Updated: Mar 28, 2021
Haley Bennet in Swallow.
In their brilliant The Madwoman in the Attic (The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination,) Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar propose that since the Middle Ages, the goddess-like Virgin Mary has provided mankind with a blueprint for female purity. In the more secular nineteenth-century that concerns the authors, however, the ideal female does not hover over the clouds, but lives enshrined within her home. This angel-woman was to “become her husband’s holy refuge from the blood and sweat that inevitably accompanies a “life of significant action” (24.) While Victorian men were allowed to explore the world and to exercise penmanship, women were expected to find meaning and contentment within domesticity. These women were not supposed to become writers or creators of any kind. They were denied the educational, economic, and psychological safety that would have allowed them to tell their stories with confidence (71.) Subsequently, most women retreated into ‘angelic-silence’ (Id.)
In addition to the aforementioned, the angel-woman ought to be a ‘sight for sore eyes,’ that is, to embody beauty. The utter surrender of herself, the renunciation of her own desires and comfort for the greater good of the home was, according to Gilbert and Gubar, the angel-woman’s key act (25.) Selflessness ennobled her.
The female protagonist in Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ Swallow (2019) is well-aware of what is expected of her as a housewife. ‘Do I make you happy?’ she asks her husband Richie in a syrupy voice that is almost a whisper. Hunter, played by Haley Bennett, masterfully reenacts the angel of the house by being pristinely beautiful, meek, and accommodating. Her eagerness to please is a cringe-y thing to witness. When her then-fiancé Richie compliments her at a dinner party, he utters: ‘She is and has been so giving, selfless.’
Though things have changed dramatically for women since the nineteenth-century, I see traces of the angelic-silence when I read Roxane Gay’s 2017 memoir Hunger:
“We should not take up space. We should be seen and not heard, and if we are seen, we should be pleasing to men, acceptable to society. And most women know this, that we are supposed to disappear.”
The pressure to disappear in Gay’s narrative refers – among other things, - to ‘thinning’ oneself through a variety of self-punishing rituals. It also deters loudness; and in Gay’s case, it prevents her from wearing flashy clothes that would bring even more attention to her ‘unruly body.’ Similarly, in “The Intoxicated Years” a 2016 short-story by Argentinian Mariana Enríquez, the protagonist claims:
“The lack of food was good; we had promised each other to eat as little as possible. We wanted to be light and pale like dead girls. “We don’t want to leave footprints in the snow,” we’d say” (59.)
I would like to establish a link between the ‘cruel aspiration’ of weightlessness and the Victorian prescription of silence. Both literal and symbolic erasure of women’s bodily and textual presence beckons something akin to death. The death of the ego, or the vanishing of the body.
In the movie Swallow, Hunter is not preoccupied with her weight, but one might argue that she lacks voice. Her willingness to mold herself into what is expected of her is visually mirrored in the way she seems to frequently blend in with her surroundings. See Fig. 1.
Whether she is tending to her flower beds, or prepping dinner, Hunter’s blond bob and her clothing aid her camouflage. Consistent with taking up little space, she speaks very little and minimizes her biography. When talking to her therapist, she summarizes her past with: ‘I had a normal childhood. They loved me. End of story.’
Hunter’s name might read as a bit of a callous joke. Nothing about her actions, attitude, or tone of voice betrays a predator. And her indoor-isolation is extreme: we never see her leaving the house, and aside from her in-laws, she seems untethered from the social world.
The socio-economic difference between Hunter and Richie is established early on. Richie is destined to become the youngest managerial director at his father’s company, while Hunter is expected to stay at home. The couple lives in a beautiful and expansive house facing the Hudson River, a gift from Richie’s father.
When news of Hunter’s pregnancy reaches the family, Richie and his parents meet at an upscale restaurant to celebrate. Though Hunter is visibly uncomfortable, Richie persuades her to share a funny and weird childhood story. “It’s not really a story,” Hunter underplays, but proceeds to tell it nonetheless. Her father-in-law cuts her off mid-story, and addresses Richie to talk business. Shortly after, Hunter fixates on the glass of water in front of her. The sound of slowly-melting ice cubes entices her, and overlooking etiquette, she begins to loudly crush the ice in her mouth.
“Noise is the sound of otherness,” writes Pauline Destrée. It is sound out of place, out of tune. Noise is sensory friction that contravenes our socially-coded auditory norms. Hunter’s ice-crushing is loud enough to halt the men’s conversation. It is the first audible crack in her overly-civil exterior. And it puzzles her interlocutors. With all eyes on her, she offers ‘This ice is totally awesome,’ an ill-fitting choice of words given the formality of her in-laws.
Hillel Schwarz claims “noise is an issue less of tone or decibel than of social temperaments, class background, and cultural desire” (2004.) One example of this is how gentrifying neighborhoods might experience an uptick in noise complaints when affluent residents move in. Spike Lee recalls when a new neighbor called the cops on his father, Bill Lee, a jazz musician who had been practicing at home without problems since 1969. (https://www.theroot.com/noise-complaints-to-police-for-spike-lees-jazz-legend-d-1790896717.)
Noise is always context-specific, and it varies between individuals. It may be shaped by class, but it is also a matter of neurology and sensory limits. Someone’s non-intrusive sound may be someone else’s excruciating noise. When an autistic child who is highly sensitive to sound, for example, enters a school cafeteria, she may experience a sonic overload that may cause her to freeze in place and like a fainting goat, fall to the ground. Other children with the same hypersensitivity may become dysregulated in the form of a tantrum (Prizant, 2016.)
Given its impact on the body and affect, and its defiant porousness, noise can also be deployed as a violent force. “Like anything else that touches you,” Goodman posits, it can “be a source of both pleasure and pain” (10,) and beyond a certain threshold, it can be lethal. “When the frequency of sound exceeds 20,000 hertz, or when its intensity exceeds 80 decibels,” the ear can be damaged, if not destroyed (Id.) Among other disturbances, being exposed to acute noise may hinder our intellectual abilities, accelerate our respiration and heartbeat, and interfere with our digestion.
In Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear (2010,) Steve Goodman details the ways in which, throughout history, the audiosphere has been weaponized and subject to militarization (6.) Goodman recounts how Italian futurists, namely Russollo and Marinetti, romanticized the shell-shocked experience of the battlefield. Russollo glorified the noise of grenade explosions, rifle fire, bullets and shrapnel; the sonic dissonance produced by war and industrial machinery conveyed “an assault on the deadened sensorium of classical music and bourgeois aesthetics” (Id.) In other words, noise was a form of rebellion. Later in the twentieth-century, exponents of musique concrete, Japanese noise terrorism, free jazz, sound art, and industrial music, among others, leaned on noise as their weapon of choice.
Outside the realm of music, noise is often burdened with metaphors that portray it as ‘dirt,’ ‘pollution,’ ‘disorder,’ and ‘aggression.’ Conversely, to be quiet is often associated with being ‘good.’
I would like to bring back the link between policing women’s voices and bodies. The notion of volume may further clarify this. In her essay “The Trash Heap Has Spoken,” Carmen Maria Machado recalls a 2014 interview in which the painter Fernando Botero, who spent his whole career depicting ‘fat women’s bodies,’ argued: “I don’t paint fat women… What I paint are volumes.” Machado thinks of volume as “taking up space in the world, displacing what is around us. Or, alternately, a level of loudness.”
Hunter’s conspicuous chewing noise at the family dinner was an indication of both her inadequacy and future dissonance. Heeding to the advice found in A Talent for Joy, a book her mother-in-law gave her to ameliorate a possible postpartum-depression, Hunter decides to push herself into doing something unexpected. In doing so, she develops ‘pica,’ a disorder in which people are compelled to eat non-nutritional objects (i.e., dirt, paper.)
Hunter's first choice is a red marble that she later fetches from her feces, cleans, and places atop a vanity like one would a trophy. Her mini altar grows quickly. When Hunter swallows, the music fades and the noises emanating from her body are heightened, forcing the audience to witness the strenuous passage of objects down her esophagus. Emboldened by her success, she reaches for items whose shape and size are increasingly torturous. Sometimes there are blood and reflex tears. What began as a private, innocuous ritual swells into a full-blown transgression.
There is sensuousness in swallowing, and Hunter admits to enjoying the textures, and the feel of objects such as ice and metal. But moreover, pica provides both a self-soothing praxis and a way to exercise control over her body. Even though Hunter seems to adhere flawlessly to the expectations of the angelic housewife, her mother-in-law suggests she take it a step further by remarking: ‘You would look so pretty with long hair. You should grow it out. Richie likes his girls with beautiful long her.’ The micro-managing is relentless.
Because Hunter spends her days alone, and Richie’s lack of curiosity is nothing short of rude, her pica goes unnoticed until a routine medical exam reveals the items inside of her. Hunter’s behavior seems irrational to Richie, and it triggers the couple’s first fight. After angrily raising her voice, Hunter slides back into her mellow persona and concedes, ‘I’m sorry I’m such a freak.’ Richie’s family hires a therapist, and then a male nurse to keep an eye on her at all times. When everything fails, and Hunter’s pica worsens, the family establishes that if she does not agree to commit herself to a mental institution (until the baby is born,) Richie will divorce her.
Without providing too many details about the movie’s second and final half, I would like to mention that immediately after Hunter’s escape, she stops blending in with her surroundings. She is not wearing unobtrusive beige or a gleeful color palette. We see her wearing a stern black outfit.
The mirrors in Hunter’s motel room duplicate her image, and she seems to gather strength from this reinforcement. It also marks a turning point. After Hunter watches television eating a handful of dirt in lieu of take-out, she heads out to confront a troublesome figure from her past. During this encounter, a transformed Hunter emerges: one that is determined, brash, and commanding. She forces the person she is with to repeat aloud that it is she who is in charge, and who makes the rules.
Nineteenth-century women who refused to be silenced and who became authors, (i.e., Jane Austin, Charlotte, and Emily Brontë,) represented themselves as ‘split’: “like Emily Dickinson between the elected nun and the damned witch, or like Mary Shelley between the noble, censorious scientist and his enraged, childish monster” (78.) These women, who were quite literally imprisoned within men’s homes, could only flee through their imagination. Like many non-gender-conforming individuals or people whose behavior creates any kind of dissonance with the status quo, these women often learnt what Andrew Sullivan calls “rituals of deceit, impersonation, and appearance” (1996:13) as a means of survival.
Behind the façade, however, there was an undercurrent of repressed rage that made the angel terrifying. A ticking bomb.
After a cocktail party in which Hunter finds out that Richie told his coworkers about her ‘disorder,’ she is furious. Later that night when the couple has sex, Hunter climaxes disregarding Richie’s needs. She withholds her body demanding: ‘Say you’re sorry. For the party. For telling everyone in the office.’ She seems perfectly aware of the powers at play and the transactional nature of her marriage.
I would like to believe that all of this is rather archaic and obsolete. But in her 2019 essay “On Likeability,” Lacy M. Johnson expresses how, as a woman, she was socialized “to be nurturing, to care for other’s feelings and well-being, often at the expense of my own” (107.) In today’s world, women’s likeability contravenes outspokenness, and it favors a type of selflessness that may well be Victorian.
More urgently perhaps, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the systemic inequalities that largely affect women, especially Latinas and undocumented immigrants. Women are more likely to leave the workforce, and to succumb to burnout as they juggle paid labor and motherhood. The government imposed shutdowns, on the other hand, have facilitated conditions of abuse (and even murder) of many women across the Americas.
When Hunter phones her husband to let him know that she is not coming home, Richie tries to lure her back by murmuring ‘I miss you.’ Hunter, however, is undeterred, and in a calm, soft-voice, she reaffirms her decision. Richie unravels in an all-too-common form of aggression, ‘I’ll fucking hunt you down, you ungrateful cunt!’
In the fictional realm of Carlo Mirabella-Davis, Hunter sheds the angelic, and in a similar fashion to Lacy M. Johnson, she might proclaim:
“Maybe they call me a cunt, a hack, a whore. I don’t have to answer. That’s not my name.
I know my name.”
Crosley, Hillary. “Noise Complaints to Police for Spike Lee’s Jazz-Legend Dad.” The Root. 2013. https://www.theroot.com/noise-complaints-to-police-for-spike-lees-jazz-legend-d-1790896717
Destrée, Pauline. “Dirty dirt” and sonic relationality: The politics of noise in a London state community." University College London.
Enriquez, Mariana. “The Intoxicated Years.” Things We Lost in the Fire. Hogarth, 2017.
Gay, Roxane. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. HarperCollins, 2017.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Yale University Press,  2000.
Goodman, Steve. SONIC WARFARE: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. The MIT Press, 2010.
Johnson, Lacy M. “On Likeability.”The Best American Essays, edited by Rebecca Solnit, 2019.
Machado, Carmen Maria. “The Trash Heap Has Spoken: The power and danger of women who take up space.” Guernica, 2017. https://www.guernicamag.com/the-trash-heap-has-spoken/
Prizant, Barry M. Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism. Simon & Schuster, 2015.
Swallow. Directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, performances by Haley Bennet, Austin Stowell, Elizabeth Marvel, Denis O’Hare, David Rasche. 2019.
Schwarz, Hillel. “On Noise.” Hearing History: A Reader. The University of Georgia Press, 2004.
Sullivan, Andrew. Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality. Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.