Domesticity and Deviance: Rape Culture in L.A. Noire

Trigger warning: this post briefly discusses rape and molestation.

I spent my last post (a long time ago) talking about how Phelps is positioned as the privileged white male through the opposition and negation of the ethnic/racialized Other. I am now going to write a series of posts about a disturbing section of the game where Phelps chases a serial killer, who slaughters and mutilates trangressive women. This is a prequel to those posts. We solve a case in which the worst parts of the social order are exposed. The hardboiled detective (us) exposes what is wrong with the social order and quells transgressive behaviour (Phelps isn’t quite a full-fledged hardboiled detective but more on that in another post).

I know Slavoj Zizek has taken a drubbing lately. Some have said he is a one trick pony, or that he is just another out of touch, overprivileged academic who makes outrageous comments with little thought the constituencies he might effect (such as his recent comments on suicide – yep, he is an idiot in some ways, but should we throw the baby out with the bathwater?). However, when it comes to his work on noir film, few can match the way in which Zizek maps out the power structures at work in this genre. While he does not make the connection to frontier literature that Richard Slotkin does, when we put these two theorists together, we gain real insight into how noir film regulates gender paradigms, locates deviance, and quashes it (or is the detective really able to do this?)

The case that allows Phelps to be promoted to homicide, which is the level where we encounter serial killer cases, provides insight into the centrality of the female body to the game (as property and commodity). We start with ca car crash over a cliff that is stopped by the “Cola King” billboard (so what you will with that symbolism). The two women are not seriously injured, but the driver June Ballard, who is a B movie actress (and married to mobster Guy McAfee), says that she and her companion, a  minor named Jessica Hamilton, were drugged and then a movie producer pushed the car over the cliff.

One of the clues Phelps finds in his investigation of the crash scene is a letter to Jessica, the 13 year old girl from her mother, begging her to come home: “You’re not made for Hollywood” pleads her mother, who admits to wanting to go to Hollywood (like Jessica) to be the next “Clara Bow” – but what does it mean to be “made for” something? The mother claims that she got married and realized that she “would have never been happy in that life” and that Jessica too will “realize it one day too.”  Here the discourses of domesticity run deep. Beside the letter are a pair of torn panties that may or may not have semen on them, according to the coroner, which suggests that living outside the bounds of the domestic sphere will lead to rape.

Quick digression: let’s just stop here for a second and consider what it means to stop and read a letter in a video game. Actually, we do quite a bit of this in L.A. Noire, because we are investigating clues. In other words, we must read every scene we enter visually and textually. Zizek compares hardboiled detectives to analysts: they must look at the most fragmented and distal of clues to piece together a coherent narrative. That is the task of the detective: the create coherency and civilization out of chaos. This is exactly what we do when we take on Phelp’s perception in the game. The multi-modality of noir fiction and film exploits the universe of the video game. More to be said on this in the book but end of digression.

I’d like to invoke some Shirley Samuels here because I see a similar “logic” going on to the one she parsed out in her tour de force chapter “Generation through Violence: The Making of Americans” (in Romances of the Republic) on the ways in which the female body operates on the frontiers of James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans (1826) (LOM). I realize a novel written in the early national period would seem to have little to do with a video game released in 2011 but why not? After all, as Slotkin states, the hardboiled detective is nothing more than an urban frontiersman, and Cooper’s series of books (the most popular and durable of which is LOM) on the exploits of the Deerslayer or Natty Bumppo.

It’s that guy.

Samuels writes that the generative possibility of the female body is dangerous on the frontier – her body threatens the Republic because it is out of the control of the heteropatriarchy. Women are the biological carriers of a certain type of American identity. I am taking some liberties with Samuels’s argument here, but on this urban frontier, the female body is under threat by “savage” Others. The promise of domestic bliss that Jessica’s mother desires and Jessica embodies by virtue of her virgin whiteness is threatened by men like Marlon Hopgood (the owner of a prop store and a “casting couch,” if you catch my drift) and a corrupt movie producer Mark Bishop who “likes em’ young,” according to Mrs. Bishop. In this circumstance, the female body operates as a kind of X factor. A body that lures and causes cis men to commit crimes. While Jessica is the victim, when Phelps reads the letter and subsequently discovers that she does not want to go home, we learn that, like women in frontier narrative, Jessica is a wild thing who must be tamed (and the men who raped her are savages,  which, btw, conforms to Cooper’s original fictionalization of captivity and frontier histories).

Here is where I am going to play around with the Phallus (sorry). Theory jockeys know quite well that men can identify with the Phallus (the Phallus cannot be possessed; it’s name references the penis, and, hence, heteropatriarchy, but is not to be confused with the actual male organ) but women must BE the Phallus or desire. To think this paradigm through by way of (a possibly tired) analogy, when Jabba the Hut chains Leia to him as a dancing girl, he possesses power and she must BE or perform as desire for him. What we need to do is take back agency and power (I know, do we strangle the “Phallus,” as Leia does? I wish).

Note that he cannot gaze at her – she has control. Albeit, half-naked control.

Now, let’s connect this idea back to L.A. Noire. What we find is that Jessica, much like Leia, is expected to perform in one way for the men who promise her movie roles and another for Phelps and Bukowsky – in either case, she must genuflect to the Phallus. Guess what? she wants to, because that is part of rape culture. Jessica will put herself in harm’s way. That is the narrative myth. The Phallus is the signification of the desire, and this game writes that desire into existence, if you see what I mean. The Phallus is the fantasy of power, after all. Jessica becomes the representative of all white girls and their burgeoning sexuality. June Ballard is the representative of women who are losing their sexual appeal, and Jessica’s mother is the woman who has fulfilled her manifest domesticity. Her voice is all but silent save for a letter than can only be brought to life by the detective figure: the possessor/definer (?) of the Phallus. This scenario in different forms is played out continuously in popular console and online video games. We need to queer up these stories.

When Phelps questions Jessica about her “abuse” (the word “rape” is not used in the game, but Jessica was drugged and her underwear ripped off, so, yeah, she was raped), she is evasive.

The word “rape” is not mentioned in the game, but yes, Jessica was raped.

Phelps suggests she should go back home, but Jessica insists that she might get a part, to which Bekowsky comments, “It’s the tale of this town, Cole, Lambs go willingly to slaughter.”  This metaphorical reasoning positions Jessica is the proverbial lamb and links this urban frontier even more fully to the representation of womanhood on Cooper’s frontiers. You know what is extra-depressing about all of this? That in 2014, white women are still being positioned as sexual victims and perpetrators of their own victimhood (if they do not agree to to the Phallic pact of domesticity and perform as the guarantors of racial and cultural purity).

As the case continues, we meet with Mark Bishop’s wife. Remember that he is the movie producer who jammed a prop under the accelerator and tried to murder Ballard and Hamilton. As mentioned earlier in the post, his wife confesses that her husband “likes them young” and she was one of his conquests early on. She also makes an interesting comment that Ballard “sacrificed” Hamilton to Bishop. Hamilton’s youth becomes cultural capital to compensate for Ballard’s age and, therefore, diminishing sex appeal on the Hollywood marketplace. We gain points for pushing Mrs. Bishop into admitting that young female bodies are objects of exchange for male studio executives. Phelps controls the questioning and, we control Phelps, therefore, we need to get Mrs. Bishop to perform the right speech act. In other words, the game rewards us rewarded for dominating  female speech.

Phelps and Bekowsky are sent to Silver Screen Props to investigate  what appears to be a pedophile ring. We step into an elevator to get to Silver Screen props and I think it is vital to note that the controller vibrates when we ride in the elevator. Is it fooling me that I am in the elevator – no. I mean, come on. However, this is an important CONNECTION between my body and the body I am controlling – right? I am Phelps in this space, in other words.

In any case, we go to Silver Screen Props and what do we find? The aforementioned Hapgood and his classic casting couch set up with secret camera rooms and two way mirrors that both film young girls in compromising positions and also peep into the bathroom. We discover that the rape film of Jessica and Mark Bishop is missing but may be at a set where Bishop is filming a B Movie “Jungle Drums.”  The interesting part about this set is the reference to savagery and barbarism. Set in a mythologized African setting, the film set sends our ostensible frontier hero, Phelps, into the wild to protect civilization as represented by the white female captive, Jessica. This is a longstanding paradigmatic myth in American culture that is played out in an urban setting in L.A. Noire. Phelps, with Bekowsky as his sidekick must protect civilization from the encroachment of savage males, who cannot control their sexual impulses and violate white girls who should grow up to manifest domesticity. Bishop is paralleled with savage racialized others who represent that which must be civilized. Phelps is the great white “civilizer” who will save the white female from sexual transgression (despite Jessica’s wish not to fulfill her mother’s domestic role).

Of course, this section of the game is linked to the award winning 1948 thriller The Fallen IdolI am still sorting through ideas….as you can tell.


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