Splendor in the Grass: Damaged Desire

The following will examine how the disparate gender lines are laid out within Elia Kazan’s melodrama Splendor in the Grass. Whether through objects in the mise-en-scene, dialogue, or characterization, the film clearly divides male and female ideologies, exposing their confines and limitations especially in terms of sexually repressing teenagers.

The oil rig of Bud’s family serves as the phallic symbol of wealth and male power. It serves as a glaring reminder of the hyper-masculine and sexually potent image in which Bud’s father implores him to model himself after. All throughout Bud’s home, where he is constantly scrutinized by his father’s watchful eye, this object is placed. In a scene where Bud tries to speak with his father, he is castrated. He cannot get a word in edgewise nor act on his desires to sleep with Deanie. In the following scene, the oil rig appears once again as Bud throws his football against the wall in an act of sexual frustration.

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This gesture is repeated when Deanie throws a teddy bear, a seminal icon of girlhood, against the wall in, again, sexual frustration. In Elsaessar’s “Tales of Sound and Fury”, the setting of the family melodrama, the middle-class home is filled with objects and symbolic décor that surrounds the heroine/hero in a hierarchy of apparent order that becomes increasingly suffocating and filled with images of parental oppression. The football symbolizes a path chosen by Bud’s father for him to remain within the upper echelon of high school life as the hyper-masculine idol. Deanie’s teddy bear is an extension of her parents- especially her mother’s, which we will later explore- need to entomb Deanie as a pure, little girl to remain “unspoiled”.

To continue to draw from Elsaessar’s quotation, “these households attempt to make time stand still, immobilize life and fix forever domestic property relations as the model of social life and a bulwark against the more disturbing sides in human nature.” This quote captures the idea of nature vs. the home found within the film, where nature is a location in which erotic impulse is given some expression, young couples, Deanie and Bud, kiss feverishly in parked cars outside town near wilderness, or a beautiful waterfall. Home, school and church are places in which sexuality and growth is controlled, repressed. You are not allowed to become who you want to be, standing still as a child, easily constructed in your parents’ image, and away from the real world.

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When Bud seeks advice from his father about his sexual frustration, the gender lines are clearly laid out, asserting that men can attain sexual satisfaction freely and without shame. There is a similar scene with Deanie, in which her mother implores that men can’t respect a girl they can go all the way with, how they want a nice girl for a wife. Deanie asks her mother if it is so terrible to have those kinds of feelings/desires for your boyfriend. The mother simply replies, no nice girl ever does. Women only think about sex for babies. “I just gave in because a wife has to.” a woman doesn’t enjoy those things. Her mother’s monologue reflects the school lessons seen at the beginning of the film. The lecture on King Arthur describes how the knights held a very high regard for womanhood, putting woman on a pedestal. Like them, Deanie is put on this dais of purity. Whereas Bud, a man, is free to express these desires. These desires for him are seen as healthy and normal, but abnormal and fearsome in a woman. The film remains true to Freudian constructs in terms of Bud, for his sexual abstinence results in pneumonia. Thus, leading to his father advising him to find a bad girl and Bud in doing so. Whereas Bud has a means of release, Deanie’s repression will soon rise to the surface, which we will turn to in the next scene

The infamous bathtub scene is the “overcoming of repression occurs in a super-charge climax of full articulation.” (Meanings of Melodrama) In this scene, Deanie exposes her nude body to her mother in order to confront her with the reality of her womanhood, an attempt to break her mother’s idealized and child-like view of Deanie which traps her. This is not the only moment where Deanie’s repression manifests itself in hysteria and collapse, which is a function of melodramatic characters defined by our reading “meanings of melodrama.” Intense melodramatic excess will surround Deanie’s further actions, culminating in a prom scene where she manically throws herself at Bud screaming how she no longer has any pride, where her real date nearly rapes her and the scene climaxes in her attempt of suicide by jumping over the falls. All of this leads her to be institutionalized for two years and six months.

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Bud’s sister Ginny is Deanie’s darker doppelganger, a signifier of the evil future which awaits the sexualized women. In the prom scene I recently described, Deanie dresses in a red dress with flapper-like accessories and short hair, modeling herself off of Virginia in order to seduce Bud/her date. During a New Year’s Eve party, Ginny is punished for her free sexuality by nearly being gang-raped. In the sequence, we see again, the sexually-suggestive symbol of male power found within the oil rig, made more overt when a stream of champagne bursts out from the top. We cut to this image just after Ginny is being forced upon by one of the men, a the oil rig a cruel signifier of the power and excess of male dominance. The men in this film hold the power, and are the axis in which woman simply revolve around, trapped within the patriarchal rules and confines. The men freely exist and take from the women what they need, whereas the female characters are constantly judged and scrutinized, they must box themselves in to fit inside of the societal ideals.

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Overall, the progression of Splendor in the Grass’ narrative rewards Bud for his sexual behavior with a satisfactory life- by the end he is married, running a farm and has a son. Thus, as soon as Bud ceased repressing his drive and found sexual release, first with Juanita, then with Angelina, his life continued in a viable and healthy manner. While Deanie does end up being engaged by the end of the film, an institution patient who is now free and studying to be a doctor. Splendor in the Grass clearly draws the ideological lines for a man and a woman- a woman’s sexual desires leaves her punished, scorn, and the “necessary” repression brings about hysteria whereas society allows a man to express his desires and he is thus well-adjusted. We recall the opening lesson of knights putting women up on a pedestal- Splendor in the Grass illustrates how women have further to fall.

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