Women and Murder in the. Televirtuality Film
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Communication media dominate contemporary American life and have increasingly been recognized as constituting the most central issue in Western thought and culture. The power and influence of this media world have also been reflected in cinema, including an entire cycle of Hollywood products released between 1995 and 2000, which I have dubbed the “televirtuality film” (Boozer 2002). In the course of this discussion, I provide the derivation and meaning of this term and briefly apply it to the initial televirtual cycle, which includes To Die For, Wag the Dog, Strange Days, The Matrix, Edtv, Pleas- antville, The Truman Show, and Nurse Betty. The sheer number and quality of these eight original movies within a brief six-year period shows an elevated popular awareness of the media’s impact. But my emphasis in this discussion is on how the condition of televirtuality, as it is reflected in these films, appears to alter traditional notions of basic identity and gender construction, particularly for women, and specifically in the two films that feature female protagonists. The leading women in To Die For and Nurse Betty find themselves in troubling engagements with television and the televirtual, much as do the male protagonists in the six other films in this group. But the women in these two films attempt to use rather than to challenge its power over them.
Before proceeding to elaborate upon these two films, it is necessary to define televirtuality as it relates to basic identity construction. Given today’s media-saturated environment, several theorists have called for a reconceptualization of the individual subject position. In Michel Foucault’s discursive approach, individual identity is not potentially rooted in some universalist moral core a la Plato; instead, it remains open-ended but culturally contingent (Rorty 1992,332). Social theorist Paul du Gay observes, more specifically, how the radical increase in socialization by commercial media spawns an entirely outwardly directed and decentred position that mocks any notion of personal autonomy. For Du Gay (1997,289), contemporary subjectivity is “not an essen – tialist but a strategic and positioned one,” an identity increasingly formed “extrinsically” by the sovereignty of media influences. Reflexive identity awareness was obviously increased in modernity through the representational tools of photography, radio, motion picture, and, eventually, television. But mechanical and electronic representation also placed the proverbial machine in the garden and living room, and the electronic image into the subconscious. In other words, the innocent notion of identity residing in the natural sensory body has been compromised by the invasive power of media images: direct sensory interaction gives way to the audio-visually extended body of electronic data immersion.
This technologically extended being no longer has the luxury of relying upon natural sensation and testing mechanisms within a complete personal body presence but, rather, must constantly assess its existence in relation to the many media forms in which it appears to be reflected. The newly sign-conscious self experiences life mainly in relation to electronic communication systems, which have their own political economic structure and tendencies. While these systems can expand an individual’s informational horizon, they can also distract from and reduce opportunities for private processing, or for direct interpersonal encounters that are physically grounded in real space and time. All of this works against the kind of personal, self-motivated testing that might lend itself to the development of self-reliance in a sexed body. How is an independent, much less autonomous, self to be realized against the increasing thrall of electronic communications that constantly push products, people, infotainment, attitudes, and world views—a veritable deluge of data in both real time and cyberspace time?
Douglas Kellner’s (1995,35) Media Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity, and Politics between the Modern and Postmodern asserts that electronic media have fully colonized culture and that television is at the forefront of this colonization has become an intimate part of everyday life. It stands ready to feed our awareness at any moment of the day or night, and one of its largest audiences is the young. From the earliest stages of growth, a child’s interpersonal intimacy is now significantly influenced by televisual systems and their constant direct and indirect demands for attention (Beatty 2002). In terms of immediacy and breadth of audience delivery, sheer volume of infotainment content, and direct political economic power through paid and unpaid promotions, television continues to hold its place as the most omnipresent, comprehensive, and hence powerful cultural tool ever created. Unlike the haphazard reading of print and the occasional patronage of theatrical motion pictures, both of which now constitute a secondary level of cultural experience, the ubiquitous and ceaseless presence of television and the computer-expanded televisual makes it the new world’s primary totem and arbiter of social reality. Through its pervasive mediation of all aspects of present life, and increasingly of the past and the future, it has become the predominant consciousness and memory of public and private events. This has led to the development of the label “tele – visuality” (Caldwell 1995).
This term emphasizes television, however, without fully taking into account the effects of what communication systems in general have become through digital technology. This technology has linked the many forms of contemporary media and seamlessly joined digital representations of the real with hybrid and imagined images that have no direct relation to the real. Digital picture origination and manipulation have entirely altered photographic reproduction and established a flexibility in image-making that requires no precursor in the real world. And coupled with television’s computer extensions into advanced, three-dimensional simulational imaging and experience, the sense of a televisual virtuality must also now be included in the nomenclature. As I have suggested, “The public reliance on reality that is joined in the 1990s by rapidly increasing attention to Internet/Web access and virtual effects [including video games] has created convergent systems of interactivity that have the further potential of complete simula – tional experience or ‘virtuality’” (Boozer 2002, 200). A preferred term that preserves both the sense of televisuality and virtuality, therefore, would be “televirtuality.”
Televirtuality presumes a true reflection of all reality even as it creates, selects, frames, edits, comments upon, and thus changes it. Televirtuality is also the entire image-driven landscape caught in a continuous circulation of new and recirculated and recombined images that now exist as a galaxy of signifiers detached from their “signifieds” (or reference base). This is the central characteristic of the postrepresentational, postalienation regime of “hypermedia” noted by postmodernists such as Jean Baudrillard (1983, 4), who describes its simulational status and affects:
The age of simulation thus begins with a liquidation of all referentials… .It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself, that is, an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes.
Baudrillard’s definition is part of his larger metatheory, which asserts not only a technical, instrumentalist distancing from the real but also an active realignment of it. This “hyperreality,” that results from “hypermediation,” describes an omnipresent media condition fully determined by the modes of its sponsorship, production, and distribution.
A key aspect of this image world is certainly its promotional sponsorship, which seeks to accentuate audience fantasies of self-empowerment precisely where the individual is less and less in a position to imagine or to act in a selfdetermined way. Despite the appearance of an expanded personal authority via self-extensions through media, as Stephen Frosh (1987) has pointed out, a new kind of residual anxiety about locating the self in the welter of potent images arises. This existential dilemma is also leveraged by the individual’s recognition of the increasing necessity for establishing the self in hypermedia terms. Because televirtuality implies a comprehensive reification of and reliance upon simulational images, its affect shifts not only the centre of experience but also the centre of desire from the personal body to an extrinsic domain. This shift leapfrogs immediate spacial experience in a constant vacuation of the real that further blurs the line between reality and simulated “reality.” For Baudrillard, the hyperreality of media represents a condition in which the very “messages of the unconscious have been short-circuited,” right along with cognitive processes relative to the symbolic and the imaginary.1 This new, overall alignment of the self that is imposed by the hyperreal or televirtual may be seen, furthermore, to be an abiding assumption of all of the films in the cycle discussed here.
Viewed from a gender perspective, Wag the Dog, Strange Days, The Matrix, The Truman Show, and Edtv all feature adult male leads and a masculine orientation. They contain dilemmas of identity directly related to violent conflicts over contested territories that are both real and virtual. Hence, they largely follow the conventions of male drama and action cinema. These new versions of turf wars, however, are typically fought for the control and/or direction of entire simulational systems. The masculine televirtuality films thus assume that system alienation and resistance are still possible for the action hero. The women protagonists—Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman) in To Die For (1995), and Betty Sizemore (Renee Zellweger) in Nurse Betty—are challenged by the same prevailing systems, although their arena of confrontation is largely domestic and career oriented rather than systemic. (This is in keeping with the long and predominant tradition of women’s leading roles in film, which have tended to focus on personalized perspectives that permit a fuller investigation of psychological and emotional development.) The characters Suzanne and Betty are enthralled from the outset by the world of television, and they strive literally to attach themselves to its seductive reality. One might inquire, therefore, whether their individual experience with the televirtual further reinforces women’s traditional roles or whether it essentially alters their developmental self-perception and public positioning as women.
Director Gus Van Sant’s To Die For was adapted for the screen by Buck Henry from a book-length story by Joyce Maynard, which is loosely based on a highly publicized murder in the New Hampshire town of Derry (called Little Hope in the film). The entire structure and documentary-like conception of the film, much like the book, is a reflection not simply on a fictionalized recreation of the primary character (Suzanne in the film version) but on her overwhelming experience of the televirtual.2 The film’s opening credits appear over a winter montage of journalists running through a snow – covered graveyard to reach a funeral, at which an attractive young woman appears to be the object of their frantic attention. Shown too in this flurry of images, but not fully comprehensible, are flashes of lurid press headlines referring to sex and death, and a shot of a frozen lake overshadowed by the sound of a scream. This is quickly followed by the brief view of a young man lying face up in a small pool of blood. Henceforth, the story predominantly unfolds either through apparent interviews with the primary characters, some of whom directly address the camera, or through dramatic representations of the events to which they refer. The film audience remains in the position of observing a journalistically edited viewpoint that, notably, is not occupied by any one particular character. In the impersonality of this enunciating position—which is invasively directive but remains disembodied and only half-conscious—is suggested the omniscient force of televirtuality.
To Die For has the appearance of a murder expose in which certain peripheral characters comment on the events portrayed, although the constant selfconsciousness about the use and effects of television reverberates onto another level of meaning. For example, the parents of the two main characters offer their views about their children on a television talk program called The Laura Show (the host is never shown or heard), which bears an uncertain time frame in relation to the events discussed. In addition to the many other interviews and dramatic segments that are re-presented in fragments and loosely specified times, the film continues to call attention to a rather arbitrary arrangement of different narrative elements that suggest the random collation that passes for media evidence. Near the film’s conclusion, an interview scene with a young female character is literally broken up into more and ever smaller frames until someone calls “cut” and a slate handler briefly appears in the multiple images. This closing reminder of the frequent allusions to the constructed nature of the text irrefutably points beyond all the issues of story content to a comprehensively reflexive comment on the mediating process. The spectator is invited to become active in piecing together the collage of images in this version of a woman’s life. The viewer’s act of following the collection of these scenes into a larger narrative pattern not only imitates what Suzanne has done in her life but also recreates the way media participants come to formulate their own little parts in this ubiquitous domain.
The main storyline follows the grasping quest of the prim young Suzanne, who aspires above all things to be a star news reader. Her initial motivation towards performance results from early encouragement from her father, who is shown with her when she was about three years old in a black-and-white home movie. Later, following a junior college education, she has already come to the conclusion that “You’re not anyone in America unless you’re on tv. On tv is where we learn who we really are.” This is more than a concept for Suzanne: she has built her entire identity around her passion for her career, which might appear to suggest a modern woman’s independence and selfdetermination. She consistently presents herself in business clothes and speaks in the manner of a journalist reading a script. She takes a part-time position as a helper on a local community-access cable show and then, by sheer force of determination, moves up to hosting a low-tech, single-camera weather report. Her new boss laughs at her “gang-busters” over-seriousness, but he eventually yields to her willfulness, as do other men whom she targets as avenues to her success. The strength of Suzanne’s position in the narrative owes partly to the fact that she is right about the social power of television, if not about the way individuals can make it serve their own agendas.
Early on, Suzanne marries the conventionally dull young Larry Martello (Matt Dillon) against the better judgment of his perceptive sister Janice (Illeana Douglas). Janice doubts Suzanne’s sincerity and doesn’t see how she fits with their family or Larry’s position in his father’s successful Italian restaurant. More important to Suzanne than Larry’s financial security, however, is the fact that he is at first impressed by her career ambition. Suzanne takes this as carte blanche. For their honeymoon, she surreptitiously chooses a Florida city that is hosting a journalism conference, to which she constantly sneaks off while Larry is out fishing. Her pandering to the world of television includes having sex with the news personality who gives a speech at the conference, although their sexual escapade is suggested rather than shown. Suzanne also hosts a gourmet dinner for her and Larry’s parents, which she falsely claims to consist of her own creations. For his part, Larry remains lovestruck, providing Suzanne with both a car and a puppy. Eventually, however, he insists that Suzanne corral her unrealistic dreams so that they can start a family. At the moment he speaks, he is framed from her viewpoint in a telescoped iris shot, complete with foreboding music that belies her indifferent facial expression. From that instant, Larry and his patriarchal family image becomes, in her mind, a decisive obstacle to her desire to become a celebrity.
Because Suzanne is so hyperbolic in her conviction that personal growth and success lie in the power of merely presenting her smiling face on television, she appears at the outset to be a hollow performer. To advance her status at the community access station, for example, she repeats a line delivered by the spokesperson at the convention to her boss: “tv joins together the global community, and the tv journalist is the messenger who brings the world into our homes, and our homes into the world" Closer to Suzanne’s own attitude is her learned directive for evaluating personal experience: “What’s the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody is watching? As people are watching, it makes you a better person" Suzanne’s religious devotion to the benefits of television, however, is hard for others to take in one so narrowly self-serving.
This explains why she ends up with gullible, underprivileged students when she tries to recruit at the local high school for help with her little tv documentary. She calls her project “Teens Speak Out," but she quickly turns her young helpers into followers of her own career crusade. She offers them calculated personal attention and assurances of rewards. The overweight Lydia (Alison Folland) is told she will become her media assistant as Suzanne climbs to tv fame. And Russell (Casey Affleck), the sexually frustrated misogynist, is promised money if he will help his buddy Jimmy. Suzanne devotes most of her considerable energy to the complete sexual and emotional seduction of the inarticulate Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix). She manipulates him through sexual intercourse and lies about how Larry abuses her and will never let her go. Her techniques of seduction are hardly original, but the fifteen-year-old Jimmy is mesmerized by the attentions of this intended tv star of twenty-five. He gets swept up into the role she assigns to him as her beloved rescuer and future mate.
Hence, her real power with these youngsters and with her boss and her husband is exhibited less through any journalistic skill, much less personal authenticity, than through her performative skills in masquerade, her sheer ability to project an image—something that she has learned from her father and the televisual environment.
Suzanne imbibed at an early age the troubling conviction of idealism, which takes the literal form of honouring tv as her personal platform of celebrity. Television has made her not only into a religious convert to its power but also into a priestess of its validity. In her frantic career longing, she has made herself into the kind of talking doll she believes is required for tv, even as she misses the automaton quality in the image she projects to others. Her excessive self-centredness results in a lack of separation between her tv performances and her everyday self. She tries to be “on” all the time with or without the presence of a video camera. The well known traditional pressure on women to look and feel a certain way has been further exaggerated in the culture of image worship, and Suzanne signifies a very negative extreme of this. She has narcissistically devoted herself to become a tv icon, a position that she has misconstrued as comprising a complete life. Her devotion to self-image is such that she disregards inconvenient people and details, which make her gradual turn to homicidal intrigue an open book for the police. She fails to consider the way her lustful careerism creates an obvious motive in a still largely patriarchal and competitive economy.
While recognizing television’s power, Suzanne’s success drive is already misguided by her earlier media-trained egocentrism. This is highlighted in the one murder scene that the film does choose to exhibit. Jimmy’s reluctant shooting of Larry Maretto is timed by Suzanne to correspond with her official absence from home. Van Sant sets this up through a series of cross-cuts between her live weather report, shown on her and Larry’s living room tv, and the actual murder of Larry, which tales place in their home’s adjacent foyer. Larry’s murder is dramatically muted in wide shot, while the simultaneous tv presentation of Suzanne gains in significance. This imbalanced pairing of the televisual and a live event reflects her belief that being on tv will protect her since that will take precedence over anything not seen on tv. Suzanne views herself as an empowered spokesperson for television, but the life that she believes she is directing as a subject on tv soon turns her instead into its object.3 As this story continues to reveal, televirtuality does not answer to individual desires except in so far as the individual acts according to its sign hegemony.
Suzanne exemplifies one who depends on the presence of cameras for self-realization. The need not only to attach herself to but also to be the image is a literalization of the desire stimulated in consumer advertising to find happiness through the product. Suzanne “Stone” incarnates the loss of self in the desire to become the publicly advocated image. This is not the result of a patriarchal ruse to objectify only women as performers but, rather, is a condition of televirtuality and the kind of exteriorized, contingent identity formation it creates for all. Suzanne’s experience evidences the image identification process that is indigenous to televirtual culture. And this process does not offer personal fulfillment, except in image terms of exteriority and appearance; rather, it brings with it an insecurity that extends, in Suzanne’s case, to the level of utter desperation. Her fundamental desire becomes a media dependency that demonstrates all the symptoms of addiction. It leads her to a state of disasso – ciation that sets the stage for her manipulation of young people to bring about her homicidal plot. Since she feels that she is nothing without the confirming presence of tv cameras, anyone close to her who might enhance or block her access to them becomes an object or tool and, hence, deserving of how they are used.
This interpretation is reinforced by the events following Larry’s death. The obvious trail of evidence left by Suzanne and her two male helpers certainly points to their legal conviction on charges related to the murder. But Larry’s father, Joe Maretto (Dan Hedaya), seems unconvinced. Joe and what remains of his family watch as Suzanne claims to the television public that her husband was using cocaine supplied by the teenage boys who killed him. This drives Joe to destroy his tv with a baseball bat. When Suzanne proceeds, prior to her trial, to seek profit from the media for her story, Joe is finally driven to hire a killer of his own. This individual (David Cronenberg) poses as a media rep and has her meet him at a country lake, where she believes he will receive her self-produced, self-promotional videotape and make her a generous offer of tv work. But again her career self-absorption is such that she overlooks the details in one of her documentary videotapes, which is eventually seized by the police (and later picked up for tv broadcast). It shows her two boy groupies winking at her in the classroom in such a way as to further link them to her as the conspiratorial mastermind of Larry’s death. This oversight hints again at the way Suzanne thinks of tv in relation to private behaviour. Like her miniskirted dance in front of her car headlights to seduce Jimmie, she wants him to believe that their performances of sex and violent conspiracy was part of the same thing—a private arrangement that will remain secret because it took place off-screen. As the film makes clear for all the characters, however, there is no free space to construct a private self outside televirtuality.4 It has already short-circuited Suzanne’s resources for personal independence, along with any hope for a holistic gender identity.
Baudrillard (1988, 82-83) notes, in The Ecstacy of Communication, how we can “no longer reconcile things with their essence…because they have mocked and surpassed their own definition. They have become more social than the social (the masses)…more real than the real (simulation), more beautiful than the beautiful (fashion)." The move to a hypermediated state of simulation, to the spectatorial consumerism of televirtuality, objectifies the individual to the point that “the object [the sheer flood of data] has become the subject’s mode of disappearance” (97). This condition of self loss obviously applies to both genders. But the disconnection from the sensory body and from potentially self-confirming personal experience has additional consequences for women. The force that turns the nurturing and/or life-giving aspect of womanhood into an objectified and eroticized taker of life in To Die For is particularly egregious. The inference here is that televirtuality has overwhelmed the intimate possibilities of subjective interpersonal support, including presumably child care, and created instead, among other things, an inverted maternal figure who sends children out to kill rather than to grow and prosper.
Suzanne may not be aware of the cinematic image of woman as killer, which has long been manifested in the figure of the femme fatale, but its history is instructive (Boozer, 2002). Suzanne’s behaviour echoes that of Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis in Double Indemnity (1944) and of Lana Turner’s Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), who marry for financial security and then conspire through sexual involvement with another male to murder their husbands out of a desire for social advancement. Suzanne’s methods thus appear to be a throwback to more regressive times of women’s second-class status in the 1940s. What is new here is the careerism and her belief that she can control the image system. This is a bridge to the femmes fatales of 1990s cinema, such as Briggit (Linda Fiorentino) in The Last Seduction (1994) and Meredith (Demi Moore) in Disclosure (1994), who largely forego the help of male co-conspirators and actively manipulate communication and legal systems. Their cynical application of televirtual tools (including online data scams and virtual reality file thefts) also demonstrate more advanced technological skills and mental sophistication than is shown by Suzanne, whose world is the 1970s. As highly promotional and sexualized figures of careerist crime, Briggit and Meredith imply an increased indifference to gender norms, except where convenient. In contrast to these two aggressive executive types, To Die For’s Suzanne has limited financial resources and is transparent in her homicidal tactics. Her re-enactment of the classic femme fatale murder formula is hence anachronistic.
Following Joyce Maynard’s book, Suzanne never makes it to trial, let alone to the sale of her story or herself to big media. She never gets beyond the frozen country lake that serves as the site of her notably unseen demise. Rather than an eroticized death scene so common to films anxious to play up the revenge on the socially transgressive femme fatale, the frame simply holds on an empty ice-covered expanse in the late afternoon light. The film thus mitigates the sacrificial punishment of the over-ambitious career woman, which has been used in the past to shore up masculinity and to reconfirm the patriarchal family. Suzanne’s devotion to tv as a personal tool is clearly naive and too obvious to be the point of the film’s overall satiric irony. Even young Lydia recognizes at last that tv cannot “make one better” if almost everyone is spending so much time watching it.
It is left to Suzanne’s primary adversary, Joe Maretto, to reveal the film’s ultimate irony. When the phone call for Joe, who is waiting for it at his restaurant, comes in from the Italian-speaking killer of Suzanne, Joe shares a knowing glance with his unnamed wife. She looks up with a pleased expression as she personally serves the table of the local detectives who have already gathered the evidence for the trial against Suzanne. This brief scene hints that there will likely be no conclusive investigation of Suzanne’s death. However deserving Suzanne might be of Mr. Maretto’s vengeance, his final decision to take the law into his own hands has a specific cause: he mistrusts the trial process under heavy media scrutiny and assumes, probably correctly, that Suzanne will somehow survive her legal punishment and realize a media profit from his son’s bloodied name. Joe’s ultimate motivation for retaliation is hence lodged in a televirtual assumption.
As Joe previously demonstrated in his interview appearance on The Laura Show, which it is now apparent was made after Suzanne’s death, he is even more personally invested in a public image than is she. Joe has learned to play by the public and private rules of televirtuality, which require of him and his business an awareness of selective sponsorship and audience targeting, as well as of the “program” displayed. Suzanne has sought merely to give her life significance by becoming a tv celebrity while never fully grasping the media’s comprehensive power. Joe, on the other hand, has already perfected televirtual consciousness since his privileged social status allows him to hide behind its prevailing ideology of law and consumer capitalism. Ironically, he goes so far as to quote The Godfather in his tv interview. He means to show his gracious Italian acceptance of the mythic American “melting pot” through his son’s marital choice of the Anglo-Saxon Suzanne. So long as the facade of business, the patriarchal family, and legal responsibility is sustained in simu – lational terms, then discreet forms of actual murder can be overlooked.
There is a tradition in satirical cinema of a gullible public accepting capital murder and useless wars. What is new in To Die For is the constant reminder of the artificiality of the televirtual process, even as it tends to mask its effects of personal displacement, consumer fetishism, and violence. The film’s closing image suggests the ethical problematic in televirtuality. In this shot, Larry’s sister Janice skates over the frozen surface of the lake where Suzanne is shown entombed behind nature’s own translucent screen of ice. The televirtual world she would force to serve her has killed her instead. Suzanne’s fate points to a hypermediated world’s capacity not only to seduce but also to entrap her with its assurances of extrinsic fulfillment. This is revealed through the brutal victory of the older (mafia-connected) business and family man (Joe) over the young careerist upstart and confused murderer (Suzanne). Joe’s conspiracy against Suzanne presents a greater social threat than was ever presented by Suzanne because his probable freedom will result from an institutional form of repression that hides the televirtual motivation that finally drives him. Hence, televirtuality’s seductive spectacles and overlaid conventionalism become sedatives that serve the political economic regime that perpetuates it.
Televirtuality manifests itself as a comprehensive enactment of the real world. This hyperreal matrix that presupposes reflective truth, however, reflects most the interests of its sponsors, who seek the attention and resources of its mass audience. And it is a male-dominant business and political sponsorship that leads the controlling interests of vertical hypermedia. Joe Maretto is a lowly figure here and hardly a traditional villain, but he is associated with the conservative values of corporate greed and political power that thrive in and drive the commercial world of the televirtual. Televirtuality is invested in politicized commerce and media dependency, where real abuses involving class, gender, race/ethnicity, and even war are perpetually moderated through sponsors, including governments (Wag the Dog), who edit or promote in ways that reinforce the engines of simulation.
The cultural interrogation of televirtuality in To Die For also has similarities with the dark, satirical situation comedy Nurse Betty (2000), although the focus of the latter film is on one of televirtuality’s innocent victims, Betty “Sizemore." Written by John C. Richards and James Flamberg, this Neil LaBute – directed project traces Betty’s fate as a married Kansas diner waitress who loses the ability to distinguish her real world from the one that she has avidly followed on tv. Her loss of reality discrimination results from witnessing, while at home, the gruesome murder of her drug-dealing and two-timing husband Del (Aaron Eckart). This horror creates a clinical condition identified later as “post-traumatic disassociation.” Because Betty is simultaneously watching a video of her beloved hospital soap opera star on A Reason to Love at the time of Del’s demise, in her mind she somehow transmutes the tv actor into a real doctor, whom she suddenly wants to pursue, marry, and work beside as a nurse. She makes a car trip from Kansas in a dream state that is somewhat like Dorothy’s in The Wizard ofOz. Betty’s destination is the Oz of Los Angeles, and her wizard is the Dr. Ravell shown on daytime tv. Her sudden slide into an oblivious televirtuality then, while clearly motivated by traumatic shock, also suggests tv’s function as a form of fairy tale escape from that which is painful or monotonous. The bleakness of her life with Del and her dead-end job at the diner are established at the beginning. Betty’s disassocia – tive condition, therefore, becomes a perfect metaphor for one form of televirtual experience. It can offer an exciting substitution—the jouissance of hypermedia action and fantasy—that appears to elevate the real while moving the individual further from it, as a narcotic drug might do.
Betty’s story, more fully than Suzanne’s, thus demonstrates women’s desperate longing but continued victimization in televirtuality, which is initiated here through a tv fantasy. With a full-size cardboard cutout of her soap opera star folded in the trunk of one of her now-dead husband’s better cars, and with no knowledge of the several kilos of cocaine Del has also hidden there, she suddenly drives off to find her dream doctor. At a fundraiser in Los Angeles she makes a direct romantic pitch to the man she recognizes as Dr. Ravell. The real George McCord (Greg Kinnear) is charmed by her ability to continue to see and talk to him in the character of the doctor, as if she were also an actor on the daytime soap. Meanwhile, in the parallel story structure established throughout the film, Del’s killer Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and his son Wesley (Chris Rock) have not succeeded in locating the cocaine and suspect that Betty has made off with it. They guess that she is headed to her family home in Oklahoma and travel there in pursuit of her.
Charlie learns a little from Betty’s folks about her innocence and goodness, and he becomes quickly enamoured of his idea of her identity and of her photograph, which he places in full view on his car’s dashboard. Charlie’s photo of Betty, like her big cardboard cutout, connects them in their mutual practice of visual idealization. These images also serve as reminders of the distance between the media artefact and the associations that spectators may project onto them. Charlie, for example, plans after this one last job to retire from his enforcement role in the illegal drug business, which apparently doesn’t fit his personal inclination towards beautiful sunsets and pure and innocent people. Charlie is so drawn by his enlarged fantasy of Betty’s goodness that he wants, against Wesley’s better judgment, to see and talk to her about what she represents for him. This assassin’s romantic longing is as off-kilter as is Betty’s attachment to the tv doctor, and both of these twisted desires confirm the power of televirtual suggestion.
In Los Angeles, Betty has continued to live in her disoriented state, despite the efforts of her Latino housemate Rosa and of the actor George to bring her out of it. George partly misreads her intentions and believes she’s potentially a great actor who wants to perform on the soap opposite him. When he introduces her on the set of A Reason to Love and gives her test lines to act out, Betty’s disassociative condition suddenly falls away and she runs off in a state of shock. At this juncture George and Betty have already realized a mutual attraction, albeit within the context of their misunderstandings. Meanwhile, Charlie and Wesley invade Rosa and Betty’s house and hold them hostage, along with Betty’s sheriff and journalist friends from Kansas. A shootout ensues that leaves Wesley dead and Charlie wounded.
Charlie has had no intention of killing Betty, nor does he want to give the police the satisfaction of shooting or capturing him, which would ruin his image. Instead, he takes control in the only way he deems possible: he steps into a closet and shoots himself. Betty’s goodness is shown to be dangerous in its naivete, and she appears incapable of rescuing others. Nurse Betty thus exemplifies the distortions and unpredictability of televirtual influences: romantic longing spins quickly beyond the control of even the most well-meaning individual. Ironically, the many forms of obsession that surround Betty—including her husband’s philandering, dope dealing, and gruesome death—seem closer to “normative” televirtual behavior than do Betty’s goodness and Charlie’s longing for redemption. The latter impulses, in fact, manage to seem out of touch and even pathological. The basic instincts of all of these characters get distorted in the hypermedia world that constantly displaces their essential reality testing with the formulations of commercial media experience. Not only are personal growth impulses superseded in the systems of symbolic representation but the entire process of personal identity construction is turned inside out.
Following the genre conventions of comedic satire, Betty is eventually forced to give up her psychotraumatic fantasy just as the older Charlie finally puts a stop to the degraded reality he has chosen. The satire ends hopefully for the kind-hearted and now more clear-eyed Betty, although her survival within televirtuality has been mainly a matter of sheer luck. In the end, she is hired as an actor on A Reason to Love because her final experience with Del’s killers has attracted news publicity for the show and made her into a curious celebrity. The next scenario has her seated in a diner with George as they try to sort out their confused feelings for one another. This scene is suddenly modulated into a video version of the soap opera—an almost mimetic recreation of the actual event. The televirtual again exploits what little remains of personal reality. Betty’s implausible road to career fulfillment through television suggests the absurdity of its easy promises and solutions.
Hence, the career desires and identities of Suzanne and Betty are literally defined and determined by the televirtual, as are their brushes with death. All of this suggests an extension rather than an abatement of female problems in televirtuality, which consistently cuts across history and meanings with newly sponsored opinions and styles of the moment but continues to play on easy stereotypes and spectacles of violence as part of its shorthand. Suzanne and Betty find themselves drawn towards televisual idealizations, which determine their formulations of both their self-image and their goals. That they are both lower middle-class provincial women also suggests a class stereotype regarding tv’s most gullible audience, although televirtuality should be recognized as a condition in which class can be manipulated as an image force as readily as can gender. In any case, the absence of self-determination and autonomy in these two characters causes them to react to their world exactly in the objectifying way they are treated—that is, as having validity only in their reflected images. For women who have already experienced a long history of oppression and objectification, televirtual experience offers at best an increased visibility and even mobility. What it does not offer is an increased self-realization. It does not alter essential class or gender attitudes, which remain in the service of an appearance-oriented consumerism. Instead, the allpervasive world of the simulacra offers to women a continued distraction from and discouragement of a personally developed self-confidence and purpose. Suzanne and Betty appear already doomed as they fall back into extreme forms of regressive behaviour and either kill or are surrounded by violence. Since women have historically not been the primary instigators of violent confrontationalism, this trend in televirtuality can hardly be read as a positive sign.
The overinvestment in the spectacles of sponsored signification that characterizes televirtuality clearly undermines personal independence and nurturing tendencies, which Western culture has traditionally looked to women to ensure. This is also reinforced by the oppositional character pairings of both Suzanne and Joe (who become killers) and Nurse Betty and Charlie (who are perversely idealistic). The desperate attempts by Suzanne and Betty at personal confirmation through television-related dreams follows directly from their loss of interior rootedness. Thus, in the cinema of televirtuality, where women now appear almost as likely to be instigators as victims of violence, the potential for self-understanding, much less systemic resistance, seems remote. Nor is the image of woman as seducer/murderer or as romance addict any longer to be read simply as a patriarchal excuse for masculine domination. Under televirtuality, the sex wars become merely another tool in the larger media co-optation of personal and sexual autonomy. Across the landscape of hypermediation, therefore, which flattens gender difference even as it reinforces traditional stereotypes and performative sexuality, the already twisted nurturing tendencies of women appear increasingly to be tied to patterns of exteriorization, objectification, and escapist fantasy. Suzanne and Betty’s utter desperation, which either invokes or unintentionally contributes to violence in the televirtual film cycle, therefore, becomes a dire warning of what is being lost in the current regime of displacement.