Vanishing Women

Magic, Film, and Feminism

Vanishing Women

Book Pages: 256 Illustrations: Published: April 2003

Media Studies > Film, Theater and Performance, Theory and Philosophy > Feminist Theory

With the help of mirrors, trap doors, elevators, photographs, and film, women vanish and return in increasingly spectacular ways throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Karen Beckman tracks the proliferation of this elusive figure, the vanishing woman, from her genesis in Victorian stage magic through her development in conjunction with photography and film. Beckman reveals how these new visual technologies projected their anxieties about insubstantiality and reproducibility onto the female body, producing an image of "woman" as utterly unstable and constantly prone to disappearance.

Drawing on cinema studies and psychoanalysis as well as the histories of magic, spiritualism, and photography, Beckman looks at particular instances of female vanishing at specific historical moments—in Victorian magic’s obsessive manipulation of female and colonized bodies, spiritualist photography’s search to capture traces of ghosts, the comings and goings of bodies in early cinema, and Bette Davis’s multiple roles as a fading female star. As Beckman places the vanishing woman in the context of feminism’s discussion of spectacle and subjectivity, she explores not only the problems, but also the political utility of this obstinate figure who hovers endlessly between visible and invisible worlds. Through her readings, Beckman argues that the visibly vanishing woman repeatedly signals the lurking presence of less immediately perceptible psychic and physical erasures, and she contends that this enigmatic figure, so ubiquitous in late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century culture, provides a new space through which to consider the relationships between visibility, gender, and agency.


"[A] fascinating contribution to cultural theory. . . . Vanishing Women offers an important contribution to the fields of film history, gender and spectatorship. It provides a fascinating and insightful glance into a technologically developing culture that was both thrilled and unnerved by the possibility of female disappearance." — Leanne Downing, Screening the Past

"[O]ne of the most appealing recent books I have read. . . . Vanishing Women is full of great nuggets - there are wonderful analyses of Malthus and single women, and of the several meanings of 'ectoplasm' (I never knew it was both the Spiritualist term for ghost-substance and an image projected on a screen). . . ." — Nina Auerbach, Victorian Literature and Culture

"In Vanishing Women, Karen Beckman constructs a fascinating visual and cinematic cultural history through an examination of the disappearing and reappearing female body." — Francesca Coppa, Theatre Journal

"In Vanishing Women, Karen Beckman performs a bit of her own magic: she looks past the hypervisible woman toward the spectacle of 'the woman who disappears' (4), tracing the trope of the vanishing woman from 19th-century magic shows to early cinema, to key films by Alfred Hitchcock and Veit Harlan, and, finally, to the fading female star as played repeatedly by Bette Davis. Throughout, Beckman demonstrates the interplay between the representation of vanishing women and contemporaneous political, philosophical, and psychoanalytical discourses, showing the connection between the woman who disappears at the whim of the magician or the filmmaker and other disenfranchised peoples made to disappear by dominant cultural forces." — Sharon Mazer , TDR: The Drama Review

“Karen Beckman has written an eye-opening book, one that travels across a richly diverse group of texts in order to reveal the vanishing woman’s historical underpinnings and cultural work.” — Sabrina Barton

“This highly original and beautifully crafted study explores feminist film theory, psychoanalysis, and cinema through a cultural history of the vanishing woman figure—from nineteenth-century prestidigitation and mediumship to early cinema and across the twentieth century. In positing the vanishing woman as a significant corrective to feminist film theory's staple readings of woman as ‘absence or lack,’ or hypervisible spectacle, this book offers a fascinating and provocative treatment of enduring discussions that have shaped this field.” — Sharon Willis


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Karen Beckman is Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Professor of Film Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations viii

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 3

1. Surplus Bodies, Vanishing Women: Conjuring, Imperialism, and the Rhetoric of Disappearance, 1851–1901 17

2. Insubstantial Media: Ectoplasm, Exposure, and the Stillbirth of Film 61

3. Mother Knows Best: Magic and Matricide 93

4. Violent Vanishings: Hitchcock, Harlan, and the Politics of Prestidigitation 129

5. Shooting Stars, Vanishing Comets: Bette Davis and Cinematic Fading 153

Afterword 189

Notes 195

Works Cited 219

Filmography 233

Index 235
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3074-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3125-4
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