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Dr Michelle Devereaux, Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship

Gender, Trauma and Cavellian Scepticism in Contemporary Film and Television

"… [T]he surmise has crossed my mind that philosophical scepticism, and a certain denial of its reality, is a male business" - Stanley Cavell.

Trauma - how to survive it, and hopefully move past it - has become an integral part of the narrative of our time, particularly in relation to gender. Movements such as #MeToo are addressing abuses of power that relate to trauma in both public and private life. What has arisen is a kind of social-cultural reckoning, one that is likely to have far-reaching implications. But where does such a reckoning lead, on an individual and collective level?

Dr Michelle Devereaux’s research project hypothesises that it has, in part, resulted in a growing preoccupation with gender’s relation to philosophical scepticism, which reaches its culmination in contemporary film and television.

Her project will analyse a variety of screen stories that feature central characters undergoing sceptical crises stemming from past trauma. It will specifically study how these characters, both men and women, express such crises in relation to their gender, and how the characters’ creators relate these points of view through aesthetic and narrative means. The project aims to address philosophical scepticism, trauma, violence and vengeance from both male and female perspectives, engaging with a corpus of film and television primarily created by women.

The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent, 2018)

I May Destroy You (Michaela Cole, 2020)

Drawing on late philosopher Stanley Cavell’s seminal writings on scepticism and the cinema, the project situates these works in relation to Cavell’s interpretation of scepticism in classical Hollywood film.

Cavell refers to scepticism in his 1997 book Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman as ‘a kind of violence the human mind performs in response to its discovery of its limitation or exclusion, its sense of rebuff by truth’ (1997: 90). For the sceptic, the fact that we cannot access fundamental truths about the nature of reality and other people leads to a shrinking away from life. The failure to escape our own subjectivity, this ‘violence’, is a kind of trauma itself.

According to Catherine Wheatley, for Cavell, ‘The suffering of women…is of a different register to scepticism, nihilism or the doubts of men’ in the melodramas he studies (Wheatley 2019: 150). But his corpus is comprised exclusively of Hollywood films from the 1930s and 1940s, all made by men. Does current screen culture reflect an altered response to suffering and scepticism in our own era? Would a primarily women-created corpus offer differing perspectives? While Cavell’s work provides the impetus for this project, it is primarily a feminist-philosophical one, designed to engage Cavell’s provocative suggestion that scepticism is ‘inflected, if not altogether determined, by gender, by whether one sets oneself aside as masculine or feminine’ (1997: 100).

  • Cavell, Stanley (1997), Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Wheatley, Catherine (2019), Stanley Cavell and Film: Scepticism and Self-reliance at the Cinema, London: Bloomsbury.