Fallen Women: persistence of an image

A new film about staging La Traviata is using the most old-fashioned and clichéd image in its publicity: that of Violetta on the floor in the classic pose of Fallen Women. Yes, I know the opera and I know the novel it’s based on (La dame aux camélias 1848) and I am capable of appreciating romantic imagery and tradition. But to choose just this pathetic and highly charged pose to advertise a supposedly innovative film seems perverse and uncreative to me.

I’ve written before about the iconography of the Fallen Woman: her position on the ground, sometimes twisted, sometimes being reached out to by a kind person (usually a man). In La Traviata (1853) Violetta is dying of consumption, so she’s also seen in pathetic poses in bed, but using the floor image in publicity photos drives home the idea that her essence is this: morally low, a kept woman, demi-mondaine, courtesan or woman

who’s gone astray (traviata). At the beginning of the story Violetta is a happy-go-lucky good-time girl (though ill). Finding true love with Alfredo she is portrayed as morally redeemed and self-sacrificing.

Possibly the gay lady may come to the ‘bitter end’ some day, but at present, except from the moral point of view, she is not an object for commiseration. She at least has all that she deliberately bargains for—fine clothes, rich food, plenty of money, a carriage to ride in, the slave-like obedience of her ‘inferiors’, and the ful­some adulation of those who deal with her for her worth. Very often (though under the circumstances it is doubtful if from any aspect this is an advantage) she finds a fool with money who is willing to marry her; but whether she is content to accept the decent change, and to abide by it, of course depends on her nature. – James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, Curse IV: Fallen Women, 1869

Whether the staging is brought into the present or not, Violetta always has a scene on the floor to drive home her moral abjection. Why else would she be on the floor? People who fall get back up right away; if they can’t, they are too injured. In Violetta’s case the injury is moral. Of course people also play on the floor, but Violetta is not playing in these scenes.

A limp Violetta can signify death but also helplessness, unconsciousness, submissiveness, despite the fact that she is tremendously strong both before and after redemption through love. In the beginning she is so good at gaiety that everyone around her has fun. Later she remains faithful to Alfredo despite his father’s meanness and sacrifices her own happiness for her lover. I dislike this plot, but there is no doubt Violetta is not a limp rag of a woman.

Observe the similar pose used to portray a woman hypnotised by Charcot: drooping, weak, the passive object of every male student’s gaze. She was diagnosed as suffering from ‘hysteria’, considered to be a sexual dysfunction at the time (1885). If he were not holding her up, she would fall to the ground. I personally wish all these images of traditional passive femininity would stop being used by anyone in the present, especially someone making the film of an opera and story full of other possibilities.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

5 thoughts on “Fallen Women: persistence of an image

  1. Frans van Rossum

    “,,,she is tremendously strong both before and after redemption through love…”
    “I dislike this plot, but there is no doubt Violetta is not a limp rag of a woman.”
    “I personally wish all these images of traditional passive femininity would stop being used by anyone in the present, especially someone making the film of an opera and story full of other possibilities.”

    I fully agree that any cliche emphasis on Violetta as a fallen woman is commercial abuse, probably stemming from not understanding Verdi’s intentions and fabulous musical artistry.

    Since this is opera and the composer is Verdi, you can be sure that he chose the plot and had it adapted in this particular way for a precise reason. His music is never on the level of party chit-chat.
    He criticizes the one-dimensional text with all its cliches with music that pronounces his verdict on social hypocrisy, in particular on the stigma directed at high-class sex workers in general. Whether he supports the profession or not, he certainly understands and respects the sex worker. It’s as if he uses the plot and text to represent society’s going rejection of all Traviatas, and his music to portray in detail the women they truly are.

    At the time Verdi’s opinion was a sociopolitical statement way ahead of its time. Violetta/Traviata is musically portrayed as a young woman far from “fallen”, rather she is richly endowed with the complete range of human qualities that society still does not attribute to a woman of pleasure: dignity, affection, love (the capacity to share oneself), awareness, self-determination, and integrity. The music signifies that she is a fine, sensitive, and, yes, also tremendously strong woman, emotional fully developed but not fragile at all.

    The plot focuses on the final stage of her young life where she is determined to share with some man (any man?) her true self with all those human qualities that were never called for in the duties of her one-dimensional life as an entertainer; before she dies she is determined to see the effects of her true self (love and dignity) come alive in that one man who happens to fall in love with her. She has no longer time to be picky about men and to choose the one she deserves. The prelude already states that this woman who society considers to be a “Traviata” is a woman as worthy of respect and love as any other human being. The entire score never deals with cheap sentimentality. Sentimentality is not in Verdi’s vocabulary and therefor not in Violetta’s. Emotions and intelligence: yes.

    The drama (and Verdi’s statement) is that social hypocrisy and stigma, as well as Alfredo’s lack of intelligence, make this moment of self-fulfillment unattainable for Violetta, even under the pressure of nearing death.

    I think that Verdi’s concise portrayal of the issue (and of the true nature of a Traviata) is much more to the point as a socio-critical message than Dumas’ novel.

    Interestingly: Verdi was quite familiar with this stigma issue. At the time – 1853 – he lived already for years together, unmarried, with a famous soprano (opera singers were socially considered morally suspicious) They would marry in 1859.

    1. Laura Agustín

      Thank you for musicological arguments I felt but could not make myself. So interesting. My own first live Violetta was Joan Sutherland in the early 1960s, and if she did a scene from the floor I do not remember it. Talk about strong women!

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  3. rita

    All Verdi’s women are strong and significant: look at Elizabetta in Don Carlos! Compared with the “packages to be called for” in Wagner’s music dramas, they’re real agents!

  4. Nesdon Booth

    I just saw Lake Bell’s delightful In A World yesterday. (spoiler alert)
    She uses a similar fallen woman image that I found very touching and appropriate. Dani, (played very well by Michaela Watkins, as the sister of the protagonist, Carol, played by the director herself) succumbs to the flirtations of a handsome client. She is married, but her relationship is strained and, flattered by the attention, she eventually allows “just the tip”.
    This fallen woman image occurs at the end of a wordless scene when her husband, (also well-played by Rob Cordrey) plays a tape revealing her infidelity and walks out. Her knees buckle and she slumps to kneeling against a sofa. Her sister discovers her, now fully on the floor, and lays down with her to comfort her. To complete the spoiler, I will add that another tape recording leads, again in a wordless scene, to a heartfelt reconciliation.
    I found her slumping, defeated pose very moving. This posture is a filmic trope for grief, albeit one used mostly, though not exclusively, for women. In this case it revealed for the first time, just how much she realized she had lost, almost as if it surprised her.
    I see how this conflation of grief with chastity, or at least marital purity, places a woman’s sexuality into the center of her identity. Losing her virtue being emotionally equated with losing, say, her child. This is a bit of a reach, but it is also descriptive of the cultural norms that elevate sexual fidelity to the essential element of a nuptial contract and sexual appeal as the primary power and essential identity of women.
    I found this film to take an unusual and insightful approach to these gender dilemmas in both the private and commercial spaces, and would love to hear your comments about it.


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