Women Underscored: Sexuality, Subversion and the Soundtrack in Late Twentieth-Century Films

Monday 1 June 2015
Women Underscored: Sexuality, Subversion and the Soundtrack in Late Twentieth-Century Films


This study examines musical scores and characterisations of gender in late twentieth-century films, questioning whether nondiegetic music can be said to impose its own agency on supporting female characters that constrains their development within the narrative, resulting in their objectification. Case studies include Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Goldeneye (1995) and Braveheart (1995), all three of which will be examined within the context of film, soundtrack and feminist theories.


Film, as with other visual arts, is a spectatorial experience that invites the contemplative gaze of the viewer. Furthermore, as Buhler describes, 'narrative cinema, because it requires agency, almost always invites the viewer to look at a human body',[1] and Mulvey's seminal paper on the male gaze in cinema goes further to describe how 'film has depended on voyeuristic active/passive mechanisms',[2] in particular identifying how 'the image of woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of a man'[3] functions to produce 'an illusion cut to the measure of desire'[4]. Film music, as an illustrative medium that has the potential both to reinforce and to undermine the authority of the visuals, functions as an informational and interpretative semiotic device that guides the perspective of the viewer and, by extension, can confirm and direct the gaze through conscious and unconscious effects on the spectator. The musical score attains its agency within the filmic narrative, and the manner in which it responds to and describes characters and events throughout the film can inform the viewer's experience by controlling their exposure to the unfolding narrative, directing their attention and sympathies, and shaping their understanding of the film in all its dimensions.

This study examines the relationship between musical scores and characterisations of gender in late twentieth-century films, considering their implications within the frameworks of soundtrack and feminist theory, and investigating how nondiegetic music can affect the narrative potential of a character, specifically in situations where film music could be said to prevent female supporting characters from being fully realised as multi-dimensional persons, rather than as plot constructs. By investigating three high-budget, mainstream blockbusters - Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Goldeneye (1995) and Braveheart (1995) - the roles of women within each of the films will be addressed and the ways in which music characterises their portrayals will form the focus of the analysis. Considering in particular the manner in which each film focalises a male hero at the expense of all others, the study will question whether the score can be said to impose its own agency on supporting female characters that constrains their development within the narrative, ultimately resulting in their objectification.

Femininity and the Soundtrack

Much study of femininity and film music has focused on the Classical Hollywood era, when films that revelled in melodrama coupled with traditions derived from opera led to music that emphasised a masculine/feminine dichotomy. This binary opposition was most musically apparent in thematic approaches - Classical Hollywood scores, such as King Kong (1933), were often structured around two contrasting themes: one strong/'masculine', the other weak/'feminine' - a patriarchal distinction that McClary problematises within musicology as a whole when discussing sonata-allegro structures.[5] Laing notes how music throughout Classical Hollywood films tended to be associated with women:

The film scoring style of the 1940s in fact burdens female characters with a Romantic relationship to music that carries with it both psychological and physical implications ... The musical representation of their emotions suggests the transcendent nature of women's interiority [and] demonstrates the inevitable frustration or destructive power of this interiority in the context of contemporaneous ... social mores[6]

This connection between music and interiority pervaded film scoring of the Classical Hollywood era, and has subsequently been a key concept in music expressing what visuals and dialogue cannot explain. However it is the 'burden' that Laing identifies that is the subject of this study, insofar as the degree to which this characteristic of Classical Hollywood scoring can be seen in films produced decades later, well after the rise of feminism in wider society. If this 'burden' is indeed linked to 'contemporaneous social mores', then continued utilisation of such an approach can be seen to circumvent the intervening evolution of social attitudes, and, instead, propagates outmoded values.

Film music relies upon the audience's understanding of established musical signifiers to aid its agency, and tropes that articulate issues of gender and identity have existed since the advent of music in film (consider the silent movie orchestras and their compiled scores of clichés). As Haworth explains, 'representational practices in the film soundtrack draw upon previous archetypes established in ... opera and instrumental music',[7] but this practice, while efficiently providing contextual information in momentary gestures, should, by its very nature, be regarded with suspicion due to the agency of the underscore potentially proceeding unquestioned through its inherent 'inaudibility'[8]. Although film music's purpose is usually to support the narrative and contextualise the visuals (Gorbman identifies signifying of emotion and narrative cuing as key principles[9]), if left unchallenged such tropes have the potential to subvert alternative readings of the cinematic text. The consequences for a passive spectator in the presence of such agency is to be lulled into becoming, as Gorbman describes, an 'untroublesome (less critical, less wary) viewing subject',[10] or, from Brown:

... instead of leading the viewer/listener towards an open and/or paradigmatic reading of a given situation, [film music] imposes a single reading by telling the viewer/listener exactly how to react to and/or feel that situation.[11]

Although it is possible that an active viewer could choose to reject the soundtrack and its apparent narrative agenda, or the music could create an ambiguity that requires the engagement of an active listener to achieve resolution, this does not negate the issue of how a musical score can be seen to suggest a single reading of a scene and what such a situation implies for the characters and the film as a whole. The following analyses do not seek to identify the intentionality of the filmmakers or composers; rather each film is considered as autonomous, and discussions about form and function are based purely upon the interaction and agency of music within the final films as distinct works of art, and on how these interactions affect the characters within the scope of the narratives.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and the Femme Fatale

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a nostalgic adventure movie from a film series that closely follow the titular character as he pursues both a priceless artefact and a beautiful woman. There are few scenes in which Jones does not appear and all crucial events occur in his presence or due to his actions. The viewer embarks upon an adventure in which the protagonist's exploits are transferred onto the spectator in a procedure of escapist fantasy, embodying Mulvey's description of mainstream films as 'hermetically sealed world[s] which unwind magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic phantasy'[12].

Crucial to the hero-centric nature of the film is the musical score that focalises Jones in the narrative. As with the other films in this study, the score carefully follows the protagonist's every move, emotion and adversity - burbling with excitement during his daring escapes, treading ominously during moments of danger, and exploding with jubilance (usually with his famous theme) at Jones' triumphs[13] - and it can be seen to orientate the viewer to identify with the dominant, lead character from a third-person perspective. This elicits a subconscious empathy for the protagonist, giving him authority over the narrative, and, as such, all other characters and their music are reduced to devices that service the telling of the hero's story. For instance, when Jones recognises a depiction of the Ark of the Covenant, identifying it to Elsa Schneider, the underscore recalls the 'Ark' motif from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). This idea - which has no connection to Schneider, who is unaware of his previous adventure - immediately creates an exclusive complicity between Jones and the audience that disregards Schneider completely.

Key elements of the Indiana Jones series are those of nostalgia and homage for the Classical Hollywood era, mixed with exaggeration bordering on melodrama and comic-book-esque depictions of comedy and action. The improbable exploits of the hero pay homage to the swashbuckling adventures of the 1930s and 40s, while everything from the stereotypical villains and sidekicks to the extreme close-ups of characters' emotional responses draw directly from Classical Hollywood. Musically, this nostalgia presents itself in the scoring techniques that characterise the narrative development and the characters therein. Kassabian has described the Indiana Jones series as 'hyperclassical'[14] - at a time when films appeared to be shedding themselves of the stereotypes of earlier cinema, 'these films returned to the tightest musical meaning system available just at the moment when mass culture seemed to be opening up to those it had historically excluded'[15].

One significant nostalgic element in The Last Crusade is the use of a femme fatale in the place of a traditional love interest. As a staple of Classical Hollywood, the femme fatale exemplified deviance in the feminine form by leading upstanding male characters to destructive ends, often through the weaponisation of their sex, and has been a key topic in feminist film theory concerned with the male gaze. This contrasts with the virtuous woman, or 'Woman as romantic Good Object'[16], to use Gorbman's classification, whose existence served to provide an object of affection for male characters in Classical Hollywood. Female characters in the Indiana Jones series (one that almost exclusively uses male characters except for romantic roles[17]) are often accompanied in a manner reminiscent of the love interests of the Golden Age - with exuberant orchestral passion that, as Gorbman describes, suggests 'the emotional excess of [a woman's] presence must find its outlet in the euphony of a string orchestra'[18]. However, Schneider's femme fatale is a stark departure from Marion Ravenwood and Willie Scott's 'romantic Good Objects'[19]. These women may have been granted a limited amount of freedom from Classical constructs,[20] but they are nevertheless limited both narratively and musically to rely upon Jones as their saviour, and their musical identity is conflated with that of his romantic interest in them. In Raiders, 'Marion's theme' serves both as a symbol of their romantic attachment and her reliance upon him as her protector, creating an equivalency between her character and their relationship that suggests that her identity is defined in terms of being his love interest; as Buhler, Neumeyer and Deemer have described:

...where the male character has a well-defined theme, [the love theme] suggests that she is essentially identical to [her] relationship [with him], whereas the theme for the hero establishes a musical identity for him that cannot be reduced in the same way.[21]

Schneider's initial appearance is completely unscored, creating an ambiguity about her character and narrative role. As Jones and Brody arrive in Venice to meet "Dr Schneider" they muse about identifying "him". Waiting to meet them is Schneider, who keeps her identity secret long enough for Jones to begin flirting before revealing her name, much to their surprise. This interaction demonstrates a curious contradiction of Classical Hollywood tropes. Schneider is displayed for visual consumption as an object of beauty and sexual interest - an immaculately groomed, beautiful young woman, espousing the stereotypes of Aryan ideals; well-lit and presented at a medium distance for discreet appreciation of her beauty - and, although Jones' impulse flirting reinforces her visual identification as a romantic interest, the musical silence provides no such confirmation, nor takes the opportunity to contradict this characterisation or suggest any other aspect of her person. The music establishes a position of neutrality, which allows her (musically, at least) to exist as an equal to Jones rather than a subordinate - the role more common to his female companions - undermining Jones' control of the musical agency by not reflecting his interiority and/or actions.

This equal treatment recurs in the hotel when they kiss to musical silence. Despite the obvious eroticism, this silence avoids a reflection of Jones' experience - either directly or indirectly through the viewer's voyeurism - and prevents any affirmation of his narrative dominance over her character. If music is traditionally the realm of the feminine and the irrational, then its lack undermines the establishment of Schneider as a romantic interest, allowing her instead to enjoy the realm of masculine rationalism and empowerment, as Buhler has noted regarding Classical Hollywood:

When it comes to men, music does not, in fact, tend to underscore the image as particularly lacking and so in need of supplementation ... it allows that male emotion is fundamentally comprehensible ...[22]

This musical neutrality emancipates Schneider beyond the limits traditionally applied to a woman in the Classical Hollywood style. Schneider's independence and assertion is an evolution of Ravenwood's 'strong woman', but the lack of sweeping romantic music liberates her from the categorisation of women with love themes.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Schneider's musical neutrality.

Crucially, when Schneider's duplicity is revealed - the most significant moment for her story - this multi-dimensional freedom vanishes as the music delimits her as a mono-dimensional trope - a femme fatale; a stereotype with dramatic expectations that curtail her narrative potential through the convention that her deviance must now be punished. As Jones recognises her betrayal the woodwinds sigh, the brass groan chromatically downwards and a brief, appassionato string chord laments at the hero's foolishness, suggesting that he should have anticipated this turn of events.[23]

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Schneider's betrayal.

This melodramatic, Classical approach continues when Schneider is left alone with the Joneses - the two male villains exit and their ominous low strings and brass give way to violins and harp, the music lightening and meandering seductively while Schneider teases Jones - mocking him with an impassioned kiss. As the music swells[24] it reveals the fervent, romantic passion that was denied in the hotel room, despite Jones' expression indicating the unrequited nature of the kiss. Not only does the score shift away from focalising Jones - apparently more concerned with male, heteronormative[25] fantasy than the protagonist's visible fury - but it ultimately subverts Schneider's victory by summarising her superiority in the power of her sex rather than her intelligence (she has at least one PhD). Schneider reverts to a mono-dimensional femme fatale, and this fetishisation (the musical flourish is definitively major, whereas a similar gesture in an ambiguous or even minor tonality could have been equally lustful but without such overt eroticism) defines her by her femininity and deviance contextualised within Jones' masculinised musical space, allowing him to retain superiority within the soundtrack. In its passion the music revels in the male gaze and Schneider becomes a sexually-driven character: 'a depiction of deviance that, in classical cinema at least, is always punished'[26].

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Schneider's victory kiss.

Schneider's inevitable - and, by Classical Hollywood tropes, requisite - comeuppance comes when she chooses the Holy Grail over her own life, resulting in her dramatic demise. Fixating upon the discarded Grail, she immediately becomes overcome with greed. As she gazes at the cup - and before her intentions are visible to the audience - the music soars[27], evoking the appassionato from her post-betrayal kiss and articulating her deviance and irrationality in situations of emotional excess. She is shown as a character of 1940s melodrama whereby her inevitable undoing is explained as a moment of madness, and the ardent musical flourish ties this into her femininity, defining her strictly within the constraints of her passion and irrationalism and preventing sympathy with her fateful decision.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Schneider's comeuppance.

Schneider's musical characterisation within the film is defined by the contradiction of her initial ambiguity, which gives rise to her potential as an emancipated rival to Jones, and her sudden categorising as a Classical deviant woman, whose victory comes from her sex and whose intelligence is of no significance. Her narrative potential is curtailed at her peak, reaffirming Jones' pre-eminence and reducing her to a mono-dimensional character whose subsequent narrative purpose is her own punishment. Although this characterisation is a nostalgic, melodramatic device, the result is a character that no longer functions as a dynamic, enigmatic, multi-faceted dimension within the drama, becoming instead a plot device - a turning point in the hero's journey. As such, Schneider's role is 'as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning'[28] and women in the film series are reaffirmed as supporting characters who are always denied the narrative autonomy afforded to Jones himself.

Goldeneye (1995) and Submission through the Soundtrack

While continuing the traditional formula of 007 saving the world from a megalomaniac mastermind and his loyal henchmen while partnering with a beautiful woman, Goldeneye heralded a time of reinvention for the long-running franchise, with a new Bond in the form of Pierce Brosnan and a notable prominence of female characters - most notably Judi Dench's M, but also ruthless, sex-psychopath Xenia Onatopp and intelligent, shrewd Natalya Simonova. Musically, Goldeneye combines contemporary, electronic elements for a fresh, modern sound with nostalgic, orchestral scoring that provided continuity with the older, classic films, and these two contrasting musical styles are reflected in the scoring approaches for Onatopp and Simonova respectively.

Onatopp appears while racing Bond towards Monte Carlo - the funky, cheeky music exudes a confident, swaggering masculinity that immediately positions her on an equal level with Bond, paralleling her self-assured competitiveness during the scene. As her brutality is revealed in later scenes she is granted further musical freedom, as the subsequent distant, detached scoring avoids any commentary on her savagery or reflection on gendered tropes, instead allowing her to express herself through her actions with minimal accompaniment. Her mid-coital murder of Admiral Farrell is entirely unscored, while the massacre at Severnaya and her final battle with Bond are accompanied with percussive, electronic ostinati and synthesiser textures that are musically neutral, heightening the danger of her character from a position of dominance. Onatopp's accompaniment parallels that of Alex Trevelyan, the evil mastermind of the film, and such a characterisation empowers her as equally lethal and powerful as the two male leads and, in contrast to Elsa Schneider, her 'deviance' is characterised by a dangerous, aggressive masculinity rather than an unstable, irrational femininity.

Goldeneye: Onatopp vs. Bond.

Onatopp's music contrasts dramatically with that of Simonova, whose sweeping, passionate, effeminate theme accompanies her character whenever she is exerting her presence on the narrative and is not only nostalgic of the Bond scores of old, but also reminiscent of the love themes of Classical Hollywood. With the exception of the music during the tank chase,[29] Simonova's theme is the only real reference to the older, orchestral scores of the Barry era, and is notated below as it occurs at her first appearance after the destruction of Severnaya:

Goldeneye: Simonova's ThemeFigure 1 - Goldeneye: Simonova's Theme[30]

Goldeneye: Simonova's Theme.

This theme,[31] performed on alto flute with accompanying string chords, portrays Simonova as fragile and helpless through its slow, pensive movement - the yearning melody repeatedly reaching up only to fall back down - and its sparse texture and weak harmony, with the shifts from tonic minor to first-inversion relative major and the unstable augmented chord that interrupts her musical voice before the idea reaches completion. Even in its final, reharmonised version at the film's end, as she is seduced by Bond in the aftermath of their adventure, the harmony alternates between tonic major and relative minor, continuing the unstable sense of emotionality and irrationality.[32] Furthermore, the smooth and delicate theme serves as a musical soft-focus lens, romanticising her character and portraying her as emotional and feminine, identifying her as the clichéd 'Bond girl' - a trope whose sole purpose is sexual gratification. This delimitation undermines her actual role in the narrative, whereby her bravery not only saves Bond on more than one occasion, but she is the one who ultimately stops Trevelyan and saves London (and, therefore, the world).

Significantly, Simonova's theme does not develop, in contrast with her narrative journey. Whereas Bond's most impressive moments (the tank chase in particular) are scored with explosions of powerful brass and/or variations on the exhilarating rhythms of his famous theme, any moments when Simonova's music appears are given the same musical treatment. From the theme's first appearance when she escapes from Severnaya, casting her as a terrified and helpless victim (as opposed to a brave and resourceful survivor), to its final statement after her courage and ingenuity defeated Trevelyan, the consistent nature of her accompaniment limits her characterisation within the film and subverts her significance in the narrative, continually positioning her as of lesser importance than Bond himself. As with Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the consonant, romantic scoring depicts Simonova as a 'romantic Good Object'[33] and, despite her dramatic journey, the lack of thematic development denies her any meaningful musical evolution of her character.

The contrast between Onatopp and Simonova presents a contradiction in the musical representation of female characters similar to the ambiguities of Schneider in The Last Crusade. Whereas Onatopp's scoring allows her to exist on a plane with Bond - a threatening rival whose lack of musical personification represents an uncomfortable, ambiguous, masculinised danger to match her sexual psychopathy - Simonova's accompaniment with an evocative, romantic theme emphasises her femininity, suggesting inherent weakness in comparison with the cold and ruthless Onatopp and Bond. As such, Simonova's recurring theme accentuates her initial victimisation in stark contrast to her increasing importance and courage in the narrative as it unfolds. This is especially interesting when the moments at which she is truly helpless - such as the attack on the Severnaya and her kidnapping by Ourumov - the music reflects the stronger onscreen presence - Onatopp and Ourumov in the first instance and Bond in the second. Her 'damsel in distress' scoring occurs not at the points at which she is in the most danger, but actually at her most resourceful and assertive moments, contradicting her personal strength so as to define her as the extreme opposite to Onatopp's 'strong woman'.

Similarly, when Simonova and Bond argue about the latter's cold lonely life the significance of her argument is undermined by the heaving eroticism of her theme, reducing the importance of her astute psychoanalysis of Bond to irrational, emotional worrying, reflected in his lack of patience with her concern. Furthermore, the use of her musical theme during this scene changes its agency: when Simonova's melody is first introduced as she escapes from the collapsing transmitter base the score operates as a spectator, observing her struggle and eliciting sympathy for her helpless predicament. However, as she approaches Bond on the beach the use of her theme is controlled by Bond himself. Although the music initially reflects his melancholy - the same melancholy that Simonova critiques - it pointedly ignores her argument, carrying on without variation and regardless of her protestations, ultimately giving a voice to his sexual desire that culminates in him force-kissing her mid-quarrel - a physical interruption of her argument corresponding with the augmented-chord interruption in her musical theme, both protagonist and music preventing her from expressing herself as an equal.

Goldeneye: Simonova vs. Bond.

This disempowerment not only subverts Simonova, but also pacifies the viewer for a moment of sexually-charged heteronormative fantasy - although Bond silences her with the forceful sexual aggression typical of his character throughout the series, the romantic scoring not only prevents her opinion from being fully voiced but it suppresses any desire in the viewer to hear her express herself. The music eroticises the encounter from the outset, reinforcing the male gaze and Bond's dominance of the musical narrative, disarming the audience so that the subsequent segue to their post-coital bedroom seems perfectly natural, charming the viewer into becoming, as Gorbman defines, an 'untroublesome ... viewing subject'[34].

Braveheart (1995) and the Reductive Equivalency of Women

The final case study poses an altogether different set of issues. In Braveheart, William Wallace is driven to fight for Scottish liberty after the murder of his wife, Murron MacClannough, at the hands of English soldiers. In the process he becomes entangled, romantically and politically, with Princess Isabella of France, the daughter-in-law of King Edward "Longshanks" of England. Although both women have different roles within the narrative - one is shown as the protagonist's 'true love', whose murder instigates his story, the other serves as a companion, spy and unlikely political ally in his quest for vengeance - they are both scored with the same musical idea:

Braveheart: MacClannough/Isabella's ThemeFigure 2 - Braveheart: MacClannough/Isabella's Theme[35]

Braveheart: MacClannough/Isabella's Theme

This 'love theme' operates much in the same way as a traditional, Classical Hollywood romantic theme. It is first heard when MacClannough gifts Wallace a thistle when they are both still children, immediately associating itself with their relationship. After the former's death the theme remains absent until it returns with a new meaning for the tryst that develops between Wallace and Isabella. The calm, lyrical melody, with the gently shifting and cyclical harmony, embodies a soft grace and tenderness - reminding the audience of Wallace's calmer, peaceful, civilised existence before his life was shattered by the unprovoked brutality of the evil English - contrasting with his graphic anger, bitterness and unrestrained aggression, characterised by less melodic and more aggressive music. Not only does this create a feminine-masculine opposition within the soundtrack, but it also elicits sympathy from the audience who are encouraged towards a 'single reading'[36] of his character as the unambiguous hero, positing Wallace as the primary subject of the viewer's interest and allegiance.

Furthermore, the haunting and distinctive melody, with its song-like antecedent-consequent structure and harmony centred on the F-G-Am progression, not only serves as the most significant and recognisable idea in the score, but it also creates a sense of preordained musical destiny throughout the film. Unthematic minor and modal passages meander throughout the film, giving a sense of a wandering, organic, boundless composition. The instability from this indefinite form pre-empts resolution into a stronger, unambiguous sense of structure and tonality, characterised by the theme. By making the love theme the source of musical equilibrium, Wallace's relationship with the theme's visual icons (i.e. MacClannough and Isabella) is positioned as the most balanced dramatic situation - that is, the events that pull him away from his relationships ultimately disrupt the natural resolution that is exemplified by the love theme. Therefore the audience is primed to support Wallace's cause not only so he can achieve retribution, but so that he (and, by extension, the viewer) can return to the state that allows the love theme to be heard - that is, in the presence of his romantic interests.

Braveheart: Wallace and MacClannough.

Although this continued use of the love theme as a reflection of Wallace's softer side creates continuity for his character, there are consequences for MacClannough and Isabella from their monothematic treatment. By accompanying his romances with different women with the same melody a situation results whereby both characters are, for all intents and purposes, identical to each other within the musical context of the film. The implications of this reduction are clear - as far as the music is concerned, the two women and their respective roles within the narrative are essentially one and the same, and that their individualities and unique, personal journeys are of no significance. The use of such an obtrusive theme compounds this, as it makes the singular categorisation of the women all the more obvious and, with the theme providing the score's natural balancing point, all the more desirable.

This single treatment not only constrains the women within the narrative, but it also creates consequences for Wallace himself. By equating MacClannough and Isabella as romantic interests through music that allies itself closely with the protagonist and his objectives, coupled with the principle of love themes reducing the significance of female characters to their relationships with male protagonists,[37] one could go so far as to say that the score proposes that Wallace himself sees both characters as equivalent. If the music reflects Wallace's perspective and subjectivities, then the identical treatment of two characters suggests an equivalency in his mind between the two. Again, this musical characterisation likens them to 'bearer[s] of meaning, not maker[s] of meaning',[38] and in this case their 'meaning' embodies this equivalency and its significance for Wallace. Whether or not this implies that his interest in Isabella is to replace his loss of MacClannough or, at the extreme, that his view of women in general is based purely on sexual interest is not musically clear; however, in a film where attention is drawn to his civilised and softer qualities (for instance, revealing himself as a polyglot to Isabella and her advisors who had assumed him a brute), the reductive approach to the two principal female characters within the film not only delimits them as romantic objects of desire rather than emphasising their uniqueness (especially Isabella, whose cunning outsmarts Longshanks) but it potentially subverts Wallace's sensitivity by suggesting a reductive attitude with regards to women.

Braveheart: Wallace and Isabella.

In a film where the hero-villain dichotomy is clear, and where the protagonist's refined, humanising qualities are emphasised wherever possible so as to excuse his otherwise brutal, savage behaviour as a necessary evil in pursuit of the greater, more civilised good, this equating of MacClannough and Isabella reduces their role to that of mere sexual desire and, in doing so, can be seen to undermine the civilising process at the heart of the film that seeks to champion Wallace above all others. Furthermore, the score's focalising of the protagonist and the structural resolution brought about by the love theme can be seen to prime the audience as 'untroublesome ... viewing subject[s]'[39] into passively accepting this equivalency through a subconscious desire for the natural consonance of the theme and, by association, tacitly agreeing to the dramatic positioning of MacClannough and Isabella that deemphasises their significance within the narrative and strengthens Wallace's musical agency.


The analyses of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Goldeneye and Braveheart demonstrate that film music in the late-twentieth century still relied, to some extent, on gender characterisations from the Classical Hollywood era (which, in turn, were influenced by earlier musical conventions - as Franklin has pointed out, 'film music is older than film'[40]). Furthermore, these examples have shown how musical typecasting can prevent female characters from achieving their narrative potential, insofar as the score imposes limits that subvert their ability to occupy the same level of narrative freedom as male protagonists. As such, it has been seen how the score can attempt to impose its own agency on the film that promotes the protagonist above all others, and any threats to this primacy are controlled through processes that reduce secondary characters to one-dimensional constructs, whose character arcs have significance only in terms of their relationship to the protagonist. When this protagonist is male and the subverted characters female, this reasserts the issues of the male gaze at the centre of feminist film theory and defines the women in the film as subordinate to the leading man.

It is important to note, of course, that these are but three films and, although they are representative of a larger body of similar works from the same period, they do not speak for all films made during the late-twentieth century. Indeed, Kassabian's analyses of Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and Thelma and Louise (1991) (among others) have shown how late-twentieth-century film music also moved beyond Classical Hollywood methods of identification and its definitions of femininity and female sexuality,[41] while Stilwell has demonstrated how the soundtrack in Closet Land (1991) could be said to have a female rather than male subject position that is of more importance than the visuals it accompanies.[42]

However, the use of Classical scoring approaches demonstrated in this study suggest a tendency towards established conventions that owe more to the social politics of the first half of the last century rather than the latter. As Haworth has pointed out:

Audiovisual texts, particularly those deliberately designed to have broad commercial appeal, provide a powerful means of circulating the societal norms through which facets of identity are read and understood[43]

This raises the question of the extent to which film music can wield influence beyond the confines of the movie theatre through the cinematic experience of the audience member. While such an investigation goes beyond the scope of this study, if the score can reduce James Bond's clever and resourceful female companion into a fetishised 'Bond girl' whose primary purpose is as an object of sexual pleasure for both protagonist and viewer, one can but wonder what effect observing this reductive characterisation can have on the passive spectator. Although an active viewer could potentially choose to reject the presented interpretation of the cinematic text, film music relies upon the passivity of the spectator in exerting its agency.[44] However, as Haworth explains, 'when we engage with [the soundtrack], our own subjectivities are not left outside the room';[45] and so, whether the viewer is an active or passive subject, not only does film music rely upon their understanding of established tropes and signifiers, but its potential to affect is limited by their own predispositions.

As such, film music can be said to negotiate with our understandings of gender constructs through both its engagement with the characters and the narrative, and also through our own engagement with it as spectators. By aligning itself with established tropes, the score has the potential to limit the expansion of characters within the film by guiding the audience's perception and establishing the dominance of the protagonist over the soundtrack. Although these techniques can be traced back to early opera[46] and regardless of the overarching dramatic purpose, the use of such tropes to represent women in film can limit their narrative potential, prevent their development as complex, multi-dimensional characters in comparison with the protagonist, and consequently reinforces the authority of the male gaze.


  1. J. Buhler, 'Gender, Sexuality, and the Soundtrack', The Oxford Handbook of Film Music Studies, ed. David Neumeyer (New York, 2013), 366.
  2. L. Mulvey, 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', Screen, 16.3 (Autumn 1975), 18.
  3. ibid., 17.
  4. loc. cit. Mulvey's paper (and reactions to it) are excellent primers for a proper explanation of feminist film theory.
  5. S. McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender & Sexuality (Minnesota, 2002), 13.
  6. H. Laing, The Gendered Score: Music in 1940s Melodrama and the Woman's Film (Ashgate, 2007), 10; emphasis in original.
  7. C. Haworth, 'Gender, Sexuality and the Soundtrack', Music, Sound and the Moving Image, 6:2 (Autumn 2012), 124.
  8. As identified in C. Gorbman, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (Indiana, 1987), 76-79.
  9. ibid., 79-89.
  10. ibid., 58.
  11. R. Brown, Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music (Berkley, 1994), 10.
  12. Mulvey, op. cit., 9.
  13. As demonstrated in track 9 on disc 3 of the extended soundtrack CD collection: 'Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra'.
  14. A. Kassabian, Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music (New York, 2001), 89.
  15. loc. cit.
  16. Gorbman, op. cit., 80.
  17. Excluding Irina Spalko as the antagonist in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), but the much-later production of this film comes after a period where greater equality had been sought between genders throughout cinema, and the film was sufficiently later that its nostalgia is as much for the earlier trilogy as for Classical traditions.
  18. Gorbman, op. cit., 80.
  19. ibid.
  20. Especially with Ravenwood, whose introduction in Raiders shows her besting a rather large man at a drinking contest before proceeding to fight off a squad of Nazi attackers.
  21. J. Buhler, D. Neumeyer & R. Deemer, Hearing the Movies: Music and Sound in Film History (New York, 2010), 198.
  22. J. Buhler, op. cit., 369.
  23. This cue is not on the soundtrack CD, but occurs at 50:20 on the DVD.
  24. Track 8 on disc 3 of the extended soundtrack CD collection: 'The Austrian Way' (from 0:58).
  25. Butler defines heteronormativity as the normative and normalising power of heterosexuality in representation, subjectivity, legality and discipline: J. Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge, 1990).
  26. Haworth, op. cit., 115.
  27. Track 11 on disc 5 of the extended soundtrack CD collection: 'Wrong Choice/Right Choice' (from 3:42).
  28. Mulvey, op. cit., 7.
  29. Curiously, the modern, electronic cue originally composed for the tank chase was replaced with orchestral music late in production, suggesting that Simonova's theme was intended to be the only Barry-esque musical component.
  30. Track 6 on the soundtrack CD: 'The Severnaya Suite: Among the Dead/Out of Hell/The Husky Tribe'.
  31. Simonova's theme bears a curious (presumably coincidental) similarity to Chopin's posthumous E-major waltz.
  32. Track 15 on the soundtrack CD: 'For Ever, James'.
  33. Gorbman, op. cit., 80.
  34. ibid., 58.
  35. Tracks 2 & 11 on the soundtrack CD: 'A Gift of a Thistle' (from 0:40) & 'For the Love of a Princess'; notated as heard in the former, but the latter is almost completely identical.
  36. Brown, op. cit., 10.
  37. Buhler, Neumeyer & Deemer, op. cit., 198.
  38. Mulvey, op. cit., 7.
  39. Gorbman, op. cit., 58.
  40. P. Franklin, Seeing Through Music: Gender and Modernism in Classic Hollywood Scores (Oxford, 2011), 3.
  41. Kassabian, op. cit., 61-89.
  42. R. Stilwell, 'Sound and Empathy: Subjectivity, Gender and the Cinematic Soundscape', Film Music: Critical Approaches, ed. K. Donnelly (Edinburgh, 2001), 167-187.
  43. Haworth, op. cit., 125.
  44. Gorbman has identified how film music (as per her model of Max Steiner) ought to be 'inaudible': op. cit., 76-79.
  45. Haworth, op. cit., 125.
  46. For an investigation of gender constructs in Monteverdi see McClary, op. cit., 35-52.


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  • J. Buhler, D. Neumeyer and R. Deemer, Hearing the Movies: Music and Sound in Film History (New York, 2010).
  • J. Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge, 1990).
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  • C. Flinn, Strains of Utopia: Gender, Nostalgia, and Hollywood Film Music (Princeton, 1992).
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  • C. Gorbman, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (Indiana, 1987).
  • C. Haworth, 'Gender, Sexuality and the Soundtrack', Music, Sound and the Moving Image, 6:2 (Autumn 2012), 113-135.
  • K. Kalinak, Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film (Wisconsin, 1992).
  • A. Kassabian, Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music (New York, 2001).
  • H. Laing, The Gendered Score: Music in 1940s Melodrama and the Woman's Film (Ashgate, 2007).
  • Z. Lin, 'The Heard and Unheard Sounds of Women: A Comparison of Female Silence and Theme Music in Two Versions of Letter from an Unknown Woman', Music and the Moving Image, 5:3 (Autumn 2012), 11-27.
  • S. McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender & Sexuality (Minnesota, 2002).
  • L. Mulvey, 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', Screen, 16.3 (Autumn 1975), 6-18.
  • R. Stilwell, 'Sound and Empathy: Subjectivity, Gender and the Cinematic Soundscape', Film Music: Critical Approaches, ed. K. Donnelly (Edinburgh, 2001), 167-187.


  • J. Horner, Braveheart: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, London Symphony Orchestra, James Horner (Polygram), 1995, CD 448295.
  • E. Serra, Goldeneye, London Studio Session Orchestra, John Altman (Virgin), 1995, CD 41048.
  • J. Williams, Indiana Jones: The Soundtracks Collection, Hollywood Studio Symphony Orchestra, John Williams (Concord), 1989/R2008, CD 31000.