Does Jane Campion’s “Sweetie” suggest that patriarchal males thwart female potential?

Quick Answer: Jane Campion’s “Sweetie” explores the ways in which a patriarchal family structure can thwart female potential. The protagonists, sisters Kay and Sweetie, appear stuck in childhood, largely due to the influence of the film’s male characters. Their father stifles their growth and development, preferring that they remain infantile little girls.

There are a number of elements in Jane Campion’s Sweetie (1989) that explore how men thwart female potential. The film explores arrested development and the stifling of healthy female maturation.

Kay (Karen Colston) opens the film announcing her fear of trees. In a surreal, David Lynch-like style, Campion shows seeds sprouting monstrous tendrils which will grow into trunks with abundant foliage. From Kay’s warped view, this botanical process is an invasion. She has carpets and wallpaper in her home decorated with flowery designs, which exhibit a safe, static, two-dimensional version of tree growth. The fact that she surrounds herself with representations of trees suggests the possibility that she may subconsciously yearn for the long-term maturation they represent. Yet her negative associations of trees hint at the dangers of unrestrained growth without maturity, like a child who gets bigger and bigger but never learns how to transition into true adulthood.

Karen Colston in Sweetie (1989)

Kay lives in a Peter Pan world of not growing up. She has ceramic toy horses which are still her play things. There is a doll stretched out on a bed. She seems awkward interacting with her adult coworkers, pulling on her hair like a child. These infantile characterizations show that Kay has resisted blossoming into womanhood. A superstitious person, she turns to a fortuneteller, who tells her that there is a man in her romantic future with a question mark on his face. She notices that a co-worker named Louis (Tom Lycos) has a curl in his hair just above a mole on his forehead that resembles a question mark. Believing that this man could be her salvation, she seduces him.

Later on, Louis plants an elder tree in the cement area behind Kay’s house, perhaps a symbol of the hope for her potential maturation in spite of her resistance to change. But in a sleepwalking scene, Kay rips it out of the ground. She hides the uprooted sapling under the bed, again suspicious of its developmental infringement. After catching a cold and sleeping in another bedroom so Louis will not contract the illness, Kay regresses into a pre-sexual state.

It is when Kay’s sister Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon) arrives, and after the subsequent appearances of their father and mother, that we begin to see an entire family in which female actualization has been stifled. The girls’ mother, Flo (Dorothy Barry), has left her husband over his inability to properly deal with Sweetie. Playing the role of a wife suffocates her, and even in her departure she is still fulfilling the old-fashioned job of the female spouse, leaving dinner behind for her husband. But once she is free of her prescribed female role, she demonstrates a beautiful singing voice. In her previous world, her talent was unknown, and thus no one could appreciate it.

Genevieve Lemon in Sweetie (1989)

Sweetie, to a more extreme degree than her sister, appears stuck in childhood. She enjoys child-like play with a young boy in Kay’s neighborhood. She has tantrums when she doesn’t get what she wants, such as going for a family car ride. She uses sex the way a child plays with a toy; when her boyfriend falls asleep on the beach, she is bored and seduces Louis, who has been deprived of that outlet with Kay.

When we are introduced to the sisters’ father, Gordon (Jon Darling), we start to understand why Sweetie behaves as she does. He tried to keep her as his little girl, giving into the self-centered desires of a child. He keeps his house decorated and lit like a dollhouse. He held her back from realizing her performing talents by restricting her acrobatic stunts to those worthy of a young girl but not of a woman. Her real name is Dawn, and she lives up to that name because it represents only the beginning of a day’s—and in this case, a woman’s—full experiential cycle. The nickname “Sweetie” illustrates the father’s stunting of his daughter becoming a fully realized person.

Karen Colston and Tom Lycos in Sweetie (1989)

Sweetie wants to become an adult star, but she lacks a role model to help guide her. Her boyfriend, Bob (Michael Lake), who is supposed to be her “producer,” is a stoned loser who just uses her for sex. Bob functions as yet another man who has hindered Sweetie‘s personal growth. Still, perhaps no one is more responsible than her father. When he approaches Sweetie at one point, Sweetie draws her shirt up over her head, as if she is withdrawing into a womb, indicating her continued regression. She eventually returns to the backyard treehouse of her youth, strips off her clothes, thus reverting to an infantile state. This mentally stagnant, undeveloped, child-like disposition is toxic to a woman who is physically an adult. During a tantrum, Sweetie breaks the floor of the tree house and falls to her death. Her father imagines he sees her after she is buried, but still only as a child, singing for his amusement.

Despite the male blockage of female development in this film, there is hope for Kay in the end. We see her feet alongside those of Louis as they talk about sex and touch each other with their toes. This hopefully indicates a move toward a meaningful relationship. The scene, simultaneously coy and mature, provides a hopeful image of reconciliation between youthful playfulness and adult fulfillment.