Book Review: Reframing Todd Haynes: Feminism’s Indelible Mark

Duke University Press, 2022, $28.95

Given that Todd Haynes is oneof the leading lights of New Queer Cinema, critics have understandably viewed his work with its ‘gay’ content in mind. From the Jean Genet themed Poison (1991) to the acclaimed lesbian romance Carol (2015), Haynes’s films certainly reward this line of enquiry. However, for the contributors to Reframing Todd Haynes: Feminism’s Indelible Mark, this emphasis on queerness has overshadowed Haynes’s longstanding engagement with feminism. Despite his comments in interviews and elsewhere that ‘feminist theory has left an indelible mark on my critical – and creative – thinking’,[1] its importance to Haynes’s work has generally escaped scholarly attention. To rectify this, Reframing Todd Haynes offers fourteen essays that explore his film and television projects from avowedly feminist perspectives.

This does not mean that they ignore the queer aspects of Haynes’s output. Rather, as Theresa L. Geller explains in her Introduction, these essays contribute to what Robyn Wiegman describes as queer feminist criticism. This is a field that combines the insights of queer theory and feminist theory in ways that often repeal ‘the famous distinction between sexuality and gender […] as a theoretical universalism’.[2]  By thinking about sexuality and gender in conjunction with one another, and focusing on Haynes’s tendency to set his films in the past, the volume approaches his work, in Geller’s words, ‘as a creative archive of queer feminist historiography’.[3] To elucidate this approach, Geller draws on Elizabeth Freeman’s theory of temporal drag. Freeman theorises this as ‘a kind of temporal transitivity [in queer art and culture] that does not leave feminism, femininity, or other so-called anachronisms behind’.[4] In their different ways, each contributor shows how Haynes’s investment in anachronism, and especially in the mid-century Hollywood genre of the woman’s film, provides him with a critical vantage point from which to detect the ‘cultural tremblings’[5] of the present.

Patrick Flanery’s chapter on Mildred Pierce is a good example of the fruits of this endeavour. He argues that by adapting James M. Cain’s Depression era tale of female entrepreneurism and familial breakdown for HBO in 2011, Haynes offers an ‘urgent diagnosis of the impossible traps late capitalism sets for women’.[6] Specifically, Haynes uses this source material to comment on what Lauren Berlant describes as the ‘cruel optimism’ of the neoliberal present, wherein women are encouraged to pursue fantasies of the good life in a context of ever diminishing resources. What makes Flannery’s analysis so impressive is how he combines gender, sexuality, and class-based readings in a way that is critically probing while still sensitive to Hayne’s artistry. This kind of intersectional critique is also evident in Sharon Willis’s ‘The Politics of Disappointment: Todd Haynes Rewrites Douglas Sirk’. First published in 2003 in Camera Obscura, Willis’s influential account of Far from Heaven has lost none of its insight in the years since. Through a detailed analysis of the film’s costuming and cinematography, she shows how Haynes constructs ‘a false structural analogy’[7] between Frank’s (Dennis Quaid) closeted homosexuality and Cathy’s (Julianne Moore) and Raymond’s (Dennis Haysbert) interracial attraction. This analogy is false because, as the film itself demonstrates but struggles to reflect upon, the stakes of sexual transgression are far higher for the African American Raymond than they ever could be for the white Frank and Cathy.

Intersectionality is therefore a key thread running through the feminism of this book’s fourteen essays. So, too, is anti-auteurism. Reframing Todd Haynes sets out to break with what Geller calls the ‘endemic sexism’[8] of auteur theory, which has traditionally approached the white male director as a kind of creative genius. Accordingly, ‘many contributors here trouble Haynes’s status as auteur by foregrounding women’s contributions to works that are expressly polyvocal and heteroglossic’.[9] The most pronounced instance of this is Geller’s own chapter with David E. Maynard, ‘Oh, the Irony: Tracing Christine Vachon’s Filmic Signature’. Despite being a producer on every one of Haynes’s major productions since Poison, Vachon has received scant critical attention. But ‘we need only to be willing to peek under the film worlds she helps bring to life’, say Geller and Maynard, ‘to locate the intimate messages she has been leaving all along’.[10] Elsewhere, Patricia White’s consideration of how fans have responded to Carol online – most notably with the meme ‘Harold, they’re lesbians’ – embeds Haynes’s work in pop culture reception contexts that, by their very nature, compromise the authority of the auteur. In this respect, ‘reframing’ Todd Haynes means respectfully displacing him from the centre of attention. Doing so allows his collaborators, intertexts, and audiences to emerge as significant co-creators of the texts bearing his name.

What might seem like this book’s overly narrow focus – an intersectional, anti-auteurist exploration of one director’s engagement with queer feminist historiography – turns out, therefore, to be vibrantly expansive. In other words, the essays collected here open a variety of new avenues through which to understand Haynes as a feminist filmmaker as much as he is a queer one. If until now his feminism has perhaps been too obvious to comment upon, then Reframing Todd Haynes shows the benefits of re-engaging with what lies in plain sight. The result is a consistently insightful volume that, to borrow a phrase from the title, should leave an indelible mark on future studies of Haynes’s work.



[1] Todd Haynes, Far from Heaven, Safe, and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story: Three Screenplays, (New York: Grove, 2003), quoted in Theresa L. Geller, ‘Introduction: Feminism’s Indelible Mark’, in Reframing Todd Haynes: Feminism’s Indelible Mark, ed. Theresa L. Geller and Julia Leyda, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022), 1-28, 1.

[2] Robyn Wiegman, ‘The Times We’re In: Queer Feminist Criticism and the Reparative “Turn”’, Feminist Theory 15.1 (2014): 4-25, quoted in Geller, ‘Introduction’, 14.

[3] Geller, ‘Introduction’, 14.

[4] Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Feelings (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), quoted in Geller, ‘Introduction’,17.

[5] Geller, ‘Introduction’, 11.

[6] Patrick Flannery, ‘“All the Cake in the World”: Five Provocations on Mildred Pierce’, in Reframing Todd Haynes: Feminism’s Indelible Mark, ed. Theresa L. Geller and Julia Leyda, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022), 158-172, 158.

[7] Sharon Willis, ‘The Politics of Disappointment: Todd Haynes Rewrites Douglas Sirk’, Reframing Todd Haynes: Feminism’s Indelible Mark, ed. Theresa L. Geller and Julia Leyda, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022), 173-199, 196.

[8] Geller, ‘Introduction’, 19.

[9] Ibid., 109.

[10] David E. Maynard and Theresa L. Geller, ‘Oh, the Irony: Tracing Chrstine Vachon’s Filmic Signature’, in Reframing Todd Haynes: Feminism’s Indelible Mark, ed. Theresa L. Geller and Julia Leyda, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022), 91-110, 109.

About Edward Jackson

Edward Jackson holds a PhD in English from the University of Birmingham. He is the author of David Foster Wallace’s Toxic Sexuality: Hideousness, Neoliberalism, Spermatics (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020).
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