Emerging in the early seventies, feminist film theory and criticism sought not only to understand the stratagems of sexism, but also to encourage positive attitudes towards womanhood and an optimistic view about social change. If films that existed in the past did not serve women well, then the following questions arose: What kinds of images did women want? What was in their best interests? And what was possible within the system of film production as we know it?
Such questioning is apparent in the first two essays of this section which debate the pros and cons of producing positive images, images that show women as intelligent and autonomous, performing meaningful work, making reasonable choices, and living assertively. In “Positive Images: Screening Women’s Films” (1978),1 an essay which serves as the introduction to their book on non-sexist media for young people, Linda Artel and Susan Wengraf express their committment to creating an awareness of alternatives to sex-stereotyped behavior. Recognizing the powerful ability of film to encourage this awareness, they argue that positive images create important role models for females and undermine stereotypes that foster sexism in society.
Diane Waldman’s response, “There’s More to a Positive Image Than Meets the Eye” (1978), raises two objections: first, to the criteria used by the authors, and second, to the notion itself. Addressing the latter issue, she questions whether positive images are truthful ones. “Do they depict things as they really are, or as we think they should be?”2 She is especially concerned that an emphasis on positive images fails to confront the reality of sexism. For Waldman, what is needed are methods for critiquing images, for understanding how viewers identify with film characters, and for analyzing how sexism functions in our society. She ends with a reminder that meaning is not located solely in the film, but also in the interaction between reader and text. As feminist film theory and criticism developed over the next ten years, these issues were to be addressed again, especially regarding the extent to which film can determine viewer responses and the variation of these responses to any given work.
“The Place of Woman in the Cinema of Raoul Walsh,” by Pam Cook and Claire Johnston (1974), was one of the first essays to apply psychoanalytic theory (especially the work of Jacques Lacan) and semiotics to feminist film analysis. Cook and Johnston are vociferous in their rejection of a sociological approach, one which compares screen images of women with real women, past or present. For them, film is a coded artificial construct and the task of feminist criticism is to decode it.
The authors use Walsh for this project because his films often present strong women characters—positive images, if you will. However, Cook and Johnston set out to prove that these characters are not the independent agents they seem to be, but rather serve as signifiers encoded by a patriarchal culture. In Walsh’s work, as they explain, women represent “at one and the same time the distant memory of maternal plentitude and the fetishized object of his fantasy of castration—a phallic replacement and thus a threat.”3 Furthermore, woman is “an object of exchange between men, . . . the means by which men express their relationships with each other.”4
Cook and Johnston use their approach to address Walsh’s The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956). They explore the film’s treatment of the relationship between money and phallic power and of how women are excluded from this relationship. They focus on the way Jane Russell’s (Mamie Stover) “look” directed towards the men in the film and in the audience poses a threat to male privilege. They describe how “the central contradiction of her [Stover’s] situation is that she can only attempt to assert herself as subject through the exploitation of a fetishized image of woman to be exchanged within the circulation of money: her independence and her desire for social and economic status all hinge on this objectification.”5 Finally they show how “By promising to marry and give it all up, she is reintegrated into an order where she no longer represents that threat.”6
Despite the title of their essay, Cook and Johnston reject an auteur approach to film analysis, an approach which emphasizes the unity and personal vision of a director’s oeuvre. In contrast, they read film as a text which contains the contradictory interplay of different codes. “A study of woman within Walsh’s oeuvre, in particular, reveals ‘woman’ as the locus of a dilemma for the patriarchal human order, as a locus of contradictions.”7 Such as approach moves feminist film criticism beyond the study of positive and negative images.
The next selection, Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975),” is the single most reprinted essay in the field of feminist film theory. In the essay, Mulvey uses psychoanalytic theory in a political way in order to demonstrate how Hollywood cinema is integrally bound up with aspects of patriarchy, particularly with unconscious mechanisms related to the construction of images, erotic ways of looking, audience identification, and the Hollywood editing style. According to Mulvey, woman stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male Other, as a symbol of what woman represents to men, that is, as a symbol of their fantasies and obsessions. For Mulvey it is thus crucial to understand these mechanisms, as well as the pleasures offered by cinema viewing, before women can create alternatives more suited to their own desires.
Mulvey describes two sources of visual pleasure that were identified by Freud. “The first, scopophilic, arises from pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight. The second, developed through narcissism and the constitution of the ego, comes from identification with the image seen. Thus, in film terms, one implies a separation of the erotic identity of the subject from the object on the screen (active scopophilia), the other demands identification of the ego with the object on the screen through the spectator’s fascination with the recognition of his like.”8
For Mulvey, visual pleasure as constructed in cinema is male pleasure. In line with patriarchal culture, pleasure in looking is split between active/male and passive/female: woman as image and man as the bearer of “the look,” both on screen and in the audience.
Mulvey goes on to indicate how the active/passive heterosexual division affects narrative structure so that the image of woman as an erotic spectacle stops the flow of the narrative. As Mulvey explains, “the split between spectacle and narrative supports the man’s role as the active one of forwarding the story. The man controls the film fantasy and also emerges as the representative of power in a further sense: as the bearer of the look of the spectator.”9 In short, men act and women appear.
Despite the fact that the male controls the gaze, the sight of a woman’s body, due to its lack of a penis, produces in him the unpleasurable threat of castration, according to Mulvey. Castration, in its Freudian sense, is also the basis of sexual difference as represented in film. Like Cook and Johnston before her, Mulvey sees sexual difference in film representation as a question of male vs. non-male.
Castration fears are mitigated in two ways in film: a) by voyeurism (associated with sadism), which reenacts the trauma of separation from the mother and which finds pleasure in ascertaining guilt, asserting control, and subjecting the guilty person (woman) to punishment and/or forgiveness; and b) by fetishistic scopophilia, which disavows the threat by the substitution of a fetish object, and which builds up the physical beauty of the object (again woman) as something satisfying in itself. Finally, Mulvey demonstrates how these defense mechanisms operate in the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Joseph von Sternberg. She ends with an analysis of the cinematic codes which determine the ways of looking within cinema and with a call for the abandonment of traditional film conventions which have stolen and used woman’s image.
Mulvey’s essay had a profound effect on the course of feminist film writing. Dozens of writers applied Mulvey’s ideas to their own critiques. Her essay constitutes part of the received wisdom that informs many of the selections included in Section Two. In addition, Mulvey was one of the first feminists to focus on the work of Alfred Hitchcock, which has since become a fruitful source for feminists film criticism.
Mary Ann Doane’s “Film and the Masquerade—Theorizing the Female Spectator” (1982) builds on Mulvey’s essay, also taking into account her revision, “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ inspired by Duel in the Sun” (1981), which was discussed in the Introduction. For Doane, female spectatorship is not simply a question of “male/action” vs. “female/passive,” or even one of women’s ability to oscillate between these two forms of identification by temporarily becoming a “transvestite” (Mulvey’s term). Rather, spectatorship revolves around questions of proximity and distance. This is especially problematic for the female spectator as she is the image, the object to be viewed. Thus, women are given two options: they can masochistically overidentify with female images on the screen (becoming overly involved—a frequent female response to melodrama), or they can narcissistically become their own image of desire.
Doane next takes up the notion of “the masquerade.” She notes that it is clear why some women would want to emulate men, but questions why others choose instead to flaunt their femininity. Doane explains this in terms of the masquerade. As theorized by Joan Rivere in “Womanliness as a Masquerade” (1966), “Womanliness . . . could be assumed and worn as a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it. . . . The masquerade, in flaunting femininity, holds it at a distance.”10 The fact of this distance in part solves the problem of women’s overidentification and transvestism. The masquerade, or excess of femininity, enables viewers to critique the socially constructed role of the feminine. In film, however, the masquerade often brings its own punishment—witness the fate of femme fatales in film noir or of any woman who attempts to take over the masculine activity of “looking.”
Doane closes her essay with an analysis of Robert Doisneau’s 1948 photograph ‘Un Regard Oblique,’ using it as an example of how Hollywood cinema incorporates the male gaze into the narrative, while simultaneously denying the female one. She explains, “The object of the male gaze is fully present, there for the spectator. The fetishistic representation of the nude female body, fully in view, insures a masculinisation of the spectatorial position. . . . The photograph displays insistently, in microcosm, the structure of the cinematic inscription of a sexual differentiation in modes of looking.”11 For the present, Doane sees the position constructed for the female spectator as “ultimately untenable”; however, she also sees the masquerade, with its potential for drawing attention to the concept of femininity, as one way out of the dilemma. By producing a problematic image, the masquerade creates the necessary distance between the female spectator and the screen and generates an image readable by women.
“Hitchcock, Feminism, and the Patriarchal Unconscious” constitutes the introductory chapter to Tania Modleski’s book The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory (1988). She observes how feminists have been “compelled, intrigued, infuriated, and inspired” by Hitchcock’s works and how his films have played a central role in the formation of feminist film theory.12 In reviewing this literature, she touches on many of the essays included in this anthology.
As interpreted by Modleski, despite the misogyny attributed to Hitchcock by many of his detractors, Hitchcock’s films reveal a strong fascination and identification with femininity that undermine his so-called cinematic mastery. “What I want to argue is neither that Hitchcock is utterly misogynistic nor that he is largely sympathetic to women and their plight in patriarchy, but that his work is characterized by a thoroughgoing ambivalence about femininity—which explains why it has been possible for critics to argue with some plausibility on either side of the issue.”13 In order to understand this ambivalence, Modleski first addresses the ways in which masculine identity is bound up with feminine identity on both the individual and the social level. Next she turns to Hitchcock’s films which “repeatedly reveal the way women are oppressed in patriarchy,” and thus “allow the female spectator to feel anger that is very different from the masochistic response imputed to her by some feminist critics.”14 For Modleski, this is of crucial relevance for a theory of female spectatorship.
Modleski moves on to a discussion of recent writings which root female bisexuality in the daughter’s early attachment to both the mother and the father. She shows how notions of bisexuality thus can help to explain women’s viewing experiences in which they identify with contradictory points of view. For Modleski, Hitchcock’s oeuvre, with its preoccupation with female bisexuality and its ability to draw viewers into a close identification with characters, proves to be a perfect vehicle to test this and other theories of female spectatorship, especially those posited by Mulvey and Doane.
The last article, by Jane Gaines, “Can We Enjoy Alternative Pleasure?” (1987)15 stands in opposition to most of the articles included so far. Not only does Gaines attack the entire school of psychoanalytic feminism, but she also questions why a psychoanalytic approach has been preferred to a Marxist one, especially because Marxism was so vital to the theoretical underpinnings of the women’s movement.
Gaines’s objection to psychoanalysis is that the theory sidesteps issues of social class and history and also avoids the fact that gender differences are socially constructed. Gaines states that many Marxists feel that psychoanalysis, with its notion of “sexed identity,” has generated pessimism among women about the possibility of creating political change. She also reiterates the objections of many towards the British film theorists whose use of pyschoanalysis and other specialized knowledge fosters an elitist position. In Gaines’s view, feminist film theory is at a crisis point. Critics can continue to focus on women’s silence, repression, and absence in the cinema, which is what has engaged the pyschoanalytic feminists, or they can begin to define a feminine specificity. For Gaines, the time has come to shift attention away from male pleasures and the male gaze to female pleasures.
Gaines discusses the construction of a women’s cinema and of female pleasure. She sees counter-cinema as offering one possibility but is aware that the use of avant-garde techniques often alienates women viewers. “The subversion of sexual looking, although compelling as a concept, is not so riveting in its translation to the screen.”16 She questions why “a film that considers its own signification process necessarily require(s) its audience to know advanced film theory in order for them to enjoy, appreciate, and ideally, reflect upon what they see?”17
Most important, Gaines champions an array of works, many by black filmmakers, that use conventional forms and accessible techniques to challenge the political status quo. Gaines speaks forcefully for an active reading of the text. She points out how lesbian studies, which assign more power to the spectator than to the text, show how “the look” of female spectators can cancel out the male point of view and how they can find erotic pleasure in many mainstream films. For her, such work is as an important opening in the study of the double consciousness of oppressed groups. Her essay ends with a plea to take a second look at previously dismissed forms, such as soap opera and romance, which promise a model for an emerging feminist aesthetic. These concerns, as well as all of the issues raised by the essays in this section, become the basis for much of the criticism presented in Section Two.
1. The book, entitled Positive Images: Non-Sexist Films for Young People, was published originally in 1976 by Bootlegger Press in San Francisco.
2. Diane Waldman, “There’s More to a Positive Image Than Meets the Eye,” Jump Cut, no. 18 (1978), p. 32.
3. Pam Cook and Claire Johnston, “The Place of Women in the Cinema of Raoul Walsh,” in Raoul Walsh, ed. Phil Hardy, Colchester, England: Vineyard Press (1974), p. 95.
5. Ibid., p. 100.
6. Ibid., p. 103.
7. Ibid., p. 109.
8. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (Autumn 1975), p. 10.
9. Ibid, p. 12.
10. Quoted in Mary Ann Doane, “Film and the Masquerade—Theorising the Female Spectator,” Screen 23, nos. 3-4 (September-October 1982), p. 81.
11. Ibid., p. 81.
12. These can be found on the pages of Camera Obscura, Wide Angle, and Screen, anthologized in A Hitchcock Reader, ed. Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague, Ames: Iowa State University Press (1986), Robin Wood’s Hitchcock Films Revisited, New York: Columbia University Press, 1989, and The Rereleased Hitchcock Films, ed. Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick, Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press (forthcoming). Also see Jeanne Thomas Allen, “The Representation of Violence to Women: Hitchcock’s Frenzy,” Film Quarterly 38, no. 3 (Spring 1985), pp. 30-38.
13. Tania Modleski, “Hitchcock, Feminism, and the Patriarchal Unconscious.” The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory, New York: Methuen (1988), p. 3
14. Ibid., p. 4.
15. An earlier version of this essay served as the introduction to a special section on Women and Representation, Jump Cut, no. 29 (February 1984).
16. Jane Gaines, “Women and Representation: Can We Enjoy Alternative Pleasure?” American Media and Mass Culture: Left Perspectives, ed. Donald Lazere, Berkeley: University of California Press (1987), p. 363.