The Wasp Woman, review by Lucie Engleman
In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Laura Mulvey uses Freud’s concept of male castration anxiety to posit that a female presence on-screen brings to mind “the threat of castration, hence unpleasance.” She writes that it is through the sexualization of women, either through sadistic voyeurism or fetishization, that the male is able to circumvent this castration anxiety and reassert dominance and control. The female is demeaned with these unrealistic portrayals of womanhood; with female bodies over-sexualized to cater to male desire, airbrushed and sculpted to fit a worldview that does not serve them but asserts male comfort and power. This concept is widely known as the Male Gaze, and serves as a useful and common tool to critique media. But looking at the poster for Roger Corman’s 1959 Sci-Fi film The Wasp Woman, an important question about the male gaze is raised: “If pretty woman bee going kill and eat man, why still I want fuck bee????”
The film opens with a baffling sequence where we meet Dr. Zinthrop and he straight up talks to wasps. He smokes their hive and puts it in his briefcase, all the while talking to them the way normal people talk to dogs. We learn that Zinthrop works at a farm where bees are raised for their honey, beeswax, and — Zinthrop’s experimental mad science project– queen bee royal jelly. Zinthrop theorizes that the effects royal jelly has on the queen wasp, prolonging her life and slowing the aging process, may be transferable to human specimens. There’s a delightful scene in which the executive of the farm, a tiny man in a suit who does NOT appear to be comfortable in his beekeeper’s outfit, sees Zinthrops experiment attempting to reverse a dog’s aging. Two dogs of clearly different breeds and ages are seen in kennels next to each other and Zinthrop claims they are from the same litter, and that his royal jelly experiments have reverted one of the dogs to a puppy (One is I believe a doberman, and the other is literally a dachshund.) Zinthrop is IMMEDIATELY fired from his job.
What follows is a jarring smash cut from the serene honeybee farm to the New York skyline, and our males can finally get their gaze on. We meet Janice Starlin, owner, founder, and face of Starlin Cosmetics, in the middle of leading a board meeting where she is kicking the asses of the men who can’t explain to her why “Sales are down.” Sales being down is, I believe, bad, but I don’t have a business degree so I can’t write about it due to lacking the lived experience of someone whose sales are down.
As she commands the meeting demanding to hear a satisfactory explanation for why sales are down, a plucky upstart marketing man posits that it’s because she’s too old now, and no longer as pretty and young as when she started the company. He suggests that sales being down coincides directly with her decision to remove her face from all of the company’s advertisements. While she still retains ownership and her decision making power, and still commands a degree of respect from her employees, her beauty no longer does the advertising for her. Without exaggerating, the other men in the meeting burst into applause, congratulating their co-worker on calling their boss an aging crone, and file out back into the office to do whatever work they do. Starlin, though, accepts this explanation at face value. She reacts to an employee of hers treating her like Baba Yaga with a resigned mourning, as though he’s the first person willing to say to her what she has already known to be true: that she is old and shitty. In an almost Faustian gust of happenstance, Dr. Zinthrop walks into the office at just this moment to pitch her on his age-reversing wasp juice. He injects what is clearly a large guinea pig with Wasp Goop (Gwynneth call me I have a pitch for you,) and Janice is astounded when the camera pans back and shows a much smaller mouse. I need to digress here and just stress how fucking awesome it was that in the 50s, if you were making a movie and could only find one guinea pig, you could just pretend that a mouse is just a baby guinea pig and roll with it. You really could just believe your movie would succeed, and it would. I have nothing but admiration for the director on this front.
In a shocking turn of events that no one could have predicted, something goes wrong with the mad scientist’s experiment and it ends up having negative side effects. Janice Starlin, who insisted (against Dr. Zinthrop’s warning) that she be the test subject of human-wasp jelly experimentation, is thrilled with the intended effects of the jelly serum. Within days she appears 20 years younger, ready to girlboss all these men around again. One problem though: she’s having piercing headaches. Also she is turning into a wasp and murdering people. She tries to get in touch with Dr Zinthrop, but he is literally hit by a car off screen and disappears. There’s a 5 minute montage of Starlin’s employees looking for Zinthrop and going from random location to random location, at one point even stopping to ask strangers on the street, looking for him. When they find him, he is comatose. When he wakes up, he’s amnesiac. Just as he recovers his memory, he gets eaten by a wasp lady.
All of the kills are blocked in a way where we see the victim reacting with fear to seeing Starlin in her wasp form, but we do not get a full, long look at her until the climax. It is here that the film ultimately and completely subverts the conception of the male gaze, especially the aspects established by the movie poster. We are pulled into the film with a promise of an extremely sexy wasp engaging in what can be read as a domination scene with a man whose clothes we presume she has torn off. The text on the poster reads “A Beautiful Woman by Day, a Lusiting Wasp Queen by Night.” Attention is drawn to her beauty, and the word lust is deliberately paired with a terrifying yet sexually charged scenario. The poster plays up the eroticism of this wasp figure, which makes the grotesque monstrosity who we meet in the climax all the more jarring. It is as though we waited for the entire film to meet a beautiful mermaid, but when we meet her she has the head of a fish. Earlier in the film, one of Starlin’s employees tells her that “socially, the queen wasp is on level with the black widow spider.” They lure, paralyze, and then kill their mates. In a way, the poster is doing the same thing: luring us in with a promise of beauty and lust and eroticism, and then offering sexless monstrosity instead.
Anyway, they push her out a window and the movie’s over.
When the credits roll and it sinks in that we never got to see our MILF wasp, the patriarchal nature of the executive office in the late 50s finally makes sense as part of a satirical narrative. It clicks for me that Starlin’s secretary answers all of her calls with the dulcet cadence of a phone sex hotline operator. It feels remarkably out of place, almost a camp presentation of vintage sexism, when a pair of delivery boys call her “pretty puss” and she responds threatening to strangle them with the phone cord. At its core, The Wasp Woman tells a story centered on a woman’s self interest devoid of man’s control. The impetus for Starlin’s transformation into a wasp is due to her trying to reverse her aging to be her younger, prettier self, but her motivation is her own success. She is not trying to appeal to the patriarchy as a romantic object for a man within the context of the film, but rather as a capitalist motivated by her own financial self-interest, and the desire to restore the control she once had over her company. She serves Girlboss-Don Draper so hard she EATS PEOPLE. Put that in your dick and smoke it, Freud.
My review card is running out of space, and the GateBuster cashier keeps threatening to put his cigarette out on my hand if I take any longer so I’ll just wrap up by saying this movie rocks. Everything is underscored by a jaunty marimba. Susan Cabot is wonderful and Michael Marks as Zinthrop is the sweetest mad scientist in the world. Do yourself a favor and check this one out. But if you call it a “Bee”-Movie in my vicinity, I’ll kill you.