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On the Unbearable Messiness of Feminist Film Analysis

On the Unbearable Messiness of Feminist Film Analysis

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02/11/2013

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GWSS 3307Midterm
On the Unbearable Messiness of (Feminist) Film Analysis
Although feminists rightfully point out that social relationships are gendered and power inequalities persist, feminist film theory, especially in its psychoanalytic manifestations, provesto be largely inadequate for complex readings of film. Such theory dogmatically interpretsrepresentations and denies active and differentiated spectatorship, pleasures associated withcinematic experience, and materialities of bodies beyond gender. Film theory should not interpretcinema as a static, finished product but rather as a social relationship. In this paper I will draw ona range of theorists and the films, The Piano and Set it Off, to argue that a feminist analysis of gender, if not attentive to class, race, and sexuality, merely reproduces power relations andreinforces gender binaries.Laura Mulvey’s essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” is widely considered acornerstone work in feminist film theory. Drawing on psychoanalytic theory she argues thatclassic Hollywood films are structured according to a rigid gender binary – “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styledaccordingly” (Mulvey 39). According to Mulvey, the films are phallocentric and structuredaround the male gaze which allows the spectator to identify only with the sadistic male or masochistic female. The male gaze refers to the visual pleasure, power, and assertion of malesubjectivity while the female remains someone to be looked at, possessed, and objectified.The Piano has been interpreted by some theorists (e.g. hooks 1994, Saco 1994) as anillustration of Mulvey’s points: the female character Ada, is an object of male desire and control;she is literally voiceless (mute). According to hooks (1994), The Piano “betrays feminist visions
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of female actualization, celebrates and eroticizes male dominance.” The issue should not bewhether The Piano is a feminist film, but how it simultaneously reinforces and transgressesgender itself as well as in relation to other axes of identity. Criticism that attempts to fit filmsinto “correct” side of the ideological spectrum, as feminist or anti-feminist, inevitably reproduces problematic binary philosophical dogmas of Western thought. Although feminist theory attemptsto escape and challenge binaries such as male/female, nature/culture, psychoanalytic feministtheory instead of challenging them, reinscribes them. If everything in film can fit intomale/female power relations, if a spectator can only identify with one or the other, it implies thatany transgression and pleasure is based on either dominant subject position or falseconsciousness. Mulvey hints that although transgression/alteration happens, simultaneously it isimpossible and inherently conservative – “the cinema has structures of fascination strong enoughto allow temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing it” (38).
Sexuality/Cinesexuality
“We can ask ‘what is it you have sex with?’ The answer ‘male’ or ‘female’ is imagined as a stable enoughterm to explain sexuality. But if we answer ‘cinema,’ questions proliferate beyond, rather than refer back to, a pre-established system of desire.”
(McCormack 2).Flora:
Tell me about my real father. How did you speak to him?
Ada:
(subtitled) I didn't need to speak, I could lay thoughts out in his mind like they were a sheet.
In contrast with Mulvey’s interpretation of cinema, Patricia McCormack (2008) uses theterm “cinesexuality” – the intense and intimate act of viewing and becoming through pleasureand desire – “that knows no gender, no sexuality, no form, and no function” (1). Suchformulation is radically different from Mulvey, whose analytical weaknesses were widelycriticized and revised in her later work. Some obvious issues with the psychoanalytical modelthat based itself on the idea of sexual difference and formulas of gendered psyche are that it doesnot take into account the diversity of spectators and their experiences. If analysis is based only
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on a male-female model of the psychic-cinematic world, then race, class, sexuality, ability,space, history, etc are rendered irrelevant.Gaines (1995) argues that psychoanalytic feminist film theory is inadequate in theorizingracial, class, and sexual difference. What does it mean when certain subjects, for example Black women
and 
men, are pushed into existence of “non-being” (78)? How do histories of institutional control over bodies and their abilities to look/gaze impact the subjectivities of spectatorship? Can discourse analysis of universalist psychoanalytic models be compatible withhistorical materialism? Although neither Marxists nor psychoanalytical models are sufficient inthemselves and they both overlook sexuality, race and other identity markers, Gaines implies thatthere are potentially productive possibilities in blending theories.Mulvey’s psychoanalytical theory does not allow explanation why films are enjoyed bydiverse audiences without stripping them of agency. Do all women, for example, watch filmsmasochistically or identify with men and watch it sadistically? Teresa de Lauretis (1999) statesthat “for a film to work, to be effective it
has
to please” (85). Gaines (1986) also points out that“subcultural groups can interpret popular forms to their advantage, even without ‘invitation’from the text” (74). Although some sort of identification must be part of the cinematicexperience, it clearly does not have to correlate with the social identity of the viewer and theobject of identification in the film. Evans and Gamman (1995), for example, suggest “that thereare many more visual clues and ‘cultural competences’ which generate interpellation,identification and voyeurism in the cinema” and that spectatorship and gaze cannot be pinpointedto discrete identities (36).Visual pleasure allows much more transgression then Mulvey suggests. This does notmean that certain films are not constructed to please certain audiences more than others or that itdoes not have intentional or unintentional ideological objectives and effects. Feminist critics of 
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