Feminist Film Theorists
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Feminist Film Theorists

Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Creed

Shohini Chaudhuri

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eBook - ePub

Feminist Film Theorists

Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Creed

Shohini Chaudhuri

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About This Book

Focusing on the ground-breaking work of Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa de Lauretis and Barbara Creed, this book explores how, since it began in the 1970s, feminist film theory has revolutionized the way that films and their spectators can be understood.

Examining the new and distinctive approaches of each of these thinkers, this book provides the most detailed account so far of their ideas.

It illuminates the six key concepts and demonstrates their value as tools for film analysis:

  • the male gaze
  • the female voice
  • technologies of gender
  • queering desire
  • the monstrous-feminine
  • masculinity in crisis.

Testing their ideas with a number of other examples from contemporary cinema and TV, Shohini Chaudhuri shows how these four thinkers construct their theories through their reading of films.

An excellent study companion for all students of film theory and women's studies.

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The claim that feminism has now achieved its aims and there is no more work left for it to do has historical echoes. Look at what Simone de Beauvoir wrote in the preface to The Second Sex, published in 1949: ‘Enough ink has been spilled in the quarrelling over feminism, now practically over, and perhaps we should say no more about it’ (de Beauvoir 1993: xxxvi). Ironically, The Second Sex is the book that heralded Second Wave feminism – the era in which, as many people would acknowledge, the feminist movement made enormous advances; de Beauvoir made such a statement then because she herself was writing in the midst of an earlier anti-feminist backlash, which grew in the aftermath of the Second World War. The Second Sex helped feminism to counter that backlash by giving the Second Wave its intellectual ballast. This chapter elaborates its impact and other diverse ideas that influenced feminist film theory at its beginnings: the theoretical trends that it marshalled for its ends and the problems posed by psychoanalysis. It will look at how feminist film theory and criticism developed the insights of Second Wave feminism, in particular how British feminist film theorists radically reformulated the ‘Images of Women’ criticism prevalent in the US in the early 1970s. By using theoretical discourses, feminist film theory was able to demonstrate its intellectual rigour, which helped it to establish its position within academia but also allowed it to significantly advance the feminist analysis of film.


In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir famously wrote that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ (de Beauvoir 1993: 281). This offered Second Wave feminists the insight that gender is a matter of culture, acquired through social conditioning, rather than being ‘natural’ or innate. It led them to distinguish, for example, between the word ‘female’, which specifies biological sex, and the word ‘feminine’, which describes a social gender role. De Beauvoir herself was determined to shatter the myth of ‘the eternal feminine’ that, she claimed, human civilization has produced. An essence that women are meant to embody, the ‘eternal feminine’ sometimes refers to a biological essence, at others to a spiritual one. It attributes qualities such as inferiority, gentleness, and emotionality to women, and assumes them to be innate and fixed. For de Beauvoir, on the other hand, no essential characteristic should determine how one becomes a woman.
De Beauvoir’s ideas stem from Existentialist philosophy, a school of thought that she helped to form together with Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80). Sartre argued that human beings exist both in themselves and for themselves, unlike objects that are simply there, existing only in themselves. In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir asserts that men have claimed this subject position for themselves and, in order to ratify themselves in it, they have reduced women to the position of an objectified ‘Other’, denying women existence for themselves. ‘Woman’, she wrote, appears to man solely as ‘a sexual being’, not as an autonomous entity: ‘She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other’ (de Beauvoir 1993: xxxix–xl).
According to de Beauvoir, man purports to be the universal. He is equated with rationality and transcendence of body. Woman appears as his Other: irrational, tied to the body, in all respects defined in relation to man. For de Beauvoir, the source of this gender hierarchy and sexual inequality is patriarchal culture, as purveyed by ‘religion, traditions, language, tales, songs, movies’, all of which help compose the way in which people understand and experience the world (de Beauvoir 1993: 275). These are the vehicles for myths, created by men and constructed from their viewpoint, which are then mistaken for ‘absolute truth’. Through the ages, male thinkers have sought to explain rather than question the notion of women’s inferiority, by recourse to theology, religion, biology, and other ‘scientific’ dis-courses. They have used the patriarchal myth of the ‘eternal feminine’ to justify women’s oppression.
In 1963 Betty Friedan rebranded the ‘eternal feminine’ as ‘the feminine mystique’ and translated de Beauvoir’s ideas to an American cultural environment. Her book The Feminine Mystique struck an enormous chord with a generation of middle-class women who had been forced back into the roles of mothers and housewives after the Second World War, when they had joined the war effort, performing civilian jobs while men were away. Now, during the postwar consumer boom, these women were being expected to find ‘feminine fulfilment’ in suburban housekeeping, sexual passivity, male domination, and devotion to their children. For those women, Friedan articulated ‘the problem that had no name’ – that being confined to the role of housewife was deeply unsatisfying for most women, who longed for something more (Friedan 2001: 15). In her view, education and professional work were the answer.
Friedan’s book reiterated how women were defined only in sexual relation to men – this time as ‘wife, sex object, mother, housewife’ – and never as people defining themselves by their own actions (Friedan 2001: xv). Drawing her examples from popular culture, she argued that this image of ‘feminine mystique’ bombards us at all times, through magazines, television commercials, mass media, and psychology textbooks. The feminine mystique has socially conditioned women to consent to their roles as mothers and housewives, becoming the ‘cherished and self-perpetuating core of American culture’, and making women feel guilty for taking a job outside the home – guilty for ‘undermining’ their husbands’ masculinity and their own femininity, and for neglecting the children (Friedan 2001: 18). In this way, the feminine mystique restates the traditional division between virgin and whore in patriarchal representation as the contemporary opposition: housewife versus career woman.
Although Friedan implied connections between the power of images and women’s real existence, she left the analysis to be developed by others, including US feminist film critics who conducted the form of reading that has subsequently become known as ‘Images of Women’ criticism. Before we go on to look at this work and how it was reformulated by British film theorists, there is still one other important feminist influence to discuss: the writings of Juliet Mitchell, a British New Left Member and a pioneer of the British Women’s Movement, who put Freud and psychoanalysis on the feminists’ political agenda.


In the 1960s, many feminists thought that psychoanalysis was their number one public enemy. Friedan, for example, believed that the feminine mystique ‘derived its power from Freudian thought’ (Friedan 2001: 103), while others held Freud singularly responsible for the counter-revolution against feminism (Millett 1977: 178). Mitchell argued that the feminist attack on Freud was largely based on misconceptions about his theories perpetuated by pseudo-Freudian ideas in the cultural mainstream – a trend particularly visible in the US where popular versions of psychoanalysis were eagerly embraced and where anti-Freudianism among feminists ran high. These popularizations of psychoanalysis testify to Freud’s widespread impact while at the same time censoring his best insights. In her book Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974), Mitchell re-read Freud through the work of the French psychoanalyst Lacan, whom she also introduced to English-speaking readers. She later edited with Jacqueline Rose in 1982 a collection of Lacan’s writings on feminine sexuality. Through her, both Lacan and Freud became established as key figures in feminism’s dialogue with psychoanalysis. (See Chapter 2 for an initial account of Lacan’s ideas.) One reason, Mitchell points out, why Freud is still relevant to us today and why he is not ‘the culture-bound product of a small-minded “Victorian” patriarch’, as some feminists would have him, is his notion of the unconscious (Mitchell 1990: xx). For Freud, the unconscious is eternal – it will always exist – but that does not mean that it transcends history. The unconscious plays a crucial role in the way we internalize the laws and beliefs of our society. Although these laws and beliefs are themselves subject to cultural change, they have historically laid the foundations of patriarchy. Therefore, Mitchell argues, psychoanalysis is not ‘a recommendation for a patriarchal society but an analysis of one’ (Mitchell 1990: xv). This makes psychoanalysis indispensible for feminism.
Mitchell’s first important contribution to the feminist debate was her essay ‘Women: the Longest Revolution’, published in the New Left Review in 1966, pirate copies of which were widely disseminated in the early years of the Women’s Liberation Movement. In the essay, later expanded for her book Woman’s Estate (1971), she criticizes both traditional Marxism and contemporary socialism for not paying proper heed to women’s condition. Classical Marxist literature symbolically equates woman’s situation with that of society generally; for example, it views woman as a slave before the existence of slavery. Mitchell argues that these ideas do not recognize woman’s condition as being different from other social groups. Women’s exploitation and subordination takes the form of ‘a specific structure’, involving a unity of different factors combining in different ways at different historical periods (Mitchell 1966: 16). These factors are production, reproduction, sex, and the socialization of children; genuine liberation for women means transforming all four of them.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, emphasized that the motives behind our actions are mostly unconscious. He divided the mind into different layers: the conscious, which contains our present awareness; the preconscious, which contains material that is largely unconscious, but which can be recalled; and the unconscious, which is made up of ideas and representations that are actively repressed, and which do not reach consciousness except in disguised form, as in dreams or slips of the tongue (hence, the notorious ‘Freudian slip’). Freud also named three agencies governing the mind: the id, which is the irrational, unconscious part ruled by instinctual drives; the ego, the largely conscious, rational part of the mind, which tries to control the id; and the superego, a part of the ego that acts as a judge or censor and which comes into being as a result of prohibitions learned from our parents, school, or religious authorities. Whatever the ego and superego forbid us to do or think is repressed and driven into the unconscious.
In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), for example, Freud argues that dreams fulfil repressed wishes, but in order to evade the ego’s censorship, these wishes are disguised when they reach the waking mind. The latent dream material is ‘translated’ through processes of ‘condensation’ (reducing a number of ideas to one image) and ‘displacement’ (the affect or emotional charge attached to a given set of ideas is detached from them and transferred to a more harmless set of ideas). When the dreamer awakes and tries to recall the dream, it undergoes ‘secondary revision’: the dreamer tries to make sense of the dream by turning it into a narrative. This produces the dream’s ‘manifest’ content, a significantly disguised version of its latent content, which can, nonetheless, Freud believed, be revealed through psychoanalysis.
Unlike Marx, Freud understood that the nuclear family was a key vehicle for the socialization of human individuals into society’s gender norms and expectations. We can see this in his theory of ‘the Oedipus Complex’, named after the Greek tragedy by Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, which narrates the story of how Oedipus unknowingly murdered his father and married his mother. In Freud, the Oedipus Complex stands for the loving and hostile wishes any child harbours for its parents. He makes the Oedipus Complex into a key moment in the psychosocial structuring of sexuality and gender, occurring when a child is between the ages of three and five. In the ‘positive’ version of the Complex, the child desires the parent of the opposite sex and identifies with the parent of the same sex, whom it sees as a rival. Initially, however, children of both sexes form an incestuous attachment to the mother, which ends when they discover that she does not possess a penis, as formerly believed, leading them to think (mistakenly) that she has been castrated. Fearing the same punishment at the hands of the jealous father, the little boy renounces his desire for the mother and accepts his father’s authority, knowing that one day he will inherit his father’s power and possess a woman of his own.

This is a key psychoanalytic concept, which – like many other psychoanalytic ideas – can be regarded as a metaphor or myth that helps us to understand how social structures and beliefs are produced. Castration is the ‘myth’ that children use to explain the origins of sexual difference between the sexes. In this respect it is similar to other fantasies that children or their carers invent to explain the origins of things, for example, the riddle of where babies come from. Freud states: ‘It is self-evident to a male child that a genital like his own is to be attributed to everyone he knows, and he cannot make its absence tally with his picture of these people’ (Freud 1991b: 113). Boys hold obstinately to this conviction and will only abandon it with a struggle. Substitutes for the penis, which they think is missing in women, play a determining role in many ‘perversions’ such as fetishism, as we will see in Chapter 2. Girls do not resort to this kind of denial but, in Freud’s view, when they see that boys’ genitals are different from their own, they are overcome with envy for the penis and wish to be boys themselves (Freud 1991b: 114).
Freud describes girls’ different experience of the Oedipus and castration complexes in a way that, it could be argued, explains their lack of access to the cultural privileges enjoyed by men. Upon discovering that the mother is castrated like herself, the little girl is expected to transfer her affections to the father, transforming the wish for a penis into a wish to bear him (and later, her lovers) a male baby. By successfully negotiating this transition, the girl becomes a woman; that is, she enters the culturally sanctioned role of femininity. However, Freud makes it clear that girls never fully complete this Oedipal trajectory and that this socially-enforced way of ‘becoming a woman’ is fraught with difficulty and resistance.
Feminists have criticized Freud for his reductive understanding of sexual difference as the absence or presence of the penis. Many object to the centrality he gives to the phallus, which has earned him the title of being ‘phallocentric’ – a term coined by British psychoanalyst Ernest Jones, who disputed the notion of penis envy. For most of his career, Freud struggled to understand femininity. Feminists perceived the ‘problem’ of femininity in psychoanalysis as symptomatic of the ‘problem’ of femininity within patriarchal discourse, where it appears either as an absence or measured in terms of male norms. However, feminist advocators of Freud, like Mitchell, pointed out that Freud was a subtler thinker than his detractors imagined. He himself revised and reformulated his theories constantly, aware of their provisional nature. In their turn, feminists who utilize his ideas revise them for their own purposes, while interrogating psychoanalysis as a discourse.


This section will look at how early British feminist film theory deployed the language of Freudian psychoanalysis and combined it with the new waves of theories arriving from France: semiotics, Althusserian Marxism, and the work of the post-1968 Cahiers du Cinéma critics. Among the pioneers of British feminist film theory, and one of the first to combine these approaches with psychoanalysis, was Claire Johnston. Johnston helped to organize the women’s film festival in Edinburgh in 1972 and wrote the essay ‘Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema’ in the accompanying pamphlet Notes on Women’s Cinema, published in 1973. As mentioned earlier, the turn to theory was part of a reaction against the sociological ‘Images of Women’ film criticism that had emerged in the early 1970s in the US. This includes the early articles published in the journal Women and Film as well as writings by Molly Haskell, Marjorie Rosen, and Joan Mellen. This work was guided by a strong political commitment: ‘We are not trying to add a chapter to academic film criticism, we are trying to change our situation’, declare the editors Siew-hwa Beh and Saunie Salyer in the second issue of Women and Film (Beh and Salyer 1972b: 3). However, they and other early US feminist film critics have been criticized since for their ‘reflectionist’ approach to film.
For example, articles in Women and Film look upon film ‘as a kind of mirror which reflects a changing society’, albeit a mirror that ‘has always been limited in its reflection, and possibly distorted’ (Mohanna 1972: 7). This distortion is said to be invariably of ‘a masculine viewpoint’. Focusing on negative female stereotypes such as prostitute, wife, mother, vamp, or femme fatale, this kind of criticism is a monolithic attack on the ‘system’ of Hollywood film. Its movies are thought to generate false consciousness, encouraging women to adopt and identify with the false images they perpetuate and reinforce. The Women and Film writers hold the belief that ‘when the stereotypes fade’ or when there are more women filmmakers, ‘the reflection we see on screen will be really transformed’ (Mohanna 1972: 7). Women will be portrayed as they are, rather than as ‘servile caricatures’ (Beh and Salyer 1972a: 6).
In ‘Women’s Cinema As Counter Cinema’, Johnston responds directly to the early issues of Women and Film and other ‘Images of Women’ analyses, highlighting the problems of their approach. First of all, in claiming that cinema holds up a mirror to reality, they assume that cinema is a transparent medium of communication. Johnston rejects the sociological approach, which evaluates filmic images of women in relation to ‘real’ women, because cinema is an artificial construction, which mediates ‘reality’ with its own signifying practices. Images appear on our screens transformed by processes of disguise and displacement similar to those uncovered by psychoanalysis. In other words, they appear coded, requiring the help of psychoanalysis and other theories to decode them. Johnston emphasizes that cinema is not a transparent window onto the world but a method of communication in which meanings are formed in and by the films themselves. This also puts in question the idea, implied by the Women and Film critics, that female stereotypes are the conscious strategy of a male-dominated film industry.
Johnston moreover queried the sociological film critics’ demand for ‘positive’ or ‘true’ images of women. Is this a demand for images of women as they ‘really’ are or how we would wish them to be? It also assumes that there is an ‘essence’ of women that has failed to make it onto the screen due to patriarchal ideology and that this would be rectified if women were allowed to represent themselves realistically. As we have seen with de Beauvoir and Friedan, patriarchy itself has long promoted the idea of a feminine essence, which has been used to rationalize women’s oppression and prevent them from changing their situation. Johnston also finds problematic the sociological critics’ valorization of realism. For realism, too, is a construction, one that uses its codes and conventions to conceal its constructedness. A realist film leads its audiences to believe that its meanings are transparent, requiring no work of interpretation, but all the while the audience is involved in constructing its meanings through the codes they have learned to internalize. For example, a classic Hollywood film appears effortless to watch, offering a transparent ‘window’ onto its fictional world, yet its ‘realism’ is created through the working of particular codes, such as the ‘invisible’ style of continuity editing, with its rules of the axis of action (180 degree rule), eye-line match, and 30 degree rule. All of these maintain the illusion of a seamless spatial and temporal flow from shot to shot and hide the constructedness of the film artefact. Art cinema, too, may use codes of realism – albeit different ones from Hollywood realism – such as long takes or direct address to the camera. These, too, are codes that belong to the ideological repertoire of realism and are no more ‘natural’, strictly speaking, than Hollywood codes.
These very different ideas about how films work arrived in Britain from Europe, via theoretical writings published in Screen in the early 1970s. Johnston and other feminist film theorists saw that theories such ...

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