Law.Arts.Culture Talk on February 10, 2016 by Suzanne Bouclin – Reforming Prisons, Reforming Women: Ann Vickers and Abortion Law

Bouclin Poster

University of Ottawa Professor Suzanne Bouclin is providing the latest Law.Arts.Culture lecture on February 10th, 2016 between 12:30 and 2:00pm entitled Reforming Prisons, Reforming Women: Ann Vickers and Abortion Law. Bouclin is one of Canada’s leading experts on women’s legal issues and feminist jurisprudence, as well as one of the country’s most engaging intellectuals focusing on subjects ranging from pop culture to poverty; from homelessness issues to law and film. To attend, you can RSVP at, using the event code BOUCLIN. To abstract for the talk is as follows:

Women in Prison (WIP) movies are a relatively obscure and often under-read body of films. The central theme of this talk is that many of these films provoke us to reconsider whether prisons for women should exist at all. I have argued elsewhere that WIP movies are a site of women’s legal subjectivity and agency and I am currently refining a theory of WIP movies’ generic conventions to further that assertion. The aim of my work is not to establish whether WIP films reveal anything about the actual conditions of incarcerated women. These films vary in their cultural verisimilitude. And while a particular film may hold considerable truth-value, it is often more fictionalized and mediated version of the prison experience that hold the most critical potential.

Thus I suggest an iconological standpoint in relation to WIP movies that takes seriously their potential to leave us feeling unsettled about prisons, about the women who are warehoused in them, and about the crimes with which these women have been accused. I have generated a (non-linear and non-essentialist) taxonomy of WIP films that emerge during three moments in feminist theorizing and activism that can be loosely arranged as the first, second, and third waves. I conclude that this body of films – this genre – is a shifting and complex feminist jurisprudence. Individual films in inter-textual relationship with a broader body of films present women who negotiate formal and informal legal structures that frame and limit their autonomy and agency. Nevertheless, they also present women who refuse to accept ‘law’ that is externally imposed upon them or the legitimacy of the legal actors that enforce it – whether wardens, child and welfare services, medical practitioners.

I examine the dialogical relationship between these representations of women in prison and the manner in which formalized legal institutions and official legal agents label particular women ‘criminals.’ Without doubt, some WIP movies reproduce the gendered operations and assumptions of the criminal law; yet, some do so while also challenging its institutions and apparatuses of power. Moreover, some exemplary WIPs (I highlight one in this talk) offer ways to imagine the violence of state / legal practices and the inhumanity of total institutions to suggest broader gender, race, and class injustices that render particular women more vulnerable to criminalization and incarceration.

The centerpiece of my discussion is the film Ann Vickers. Drawing on the critical methodology of law-and-literature and law-and-film studies, I will engages in a literary and legal analysis of the novel and the film Ann Vickers (1930) and especially how the WIP movies’ generic law gets mapped on to the canonical (written) law. I focus on two modes and sites of law: the formal prohibition of abortion and the informal regulation of film’s content under the Production Code during a period of lax regulation. I will explore substantive legal questions around women’s suffrage and access to safe abortion. I will also grapple with jurisprudential questions around the nature of authority, inter-textual dialogue and precedent that emerge when engaging in inter-textual dialogue (here of a novel and its cinematic representation).

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