Born in Flames, a feminist science fiction film set ten years after a Social-Democratic “revolution” in the U.S., provides an abrupt reminder of the place of theory in the context of social change. Toward the end of the film, with the women’s takeover of New York communications channels in progress, the voice of theory is heard over the image, insisting that women also need to take over the production of language. Although the film gives credence to the voice of theory (a white female British-accented voice), it is clear that the militant Women’s Emergency Brigade and the martyred Black lesbian leader are carrying the revolutionary moment. What strikes me about the juxtaposition—images of women hot-wiring U-Haul trucks and the voice of theory urging women to take control of their own images—is that the voice sounds so crisply detached and arid.1
What I want to discuss is not so much the scene as the tenor of the female intellectual voice, which immediately recalls for me the tone of feminist film theory—firm in its insistence on attention to cinematic language and strict in its prohibition against making comparisons between “actuality” and the text. Let me be clear that this is something of a caricature of a stance which many of us who work on feminist film theory find less and less tenable.2 Certainly, the intense concentration on cinema as language has helped to remedy a naiveté about form which characterized early feminist film criticism. However, as interest in the operations of the cinematic text increased, we witnessed the banishment of sociological reference points and historical detail from criticism. From this viewpoint it seems that one can only analyze the ideological through its encoding in the conventions of editing or the mechanics of the motion picture machine.3
For Marxists, this textual detachment, as I will call it, has special implications: concentration on the functioning of discourse creates the impression that developments in an ideological realm are unrelated to developments elsewhere in social life. As feminist film theory has emphasized the irresistible allure and captivating power of classical narrative cinema, it has located determination exclusively in the ideological realm. At the center of this difficulty has been the effort to understand the ideological work of mainstream cinema in terms of the psychoanalytic concept of sexual difference, which has largely meant casting formal structures such as narrative and point of view as masculine, and locating the feminine, the opposite term, in the repressed or excluded. Since this theory has focused on sexual difference, class and racial differences have remained outside its problematic, divorced from textual concerns by the very split in the social totality that the incompatibility of these discourses misrepresents. Adorno has remarked on this split, although in the context of an argument for the merger of sociology and psychology:
The separation of sociology and psychology is both correct and false. False because it encourages the specialists to relinquish the attempt to know the totality which even the separation of the two demands; and correct insofar as it registers more intransigently the split that has actually taken place in reality than does the premature unification at the level of theory.4
In the interest of understanding the social totality, I am suggesting that our criticism should work to demystify this apparent separation by raising questions of race and class exactly where they have been theoretically disallowed.
Here I want to show how a theory of the text and its spectator, based on the psychoanalytic concept of sexual difference, is unequipped to deal with a film which is about racial difference and sexuality. Immediately, the Diana Ross star-vehicle, Mahogany (Berry Gordy, 1975), suggests a psychoanalytic approach because the narrative is organized around the connections between sadism, voyeurism, and photographic acts. Furthermore, it is a perfect specimen of classical narrative cinema which has been so fully theorized in Freudian terms. The psychoanalytic mode, however, works to block out considerations which take a different configuration. For instance, the Freudian scenario, based on the male/female distinction, is incongruous with the scenario of racial and sexual relations in Afro-American history. Where we use a psychoanalytic model to explain Black family relations, we force an erroneous universalization, and inadvertently reaffirm white middle-class norms.
Since it has taken gender as its starting point in the analysis of oppression, feminist theory has helped to reinforce white middle-class values, and to the extent that it works to keep women from seeing other structures of oppression, it functions ideologically. In this regard, Bell Hooks specifically criticizes a feminism which seems unable to imagine women’s oppression in terms other than gender:
Feminist analyses of woman’s lot tend to focus exclusively on gender and do not provide a solid foundation on which to construct feminist theory. They reflect the dominant tendency in Western patriarchal minds to mystify women’s reality by insisting that gender is the sole determinant of woman’s fate.5
This gender analysis illuminates the condition of white middle-class women rather exclusively, Hooks explains, and its centrality in feminist theory suggests that the women who have contributed to the construction of this theory have been ignorant of the way women in different racial groups and social classes experience oppression. How should the white middle-class feminist who does not want to be racist in her work respond to this criticism? In her essay, “On Being White,” one of the few considerations of this delicate dilemma, Marilyn Frye urges us not to do what middle-class feminists have historically done: to assume responsibility for everyone. To take it upon oneself to rewrite feminist theory so that it encompasses our differences is another exercise of racial privilege.6 What one can, with conscience, do is to undertake the difficult study of our own “determined ignorance”; one can begin to learn about the people whose history cannot be imagined from a position of privilege.7 In this context, my argument takes two directions. One juxtaposes Black feminist theory with those aspects of feminist theory which have a tendency to function as normative; the other transposes these issues, as Marxist theory would understand them, into the question of how we are to grasp the interaction of the various levels.
The feminist commitment to revealing the patriarchal assumptions behind familiar cinematic language dates from the mid-seventies with the appearance of Claire Johnston’s “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema”8 and Laura Mulvey’s often reprinted “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”9 The latter essay, coinciding as it did with the publication of Christian Metz’s “The Imaginary Signifier,” paired with a supporting theoretical statement from the editors of the British Screen, helped introduce psychoanalytic concepts into contemporary film theory where they quickly streamlined a Marxist problematic which dealt awkwardly with the social individual.10 The terms of psychoanalysis, introduced through the permission of Althusserian Marxism, made it possible to investigate the sites outside the workplace where oppression is experienced. For Marxist feminists, this connection between Marxism and psychoanalysis immediately enriched the study of the construction of subjectivity in its prime location—the family.
Althusser’s antidote to empiricism and economic reductionism has been welcomed by Marxists working in cultural studies, and the appeal is understandable. If materiality is no longer elsewhere, scholars are suddenly free to concentrate on textual matters without having to concern themselves simultaneously with economic specificity. Marxists in cultural studies outside Screen, however, believe that Althusser’s understanding of ideology as having a materiality of its own contradicts basic Marxist tenets.11 Within British cultural studies, then, psychoanalysis is held in check by the larger debates around Althusserian Marxism. This is not, however, the case in the U.S. where these traditions are often a distant point of reference. Thus the Screen film theory imported to the U.S. comes furnished with idealist assumptions that are mistaken for Marxist underpinnings. Because traditional Marxist terms do not support the critical context in film and television studies in the U.S. as they do in Britain, the challenge to psychoanalytic film theory here may have to come from other critical vantage points.
Lesbian feminists in the U.S. have already raised objections to the way in which contemporary film theory explains the operation of the classic realist text in terms of tensions between masculinity and femininity. Drawing on Freud and Lacan, this position (which is basically Mulvey’s) defines the classic cinema as an expression of the patriarchal unconscious in the way it constructs points of view or “looking positions.” At issue here is the way these viewing vantage points control the female body on the screen and privilege the visual position (the gaze) of the male character(s) within the film. The governing “look” of the male character in the film merges with the spectator’s viewing position in such a way that the spectator sees as that character sees. This theory goes beyond the understanding of the text as producing its own ideal reader; the text is also able to specify the gender of the imputed subject, which in the classic cinema is male.
This understanding of the viewing pleasure in classical cinema as inherently male has drawn an especially sharp response from critics who have argued that this response cancels the lesbian spectator whose viewing pleasure would never be male pleasure. Positing a lesbian spectator would significantly change the trajectory of the gaze since the eroticized star body might be the visual objective of another female character in the film with whose “look” the viewer might identify. (Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, according to this argument, are “only for each other’s eyes.”)12 Following the direction of an early lesbian reading of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, studies of Personal Best show lesbian readership as subverting dominant meanings and confounding textual structures.13 Consistently, lesbians have charged that cultural theory posed in psychoanalytic terms is unable to conceive of desire or explain pleasure without reference to the binary oppositions male/female. This is, as Monique Wittig sees it, the function of the heterosexual assumption, or the “straight mind,” that unacknowledged structure built not only into Lacanian psychoanalysis, but underlying the basic divisions of Western culture, organizing all knowledge, yet escaping any close examination:
With its ineluctability as knowledge, as an obvious principle, as a given prior to any science, the straight mind develops a totalizing interpretation of history, social reality, culture, language. . . . I can only underline the oppressive character that the straight mind is clothed in its tendency to immediately generalize its production of concepts into general laws which claim to hold true for all societies, all epochs, all individuals . . . 14
I want to suggest further that the male/female opposition, so seemingly fundamental to feminism, may actually lock us into modes of analysis which will continually misunderstand the position of many women.
Women of color, like lesbians, have been added to feminist analysis as an afterthought. Standard feminist anthologies consistently include articles on Black female and lesbian perspectives as illustration of the liberality and the inclusiveness of feminist work. However, the very concept of “different perspectives,” while validating distinctness and maintaining a common denominator (woman), still places the categories of race and sexual preference in theoretical limbo. Our political etiquette is correct, but our theory is not so perfect. A familiar litany in our work is the broad-minded conclusion to a feminist argument: “Of course, the implications are somewhat different if race, class, and sexual preference are considered.” In Marxist feminist analysis, the factors of race and sexual preference often remain loose ends because these categories of oppression do not fit easily into a model based on class relations in capitalist society. Some gay historians have been able to determine a relationship between the rise of capitalism and the creation of the social homosexual.15 However, only with a very generous notion of sexual hierarchies, such as the one Gayle Rubin uses in her recent work on the politics of sexuality, can sexual oppression (as different from gender oppression) be located in relation to a framework based on class.16 Race has folded more neatly than sexual preference into Marxist models, but the orthodox formulation which understands racial conflict as class struggle is unsatisfactory to Marxist feminists who want to know exactly how gender intersects with race. The oppression of women of color remains incompletely grasped by this paradigm.
Just as the classic Marxist model of social analysis based on class has obscured the function of gender, the feminist model based on the male/female division under patriarchy has obscured the function of race. The dominant feminist paradigm actually encourages us not to think in terms of any oppression other than male dominance and female subordination. Feminism seems, as Barbara Smith states, “. . . blinded to the implications of any womanhood that is not white womanhood.”17 Black feminists agree that for purposes of analysis, class is as significant as race; however, if these feminists hesitate to emphasize gender as a factor, it is in deference to the way Black women describe their experience.18 Historically, Afro-American women have formulated political allegiance and identity in terms of race rather than gender or class.19 Feminism, however, has not registered the statements of women of color who realize oppression first in relation to race rather than to gender: for them exploitation is personified by a white female.20 Even more difficult for feminist theory to digest is Black female identification with the Black male. On this point, Black feminists diverge from white feminists as they repeatedly remind us that Black women do not necessarily see the Black male as patriarchal antagonist but feel instead that their racial oppression is “shared” with men.21 In the most comprehensive analysis, Black lesbian feminists have described race, class, and gender oppression as “interlocking” in reference to the way these oppressions are synthesized in the lives of Black women.22
The point here is not to rank the structures of oppression in a way that implies the need for Black women to choose between solidarity with men or with women and between race or gender as the basis for a political strategy. At issue is the question of the fundamental antagonism relevant to any Marxist feminist theory.23 Where we have foregrounded one antagonism in our analysis, we have misunderstood another, and this is most dramatically illustrated in the applications of the notion of patriarchy. Feminists have not been absolutely certain what they mean by patriarchy: alternately it has referred to either father right or to the domination of women;24 but what is consistent about the use of the concept is the rigidity of the structure it describes. Patriarchy is incompatible with Marxism where it is used trans-historically without qualification and where it becomes the source to which all other oppressions are tributary, as in the radical feminist theory of patriarchal order which sees oppression in all forms and through all ages as derived from the male/female division.25 Unfortunately, this deterministic model, which in Sheila Rowbotham’s analysis almost functions like a “feminist base-superstructure,” has the disadvantage of leaving us with no sense of movement, or no idea of how women have acted to change their condition, especially in comparison with the fluidity of the Marxist conception of class.26 The radical feminist notion of absolute patriarchy has also one-sidedly portrayed the oppression of women through an analogy with slavery, and since this theory has identified woman as man’s savage or repressed Other it competes with theories of racial difference which understand the Black as the “unassimilable Other.”27 Finally, the notion of patriarchy is most obtuse when it disregards the position white women occupy over Black men as well as Black women.28 In order to rectify this tendency in feminism, Black feminists refer to “racial patriarchy,” based on an analysis of the white patriarch/master in American history and his dominance over the Black male as well as the Black female.29
For Black feminists, history also seems to be the key to understanding Black female sexuality. “The construction of the sexual self of the Afro-American women,” says Rennie Simson, “has its roots in the days of slavery.”30 Looking at this construction over time reveals a pattern of patriarchal phases and women’s sexual adjustments that has no equivalent in the history of white women in the U.S. In the first phase, characterized by the dominance of the white master during the period of slavery, Black men and women were equal by default. To have allowed the Black male any power over the Black woman would have threatened the power balance of the slave system. Thus, as Angela Davis explains social control in the slave community, “The man slave could not be the unquestioned superior within the ‘family’ or community, for there was no such thing as the ‘family provided’ among the Slaves.”31 The legacy of this phase has involved both the rejection of the pedestal the white female has enjoyed and the heritage of retaliation against white male abuse. If the strategy for racial survival was resistance during the first phase, it was accommodation during the following phase. During Reconstruction, the Black family, modelled after the white bourgeois household, was constituted defensively in an effort to preserve the race.32 Black women yielded to their men in deference to a tradition that promised respectability and safety. Reevaluating this history, Black feminists point out that during Reconstruction the Black male, following the example of the white patriarch, “learned” to dominate. The position consistently taken by Black feminists, that patriarchy was originally foreign to the Afro-American community and was introduced into it historically, then, represents a significant break with feminist theories which see patriarchal power invested in all men throughout history.33
Black history also adds another dimension to the concept of rape which has emerged as the favored metaphor for defining women’s jeopardy in the second wave of feminism.34 The charge of rape, conjuring up a historical connection with lynching, is always connected with the myth of the Black man as archetypal rapist. During slavery, this abuse provided an opportunity to strike a blow at Black manhood, but the increase in the sexual violation of Black women during Reconstruction reveals its political implications. After emancipation, the rape of Black women was a “message” to Black men which, as one historian describes the phenomenon, could be seen as “a reaction to the effort of the freedman to assume the role of patriarch, able to provide for and protect his family.”35 If, as feminists have argued, women’s sexuality evokes an unconscious terror in men, then Black women’s sexuality represents a special threat to white patriarchy; the possibility of its “eruption” stands for the aspirations of the Black race as a whole. The following analysis poses the questions raised when race complicates sexual prohibition. In the context of race relations in U.S. history, sexual looking carries with it the threat of actual rather than symbolic castration.
In Mahogany, the sequel to Lady Sings the Blues, Diana Ross plays an aspiring fashion designer who dreams of pulling herself up and out of her Chicago South Side neighborhood through a high-powered career. During the day, Tracy Chambers is assistant to the modelling supervisor for a large department store resembling Marshall Field & Company. At night she attends design school where the instructor reprimands her for sketching a cocktail dress instead of the assignment, the first suggestion of the exotic irrelevance of her fantasy career. Although she loses her job with the department store, the renowned fashion photographer Sean McEvoy (Tony Perkins) discovers her as a model and whisks her off to Rome. There Tracy finally realizes her ambition to become a designer when a wealthy Italian admirer gives her a business of her own. After the grand show, unveiling her first line of clothes, she decides to return to Chicago where she is reunited with community organizer Brian Walker (Billy Dee Williams) whose political career is organized as a kind of counterpoint to Tracy’s.
With its long fashion photography montage sequences temporarily interrupting the narrative, Mahogany invites a reading based on the alternation between narrative and woman-as-spectacle as theorized in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” To the allure of pure spectacle these sequences add the fascination of masquerade and transformation. Effected with wigs and make-up colors, the transformations are a play on and against “darkness”; Diana Ross is a high-tech Egyptian queen, a pale medieval princess, a turbaned Asiatic, and a body-painted blue nymph. As her body color is washed out in bright light or powdered over, and as her long-haired wigs blow around her face, she becomes suddenly “white.”
Motion pictures seem never to exhaust the narrative possibilities associated with the metaphor of the camera-as-deadly-weapon; Mahogany adds to this the sadomasochistic connotations of high fashion photography with reference to the mid-seventies work of Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton that is linked to the tradition of “attraction by shock.”36 The montage sequences chronicling Tracy’s career, from perfume ads to high fashion magazine covers, equate the photographic act with humiliation and violation. Camera zoom and freeze frame effects translate directly into aggression, as in the sequence in which Sean pushes Tracy into a fountain: her dripping image solidifies into an Italian Revlon advertisement. Finally, the motif of stopping-the-action-as-aggression is equated with the supreme violation—the attempt to murder. Pressing his favorite model to her expressive limits, Sean drives her off an expressway ramp. Since this brutality escalates after the scene in which he fails with Tracy in bed, the film represents her punishment as a direct consequence of his impotence.37
With its classic castration threat scenario, its connection between voyeurism and sadism, and its reference to fetishization as seen in Sean’s photographic shrine to the models he has abused, Mahogany is the perfect complement to a psychoanalytic analysis of classical Hollywood’s “visual pleasure.” The film feeds further into the latter by producing its own “proof” that there is only an incremental difference between voyeurism (fashion photography) and the supreme violation—murder. The black and white photographic blow-ups of Tracy salvaged from the death car seem undeniable evidence of the fine line between looking and killing, or, held at another angle, between advertising imagery and pornography. These, then, are the points that the analysis of cinema as patriarchal makes when it characterizes classical film form as ideologically insidious in its control of the female image, its assuagement of women’s threat, and its denial of its own complicity in this signifying activity.
To explain the ideological function of this film in terms of the construction of male pleasure, however, is to “aid and abet” the film’s other ideological project. Following this line of analysis, one is apt to step into an ideological signifying trap set up by the chain of meanings that lead away from seeing the film in terms of black and white conflict. Because there are so many connotative paths—photographer exploits model, madman assaults woman, voyeur attempts murder—we may not immediately see white man as the aggressor against Black woman. Other strategies encourage the viewer to forget or not notice racial issues. For instance, the narrative removes Tracy from racially polarized Chicago to Rome where the brown Afro-American woman with Caucasian features is collected by the photographer who names his subjects after inanimate objects. Losing her Black community identity, Tracy becomes Mahogany, a dark, rich, valuable substance; that is, her Blackness becomes commodified.
Mahogany functions ideologically for Black viewers in the traditional Marxist sense, that is, in the way the film obscures the class nature of social antagonisms. This has certain implications for working-class Black viewers who would benefit the most from seeing the relationship between race, gender, and class oppression. This film experiences the same problem in its placement of Black femaleness that the wider culture has had historically; a Black female is either all woman and tinted Black, or mostly Black and scarcely woman. These two expectations correspond roughly to the two worlds and two struggles the film contrasts: the struggle over the sexual objectification of Tracy’s body, targeting commercial exploiters, and the class struggle of the Black-community, targeting slum landlords. The film identifies this antagonism as the hostility between fashion and politics, corresponding roughly with Tracy and Brian and organizing their conflict and reconciliation. Intensifying the conflict between the two characters, the film brings “politics” and “fashion” together in one daring homage to the aesthetic of “attraction by shock.” Sean arranges his models symmetrically on the back stairwell of a run-down Chicago apartment building and plants the confused tenants and street people as props. Flamboyant excess, the residue of capital, is juxtaposed with a kind of dumbfounded poverty. For a moment, the scene figures the synthesis of gender, class, and race, but the political glimpse is fleeting. Forced together as a consequence of the avant-garde’s socially irresponsible quest for new outrage, the political antagonisms are suspended—temporarily immobilized as the subjects pose.
The connection between gender, class, and race oppression is also denied as the ghetto photography session illustrates the analogy between commercial and race/class exploitation which registers on the screen as visual incongruity. Visual discrepancy, which is finally used for aesthetic effect, also makes it difficult to grasp the confluence of race, class, and gender oppression in the image of Tracy Chambers. Her class background magically becomes decor in the film; it neither radicalizes her nor drags her down—rather it sets her off. Diana Ross is alternately weighed down by the glamour iconography of commercial modelling and stripped to a Black body essence. But the haute couture iconography ultimately dominates the film. Since race is decorative and class does not reveal itself to the eye, she can only be seen as “exploited” in terms of her role as a model.
If the film plays down race, it does so not only to accommodate white audiences. While it worships the success of the Black cult star and treats aspiring young Blacks to Diana Ross’s dream come true—a chance to design all the costumes in her own film, Mahogany also hawks the philosophy of Black enterprise. Here it does not matter where you come from, but you should ask yourself, in the words of the theme song, “Where are you going to, do you know?”38 Race is like any other obstacle—to be transcended through diligent work and dedication to a goal. Supporting the film’s self-help philosophy is the related story of Diana Ross’s discovery as a skinny teenager singing in a Baptist Church in Detroit. With Mahogany, Motown president and founder Berry Gordy (who fired Tony Richardson to take over the film’s direction himself) helps Diana Ross make something of herself again (on a larger scale) just as he helped so many aspiring recording artists by coaching them in money management and social decorum in his talent school.39
The phenomenon of Motown Industries comments less on the popularity of the self-help philosophy and more on the discrepancy between the opportunity formula and the social existence of Black Americans. Ironically, Black capitalism’s one big success thrives on the impossibility of Black enterprise: soul entertainment as compensation and release sells because capitalism cannot deliver well-being to all.40 Black music and performance, despite the homogenization of the original forms, represent a utopian aspiration for Black Americans as well as white suburbanites. Simon Frith describes the “need” supplied by rock fantasy:
Black music had a radical, rebellious edge: it carried a sense of possibility denied in the labor market; it suggested a comradeship, a sensuality, a grace and joy and energy lacking in work . . . the power of rock fantasy rests, precisely on utopianism.41
Here I am drawing on a theory of culture which sees capitalism as erratically supplying subversive “needs” as well as “false” desires, often through the same commodities which produce the ideological effect. Given that popular culture can accommodate the possibility of both containment and resistance in what Stuart Hall calls its “double movement,” I want to turn, then, to the ways Mahogany can be seen to move in the other direction.42
Racial conflict surfaces or recedes in this film rather like the perceptual trick in which, depending on the angle of view, one swirling pattern or the other pops out at the viewer. Some ambiguity, for instance, is built into the confrontation between Black and white, as in the scene where Sean lures Brian into a struggle over an unloaded weapon. The outcome, in which Sean, characterized as a harmless eccentric, manipulates Brian into pulling the trigger, could be read as confirming the racist conception that Blacks who possess street reflexes are murderous aggressors. Ebony magazine, however, features a promotional still of the scene (representing Brian holding a gun over Sean), with a caption describing how Brian is tricked but still wins the fight.43 Viewers, who choose the winners of ambiguous conflicts, may also choose to inhabit “looking” structures. The studies of lesbian readership already cited show that subcultural groups can interpret popular forms to their advantage, even without “invitation” from the text. Certainly more work needs to be done with the positioning of the audience around the category of race, considering, for instance, the social prohibitions against the Black man’s sexual glance, the interracial intermingling of male “looks,” and other visual taboos related to sanctions against interracial sexuality, but these issues are beyond the scope of this essay.
What I do find is that one of the basic tenants of contemporary feminist film theory—that the (male) spectator possesses the female indirectly through the eyes of the male protagonist (his screen surrogate)—is problematized in a film in which racial difference structures a hierarchy of access to the female image. These racial positions relate to other scenarios which are unknown by psychoanalytic categories. Considering the racial categories which psychoanalysis does not recognize, we see that the white male photographer monopolizes the classic patriarchal look controlling the view of the female body, and that the Black male protagonist’s look is either repudiated or frustrated. The sumptuous image of Diana Ross is made available to the spectator via the white male character (Sean) but not through the look of the Black male character (Brian). In the sequence in which Tracy and Brian first meet outside her apartment building, his “look” is renounced. In each of the three shots of Tracy from Brian’s point of view, she turns from him, walking out of his sight and away from the sound of his voice as he shouts at her through a megaphone. The relationship between the male and female protagonists is negotiated around Brian’s bullhorn, emblem of his charismatic Black leadership, through which he tries to reach both the Black woman and his constituents. Thus both visual and audio control is denied the Black male, and the failure of his voice is consistently associated with Tracy’s publicity image. The discovery by Brian’s aides of the Mahogany ad for Revlon in Newsweek coincides with the report that the Gallup polls show the Black candidate trailing in the election. Later, the film cuts from Mahogany on the Harper’s Bazaar cover to Brian’s limping campaign where the sound of his voice magnified through a microphone is intermittently drowned out by a passing train as he makes his futile pitch to white factory workers. The manifest goal of the film, the reconciliation of the Black heterosexual couple, is thwarted by the commercial appropriation of her image, but, in addition, her highly mediated form threatens the Black political struggle.
Quite simply, then, there are structures relevant to any interpretation of this film which override the patriarchal scenario feminists have theorized as formally determining. From Afro-American literature, for instance, we should consider the scenario of the talented and beautiful mulatta who “passes” in white culture, but decides to return to Black society.44 From Afro-American history, we should recall the white male’s appropriation of the Black woman’s body which weakened the Black male and undermined the community. We need to develop a theory of Black female representation which takes account of “passing” as an eroticizing alternation and a peculiar play on difference, and the corresponding double consciousness it requires of those who can seem either Black or White. Further, we need to reconsider the woman’s picture narrative convention—the career renounced in favor of the man—in the context of Black history. Tracy Chambers’s choice recapitulates Black aspiration and the white middle-class model which equates stable family life with respectability, but Tracy’s decision is complicated since it favors Black community cooperation over acceptance by white society. Finally, one of the most difficult questions raised by Afro-American history and literature has to do with interracial heterosexuality and sexual “looking.” Mahogany suggests that, since a Black male character is not allowed the position of control occupied by a white male character, race could be a factor in the construction of cinema language. More work on looking and racial taboos might determine whether or not mainstream cinema can offer the spectator the pleasure of looking at a white female character via the gaze of a Black male character. Framing the question of male privilege and viewing pleasure as the “right to look” may help us to rethink film theory along more materialist lines, considering, for instance, how some groups have historically had the license to “look” openly while other groups have “looked” illicitly.45 Or, does the psychoanalytic model allow us to consider also the prohibitions against homosexuality and miscegenation?
Feminists who use psychoanalytic theory are careful to point out that “looking” positions do not correlate with social groups, and that ideological positioning is placement in a representational system which has no one-to-one correspondence with social reality. This, of course, keeps the levels of the social totality hopelessly separate. While I would not want to argue that form is ideologically neutral, I would suggest that we have overemphasized the ideological function of “signifying practice” at the expense of considering other ideological implications of the conflicting meanings in the text. Or, as Terry Lovell puts it:
. . . while interpretation depends on analysis of the work’s signifying practice, assessment of its meanings from the point of view of its validity, or of its ideology, depends on comparison between those structures of meaning and their object of reference, through the mediation of another type of discourse.46
The impetus behind Marxist criticism, whether we want to admit it or not, is to make comparisons between social reality as we live it and ideology as it does not correspond to that reality.
Mahogany is finally about the mythical existence of some illusive and potent substance. We know it only through what white men do to secure it, and what Black men are without it. It is the ultimate substance to the photographer-connoisseur of women who dies trying to record its “trace” on film. It is known by degree—whatever is most wild and enigmatic, whatever cannot be conquered or subdued—the last frontier of female sexuality. Although it is undetectable to the advertising men who analyze physical attributes, it is immediately perceptable to a woman (Gavina herself, the owner of the Italian advertising agency), who uses it to promote the most inexplicable and subjective of commodities—perfume. In one of the fullest considerations of Black female sexuality to date, Hortense J. Spillers correlates the great silence on this subject with the unmarked territory that has not yet been designated as culture. Paradoxically, the Black female is thought to have “. . . so much sexual potential that she has none at all that anybody is ready and able to recognize at the level of culture.”47 Black women’s sexuality remains unfathomed, Spillers goes on, because the opportunity to codify one’s sexuality belongs only to those in power; even as feminists have theorized women’s sexuality, they have universalized from the particular experience of white women, thus effecting a “deadly metonomy.”48
While white feminists theorize the female image in terms of objectification, fetishization, and symbolic absence, their Black counterparts describe the body as the site of symbolic resistance and the “paradox of non-being.”49 What strikes me immediately in this comparison is the stubbornness of the terms of discourse analysis which cannot be made to deal, for instance, with both what it has historically meant to be designated as not-human and how Black women whose bodies were not legally their own fought against treatment based on this determination. Further, feminist analysis of culture as patriarchal cannot conceive of any connection between the female image and class or racial exploitation which includes the male. Historically, Black men and women, although equally endangered, have been simultaneously implicated in incidents of interracial brutality. During two different periods of Afro-American history, sexual assault, “. . . symbolic of the effort to conquer the resistance the black woman could unloose,” was a warning to the entire Black community.50 My frustration with the feminist voice that insists on change at the level of language is that this position can only deal with the historical situation described above by turning it into discourse, and even as I write this, acutely aware as I am of the theoretical prohibitions against mixing representational issues with real historical ones, I feel the pressure to transpose people’s struggles into more discursively manageable terms.
A theory of ideology which separates the levels of the social formation in such a way that it is not only inappropriate but theoretically impossible to introduce the category of history cannot be justified with Marxism. This has been argued elsewhere by British Marxists, among them Stuart Hall, who finds the “universalist tendency” found in both Freud and Lacan responsible for this impossibility. The incompatability between Marxism and psychoanalytic theory is insurmountable at this time, he argues, because “. . . the concepts elaborated by Freud (and reworked by Lacan) cannot, in their in-general and universalist form, enter the theoretical space of historical materialism. . . .” What is needed is “further specification and elaboration—specification at the level at which the concepts of historical materialism operate (historically-specific modes of production, specific social formations, ideology as a determinate and over-determining instance, etc.).”51 In discussions within feminist film theory, it often seems the other way around—that historical materialism cannot enter the space theorized by discourse analysis drawing on psychoanalytic concepts. Sealed off as it is (in theory), this analysis may not comprehend the category of the real historical subject, but its use will always have implications for that subject.
A longer version of this essay is found in Screen 29, no. 4 (Autumn 1988).
1. Feminist discussions around Lizzie Borden’s 1983 feature, such as the one in June, 1985, at the Society for Cinema Studies Conference at New York University, actually exemplify my argument. Holding ourselves to consideration of the film’s representational system was a frustrating exercise since crucial issues of subcultural reception and feminist political strategy were also at stake.
2. For an overview, see my “Women and Representation: Can We Enjoy Alternative Pleasure?” in Entertainment as Social Control, ed. Donald Lazere, Berkeley: University of California Press, forthcoming.
3. In “Aesthetics and Politics,” New Left Review 107 (1978): 23, Terry Eagleton describes his exasperation with Screen, the journal which introduced this analytical style into British criticism:
And yet, perusing still another article in that journal on the complex mechanisms by which a shot/reverse shot reinstates the imaginary, or the devices by which a particular cinematic syntagm permits the interruption of symbolic heterogeneity into the positioned perceptual space of the subject, one is forced to query with certain vehemence why ideological codes have been so remorselessly collapsed back into the intestines of the cinematic machine.
4. T. W. Adorno, “Sociology and Psychology,” New Left Review 46 (November-December 1967): 78.
5. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, Boston: South End Press (1984), 12.
6. The Politics of Reality, Trumansburg, New York: The Crossing Press (1984), 113.
7. Frye, 118.
8. Notes on Women’s Cinema, ed. Claire Johnston, London: Society for Education in Film and Television (1973); rpt. Sexual Strategems, ed. Patricia Erens, New York: Horizon (1979), 133-143; Movies and Methods, ed. Bill Nichols, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press (1976), 208-17.
9. Screen 16, no. 3 (Autumn 1975): 6-18; rpt. Women and Cinema, eds. Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary, New York: E. P. Dutton (1977), 412-28; Film Theory and Criticism, eds. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen, 3rd ed., New York: Oxford (1985).
10. Trans. Ben Brewster, Screen 16, no. 2 (Summer 1975): 14-76.
11. Examples include Simon Clarke, Victor Jeleniewski Seidler, Kevin McDonnell, Kevin Robins, and Terry Lovell, One-Dimensional Marxism, London: Alison & Busby (1980); Kevin Robins, “Althusserian Marxism and Media Studies: The Case of Screen,” Media, Culture and Society 1, no. 4 (October 1979): 355-70; Ed Buscombe, Christine Gledhill, Alan Lovell, Christopher Williams, “Statement: Psychoanalysis and Film,” Screen 20, no. 1 (Spring 1979): 121-33; Christine Gledhill, “Recent Developments in Feminist Criticism,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies 3, no. 4 (Fall 1978): 457-93; rpt. Re-Vision, eds. Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and Linda Williams, Frederick, Maryland: University Publications of America (1984), 18-48.
12. Lucie Arbuthnot and Gail Seneca, “Pre-Text and Text in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” Film Reader 5 (Winter 1981): 13-23.
13. Chris Straayer, “Personal Best: Lesbian/Feminist Audience,” Jump Cut 29 (February 1984): 40-44; Elizabeth Ellsworth, “The Power of Interpretive Communities: Feminist Appropriations of Personal Best,” paper delivered at Society for Cinema Studies Conference, University of Wisconsin-Madison, March, 1984.
14.“The Straight Mind,” Feminist Issues (Summer 1980): 107-111.
15. See, for instance, John D’Emilio’s Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1984).
16. In “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Pleasure and Danger, ed. Carol Vance, Boston and London: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1984), 307, Rubin stresses the need to make this distinction because feminism does not immediately apply to both oppressions. As she clarifies this:
Feminism is the theory of gender oppression. To automatically assume that this makes it the theory of sexual oppression is to fail to distinguish between gender, on the one hand, and erotic desire, on the other.
17. Towards a Black Feminist Criticism, Trumansburg, New York: Out and Out Books (1977), 1.
18. Bonnie Thornton Dill, “Race, Class, and Gender: Prospects for an All-inclusive Sisterhood,” Feminist Studies 9, no. 1 (Spring 1983): 134; for a slightly different version of this essay, see “ ‘On the Hem of Life’: Race, Class, and the Prospects for Sisterhood,” in Class, Race, and Sex: The Dynamics of Control, eds. Amy Swerdlow and Hanna Lessinger, Boston: G. K. Hall (1983).
19. Margaret Simons, “Racism and Feminism: A Schism in the Sisterhood,” Feminist Studies 5, no. 2 (Summer 1979): 392.
20. Adrienne Rich, in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, New York: W. W. Norton (1979), 302-303, notes that while Blacks link their experience of racism with the white woman, this is still patriarchal racism working through her. It is possible, she says, that “a black first grader, or that child’s mother, or a black patient in a hospital, or a family on welfare, may experience racism most directly in the person of a white woman, who stands for those service professions through which white male supremacist society controls the mother, the child, the family, and all of us. It is her racism, yes, but a racism learned in the same patriarchal school which taught her that women are unimportant or unequal, not to be trusted with power; where she learned to mistrust and hear her own impulses for rebellion; to become an instrument.”
21. Gloria Joseph, “The Incompatible Menage à Trois: Marxism, Feminism, and Racism,” in Women and Revolution, ed. Lydia Sargent, Boston: South End Press (1981), 96; The Combahee River Collective in “Combahee River Collective Statement,” in Home Girls, ed. Barbara Smith, New York: Kitchen Table Press (1983), 275, compares their alliance with Black men with the negative identification white women have with white men:
Our situation as Black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism.
22. “Combahee River Collective Statement,” 272.
23. E. Ann Kaplan, in Women and Film, New York and London: Methuen (1983), 140, says the danger for Marxists in employing the connection between Althusser and Lacan is that “the theories do not accommodate the categories of either class or race: economic language as the primary shaping force replaces socioeconomic relations and institutions as the dominant influence. Sexual difference becomes the driving force of history in place of the Marxist one of class contradictions.”
24. Michèle Barrett, Women’s Oppression Today, London: Verso (1980), 15.
25. For a comparison between radical feminism, liberal feminism, Marxism and socialist feminism, see Alison Jaggar, Feminist Politics and Human Nature, Sussex: The Harvester Press (1983).
26.“The Trouble with Patriarchy,” in People’s History and Socialist Theory, ed. Raphael Samuel, London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1981), 365.
27. Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann, Paris, 1952; rpt. New York: Grove Press (1967), 161.
28. Simons, 387.
29. Barbara Omolade, “Hearts of Darkness,” in Powers of Desire, eds. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson, New York: Monthly Review Press (1983), 352.
30. The Afro-American Female: The Historical Context of the Construction of Sexual Identity,” in Powers of Desire, 230. The “days of slavery” is a recurring reference point in the writings of Black feminists. Although I am arguing that studying the Black condition in history is the antithesis of theorizing subjectivity ahistorically, I can also see how the “days of slavery” might function as an ideological construct. We do the evolving work of Black feminists a disservice if we do not subject it to the same critique we would apply to white middle class feminism. How, for instance, can equal subjugation during slavery have anything to do with ideals of male/female equality? I am indebted to Brackette Williams for calling this to my attention.
31.“The Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves,” The Black Scholar (December 1971): 5-6.
32. Omolade, 352.
33. Joseph, 99; Audre Lorde, in Sister Outsider, Trumansburg, New York: The Crossing Press (1984), 119, sees sexism in Black communities as not original to them, but as a plague that has struck. She argues:
Because of the continuous battle against racial erasure that Black women and Black men share, some Black women still refuse to recognize that we are also oppressed as women, and that sexual hostility against Black women is practiced not only by the white racist society, but implemented within our Black communities as well. It is a disease striking the heart of Black nationhood, and silence will not make it disappear.
34. Linda Gordon and Ellen DuBois, in “Seeking Ecstasy on the Battlefield: Danger and Pleasure in Nineteenth Century Feminist Sexual Thought,” Feminist Review 13 (Spring 1983): 43, note that in its two stages the feminist movement has developed two major themes which have expressed women’s sexual danger. Whereas prostitution articulated women’s fears in the nineteenth century, rape summarizes the contemporary terror.
35. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “The Mind That Burns in Each Body’: Women, Rape, and Racial Violence,” in Powers of Desire, 332.
36. Nancy Hall-Duncan, The History of Fashion Photography, New York: Alpine Books (1979), 196.
37. White reviewer Jay Cocks, in “Black and Tan Fantasy,” Time, 27 October, 1975, 71, interprets the scene in which Tony Perkins is represented as severely devastated after his failure in bed with Diana Ross as a “romantic interlude,” and the “one pearl” in the entire film.
38. Simon Frith, in “Mood Music,” Screen 25, no. 3 (May-June 1984): 78, says that theme songs are more significant than critics have realized. It is the last of the motion picture experience to touch us as we leave the theatre, and it works to “rearrange our feelings.”
39. Stephen Birmingham, Certain People, Boston & Toronto: Little, Brown, and Co. (1977), 262-63.
40. Manning Marable, in How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, Boston: South End Press (1983), 157, lists Motown Industries as the largest grossing Black-owned corporation in the U.S., which did $64.8 million in business in 1979.
41. Sound Effects, New York: Pantheon (1981), 264.
42.“Notes on Deconstructing The Popular’,” in People’s History and Socialist Theory, 228.
43.“Spectacular New Film for Diana Ross: Mahogany,” Ebony, October 1975, 146.
44. See, for instance, Jessie Fauset’s There is Confusion, New York: Boni and Liveright (1924), and Plum Bun, New York: 1928; rpt. New York and London: Routledge and Kegan Paul (1985); Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, New York: 1928; and Passing, New York: 1929; rpt. New Bunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986.
45. Fredric Jameson, in “Pleasure: A Political Issue,” Formations of Pleasure, Boston and London: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1983), 7, interprets Mulvey’s connection between viewing pleasure and male power as the conferral of a “right to look.” He does not take this further, but I find the term suggestive and at the same time potentially volatile. I refer to the current division in the women’s movement over the need for anti-pornography legislation. Feminist supporters of the legislation argue that male pornographic reading and “looking” should be illegal because it is an infringement of women’s civil rights. For an overview of the debates around pornography as they relate to film theory see Chuck Kleinhans and Julia Lesage, “The Politics of Sexual Representation,” in Jump Cut 30 (March, 1985): 24-26. In the same issue, two articles argue the political significance of sexual looking for the gay male subculture (Richard Dyer’s “Coming to Terms,” 28-29, and Tom Waugh’s “Men’s Pornography: Gay vs. Straight,” 30-33.) For one of the most provocative analyses of the feminist position on pornography, see Joanna Russ, Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans, and Perverts, Trumansburg, New York: The Crossing Press (1985).
46. Pictures of Reality, London: British Film Institute (1980), 90.
47. “Interstices: A Small Drama of Words,” in Pleasure and Danger, 85.
48. Spillers, 78. It is very tempting to contrast the colonized (the body or other cultural terrain) with a notion of the “authentic,” as though something has escaped or eluded colonization. We often argue for the integrity of people’s indigenous culture or alternative experience by characterizing it as “pure”; we hope that the colonizer will find the alien culture incomprehensible or “unfathomable.” Feminists have recently slipped into this position as they have created a new mystique based on women’s “unrealized” sexuality—a wild place as yet uncharted by the dominant culture. The problem is that even this space is filled out with well worn notions of pleasure and fulfillment. Given the opportunity to symbolize, to codify sexuality, the sexual subordinate can never represent or experience in complete cultural isolation. In borrowing Spillers’s argument, I have made a case for Black women’s sexuality that I would never have made for female sexuality as a whole. Brackette Williams has corrected me here again.
49. Spillers, 77.
50. Davis, 11.
51.“Debate: Psychology, Ideology and the Human Subject,” Ideology and Consciousness 2 (October 1977): 118-119.