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Gender and Invisibility

by Patricia Nelson

Ultimately, then, the invisibility of The Invisible Woman is quite different from H.G. Wells’ or even James Whale’s invisible men, because even when Kitty is invisible, she is always seen.  If in earlier incarnations invisible means inconsequential, impermanent, inassimilable or uncanny, the invisible woman can never really be described as embodying any of the qualities. Part of the fear of Wells’ invisible man rests in the anxiety that he could be watching you and you would not know; he could sneak up out of the shadows and you would be taken by surprise—the fear, in other words, that you are being surveilled.  At the most basic level, the transfer to film changes this relationship, for in looking at the screen, the viewer surveilling the Invisible Man, rather than the other way around.  Indeed, in each of the films in the series, through a variety of visual and auditory cues, the viewer is in fact allowed to literally see where the invisible figure is at nearly any given moment.  The Invisible Woman, in constantly reminding viewers of Kitty’s appearance, heightens this collapse of the visible and the invisible.  Kitty’s invisibility perpetually exists not only in relation to but for a viewer, and insofar as we are constantly encouraged to project an image of Bruce onto the special effects that suggest an invisible presence, the invisible woman is very deliberately constructed as subject of the spectator’s gaze.

And yet there are moments in which this overarching conceit inconsistently coexists with, even if it ultimately supplants, hints of a more complex understanding of invisibility.  Kitty’s motivation for answering the Professor’s advertisement, after all, is “the call to adventure,” as she says in her first scene, an escape from accountability to the time clock and the monotonous daily grind.  And, finding herself invisible initially, she takes advantage of the opportunity to sneak out of the Professor’s laboratory and rebuke her cruel and petty boss at the dress shop for his treatment of the “poor working girls.”  Upon her return to the Professor’s house, when he angrily questions where she went, Kitty tells him, “I had to go and smack down the boss.”  “A fine reason to become invisible,” he replies, and she retorts, “The only reason.  Jobs are scarce and I can’t afford to be fired.”  Her behavior is presented as a tantrum, certainly, but one that can be understood as justified given the drudgery of day-to-day labor in a shop with unreasonable working conditions and the constant unwanted attentions of “leering men buyers and snooty women buyers,” as the invisible Kitty calls the patrons.  But unlike her invisible predecessor, Wells’ Griffin, Kitty seems to feel no need to cause lasting damage—she uses her newfound freedom to throw about the shop’s dresses, break the hated time clock, and give the boss, Mr. Growley, a swift kick to the posterior, but then heads on her way.  Likewise, the film’s final scene, in which Kitty dispatches the mobsters, seems to include the script’s only explicit nod to the series’ earlier installments, when she yells, “I’m mistress of all I survey!” in a seemingly allusion to Griffin’s ill-fated aspirations toward domination—but the statement is clearly in jest.

Yet these moments remain contained both by the same visual spectacle that pervades the film’s other scenes and a constant reinscription of Kitty as dependant on others to mediate her invisibility.  In the midst of her rampage in the dress shop, for example, Kitty pauses to strip off all of her clothing piece by piece, leaving her gloves, with which she slaps Mr. Growley across the face, for last.  At the risk of overreading, it does not seem such a stretch to propose that a sexual undertone may be understood to be present in a scene in which a naked woman, wearing only gloves, slaps and humiliates her male superior.  Furthermore, the narrative quickly reminds us that Kitty’s rebellion was facilitated by a male patron—when she realizes that her havoc has achieved the desired result, she turns immediately to the professor and praises him: “It’s you, Professor, you reformed Growley! On behalf of all the working girls, I thank you.”  For indeed, unlike Griffin, the narrative insistently affords the task of invention to a male scientist—Kitty is, in the end, a model upon which he hangs invisibility just as much as she was a model for Growley’s expensive dresses.

For more, see:

The Detached Americans (1964)

by Carrie Rentschler

The Detached Americans (1964) examines the phenomenon that has come to be known as "the bystander effect" in the murder of Kitty Genovese. The alleged failure of witnesses to intervene in the Genovese murder prompted the documentarians to think about how detachment has become a destructive force in American life. The thesis presented here suggests that with urbanization, greed, and the view that individuals are "players of roles," Americans are unable to connect to one another and thus are incapable of feeling responsibility for each other: “The essential problem is that we live closely together without meeting.”

Kitty and Growley in The Invisible Woman

This clip from the 1940 film The Invisible Woman depicts the protagonist wreaking havoc on her abusive boss. The scene's use of invisibility as a justification for women's bad behavior fits within a lineage of such representations continuing on all the way through to the 2003 Buffy the Vampire episode "Gone."

from The Invisible Woman (1940)
Creator: Edward Sutherland
Distributor: Universal
Posted by Patricia Nelson