Piggy in the Middle: Sex-roles and attachment in A Private Function
By Georgia Jeffrey
It is 1947 and Britain is still in the recovery stages from World War II. The rationing system remains in place and there is yet “another blow to the British housewife” (0:02:00) as bacon rations are cut in half. An event to raise the spirits of the nation is on the horizon. The marriage of Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten is due to be a public celebration and many plan to commemorate the event with their own dinners and parties; however, with country-wide food shortages, some try to “hog” other less-legal sources.
Some local businessmen decide to raise a pig illegally for a dinner they are hosting for other well to-do members of the community. Gilbert Chilvers is a local chiropodist who inadvertently steals their pig at the behest of his wife who hopes it will bring them upward mobility. Before the couples activities are unearthed, attempts are made by Joyce to encourage her husband to kill the animal despite his reluctance. Korsmeyer (2007) argues that we are often disgusted by “[foods] that are insufficiently removed from their natural form” (p.149). In this case, the pig is sufficiently alive to cause discomfort at the thought of eating it. Initially, Joyce offers Gilbert a small chiropodist blade as he dances around the kitchen trying to convince himself he can do it before admitting “she’s [his] friend” (1:07:00).
At 1:08:00, Betty (the pig) is shut in the kitchen with Gilbert and a knife. The camera maintains its close-up focus on Joyce with her ear to the door as we hear loud, distressed squealing for an uncomfortable few seconds. A loud thud ensues and then silence. The dim, natural lighting adds to the tense ambiance. Momentarily, Gilbert emerges with a blood soaked knife and a forlorn look on his face. His masculinity is restored, if only for an instant… “I’ve cut my finger.” The camera tilts to the floor as Betty teasingly trots through the door. The use of sound and perspective in this scene convinces the audience that the deed is done which makes it all the more comical when our assumptions turn out to be wrong.
Joyce however, is not pleased at all. “You pathetic cringing nancy… I should have married a man”. Gilbert does not fit the normative masculine role. He is a quiet, unassuming man who is content in his position as a doctor of the feet. Joyce too is distant from normative femininity. Female stereotypes often include compassion, empathy and a close proximity to nature (Katz and Winiarski, 2012). Joyce lacks all of these in relation to Betty. She is driven and determined by her own ambitions and her decision not to have children emphasizes this profile. Gilbert is emasculated by his attachment to the animal. By giving it a name, he ascribes a character to the pig with which he forms a bond. Like a pet, he finds it difficult when she is slaughtered later in the film, refusing to eat her at dinner.
Butchery is a male-dominated profession. It is commonly viewed in society as an expression of hyper-masculinity. The violence involved with the occupation is assimilated with men as ‘hunters’ and testosterone-fuelled beings who exist as providers and are not prone to feminine sensibilities. Gilbert’s consideration and sympathy for the pig are not aligned with traditional hegemonic masculinity of the time. As such, he is considered ‘less of a man’ by his wife.
A Private Function draws in questions of where we draw the line between pets and livestock. We are often alienated within capitalism as a consumer from the live animal. By the time it reaches us, we can hardly relate what is on the supermarket shelf to the animal in the fields. Being confronted with the slaughter process is a difficult moment of realization for Gilbert.
A Private Function. (1984). [film] Directed by M. Mowbray. United Kingdom: HandMade Films.
Katz, P & Winiarski, D. (2012). Sex role stereotypes and gender differences. In: J, Banks, ed., Encyclopedia of diversity in education. SAGE Publications, Inc., Thousand Oaks, CA, pp. 1949-1958.
Korsmeyer, C. (2009). Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting. In: F. Allhoff and D. Monroe, ed., Food and Philosophy: Eat, Drink and Be Merry, 1st ed. John Wiley and Sons, pp.145-161.