Feminist Film Theory

Draft for the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics

forthcoming from Oxford University Press, edited by Michael Kelly

by Cynthia A. Freeland

Note: This html conversion does not include some format conventions such as underlining or italics in titles. Regrettably, it also does not include footnotes, as I have not had time to format them and enter them. Please contact me if you would like more information or if you have comments. CFreeland@UH.edu

Feminist film theory has emerged in the past 20 years to become a large and flourishing field. Its dominant approach, exemplifed by such journals as Screen and Camera Obscura, involves a theoretical combination of semiotics, Althusserian Marxism, and Lacanian psychoanalysis. On this view, human subjects are formed through complex significatory processes,including cinema; traditional Hollywood cinema's "classic realist texts" are purveyors of bourgeois ideology. Added to this theory by Laura Mulvey's now-classic essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" [Mulvey, 1975], was the feminist claim that men and women are differentially positioned by cinema: men as subjects identifying with agents who drive the film's narrative forward, women as objects for masculine desire and fetishistic gazing. Mulvey's essay is heavily invested in theory. It is cited as "the founding document of feminist film theory" [Modleski 1989], as providing "the theoretical grounds for the rejection of Hollywood and its pleasures" [Penley 1988], and even as setting out feminist film theory's "axioms" [Silverman, quoted in Byars 1991]. Mulvey assumed a general picture of cinema as a symbolic medium which, like other aspects of mass culture, forms spectators as bourgeois subjects. She used Lacanian psychoanalysis to ground her account of gendered subjecivity, desire, and visual pleasure. Mulvey allowed little possibility of resistance or critical spectatorship, and recognized no variations in structure or effect of realist cinema. Unsurprisingly, her view has been much criticized and further refined, as writers (including Mulvey herself) have noted issues raised by differences among women, phenomena like male masochism, or genres that function in distinctive ways, such as comedy, melodrama, and horror. Still, writers in feminist film theory commonly assume Mulvey's basic parameters and take some version of psychoanalytic theory as a desideratum. Key issues are often seen only in terms of some refinement or qualification of psychoanalytic theory. Thus Barbara Creed's book The Monstrous-Feminine argues that the fact that women in horror films are often not victims but monsters "necessitates a rereading of key aspects of Freudian theory, particularly his theory of the Oedipus complex and castration crisis." [Creed 1993] Creed turns instead to Kristeva's theory of the abject and the maternal. Far less often, Mulvey's critics have adopted more sharply different theoretical bases such as cultural studies, identity politics, deconstruction, or the philosophy of Foucault.

The resulting "theory" in feminist film theory is peculiar. What justification does a specifically feminist theory have for adopting the patriarchal theory of psychoanalysis? Why is theory needed at all; what is it a theory of or about? What are its data; do they supply evidence in a non-circular way? How is theory related to feminist action and social change? What is the relevant theory of feminism itself? Theory has usually been more problematic in feminism. Feminist philosophers question patriarchal theories and urge the need to link theory with practice. Jane Flax in ³Women Do Theory² describes patriarchal theory as "territorial" or "entrepreneurial" ‹ something used to prop up forms of dominance [Flax 1979]. In the face of theoretical structures that are abstract, hostile, unintelligible, and disempowering, she says, women understandably panic. Similarly, feminist philosophers like Karen Hanson question why writers in film studies have assumed science as a paradigm of theory [Hanson 1995]. In doing so, they set up film theory as distinct from and superior or even foundational to film criticism. Theory stands somehow over and above the more primitive "data": it is ideal, abstract, permanent, austere, universal, and true. Allegedly science/theory has the virtues of being unifying, coherent, well-grounded, and explanatory. But film theorists naively invoke concepts that are quite contested, such as explanation, justification, and systematicity. Nor is there operational agreement within the discipline for what counts as evidence, testing, or confirmation of a theory. This differs sharply from feminism's more usual emphasis on the experiential.

As Hilde Hein notes, "Some feminists advocate a new definition of theory that decenters, displaces, and foregrounds the inessential and that does not flee from experience but 'muses at its edges'" [Hein 1990/93]. Early feminists took consciousness raising as a model for feminist theory because it is necessarily both experiential and transformative. Feminist film theory however is often universalizing, and it makes use of complex language and alienating categories which deny women's experiences as active spectators enjoying films or reading them critically. bell hooks argues for example that

Mainstream feminist film criticism in no way acknowledges black female spectatorship. It does not even consider the possibility that women can construct an oppositional gaze via an understanding and awareness of the politics of race and racism. [hooks, 1992/1995]

In sum, many feminists would criticize feminist film theory as overly abstract, totalizing, jargon-prone, and non-experiential. The dominant psychoanalytic focus has created a narrow framework for the analysis of subjects, pleasure, and desire, while alternative feminist accounts are not considered. For example, Silverman notes in Male Subjectivity at the Margins that "The implicit starting point for virtually every formulation this book will propose is the assumption that lack of being is the irreducible condition of subjectivity" [Silverman, 1992]. This approach is odd. Silverman posits a theory of the subject without saying why and without considering alternatives. Similarly, Mulvey posits a theory of desire and pleasure rooted in Lacan's theory of the self and desire, a view stemming from a particular and highly contested philosophical tradition. To begin from a certain theory of the self or pleasure in interpreting film commits one in advance to categorizations that create the evidence that allegedly confirms them.

An alternative approach would ask how films depict the self and pleasure, or whether viewers can find gaps and ruptures in a film's depictions. Feminist philosophers present alternative views about the construction of women as subjects of knowledge, vision, or pleasure. Carolyn Korsmeyer argues that feminist aesthetics offers a picture of emotional response to artworks different from the traditional one and from that employed in mainstream feminist film theory [Korsmeyer 1993]. Traditional aesthetics is problematic since it sought only a supposedly "disinterested" pleasure. But psychoanalytic theories of the emotions are also problematic: in treating emotions a matter of the unconscious, they ignore key questions about description, introspection, and moral recommendation. Feminst aesthetics by contrast holds that "perception and appreciation not only entail some particular social standpoint, but are also formed out of the responsive dynamic operating within an embodied viewer" [Korsmeyer 1993].

Philosophers of film can use philosophical defenses of the rationality of emotions to offer new, non-psychoanalytic studies of film pleasures. An emotional response to a film (or other artwork) can be rational, permitting positive claims about the viewer: that she is active not passive, cognizing not simply reacting, and potentially critical not simply absorbing ideological effects. Laurie Shrage argues that concentration on film texts has led to an universalizing of psychological subjects and an overemphasis on readers'/viewers' passivitiy [Shrage 1990/1993]. Shrage proposes a contextual approach that recognizes considerable variation among an audience's "cinematic habits." Similarly, Flo Leibowitz [Leibowitz,1995] utilizes a rhetorical and cognitive approach, rather than a psychoanalytic one, to discuss processes of audience identification with certain forms of melodrama, which she thinks may be a form of rational reflection. And Noel Carroll [Carroll 1990/95] supposes that emotions are complex learned forms of behavior acquired from certain "paradigm scenarios", and that film among other sources can offer such scenarios. Thus sexist films like Fatal Attraction present a purportedly valid but problematic paradigm scenario about the omnivorously sexual career woman, and about the "appropriate" level of male emotional response to such women.

Some feminist philosophers think that what is needed is not so much one feminist film theory as a number of strategies of feminist critical readings of films. Hanson mentions Stanley Cavell as an example of someone who offers deeply theoretical and philosophical readings by exploring films individually and attentively. While Cavell's writings on film are idiosyncratic and not necessarily feminist, they offer a springboard for philosophical critiques of assumptions about subjectivity and pleasure still dominant in psychoanalytic feminist film theory [Cavell 1981, 1987]. For example, Naomi Scheman [Scheman 1988/1995] notes that Cavell offers broad and varied notions of the gaze and visual pleasure, enabling one to criticize Mulvey and reject her position that women are subjecs or viewers only "in drag." But Scheman also criticizes Cavell for reading films to uncover not a feminist but only a feminine gaze, one "conscripted" by a masculinist world. Scheman seeks a more promising form of female subjectivity in film, and cities Foucault's point that dominant modes of specularity are quite complex and do "not define women as exclusively as either the seers or the seen" [Scheman 1988/1995].

Significant alternative feminist theories might also inform feminist film theory. Liberal, socialist, and postmodern feminism all suggest new questions and frameworks. Liberal feminism has emphasized traditionally female attributes in constructing alternatives to standard ethics, such as maternal ethics, the ethics of care, or lesbian ethics. These models may romanticize women, but they offer more complex accounts of the social nature of the self than the Althusserian-Lacanian ones, since the self is essentially configured in relation to others (mothers, children, sisters, friends, lovers). Alternatively, work by socialist feminists or feminists in cultural studies foregrounds the linked oppressions of gender, ethnicity, race, and class. Ann Ferguson in Blood at the Root describes women's traditional unpaid forms of labor as a form of "sex-affective production" which has been exploited by men [Ferguson 1989]. Thomas Wartenberg draws on this kind of notion in offering a critical reading of White Palace, a Hollywood film which seems to attend to factors of class and ethnicity [Wartenberg 1995]. However, Wartenberg shows that the film relies on a stereotyped representation of the older, divorced woman, romanticizes the working class, and oversimplifies the nature of class divisions.

Postmodern feminists also present alternatives to a Lacanian-Althusserian theory of the self or subject, since they question standard notions of human identity based on categories of bodily integrity, race, ethnicity, class standpoint, or even gender. Identity is fractured by complex intersecting social technologies. hooks points to Julie Dash's film Daughters of the Dust as exemplifying a specifically black feminist gaze. Other black writers similarly point to the complicated ways in which a specifically black female identity is represented in films. The postmodern approach to contemporary fractured identities takes filmic signifiers to be recirculated and utilized in a larger system of mass media and popular culture. This sort of approach is used by Tania Modleski in her essay "Three Men and Baby M" to link a popular film with contemporary social and legal issues [Modleski 1991]. Modleski criticizes the allegedly comical inability of the three male adoptive parents in Three Men and a Baby to deal with infantile bodily functions. This comedy climaxes in a scene she describes as shockingly voyeuristic, a close and lingering examination of the (female) infant's genitalia. But Modleski does not link this sort of voyeurism to an individual viewer's castration anxiety or threat to subjectivity. Instead, she criticizes the film's heroic, simplistic resolution as revealing a current social anxiety about changing gender roles.

Alternatives to psychoanalytic feminist film theory raise new questions about the representation of women in films because of their different accounts of the self, agency, identity, and the cultural surroundings of the subject. They reflect more textured and nuanced views about the self's complexity and emphasze the film viewer's potential to construct critical readings. In so doing, they offer more scope for feminist social change than a view which maintains we are, in effect, products of the texts around us.


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October 3, 1996 - 06:12 PM