One of the experiences that films allow is the pleasure of identification. Psychology tells us that the child begins to identify with others at a very early stage, and that identifications play a large part in determining personality. When the child becomes a reader and film spectator, transient identifications with the characters of fiction continue to influence personal development. In this final section, I examine the way that film fictions help to produce individuals as gendered subjects, that is as persons who develop social attitudes toward their sexual identity.
So far cognitive theory has had little to say about the different readings caused by variations in gender, class, race, and cultural context. In cognitive psychology, the work of Lawrence Kohlberg in Child Psychology and Childhood Education stands out as an exceptional contribution to the question of gender identification by children.
In the next two chapters I will be examining the manner in which commercial films tend to reinforce stereotypes about gender roles, which, in our society as in every other, are the result of cultural formations. The reinforcement comes both from the stories themselves and from the way the films play on the unconscious fantasies of the spectator. This should hardly be surprising, given the fact that the fictional worlds of film are outgrowths of our literary and cultural heritage. Still, the buried attitudes that influence every phase of cinematic production are well worth exploring.
Gender identity, as a social construction, is of course not synonymous with sexual identity. Our concept of “femininity” has changed a lot since Freud wrote in his New Introductory Lectures that “we regard women as weaker in their social interests and as having less capacity for sublimating their instincts than men.” It is striking, nevertheless, that our culture forces us to think in terms of gendered dichotomies. Catherine Clement and Helene Cixous have set some of these out in their book La Jeune Nee (recently translated as The Newly Born Woman):
In Reflections on Gender and Science, Evelyn Fox Keller explains that these binary divisions were not always regarded as opposite and irreconcilable poles. Alchemical science, which laid the stress on the fusion of male and female elements into a whole, offered an alternative to the mechanical model that replaced it in the seventeenth century. Interestingly, it was surrealism that tried to revive the alchemical metaphor in our century. Andre Breton regarded the androgyne, a fusion of “masculine” and “feminine” qualities, as the ideal.
In my first chapter, I argue that the recent film E.T. gives a picture of “masculinity” that parallels the treatment of “femininity” in The Wizard of Oz. Children watching these films are bound to come away with very conservative ideas of gender identity. Moreover, the narrative strategy of the films and the fascination children are bound to feel while under the spell of the film apparatus makes it very difficult for them to develop a critical attitude toward the films’ messages. My analysis of two popular children’s films situates them within the literary and cultural framework of children’s fairy tales, familiar territory to young viewers. I demonstrate how each film works on children’s unconscious fantasies, binding them to traditional gender models.
The film star Catherine Deneuve is the focus of my second chapter. Here I examine the way in which mechanical metaphors of desire and sexuality have dominated the portrayal of the film actress. These metaphors, I argue, have their roots in the industrial revolution and are pervasive in the sociology, psychology, and literature of our times. Changing the way we conventionally “script” ourselves as male or female will therefore require a fundamental re-evaluation of our social and intellectual heritage.
Far from being works which “break the frame” of these conventions, the films discussed in the fourth and final section are complicit in reinforcing social norms. In my conclusion, therefore, I suggest some ideas for future films that could critically explore the problem of gender.