“Take her clothes off and bring her to me!": Examining the dialogic construction of women in Robert Altman's films

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This research examines the women characters in Robert Altman’s feature films from 1967 through 2006. Considered one of the most influential American filmmakers of the late twentieth century, Altman’s career spans six decades and comprises thirty-six feature films. Critical scholarship about Altman’s films has generally focused on genre convention and corruptions; his use of large, ensemble casts and intertwining stories; his use of overlapping dialogue and multi-layered soundtracks; and, his recreation of a distinctly Altmanesque American cultural landscape.

While some criticism has been devoted to the study of a few major female characters in Altman’s films, no comprehensive study of the Altman women characters exists. Moreover, much of the critical attention given to Altman’s female characters has been negative, such as that aimed at “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan in MAS*H. The film’s characterization and treatment of the character, as well as other women characters in that film, were widely criticized. Rather than focusing on a single character or film, however, this research examines Altman’s films as a unified body of work that share overarching themes about women in American culture.

Moreover, the women characters in these films are examined through multiple critical lenses and theoretical frameworks, and are further contextualized against the cultural and social attitudes during the periods in which the films were created. Critical theories used in this study include Mikhail Bakhtin’s concepts of dialogism, reaccentuation, and heteroglossia; feminist film and literary theory; and, general film theory when necessary to examine the rhetorical effects of technology and the technological choices and practices of Altman in his filmmaking. The study is divided into three primary parts corresponding to specific periods and shifts in feminist thought.

This study is relevant because it contributes to our understanding of Altman’s work as an American filmmaker and to our understanding of the roles played by film and visual literacy in our society’s construction of meaning. Moreover, by studying Altman’s films and the construction of female characters in his work, we can better grasp the dialogic relationship that exists between American audiences and the art – verbal and visual – the audiences help to create.

Robert Altman, Mikhail Bakhtin, Dialogism, Women in film, Feminist film theory