. When Annie wishes to pursue Sarah Jane, Steve makes the travel arrangements. "It's so nice to have a man around the house . . ."
While this masculine takeover is subtle in Imitation , it is strident in High Heels , which adopts (what we might deem) a "postfemale" stance. Clearly, this position requires the figure of Dominguez—a man who imitates and supplants a woman. Jean Baudrillard has argued that "[t]he strength of the feminine is that of seduction " (1990, 7, my italics). This act is based on "artifice" and stands in opposition to the masculine reality principle. As he writes, "The only thing truly at stake" in seduction "is mastery of the strategy of appearances, against the force of being" (1990, 10). If femininity is associated with surface (as distinct from masculine "depth"), it follows that the female body holds no particular truth or weight. As Baudrillard states, seduction knows "that there is no anatomy . . . that all signs are reversible" (1990, 10). According to this logic, the transvestite (like Lethal) becomes the ultimate "woman" because of his exaggerated play with the codes of femininity: "What transvestites love is this game of signs, . . . with them everything is makeup, theater, and seduction" (1990, 12–13). While championing this mimicry, Baudrillard admits that it may bear a critical tone: "The seduction . . . is coupled with a parody in which an implacable hostility to the feminine shows through and which might be interpreted as a male appropriation of the panoply of female allurements" (1990, 14). In High Heels , this translates into a cruel joke on the negation of anatomy as destiny.
Beyond valorizing a postfemale world, High Heels offers a "post-maternal "
one—envisioning a universe in which men (like Dominguez) make the best Moms (as Tootsie once made the best feminist). For, it is he who functions as maternal hero(ine) or surrogate mom—a role vacated by Becky through her parental ineptitude. It is he who loves and comforts the hysterical Rebecca, who arranges for a rapprochement within her family, who finesses her release from jail, who bares the maternal "breast" (albeit a "falsie"). Meanwhile, all that Becky manages is to reproduce her neuroses in her daughter and to visit her maternal sins upon her child.
Hence what we find in High Heels is the kind of questionable "male mothering" so prevalent in contemporary cinema—a phenomenon that I have critiqued elsewhere (Fischer, 1991B). While, superficially, this trope seems to express a benign male nurturant impulse—it arises at the expense of woman—causing her to feel a monumental postpartum depression.
In writing on the film, Kinder notes that Almodovar's project began as a narrative about two sisters who kill their mother. In Kinder's interview with him, Almodovar claims that "[w]hen you kill the mother, you kill precisely everything you hate, all of those burdens that hang over you" [1987, 43]). While Kinder admits the misogyny of Almodovar's abandoned scenario, she sees the final film as an "inversion" of that paradigm, in which "the . . . goal [is] no longer to destroy the maternal but . . . to . . . empower it" (1992, 39). Elsewhere, I have used the term "matricide" for the male diegetic appropriation of maternal space ("Sometimes"). Unlike Kinder, I find it applicable to the fate of Becky in High Heels —a fate that indicates a return to Almodovar's original theme. For, Becky's demise seems linked as much to Lethal's "voodoo" replacement of her as to Rebecca's heinous behavior. As Baudrillard observes, "To seduce is to die as reality and reconstitute oneself as illusion" (1990, 69). As Becky expires, Lethal triumphs as the seductive maternal imago.
In cataloging various attacks on postmodernism, Hutcheon notes that its contradictory and multifarious discourse has been found "empty at the center " by critics who decry the vacuity of its myriad interpretive scenarios (38). This image of the void might well apply to Dominguez—who can emulate the maternal surface but never be "fully equipped" at the maternal core or corps. It might also to apply to Almodovar, who "empties" Imitation of its maternal weight.
Curiously, for Baudrillard, it is masculinity that is aligned with "production" and femininity with its absence: "All that is produced, be it the production of woman as female, falls within the register of masculine power. The only and irresistible power of femininity is the inverse power of seduction" (1990, 15).
What this vision accomplishes is to deny any mode of female agency. It negates production as maternal reproduction —once again declaring woman's
body null and void. Furthermore, it deems man (like Adam) the creator of "woman as female"—leaving her entirely out of the semiological and biological loop.
One suspects that Almodovar chose the name "Femme Lethal" to highlight the cultural cliché of the femme fatale. (Since High Heels invokes film noir, this archetype is especially apt.) According to Mary Ann Doane, the stereotype arose with the Industrial Revolution—at "the moment when the male seems to lose access to the body which the woman then comes to overrepresent " (1991, 2). By 1991, however, the female is underrepresented, and her being subsumed by the allegedly "disembodied" male. For Doane, the femme fatale is "the antithesis of the maternal—sterile or barren, . . . produc[ing] nothing in a society which fetishizes production" (1991, 2). In this sense, the figure finds her true incarnation in the corpus manquée of Lethal. Hence, while Almodovar (in feminist drag) may have meant to mock female stereotypes with the name "Femme Lethal," we can also read his epithet "against the grain." Perhaps it reveals that the postmodern posture may be "lethal" to the women who deem it progressive, who are "seduced" by it. Doane wisely remains skeptical of the femme fatale as a "resistant" figure: "[I]t would be a mistake to see her as some kind of heroine of modernity. She is not the subject of feminism but a symptom of male fears about feminism" (1991, 2–3).
Elaine Showalter once observed that "[a]cting as a woman . . . is not always a tribute to the feminine" (138). Ultimately, what is "under cover" in High Heels is not only a male judge but a male judgment latent in the euphoric "polymorphous perversity" of the postmodern pose.