FROM ARCHIVAL RESEARCH TO CINE-PSYCHOANALYSIS
In tandem with ongoing scholarship in history and literature, women film scholars have long endeavored to identify forgotten filmmakers—forgotten because most male film critics and scholars writing before the 1960s were not interested in women directors. Because their films were in distribution, Dorothy Arzner (1897–1979) and Ida Lupino (1914–1995) were the first women directors in the sound era to be studied. Foreign directors, like Mai Zetterling (1925–1994), also gained attention at this time. Later, feminists took a great deal of interest in women directors and producers from the silent era, like Lois Weber (1881–1939) and Mary Pickford (1892–1979). Since the 1990s, the Women Film Pioneers Project has been engaged in intensive international study of early women in cinema in their many roles.
Sociological analysis of women in film soon followed. Three books on women and film emerged at nearly the same time in the early 1970s, mainly using a sociological and role-focused analysis: Molly Haskell's From Reverence to Rape (1973), Marjorie Rosen's Popcorn Venus (1972), and Joan Mellen's Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film (1974). Although perhaps insufficiently appreciated by academic feminists in its historical moment, Haskell's book has had the longest-lasting impact. Feminist film theorists of the time, frustrated by sociological and role analyses, were seeking to move beyond Haskell's approach. Drawing on a vast knowledge of Hollywood as an institution and of movies themselves, Haskell took a penetrating look at the shabby treatment of women on- and offscreen. She had a strong feminist understanding of how threatened American men felt by women, as well as an intense appreciation of actresses and their performances. Haskell points out the irony that both the Production Code and the Depression "brought women out of the bedroom and into the office" (p. 30). She argues that actresses of the 1930s and 1940s (such as Rosalind Russell, Katharine Hepburn, and Joan Crawford) offered images of intelligence, forcefulness, and personal power, far surpassing roles of actresses in later films. Male directors who "integrate women into the flow of life" enjoyed the spunky, smart woman capable of challenging the hero. Haskell defines herself as a film critic first and a feminist second, hoping to address "the wholeness and complexity of film history" (p. 38).
A new generation of women film scholars turned to the melded disciplines of metaphysics, semiotics, and psychoanalysis, a shift prompted by what they saw as the limits of studies focusing on individual actresses and women's roles in cinema. To compare images of women in film with women's lived reality seemed simply to critique the current gendered organization of society or to expand it by, for instance, insisting on more male involvement in domestic matters. The new scholars hoped instead to discover the root cause of women's secondary status in Hollywood and society in the first place. Laura Mulvey's groundbreaking essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (1975), partly inspired by reaction to American sociological film analyses, seemed to fulfill the need for a new kind of analysis, and her ideas rapidly took hold. Mulvey's polemical contribution was to isolate three related "looks" in Hollywood cinema, and to argue that these were all male: the look of the camera (mainly operated by men) in the pro-filmic studio site; the look of the spectator, which of necessity followed the camera's masculine gaze; and the dominating look of male characters within the filmic narrative, depriving women of agency and subjectivity. Theorizing the cinematic gaze from a psychoanalytic perspective, Mulvey argued that in film viewing the screen paralleled Jacques Lacan's mirror phase in which the child misrecognized his perfect self. Cinema was set up so that men could identify with the idealized male hero within the symbolic order as presented by the narrative, while women were left to identify with figures relegated to inferior status and silenced. Mulvey was one of the first to appropriate psychoanalysis as a political weapon to demonstrate how the patriarchal unconscious has structured film form. The essay's significance derived in part from her vivid language: "Woman's desire is subjugated to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound: she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it." Man, she argued, can live out his fantasies by "imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning" ( Visual and Other Pleasures , p. 14).
In the wake of Mulvey's deliberately polemical essays, certain tropes and conventions began to develop in relation to a "male" gaze and the three "looks" that Mulvey outlined. In addition, British and American television studies had an impact on psychoanalytic feminist film theory, for the medium of TV necessitated different theories of the spectator–screen relationship. These theories were seen to have some application to film, expanding the rather restricted notion that there was just one "male" gaze.
Mulvey's essay was often misread as a depressing description of woman's fate rather than as a call to action. Mulvey in fact believed that psychoanalytic theory could advance our understanding of the position of women and thereby enable women to move forward. Her effort to challenge the pleasures of Hollywood cinema arose from Hollywood's reliance on voyeurism—the male gaze at the woman deprived of agency. Her polemical call "to free the look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics and passionate detachment" (p. 26) clearly related to her own practice (together with Peter Wollen) as an avant-garde filmmaker.
b. San Francisco, California, 3 January 1897, d. 1 October 1979
Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino were the only female directors in the classical Hollywood era (roughly 1930 to 1960). Both received scant attention until scholars began to study film from a feminist perspective. After serving her apprenticeship in Hollywood, first as typist and then as screenwriter and successful film editor, Arzner directed films for Paramount from 1927 to 1933, when she left to make films independently. She retired from filmmaking in 1943 for reasons that remain unclear but perhaps have to do with her health or the exhaustion of working in a male-dominated establishment. Despite Arzner's short Hollywood career, she made several important films, including Christopher Strong (1933), Craig's Wife (1936), and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), that now belong to a canon of what have been called "resisting" Hollywood melodramas.
Although many of her films appear to conform to Hollywood's patriarchal ideology—something Arzner no doubt was careful to do to keep her job—there is often a critical undertow to her narratives. In Christopher Strong Katharine Hepburn plays an independent, pioneering female pilot, Lady Cynthia Darrington (loosely modeled on Amelia Earhart). In love with a married man by whom she has become pregnant, she apparently commits suicide when attempting to break an aviation record. Arzner clearly intends the viewer to identify with the courageous female aviation pioneer, and to see in her suicide her sense of responsibility both toward Strong's wife and her unborn child. Craig's Wife offers a contrasting type of heroine and demands other kinds of identification from the viewer. Harriet Craig (Rosalind Russell) dominates her daughter, intervenes in her love life, and tries to prevent her from marrying the man she adores. Although it is hard to identify with Harriet, Arzner manages to show how the entire upper-middle-class family system produces women like her.
Dance, Girl, Dance offers an interesting insight into the often degrading lives of female performers. The film's perhaps dated binary opposition between "high" and "low" female performance art—presented as an opposition between a ballerina (Maureen O'Hara) and a sexy dancer (Lucille Ball)—nevertheless allows her to critique the male gaze and to reveal the crudity of male voyeurism. Women, the film suggests, are split apart because of what men want from them. Thus, in her films Arzner is able to render "strange" the patriarchal ideology pervasive in classical Hollywood cinema.
Christopher Strong (1933), Craig's Wife (1936), Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)
Johnston, Claire, ed. The Work of Dorothy Arzner: Toward a Feminist Cinema . London: British Film Institute, 1975.
Kaplan, E. Ann. Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama . London and New York: Routledge, 1992, 2000.
Mayne, Judith. Directed by Dorothy Arzner . Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Suter, Jacqueline. "Feminine Discourse in Christopher Strong ." Camera Obscura 1, no. 2 (1979): 135–150.
E. Ann Kaplan
Mulvey's article prompted a good deal of research, as well as intelligent critiques of her theories. Early on, E. Ann Kaplan's Women and Film (1983) tried to straddle some of the debates about feminist film theory ongoing in the 1970s. Asking why some women were so strongly drawn to psychoanalysis and poststructuralism, she
argued that pointing to social oppression per se could not account for women's second-class status. Attention to language and the unconscious seemed to offer some hope of understanding what increasingly seemed a mystery that biology—namely, that women gave birth and were needed to care for children and that this very function limited what they could achieve—could not explain. Too many exceptions showed that women could overcome or deal with their biological roles; there had to be something deeper, something much harder to change than social policies or cultural norms.
Like other work in the field at the time, Kaplan's conception of the feminine, given its generally heterosexual and Eurocentric focus and orientation, was apparently a monolithic "woman" who was really a white, Western woman, neglecting the specificity of minority and other marginalized women. A bit later, David Rodowick pointed out that Mulvey did not attend to Freud's complex remarks about the contradictoriness of desire that calls into question strict gender binaries such as male/female and activity/passivity. Mary Ann Doane extended Mulvey's research, pursuing avenues that Mulvey only touched on. For example, Doane introduced the concept of the female body in its relation to the psyche, as against the prior focus on image and psyche. She contrasted representation of the female body in Hollywood and in avant-garde cinema, influencing later research. Doane also contrasted male and female distance from the image, arguing that for the male the distance between film and spectator must be maintained, whereas the female overidentifies with the image, obliterating the space between viewer and screen, thereby producing a degree of narcissism. Turning to Joan Riviere's concept of the female masquerade, Doane explores what it might mean to "masquerade" as a spectator. She concludes that there are three possible positions for the female spectator: the masochism of overidentification with the image, the narcissism involved in becoming one's own object of desire, and the possibility of cross-gender identification, as women choose to identify with the male hero. Doane objects to theories of repression because they lack feminine power, instead taking the position that women need to develop a theory of spectatorship apart from those that male culture has constructed for them.
Gaylyn Studlar has suggested that a focus on pre-Oedipality makes more sense than the conventional attention to Oedipal scenarios for explaining how films construct gendered spectators. Substituting Gilles Deleuze's study of Sacher-Masoch's novels for Mulvey's Freudian/Lacanian framework, she argues that masochism can also ground narrative. Studlar replaces Oedipal sadism with pre-Oedipal pleasure, viewing masochism as a "subversive" desire that affirms the compelling power of the pre-Oedipal mother.