Interview with Professor Suzanne Bouclin, Upcoming LAC Speaker

Bouclin Poster

On February 10th 2016, Professor Suzanne Bouclin of the University of Ottawa will be providing the latest Law.Arts. Culture talk at Osgoode Hall Law School (the announcement post can be found here). In advance of her presentation, we interviewed Prof. Bouclin about her scholarship and methodology.

SR: How do you think the intersection between law and art can reveal aspects of society, groups, or individuals that aren’t otherwise perhaps apparent? 

SB: Popular wisdom says that law is an orderly, objective and cohesive system of rules backed by state sanctions, whereas art, and for my purposes, film is fluid, subjective, consumer-driven form of entertainment that can be subject to law’s regulation (in the form of intellectual property for instance). Another way to think about the relationship between law and film is that they are both socio-cultural processes. Each has its own discursive practices, ideologies, and modes of representation that reflect and refract values and beliefs about issues like: What is community? How do I relate to the other? Who decides what is fair? This latter view takes films seriously as powerful artistic media deeply implicated in our expectations about law and justice. It assumes that moving images and sounds engage us viscerally and therefore differently than text or spoken words and, in that unique register, they can create and / or sustain popular assumptions about law. Thinking about the relationship between law and film in this way calls into question what one considers as legal source or legal knowledge. It puts into sharp relief how law is a meaning-making institution through which we imagine and tell stories about our social world. It destabilizes the often assumed boundaries between ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ ways of knowing.

SR: The abstract for the Law.Arts.Culture talk you will deliver at Osgoode reveals that you will be speaking about Women in Prison movies. What drew you to this particular genre of film and how has this helped shape your scholarship?

SB: My primary focus right now is genre as rule-governed expectations and behaviour, or genre as law. If generic conventions are laws like any other, they are subject to appeals, debates, and new iterations. Genre theory can consequently invite a re-examination of what may at first seem like a static and immutable body of rules. I am exploring genre and genre-making through a body of films which may be called “Women in Prison” (WIP) movies.

I argue that these films can be used to demonstrate how film is a powerful medium for exploring feminist concerns about law and legal institutions. ‘Women in Prison’ movies emerge as popular romantic melodramas and social reform flicks in the early 1930s. In these films, the women’s prison is a space where issues around gender domination – especially the feminization of poverty, the exploitation of women’s work, physical and sexual violence against women – are manifest. ‘Women in Prison’ movies were reconfigured and recast in the 1970s as ‘girls behind bars’ movies geared primarily towards young heterosexual men. While the later instantiation sexualizes punitive cruelty directed at women in ways that may offend feminist viewers, they are nevertheless distinguishable from movies in which the prison is incidental to the plot except insofar as it is the setting of sado/masochist fantasies and desires. While ‘exploitative’ because they feature female nudity in ways that cater primarily to heterosexual male fantasies, I argue that at least one WIPs of the 1970s presents an ‘oppositional gaze’ that recognizes the genres parodic qualities, overt manipulation of sexist stereotypes and leftist politics with a recognition of the possibility – for queer women for instance – of cinematic pleasure and identification.

My presentation is the foundation of one chapter in a book I am currently completing. In it, I hold up five WIP films that compel viewers to question the nature of the prison institution and its function within broader hegemonic legal structures based on gender, race, class, and other forms of domination that both physically and metaphorically circumscribe women’s lives. As one of the few genres that feature almost entirely female casts, with plots that revolve around women’s criminalization, WIP movies are a venue for articulating, interrogating, and re-articulating how women negotiate law.

Other themes that emerge through the metaphor of the prison include the nature of motherhood and domesticity, feminist concerns about sexual assault and sexual domination, (hetero)sexual anxieties about feminist emancipation, resistance in the face of injustice, allegorical condemnation of conservative norms that restrict women’s mobility, feminist critiques of repressive institutions, intersectionality and hierarchies among women, the eroticization of female vengeance, and the revolutionary potential of women’s solidarity across symbolic boundaries of race, class, and sexual orientation etc.

SR: What films on women in prison would you recommend for a first-time viewer interested in this area/field?

SB: Caged (1950) is in my view, not only the most intelligent and provocative WIP film ever made, it is also one of the few Film Noir at the time in which the female character is the protagonist and not reduced to a femme fatale. Caged was nominated for three Academy Awards: best actress (Elenor Parker), best supporting actress (Hope Emerson), and best original screenplay (Virginia Kellogg). Director John Cromwell also did Ann Vickers (which I will be discussing) and was known for creating space for his female stars to transcend typecasting (think about Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage). He was banned from Hollywood by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

I suggest that anyone who is into Orange is the New Black watch Caged then go back to the first ever episode of ONB to see how many of the generic conventions which were established in the film (the ‘shower’ scene and the sadistic guard) are directly referenced in the show. In my book, I explore five films from five different genres (including Caged of course) that I highly recommend to anyone interested in law and film but especially for anyone who is interested in the still under-read genre of WIP movies. So to be continued. But you can get a sample of various expressions of the genre if you watch: Ladies They Talk About (1933), Caged (1950) and ONB (Netflix) in that order.

There are also a number of rich and thought-provoking documentaries about women’s criminalization and women’s incarceration that I would recommend, including Angela Davis: Portrait of a Revolutionary (1972) and P4W: Prison for Women (1981) but my focus remains on fictional representations which are not necessarily intended to provide a realistic image of prison life and may not, as these documentaries do, directly confront issues of colonialism, systemic racism and the overrepresentation of racialized women in prisons. Though, I am of the view that they do challenge these structures of power through allusion, metaphor, and mise-en-scene.

SR: Could you tell us a bit about your research trajectory—how did you come to draw on the critical methodologies of law-and-literature and law-and-film studies?

SB: I have always been passionate about film. In University I took as many film studies electives as I could and in law school I had the great chance to take Professor Rebecca Johnson’s first ever law-and-film course while she was still at the University of New Brunswick. Until that moment, I had only thought of the law-film relation as either one of regulation (intellectual property) or of representation (courtroom dramas). Professor Johnson destabilized my understanding of what law was and had us read Orit Kamir’s work and the organizing frame for the class was cinematic judgement: of women, by women, through the gaze. I still remember conversations we had in that class. It was amazing.

Since then, I have continued to study film and film-making. I lived in Winnipeg for a while and took classes with Professors George Toles and Brenda Austin-Smith and joined a film-making collective. Professor Ann McGillivray, my LLM supervisor, is an internationally respected law-and-literature scholar and she has had a profound impact on my thinking about interdisciplinarity. During my LLM, I developed the genre theory that now informs my book. Ann is also part of the reason why I worked with the late and dearly missed Rod Macdonald for my PhD. She felt that I would refine my thinking about law through his lens of critical legal pluralism. For my PhD, I developed what I call ambidextrous legal methodology, using both my ‘law brain’ and my ‘film brain’ at the same time. I deployed film studies’ lexicon and concepts to imagine law cinematically and I advanced a critical legal pluralist hypothesis to imagine film as law. My starting premise was that making movies can be a way of constituting legal knowledge. Part of my doctoral project was the production of a non-linear film, using interactive, collaborative and web-based technology. When I pitched the idea of making a film for my PhD to Rod Macdonald, he was extremely supportive but told me I could only do it if I were fully committed to making a stand-alone creative work and that the written expression of my research not ‘explain’ the cinematic expression.

SR: Can you tell us a little bit about your Early Researcher Award project?

SB: Last year, I was awarded an Early Researcher Award from the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation for a five-year project entitled “Addressing the Access to Justice Crisis for Homeless People: The Potential for New Communications Technologies.”

I am very excited about this new project in which I combine two of my research interests and passions, law-and-film obviously, and access to justice for marginalized groups (homeless and street-involved people in particular). Over five years I will collect empirical data taken from the standpoint of homeless and street-involved people, specifically through interviews with the homeless and through digital storytelling they will create. The narratives I will be exploring will be around their legal needs as they articulate them. My research starts from my direct knowledge that homeless people have insufficient access to justice. I started a free mobile legal service to help address some of street-involved people’s access to justice needs and now I want to explore whether technology can be harnessed to further their access to justice. There is so much buzz around ‘technology’ and ‘access to justice’ right now but I really don’t know whether any of that work resonates with street-involved and homeless people. I want to explore whether new communications technologies can actually facilitate new modes of legal subjectivities for street-involved people (perhaps as judging subjects or as resistant legal actors) or whether the shift towards cyberjustice is just another means by which those who already hold social power reaffirm their authority and will consequently have little positive impact for our most marginalized citizens.

I am optimist about the research because rather than assuming that new media technologies will be a tool for accessing lawyers or formal legal institutions, I am using new media technologies to grapple with the notion of access to justice. A big component of the project is working in collaboration with filmmakers and street-involved people to produce digital stories about homeless people’s legal experiences, expectations and needs. Another will be examining ways that social networking sites can increase street-involved people’s engagement with the law as active agents exercising their rights, rather than as passive people who experience legal regulation on a daily basis.

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