Jane Campions 'The Piano'

An Analysis of Gender Roles, Relationships and Communication

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2005
17 Seiten, Note: 1,0



1 Introduction

2 The Movie’s Presentation of Gender Ideology and Sexuality

3 Ada – A Victorian Woman in A Male Dominated World

4 Ada and her Relationships to the Other Characters
4.1 Ada and Flora – A Symbiosis
4.2 Ada and Stewart
4.3 Ada and Baines

5 The Maoris
5.1 The roles of Maori and Victorian women
5.2 Presentation of the Maoris in The Piano
5.3 Critique on the Presentation of the Maoris

6 The Ending of The Piano

7 Conclusion


1 Introduction

Watching Jane Campion’s The Piano, the spectator is taken on an anthropological excursion to New Zealand in the middle of the 19th century. So the movie is set in a Victorian temporal context, and we become witnesses of the arrival of the first European settlers, mostly from England and Scotland. Ada, the protagonist, is an obviously disturbed woman since she has stopped talking at the age of six and even she herself doesn’t know why. The spectator sees him- or herself fascinated about Ada’s mysterious and unusual character as much as about her extraordinarily strong will. Without her consent, she has been married to Stewart, a colonizer living in New Zealand, and now she has to leave Scotland and travel to the unknown country. The movie begins when she and her daughter Flora arrive at New Zealand’s shore.

The Piano features a fair amount of aspects worth to be analyzed. What appears to be the movie’s central role and all-determining, however, is the presentation of gender roles and the wide range of issues that are related to it. Therefore, this paper is going to draw attention to how The Piano demonstrates its characters’ gender identity, sexuality and ways of communicating. For this purpose, it will be important to analyze how the movie reflects the 19th century definition of gender and sexuality and how it has been influenced by the invention of the art of photography, which has often been discussed in psychoanalytic theory. This view on gender roles self-evidently has a substantial effect on Ada’s relationships towards her daughter Flora and towards Stewart and Baines, the men who are both courting her, which will also be examined. What is equally significant for the understanding of sexual identity during that time, however, is the comparison of the European settlers with the Maori people. Throughout the movie, the Maoris serve as a striking antithesis to the colonizers and hence highlight the Europeans’ specific attitudes and behavior. Still, it is not acceptable to simply tolerate the presentation of the Maoris, but it will be an essential part of the paper to profoundly criticize the one-sided view on them.

2 The Movie’s Presentation of Gender Ideology and Sexuality

In the middle of the 19th century, the period during which the movie is set, the art of photography was invented. This development in technology caused a new definition of gender identity and sexuality because people developed a new way of looking at persons, especially at women, eternalized on the pictures. This new “technical look” made the female body a creation of the mechanical male look, the object of male desire.[1]

In psychoanalytic theory, which goes back to Freud’s and Lacan’s theories and helped to develop a feminist film theory,[2] it is said that the just brought-up term of the “technical look” defines sexuality and gender identity. This look, which is called scopophilia, refers to the pleasure that is gained from looking. Because of the mass media that is dominated by a male elite, scopophilia is usually a male pleasure and certainly linked to sexual attraction. During the last century there have been several attempts of females to avoid this look, which they consider as penetrating, revealing, and threatening – a look that creates an artificial identity of the looked-at object. In order to deny their body to the gaze of the looking subject, to regain their power over their own body, many women have shown anorexic behavior. Here we can find a parallel to the movie, in which Ada’s willing muteness might stand for the willing refusal of ingesting food.[3]

The binary opposition ‘looking subject – looked-at object’ recurs over and over again in the movie. When Ada and Stewart are posing for their wedding picture, the spectator witnesses a weird scenery. “If they can’t have a common ceremony, they at least have the photographe”, is the justification of the rather provisional arrangement. The wedding dress is a backless one which is used and reused as a photographic prop. Then we see Stewart looking through the camera, his staring eye in close-up. Again he merely finds a picture of Ada, which is the only thing he had before he agreed to their marriage. The scene and its weirdness draws a parallel to the Maoris’ situation when the first European settlers came to New Zealand and took photos of the Maoris dressed in European clothing.[4] According to Christiane Peitz, an author and journalist, it is not the picture itself that is most important, but what is seen by the observer.[5] At the Christmas Party, the Englishmen perform the Bluebeard Shadow Play.

When Bluebeard strikes out with an axe to kill his wives and therewith becomes the myth of male violence in the movie, the Maoris run onto the stage believing in the truth of the scene.[6]

Allison Yanos, a graduate from Notre Dame University, Indiana, describes the movie’s presentation of gender and sexuality as Foucauldian, i.e. it is based on theories by Michel Foucault, a French philosopher. According to these, the “oppressor/oppressed model” which associates men with possessing and exerting power over women “proved inadequate to the social and historical complexities of the situations of men and women”. The movie antagonizes the sort of gender ideology that considers the female sex as “the Other” or “the Unessential” in opposition to the male sex as “the Self” or “the Essential”. However, since the movie is set during Victorian times when the duality oppressor/oppressed shaped the society and their ideologies, some characters of The Piano might still see themselves only in terms of these dualities.[7]

3 Ada – A Victorian Woman in A Male Dominated World

With her tight-fitting tops, her waist-clinching dresses which emphasize both her sexuality and her Victorian prudishness, Ada is defined through her clothes and clearly represents Western femininity. Her underware, which can only be seen after an enormous effort of undressing, becomes an object of fascination and fetishisation for Baines, who during the movie slowly “maneuvers” his way through her layers of clothing and her Victorian education.[8]

When Ada was six years old she decided to stop talking and she never infringed her vow. Nobody knows the reason of her muteness, not even she herself. On the one hand, this willing muteness can be understood as a sign of passivity and weakness, of giving up in a male dominated world in which expressing her feelings and thoughts is useless. On the other hand, however, it might symbolize a type of resistance to the male assumption that women lack self-sovereignity.[9] Again it is important to highlight the parallel to the willing denial of food. As the audience learns right in the beginning of the movie, Ada’s father arranged her marriage with Stewart, and this without her consent. Obviously, he is a very strict and dominant father who acts according to established patriarchal structures and usually decides what is best for his daughter. As Ada had always been the complementary “Other” to her father as the “Self”, she has now turned into Stewart’s complement. The piercing male gaze which turns Ada into a helpless object has always accompanied her, and her only protest against it is to stop talking – a decision that she had come to by herself and which cannot be taken away from her.

4 Ada and her Relationships to the Other Characters

4.1 Ada and Flora – A Symbiosis

Considering the strong relationship between Ada and her daughter Flora, we can detect some kind of a symbiosis between the two. While Ada functions as Flora’s idol and only confidante in a rough and foreign world, Flora acts as Ada’s voice, as a verbal mediator between Ada and the other characters. This intimate connection is only interrupted by the somehow violent interference of Stewart and Baines.[10]

Flora’s character shows an inherent ambivalence. While Jill Nelmes describes her as a replica of her mother, feisty and determined.[11] Alan A. Stone - Touroff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry at Harvard University – points out her precociousness and her uncontrolled exuberance that is to him a “perfect complement to the silent fury of her mother who expresses her passions only through her beloved piano”.[12] Carmel Bird also considers Flora’s character rather as a contrasting element to Ada: to her, Ada is lacking the joy for living acted out by singing, and dancing and running, which is all embodied in Flora, the complementary part of Ada. However, Flora still cannot overcome the influence of her mother’s restraints and confines by the male world and therefore gets restrained herself.[13] Her betrayal of Ada, when giving the piano key with the love message intended for Baines to Stewart, can be interpreted as an attempt to break down the barriers set up by her mother. This act of defection will determine Ada’s fate and turns Flora from the good into the evil spirit.


[1] cf. Christina v. Braun, “’Ceci n'est pas une femme’ Blick und Berührung.“Nach dem Film (October 2001). < http://www.nachdemfilm.de/no3/bra02dts.html>.

[2] cf. Jill Nelmes, “Representation of Gender and Sexuality.” An Introduction to Film Studies (London: Routledge, 1996): 230.

[3] cf. Christina v. Braun.

[4] cf. Christiane Peitz, Marylins Starke Schwestern – Frauenbilder im Gegenwartskino (Hamburg: Ingrid Klein Verlag GmbH, 1995): 142.

[5] ibid.: 142.

[6] ibid.: 144.

[7] cf. Allison Yanos, "The Piano as a Point of Resistance."Fresh Writing (May 9, 2001). <http://www.nd.edu/~frswrite/issues/2001-2002/Yanos.shtml>.

[8] cf. Jill Nelmes, “Representation of Gender and Sexuality.” An Introduction to Film Studies (London: Routledge, 1999, 2nd ed.): 300.

[9] cf. Allison Yanos.

[10] cf. Jill Nelmes (1999): 303.

[11] ibid.: 300.

[12] Alan A. Stone, “The Piano.” Boston Review – A Political and Literary Forum (1994). <http://bostonreview.net/BR19.1/stone.html>.

[13] cf. Carmel Bird, “The Piano - An essay on Jane Campion's film” (1996).

Ende der Leseprobe aus 17 Seiten


Jane Campions 'The Piano'
An Analysis of Gender Roles, Relationships and Communication
Technische Universität Dresden  (Institut für Anglistik / Amerikanistik)
Outstanding Film Directors
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
490 KB
Jane, Campions, Piano, Analysis, Gender, Roles, Relationships, Communication
Arbeit zitieren
Karoline Gruber (Autor), 2005, Jane Campions 'The Piano', München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/129648


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