From Film Quarterly, Fall 2020, Volume 74, Number 1
Hollywood will be the first to tell you that Hollywood is an abuser of women. Whether showcasing the sadism and control of the Big Bad Studio System that led to the human wreckage of Judy (Rupert Goold, 2019) or the pre-#MeToo casting-couch antics of Bombshell (Jay Roach, 2019), the ever-inventive industry has been ingenious in learning how to exploit even its sins. As these superficial “demystifications” of the industry’s past abuses perform showy and lucrative mea culpas, they facilitate protracted displays of the industry’s time-honored specialty: the humiliation of its female stars. Judy is belittled once again by Louis B. Mayer, this time with the audience as witness, in Judy; in Bombshell, the camera mimics the point of view of Fox president Roger Ailes as he harasses a female staffer and forces her to raise her skirt until he (and the audience) can see her underwear.
These films raise a question: Is there any cinematic way to convey the humiliation of female stardom without restaging and reperpetrating it? Is there any value in doing so? I think one of Sean Young’s videos, posted to her YouTube Channel, offers one answer.
Remember Sean Young? Twenty-two years old when she played Rachael in the original Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), Young, a white woman, was tall, brunette, and slender with delicate, patrician looks; she was a staple of the 1980s–1990s multiplex scene. As an A-list actor, she starred in big-budget action-fantasy films such as Dune (David Lynch, 1984); appeared in comedies like Stripes (Ivan Reitman, 1981), Young Doctors in Love (Gary Marshall, 1982), and Cousins (Joel Schumacher, 1989); and specialized in steamy neo-noir thrillers like the trio of No Way Out (Roger Donaldson, 1987), Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987), and A Kiss before Dying (James Dearden, 1991). But Young hasn’t made a big-budget film since she was Jim Carrey’s “evil” boss in Ace Ventura, Pet Detective (Tom Shadyac, 1994).
In the mid-1980s, Young was labeled “crazy” and “difficult” after a series of bizarre events. James Woods sued her for “stalking” him and leaving a voodoo doll on his doorstep. Then she made a misguided attempt to win the role of Catwoman in Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992) by storming the Warner Bros. lot in a Catwoman costume. When Tim Burton refused to see her, she wore her outfit on to The Joan Rivers Show (1989–93).1
Other events that may have influenced Young’s exile from Hollywood seem less “bizarre” in hindsight: Young was outspoken at the time about the sexual harassment she received from powerful men. She claimed that Harvey Weinstein exposed himself to her when she starred in the thriller Love Crimes (Lizzie Borden, 1992) for Miramax. Recently, Young has revealed that, after she rebuffed Weinstein, she never worked for Miramax again.2 Then there’s Warren Beatty. Originally cast as Tess Trueheart in Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty, 1990), Young claims she was fired after a week of filming because she refused Beatty’s sexual advances.3
Since then, Young has never regained her A-list status, working steadily only in lower-budget films and on television. Her decline has been punctuated by a series of humiliating incidents that are familiar to celebrity watchers: ejection from a Vanity Fair Oscar party after slapping a security guard, alleged laptop theft, even a stint on Celebrity Rehab.4
Another side of Young’s outrageousness, though, was her exhilarating, hilarious honesty. In some of her 1980s appearances on Late Night with David Letterman (1982–93), she bounces around like an unfettered id and does crazy things like showing up in a tap-dancing outfit that she made herself. Yet she and Letterman have good rapport, her yammering good-naturedly, if alarmingly, unfiltered. And Young says things that seem revolutionary in retrospect, like defending her unshaven armpits or decrying the pay gap between men and women in Hollywood. (When Letterman chides her for complaining about money, she retorts, “How much do you make, Dave?”) In 2008, she was still at it, drunkenly yelling, “Get on with it!” at Julien Schnabel during his speech at the Directors Guild Awards before being ejected from the proceedings.5
Sean Young is now sixty years old. In Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017), the sequel to Blade Runner, Harrison Ford returns in his original role as Deckard, but Young as Rachael is absent from the film except as a CGI rendering of her younger self. According to Blade Runner 2049, Rachael died years ago, but has been resurrected––conveniently, as her twenty-two-year-old self––by the villain (Jared Leto). When “Rachael” reappears, she is programmed to tempt and demoralize the almost-beaten Deckard, whom Leto is trying to manipulate.
The sinister nature of the sequel is augmented by a not-altogether-accurate re-creation of Young, which loses its footing and slides into the uncanny valley. This time, Rachael is still white, her eyes are familiarly brown and pliant, but the cheeks are too filled in, the lips are off, and the pathos of expression is reduced to a weird, supplicating, geisha-like countenance. This is not Sean Young’s Rachael, even though the film is doing everything within its power to resurrect her—except, of course, to hire Sean Young. When the ploy fails and Deckard (like the audience) refuses to go along, Leto and his henchwomen shoot “Rachael” in the head.
Blasting a hole in her head, then sentimentalizing the wound: one could almost be forgiven for taking Blade Runner 2049 as a metacommentary on Hollywood’s brutalization of women. But it would assign too much credit to call the film a “metacommentary.” It would be more accurate to say that Sean Young––not Rachael––is the structuring absence of this film. The creative team of the new film surely knew Young’s history in Hollywood. Perhaps her reputation for being “difficult” is one reason she was not invited into the Blade Runner “reboot,” but more likely her absence is due to a more fundamental fact: women of a certain age are still barely imaginable on-screen in Hollywood—even less so in this particular film.6
Is it any wonder that Sean Young believes in conspiracy theories? A visit to her once-public Facebook page (which is now set to private and uses her original name, Mary S. Young) reveals that Young is a Trump supporter, moved by his promises to “drain the swamp” and purge the US government of the powerful, unseen interests that she believes operate behind the scenes to control the country. She posts YouTube videos about the Illuminati and in favor of anti-vaxxers.
With no wish to defend Young’s political views, I would note that her politics seem grounded in a belief in the concealed machinations of an exploitative world order. In 2003, Eve Sedgwick took up Paul Ricoeur’s ideas about the “hermeneutics of suspicion” that have flourished since the advent of thinkers such as Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, carefully explaining that the paranoiac view defines the primary affective relationship of modern political thought on both the Right and the Left.7 A few years later, Wayne Koestenbaum would write presciently that “[t]he profession of ‘star’ demands passage through shame.”8
The evolution of Young’s views is notable for the extent to which her star image was saturated in a shame that springs, in her mind, from conspiracy. Intriguingly, the avoidance of humiliation is one of the definitions of paranoia: the paranoiac anticipates shame and tries to head it off.9 Young’s video work is more complex than her current politics, for it demonstrates a reparative rather than a paranoid position. Sedgwick (following Melanie Klein) defines the reparative position as the converse of the paranoid one, and “from which it is possible to use one’s own resources to assemble or ‘repair’ the murderous part-objects into something like a whole…. [T]he more satisfying object is available both to be identified with and to offer one nourishment and comfort in turn.”10
Young’s YouTube channel is named msyPARIAH (even the title proclaims her paranoiac identity). Along with home movies and dispatches from various film sets (including amazing behind-the-scenes footage from David Lynch’s Dune), the channel includes Sean Young’s own video, CATWOMAN (2011), commemorating her most famous moment of humiliation.11 It consists of Young’s home-video footage shot backstage at The Joan Rivers Show in 1991, shaky second-hand captures of the Joan Rivers broadcast itself, and additional shots of Young on the Warner Bros. lot, presumably after Tim Burton refused to meet with her.
The Catwoman debacle was particularly humiliating because Young was still an A-list star at the time, young and beautiful. It seems somehow “beneath” her to have stooped to the level of this stunt. What is most interesting is the way that the video has been edited together by Young herself, twenty years later, in a loose and impressionistic style. In the Joan Rivers segments, Young defends herself against Hollywood’s manipulations and denigrations: “[T]hey try to make you feel like you can’t do anything else [than be a star],” she complains, as Rivers warns her: “You talk too much. You’ve gotta learn not to be so damn honest.”
As Young takes a lonely walk down the corridors of the Joan Rivers set, a text appears on screen: “We are all here to heal this mess.” With a New Age soundtrack by Enigma, the video then takes a different turn. Looking kooky and vulnerable, Young, dressed as Catwoman, appears on a sun-dappled New York City sidewalk. The second and final text appears: “[L]et’s start by loving everything everywhere all the time.” The video ends with a sequence of Young as Catwoman. Alone in a dressing room, she removes her false eyelashes, then does her makeup in a limousine, and, at last, removes her makeup on a private plane flying away from Los Angeles and Burton’s rejection, disappointed, confronting the camera with a final, disgruntled gaze.
“Humiliation shoves the inside outside, and the outside inside, by dragging forward into the public eye a private knot of suffering, vulnerability, desire, and corporeality,” writes Koestenbaum.12 The aging female star has a privileged relationship to this vulnerability and suffering, particularly in terms of her corporeality. How can it be a great accomplishment to parade one’s humiliation, masochistically, for all to see? Hasn’t Hollywood done that already? Well, yes and no.
Young’s gesture in harnessing YouTube, a platform well known for hosting conspiracy videos as well as evidence of stars behaving badly (including many moments of Young’s own humiliations), speaks back to conspiracy, in a way. Importantly, the video acknowledges Young’s desire for stardom, her will to power. After all, she undertook the Catwoman pageant in the first place because she was desperate for the blockbuster role.
Her honesty inspires confidence: Young continues in this astoundingly honest vein when she expresses the utter failure of her venture. Most has-been stars would assemble a montage of their golden moments, a picture of their promising youth. Not Young: CATWOMAN dwells on what is, in retrospect, the beginning of the end of her career. In its amateur backstage footage of television-studio green rooms, grainy secondhand footage of her Joan Rivers Show appearance, poorly lit frames, backs of heads, and one strange, lingering Lynchian shot of a man’s face as he smiles in slow motion and stands by the door of the plane that will take her away from this humiliation, Young conveys her own state of mind as her tragedy unfolds, as much as the evil deeds of her torturers. These moments are heightened by the ominous music behind the images and by the knowledge that the passage of time confers: Sean Young never did “come back.”
In what is less a punishing act of abjection than a cinematic need to order and assemble one’s experiences, I see something fundamentally hopeful. As Sedgwick writes, “Hope, often a fracturing, even a traumatic thing to experience, is among the energies by which the reparatively positioned reader tries to organize the fragments and part-objects she encounters or creates…. [The] fear, a realistic one, is that the culture surrounding it is inadequate or inimical to its nurture.”13 Like Young’s homemade Catwoman costume, her video itself is a strategy, a way to undo the dehumanization wrought by Hollywood by stitching together an affective portrait of a star in the act of losing fame and adoration.
CATWOMAN is hopeful precisely because it refuses the dynamics of “winning” in favor of honesty and fits none of the established narratives of “overcoming.” Her video refuses the win that could have been accomplished by ending with footage of a redeemed star or recent triumph, even a project promising the real story behind the messy headlines, with an Oscar-worthy role for some new leading actress.
Neoliberal culture has no idea what to do with losers or has-beens who don’t present themselves as saved, reformed, or at least rehabbed. As Robin James writes, “Neoliberal melancholia is the inability to adapt to crises and transform them into healthy, social opportunities.”14 Sean Young isn’t making meaning for any mythical audience. She isn’t “healed,” or triumphant, nor is she making anyone feel that society has progressed into a less sexist, less exploitative version of itself. No, Young has chosen instead to restage her greatest humiliation and end with an unadorned and confrontational gaze back at the tabloid camera that had defined her life.
CATWOMAN is neither nihilistic nor masochistic; quite the contrary, her intention is clearly spelled out with her on-screen texts. Young counters Hollywood’s obliteration of her career and the larger conspiracy against her by making meaning, not for viewers so much as for herself. She has etched a self-portrait in rough montage that may or may not outlast her feature-film CGI doppelganger. Through an act of vulnerability and humiliation––by turning the inside out––Sean Young has not beaten Hollywood at its own game (which is to conceal, to turn “losing” into winning) but is instead unblinkingly honest about what it means to lose.
Conspiracy theorists and #MeToo practices alike invest in the power of demystification with an implied triumph at the end. If only all the swamps were drained and all the victims and abusers confessed, then America would be greater and less sexist, wouldn’t it? After first wondering whether there was any value in having acts of humiliation performed by women, I have ended by wondering instead, “Can this process build a better world?” It seems doubtful that an exploitative industry can be rehabilitated by confession. If hope, justice, and redemption lie in the reparative rather than the paranoid gesture, then they will have to be imagined, stitched, and assembled from the fragments of a culture that does not currently support any of it. As for CATWOMAN, it remains to be seen whether an act of melancholic lingering, however brave, can manage to “heal this mess” and prepare the ground for something new.
1. Melina Gerosa, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Sean Young,” Entertainment Weekly, January 1, 1992, updated January 30, 2007, https://ew.com/article/2007/01/30/agony-and-ecstasy-sean-young/.
2. Andrea Mandell, “Harvey Weinstein: Sean Young, New Accusers Speak to ‘Frontline,’” USA Today, March 2, 2018, http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/tv/2018/03/02/harvey-weinstein-sean-young-new-accusers-speak-frontline/385309002/.
3. Shyam Dodge, “Blade Runner Star Sean Young Claims Barbra Streisand Shamed Her for Going Public with Warren Beatty Sexual Harassment Allegations … and Reveals Harvey Weinstein Exposed His Genitals to Her,” Daily Mail, October 19, 2017, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-4999372/Sean-Young-says-Barbra-Streisand-shamed-sex-harassment.html.
4. See Campbell Robertson, “Crash,” New York Times, March 7, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/07/nyregion/crash.html; and Verena Dobnik, “Sean Young under Investigation for Alleged Laptop Theft,” Associated Press, August 13, 2018, https://apnews.com/c29962932bc44c7d95657180ab5beef9/Sean-Young-under-investigation-for-alleged-laptop-theft.
5. S. T. VanAirsdale, “The Oscars: Night of the Replicant,” Vanity Fair, January 28, 2008, http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2008/01/the-oscars-nigh.
6. Blade Runner 2049 is shockingly retrograde in its treatment of female characters: the virtual “girlfriend” of the Ryan Gosling character lacks both interiority and any reason for being, apart from the need to look out for Ryan Gosling; the femme replicant villain has little motivation for any of her actions and is killed protractedly; and the imposing, authoritative Robin Wright must also die savagely––and lengthily––in full visual detail.
7. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is about You,” chap. 4 in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).
8. Wayne Koestenbaum, Humiliation (New York: Picador, 2011), 115.
9. Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” 133.
10. Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” 128.
11. Mary Sean Young, “CATWOMAN,” posted by msyPARIAH, YouTube, August 25, 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyUx73RJ51o.
12. Koestenbaum, Humiliation, 110.
13. Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” 146, 149.
14. Robin James, “Melancholic Damage,” New Inquiry, May 30, 2013, https://thenewinquiry.com/melancholic-damage/.
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