Women Acting Out in (Cognitive) Maps to the Stars

By Johanna Isaacson | 

The rise of feminized labor, with its blurred boundaries and emotional demands, leads to new forms of fear and repression. The urge to cinematically represent these unmappable forms of control has its legacy in a subgenre of horror-melodrama that depicts the terrors of the personal assistant, whose affective, cognitive, and physical labor cannot be disentangled. In Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) a fashion designer who works from home enslaves her employee only to enter an eroticized masochistic relationship with her model. In Bergman’s Persona (1966) a psychologically disturbed actress convalesces at a private home with a young nurse, where the two proceed to psychologically torture each other until they merge into an indistinct personality. In All About Eve (Mankiewicz 1950), an ambitious young unknown actress insinuates herself into the life of a star, starting as a humble personal assistant but eventually usurping the elder actress’s marriage and career. More recently, in The Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas, 2014) a famous actress imbricates her young personal assistant in her tortured transition from desirable beloved nymph to desirous aging lover.

All of these films are generally analyzed as timeless depictions of women’s psycho-sexual dynamics. What is less attended to is the way these films depict contractual labor. As it turns out, dysphoric sado-masochistic fusion with your abjected double in a domestic setting is work!

In the 2014 film Maps to the Stars we witness the trials of a personal assistant blown up to the scale of Greek tragedy. While the film is near-universally received as a Hollywood satire, it exceeds this genre to become a modern myth in which a disfigured, abused “chore whore” explodes the claustrophobic interpersonal dynamics that haunt the culture industry, and the contemporary world at large. Further, the film exhibits the instrumentalization of emotion as a totalized regime that includes service work, affective work, and self help/self care through new-age affirmative individualism.

The film follows Hollywood newcomer Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a seeming wide-eyed ingenue who is drawn to Hollywood by the gravity and luminosity of its stars. She plays out her glamorous fantasy by hiring a limo as soon as she debarks from the Greyhound bus from Florida. Gradually we realize that Agatha is not simply in Hollywood because of its star appeal. Rather, she has a darker connection to the players and logics of the town. The first place that she visits is the childhood home of Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), a child actor famed for starring in the blockbuster film, Bad Babysitter. Her limo driver and soon-to-be lover Jerome (Robert Pattison of Twilight fame) drives her to the site of the home, which turns out to be charred ruins set against the lurid Hollywood sign. Agatha’s attachment to this black hole in the midst of “maps to the stars,” as well as her scarred skin and dark leather attire are early signs of her dissonant status.

Soon after her arrival, Agatha is hired as a personal assistant or “chore whore” for Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a famous actress who is aging out of the Hollywood game. When Havana mentions her new assistant to her therapist/guru/masseuse, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), he responds with muted alarm. It gradually becomes clear that Agatha is his estranged daughter whose scars come from her attempt to burn down her family and their home years ago. As we will learn, this was fueled by schizophrenia-induced incestuous fantasies about her brother that were triggered by her parents’ own secret incestuous relationship. Despite or perhaps because of his new age outlook, Stafford turns out to be coldly unforgiving, asserting that he “doesn’t believe in rewarding homicidal behavior” and dismissing his daughter’s desire to “make amends,” as she calls it. Agatha responds abjectly, attempting to compensate for her original sin by reacting to abuse with complete subservience and convincing cheerfulness both as a daughter and as Havana’s “chore whore.”


“I never promised you a rose garden”

Agatha’s upbeat affect as a personal assistant and her use of the language of recovery points to a culture where emotion is prescribed and circumscribed. In Hollywood, as in the contemporary live/work world of “TED-esque optimism” happiness is mandated, and positive thinking rules the political and social landscape (Evans). This is a world where, as Barbara Ehrenreich claims, “positivity is not so much our condition or our mood as it is part of our ideology–the way we explain the world and think we ought to function within it” (4). Agatha’s submission to recovery culture links to a generalized condition of precarity where those who suffer from insecure circumstances are told to see their condition as an opportunity to be embraced. She is subject to “cruel optimism” amidst what Lauren Berlant sees as fraying fantasies of the good life. Agatha’s disfigurement can be seen in the light of a “bright sided” culture which depicts even a fatal disease as a “gift” (Ehrenreich 45).  This logic allows people to become disposable, rather than deserving of empathy. Negative people, meaning anyone who complains about oppression, deserve to be distanced or abolished from one’s life. Unconditional love is excluded from the society of individual self-help, as can be seen in Agatha’s permanent ostracism from her family despite her mental illness.

This “culture of happiness” is embodied by Agatha’s father and Havana’s therapist Stafford Weiss.  He is a well-published self-help guru for the rich and famous. His therapeutic technique involves a hodgepodge of vaguely orientalist new age bloviated rhetoric, pop psychology, and quasi-sexual massage. Conversations between Havana and Stafford are filled with annoyingly opaque or cliché buzzwords and phrases: “textbook TSS: you saw heavy combat as a child”… “When you came out of hiding and externalized your shame”…“what we can name we can tame”… “you are the magical child and that child will not fail.” Like many of the affective laborers and service workers in the film, his self-help career seeps into his family life, which largely consists of propping up his son/cash cow, the Justin Bieber-esque Benjie who struggles with addiction that threatens to make him unmarketable as a tween star.


When Agatha returns to town, Stafford does not see her as a daughter but as a threat to his self-help empire. He invades her motel room and attacks her with a menacing combination of naked aggression and new-age rhetoric. As Agatha insists that she is “in recovery” and has returned to “make amends,” Stafford sneers at her use of self-help rhetoric “I guess no one escapes from the long arm of twelve step.” All her appeals for acceptance fall on deaf ears as Stafford uses increasingly hostile and perfunctory new age rhetoric as a weapon against her genuine emotional need. When she asks why he never came to see her at the institution where she was confined, he responds with callous dismissal: “that’s a victim question” “that’s an I-never-promised-you-a-rose-garden question,” revealing the core of the happiness industry as one that blames the victim for her misfortune. On these terms, the culture is absolved for its rejection of those who are marginalized. Underscoring his equation of personal relationships with money, Stafford offers Agatha ten thousand dollars to leave town. The film savages the archetype of the sensitive new man, revealing Stafford as a merciless Oprah-wielding patriarch willing to banish his daughter in order to protect his connected franchises – that of the family and the emotional health industry.  As he leaves, he coldly commands Agatha to get out of town, sealing the vault with the devastating injunction to “Work your program.The irony is that Agatha has become her father’s daughter. Her hotel room is full of self help materials and she doggedly follows the rules of self-help discourse to describe her road to recovery. Luckily, these qualities have not gone to waste, they make her an ideal subject in a service-oriented, feminized economy.


The Original Bad Babysitter

Although Agatha’s forced conversion from schizophrenic pyromaniac to self-help recovery practitioner does not gain her acceptance from her family, it does help her become an ideal personal assistant. We can see this immediately in the way she applies for the job. The interview takes place in Havana’s house and the formalities of the job interview are all but dispensed with. Instead, we are given a glimpse of new vistas of what Arlie Hochschild calls “feeling rules” or “emotion management.” Until recently, Hoschschild notes, we could talk about home and work and know that we were talking about one realm or the other. Now, however we see a third space emerging, what Hochschild calls “the realm of marketized private life” (203). As this zone becomes more prominent, we see the culture grappling with a kind a neo-feudalism where a commodified form of intimacy replaces the bureaucratic anonymity that dominated previous stages of capitalism. Culturally, this new predicament is illustrated in the rise of TV and movies where feudal forms of relationships are foregrounded such as the incestuous soap opera Game of Thrones and the live/work occupational hazards of the sex worker depicted in The Girlfriend Experience.

What Hochschild calls “the commercialization of intimate life” is staked out in the beginning of Maps to the Stars when Agatha visits the site of her childhood home. When Jerome asks her how she is so familiar with a tween celebrity’s decimated house, she pretends that she was an employee there, rather than a family member. “I was the original bad babysitter,” she says. This answer points to the ways that family life and work merge for the contemporary feminized precariat. The fact that she is the bad babysitter, though, shows the latent potential for disobedience in these arrangements –something she will exercise once all her options for creating a livable life have been exhausted.

Even though we have not fully established the conventions of this emerging genre of work/life labor, we sense that Agatha performs her interview for the position of personal assistant perfectly. She shyly bursts with enthusiasm and admiration for Havana and her home, displaying a mix of humility and outgoingness. Moreover she subtly supports Havana’s clear emotional need to feel like a spiritual and giving person, in spite of the actress’s frequent childish tantrums and complete narcissism. Before the formal interview begins, if that transition even occurs, Agatha looks around with awe, commenting on the thick walls of Havana’s home. This provides Havana the occasion to show off both her wealth and spirituality as these walls originally belonged to a Tibetan monastery. She name drops that she once met the Dalai Lama, offhandedly describing him as “a very cool man. Actually, he’s just like someone you would want to hang with.” This display of her high ranking spirituality and conspicuous consumption of enlightenment is quickly followed by a thoughtless display of cruelty and imperviousness to suffering. She brings Agatha tea herself because her Latina housekeeper is at the hospital:  “One of her kids is sick. She’s got like forty kids.”

Havana shows no interest in Agatha’s formal work skills but instead assumes an invasive intimacy and asks her about her burn scars. In response to this, Agatha performs the brave and humorous survivor to perfection with a naturalistic and wry sounding lie: “I was working in a planetarium. There was an electrical fire and I ran into a store room, like a jerk.” This accomplishes an immediate appearance of closeness between the two women and Agatha proclaims, with ardor: “I would be the most loyal, the most competent, the most grateful personal assistant that you ever had.” Havana dramatizes and finalizes the transaction by fabricating a spiritual connection between the two women, that also connects her to Carrie Fisher, a coordinate on the star map:  “Carrie’s funny. She knew I should meet you. Do you know how my mother died?… In a fire.”  The condescension and solipsism of Havana’s solicitude punctuates the scene as Havana callously compares Agatha’s physical disfiguration to her own internal scars: “Agatha, I think you’re beautiful. And do you know who looks just like you? Inside? Havana Segrand.”


With Havana’s hiring of Agatha as personal assistant, the two women unsurprisingly enter into a sado-masochistic relationship where the nature of “work” is nebulous and suffocating. At one point Havana petulantly orders Agatha to buy her a number of products designed to modulate and temper her wild moods: Ambian, Vicodin, Zoloft, goldenseal, Yogi Tea, Tampax, and something called Cozy Shack pudding. Her use of consumerism as a means to modulate mood points to Havana’s own position as an emotional laborer. Not coincidentally there is a symmetry and similarity to the two women’s three-syllable, assonant names, pointing to a reciprocity rather than opposition between their two positions, as they are both to made to serve and perform despite the gap between their statuses. As an actress, Havana assumes the classic role of “performer.” However, this does not point to her autonomy from the lowly service worker. Rather, her performance of emotional labor illustrates the ways that, far from providing an escape from the drudgery of work, the culture industry and the actress in particular has provided a template for feminized, emotional labor as a whole.

Havana’s sadism can be seen to be a crude satire of Hollywood corruption. However, her role can also be seen as a key form of mapping contemporary labor. In his notion of the culture industry as “anticipation and paradigm” of post-Fordist social relations, Paolo Virno argues that the entertainment industry anticipates a world that requires intellect but has no public sphere, a world where, as in the Fordist moment, work is still deskilled, subdivided and parcelized, but at the same time is unquantifiable in the regime of 24/7. Instead of a rigid division of labor, this leads to a kind of neo-feudalism, entailing personal dependence in which “the whole person…is subdued” (41). This subordination extends to attributes which are not extricable from an essential self, such as communication, creativity, and cognition. The dominance of the culture industry marks the moment where “the virtuoso begins to punch a time card,” thus anticipating this deepened and complexified regime of control (56).


More than Hollywood

The qualities of virtuosity which require communication and creative improvisation, such as those Havana exercises as she struggles to maintain status in the youth-obsessed industry, were perhaps tested out and developed in the controlled context of the culture industry, but now are “exemplary and pervasive” in labor in general (Virno 58). Virno argues that the “intermingling of virtuosity, politics, and labor” that was seen in the culture industry has become ubiquitous. He articulates this to Guy Debord’s concept of “the society of the spectacle,” which sees communication as a key commodity of late capitalism, defining the logic of cooperation and passivity needed to reproduce an information-oriented economy. For this reason, Virno sees the culture industry as metonymic. As spectacle it has a “double nature,” operating as a particular industry, but also as “the quintessence of the mode of production in its entirety” (60).  

With this framing we can see how Maps to the Stars’ tight focus on Hollywood relates to Fredric Jameson’s notion of “cognitive mapping,” which insists that the totality of social relations can only be glimpsed through exploring the contradictions of specific representational spaces.  Although Maps to the Stars is seen by most critics to be a Hollywood satire, the core critique is of a larger culture whose contradictions are displaced onto Hollywood. Here Hollywood is not the object of satire, but a geographic space where allegory, cognitive mapping, the play of figuration can occur. It’s a metonymic space where it is precisely the failure of full representation that can cause “the whole architectonic of postmodern global space to rise up in ghostly profile behind itself, as some ultimate dialectical barrier or invisible limit” (352).  Hollywood is an idea, a dream, but it’s also a city. The coordinates of a city, Jameson argues, can provide a cognitive map of larger, unrepresentable social dynamics.  Hollywood is not the endpoint of critique but, even as “dream factory,” operates as a paradoxically tangible metonym for an increasingly ephemeral world.

Havana’s unlikeability is linked to her skills as a virtuoso. We never see her actually act. Instead the film focuses on the daily emotional labor it takes to stay in the game as she navigates the logic and pecking order of the entertainment industry. Havana’s life is consumed by her desire to play her mother in an art film. Her existence itself, Cronenberg insists in many interviews tying the film to his existentialist viewpoint, is at stake. In order to get this role she spends her time hounding her agent and harassing her slickly friendly acquaintances. Her real job, it appears, is performatively navigating unspoken hierarchies, which includes casually sleeping with people she thinks can help her get ahead. We see how far her emotions are harnessed to this ambition when she gleefully if dysphorically celebrates the death of her rival’s son. For Havana, appropriate emotion is reserved for instrumentalized activities related to her career.


Theodor Adorno predicted these dynamics in his 1952 essay “Stars Down to Earth” which, like Maps to the Stars, draws connections between Los Angeles’s shallow, irrational culture and larger authoritarian patterns. Here, he looked at the seemingly casual and sympathetic proto-new-age logic that pervaded LA culture as a means to coerce individuals to voluntarily accept their place in an arbitrary pecking order. The irrationalism of horoscope followers, who voluntarily succumb to authority, occurs as a means to adapt to a context of “collective psychosis” (67).  Ironically, this psychosis requires the rationalization of desire as “ready made, carefully prepared and predigested irrationality,” comparable to the “dream factory” of the movies (67-68). In this topsy- turvy world, relationships are seen as a chain of institutionalized hierarchies that demand complete obedience and conformity to naturalized forms of friendliness. Here pleasure is only permitted if it is linked to success and self promotion. Fun and sex are compulsory, but only if they are hygienic and unerotic. Family and friendship are subordinated to an instrumentalized identification with authoritarian aggressors. This analysis decimates the fantasy that LA’s feel good culture constitutes a radical break from fascist logics. All these modes of being are reflected in Havana’s joyless sex, lonely socializing, and loveless familial ties. The emptiness of these ties is underscored by the pervasive theme of incest which rewrites Hollywood networking as both pure solipsism and classical tragedy.

Hollywood is a place that allows us to externalize and examine new attributes and forms of recuperation. We can say of Hollywood: it is superficial, it is competitive, it is the place where only youth and beauty count, it is the place of manufactured emotions, manufactured relationships, manufactured dreams, manufactured bodies, manufactured smiles.  It is the place of blazing sun, where shadows are obscured, where whiteness rules, where love is commodified, where pageantry masks sadism, where national myths are forged and globally distributed. All this can be said of Hollywood but it can also be said of our own jobs, our relationships, the logic and social fabric of our everyday lives: “Each one of us is, and has always been, a virtuoso, a performing artist, at times mediocre or awkward, but, in any event, a virtuoso” (Virno 55). In this way, Hollywood, which is stereotypically envisioned as a symbol of transience and ephemerality, is actually a more concrete, spatially localized symbol of larger social forms. Cronenberg refers to the metonymic status of Hollywood in many interviews, as in the following:

[Y]ou can find the kind of greed and hypocrisy and power-mongering that’s in Maps to the Stars in many shapes and forms all over the world, in government and all kinds of businesses. Hollywood is a spectacular example, of course, because it’s so visible and because of the aspirations of the players to be seen on the screen and the red carpet. Those drives are equally apparent in Wall Street, Silicon Valley, or even the Detroit car industry, but those places are just not as visible. (Fuller)

Hollywood is not a separate, shallow, corrupt place, but it is a place that is both somewhere and everywhere, a place whose geographic boundaries and technological horizons can help us grasp at the coordinates of nebulous forms of control. In the Hollywood of Maps to the Stars, the smooth surface is cracking, emerging from these gaps are ghosts and monsters, memories and history.


Refusal and Liberty

These fissures appear in the form of the dead. One of Benjie’s self-promoting duties as a child star is to visit sick and dying children. Early in the film we see him callously botching this, asking a girl who is dying of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma how she contracted AIDS. Soon after, she dies of the cancer. Although he seems to have little conscious compunction about his increasingly thoughtless and violent behavior, Benjie begins to see the dead girl and another boy, the son of Havana’s rival who has drowned in a swimming pool. These causalities of his seamless life cannot be repressed, and his visions slowly drive him back to drugs and madness. Havana too is haunted by her dead mother, who, in ghostly appearances, denies Havana’s claim that she was sexually abusive and belittles her daughter’s attributes and emotions. These hauntings seem to represent cracks in the emotional surface of the characters, the intrusion of unwanted thoughts and memories in a world where emotion is supposed to be relentlessly positive. Cronenberg notes:

The ghosts are memories. Not like in “The Sixth Sense.” You can be haunted by people you know who have died, and I have experienced that myself. But when they speak to me, they are in my life as a memory, not outside human life. I played those scenes more as memory/hallucination to address guilt and regret than actual traditional ghosts. (O’Hehir)

It is Agatha who exploits and widens these cracks. What first appear as trickles of emotional refusal mount to a tragic explosion. Her father’s rejection and violence drives her to flush her meds, and with this she casts off her commitments to “recovery” culture and the emotional labor of the “chore whore.” This reflects themes we can see throughout Cronenberg’s films, in which a counterculture sensibility links madness and negation to refusal of societal norms and control. The meds which Agatha takes to quell her schizophrenia snuff out her “beautiful script” and incestuous passion for her brother. Instead, despite all her cheery affect, she admits that her life lacks spark: “they put out my pilot light.”

Madness, for Agatha, is close to freedom. This is shown by the repetition of stanzas from the surrealist, communist writer Paul Eluard’s “Liberty,” a poem that at first seems to be about a lover, but reveals itself as a love letter to revolutionary freedom and renewal in death, ending with the lines:

On absence without desire

On barren solitude

On the steps of death

I write your name

On health returned

On vanished risk

On hope without remembrance

I write your name

And by the power of a word

I begin my life again

I was born to know you

To name you


This politicized interjection of what Walter Benjamin calls surrealist “profane illumination” into the enforced sunniness of Hollywood is another interruption of the film’s appearance as pure satire. Much of the film’s focus is on revealing the cynicism and bad faith of a culture of positivity and self help. However, as the film morphs into horror, Agatha shows herself as a figure in excess of that project. This excess catapults the film from satire to melodramatic body horror as Agatha unthinkingly menstruates on Havana’s obscenely expensive couch as a mark of her final liberation into madness and destruction, taking on the monstrous abjection that Julia Kristeva calls “the powers of horror.”


Counterculture Excess

This excess articulates to the counterculture work at the heart of Cronenberg’s “body horror” legacy. Here, abject body mutations cannot be clearly articulated to a single point of satire or criticism. Rather, such phenomena as the vaginal/VCR-like slit in Max Renn’s stomach (Videodrome 1983) or the vampiric, phallic stinger that appears in Rose’s armpit (Rabid 1977) are overdetermined as historical, psychosexual signifiers. These morphing signifiers disrupt what Brecht would call “culinary” forms of entertainment that allow the viewer complacency through identification with characters and conventional forms of representation. The object of critique in Cronenberg’s films, then, is not a particular political issue or subject position. If we say that Maps to the Stars is about the commercialization of intimacy, this still misses the wider project of these films. The critique, instead, extends to an attack on the fantasy of naturalistic representation. Cronenberg’s work points to a politics of excess, that which is beyond the reach of journalistic cliché. This resonates with Ernst Bloch’s theory of Marxist poesis, which would move away from representing what is, and rather act as a “a waking dream,” capturing the tendencies of the given material world and mapping the direction toward which “the world wants to be changed” (88). That is, this excessive representation allows us to follow the tendencies of reality as it is, as they might develop towards what could be.  

Cronenberg’s counterculture cinema hinges on this critical negation. He has insisted from the beginning of his career that he is committed to making ‘ambitious’ films, reflecting the political and social values of the countercultural sixties. As he says:

It’s very easy to be cynical and condescending to it, but it was a fantastic era, incredibly hopeful and exciting. There was a real spirit of new things developing—human new things, not technological things, not consumer product things. But the feeling was that there was a human potential that had not remotely been tapped and it was always there for the tapping but only now were we aware of it and trying to do something about it. (Simon 37)

Cronenberg makes clear how the seemingly violent negation in counterculture horror stems from the hopes and disappointments of a period rich in political aspiration and cultural experimentation. This is perhaps akin to what Benjamin Noys calls “epic nihilism,” a representation of proletarian violence turned brutal through continuous defeat. This was common to the seventies forms of  representation from which Cronenberg emerges. From William S. Burroughs to Sam Peckinpah to Sergio Leone to John Carpenter, a seeming nihilistic pessimism perversely stood in for a kind of faith in counterculture values. For Cronenberg, the weirdness and indeterminacy of counterculture horror stands against the obedience and conformity of the present, a period where youth no longer harbor social and political ambitions but rather aim to survive and keep their heads down (Simon 37). “Revolution,” he insists, echoing the words of Mao Tse Tung, “is not a tea party” (Ibid. 38).


Dead Girls

Thus far, I have focused on the critical power of Maps to the Stars, reading it as an evocative, counterculture map of the social logic of what Arlie Hochschild calls “the commercialization of intimate life.” However, it’s only fair to say that the film, with its shallow and murderous female or feminized characters, can also be seen as symptomatic of the tendency to uphold gendered binaries in which that which is feminized is seen as commodified, shallow, irrational, image-obsessed, and petty. Andreas Huyssen criticizes male modernism for this practice of conflating mass culture with women:

It is indeed striking to observe how the political, psychological, and aesthetic discourse around the turn of the century consistently and obsessively genders mass culture and the masses as feminine, while high culture, whether traditional or modern, clearly remains the privileged realm of male activities. (47)

Here, the grand narratives of modernism imagine themselves to have broken with modernization, while actually reflecting the masculinist productivist concerns of that culture. They displace this critique onto an imagined feminine other. Huyssen imagines that postmodernism, with its convergence of high and low forms, has gained feminist purchase from these narratives. However, this vision of a post-masculinist post-modernism is belied by the persistence of the construction of alienating and trivializing forces as feminine.

From Kracauer’s use of the Tiller Girls as a figuration of mass ornament to Tiqqun’s envisioning of contemporary spectacle as “Young-Girlization,” there has been a continuity of male modernist anxiety directed at the spectacular woman. Here woman stands in for “a fear of nature out of control, a fear of the unconscious, of sexuality, of the loss of identity and stable ego boundaries in the mass” (Huyssens 52). However, the “masculine mystique” does not evaporate in postmodernity, as Huyssens suggests it does. In the present “reminting of the modern,” the fantasy of male transcendence of the feminized everyday finds different modes of representation, but persists throughout what Jameson frames as a “singular modernity” that spans the categories of modernism and postmodernism.

Maps to the Stars is a collaboration between Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner, whose novels consistently project their scathing critiques of celebrity culture onto the monstrous vapidity of the young girl. A conversation between two young aspirant actresses in the film captures the tone of much of Wagner’s novel Dead Stars, which largely consists of the inane conversations and celebrity-obsessed fantasies circulating amongst two dimensional young girls. These are shown in such a reductive light that they form a kind of shock-porn postmodernist minimalist formalism in the vein of Brett Easton Ellis’s worst works. In the film, the two girls who date Benjie and his friend take on the position of the typical Wagner character. They prove themselves incapable of any observations other than cruelly commenting on the pathetic “menopausal” or “post-menopausal” hideousness of any woman over eighteen. In Dead Stars, and less completely in Maps to the Stars, this channeling of social criticism through the easy target of the young girl delivers plenty of shock value, but this is certainly not the shock of the new or the particularly insightful.

Cronenberg’s use of feminine and masculine themes is the complicated subject of much debate. Famously, the important film critic Robin Wood accused him of misogyny and sexual conservatism, noting that the plots of his films seems to figure the body itself as a disgusting threat, capable only of corruption and murderousness. Cronenberg has refuted this accusation at length and many critics have come to his defense, noting that a contested movie like Shivers (1975) actually has revolutionary implications. That early film ends with sexually diseased mutants exiting their high rise building to infect the population with a disease that replaces bourgeois respectability with violent concupiscence. For Cronenberg, this was intended in the spirit of much counterculture film, in which insurgent energies are depicted through the monstrous lens of conservative society. However, the handling of gender in The Brood (1979) is more difficult to parse. Here, monstrosity takes the shape of a vengeful mother who autochthonously spawns deformed dwarf children who carry out her violent impulses. The film is constructed from the point of view of an innocent and terrorized ex-husband, and Cronenberg has admitted that the film was formed in response to a messy divorce.  Although the film can be recuperated as a feminist revenge film, most orienting markers in the film point to the fear of female irrationality from the standpoint of masculine sanity.

Maps to the Stars follows this ambiguous legacy. It can be read either as a critique of the commodification of intimacy or a symptom of a continuing equation of woman with a castrating mass culture. A tradition of reading Cronenberg’s films for their patriarchal point of view can be seen in in a review by Anthony Lane for the New Yorker. His explanation for why Maps to the Stars fails was so astonishing to me that I will quote it at length (in part to prove I am not making it up):

Why, then, does “Maps to the Stars” fail to compel as it should? In part, I think, because Viggo Mortensen has spoiled us. His great performances for Cronenberg, in “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises,” reminded us that the director is at his strongest when he has a hero to haul us through whatever nightmare has been laid on. That was true of James Woods in “Videodrome” and Jeremy Irons in “Dead Ringers,” both of them masterly figures who seemed nonetheless at the mercy of instinctual drives, whereas someone like Havana is less well poised; she is the dupe of her foolish appetites, and that’s that. Moore holds nothing back, and the result makes a splendidly noisy companion piece to her Oscar-winning turn in “Still Alice,” but Havana, on her own, can’t hold the story together. I wanted more both of Cusack, who is genuinely frightening, with his heavy tread, his black garb, and his clown-white face, and of Robert Pattinson, who plays a chauffeur named Jerome Fontana—a downgrade from his leading role in Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis,” where he lounged in the back of a limo. Why not have Jerome, a ready-jaded hopeful, steer us into Hollywood’s dark vales? [All the emphases in this quote are mine.]

Here, Lane makes the claim that all of the male actors in Cronenberg’s films have been more compelling than Julianne Moore. He would defend his statement, I assume, by saying that it isn’t the acting or actors that he is contrasting but the need for “a hero.” However, Lane elides acting skills and protagonist roles by claiming that it is Viggo Mortenson, James Woods, and Jeremy Irons that made Cronenberg’s previous work compelling, rather than their roles or how these protagonists were positioned. Further, he is able to separate actor and role in regards to male actors. On the other hand, Moore is fully conflated with the character she plays. He then goes on to use degraded feminized language, contrasting male “instinctual drives” with female “foolish appetites,” and proceeding to call Moore’s performance “splendidly noisy.” He comes to rest on the idea that the guy from Twilight who serves as nothing, really, but an intertextual prop in this movie, and of whose last performance Lane can say nothing but that he “lounged in the back of a limo,” would have been a more compelling focal point. This reading of the film demonstrates a lineage of reception in which a redeemable male figure is central to the disorienting experience of Cronenberg’s films.  Whatever Cronenberg’s intentions, Lane was unpleasantly jolted by the centrality of a feminine force that was supposed to be a “mass ornament” or figure of pure, unredeemable irrationality. Where, he seems to ask, is our heroic or anti-heroic male figure that keeps this feminine excrescence at a distance?

In the end, Maps to the Stars may serve as a map of gendered reception rather than a stable allegory of contemporary social forms. The film is generative in its willingness to leave itself open to misunderstandings, and in the room it provides for Julianne Moore’s and Mia Wasikowska’s singular performances. The two actresses fall into an affectively dissonant dyad, reminiscent of the pairing of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. Havana’s theatrical misery clashes strikingly with Agatha’s understated madness. Although Agatha defects from a culture of forced intimacy and cheeriness, she doesn’t seem to emerge into anything except grey certainty that she must make her untenable world end.  Even as she arranges her own extermination she is empty of emotion. She is gentle and certain, no longer compelled to perform servitude or happiness, but not performing anything else either. This refusal of the task of “acting” altogether, that would offer itself up to a spectator as hysteria, irrationality, or Lane’s “splendid” noisiness, highlights the contradictions of affective labor. Fury and madness will not exempt one from this regime of enforced niceness and efficiency, rather it will only ballast existent forms of hierarchy and affirm the category of female hysteria.

Agatha is a figure of refusal not only of enforced happiness but of hysteria, melodrama, and rage. In her culminating moments of violence she both lashes out and holds back, observing her own actions with curious detachment. In this approach, Wasikowska seems to be following a Brechtian course of defamiliarization, where “Spectator and actor ought not to approach one another but to move apart. Each ought to move away from himself. Otherwise the element of terror necessary to all recognition is lacking” (26).  Agatha’s refusal, then, takes the form of non-acting, an opaque calm that must serve as a placeholder for the unrepresentable emotions that lie on the other side of a totalized affective labor.


This refusal takes us beyond a simplistic critique of Hollywood to larger questions of social affective labor under the current system. Those who drop out of the culture of service, positivity, and affective submission become surplus, and thus disposable. In recent media cycles, Hollywood has come up as a scapegoat for the culture’s racism and sexism at large. While it is true that the Oscars are so white and that Jennifer Lawrence makes less money than her male co-stars, these issues largely act as distractions from the horrors inflicted on those who are forced out of the culture of affective obedience and utility. We can see this most starkly in the murder of black people whose (non-service oriented) behavior is publicly interrogated and used to justify their slaughter.  Oscar Grant was caught in a mass of “unruly” black bodies, and he was murdered. Freddie Gray made eye contact in the “wrong” way, and he was murdered. Sandra Bland refused to put out her cigarette, and she was murdered. Hollywood is a place where instrumentalized emotion is modeled and refined, but the remaking of the culture industry would hardly transform the demoralizing lives of those who must participate in that emotional discipline, and the even more punishing lives of those who don’t or can’t. Intuiting this, Maps to the Stars evades a simplistic satirical stance, and rather allows us to see Hollywood as a cognitive map of otherwise unfathomable means of discipline and control.


Works Cited

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Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. Print.

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Brecht, Bertolt. “A Dialogue About Acting.” Brecht on Theater. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964. Print.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. Bright Sided: how the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009. Print.

Evans, Jules. “Solving Happiness.” The New Inquiry June 6, 2012. Web.

Fuller, Graham. “Interview: David Cronenberg.” film comment. Feb 26, 2015. Web.

Hochschild, Arlie. The Managed Heart: commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. Print.

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: modernism, mass culture, postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. “Cognitive Mapping.” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg Eds. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Print.

Lane, Anthony. “Lost Souls.” The New Yorker March 9, 2015. Web.

Noys, Benjamin. “Spaghetti Communism?” Mute Magazine. Sept 2011. Web.

O’Hehir, Andrew. “Maps to the Stars: David Cronenberg’s incestuous Hollywood ghost story.” Salon. Feb. 25, 2015. Web.

Simon, Adam “The Existential Deal: An Interview with David Cronenberg.” Critical Quarterly 43:3 (2003).Web.

Virno, Paolo. A Grammar of the Multitude: for an analysis of contemporary forms of life. Cambridge, Mass; London: Semiotext(e), 2003. Print.



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