Absent Presence: Women in American Gangster Narrative

Title: Absent Presence: Women in American Gangster Narrative
Authors: Coccimiglio, Carmela
Date: 2013
Abstract: Absent Presence: Women in American Gangster Narrative investigates women characters in American gangster narratives through the principal roles accorded to them. It argues that women in these texts function as an “absent presence,” by which I mean that they are a convention of the patriarchal gangster landscape and often with little import while at the same time they cultivate resistant strategies from within this backgrounded positioning. Whereas previous scholarly work on gangster texts has identified how women are characterized as stereotypes, this dissertation argues that women characters frequently employ the marginal positions to which they are relegated for empowering effect. This dissertation begins by surveying existing gangster scholarship. There is a preoccupation with male characters in this work, as is the case in most gangster texts themselves. This preoccupation is a result of several factors, such as defining the genre upon criteria that exclude women, promoting a male-centred canon as a result, and making assumptions about audience composition and taste that overlook women’s (and some women characters’) interest in gangster texts. Consequently, although the past decade saw women scholars bringing attention to female characters, research on male characters continues to dominate the field. My project thus fills this gap by not only examining the methods by which women characters navigate the male-dominated underworld but also including female-centred gangster narratives. Subsequent chapters focus on women’s predominant roles as mothers, molls, and wives as well as their infrequent role as female gangsters. The mother chapter demonstrates how the gangster’s mother deploys her effacement as an idealized figure in order to disguise her transgressive machinations (White Heat, The Sopranos). The moll chapter examines how this character’s presence as a reforming influence for the male criminal is integral to the earliest narratives. However, a shift to male relationships in mid- to late-1920s gangster texts transforms the moll’s status to that of a moderator (Underworld, The Great Gatsby). On the other hand, subsequent non-canonical texts feature molls as protagonists and illustrate the potential appeal of the gangster figure to women spectators (Three on a Match). Subsequently, the wife chapter explores texts that show presence is manifested in the wife’s cultivation of a traditional family image, while absence is evident in her exposure of this image as a façade via her husband’s activities (The Godfather, Goodfellas). In the following female gangster chapter, I examine how gender functions to render this rare character a literal absent presence such that she is inconceivable as a subject (Lady Scarface, Lady Gangster). Expanding upon this examination of gender, a final chapter on the African-American female gangster (in Set It Off and The Wire) explores how sexuality, race, and female—as well as “gangsta”—masculinity intersect to create this character’s simultaneous hypervisibility and invisibility. By examining women’s roles that often are overlooked in a male-dominated textual type and academic field, this dissertation draws scholarly attention to the ways that peripheral status can offer a stealthy locus for self-assertion.
URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10393/26217
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