As feminists, we experience a constant and wearying alienation from the dominant culture. The misogyny of popular art, music, theatrical arts, and film interferes with our pleasure in them. This essay discusses a departure from this familiar alienation. Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a 1953 film starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell as showgirls, is clearly a product of the dominant culture. Yet, we enjoy the film immensely. In this essay, we chronicle our search to understand our pleasure in this film.1 We argue that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes can be read as a feminist text. We believe that it is important to recoup from male culture some of the pleasure which it has always denied us; we hope that our analysis of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes will suggest ways to discover feminist pleasures within films of the dominant culture, and indicate the kinds of films which might be most conducive to a feminist reading.
The logic of our argument about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes parallels the process we followed in trying to understand our pleasure in the film. We will briefly mention the key analytic stages of that process in this introduction, before describing each of them in some detail in the text of this essay.
First, we simply watched the film over and over to isolate what we most enjoyed about it. We realized we loved the energy that Monroe and Russell exude. Their zest and sheer presence overwhelm the film. Perhaps, we thought, we were seeing in Monroe and Russell what others have seen in such actresses as Dietrich, Garbo, and Hepburn: strong, independent women, who seem to resist to some extent objectification by men. But, our pleasure in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes seemed to far surpass that which we found in films starring Garbo, Dietrich, or Hepburn. We had found something more than the presentation of positive women who were strong enough to sometimes resist men and act for themselves.
We turned then to some recent feminist films, thinking they might suggest something about the source of women’s pleasure in film, which could apply to our experience with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. These films were helpful, however, only insofar as our consideration of them clarified our dissatisfaction with them. For example, feminist films in the French psychoanalytically inspired tradition (such as Deux Fois and Thriller) often present women in a manner which makes them inaccessible to male objectification. But such films focus more on denying men their cathexis with women as erotic objects than in connecting women with each other. Films such as The Turning Point, Girlfriends, and Julia showed friendships between women, but less openly and convincingly than Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. For Gentlemen Prefer Blondes presents women who not only resist male objectification, but who also cherish deeply their connections with each other. The friendship between two strong women, Monroe and Russell, invites the female viewer to join them, through identification, in valuing other women and ourselves.2
We read, then, beneath the superficial story of heterosexual romance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a feminist text which both denies men pleasure to some degree, and more importantly, celebrates women’s pleasure in each other.
II. Dietrich, Garbo, Hepburn
In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes Monroe and Russell portray strong, independent, and likable women. In attempting to understand our response to these portrayals, we reconsidered other positive Hollywood portraits of strong women. We concentrated on Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Katherine Hepburn, because directors most consistently cast them in such roles.
We enjoy the presence of a positive woman, who acts in response to her own desires rather than in response to the desires of men, on screen. In many of the films starring Marlene Dietrich, for example, and particularly those directed by Josef von Sternberg, we are delighted with her open disdain for men. Even as she entertains men in Morocco, she is haughty and distant from them. When she wears a tux, and kisses a female patron of the club, in Blonde Venus, we can fantasize that behind the tux there might be a lesbian.3 But almost always her anti-male posture and her power are eventually crushed by the male plot. There is no sign of her initial independence in the closing scene of Morocco, as she struggles abjectly through the sand following Gary Cooper into the desert. The kiss in the nightclub in Blonde Venus is the only sign that she might be more centrally connected to women than to men. The suggestion of her independence from men and affiliation with women raises our feminist expectations. Her inability to sustain these qualities deepens our disappointment.
Unlike most Dietrich films, those starring Garbo almost never center convincingly around the gratification of male desire and pleasure. She rarely seems emotionally vulnerable to men, and her appeal to feminist viewers may reside in this apparent aloofness. In Anna Christie, for example, she no sooner marries than she packs her husband off for an extended sea voyage, opting for a life of solitude. But that aloofness extends not only to men. It encompasses women as well, and more centrally her own emotions and desires. Garbo’s face is a mask, a mask that hides her from men, from women, and from herself. We cannot know her strengths and vulnerabilities, her desires, because she seems untouched and untouchable.
It is the enigmatic quality of the characters played by both Dietrich and Garbo that allows us to project our own fantasies onto them; because they express no desires of their own, we can confer ours on them. But ultimately our desires, as women, are never reinforced. The film plots are constructed to excite and elude male desire. The enigma of Dietrich and Garbo, their passivity, is cultivated for the male viewer in order to entice and titillate him.
Turning to Hepburn—here we are thinking particularly of her films with Spencer Tracy—we find more possibilities of pleasure, pleasure in identification with a successful woman. Hepburn is undeniably active. She resists objectification or enthronement as the erotic object of the male viewer’s fantasy. She is too powerfully present. She clearly has desires, believes in causes, and her desires are never convincingly annihilated. Even when she gives up her cause to please Tracy at the conclusion of a film, we see more rote obeisance to the dictates of a genre and a society, than consistency with her characterization in the rest of the film.
But even as we enjoy and identify with Hepburn’s professional successes, we are aware of a fundamental absence in the character she portrays. Her interpersonal relationships seem to lack emotional depth. It is as if there were insufficient space to explore both a woman’s professional life and her emotional life in a film. Because professional success is not expected of women, the filmmakers spend most of their time convincing us that Katharine Hepburn is an exception. Consequently, very little space can be devoted to an explanation of her emotional life.
Even in a film like Adam’s Rib, in which Hepburn and Tracy have a caring relationship, and the film spends time showing that caring (for example, Tracy dropping the pencil in the courtroom scene in order to establish friendly contact with Hepburn under the table; the back-rubs they give each other), we still experience an emotional shallowness. This is perhaps most evident, for us, in Hepburn’s lack of female friendships. The one relationship with a woman that we are shown (Judy Holliday) is marred by Hepburn’s condescension and distance. The crux of our dissatisfaction with Hepburn is her lack of connection with other women, and therefore with us and other feminist viewers.
Even though Hepburn, Garbo, and Dietrich afford us considerable pleasure as feminist viewers, our pleasure in watching them did not rival the pleasure we experienced in watching Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Perhaps an overtly feminist film would provide better clues to our emotional response to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, we thought. We turned therefore to the emerging body of avowedly feminist films which consciously seek to destroy male voyeuristic pleasure and male identification, such as Deux Fois and Thriller.
We suspect that these films do successfully destroy male pleasure. Women are not shot for eroticism. No strong male characters are created with whom men might identify in objectifying women. Classic narrative structures are subverted to destroy “the ease and plentitude of narrative fiction film” for the male viewer.4 In destroying male pleasure, however, these films also destroy our pleasure. They deny us voyeuristic pleasure, the pleasure of losing ourselves in a narrative, and most centrally the pleasure of identification with a positive female image.
We understand the impulse to destroy the male objectification of women. But the ways in which some feminist filmakers do so—by destroying the narrative and the possibility of viewer identification with characters—destroy both the male viewer’s pleasure and our pleasure. We believe that identification with positive female characters in a narrative should be encouraged rather than destroyed. It should be encouraged because human development requires identification with positive adult figures; and women’s opportunities for such identification are consistently thwarted.5 As women, we live what Adrienne Rich has called a “double life”: a life in which we depend on men; a life in which we recall, but must suppress, our initial primary involvement with other women.6 As difficult as it is in real life for women to live without positive identification with other women, most films—even such avowedly feminist films—make this identification virtually impossible.
Thus, in our search to understand our enjoyment of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, feminist films in the European psychoanalytic tradition were helpful mainly in suggesting the importance of positive identification for the female viewer, which they ignore. Some Hollywood films provide a measure of that positive identification, particularly those portraying strong, independent women. But even in these, the primary focus is on women’s allegiance to men, rather than women’s connection with other women. In those rare films which focus on women’s connection to each other, the possibilities for the female viewer’s positive identification with characters are greatly enhanced. The female characters’ connection with each other facilitates the female viewer’s connection and identification with them. This is precisely what we find compelling in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Beneath their surface attentions to men, Monroe and Russell are undeniably and enduringly there for each other.
III. The Feminist Text
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes tells the story of two voluptuous showgirls, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. It chronicles their adventures on a transatlantic sea voyage, during which they seek husbands and capture the attention of every male on board. Their quest finally culminates in a double wedding ceremony.
In our study of the film, however, we have found that this narrative of romantic adventure between the sexes is continually disrupted and undermined by other narrative and non-narrative elements in the film. This disruption is so severe and continual that we have come to regard the romantic narrative as a mere pre-text, a story which coexists with, contradicts, and disguises another, more central, text. This text consists of two major themes, neither of which fits comfortably with the pre-text of romance. The themes are the women’s resistance to objectification by men, and the women’s connection with each other. The following pages discuss the film’s articulation of these themes, which comprise the text we read in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
(1) Resistance to Male Objectification
The theme of resistance to male objectification is most clearly articulated on a gestural level. Even where the narrative situation seems to code Monroe and Russell for objectification by men, they resist this objectification. We read this resistance in their gestural cues or body language. Specifically, we find this resistance in their look, stance, use of space, and activity. Their costuming and Hawks’s use of camera and lighting also limit their objectification.
Socially it is the prerogative of men to gaze at women and the requirement of women to avert our eyes in submission. The initiation of the gaze signals superiority over the subordinate.7 Clearly, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, men do gaze at women; Monroe and Russell are spectacles for male attention. However, Monroe and Russell refuse to signal submission by averting their eyes; rather, they return the look. As Monroe and Russell walk through a sea of admiring spectators, they also actively search the crowd. Through their active and searching look, they appropriate the space around them, refusing to yield it to the male gaze. There are several particularly striking examples of this returned look, in which Monroe and Russell walk through a throng of gaping men but refuse to accept objectification by averting their own eyes, for example, during their initial walk through the ranks of the Olympic team on the dock, when they first enter the dining-room on board ship, and during their final walk down the aisle to the altar where they are to be married.
From the moment Russell strides onto stage in the opening number, we are cued to her resistance to male objectification. She virtually never moves in the constrained fashion of the “lady”; she strides, arms swinging at her sides, shoulders erect and head thrown back. Even when she is standing still, Russell’s legs are often apart, her hands are on her hips and posture erect. Her stance speaks her strength and authority.8
Use of Space
It is a male prerogative to encroach on women’s space not only through look, but bodily as well. Women are to be looked at, moved in on, and touched by men, rather than to look, to move, and to initiate touch themselves. Female space is violable by men. In a social situation, for example, men assume the right of entry into a female conversation; women typically do not assume the same rights with men.9 In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, however, Monroe and Russell clearly control access to their own space and also freely enter men’s spaces. For example, when Monroe’s fiancé, Mr. Esmond, wants to enter her dressing room in the Paris nightclub, he can do so only after Monroe and Russell consult each other:
Mr. Esmond (running after Lorelei): Lorelei! Lorelei! Wait! Look Lorelei!
I’ve flown the entire Atlantic Ocean just to talk to you.
And now you . . .
Lorelei: Well, you might come in for a minute, [turning to Dorothy], that’s if you don’t mind.
Dorothy: I don’t mind if you don’t mind. [They open the door to their dressing room, making him precede them.]
Similarly, when the male Olympic team is working out, Russell strides through their ranks uninvited, looking the men over, squeezing their muscles, pulling one man down into her lap by his hair. In the courtroom scene, Russell not only confidently enters male space, but transforms it into a showcase for her dancing and singing.
In all these instances—through look, stance, and use of space—Monroe and Russell subvert male objectification. By becoming active themselves, they make it impossible for men to act upon them. They are actors and the initiators in their relations with men. When Russell and the detective (with whom she is allegedly in love) embrace on the moonlit deck, it is Russell who initiates the kiss. In order to retrieve an incriminating piece of film, Monroe and Russell deftly pin the detective down and pull off his pants. His helplessness is underscored when they ultimately send him off dressed only in his underwear and a frilly pink bathrobe.
It is interesting that Monroe and Russell’s tight-fitting and stereotypically feminine dress does not diminish the power of their stance, their look, or their activity. Body language appears to be a more accurate index of power than clothing. Perhaps this is why, in film and in society, women can wear men’s clothing without abandoning their “femininity.” When Dietrich wears men’s clothes, for example, she remains an object to be overpowered, because her body language signals passivity and invites seduction. Clothing cannot confer power. This is one of the reasons we find Gentlemen Prefer Blondes more conducive to a feminist reading than films in which Dietrich wears a tuxedo and top hat.
Costume could easily have been used in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to reduce Monroe and Russell to mere objects of male sexual desire. In fact, their costuming partakes of the tension between objectification and resistance to objectification that we have described above. Their tight-fitting dresses are sometimes constraining, but they are rarely revealing. Given the mammary madness of the fifties,10 it is striking that Hawks chose to dress Monroe and Russell in high-necked sweaters and dresses, jackets, and subdued colors. Even their most revealing costumes are cocktail dresses which neither expose nor reveal their breasts.
Camera and Lighting
Hawks’s use of camera and lighting add to the effects of costume in resisting male objectification. Other directors frequently photographed Monroe and Russell in profile to emphasize their body contours. Hawks rarely does this in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Similarly, overhead lighting could have been used to emphasize their bodies, but Hawks rarely chooses this effect. Their frequent costuming in black prevents any revelatory shadow play on their bodies. Hawks often shoots them in medium close-up, showing only their shoulders and faces. The use of medium close-ups in which Monroe’s and Russell’s zest and personality shine through is crucial in inviting us to identify with, rather than objectify, the two women.
Our discussion of body language, costume, and directorial choices illustrates our reading a feminist text in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. This is not to suggest, however, that the text completely erases the pre-text. In fact, the pre-text constantly intrudes upon our reading of the film, threatening to obliterate it. A particularly blatant visual example of the pre-text is the stage set for Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number. Sadistic fantasy is personified in chandeliers and lamps elaborately decorated with women, all rigidly held in position with black leather halters and chains. Woman literally becomes an object. This stark explication of the pre-text, in which patriarchal relations of power between the sexes reign, ironically forms the backdrop for a song in which Monroe clarifies her preference for money over men. For us, this scene exemplifies the tension between the pre-text of male-defined heterosexuality and the text of female resistance to men and connection with each other.
Another example occurs in the moonlit love scene between Russell and the detective on the deck, in which Russell sustains her strong and active body language by moving toward the detective to initiate a kiss. Before she can reach his lips, however, Hawks interrupts Russell’s movement toward the detective, cutting to a shot of the detective moving to kiss Russell. What we tend to remember is the detective’s successful completion of the action; the text—Russell’s activity—is suppressed. Nevertheless, each time the pre-text is reimposed, new possibilities are created for fissures through which the text may emerge again. In the last scene Monroe and Russell marry, threatening to finally destroy their independence; but even here the text emerges as they turn away from their husbands at the altar to gaze lovingly at each other.
(2) The Women’s Connection to Each Other
Initially, we suggested that Monroe and Russell’s resistance to male objectification was the primary source of our pleasure in viewing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. We could think of no other film in which women so consistently subverted the objectifying male gaze. On subsequent viewings of the film, however, we realized that while we were delighted by Monroe and Russell’s resistance to men, we were also deeply moved by their connection with each other. The destruction of opportunities for male objectification in this film gave us less pleasure than the construction of opportunities for our own positive identification with women in this film. As we suggested earlier, positive identification with other women is precious both because it is crucial to our own positive self-image as women,11 and because it is suppressed both in life and in art. It is the expression and celebration of women’s strength and connection with each other which so moves and pleases us in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Russell and Monroe neither accept the social powerlessness of women nor the imperative of a primary allegiance to men. Instead, they emanate strength and power, and celebrate their primary allegiance to each other. The friends’ feeling for each other supersedes their more superficial connections with men, which fill the narrative core of the film’s pre-text. At one point, Russell threatens to sever her romantic tie with the male detective if he interferes with the perjury she is committing on Monroe’s behalf. While Monroe never so explicitly chooses between her male lover and her female friend, the narrative makes such a choice unnecessary. Monroe’s fiance is drawn as a ludicrous sap whose entire worth to Monroe can be measured by his bank account. Her emotional relationship with him is sheer pretense. With Russell, in contrast, Monroe is shown to care sufficiently to give her time and energy with no hope of financial recompense.
Unlike the resistance of objectification by men, which is conveyed primarily through the text of the film, both pre-text and text collude to present a positive image of Monroe and Russell’s friendship. The friendship is celebrated in the film’s narrative and through its visual codes.
On the narrative level, no one can miss the centrality of the women’s connection to each other as Monroe spends her time on the transatlantic voyage looking for a suitable male escort for Russell, or when Russell perjures herself in court to protect Monroe. Their lives are inextricably and lovingly intertwined. They work together, sing and dance together, travel together, and get married together. We are rarely shown one on screen without the other. They also defend each other in the face of outside critics. When the detective disparages Monroe, Russell retorts vehemently: “No one talks about Lorelei but me.” Monroe is equally strident in her defense of Russell: “Dorothy’s the best friend a girl ever had.” And the two women continually address each other with terms of endearment: “lovey,” “honey,” “sister,” “dear.”
One of the most extraordinary and positive aspects of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ depiction of the friendship between the two women is the absence of competitiveness, envy, and pettiness. Commercial films rarely depict important friendships between women; when they do, the friendships are marred or rendered incredible by the film’s polarization of the two women into opposite and competing camps. Consider, for example, All About Eve, The Turning Point, or Girlfriends. It is clear that such films portray female friends only with the specter of competition firmly implanted between them. It is also clear that this competition revolves almost exclusively around women’s alliances with men. Either the friends compete for the same man or for the attentions of men in general. In a modern twist of the same theme, one friend may resent the other’s freedom from men instead of seizing that freedom for herself. Or the single friend may feel herself abandoned by her married friend’s frantic absorption in husband and children. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the two friends work to form allegiances with men, but never compete for them; rather than dividing them, their search for men unites them in a common purpose. But their friendship is not limited to that search. It includes a joyful working and leisure relationship that endures through all the disruptions on their volatile relations with men. And ultimately, even as Monroe and Russell end their search with marriage, their friendship survives. As we will describe later, their double wedding scene underscores the depth of their friendship, and the superficiality of the commitments they are making to their husbands. The power of female bonds and the threat they pose to patriarchally defined heterosexual love is clarified, not eliminated, by this wedding scene.
These narrative elements in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes point openly to the centrality of the women’s connection to each other. But the more subtle, non-narrative clues, are at least as important. These include body language (look, touch, use of space), and directorial choices, as well as audience expectations of the musical as a genre.
Both on-stage, during their song and dance numbers, and off-stage, Monroe and Russell frequently gaze lovingly at each other. In “When Love Goes Wrong,” they sit together at a Paris cafe and sing the initial portion of the song directly to each other. Even when they are with men, their gaze reflects their affection for each other. For example, when Mr. Esmond and Monroe are saying goodbye in the ship stateroom, Russell looks on tenderly; as Russell and the detective strike up a romance, Monroe beams warm approval at her friend. In all the songs which they sing together their look signals their focus on each other.
Both on-stage and off, Monroe and Russell freely and affectionately touch one another. In the opening “Little Rock” number, Russell dances with her hands on Monroe’s shoulders. Off-stage, their comfort with each other’s bodies is unmistakable. Russell frequently punctuates their conversation with affectionate caresses, or with more forceful gestures such as shaking Monroe or pulling her by the hand; they walk, stand, and sit in close proximity, frequently shoulder to shoulder.
Use of Space
We have already suggested that Monroe and Russell effectively resist male objectification by controlling access to their own space and by freely intruding on men’s spaces. Their use of space also underscores their connection with each other. They frequently interrupt the other’s private interactions with men, as if to say that a connection with men could never rival their connection to each other. For example, when Monroe is saying goodbye to her fiancé, Russell pushes him toward the gangplank, saying “You’d better go now.” Similarly, when Monroe and Piggy are having their tête-à-tête in the ship stateroom, Russell barges in and virtually throws Piggy out.
Hawks’s Directorial Choices
Hawks has also underscored Monroe and Russell’s connectedness to each other through filmic means. The frequent use of over-the-shoulder shots or subjective shots, in which we are shown one woman from the other’s point of view, visually emphasizes their involvement with each other. They are very often shown in close two-shots, with their faces filling the frame; their connection is enhanced by the absence of others in the frame, making them our exclusive focus. One of the most striking examples of this occurs in the last frames of the film where we are watching their double wedding ceremony: after briefly showing the brides and grooms together, the camera tracks in to a two-shot of Monroe and Russell smiling at each other.
Musical as Genre
One further way in which the primacy of Monroe and Russell’s relationship is emphasized for the audience is its position within the movie musical genre. A typical characteristic of movie musical genre is that there are two leads, a man and a woman, who sing and dance together, and eventually become romantically involved; that they sing and dance so fluidly together is a metaphor for the perfection of their relationship. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, it is Monroe and Russell who sing—they even harmonize, adding another layer to the metaphor—and dance as a team. The men they supposedly love are never given a musical role, and therefore never convincingly share in the emotional energy between Monroe and Russell. All of that energy is reserved for the relationship between the two women. In one instance Russell even sings the part which was clearly written for a man. In “Bye Bye Baby,” which is sung during the bon voyage party on board ship, Russell sings:
“Although I know that you care
Won’t you write and declare
That though on the loose
You are still on the square.”
Monroe answers her with the following lines:
“And just to show that I care
I will write and declare
That I’m on the loose
But I’m still on the square.”
Although, as we have suggested, the pre-text and the text frequently collude to affirm the primacy of the two women’s connection in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, there are still moments, akin to the tension we described between objectification and resistance to it, when they are in contradiction. The narrative line does purport to show Monroe in love with her millionaire fiancé and Russell in love with her detective friend; and the women do get married in the end, despite their strong friendship. But while the strong tension between the pre-text of objectification and the text of resistance to objectification never permits either to fully obscure the other, the conflict between the pre-text of heterosexual romance is so thin that it scarcely threatens the text of female friendship. Even as they sing lyrics which suggest that heterosexual love is crucial for women, Monroe and Russell subvert the words through their more powerful actions. Here are the melancholic words to the song “When Love Goes Wrong,” sung at the Paris sidewalk cafe:
“When love goes wrong
Nothing goes right. . .
The blues all gather ’round you
And day is dark as night
A man ain’t fit to live with
And woman’s a sorry sight.”
They sing these words, not with melancholy, but with deep serenity, gazing at each other lovingly. Later they make a mockery of the song’s sad theme by shimmying cheerfully to a jazzed up version of the same song in front of an admiring crowd. Men never convincingly appear as more important to Monroe and Russell than they are to each other.
It is the tension between male objectification of women, and women’s resistance to that objectification, that opens Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to a feminist reading. It is the clear and celebrated connection between Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell which, for us, transforms Gentlemen Prefer Blondes into a profoundly feminist text.
IV. The Role of Theory
We have argued here that feminist film criticism should begin to focus more centrally on our own experience as female viewers than on the male viewer’s experience. Our analysis of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes centers on our own pleasure in the film, not on the ways in which the film affords pleasure, or denies pleasure, to men. For us, it is insufficient simply to expose and destroy male voyeuristic pleasure in film; the task, as we see it, is rather to use film to revision our connections with women. We suggest that it is time to move beyond the analysis of male pleasure in viewing classical narrative films, in order to destroy it, to an exploration of female pleasure, in order to enhance it. Our analysis owes no allegiance to male-defined paradigms since work with such paradigms tends to obscure our own female vision.
The question of the place of male paradigms within feminist scholarship, which surfaced in our work on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, is a familiar yet disquieting issue. In our teaching of women’s studies, we have endlessly struggled with this question. One of us, the sociologist, has always given male thought and action a central place in her courses. Students read Marx and Freud, and deal with male activity such as violence and sexual harassment. The other of us, trained in the humanities, has placed women at the center. Students read the works of women, and deal with such women’s activities as artistic creation. A constant debate between us has been the extent to which male thought and experience must be analyzed in order to understand our own experience as women, the debate which remains unresolved for us. In developing our analysis of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, however, where our disagreements surfaced again, we arrived at a new understanding of the source of our differences.
Our differences stem, we believe, from our training in different fields, which have granted differential degrees of legitimacy to the development of feminist discourse. In sociology, the demonstration of competence in Marxism, structuralism, semiotics, or psychoanalysis, is a feminist’s best chance of gaining legitimacy from male colleagues, as well as from feminist sociologists. Competence in feminist thought is not a sufficient academic credential because feminist thought is viewed as particularistic and productive of only partial truths. And sociology, in trying to present itself as a true science, is interested in universal truth. The humanities, in contrast, have granted more legitimacy to the production of a uniquely feminist discourse. Because there is no pretense of a search for the universal truth about a work of literature, the search for one’s own particular and partial truth is legitimate. Thus, it is possible in the humanities to teach courses such as Women and Literature and to develop a feminist literary criticism. In sociology, in contrast, we teach the Sociology of Sex Roles, and we develop Marxist feminism.
Current film criticism stands midway between these two poles. On the one hand, some feminists are reading films from our own developing perspective, and seeking to define and name that perspective. On the other hand, some feminists are reworking and refining male paradigms and seeking to understand male experience with film. Our work with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes suggests to us that the concentration on male paradigms and male pleasure, even if only to challenge them, may simply miss the mark if our goal is to understand and affirm our own pleasure.
Feminist discourse within the social sciences has been muffled by the din of male paradigms. Feminist discourse in the humanities can be heard because no controlling male paradigms exist to silence it. If feminist film criticism is to escape the fate of feminist social science, it must also take the freedom to depart from male definitions and center upon its own.
1. We are using the term “pleasure” here to refer to enjoyment and delight. We are not using the word to connote a psychoanalytic framework for our analysis.
2. In this paper we assume that film viewers identify with characters on screen, and that film viewers derive pleasure from seeing characters on screen who possess traits they admire and whom they can use as positive role models. We realize that this positive identification is influenced not only by narrative elements (how a person is characterized in the film), but also by filmic elements (the use of close-ups, the amount of screen time allotted to that person, etc.). In this respect we situate ourselves more in the lineage of writers such as Philip Slater and Nancy Chodorow, and less in that of writers like Diane Waldman in “There’s More to a Positive Image than Meets the Eye,” Jump-Cut, No. 18 (August 1978); reprinted in the present volume, pp. 13-18. One of us is currently carrying out empirical research on positive identification and voyeurism in female film viewers which, we feel, supports our position.
3. See Julia Lesage, B. Ruby Rich, and Michelle Citron in New German Critique, No. 13 (Winter 1978), pp. 90-91.
4. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, No. 3 (Autumn 1975). Rpt. Bill Nichols, ed. Movies and Methods, Berkeley: University of California Press (1976), p. 415.
5. Phillip Slater, “Toward a Dualistic Theory of Identification,” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly of Behavior and Development 7, No. 2 (1961), pp. 113-26.
6. Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Signs 5, No. 4 (Summer 1980), pp. 631-60.
7. Nancy Henley and Jo Freeman, “The Sexual Politics of Interpersonal Behavior,” in Jo Freeman, Women: A Feminist Perspective, pp. 474-86, 2nd ed., Palo Alto: Mayfield (1979).
8. The Monroe character also adopts a “masculine” stride and stance, but far less consistently than the Russell character. More often, Monroe plays the “lady” to Russell’s manly moves. For example, Russell open doors for Monroe; Monroe sinks into Russell’s strong frame, allowing Russell to hold her protectively.
9. T. N. Willis, Jr., “Initial Speaking Distance as a Function of the Speakers’s Relationship,” Psychonomic Science 5 (1966), pp. 221-22.
10. Marjorie Rosen, Popcorn Venus, New York: Avon (1973).
11. Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering, Berkeley: University of California Press (1978).