Masters Thesis (Intro): The New Stage Irishman and the Silent Female: Portrayals of the Irish-American Experience in Modern Hollywood Cinema

By February 28, 2018 Academic

Below is the Intro to my Masters thesis, which gives you the main ideas. (The entire thesis is far too big, and the website didn’t like it.)

I’ve also included my Reference List at the end, which may be useful for other researchers.

If you would like to see the entire thesis, please email me. I am happy to share it for educational purposes.

Be aware: most people who have read this have been paid to do so. Although one examiner’s feedback described it as ‘a lively thesis’, remember this is academia we’re talking about, so it’s not ‘lively’ in the way that a John Grisham novel might be. But, if you are suffering from insomnia, this may help. Enjoy.

The New Stage Irishman and the Silent Females: Portrayals of the Irish-American Experience in Modern Hollywood Cinema

This thesis is submitted in total fulfilment of the Master of Arts (Writing and Literature)

Deakin University, Faculty of Arts and Education

January 2018

 

Dedication

To my grandmothers: Annie O’Leary from County Cork and  Jane Healy County Sligo. I was so lucky to have both of you in my life.  You were feminists when there was barely a word for what you did. As strong Irish-American women, you have left a treasured legacy, for which I will be forever grateful.

 

Table of Contents

 

Summary of Thesis………………………………………………………………………………………….7

 

Introduction

Who’s Your Paddy? ……………………………………………………………………………………………9

 

Chapter 1

The Irish in Context: Culturally and Cinematically…………………………………………………………….13

 

Chapter 2

The Boys’ Club: Images of Identity and Masculinity in Good Will Hunting & The Departed………………………21

 

Chapter 3

Where the Girls At? Women as Plot Devices in Good Will Hunting & The Departed………………………………33

 

Chapter 4

No Mean Girls Need Apply: Brooklyn and the Irish-American Female………………………41

 

Conclusion

Why Paddywhackery matters…………………………………………………………………………………..50

 

References…………………………………………………………………………………………………52

 

Summary of Thesis

Submitted for the degree of Master of Arts (Writing and Literature)

Irish-Americans, including those claiming Irish ancestry, are one of the largest ethnic groups in America. Close to 100 years after their peak period of immigration, Irish-Americans continue to exert a cultural hold, particularly in popular culture. Yet despite their large numbers, the Irish-American experience has been underrepresented in recent Hollywood cinema. Where Irish-Americans do appear, it has been often in the hyper-masculine role of gangster. In particular, the Irish-American female’s experience has been largely ignored.

The aim of this project has been to examine the portrayal of the Irish-American identity in contemporary Hollywood cinema.  This thesis has examined cinematic versions of existing ethnic stereotypes, what I refer to as the New Stage Irishman, in addition to the lack of, or underwhelming presence of, female characters in the films that have emerged. Through the critical analysis of three primary texts, Good Will Hunting (1997), The Departed (2006) and Brooklyn (2015), this thesis concludes that the representation of Irish-American, identity while flawed, still has much to contribute to the cannon of the Irish-American cinematic experience.

 Disposition of Thesis

I am the author of the thesis entitled ‘The New Stage Irishman and the Silent Women: Portrayals of the Irish-American Experience in Modern Hollywood Cinema’ submitted for the degree of Master of Arts (Writing and Literature). I agree to the thesis being made available for such consultation, loan or printing as may be approved by the School Administrative Officer, provided that no part of the thesis shall be reproduced without the prior approval of the School Administrative Officer and without the appropriate acknowledgment of source.

KELLY A. SHAW      

January 2018

Introduction

Who’s Your Paddy?

Hollywood’s myths and symbols are permanent features of America’s historical consciousness.

– Peter C. Rollins, Hollywood as Historian

 

While the Jews have Woody Allen, and the Italians have Coppola’s Godfather trilogy, the Irish are lacking in a cinematic voice that comprehensively captures their American story. And, for the women among them, there is virtually no voice at all. This is surprising for two key reasons: first, the Irish enjoy a reputation as natural storytellers, a by-product of their long association with an oral and folklore tradition rich with many female figures, as recorded and explored by W.B Yeats, among others. Second, it is seemingly inconsistent with and not reflective of the large number of Americans that claim Irish ancestry – over 34 million as of 2010, which is six times the current population of Ireland (U.S Census Bureau).

During the peak era of immigration from Europe in the period between 1900 and 1997, nearly one million Irish emigrated to America (Statistical Abstract of the U.S 1999). Despite their large numbers and establishing a strong cultural foothold in many geographical areas, particularly in the northeast, the experience of their immigration and assimilation has been surprisingly underrepresented in film, particularly in modern American cinema. Moreover, the Irish-American characters who have appeared, both during their past Golden Era (Rhodes, 2010) and more recently in a series of gangster-saturated films, have been little more than stereotypes, as highlighted by many Irish film scholars (Barton, 2009; Rhodes; Shannon, 2013).  Ruth Barton contends that ‘even when their background was not flagged, or when they are not cast explicitly as Irish characters, the possibility remained that popular images – the fighting Irish, the sentimental Celt, the loquacious Gael – were somehow watermarked into their performances’ (xvi). This characterisation does not, of course, represent a comprehensive picture of the Irish-American experience. In fact, it does little more than reconstruct the image of the ‘Stage Irishman’, whom Welsh defines as a ‘product of colonialism [for] whom Irish national characteristics are emphasized or distorted,’ (223).

The aim of this thesis is three-fold: first, it is to examine the pervasiveness of the New Stage Irishman, historically evidenced by the Irish characters in early American cinema (gangsters, priests, boxers and maids), and more recently by the permeation of the gangster-and-moll stereotypes that have dominated much of the cinematic representation of Irish-Americans post-1990. The second aim is to examine the roles of women where they do appear, and applying feminist film criticism, consider why their experiences have been marginalised in a post-second-wave feminist world. Finally, this thesis seeks to create a better understanding, and a more accurate representation, of the Irish-American experience through a close textual analysis of three films. This thesis will examine elements of Irishness and identity in the characters, themes and storylines of Good Will Hunting (1997), The Departed (2006) and Brooklyn (2015). The films focus on varied experiences of working-class Irish and Irish-American ethnicity, and includes the story of one female protagonist. Through this examination, this thesis contends that there is more to the Irish-American experience than priests, parlour maids and gangsters, and these more nuanced experiences contribute to a deeper appreciation and more comprehensive picture of Irish-American ethnic identity.

 

Approach and literature review

A discussion of the issues emerging from these research questions would not be possible without grounding them in a theoretical framework that acknowledges the importance of cultural context. In this case, ‘the notion of culture as text’ becomes significant, as New Historicism would contend (Gallagher and Greenblatt 9). I would contend that in the case of Irish-Americans on film, text also informs part of the culture. Over the decades since the Irish first appeared on screen, a symbiotic interplay has emerged between culture and text, text and culture. In the early films chronicling the Irish-American experience, and in those created post-1990, there is an interdependence that emerges between culture, text and identity. First, there is the consequence of a new cultural identity emerging for the Irish as they became increasingly Americanised. A survey of their gradual Americanisation has been documented in Hollywood films for over a century, and this serves as a form of cultural ethnography.  Second, the Irish immigration story can be examined more broadly, as group representative of the overall immigrant experience, which, according to John Berry’s theories of acculturation psychology, has traits common to all cultural, racial and ethnic groups. Immigration historically has been a significant and influential part of the American experience and of the collective American cultural identity, and for millions, indicative of a (cultural) rite of passage.

 

When applied to ‘cultural relics’, in this case film, New Historicism acknowledges that it ‘becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a clear unambiguous boundary between what is representation and what is event’ (Gallagher and Greenblatt 15). Are these films, and the experiences of the Irish, art representing life, or life representing art? Are the stereotypes being reinforced by film, or are the films creating stereotypes? Moreover, Gallagher and Greenblatt also contend that ‘this broader vision of the field of cultural interpretation [via New Historicism] …unsettles familiar aesthetic hierarchies that had been manipulated, consciously or unconsciously, to limit the cultural significance of women’ (11). This is particularly important with regard to the underrepresentation of women in the Irish-American cinematic story. Where is our Annie Hall?

 

Initially, this project was guided by the notion that the Irish-American experience is wholly underrepresented in film, and in particular, the female’s perspective is almost completely absent. However, research for this project revealed that the Irish-American experience had, at one point, been well represented in film, particularly in very early Hollywood cinema. According to Kevin Rockett, ‘during the almost 35 years of the silent period before 1929 as many as 500 American films were made which had identifiable Irish themes or prominent Irish characters’ (18).  Rockett attributes the ubiquitousness of the Irish on film as being concomitant of their presence in America; their population at around five million at the time, a million of whom were born in Ireland. But even then, Hollywood was demand-driven, and there was a desire by this mostly urban-dwelling constituency, who therefore had access to cinemas, to see their own experiences represented on film; Rockett observes that many of these films centered around themes which showed ‘progress by the Irish from rural Ireland to urban America’ (18). Their transition from rural ‘culchies’[1] to urban (cinema-going) Americans proved not only to be good fodder for the budding film industry; it also reflected what the Irish most wanted for themselves: assimilation. At the time, the Irish were attempting to claw their way into mainstream American culture alongside other rival ethnic groups. This was during an era when racism and mistreatment was rife: ‘No Irish Need Apply’ signs were commonplace, and to even gain employment of any kind ‘new Irish arrivals had to identify themselves as distinct from slaves in order to prosper’ (Ignatiev as cited in Barton, 2).

 

While other critics and film theorists also agree that Irish-Americans experienced something of a Golden Era in Hollywood from the beginning of the 20th century until roughly the end of World War II (Shannon, Rhodes), much of their representation was heavily based on stereotypes, what Christopher Shannon itemises as ‘gangsters, boxers, working girls, priests and song-and-dance men’ (xiii). Films from this era that support this contention include The Public Enemy (1931), Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman (1940), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Going My Way (1944), among many others. For the next 40 years following World War II, the Irish-American experience was largely ignored by the Hollywood film industry, hence, the ‘gap in research’, as no new criticism can emerge when very little was being created in cinema as sources of primary texts. The decline in the Irish-American experience on screen was due in part to the gradual integration of the Irish as a cultural group into mainstream white, Anglo-American society, often referred to as ‘lace curtain Irish’, which coincided with the post-World War II suburbanisation of America generally. Shannon suggests that ‘the decline of Irish-American storytelling in Hollywood cinema reflects a broad range of political and social changes.  If the Holocaust and suburbanisation each, in very different ways, silenced discussion of European ethnicity, post-war prosperity seemed to render urban folk wisdom incomplete’ (197). Consequently, there became other, more interesting stories to tell, ones that focused more broadly on the American experience generally or ones that were tied to newer immigrant groups; Wise and Robbins’ West Side Story (1961), featuring Puerto Ricans, is just one such example.

 

However, entering the 1990s and continuing into the 2000s, the pendulum swings back again, and one of the previous and most prolific stereotypes of the Irish re-emerged stronger than ever (in fact, it seems to be the only one): the gangster. Christopher Shannon observes that ‘After decades of domination by Italian-American stories, the gangster genre has slowly returned to its Irish roots’ (206). Examples of this include characters and storylines in Miller’s Crossing (1990), Road to Perdition (2002), Gangs of New York (2002), The Departed (2006), and more recently, Black Mass (2015). Recently, portrayals of Irish gang life have eclipsed that of the ‘Noble ‘Mafioso’ of the Italian-American, considered by many moviegoers to be the traditional owners of that cinematic territory. In an interview discussing his book The Godfather Effect, Santopietro argues that ‘Italian-Americans are very sensitive about their image in movies because it has traditionally been so negative, as either mobsters or rather simple-minded peasants’ (n.pag.). This could also be applied to the cinematic Irish, and in both cultures, cinematically, women characters are marginalised or wholly ignored.  Often, in both ethnic groups, there is a Madonna-whore dichotomy closely tied to Catholicism and repression. While early Hollywood included the Irish gangster as one of several stereotypes, the 1990s and beyond saw what Jennifer Duffy terms the ‘Bad Paddy’ (49) dominate the portrayal of the Irish-American experience almost exclusively. Moreover, where there had been at least some female stories in early Hollywood (Kitty Foyle 1940 and Zigfield Girl1941), in more modern cinema, there are almost none featuring a female protagonist, Brooklyn being the only exception. Instead, the women that do appear – particularly in the gangster genre – do so only at the periphery of what is well and truly a man’s world, in roles as worried mothers, neglected wives, and dependent molls. This thesis cannot contribute a primary text that presents an Irish-American female’s voice (aside from Brooklyn, but this is an adaptation of a novel); however, one of the outcomes of this thesis will be a greater acknowledgement of and discussion about this lack of women, particularly of female characters who would be labelled as independent, strong, and having an identity beyond their relationship to the males they ‘serve’ in their lives. Brooklyn, although only one film, is a text from which many feminist discussions can emerge.

 

Overview

Chapter 1, ‘The Irish in Context: Culturally and Cinematically’ traces the immigration of the Irish into America and considers the story of their assimilation as an ethnic group, with particular attention given to Berry’s acculturation theories of immigration psychology. It also examines how widely and well-represented (sometimes controversially) the Irish were in the early days of Hollywood cinema, with regard for the influences of the Stage Irishman and the cinematic manifestations of ‘Good Paddy/Bad Paddy’ characters.  Chapter 2 examines stereotypes, and images of identity and masculinity through a discussion of Good Will Hunting and The Departed. This chapter also looks at scholarly attempts to define ethnicity as it relates to race and other socio-cultural factors, and interpolates aspects of New Historicism to guide the discussion of film as cultural texts. Chapter 3, ‘Where the Girls At?’ applies feminist film theories, including Mulvey’s ‘male gaze’ to to examine the underrepresentation and often stereotypical roles of the female characters in the above film, who are often little more than plot devices. Finally, Chapter 4 will look at the only recent Irish-American film to feature a female protagonist to determine what it reveals about the roles of women and gender expectations.

 

Why Paddywhackery matters

In her book Acting Irish in Hollywood Ruth Barton contends that ‘If immigration and exile remain two of the most potent narratives of this and the previous century, it is in Hollywood that they have found one of their most compelling narrators’ (1). During that time, the Irish have experienced quite a journey in America, both as immigrants and on-screen, which has resulted in their gradual assimilation into mainstream Anglo-Protestant America. This is particularly relevant when considering that in the early 20th century, the barrage of negative depictions in political cartoons ‘reinforced Anglo-Protestant beliefs that the Irish man in America “by dint of congenital shortcomings of intellect, culture, or character [would be] forever barred from membership in the American family”’ (Fischer as cited in Flynn 132).  Ironically, despite their early rejection, they now may even appear indistinguishable from WASP culture to newer, non-white immigrant groups. Their assimilation has been assisted by their race, as Yancey contends, but also by the positive characteristics that have defined them as an ethnic culture: their humour; their doggedness and hard work; their dedication to their faith, which built countless schools and parishes; and their allegiance to one other via their families, neighbourhoods, and political parties, and in the case of women, via the sisterhood. It is their dedication to their very Irishness that Shannon contends contributed to part of their appeal on screen: ‘Irish characters may not always know what to do, but they always know who they are’ (Shannon xvi). As such, when presented with other, more attractive options in early Hollywood narratives, Irish characters often rejected them in favour of their ethnicity and the working-class wisdom of the neighbourhood enclave. Given their dedication to preserving their culture on foreign shores, what John Berry refers to as cultural maintenance, the assimilation of Irish-Americans is quite remarkable. Through either their tenacity or through their screen presence, or perhaps some combination of both, they succeeded in conquering the New World, while still remaining deeply Irish.

 

Despite the inroads the Irish have made in acting, politics, music, government, business and scholarship in addition to other sectors, there still remains a slight stain on their cultural reputation for past wrongs, either real or imagined; some stereotypes, while diluted, do still persist. Columnist Donald Clarke points out the persistence of Irish stereotypes in an article discussing Irish actor Saoirse Ronan’s (of Brooklyn fame) recent appearance on the American sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live (SNL). While he argues that some of the material is just ‘unfunny Paddywhackery’ more importantly, some sketches clearly demonstrate that ‘certain Irish stereotypes hang stubbornly round [sic] the American psyche. We twinkle. We’re charming. We wear thick Aran jumpers at all times.’ While the examples from SNL are generally positive, not all that persist are: there is the meme that circulates annually around St Patrick’s Day that states: ‘I’m sick of all these Irish stereotypes. Now hold my beer while I go punch someone’. While Clarke admits – repeatedly – that the worst sin committed by the show is bouts of un-funniness, he also points out that ‘no British sketch show would now even attempt these levels of Paddywhackery’ (n.pag.).  Given the tangled and fractious history between the two nations, this is certainly plausible.

 

But at the macro-social level, these Paddywhackery or, I would argue, Stage Irish(wo)man sketches, also reveal that ethnic groups can be reduced to stereotypes for humorous effect, as long as the ethnic group in question is white. Clarke contends that ‘The people at Saturday Night Live would not represent Mexicans in such stereotyped fashion: sombreros, donkeys, other stuff from Speedy Gonzales.  There is of course a distinction there involving domestic power structures…But the distinction is also about how Irish-Americans see themselves.’ He points out that if Irish-Americans are ‘willing to dress up as leprechauns on St Patrick’s Day and vomit into newly green rivers then it’s hard to complain if entertainers invoke variations on that imagery’ (n.pag.).  Here Clarke concedes that images of leprechauns and drunks still persist, but they are being lampooned from within their own ethnic group; the irony is not lost. Playing on stereotypes has long been a part of humour, and some might argue a cheap attempt at it. When certain ethnicities, or more dangerously, race are involved, some taboos still persist (rightfully so) which cannot be ignored even for the sake of humour.  But I would argue that in the case of Irish-Americans, these sketches show a certain amount of cultural confidence on the part of Irish-America. As a result of their long journey towards assimilation and acceptance, the Irish have become well entrenched in many facets of what was once WASP-only establishment. They are a safe group to satirize and stereotype because they have such a strong foothold from which they can never fall.

 

It is important not to underestimate the power of cinematic storytelling: cinema and by extension popular culture, both act as socio-cultural mirrors. ‘For the first half of the 20th century – from 1896 to 1946, to be exact – movies were the most popular and influential medium of culture in the United States…they rose to the surface of cultural consciousness from the bottom up, receiving their principal support from the lowest and most invisible classes in American society’ (Sklar 3). This would have included the Irish, and as such they were influential in their own assimilation by demanding their stories be told.  Given the virtual disappearance of the Irish from film in the middle of the 20th century, perhaps their continued appearance, whether as gangsters or comedic stereotypes, still contributes to the Irish-American cannon. They are still, as Oscar Wilde quipped, being talked about. The Irish are still worthy of having their stories told, and considering that one gender has been glaringly overlooked, perhaps the next century of filmmaking will balance out the voices and stories of Irish-American women.

 

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