Feminist analysis of pornography’s industry, image, and “effect,” has overlapped at times with issues in contemporary film theory: the marketing of diversion and pleasure, the institutionalization of voyeurism, and the relationship between violent acts and representations of violence.1 Debates around pornography in the first half of the 1980s have had a familiar resonance for those who follow feminist film criticism. At the time of the 1982 Conference on the Politics of Sexuality at Barnard College, the paradigm evoked in the discussions of pornography bore an uncanny resemblance to the dominant cinema/counter-cinema model introduced into feminist film theory in the mid-seventies. That paradigm is now, however, undergoing some change. In the struggle against the monoliths that serve male desire, feminist critics are asking if woman’s pleasure as counter-pleasure can be a viable oppositional practice. The serious interest in women’s sexuality—in fantasy and in practice—marked by the Barnard pro-sex conference and the publication of the proceedings, is a bold new tack for American feminism. Pleasure and Danger, the collection that contains the conference papers, suggests the way women’s desire is inextricably linked with the prohibitions against it. In her introduction to the book, editor Carol Vance lines up those perils that historically have mitigated women’s pleasure. “When unwanted pregnancy, street harassment, stigma, unemployment, queerbashing, rape, and arrest are arrayed on the side of caution and inaction,” she says, “passion doesn’t have a chance.”2 In Vance’s analysis, women’s passion is tentative and easily intimidated by antipornography rhetoric, which classifies all sexual expression as male.3
Until recently, the U.S. feminist stand on pornography appeared to be consistent with the toughest line of the most visible antipornography activist group, Women Against Pornography.4 Some of the first signs of falling away from the hard line on pornography can be seen in the Heresies “Sex Issue.” This issue, published in 1981, contains a variety of arguments for challenging the watchdog position on porn, among them that pornography is not a cause of violence against women but rather a symptom of patriarchal power relations, that concentration on the extreme and exotic can eclipse or even excuse the more common acts of degradation related to the requirements of heterosexuality, and even that pornography may have a subversive potential in a sexually repressive society.5 One of the articles in the issue turns a critique of the antipornography movement into a statement of feminist strategy based on shifting our emphasis from men’s pleasure to women’s. “In placing the gratification of men above our own,” says Paula Webster, “we pose absolutely no danger to male-dominated society”; the “active pursuit of our own gratification,” then, is a political act. Webster acknowledges, however, that this pursuit will finally need to address the more difficult sexuality and power issue: What if women are aroused by the imagery designed exclusively for male satisfaction?6
This development finds its parallel in feminist film criticism, which has reached the point of exasperation with the cataloging and analysis of male pleasure. The use of the extreme to condemn the ordinary, as seen in the comparison between male voyeurism and cinema viewing (which has its equivalent in the comparison between pornography and sexual images of women), seems to have lost its original potency. Also, new work on popular fiction and film directs interest away from forms now established as “male” to forms marketed for female audiences. Since the mid-seventies, it has been the critical vogue to study the cinematic construction of male pleasure in the classic realist text—the ways in which the masculine “gaze” controls viewing within the film, sets up the spectator’s “looking position,” and coincides with the “look” of the camera. Analysis in this tradition has considered “sexual difference” to be the eroticizing hinge on which classical Hollywood cinema turns. For the female, there are two places in this construct—either as overvalued “fetishized” star image (Mae West or Marlene Dietrich), exhibited and displayed, no more than a sign in a “patriarchal exchange,” or as audience, but occupying the point of view reserved for the male.7
The source of this method and the inspiration for so much of the current work on woman as spectacle is Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which marks the first attempt to use Lacanian psychoanalysis to develop a coherent feminist theory of narrative film as signifying system.8 Claire Johnston’s “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema,”9 published two years before, had already analyzed the fetishized female image as substitute for phallic sexuality, following Freud’s theory of symbolic displacement and male narcissism. Both articles extend the combination of Freud and Lacan suggestively used in Cahiers du Cinéma’s collective analysis of Morocco, originally published in 1970, but not translated into English until 1980.10 With the publication of “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in the issue following the translation of Christian Metz’s “The Imaginary Signifier,” the British journal Screen had thoroughly committed itself to an integration of Lacanian psychoanalysis into film theory.11 For roughly ten years, terms such as “mirror phase,” the “imaginary,” “desire,” and the “look,” introduced in these two issues, seemed to be the favored critical currency of the exchange on women and cinema.
The connection between the Freudian notions of fetishism and voyeurism and the distinctly male spectator was not made immediately. In the United States, one of the earliest attempts to theorize the eroticized female image, Maureen Turim’s “Gentlemen Consume Blondes,” analyzes Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in Marxist terms of commodity exchange. Although men are implicated in the title, Turim makes no gender distinctions in her discussion of the way cinema makes voyeurs and fetishists of us while at the same time excusing our tendencies.12 Soon after, Lucy Fisher, in her examination of Busby Berkeley’s decorative uses of the showgirl, made a tentative connection between fetishism and male, as opposed to female, eroticism.13 The Cahiers du Cinéma analysis of Marlene Dietrich in Morocco, which clearly influenced both Mulvey and Johnston, assumes a phallocentric society and is interested in both the economic and the erotic functions of the fetish.
Feminist analysis, however, has not pursued the Marxist notion of fetishism (that is, the attribution of magical qualities) to the commodity in capitalist economic relations or to the converse, commodification of non-commodities, for instance, the reification of the female body. I will suggest some of the reasons why the Freudian notion of the fetish has been preferred.14 First, we have to consider the immediate appeal of the feminist argument, which links social practices with perversion. This argument often starts with a study of the exotic; through analogy, the more common practice is then implicated. Mulvey’s theory of the female image as a phallic replacement that eases male fear of phallic loss was developed in an analysis of explicitly fetishist imagery. Just before the publication of “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” she undertook an attack on one of the most notorious exploiters of the female form in the British art world in an encyclopedic review of Allan Jones’s visions of female body contortion and torture.15 Fettered in the classic imagery of the private fetishist—belts, spike heels, rubber corsets, brassieres, and garters—Jones’s models confirm feminists’ worst fears about male fantasies. As the basis for an analysis of the onscreen image of woman, fetishism makes a stunning connection between aberrant eroticism and “normal” male sexual behavior.
However, this potent metaphor for cinema spectatorship has too quickly become a comprehensive explanation for all representation of the female form. Joanna Russ criticizes rhetorical use of the exotic to damn the ordinary as characteristic of feminist debates. Once the commonplace is likened to the extraordinary—as corset-wearing is compared with the fetishist’s tight-lacing—or heterosexuality is equated with rape, we still have not explained the more routine acts, says Russ.16 Feminists should be careful not to confuse the specialized sexual eroticism or the brutal crime with widespread practice, particularly since, she concludes, “nobody has decided what relation exists between rape, rape fantasies, clinical masochism, and ordinary behavior. And what are we to understand by ‘ordinary behavior’?”17
Recent psychoanalytic theory hypothesizes that all conventional language and pictorial representation is male-biased, for reasons rooted in the psychology of infantile sexuality. To understand the dominant cinema as thoroughly voyeuristic and to identify all sexual representation of women within it as phallic substitution implies a definite political analysis. If even everyday viewing is organized along these lines, with patriarchal power relations being reproduced in every depiction of woman on a magazine page or billboard, then we are all ideological captives. Moreover, if we are ideologically “surrounded,” if all language and every image produced in bourgeois society is steeped in patriarchal ideology—the female body always being a vehicle for something other than itself—then there is a definite advantage for feminists in borrowing a Freudian analysis that theorizes femininity as silence. Always discussing the image of woman in its negation, we are constantly qualifying representational practices and reminding ourselves of the impossibility of female expression in male-dominated culture. In their introduction to the most recent collection of feminist film criticism, Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and Linda Williams defend this theoretical stance for its tactical avoidance of essentialism.18 By shifting emphasis to the negative spaces—or, following the French feminists, to the linguistic in-between—the feminist critic sidesteps the assertion that any imagery could be naturally or essentially female.19 But these authors find neither critical option satisfactory as a theoretical basis; hence the kind of crisis we find in feminist film criticism:
The feminist theoretist [sic] is . . . confronted with something of a double bind: she can continue to analyze and interpret various instances of the repression of woman, of her radical absence in the discourses of men—a pose which necessitates remaining within that very problematic herself, always repeating its terms; or she can attempt to delineate a feminine specificity, always risking a recapitulation of patriarchal constructions and a naturalization of “woman.”20
A theory based on the exclusion of women poses a special challenge to the feminist filmmaker who would create alternative representations or political commentary on the photographic uses of the female body. How can the feminist artist speak out or act to shape culture from a position of absence?
On this basis, some feminists have opposed all uses of Freud in criticism. Why borrow a method based on describing woman’s repressed place in language and society? they argue. What new understanding of oppression can it yield? To be fair, the British feminist use of psychoanalysis follows Juliet Mitchell’s rereading of Freudian theory, which she takes as a kind of description of the ideological, or an illumination of the site of gender construction.21 In this analysis, Freudian theory is not taken to be anything more than social diagnosis. Jacqueline Rose further defends the feminist use of Freud: “The description of feminine sexuality is . . . an exposure of the terms of its definition, the very opposite of a demand as to what that sexuality should be.”22 Yet although it offers a social explanation of oppression, Freudian theory concentrates causality in a depository of its own invention that is characterized by its detachment from social conditions.23
For Marxists, the use of psychoanalysis is especially problematic both because it privileges an autonomous realm and because it poses a subject that is undifferentiated by either social class or history.24 Although Marxist feminists have been able to compensate with Freud for what was missing in Marx—gender distinctions—the theoretical advantage of gender specificity is outweighed by the political disadvantage of expecting an already completely constituted subject to come to class consciousness. Terry Lovell sees the psychoanalytic notion of subject as having “deeply pessimistic” implications for women, because “an account of sexed identity which locates the constitution of women in processes so massively concentrated in the first few years of life more or less completed with the resolution of the Oedipus complex, is to place women . . . under a crippling burden of determination in an epoch of their lives in which they have the least possibility of control and change.”25 Following Althusser’s introduction of Lacan into the Marxist theory of ideology, the apparent shift of emphasis from class struggle to ideological struggle seemed to concentrate effectivity in cultural products and to forgo political movement in favor of critical activity. Christine Gledhill, another British feminist who, like Lovell, has been critical of the incorporation of Lacan via Althusser into Marxist cultural studies, asks how this theory translates into political strategy. In her critique of feminist film criticism, Gledhill argues that if feminists are up against the “ideologically positioned” subject, political change begins to look like an impossible task. As she puts it, “We are clearly in a very weak political position if rupturing the place of the subject in representation is our chief point of entry.” With no clear means of connecting gender construction to historically shifting economic conditions, she says, feminists may have difficulty formulating and implementing programs for social change.26
One of the related dangers of using Freudian theory is the ease with which it can be recuperated for a totally reactionary position. Since Freud strikes a mean between the biological and the social, and can often be interpreted both ways, a feminist case for understanding sexuality as a social construct may sound like a case for biological determinism. E. Ann Kaplan’s definition of cinematic voyeurism, based on that of Mulvey, for instance, could lend itself to the analysis that viewers, especially biological males, are hopelessly doomed by instinct and cannot help their proclivity to look in a sexual context. “Pleasure in the cinema,” she says, “is created through the inherently voyeuristic mechanism that comes into play here more strongly than in the other arts.”27 Implying that pleasure in looking is innate rather than learned, feminists back down from their best argument: that gender differences are socially constructed. But Freud is slippery, and an extra step makes this theory seem to serve a materialist position. Kaplan is thus able to justify her use of psychoanalysis because she will force it to “unlock the secrets of our socialization within (capitalist) patriarchy.”28 A similar stance may have been taken by other film theorists who depend heavily on psychoanalysis, but this would be difficult to tell from their work. Until recently, those feminist film theorists who recruited psychoanalysis into a Marxist analysis did not feel the need to answer the charge that Freudian concepts are ahistorical.29
Certainly the historical coincidence of the invention of a storytelling machine on the one hand and Freud’s discovery of the unconscious within the bourgeois epoch on the other is remarkable, but this one fortuitous connection has too easily satisfied the need for historic specificity in Marxist-psychoanalytic film criticism. Although some of the post-1968 French film theory, which introduced Lacanian psychoanalytic concepts into cinema studies, was also interested in locating the historical moment of the construction of ideology in the invention of cinema technology, these historical reference points have dropped out in psychoanalytic discussions of the way the text positions its subject.30 Early theorizations of the cinema subject began by citing the historical continuity between the perspective rendered by the camera lens and the Renaissance code of pictorial space. What had been considered a “scientific” instrument, the camera, reproduced ideology in its model of the idealist worldview, which organized vision around the human eye, flattering it with a godlike vantage point. This spectator eye, implied in the convergence of light rays and referred to by the vanishing lines, also defined a particular conception of the self.31 Freud’s analogy between photographic instrument and psychic process, each described as an apparatus in The Interpretation of Dreams, inspired and encouraged comparisons between the two.32 Finally, in the notion of “the apparatus” and its operations, motion picture technology (a culmination of nineteenth-century invention) and the human psyche have become interchangeable. Here, then, the provocative play with metaphor, which in psychoanalytic theory teases out correspondences, seems to have provided a shortcut for theorists. Certainly there are connections among Freud’s “dream economy,” narrative economy, and the economy characterized by commodity production, just as there is a relationship between the projection mechanism and the mechanism of the unconscious, but in the way Marxist theory has borrowed Freud, it has still only suggested these links.33
Finally, other Marxist feminists have been critical of British feminist film theory because its specialized knowledge fosters an elite position. On this point, Kaplan was originally one of the clearest and strongest critics of the British. In an early review of “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema” and Pam Cook and Claire Johnston’s work on Raoul Walsh and Dorothy Arzner, she noted that not only was a background in psychoanalytic theory a prerequisite to these discussions, but in order to follow the arguments the reader had to accept the Freudian premises without question. At the time, Kaplan asked what might be valuable about the Freudian interpretations already established in literary criticism, since “the predictable nature of such interpretations takes away from their interest. . . ; given the premises, everything else follows like clockwork.”34 Kaplan’s remark describes much of the criticism that followed in this tradition, and here I refer to the bulk of the academic work extending feminist film theory in the United States from the mid-1970s into the present. To the insider, the appeal of this criticism explicating the “look” and unraveling the oedipal is that it does come off “like clockwork.” To the outsider, this analysis is often as impenetrable as the patriarchal unconscious it hopes to unlock.
Analyzing patriarchal forms has only been half of the feminist project outlined by the dominant cinema/counter-cinema paradigm. “Breaking down” mainstream film has also meant constructing new forms that directly oppose classical conventions in order to withhold its two indulgent pleasures: voyeuristic “looking” and narrative closure. Again, echoing a strategy in women’s movement politics, the creation of a new language of desire was made contingent on the destruction of male pleasure. Women’s cinematic forms were not imaginable as long as illusionistic narrative cinema (the patriarchal favorite) retained its fascination for us. In theory, the feminist counter-cinema proposed by Mulvey and Johnston is a continuation of Godard’s goals for a revolutionary cinema—to combat form with form. The disruptive fragmentation of continuity editing and point-of-view construction and the frustration of narrative unity pioneered a new aesthetic based on refusal. Theoretically, the inventive interruption of classical narrative is meant to destroy the codes of mainstream entertainment and ultimately replace them with a cinema that provokes thought and encourages analysis. Counter-cinema here borrows from Brecht the idea that critical distance, and ultimately consciousness-change, can be effected in the theatrical audience by annihilating the pleasure of identification. It also has in common with Brecht a bias against ease and satisfaction, which cannot be expected to serve the goals of political education. Recent revaluation of these issues from a Marxist mass-culture perspective, however, reminds us that Brecht may not have intended such austerity.35 People’s pleasures (popular music, television, cinema, and other amusements) might serve politics after all if the fantasies they inspire help to feed an undernourished utopian imagination.36
Leftists have raised strong objections to a cinema that snubs popular appeal and that would spurn the more accessible pleasures for the “passionate detachment” of an intellectual experience. Riddles of the Sphinx, Laura Mulvey’s high-theory film, for instance, austerely avoids continuity editing and withholds narrative resolution to such an extreme that women viewers have found it disorienting. The subversion of sexual looking, although compelling as a concept, is not so riveting in its translation to the screen. Finally, the “test” of counter-cinema implies a very difficult standard: the work must show that what we are seeing is shaped by cinematic form; at the same time, it must not give the impression (usually encouraged by conventions of cinematic realism) that there is any final reality that can be known outside the linguistic forms that access it. Does this political aesthetic make impossible demands on audiences—and on film texts? Those of us who eat, sleep, and breathe political theories of representation, who have made the politics of meaning our life’s work, are not always aware of the ways our own consciousness is shaped by words, images, or other signifying material. Are we, in expecting a film text to effect change on its own, asking too much of it, especially if it is screened out of the context of political organizing and education efforts? Why should a film that considers its own signification process necessarily require its audience to know advanced film theory in order for them to enjoy, appreciate, and, ideally, reflect upon what they see? The futility of sharing this new cinema with a theoretically uninitiated audience is dramatized by this admission from a scholar in an adjacent field:
An innovatory piece of work may be experienced as such, or as startling, shocking, disturbing, if the audience is sufficiently familiar with the conventions it seeks to challenge and subvert. . . . I am aware, for example, that, while I can see for myself a departure from tradition in a contemporary novel, I have to be told by others that such and such a camera angle or style of shot constitutes a rejection of bourgeois practice in film-making.37
The feminist case for counter-cinema is an argument for modernism, which undeniably offers rarefied pleasures and is a taste acquired through educational and cultural privilege.38 Black women filmmakers, sensitive to the class bias of aesthetic preference, have as a whole chosen not to produce any media work that diverges from standard formats and calls attention to its own formal devices. Interviews with this new group of film and video makers—whose work is still unevenly available in the United States even through alternative distribution channels—suggest agreement on the question of aesthetic style: It is more important to make comprehensible and accessible films than it is to experiment with subverting classical Hollywood narrative.39 The films these women have produced deal with black body language and image, skin color consciousness, child custody, childbirth, single parenting, prostitution as survival, rape, and women’s retaliation against sexual abuse, and their messages are an intentional affront to white male society. Do these films, then, constitute any less of a political challenge because they use conventional forms?
For all the interest in counter-cinema as theory, feminist film and video making in the United States seems to have been influenced relatively little by the original British models such as Nightcleaners (Berwick St. Collective, 1975) and Riddles of the Sphinx (Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, 1977). The small number of U.S. and British feminist works following in this tradition have received a disproportionate amount of critical attention. This response is evidence of the symbiotic relationship between these “avant-garde theory films,” as E. Ann Kaplan calls them, and an evolving feminist criticism, which certainly has its significance; but the attention has also created an instant canon in a very new field of inquiry. Too quickly, a hierarchy of works has been organized, which has meant that many women’s productions have been relegated to the periphery, and many others remain undiscovered. Those feminist works that may have been overlooked by theorists have been found by women’s groups, however, particularly in the United States, where several traditions of radical filmmaking coexist. Documentaries in the style of Union Maids (Julia Reichert and Jim Klein, 1976) have been strong with unions and community groups. These documentaries use the rhetoric of archival footage or testimonial interview and thus employ realist conventions without question; but they are also effective as organizing tools, and in this sense they pose a challenge to the counter-cinema corollary that change cannot be effected by “revealing” the photographic “truth” of woman’s oppression.40 Third World film and video makers have consistently made their more radical statements in the documentary mode, a choice that indicates the power of politics to determine representational priorities. Leftist media workers cannot afford to undertake an abstract analysis or make an educational statement about representation if it is politically imperative that they make a representational reference to a “brutal actuality” in order to counteract its ideological version.41
For feminists, investigating women’s pleasure as counter-pleasure has become politically imperative. We have already produced a potent analysis of patriarchal culture as oppressive monolith, but we are still determining the relation of woman’s culture to the dominant. Is this culture excluded or “muted”? Does it modify or resist?42 Annette Kolodny recently remarked that while sexual difference absorbed in the first two decades of the Second Wave of Feminism, the issue of the next decade will have to be how difference “interacts with the dominant.”43 The equation between mainstream cinema and male privilege set up by “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” may have diverted the attention of feminist scholars, but it seems also to have provided an “out” for them—by introducing interest in the gendered spectator into contemporary film theory.44 The very questions that Mulvey did not address have become the most compelling: Is the spectator restricted to viewing the female body on the screen from the male point of view? Is narrative pleasure always male pleasure? Theoretical solutions to the enigma of female spectatorship range from the more pessimistic and dubious psychoanalytic analyses to the spirited reversal of the lesbian readings and the renewed expectations of the soap opera studies. Psychoanalytic analyses of the horror film show agreement on one point—that the female vision, whether perception or discernment, is jeopardized in this genre.45 Punishments inflicted on female characters, as Marcia Landy and Lucy Fisher show in their analysis of The Eyes of Laura Mars (Irvin Kershner, 1978), may serve as a warning against female occupation of male points of view.46
Mary Ann Doane has theorized female spectatorship as a psychoanalytic and semiotic impossibility. For one thing, the female cannot assume a voyeuristic position in regard to the cinema spectacle, because she is semiotically too close to that image which is ultimately her own. Neither does she transform her own castrated figure in the same way the male spectator is thought to use his ability to “fetishize.”47 Following this line of thought, with sexual difference determining the construction and operation of classical narrative cinema in all genres, even those films centered on a female protagonist and directed toward a woman’s audience will renounce female looking. Doane’s study of the Hollywood woman’s picture shows that the prohibition against female sight is so strong that some films must integrate this renunciation into the narrative. For example, one could understand Joan Crawford’s dilemma, as patron and lover to concert violinist John Garfield in Humoresque (Jean Negulesco, 1946), as the denial of her control over him, worked out in terms of her surveillance of his performances and emphasized by the habitual removal of her glasses. Following Doane’s suggestion, Crawford’s tragic suicide (she walks into the surf to the strains of her lover’s violin, broadcast from the concert hall) could be seen as resolving the tension between the desire to be viewed as a love object and the need to scrutinize an investment.48 If even women’s forms frustrate the spectator, what are we to make of women’s attraction to melodrama? Do these entertainments offer a privileged point of view and the possibility of female desire—and then withhold the enjoyment of them?49 Is the viewer tricked into a masochistic pleasure?
In contrast to psychoanalytic film theory, lesbian studies assign more power to the spectator than to the text. These analyses show that the female “look” cancels the male point of view and that active reading resists the flow of classical narrative. In one of the most convincing challenges to work on male pleasure, Lucie Arbuthnot and Gail Seneca argue that in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953), Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe “resist objectification” and project an intimacy with each other that invites both identification and a kind of female voyeurism.50 In this tradition, Chris Straayer and Liz Ellsworth have considered the feminist and lesbian reception of Personal Best (Robert Towne, 1982), demonstrating in two different studies that the power and force of the female “look” has been underestimated. Based on her observations that oppositional communities build their own interpretations and construct social pleasures to complement their fantasies, Ellsworth recommends that feminists work out strategies to maximize their “illicit” viewing pleasure.51 Straayer’s discovery of lesbian respondents’ ingenious viewing strategies, which allow for the “clever co-existence of pleasure and displeasure,” is an important opening in the study of the double consciousness of oppressed groups.52 In contrast with formal analysis, these more sociological studies may seem relatively “messy,” in the way they deal with “gut” feelings, inarticulate responses, and ordinary opinions; they are significant, however, because they remind us that meaning is always social and that hothouse studies of film language alone cannot construct a semiotics of the cinema.
An approach that considers the lesbian as spectator causes all the premises of feminist film theory centered on male voyeurism to shift. In the introduction to the Jump Cut “Lesbian Special Section,” Edith Becker, Michelle Citron, Julia Lesage, and B. Ruby Rich describe how the exclusion of a lesbian perspective has seriously “warped” contemporary film theory:
A true recognition of lesbianism would seriously challenge the concept of women as inevitable objects of exchange between men, or as fixed in an eternal trap of “sexual difference” based on heterosexuality. Feminist theory that sees all women on the screen only as objects of male desire—including by implication, lesbians—is inadequate.53
To consider the exquisitely fit female-fantasy bodies in Flashdance (Adrian Lyne, 1983) only in terms of male desire, one has to ignore women’s responses to the film.
Likewise, to analyze the lesbian sexual awakening in Lianna (John Sayles, 1983) in terms of the male “look” negates the film’s premises. Visually, Lianna is not the film that either a straight woman or a lesbian would have made in celebration of women loving women.54 Lianna is not just cautious, it is apologetic about photographing women. The tentative representation of lesbian love-making, for instance, is an attempt not to intrude voyeuristically or shape salaciously, and clichés of sexual gazing are reversed in a female-body montage Lianna sees just after she has first made love with Ruth. Showing wholesome lesbian bodies with restraint neither withdraws the image entirely from male view nor subtracts the “to-be-looked-at” connotations from the female body. But finally, as a film about female desire Lianna is incredibly pallid. Flashdance, in contrast, is an alluring inducement to give oneself over to watching gorgeous women dance. Judging from the film’s reception, women audiences have enthusiastically taken up the invitation to look. My informal poll of friends shows that both lesbians and straight women have claimed this film. Some women said that Flashdance was the first film in years that they had gone back to see a second time. Does its “fantasy of control” explain why women, after seeing the film, are dancing along with Flashdance video-cassettes in their living rooms and signing up for classes in jazz dance?55
Do responses to Personal Best and Flashdance suggest that women are suddenly “ready” for an eroticized imagery of their own? Will they no longer have to steal their glancing pleasure in the cinema or reroute their own plots? It is not as though women’s sexual fantasies have never been served. Feminist work on women’s traditional fiction such as Harlequin and gothic novels, melodrama and soap operas, shows that women have historically turned to these forms, which direct their readers through familiar conflicts with loved ones and provide releases and gratifications women probably won’t find in conventional marriage.56 Ann Barr Snitow’s consideration of mass market romance as women’s pornography suggests that feminists should take a second look at forms so often dismissed as reactionary if we would define the rhythms and emphases of women’s sexual imagination. “The romantic intensity of Harlequins—the waiting, fearing, speculating—is as much a part of their functioning as pornography for women as are the more overtly sexual scenes,” she says.57 Similarly, Tania Modleski identifies distinctive narrative forms in women’s television programming and suggests that these forms derive from those experiences that are thought to be woman’s “lot in life”—waiting, anticipating, and the state of being constantly distracted and interrupted. Modleski concludes her analysis of soap operas with the assertion that new forms of women’s pleasure won’t necessarily be “made from scratch.”58 These traditional female forms promise a model for an emerging feminist aesthetic, and ideally, this aesthetic would even be compelling to those Harlequin readers who finish reading a novel every other day.59 The political countermove here is in the reclamation of narrative gratifications for ourselves, for, as Modleski says, “this pleasure is currently placed at the service of the patriarchy.”60
What could be new or liberating about an aesthetic based on woman’s plight? Again, one of the crucial concerns of feminist film theory intersects with a burning issue in women’s movement politics—correct pleasure. To replicate the dominant/subordinate power relation in either sexual practice or fantasy life has been considered a political taboo for feminists. In the turnabout in feminist discussions of sexuality I have described, women are daring to say that politically correct practices and proper fantasies do not necessarily fuel their passion. The alternative imagery of a radical pornography for women may leave us cold. “If pornography is to arouse,” says Ellen Willis, “it must appeal to the feelings we have, not those that by some utopian standard we ought to have.”61 Of course, erotic tastes, just as preferences for romantic narrative resolutions, may be understood as the residue of oppression, but what if reactionary tastes are ingenious compensations? The woman’s fiction studies to which I have referred point out that romance fantasies are a means of symbolic conflict management. Also, we have yet to understand the connection between fantasy and erotic acts. As Chuck Kleinhans and Julia Lesage remind us, “Fantasy is precisely what people desire but do not necessarily want to act on. It is an imaginative substitution and not necessarily a model for overt behavior.”62 Pointing out the discrepancies between feminist egalitarian ideals of desire and what women report they like is not an argument for indifference to the imagery of power imbalance or the industries that profit from reproducing this imagery. Women’s erotic daydreams are clues to structures of sustenance and release, and are due for the same serious consideration that women’s diversions have begun to receive from feminists.
Finally, for academics, I suggest that in our critical studies of the next wave of feminist media—women’s video productions, the heirs of the countercinema tradition—we be clearer about the source of our own fascination with aesthetic “play,” off and against the dominant structures of prime-time television and mainstream cinema. The “correct” formula for alternative feminist film practice, the rearrangement of the “relations of looking,” and the rejection of closure offer feminists a rather tight-lipped satisfaction. Restrained intellectual pursuits have a specialized recompense that bears little resemblance to the absorbing delight that means “pleasure” to so many women. Correct pleasure is a very privileged pleasure.
1. For further discussion of these similarities, see Julia Lesage, “Women and Pornography,” Jump Cut, no. 26 (December 1981): 46-47; also see, in the same issue, Gina Marchetti’s bibliography “Readings on Women and Pornography,” pp. 56-60.
2. Carol Vance, “Pleasure and Danger: Towards a Politics of Sexuality,” in Pleasure and Danger, ed. Carol Vance, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1984), p. 4.
3. Vance, “Pleasure and Danger,” p. 6.
4. For more of this history, see the introduction to Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson, eds., Powers of Desire, New York: Monthly Review Press (1983).
5. Ellen Willis has argued that women’s enjoyment of pornography could be seen as a “form of resistance in a culture that would allow [them] no sexual pleasure at all” (“Who is a Feminist?: A Letter to Robin Morgan,” Village Voice, 21 December 1981, p. 17).
6. Paula Webster, “Pornography and Pleasure,” Heresies 3, no. 4 (1981): 50.
7. The majority of books published as feminist film theory would suggest the psychoanalytic vogue, if nothing else. After the first two collections of articles published in the United States—Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary’s Women and Cinema, New York: Dutton (1977), and Patricia Erens’s Sexual Stratagems, New York: Horizon (1979)—the basic texts have privileged the earliest work of the British feminist film theorists, which has been so solidly grounded in Freud. Here I refer to Annette Kuhn, Women’s Pictures, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1982), and E. Ann Kaplan, Women and Film, New York: Methuen (1983), as well as E. Ann Kaplan, ed., Women in Film Noir, London: British Film Institute (1978). More recent attempts to creatively extend this theory can be found in Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and Linda Williams, eds., Re-Vision, Frederick, Md.: University Publications of America (1984), and Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t, Bloomington: Indiana University Press (1984), which proposes a bridge between psychoanalytic semiotics and cultural semiotics.
8. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no, 3 (1975) : 6-18 (reprinted in Kay and Peary, Women and Cinema, pp. 412-428); and Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen, eds., Film Theory and Criticism, 3d ed., New York: Oxford University Press (1985). Also see Laura Mulvey and Colin MacCabe’s “Images of Woman, Images of Sexuality,” chap. 4 in Colin MacCabe, Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics, Bloomington: Indiana University Press (1980); Dee Dee Glass, Laura Mulvey, Griselda Pollock, and Judith Williamson, “Feminist Film Practice and Pleasure: A Discussion,” in Fredric Jameson et al., Formations of Pleasure, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1983), pp. 156-60.
9. Claire Johnston, “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema,” in Notes on Women’s Cinema, ed. Claire Johnston, London: Society for Education in Film and Television (1973) (reprinted in Erens, Sexual Stratagems, pp. 133-43); Bill Nichols, ed., Movies and Methods, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press (1976) , pp. 208-17.
10. “Morocco,” Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 225 (November-December 1970) (reprinted in Peter Baxter, ed., Sternberg, trans. Diana Matias, London: British Film Institute , pp. 81-93). I am indebted to Chuck Kleinhans for pointing out this correspondence to me.
11. Christian Metz, “The Imaginary Signifier,” Screen 16, no. 2 (1975): 14-76; Julia Lesage’s “The Human Subject—You, He, or Me?” which challenged the editors of Screen on their incorporation of psychoanalytic terms into film theory, appeared in this same issue.
12. Maureen Turim, “Gentlemen Consume Blondes,” Wide Angle (Spring 1976): 71.
13. Lucy Fisher, “The Image of Woman as Image: The Optical Politics of Dames,” Film Quarterly 30 (Fall 1976): 8 (reprinted in Erens, Sexual Stratagems, pp. 41-61); and Rick Altman, ed., Genre: The Musical, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1981), pp. 70-84.
14. I refer here to Karl Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, in Capital, vol. 1.
15. Laura Mulvey, “You Don’t Know What Is Happening, Do You, Mr. Jones?” Spare Rib 8 (February 1973) (reprinted in Spare Rib Reader, ed. Marsha Rowe, London: Penguin Books , pp. 48-57).
16. Joanna Russ, “Comment on Helene E. Roberts’s ‘The Exquisite Slave: The Role of Clothes in the Making of the Victorian Woman’ and David Kunzle’s ‘Dress Reform as Antifeminism,’ ” Signs 2, no. 3 (1977): 521. Gayle Rubin (“Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Vance, Pleasure and Danger, p. 306) is critical of the way the anti-pornography movement focuses on “non-routine acts of love rather than routine acts of oppression, exploitation, or violence.”
17. Russ, p. 521.
18. Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and Linda Williams, “Feminist Film Criticism: An Introduction,” in Doane, Mellencamp, and Williams, Re-Vision, p. 8.
19. Hélène Cixous (“The Laugh of the Medusa,” in The Signs Reader, trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, ed. Elizabeth Abel and Emily K. Abel, Chicago: University of Chicago Press , p. 291) describes the way creativity might take place from the cultural “in-between”:
If woman has always functioned “within” the discourse of man, a signifier that has always referred back to the opposite signifier which annihilates its specific energy and diminishes or stifles its very different sounds, it is time for her to dislocate this “within,” to explode it, turn it around, and seize it; to make it hers, containing it, taking it in her own mouth, biting that tongue with her very own teeth to invent for herself a language to get inside of.
20. Doane, Mellencamp, and Williams, “Feminist Film Criticism,” p. 9.
21. Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism, London: Lane (1974).
22. Jacqueline Rose, quoted in de Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t, p. 165.
23. Griselda Pollock (“Report on the Weekend School,” Screen 18, no. 2: 112) cautions feminists about the use of Freud:
Furthermore, in so far as Freudian theory correctly describes the laws by which we are placed as subjects within a particular social formation, it also posits an inevitable resistance outside clinical or quite specific situations to the very knowledge that psychoanalysis offers. Thus, even within a film theory that uses the concerns of psychoanalysis, these resistances operate to counter the radical possibilities offered by the use of the theory. There is therefore every likelihood that the repression of the feminine is doubly ensured even at the point of potential exposure in theoretical analysis of film.
24. I refer here to larger debates within Marxist cultural studies, focused around the British journal Screen’s introduction of Lacanian psychoanalysis into film theory. See, for instance, Anthony Easthope, “The Trajectory of Screen, 1971-79,” in The Politics of Theory, ed. Francis Barker et al., Colchester, Eng.: University of Essex (1983), pp. 121-33; Kevin Robins, “Althusserian Marxism and Media Studies: The Case of Screen,” Media, Culture and Society 1, no. 4 (1979): 355-70; Iain Chambers et al., “Marxism and Culture,” and Rosalind Coward, “Response,” Screen 18, no. 4 (1977): 109-22.
25. Terry Lovell, “The Social Relations of Cultural Production: Absent Centre of a New Discourse,” in One-Dimensional Marxism, ed. Simon Clarke, Victor Jeleniewski Seidler, Kevin McDonnell, Kevin Robins, and Terry Lovell, London: Allison & Busby (1980), p. 243.
26. Christine Gledhill, “Recent Developments in Feminist Criticism,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies 3, no. 4 (1978): 483 (reprinted in Doane, Mellencamp, and Williams, Re-Vision, pp. 18-45).
27. Kaplan, Women and Film, p. 14.
28. Ibid., p. 24.
29. For examples of the Marxist feminist reconsideration of psychoanalytic theory in response to this criticism, see Annette Kuhn, “Women’s Genres,” Screen 25, no. 1 (1984): 19-27; and Claire Johnston, “The Subject of Feminist Film Theory/Practice,” Screen 23, no. 1 (1982): 27-34.
30. Jean-Louis Baudry (“Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus,” Film Quarterly 28, no. 2 [1974-1975]: 46n) gives the reader some help with the concept of “subject,” at a time when the term was used more tentatively than it is now: “We understand the term ‘subject’ here in its function as vehicle and place of intersection of ideological implications which we are attempting progressively to make clear, and not as the structural function which analytic discourse attempts to locate. It would rather take partially the place of the ego, of whose deviations little is known in the analytic field.” The editors also thought it necessary to make it clear to readers that “the term ‘subject’ is used by Baudry and others not to mean the topic of discourse, but rather the perceiving and ordering self, as in our term ‘subjective’ ” (p. 40).
31. One of the most comprehensive discussions of this “spectator eye” appears in another post-1968 French work on technology and ideology, Jean-Louis Comolli, “Technique and Ideology: Camera, Perspective, Depth of Field,” Film Reader, no. 2 (February 1977): 128-140; reprinted in Bill Nichols, ed., Movies and Methods, vol. 2, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press (1985), pp. 40-57.
32. This analogy is fully explored in Jean-Louis Baudry, “The Apparatus,” Camera Obscura 1 (Fall 1976): 104-23.
33. My complaint here is that concepts which originally were forged within the terms of a materialist analysis have gradually become removed from the Marxist theoretical structures that first defined them. Another example of this is the way signifying practice has come to stand for nothing more than the construction of meaning. Originally, as theorized by Julia Kristeva (see her “Signifying Practice and Mode of Production,” Edinburgh ’76 Magazine, no. 1, pp. 64-76), signifying practice included both the social maintenance function and the subversive possibilities of linguistic practices, with meaning-making activities always relative to the mode of production in a society.
34. E. Ann Kaplan, “Aspects of British Feminist Film Theory: A Critical Evaluation of Texts by Claire Johnston and Pam Cook,” Jump Cut, nos. 12-13 (December 1976): 54.
35. See Terry Lovell, Pictures of Reality, London: British Film Institute (1980), p. 94, for more on Brecht and pleasure.
36. For example, see Fredric Jameson, “Pleasure: A Political Issue,” in Jameson et al., Formations of Pleasure, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1983); and Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” Movie, no. 24 (Spring 1977): 2-13 (reprinted in Altman, Genre, pp. 175-189).
37. Michèle Barrett, “Feminism and the Definition of Cultural Politics,” in Feminism, Culture, and Politics, ed. Rosalind Brunt and Caroline Rowan, London: Lawrence & Wishart (1982), p. 54.
38. See Terry Lovell, Pictures of Reality, pp. 87 and 95.
39. Claudia Springer, “Black Women Filmmakers,” Jump Cut, no. 29 (February 1984): 34-38.
40. Claire Johnston, in “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema,” p. 28, first articulated this in relation to feminist film theory: “The sign is always a product. What the camera in fact grasps is the ‘natural’ world of the dominant ideology. Women’s cinema cannot afford such idealism; the ‘truth’ of our oppression cannot be ‘captured’ on celluloid with the ‘innocence’ of the camera: it has to be constructed/manufactured.”
41. Kimberly Safford, in “La Operación: Forced Sterilization” (her review of the film, in Jump Cut, no. 29 [February 1984]: 37-38), says that for the filmmakers, the most direct way to demystify sterilization for Puerto Rican women is to demonstrate using documentary realism that since women’s tubes are always severed in surgery, the sterilization operation is not as easily reversible as many women continue to believe. La Operación makes this argument with a conventional journalistic technique—graphic detailing of the surgery itself, the theory being that photographic “reality” that directly contradicts viewers’ conceptions has the power to reverse those conceptions.
42. The idea of women’s culture as “muted” is Elaine Showalter’s; see, for instance, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” in Writing and Sexual Difference, ed. Elizabeth Abel, Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1982), pp. 9-35.
43. Annette Kolodny, informal talk at Duke University, 1 March 1985.
44. Mulvey has since modified her provocative position that spectator point of view in the cinema is consistently the male point of view. In “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ Inspired by Duel in the Sun” (Framework, nos. 15-17 ), she admits that her “masculinized” spectator-screen image relation was a calculated irony and that the actual gender of the viewer was not a consideration here.
45. See, for instance, Linda Williams, “When the Woman Looks,” in Doane, Mellencamp, and Williams, Re-Vision, pp. 83-99.
46. Marcia Landy and Lucy Fisher, “The Eyes of Laura Mars: A Binocular Critique,” Screen 23, nos. 3-4 (1982): 4-19.
47. Mary Ann Doane, “Film and the Masquerade—Theorizing the Female Spectator,” Screen 23, nos. 3-4 (1982): 74-87.
48. Ibid., p. 83; see also Mary Ann Doane, “The ‘Woman’s Film’: Possession and Address,” in Doane, Mellencamp, and Williams, Re-Vision, pp. 67-82.
49. Pam Cook (“Melodrama and the Women’s Picture,” in Gainsborough Melodrama, ed. Sue Aspinall and Robert Murphy, London: British Film Institute , pp. 14-28) takes the position that female desire is conceivable in these genres but that the films themselves register this possibility as contradiction.
50. Lucie Arbuthnot and Gail Seneca, “Pre-Text and Text in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” Film Reader 5 (Winter 1981-1982): 14.
51. Elizabeth Ellsworth, “The Power of Interpretative Communities: Feminist Appropriations of Personal Best” (paper delivered at Society for Cinema Studies Conference, University of Wisconsin-Madison, March 1984).
52. Chris Straayer, “Personal Best: Lesbian/Feminist Audience,” Jump Cut, no. 29 (February 1984): 40-44; for another viewpoint, see Linda Williams, “Personal Best: Women in Love,” Jump Cut, no. 27 (July 1982): 11-12.
53. Edith Becker, Michelle Citron, Julia Lesage, and B. Ruby Rich, “Lesbians and Film: Introduction to Special Section,” Jump Cut, nos. 24-25 (March 1981): 17.
54. See Lisa DiCaprio, “Lianna: Liberal Lesbianism,” Jump Cut, no. 29 (February 1984): 45-47.
55. See Kathryn Kalinak, “Flashdance: The Dead-End Kid,” Jump Cut, no. 29 (February 1984): 3-5.
56. See, for instance, Janice Radway, Reading the Romance, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press (1984).
57. Ann Barr Snitow, “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different,” Radical History Review 20 (Spring-Summer 1979): 157 (reprinted in Snitow, Stansell, and Thompson, Powers of Desire, pp. 245-263).
58. Tania Modleski, Loving with a Vengeance, New York: Methuen (1984), p. 103.
59. Pat Aufderheide, “What Are Romances Telling Us?” In These Times, 6-12 February 1985, p. 20.
60. Modleski, Loving with a Vengeance, p. 104.
61. Ellen Willis, “Feminism, Moralism, and Pornography,” in Snitow, Stansell, and Thompson, Powers of Desire, p. 463.
62. Chuck Kleinhans and Julia Lesage, “The Politics of Sexual Representation” (introduction to special section on Pornography and Sexual Images), Jump Cut, no. 30 (March 1986): 24-26.