I have another piece of student work for you to enjoy today, this time from Nicole Marais, who is nearing the completion of her BA, in which she is majoring in Media, Film, and TV studies. Nicole has focused on one of my favourite biblical characters – Delilah, from Judges 16. She first looks at her presentation in a painting from the 19th Century, before turning to consider the ‘Delilah-like’ character of Meredith Johnson in the 1994 movie Disclosure. Nicole’s discussion is fascinating and creative – I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.
Delilah in visual culture
Paul Albert Rouffio, Samson and Delilah (1874)
And she made him sleep upon her knees; and she called for a man, and she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head; and she began to afflict him, and his strength went from him. (Judges 16:19)
The first representation of Delilah we will be looking at is a painting by Paul Albert Rouffio entitled simply Samson and Delilah (1874). This is the moment just before Samson’s hair is shorn and the Philistines capture him and take him away to Gaza.
In Rouffio’s rendition, Delilah is being handed a pair of scissors by a female servant while the Philistine soldiers wait in an alcove for the moment to attack and seize him. This differs from the biblical text where the narrator tells us that Delilah called for ‘a man and she caused him…’ to cut Samson’s hair. (Judges 16:19) Here Delilah is the one to not only deceive Samson by telling the Philistines his secret, she deals the fatal blow by cutting his hair herself.
Again in the text we are not told where this scenario unfolds. (Exum 82) Are we in Delilah’s house? Is this a brothel? Wherever they are here it looks to be a very opulent and decadent setting. The Egyptian art on the walls in the back ground is intriguing. Perhaps a marker of Delilah’s foreignness?
None of the characters in the image engage with the viewer. At first glance Samson captures our eye, his vulnerability is twofold as he lays naked and asleep. I can’t help but feel compassion for this man who, in the glow of post coital bliss, has no idea that in an instant his world and legacy will change forever. The image serves a dual purpose too. While Delilah’s nakedness is intended to be a pleasure for the male gaze to behold, Samson’s vulnerability and the viewer’s knowledge of things to come serves as a warning against the power of female seduction. (Exum 78) If a great man like Samson can fall prey to the evil wiles of a woman’s sexual prowess, what hope do ‘normal’ men have?
The biblical text says only that Delilah ‘made him sleep on her lap’. There is no evidence in the bible to point to their love making, yet Rouffio (and countless other artists before and since him) implies this in his interpretation of the text. In Samson and Delilah shown above, the state of undress of both Samson and Delilah as well as the crumpled sheets of the bed are more than a subtle hint to what has come before. If that were not enough, the pomegranates and figs next to Delilah’s bed are themselves symbols of Delilah’s heightened sexuality.
But who was Samson to Delilah? Did she fear him, love him, loathe him? Or was she just a vindictive woman set on destroying a great man? The Biblical text says simply that she was a woman that Samson loved;
‘And it came to pass afterward, that he loved a woman in the valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah.’ (Judges 16:4)
She obviously knew of his love for her;
‘How canst thou say, I love thee, when thine heart is not with me?’ (Judges 16:15)
But there is no mention of her love for him. Indeed her actions lead us to believe the opposite. She manipulates him into telling her the secret of his power, betrays his confidence to the Philistines and hands him over to his enemy, without a hint of remorse. (Or at least there is no indication that she feels any in the text)
I don’t think Rouffio was in any doubt of whether she loved him or not. Her facial expression in his painting is one of smug victory. A woman content in the knowledge that she has succeeded in her task. She appears to be very assured of herself, confident that he will not awake before she cuts his hair and knowing that when the deed is done she will be a wealthy woman. Or, if the decadent room in which this is set is indeed in her home, and not a brothel like I suspect, an even wealthier woman.
So, what is next for Delilah? After she delivers Samson to the Philistines, she disappears from the biblical text. Does she become a member of the Philistine elite? Or does she take her silver and go home? The décor in the back ground of the painting leads me to believe that she is not from those parts and will most likely return to her home, be that Egypt or Mesopotamia (?) as a wealthy single woman who has no need for a man to look after her. Perhaps she even becomes the Madam of her own brothel…
Delilah-like Demi Moore as Meredith Johnson in Disclosure (1994)
Dan Clanton argues in Daring, Disreputable, and Devout: Interpreting the Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music that there is a perpetual negative rendering of Delilah in literature, film and contemporary music. (Clanton 65) While Clanton focused on representations of Delilah in music, I will look at how Delilah, as the quintessential femme fatale, is given new life through Demi Moore’s portrayal of Meredith Johnson in Barry Levinson’s 1994 film Disclosure.
The film focuses on a week in the life of Tom Sanders (Michael Douglas). He has to fight to save his job after his new boss, and former lover, accuses him of sexual harassment following her failed attempt to seduce him. (Although, it must be said that director Levinson took a very ‘Clinton era’ approach to what constitutes sexual relations in this scene.)
Like the biblical text there is a three way split in the power play between the characters of the film: Meredith the femme fatale (Delilah), Tom the victim of the temptress (Samson) and the men that use a deviant female to ensnare their captive, in this case the board members of Didgicom (the Philistines). (Clanton 66)
Demi Moore is the ultimate Delilah incarnate. A femme Fatale that uses her sexual prowess to ensnare an unsuspecting man and thereby endeavouring to destroy him. However, unlike the biblical text where the all-powerful Samson is undone by Delilah, Tom Sanders manages to outwit Meredith and come out on top. Meredith is fired from her position of Vice President and Tom is lauded as the architect of a merger that will ensure his position at the company.
It is unclear what Meredith’s reasons are for wanting to destroy Tom in such a grandiose manner. In Judges 16, Delilah agrees to help the Philistines when they offer her a handsome financial reward in return. However in Disclosure, Meredith’s justification for setting up and betraying her former lover remains ambiguous. Could it be that she is a woman scorned, who after 10 years still wants revenge for a love affair that ended badly? Or is she seduced by the idea of power? Does she want to be the top woman in a man’s world? Meredith admits as much to Tom in the beginning of the film when she tries to rekindle their romantic relationship.
‘Now you got the power. You got something I want.’
Like Delilah in the book of Judges, we are not sure what will become of Meredith after she is booted from Digicom. She tells Tom that she has already been approached by 10 head hunters in the hour since her public shaming at a press conference. Here Levinson insinuates that she will land on her feet. Like Delilah of the bible she will not be too severely punished for her actions, for which she too shows no remorse.
Meredith Johnson in Levinson’s Disclosure and the Delilah of Rouffio’s Samson and Delilah are separated by a hundred and twenty years, yet have much in common. They are both used as pawns in facilitating the power play of a man’s world. Delilah is used by the Philistines to ensnare Samson and Meredith by the male members of the board at Digicom. They are both aware of their part in this power struggle and comply willingly.
Delilah and Meredith reinforce the ideology that women are responsible for men’s undoing and are a threat to the fundamentals of a patriarchal society. (Anders 97) A world in which hetro-normative ideals of procreation and the family unit are to be preserved above all else. Women who challenge these ideals with their desire to forge a life for themselves that is not guided by the moral compass that a husband and a family will give them, are dangerous.
What is interesting to me is that the Delilah of Rouffio’s painting seems to wield more power that Meredith does in Disclosure. This is of concern because Disclosure was set in the 1990’s, a time where gender roles were being questioned and women were being given opportunities that had since eluded them. In the end Levinson’s film, maintains the current gender status quo. Women are either sexually charged vamps who use manipulation to control and destroy men, or they are insipid and dowdy, only allowed to succeed if they put a lid on their sexuality so they can access their brains. A very disappointing rendering of Delilah indeed.
Rouffio, Paul Albert Samson and Delilah, 1874.
Disclosure. Dir. Barry Levinson. Perf. Demi Moore, Michael Douglas. Warner Brothers. 1995. Film.
Anderson, Lesley Cecile Marie. ‘The Femme Fatale: A Manifestation of Patriarchal Fears’ UBC Retrospective Theses Digitization Project. University of British Columbia, 1995.
Clanton, Dan. “Trollops and Temptresses.” In Daring, Disreputable, and Devout: Interpreting the Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music, 65-78. New York: T&T Clark International, 2009.
Exum, Cheryl. Notorious Biblical Women in Manchester: Spencer Stanhope’s Eve and Federick Pickersgill’s Delilah. Bible Art Gallery. Edited by Martin O’Kane, 69-96. The Bible in the Modern World, 21. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011.