Righteous Anger and the Fear of a Black Planet in Taxi Driver

Curator's Note

“Did you ever see what a .44 magnum could do to a woman’s pussy?” Martin Scorsese asks Travis Bickle in a cameo as a racially paranoid passenger, midway through the 1970s neo-noir Taxi Driver. The two men gaze up at an apartment where the passenger’s wife awaits a rendezvous with her black lover. It occurs to me the scene is logically read as a commentary on the “Black is Beautiful” era, which dates back to James Brown’s 1968 hit “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” a song that became the soundtrack to the following decade, featuring blaxploitation stars like Richard Roundtree and Melvin Van Peebles embodying the “bad nigger” of African American folklore. Roundtree and Van Peebles also featured in the sexual fantasies of white women of the 70s (see Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden). This could provide a larger context for the dialogue between Scorsese and De Niro, which nods to fears of miscegenation that has provided the impetus for much white terrorism. Bickle also singles out a Senator Pallantine for assassination in the film. At one point, Bickle picks up Pallantine in his cab and shares his righteous white man’s anger, saying, “The President should clean up this whole mess here, should flush it right down the fuckin’ toilet.” Joan Mellen argued that Taxi Driver was part of a number of “neofascist” films popular with male audiences of the 70s. Another critical voice in the 1970s, Kris Kristofferson sang “Blame it on the Stones.” The song was a list of all the reasons the country was going to hell (Vietnam, Watergate, the anti-war movement). Kristofferson laid the blame for all of this at the feet of the Rolling Stones. Kristofferson’s view of right vs. wrong is first conflated with Bickle as he’s seen buying a Kristofferson record. Later, Cybil Shepherd’s Betsy tells Bickle he “reminds her” of a song by the singer. The film doesn’t mention which song. Nor does it suggest if Betsy means “the singer not the song,” to quote Led Zeppelin, another 1970s band Kristofferson was probably not fond of. I would suggest the film is speaking through Betsy at this point and does indeed mean “the singer.”


In comparison with the other pieces this week, this clip from Taxi Driver really seems to depict a very different kind of white masculinity in the 1970s; not repentant, not open-minded, neither soft nor in touch with his feelings, but victimized and unhinged by a loss of patriarchal authority as women and non-white men (quite literally in this scene) leave him out in the streets. The seething rage expressed by Scorcese in this scene seems to be in dialog with Luke, Willie and McKeag’s desires to punish themselves for failing to contain their anger. Violence and masculinity during this era still seem inherently linked and naturalized, with only imposed self-restraint preventing its eruption.

Following up on Avi's comment, perhaps we could think about the different addresses of film and television (at least the feminized television the previous three entries have addressed--soaps, mini-series, family drama). Taxi Driver is clearly a film with little interest in appealing to female and/or feminized audiences--not that Scorsese would have refused such spectators, but the film addresses spectators more through their political perspectives than their gendered ones. Of course, TD is meant to condemn the white male aggression it represents, or at least to lament it, but it offers no hope of a more progressive, even a more conflicted, masculinity in exchange. This seems to me the key difference with the TV masculinities we have so far discussed--they envision alternatives in a way TD--and most film of the era?--do not.

I completely agree with Elana’s point here about the different –and highly gendered—addresses of the film vs. television audiences of the 1970s. Television certainly linked aggressive masculinity with violence (to a fault, perhaps), but it also offered a number of alternative masculinities, and naturalized them for their audiences through serial repetition in a way that Hollywood films could not. While the gendered nature of these different mediums and television’s broadcast regulation (no “pussy” references!) has meant, historically, that the representation of masculinity in auteur films of the 70s has been viewed as more authentic and therefore culturally significant than television’s feminine, commercial, low-culture fare, I don’t think one medium’s representations are necessarily any closer to the cultural zeitgeist than the others. Rather, this clip in relation to the previous ones suggest to me the range of (at least white) masculinities available for consumption in the 70s and the crisis of identity that that very variety seems to have provoked for at least the good chunk of white men who rushed to embrace Ronald Reagan’s confident, unified, untraumatized cowboy in 1980.

I like Avi's comment about the kind of masculinty that self-recrimination and policing (a la Foucault's notion of governmentalization) produces. Scorsese has always been drawn to characters like this, partially motivated by his interest in Catholic guilt (see Charlie's opening line in Mean Streets: "You don't pay for your sins in the church, you pay for them in the streets, everybody knows that" which Keitel delivered in an imitation of Scorsese's own speaking style). TD's credited screenwriter, Paul Schrader, also had a strict religious upbringing. The tension betw. that b.g. and the hedonism Schrader and Scorsese encountered w/ the new Hollywood crowd in LA fueled their art. I think it's probably going too far to say the film offers nothing to female/feminized audiences. Or to blame the film for offering a critique of male violence but being unable to imagine any alternative possibilities. Julia Cameron was the uncredited co-writer of the film. I'm sure Cameron wld argue the film can be just as appealing to open minded female audiences and that it was. A random sample of my facebook friends tells me as many chicks (from high school age to mid 30s) like Scorsese films as do my male friends. Slightly more actually. Reception studies are notoriously difficult and access to 70s audiences is problematic. For every Joan Mellen there was a female critic like Pauline Kael who loved the film. In terms of its inability to imagine an "alternative masculinity," heres a quote from the most political punk rocker I can name on how difficult it is to live up to that type of challenge. When asked abt how successful he thought The Clash were in producing political change, the late Joe Strummer answered, "We weren't revolutionaries, we were drug-addicted rock stars."

I think there is a difference between female audiences being interested in and/or enjoying a text (TD in this case) and it offering a feminized address--or a non -patriarchal, non-heterocentric address (not saying these are equivalent to a feminized address, btw). Of course lots of women like TD and Scorcese films in general--I'm one of them! My comments, and perhaps Avi's and Allison's as well, were not so much about actual women viewers as there were about the subject positions the film invites and the representations it presents. Whether a critic is male or female matters little, I think, to their perspective on this or any other film. We all take on a range of subject positions and my guess is that when a critic, or a screenwriter for that matter, does his or her work, aspects of their identities other than their gender are primary. Perhaps especially so in the auteurist cinema of the '70s, in which a masculinist perspective (albeit perhaps critical of a violent white masculinity) was a naturalized given. Finally, I don't think a representation of an "alternative masculinity" is all that difficult to offer. We've seen this week the range of TV representations in the '70s that offered what might be called alternatives. Not saying they are all progressive, all the time, or that they are not conflicted, but it seems clear that they were telling a different story about masculinity than were Scorcese's films like TD.

I tend to agree with Elana and Allison about the question of address in Taxi Driver----the fact that we're anchored to Bickle for all but one scene in the film makes it difficult for the film to explore other subjective perspectives (like Jodie Foster's Iris). I realize that's a clear strategy here, and true of many of Scorsese's films, but the Schrader influence (of which Robin Wood is particularly critical) does help clarify the differences between Taxi and Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore from 1974. In fact, to bring things full circle back to Kris Kristofferson, I'd argue that Kris does suggest one form of alternative masculinity (however limited) in Alice. No surprise then that it was Alice that ended up on the tube and not a Taxi Driver spin off---"Travis Bickle's Place" perhaps?

While I agree that TD seems to epitomize a more masculinized mode of address, I am reticent to essentialize film as a whole as gendered masculine and television as feminized, especially during this era. There are plenty of popular films during the 1970s that depict a range of masculinities as both acceptable and desirable, including a lot of Pacino's work (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon) or provide harsh critiques of hegemonic masculinities. On the flip side, there continued to be series on TV that affirmed earlier notions of patriarchal authority, coexisting albeit uncomfortably alongside the examples presented this week, including shows like Police Story, Marcus Welby, MD, and, arguably, CHiPS. If anything, working backwards from Lynn Joyrich's claims that 1980s TV attempted to masculinize its content and style, it might be interesting to think of the 1970s as a decade of experimentation with mixed gendered addresses on television (and in the cinema) resulting in a wider range of representations as well as a destabilizing of traditional masculinities.

Avi, your point "it might be interesting to think of the 1970s as a decade of experimentation with mixed gendered addresses on television (and in the cinema) resulting in a wider range of representations as well as a destabilizing of traditional masculinities" makes sense of all of this well. But I wanted to clarify that I wasn't trying to essentialize the gendered addresses of film and TV--that seems a clearly foolish effort. I was talking more specifically about TD in comparison to the TV examples we had been considering, in all such cases there seems a pretty bifurcated gender address along TV/film lines. The Hulk example problematizes this, as would innumerable others. But the M - Th examples seemed to follow these more medium-specific lines.

Agreed, Elana. My desire was to point out how easy it is to fall into the trap in discussing softer masculinities depicted on TV during this decade of validating the logic that television as a "feminized medium" would more easily offer up such a range (similar to the trap fallen into by those who take HBO at their word that it "isn't TV"). It wasn't my intention to suggest that others in this discussion were essentializing these media (if anything, most of us have listed examples that crossover and complicate this binary), just to suggest that, if anything, the wide range of masculinities on display on 1970s TV seems more to be about "masculinizing" the medium, than an outgrowth of its "inherent" feminized qualities.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.