Feminism and Film Theory
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Feminism and Film Theory

Constance Penley, Constance Penley

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eBook - ePub

Feminism and Film Theory

Constance Penley, Constance Penley

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First published in 1988. Feminism and Film Theory traces the major issues in feminist film theory as they have evolved over the last decade. Comprised of essays that are classics of this intellectually sophisticated area of cultural studies, Feminism and Film Theory makes available much sought after essays that are often difficult to find. Empha­sizing the polemical challenge of feminism to film theory, this anthology forces us to reconsider film theory's most basic ideas about genre, narrative, image, spec­tatorship, and audience. The essays offer a model for a politically engaged critique of contemporary thought. Feminism and Film Theory will be of great interest to students and scholars concerned with film, critical theory, art and media, cultural studies, or feminism.

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The Place of Woman in the Cinema of Raoul Walsh

Pam Cook and Claire johnston
The following analysis of the place of women in some of Raoul Walsh’s films relies on concepts borrowed from the psychoanalyst jacques Lacan, whose work constitutes a radical re-reading of Freud. The basis of that reading is the insight that Freud thought his theory of the unconscious in terms of a conceptual apparatus which he forged in the face of pre-Saussurian linguistics, anticipating the discoveries of modem linguistics. Lacan therefore proceeds to a re-reading of Freud’s theory of the light of concepts produced by and for structural linguistics. This obviously involves the rejection of the vast bulk of post-Freudian psycho-analysis. Now that it has become dear that Freud conceived the unconscious as being structured like a language, any decipherment of the discourse of the unconscious must abandon all the unfortunately widespread misconceptions regarding the reading-i.e., selection-of “symptoms” and of the kind of sexual “symbolism” propagated by Jung.
J. Lacan distinguishes the Symbolic from the Imaginary and the Real. The Imaginary relationship with the other occurs in a dual situation which is primarily narcissistic. Aggressiveness and identification with the image of the other predominate at this stage. The Symbolic element is one that intervenes to break up an Imaginary relationship from which there is no way out. The child meets the “third element” upon binh; he enters a world ordered by a culture, law, and language, and is enveloped in that Symbolic order. Finally, Lacan distinguishes the Other, the locus from which the code emanates, from the Imaginary other. (M. Mannoni, The Child, his ‘Illness’ and the Others, London, 1970, p. 23n)
The Other, as the locus of the Law (e.g., the law of the prohibition of incest), as the Word (i.e., the signifier as unit of the code) is the “Name-of-the-Father” around which the Symbolic order is constructed. The child, or indeed, any human being, as a subject of desire is constituted from the place of the Other: his “I” is a signifier in someone else’s discourse and he has to find out how and where “I” fits into the social universe he discovers.
It has often been argued that there are a number of films directed by Raoul Walsh which appear to present women as strong and independent characters. The authors of the following essay take issue with this type of reading and attempt to demonstrate that women (e.g., Mamie Stover) in fact function as a signifier in a circuit of exchange where the values exchanged have been fixed by/in a patriarchal culture. Although Levi-Strauss pointed out that real women, as producers of signs, could never be reduced to the status of mere tokens of exchange, i.e. to mere signs, the authors argue that, in films, the use of images of women and the way their “I” is constituted in Walshian texts play a subtle game of duplicity: in the tradition of classic cinema and 19th-century realism, the characters are presented as “autonomous individuals”; but the construction of the discourse contradicts this convention by reducing these “real” women to images and tokens functioning in a circuit of signs the values of which have been determined by and for men. In this way, the authors are attempting to help lay the foundations of a feminist film criticism as well as producing an analysis of a number of films directed by Walsh.
Between 1956 and 1957 Raoul Walsh made three films which center around the social, cultural and sexual definition of women. At first sight, the role of woman within these films appears a “positive” one; they display a great independence of spirit, and contrast sharply with the apparent “weakness” of the male protagonists. The first film in this cycle depicts a woman occupying the central function in the narrative; the Jane Russell vehicle, The Revolt of Mamie Stover, tells the story of a bar-room hostess’s attempts to buck the system and acquire wealth and social status within patriarchy. The King and Four Queens, made the same year, depicts five women who hide out in a burnt-out ghost town to guard hidden gold. Band of Angels, made the following year, tells the story of a Southern heiress who suddenly finds herself sold into slavery at the time of the American Civil War. Walsh prefigured the problematic of the independent woman before this period, most notably in a series of films he made in the 1940s, some of which starred the actress Ida Lupino, who later became one of the few women film-makers to work in Hollywood: They Drive by Night, High Sie”a and The Man I Love. However, undoubtedly the most useful films for providing a reference point for this cycle are Manpower (1941) and The Bowery (1933); in these films, Walsh celebrates the ethic of the all-male group, and outlines the role which women are designated to play within it. Walsh depicts the male hero as being trapped and pinned down by some hidden event in his past. In order to become the Subject of Desire he must test the Law through transgression. To gain self-knowledge and to give meaning to memories of the past, he is impelled towards the primal scene and to the acceptance of a symbolic castration. For the male hero the female protagonist becomes an agent within the text of the film whereby his hidden secret can be brought to light for it is in woman that his “lack” is located. She represents at one and the same time the distant memory of maternal plenitude and the fetishized object of his phantasy of castration-a phallic replacement and thus a threat. In Manpower Walsh depicts an all-male universe verging on infantilism-the camaraderie of the fire-fighters from the “Ministry of Power and Light.” Sexual relationships and female sexuality are repressed within the film, and Marlene Dietrich is depicted as only having an existence within the discourse of men: she is “spoken,” she does not speak. As an object of exchange between men, a sign oscillating between the images of prostitute and mother-figure, she represents the means by which men express their relationships with each other, the means through which they come to understand themselves and each other. The Bowery presents a similar all-male society, this time based totally on internal all-male rivalry; within this highly ritualized system the women (“the skirts”) assume the function of symbols of this rivalry. Whatever the “positive” attributes assigned to them through characterization, woman as sign remains a function, a token of exchange in this patriarchal order. Paul Willemen in his article on Pursued describes the role of the female protagonist Teresa Wrightffhorley as the “specular image” of the male protagonist Robert Mitchurnljeb: she is the place where he deposits his words in a desire to “know” himself through her.
In her book Psychoanalysis and Feminism Juliet Mitchell, citing Levi-Strauss, characterizes a system where women are objects for exchange as essentially a communications system.
The act of exchange holds a society together; the rules of kinship (like those of language to which they are near-allied) are the society. Whatever the nature of the society-patriarchal, matrilineal, patrilineal, etc.-it is always men who exchange women. Women thus become the equivalent of a sign which is being communicated.
In Walsh’soeuvre, woman is not only a sign in a system of exchange, but an empty sign. (The major exception in this respect is Mamie Stover, who seeks to transform her status as object for exchange precisely by compounding a highly articulated, fetishized image for herself.) The male protagonist’s castration fears, his search for self-knowledge all converge on woman: it is in her that he is finally faced with the recognition of “lack.” Woman is therefore the locus of emptiness: she is a sign which is defined negatively: something that is missing which must be located so that the narcissistic aim of the male protagonist can be achieved. The narrative structure of Band of Angels is particularly interesting in the light of this model. The first half of the story is concerned with events in Manty/Yvonne de Carlo’s life which reduce her from the position of a lady to that of a slave to be auctioned in the slave market. Almost exactly half way through the story-at the “center” of the film-Clark Gable appears and takes possession of her: from that moment the unfolding of his “dark secret” takes precedence. It becomes clear that Manty/Yvonne de Carlo’s story was merely a device to bring into play the background (the slave trade, crumbling Southern capitalism) against which the “real” drama is to take place. Manty/Yvonne de Carlo is created in Clark Gable’s image: half black and half white, she signifies the lost secret which must be found in order to resolve the relationship between Clark Gable and Sidney Poitier-the “naturalization” of the slave trade.
One of the most interesting aspects of this mise-en-scene of exchange in which woman as sign is located is the way Walsh relates it directly and explicitly to the circulation of money within the text of the film. Marx states that under capitalism the exchange value of commodities is their inherent monetary property and that in turn money achieves a social existence quite apart from all commodities and their natural mode of existence. The circulation of money and its abstraction as a sign in a system of exchange serves as a mirror image for woman as sign in a syste.ua of exchange. However, in Walsh’s universe, women do not have access to the circulation of money: Mamie Stover’s attempt to gain access to it takes place at a time of national emergency, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when all the men are away fighting-it is described as “theft.” As a system, the circulation of money embodies phallic power and the right of possession; it is a system by which women are controlled. In Band of Angels Manty/Yvonne de Carlo is reduced to a chattel and exchanged for money on the slave market; she is exchanged for money because of her father’s “dark secret” and because of his debt. In The King and Four Queens the women guard the gold but they cannot gain access to it directly. Its phallic power lies hidden in the grave of a dead husband, surrounded by sterility and devastation. Clark Gable gains access to it by asserting his right of possession by means of tossing a gold coin in the air and shooting a bullet through the middle of it, a trick which the absent males of the family all knew: the mark of the right of possession. The ticket system in The Revolt of Mamie Stover takes the analogy between money and women one stage further: men buy tickets at “The Bungalow” and at the same time they buy an image of woman. It is the symbolic expression of the right men have to control women within their imaginary system. This link between money and phallic power assumes its most striking image in Walsh’s oeuvre when jane RusselVMamie, having accumulated considerable savings as a bar hostess in Pearl Harbor, declares her love for Richard Egan/jimmy by asking
The Revolt of Mamie Stover (Raoul Walsh, 1956)
him if she can place these savings in his safety deposit box at the bank: “there’s nothing closer between friends than money.” Recognizing the significance of such a proposition, he refuses.
The Revolt of Mamie Stover is the only one of these films in which the female protagonist represents the central organizing principle of the text. As the adventuress par excellence she is impelled to test and transgress the Law in the same way that all Walsh’s heroes do: she would seem to function at first sight in a similar way to her male counterpart, the adventurer, within the narrative structure. But as the film reveals, her relationship to the Law is radically different. Her drive is not to test and transgress the Law as a means towards understanding a hidden secret within her past, but to transgress the forms of representation governing the classic cinema itself, which imprison her forever within an image. As the credits of the film appear on the screen, Jane Russell looks into the camera with defiance, before turning her back on America and walking off to a new life in Pearl Harbor. This look, itself a transgression of one of the classic rules of cinematography (i.e., “don’t look into the camera”), serves as a reference point for what is to follow. Asserting herself as the subject rather than the object of desire, this look into the camera represents a reaching out beyond the diegetic space of the film and the myths of representation which entrap her. The central contradiction of her situation is that she can only attempt to assert herself as subject through the exploitation of a fetishized image of woman to be exchanged within the circulation of money; her independence and her desire for social and economic status all hinge on this objectification. The forms of representation generated by the classic cinema-the myths of woman as pin-up, vamp, “Mississippi Cinderella” -are the only means by which she can achieve the objective of becoming the subject rather than the object of desire. The futility of this enterprise is highlighted at the end of the film when she returns once more to America in a similar sequence of shots; this time she no longer looks towards the camera, but remains trapped within the diegetic space which the film has allotted to her.
The film opens with a long-shot of a neon-lit city at night. Red letters appear on the screen telling us the time and place: SAN FRANCISCO 1941. The Revolt of Mamie Stover was made in 1956-the story is therefore set within the living memory/history of the spectator. This title is the first indication that the film will reactivate the memory of an anxiogenic situation: the traumatic moment of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into the Second World War. Simultaneously, on the sound band, sleazy night-dub music swells up (dip-joints, predatory prostitution, female sexuality exchanged for money at a time when the country, its male population and its financial resources are about to be put at risk). A police car (one of the many representations of the Law in the film), its siren wailing insistently over the music (a further indication of imminent danger), drives fast onto a dockside where a ship is waiting. As it draws up alongside the ship, a female figure carrying a coat and a small suitcase gets out of the car and appears to turn back to look at the city from which she has obviously been expelled in a hurry. Jane Russell then looks straight into the camera (see the preceding page).
Up to this point the text has been multiply coded to signify danger/threat. The threat is closely associated with sexuality-besides the music, the red letters on the screen indicate red for danger and red for sex. Paul Willemen has pointed out that the “look” in Pursued is a threatening object: the Cahiers du Cinema analysis of Young Mr. Lincoln also delineates Henry Fonda/ Lincoln’s “castrating stare” as having the same threatening significance. Besides this threatening “look” Jane Russell has other dangerous connotations: qualities of aggression, of preying on the male to attain her own ends. Her “look”-repeated many times during the film, directed towards men, and explicitly described at one point as “come hither” -doubly marks her as signifier of threat. In the absence of the male, the female might “take his place”: at the moment of jane Russell’s “look” at the camera, the spectator is directly confronted with the image of that threat. The fact that this image has been expelled from a previous situation is also important. Jane Russell actually represents the repudiated idea: she is that idea. Thus the threat is simultaneously recognized and recuperated: the female cannot “take the place” of the male; she can only be “in his place” -his mirror image-the “you” which is the “I” in another place.
This moment of dual fascination between the spectator and jane Russell is broken by the intervention of a third organizing principle representing the narrative, as the titles in red letters “Jane Russell Richard Egan” appear over the female figure. The title has the effect of immediately distancing the spectator: it reminds him of the symbolic role of the narrative by locating jane Russell as an imaginary figure. In psychoanalytic terms the concept “imaginary” is more complex than the word would immediately seem to imply.lt is a concept central to the Lacanian formulation of the “mirror stage” in which the “other” is apprehended as the “other which is me,” i.e., my mirror image. In the imaginary relationship the other is seen in terms of resemblance to oneself. As an imaginary figure in the text of the film Jane Russell’s “masculine” attributes are emphasized: square jaw, broad shoulders, narrow hips, swinging, almost swashbuckling walk-”phallic” attributes which are echoed and re-echoed in the text; for example, in her aggressive language-she tells a wolf-whistling soldier to “go mend your rifle, soldier”; when Richard Egan/jimmy fights Michael Pate/Atkins at the Country Club she shouts “give him one for me, Jimmy.” The girls at “The Bungalow” hail her as” Abe Lincoln Stover.” Jane RusselVMamie is the imaginary counterpart of the absent spectator and the absent subject of the text: the mirror image they have mutually constructed and in whom both images converge and overlap.
Again, borrowing from Lacan, the function of the “Symbolic” is to intervene in the imaginary situation and to integrate the subject into the Symbolic Order (which is ultimately the Law, the Name of the Father). The narrative of The Revolt of Mamie Stover, in that it presents a particular model of the world historically, culturally and ideologically overdetermined, could be said to perform a symbolic function for the absent spectator. The anxiety-generating displacement-Jane RusselVMamie-appears to threaten the narrative at certain points. For example, after having promised to marry Richard Egan/jimmy, give up her job at “The Bungalow” and become “exclusively his,” and having taken his ring in a symbolic exchange which is “almost like the real thing” and “makes it legal,” jane RusselVMamie leaves her man at the army camp and returns to “The Bungalow” to resign. However, she is persuaded by Agnes Moorehead!Bertha Parchman to continue working there, now that Michael Patel Atkins has gone (been expelled), for a bigger share of the profits and more power. Richard Egan/jimmy is absent, so he won’t know. His absence is important: it recalls another sequence earlier in the narrative which shows in a quick succession of shots Richard Egan/ Jimmy and the army away at war while Jane RusselVMamie is at the same moment buying up all the available property on the island, becoming “Sto-Mame Company Incorporated” with Uncle Sam as her biggest tenant. Jane RusselVMamie makes her biggest strides in the absence of men: she threatens to take over the power of exchange. By promising to marry and give it all up, she is reintegrated into an order where she no longer represents that threat. Richard Egan/jimmy can be seen as the representative of the absent spectator and absent subject of the discourse in this structure: they are mutual constructors of the text-he is a writer who is constantly trying to write jane Russell/Mamie’s story for her. When jane RusselVMamie goes back to work at “The Bungalow” she in effect negates his image of her in favor of an image which suggests destruction and purging-”Flaming Mamie” -and becomes again a threatening displacement, reproduced and enlarged 7 foot high. When Richard Egan/jimmy is confronted with this threatening image at the army camp, when a soldier shows him a photograph of her, a bomb drops and he is wounded. In the face of this renewed threat he returns to “The Bungalow” and in his final speech to Jane RusselVMamie repudiates her as his imaginary counterpart. The narcissistic fascination with her is ended; he realizes he can no longer control her image.
The symbolic level of the narrative in maintaining its order in the face of a threat is reasserted in the final sequence where the policeman at the dockside re-echoes Richard E...

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Citation styles for Feminism and Film Theory
APA 6 Citation
Penley, C. (2013). Feminism and Film Theory (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1617150/feminism-and-film-theory-pdf (Original work published 2013)
Chicago Citation
Penley, Constance. (2013) 2013. Feminism and Film Theory. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1617150/feminism-and-film-theory-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Penley, C. (2013) Feminism and Film Theory. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1617150/feminism-and-film-theory-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Penley, Constance. Feminism and Film Theory. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.