Inception (again) of women as hysterical

As usual, I’m a little late to the party, but I saw Christopher Nolan’s massively successful new film, Inception, this weekend and wanted to put out my two, feminist cents.

The film was all things Hollywood blockbuster–ensemble cast, lots of action sequences, “deep” plot designed to make one reflect on psycho-philosophical concepts like memory, lucid dreaming, the contagion of ideas, relationships as worlds onto themselves, the power of perception etc. Though I have to admit that I tired of the more egregious shoot-em-up, indulgent action sequences, I was fairly engaged for the entire 148 minutes of the film–inspired to reflect on a lot of the themes and stunned by the visual originality of the film as a whole.

It was hard not to notice that the only female member of the team, played by Ellen Page, is also the one who is the most emotionally-attuned, and charged with holding the lead male, played by Leo DeCaprio, responsible for his subconscious desires and emotional recklessness. The rest of the male ensemble, though way more experienced with the sort of subconscious travel that they are engaged in, plus apparently sharing a history with DeCaprio’s character, appear largely oblivious.

It’s also hard not to notice that the wife in the film, played by Marion Cotillard, is a sort of prototypical hysteria figure…the wife who drives herself to madness because of her fragile disposition and vulnerability (spoiler alert) to be manipulated by her husband. It brought me back to my grad school days when I read Phyllis Chesler’s Women & Madness: “Women are in a continual state of mourning—for what they never had—or had too briefly, and for what they can’t have in the present, be it Prince Charming or direct worldly power.”

Cotillard’s character is sort of a stand-in for the manipulated female lover, who can’t locate her own grasp on what is real and what is fake, what is her own legitimate worldview and what is male-constructed dream state. Ultimately, she tries to turn the table by manipulating the man herself, not a legitimate seize for power, but a desperate, clawing attempt at not being left alone. Ugh.

In any case, I’ll be thinking about the themes and visual ingenuity of Inception for a long time to come, but the gender dynamics were less than dreamy.

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  • Naomi Mc

    Its really interesting to have a feminist analysis of this film and I hope to read more of them. However, I disagree with your interpretation of the character ‘Moll’. As we become aware, she never actually exists in the film even the flashbacks are unreliable. Instead she is a projection of Cotillard’s subconscious. What is interesting about this is that he reimagines her as hysterical and violent. To be honest, this certainly happens to me in dreams. Even loving ex-partners, become psychopaths in my dreams (no need for pop-psychology, its all just anxiety!).

    As Cotillard says in his last scene with Moll, she isn’t his wife but a poor facsimile of her. We never remember people completely and our memories are no substitute for reality. We are instead looking at a woman through a man’s eyes and his memories. An analysis can certainly be made of that but we’re not talking about an actual female character necessarily, and therefore she can’t be prototypical.

    • Lia

      I agree:

      Ariadne was the prominent “real” female character, and she saved the day! Mal was a projection of Cobb’s subconscious, so anything we saw her do was really him. The conflict between Cobb and Mal was Cobb’s internal struggle to let go of his lost wife. The part of the film about her being hysterical was because he had planted that idea in her head. It was his fault, not her rational mind, that made her that way. I didn’t find this to be a sexist movie in any sense. It was stunning.

  • abby

    Just to be picky – Cotillard’s character is sort of a stand-in for the manipulated female lover, who can’t locate her own grasp on what is real and what is fake, what is her own legitimate worldview and what is male-constructed dream state. Ultimately, she tries to turn the table by manipulating the man herself, not a legitimate seize for power, but a desperate, clawing attempt at not being left alone. Ugh.

    This is only partially true. During the flashback sequences in the film, when the wife (Mal) is still alive she is the manipulated lover, and she is driven to madness when she loses her grip on what is real and what is a dream. She does become manipulative, but every thought in her head was placed there by her husband (Cobb) through inception. The true, sane Mal isn’t clawing or desperate. Cobb made her that way. Hence the danger in the mission the team in the film undertakes.

    However, Mal is violent and manipulative in present-tense scenes. This Mal is a projection of Cobb’s subconcious. She becomes the embodiment of the guilt he feels for messing with her sense of reality in the first place.

    While I don’t think it is necessarily a positive image of a woman on-screen, it is a little more complex than Mal as a stereotypical desperate, controlling woman. It’s also an interesting depiction of a man suffering the consequences of, and ultimately taking responsibility for, his emotional abuse of his partner. Cobb is a sort of anti-hero, and what may be most problematic in this film is that he is it’s protagonist, not it’s villain.

    • aLynn

      I agree…Cotillard’s character is far from a positive portrayal of a woman, however the Mal we see in the movie is mostly Cobb’s projection of her. Therefore, I took Mal as more of a reflection on Cobb’s character than an actual woman.

      Cobb even states to the Mal in his dream, toward the end of the movie, that he hasn’t done the real her any justice. When Ariadne (Page) asks Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) who knew Mal before she died what she was like in real life, he says lovely. While this is not the most progressive way to describe a woman, what I think it was meant to do is tell us that she was actually nothing like Cobb’s projection of her.

  • Naomi Mc

    Sorry I was saying ‘Cotillard’ when I should have been saying Cobb. Am tired.

  • Shahida Arabi

    While I think it is true that women are generally depicted as hysterical in many films as well as literature, it is important to consider the fact that the woman depicted in Inception was Cobb’s pale imitation of his wife in his subconscious. He himself admitted that she could never be his “real” wife–the 3 dimensional woman with all her true beauty and flaws–another reason why he chose (or tried) to let her go. This should be taken into consideration as the film’s own acknowledgment that the wife depicted–as evil, manipulate, desperate and violent–could never reflect the nuanced reality that WAS his wife. If anything, the depiction of her was a depiction of his own guilt clawing desperately at him. I think the film does a good job in drawing that distinction, as it uses the contrast of Ellen Page’s character, the fuller, more developed architect with incredible intelligence, a nosy curiousity but a sensitive desire to help, to recognize the difference between the subconscious and reality.

    • Shahida Arabi

      Also the article doesn’t mention the fact that “Moll” and Cobb are BOTH participating in experimenting with different dream states–implying an equal partnership and skill on both ends. If anything, Cobb is the character that is truly “hysterical” because he is driven mad by his wife’s suicide and constantly harassed by her image in his subconscious. It was HIS idea that drove her mad–not her own irrationality. I think we’re so used to picking at portrayals of the “hysterical female” that we dismiss the images of hysterical men in film, literature and culture.

      On an irrelevant sidenote, I accidentally hit “report this comment” on my first comment, so sorry about that—no need to look into it, moderators!!

  • Sam Lindsay-Levine

    I can’t resist peddling my favorite crazy Inception theory.

    Huge spoilers for the whole movie here, beware!

    Here is the theory: Mal was right, Cobb’s reality was not the true reality, she is not dead but alive up on a higher level. Cobb is stuck one level down in a dream, unwilling to acknowledge that it is a dream even though there are big pointers to this – how did he and Arthur get into that train, why is Mombasa clearly depicted as a labyrinth viewed from overhead, why do his kids look exactly the same when he gets back to them, how does Saito show up just in time in a car to pick up Cobb like the team does to Fisher in the first dream, etc.

    So, the entire movie is actually Mal doing an inception on Cobb to try to break him out of his dream to join her in reality, and Ariadne (whose namesake led Theseus out of the Labyrinth) actually is Mal, who is horrified when she sees her representation in Cobb’s subconscious mind.

    The idea that she is implanting is “you are trapped in here, becoming an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone” (which is repeated several times from different speakers), and the way they know it finally worked is when Cobb repeats the phrase to Saito down in Limbo, internalizing it as his own. The reason he gets back to his (imaginary) kids is to make the inception associated with a positive emotion rather than a negative.

    This explains why the subconscious guys-with-guns are so much more violent and deadly than you would expect from Fisher – they are all actually part of Cobb’s subconscious defenses. It also explains why Ariadne immediately tunes into Cobb’s emotional distress, which as you point out is otherwise pretty strange coming from someone they literally took right out of an undergrad classroom.

    Obviously this theory isn’t provable (which is part of what I love about the movie, how ambiguous and unresolvable it is) but I don’t think it’s disprovable either and for some reason it really resonates with me.

    I think it’s a valid interpretation of the film, in which the real Mal is not a prototypical hysteria figure, but the intelligent and successful driving agent behind everything that happens in the story.

    • Daniel

      i heard an interpretation that’s close to yours, but that Ariadne is actually his daughter in the “real world” and she’s come back to pull him out. I really like this idea.

      If you’re interested, i read about it over here

    • Meredith

      Agreed! Oh, wow, my girlfriend and I have not found anyone else who has also come up with this theory, which we created on our walk back home from the theater. This is exactly what we think happened. Yay!

    • KBZ

      For what its worth … the kids at the end weren’t the same kids as the ones in the dream. They looked similar — but, according to the cast list, the kids at the end were 2-years older.


    • Antigone

      I think the more convincing interpretation is that the idea that is being incepted is that Cobb has reached reality in the final scene. We see Cobb’s doubt that he has reached the real world in other points in the film – when he is spinning the top, for example.

      Multiple characters try to convince him to ‘come back to reality’ or ‘wake up’ (his father and Mal) and this can be seen as his subconscious trying to warn him he is not in the real world.

      At the end of the film, we hear the spinning top fall over and then we see the film title – Inception – which seems to pretty strongly imply that Cobb’s belief that he has ‘come home’ is false.

    • Mollie

      That… is… AWESOME.

  • scottishtanningsecrets

    I agree that female characters as hysterics is overused, but I was really pleased to see that Ellen Page’s character was an architect. With all the frustration in the feminist movement around women not being involved in math and science, it’s nice to see a character that breaks down that stereotype.

    I also agree that there was a lot of violence that got tiresome, but at least it was clear that the violence was important to the story, not just a bunch of people on the special effects team going: “Wouldn’t it be cool if we blew a bunch of stuff up?”

    I am a little biased in this movie’s favor because I loved it so much.

  • athenia

    OOo! I love the multiple interpretations! I always thought the character of Saito was curious. Cobb risks his life for him and Saito’s motivations seem weak (does he really need to manipulate his competitor?). Moreover, do we really know what happens when someone else touches a person’s totem? Cobb touches his wife’s to presumedly to manipulate her, but then he continues to use this as his own totem. Then, Saito touches this totem as well. I figure that this meant that at the end, the dream Cobb is in, is really Saito’s dream.


    What really upset me about this movie was that there were only TWO SPEAKING ROLES FOR WOMEN. Two! What was the statistic? Only 25% of speaking roles in Hollywood are given to women? Now I believe that.

    • Sam Lindsay-Levine

      Definitely no matter how you interpret the movie, the fact that there were only two women is pretty glaring! I think any of Eames, Arthur, Yusuf, or Browning could have been women instead and it would have been an improvement. (I think the Fischers are telling a story that engages with the societal view of masculinity which wouldn’t work if they were women.)

      • Antigone

        This is not necessarily an excuse for the under-casting of women, but one interpretation of Inception involves all of the team characters being elements of Cobb’s psyche (ego, super-ego etc).

        This could be an explanation for why the team are predominantly male – it is understandable for a person with a strong connection to their gender to subconsciously depict aspects of their personality as having the same gender. In this analysis, Ariadne represents Cobb’s repressed emotional side (which can make sense, when you think about how men are punished for expressing emotion, while women are not.)

        Just a thought.

  • Antigone

    To add to what others have said…

    That Mal was incepted with the idea that her world isn’t real doesn’t imply any vulnerability on her part. Fischer is also incepted. The message seems to be that if it is skillfully done enough, anyone can be incepted.

    Also, it is understandable that a representation of Mal shaped by Cobb’s guilt and fear would behave in the bloody scary and slightly insane way she does. Her repetition of complaints that he has left her reflects Cobb’s guilt at his decision – not her personality.

  • K.

    I’m stoked Feministing is started to dabble in movie criticism. However, I don’t agree with this breakdown of Inception’s female characters. I’m more excited by the theories put forth by the comments.

    This blog ties together this criticism with the one posted on Jezebel: