Double White Female
How the female doppelganger dominated late ’80s Hollywood
Film and psychology: if ever two innovations – both born at the turn of the 20th century – were destined to be twinned, it’s this pair. One asks what motivates us to watch; the other taps into our dreams and nightmares. They are not so much codependent as conjoined.
According to Freud, the list of things that we find ‘uncanny’ is extensive. Put succinctly, it is the familiar made unfamiliar, or, that which is secret put on display. The effect of the uncanny is to induce a sense of fearfulness or heightened anxiety through an absence of traditional or habitual aesthetics. All is no longer rosy in the garden. In visual terms, this means that we are witnesses to something that we cannot account for, or that cannot account for itself: it is subtly but acutely suffused with a sense of ‘wrongness’, and yet – like a snake with a rabbit – hypnotises us to keep watching, as we are compelled by what is inadvertently revealed.
Many of the examples of the uncanny that Freud gives us, such as automata (the inanimate animated in humanoid form) and involuntary repetitions of action have become tried-and-trusted tropes of cinema. In film narrative, cinematography and editing, we can find hundreds of illustrations of this. Take the recurrent event: extended to comedic proportions in Groundhog Day, any number of montage training sequences, the flying leaves of a tear-off calendar. Yet there is one motif of the uncanny that has a special resonance for Hollywood. Its particular manifestation in the mid-’80s to the early ’90s, puts a very particular aspect of what was previously secret on display, if you can interpret the signs.
The doppelgänger, or more precisely the impact of seeing your double, is the uncanny’s ace in the hole. What could be more familiar, and yet so unsettling? Even the most beautiful identical twins hold a compelling fascination for the genetically unique. It is perhaps no coincidence that the development of IVF, starting with the birth of the first ‘test-tube baby’ Louise Joy Brown in 1978, preceded a spate of films that revelled in the doppelgänger. As more embryos were conceived via in vitro fertilisation, multiple births became more commonplace. Suddenly, there were a lot of people who had doubles.
If Hollywood were more like Nollywood, then perhaps the pervasiveness of the double on screen would not hold such uncanny power. The Yoruba people, originating in Nigeria, historically have one of the highest incidents of twin births in the world. As something that is inherent and particular to their culture, it is celebrated and revered.
Of course, the first screen doppelgängers didn’t make their film debut in the 1980s. Even the riotous Marx Brothers in Duck Soup (1933) employed comedic use of Groucho’s double in one of the finest mirror sequences in cinema. Vertigo (1958) even has a whiff of necrophilia to amp up the creepy uncanniness of its doubling, and Basil Deadon’s The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970) achieves the seemingly impossible, with a Roger Moore who for once isn’t all silky smooth and suave.
But in the ’80s, another type of menace was in town and Hollywood producers found a way to reveal their profound fears about another manifestation of the uncanny – this one not officially sanctioned by Freud, but one which he’d probably have tacitly supported. They attempted to put in its place the monstrous and creeping regiment of women who were offscreen but on set, calling some shots and running some businesses, and more or less emancipated, through the deployment of the doppelgänger.
Even this move was something of a reflection or mirror image of earlier Tinseltown selves. The 1946 melodrama The Dark Mirror is a typical example. It stars Olivia de Havilland – herself sister to Joan Fontaine of Rebecca fame – as identical twins Terry and Ruth. One is a suspected of murder while the other has a cast-iron alibi, but the question is, which one? The poor saps in the film have no way of knowing which sister is kind and loving and which is a stone-cold psychopath. Ain’t it always the way? Women, huh? Can’t read ’em, but damn, they have nice hair. It leads one to conclude that the average Hollywood exec team would be like lambs to the slaughter on a London night bus: completely incapable of being able to identify who not to sit next to, in case they launched into an invective on the Treaty of Versailles and QAnon.
In the ’80s, it seemed that Hollywood producers reasoned that one way to disarm your enemy and reclaim power (as if it had ever been lost from the clutches of the cinematic patriarchy) was to sow seeds of disquiet about women.
Although Gen X had not grown up with the millennial mantra that we could be anything we wanted to be if our heart willed it so (toxic in its own way by shifting all the reasons for social inequality to the individual), some hangover from the untrammelled, freedom-loving ’70s meant that we were used to thinking that we might all turn out differently from each other and our parents, with myriad interests, careers, hairstyles, fashions, music tastes available to us (not body shapes, though: we were all still expected to be as thin as possible).
What ’80s cinema imposed on us was uniformity. ‘No, ladies,’ it said, ‘you are not as special or unique as you think you are.’ The age of the individual was over. For every woman, there was a clone lining up to take her place, an identikit that could be substituted as easy as pie. This was the era of Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted to Love’ video (1985), remember, where a long-limbed lovely with massive shoulder pads, slicked-back hair and the brightest red lipstick was replicated multiple times to create his backing band, not through her reflection or double exposures but by the simple trick of styling different models to all look exactly alike. ‘It’s that easy,’ the video suggests. ‘There’s no end of doubles literally at our disposal.’
What were the consequences of seeing our own image so smoothly replicated? For me, the coupling of the the original unsettlement of Freud’s uncanny allied with the manoeuvre on the part of Hollywood brought a raft of new fears to the fore, chief of which was that, if not accepting of our lot, making an effort, being good company (for men that is), we were simply replaceable – a sort of Dolly the Sheep in make-up.1 Even those of us who prided ourselves on our distinctiveness were at the risk of becoming just one of many. Take Madonna, for example. A cautionary tale.
In the ’80s Madonna was the doyenne of American pop, a figurehead for sanitised but rebellious youthful sexiness. Her earliest signature look for the era of ‘Lucky Star’ and ‘Holiday’ circa 1983-84 was a quasi-punk confection of black capri pants, lacy ra-ra skirt and fingerless mittens, and crop top, plus assorted belts, bangles and necklaces, lots of black eyeliner and tousled long blonde hair. She rocked ‘more is more’ combined with NYC danceschool aesthetic, and millions of teenage girls across the globe rushed to dress like her, like a Ciccone Village of the Damned. But Madonna remained the original, the one and only, because she was unpredictable, an expert in interpreting, anticipating and adapting rather than simply copying trends. Like her or loathe her, she seemed to authentically inhabit the scene she represented.
Then Madonna the pop star became Madonna the actress and in 1985 appeared in the Hollywood film Desperately Seeking Susan. It’s easy to forget, given Madonna’s lasting ubiquity, that she wasn’t the star of this screwball comedy. Madonna plays true to type as Susan, a nonconforming artsy type who becomes embroiled in a jewel theft and is pursued by a mobster who wants his gewgaws back. Pauline Kael the famous New Yorker critic describes her in the movie succinctly as ‘an indolent, trampy goddess’. I don’t know if that’s meant to be positive or not but I like it.
The film’s main action, however, centres on Rosanna Arquette, who we are asked to believe is bored housewife Roberta Glass. Somehow, having bleached blonde hair, a dancer’s build and wearing Susan’s jacket is enough to allow Roberta to inadvertently impersonate the ‘one of a kind’ free-spirit. Even the movie poster features the two in all their headband-wearing, doppelgänger glory.
The film itself is a work of harmless ’80s movie-bubblegum, memorable mainly for the hypnotic Madonna track Into the Groove which features in its demo version. Given Madonna’s expanding popularity with her teen audience, the movie was edited to meet a PG-13 rating. But despite its supposed innocuousness, for me there is a troubling underlying message to it. If your life is as boring and mundane as Roberta’s, all it takes is the assumption of an ‘edgy’ jacket and some eyeliner and you can assimilate a bohemian lifestyle and become a ‘Susan’ of the world. All that separates the two of you is illusion and artifice. There is no more value in the original than its facsimile.
Now I don’t want to get all Walter Benjamin here and talk about ‘aura’ and authenticity. Besides, film itself as a medium is inherently replicable.2 What does make me stop, though, is the carelessness with which the narrative treats the twin characters of Roberta and Susan. Roberta quickly and willingly adopts Susan-like traits, while Susan softens into a less confrontational, Roberta-like attitude. By the end of the film the two have become a bland amorphous singularity. Desperately Seeking Susan doesn’t celebrate individuality, rather reinforcing how easy it is to transform one woman into another, as though there’s not enough that is weighty or significant to anchor you to your own identity. Even when your star is as big as Madonna, it seems that the nature of your celebrity – the distinctiveness that has made you an icon – can be tinkered with and taken away from you.
I suppose it’s a salutary aspect that sits outside the actual story, that, had Madonna not been available, it would have been easy enough to bring in some kind of tribute act, and no one would have been any the wiser, or feel that they had been shortchanged. It begs the question if this were a male pop icon of the era would they have been treated in the same way. Would they have ‘backed up’ Prince with a sub or was he truly a one-off?
Maybe I’m reading too much into what is an enjoyable ’80s take on a screwball comedy. Would I apply the same censure to one of my beloved 1930s films? Perhaps not – probably not – but I stand by my next point.
By the ’90s, the rhetoric around the screen double becomes more charged and urgent. The studios adopt a cunning new approach, suggesting that we ladies could be harmed by our dopplegänger. The only way to avoid this is to trust in the benevolent protection of men. Single White Female (1992) is the jewel in the crown of this one. While Desperately Seeking Susan allows itself to be defanged to please the teens and Madonna wannabes, Single White Female is red in tooth and claw.
This is definitely not one to show the kids. Sexual assault, homosexuality, masturbation, even menstruation are treated with all the sensitivity of a tabloid journalist interviewing the bereaved relative of a Hillsborough victim. In a strange hall-of-mirrors moment, co-star Jennifer Jason Leigh had been also up for Madonna’s role in Desperately Seeking Susan, (the one that Rosanna Arquette then masquerades as) but here, her character is the would-be double of Bridget Fonda, ‘It Girl’ of ’90s Hollywood. Leigh plays Hedy, the gauchely reclusive lodger of successful fashion designer and chic girl-about-town Allie, played by Fonda.
With a career, apartment and wardrobe to die for, Allie appears to have it all, but when she discovers that her live-in boyfriend Sam has been unfaithful – with his ex, to ramp up the duality of the story – Fonda/Allie turfs him out and advertises for a flatmate, getting seemingly mild-mannered bookseller Hedy. Slowly and surely, though, Hedy is revealed as less than sane. She is clingy and possessive and gradually begins to emulate Allie, purloining her clothes. Things come to a head when Allie reconciles with Sam and they plan to move in together again. Hedy not only starts dressing like Allie but has her hair cut in the same distinctive elfin style. There’s a disquieting moment when both leave the salon as mirror images of each other, Allie quietly fuming and squirming with embarrassment that her ‘look’ has been stolen. Yet, she doesn’t even tear a strip off her hairstylist or transform her own hair to maintain her ‘oneness’. Somehow, Hedy effortlessly absorbs Allie’s mannerisms and posture as well as her hair, clothes and make-up without any real questions being asked.
In a later scene, the ‘deviant’ Hedy goes to a quasi fetish club with Allie in hot pursuit. The viewer is expected to grasp that Hedy feels comfortable there but Allie does not. And yet, to me, this shows a basic confusion in the film between the ideas of appearance and identity. Allie looks and dresses the way she does as a projection of her identity as a creative designer. That person is confident, aware of trends, urban, sophisticated. Surely not someone to bat an eyelid at the extremely tame goings-on portrayed in the club?
Hedy – inevitably – goes on to impersonate her way into Sam’s bed, with disastrous consequences, but once again – even in movieworld, where we suspend our disbelief – it’s a stretch to accept that two women, however superficially similar-looking, will be indistinguishable even when having sex. Hedy actually raises this question with Sam.
From this point in the film, things escalate, with Hedy becoming more and more violently unhinged and it all gets profoundly ridiculous and disturbingly misogynistic. The former would-be rapist of Allie being called upon to rescue her is just one uncomfortable example, but Hedy defaults to the mad=ugly trope for the denouement.
What is striking is the doppelgänger effect in these pivotal scenes three-quarters of the way through. ‘Don’t branch out on your own,’ the narrative cautions. You will be powerless to preserve your self in the big bad city without the protection of men. Unfaithful, predatory or whatever, it’s not for you to decide his fate: karmic justice will be meted out by the gods of scriptwriting.
How easily Hedy achieves doubleness! She is unchallenged and accepted as Allie by all those she meets, as though no one, even those closest to the pair, can tell the difference. As though no one is really looking at women or cares.
And maybe that’s the final message. No one is looking, because, paradoxically, as long as someone looks like you, they don’t need to actually be like you. And if they don’t need to be like you, you don’t need to be like you, or anyone. Identity is not important. In a world where a Susan is ‘desperately’ sought, she could in fact could have been any one of the Jennifer Jason Leighs or Ellen Barkins or Melanie Griffithses stretching in a line down a very long hall of mirrors.
Single white female? Don’t make me laugh.
Okay, Dolly the Sheep wasn’t born until 1996, but cloning was in discussion well before then.
Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.