Thursday, February 09, 2006


...Problems with Feminist Film Scholarship

It’s been nearly fifty years since feminist Laura Mulvey blew the top off of American cinema with her critical theory “Visual and Other Pleasures”. Employing Freudian psychoanalysis, as her methodology of choice, Mulvey’s watershed 1975 essay has since become the benchmark by which a very narrow-minded body of work has emerged as the be-all-and-end-all of explicative research on women in film. This, of course, is if one buys into the whole white-bred heterosexual family model that early feminist scholarship clung to for more than a decade – and, unfortunately, Hollywood seems to delight in perpetuating as our cultural norm - despite civil rights, the resurgence of gay liberation and the single parent.

Yet, these ‘minorities’ remain conveniently and quietly absent from most discussions in feminist film theory. Instead, the whole ball of yarn tangles on an unsophisticated brouhaha that goes something like this:

Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. Women become objects in the eyes of men and men relish in objectifying them as brainless objects designed for sexual gratification.

This seemingly simple equation is complicated by the fact that Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic model (on which Mulvey’s theory is based) claims that, as boys, men fear engaging their shortcomings inside a woman’s vagina. Ho-hum, the beat goes on.

Add to that mixed confusion a G-spot of political analysis (basically politics influences film and, to a lesser extent, vice versa) and one begins to develop a very skewed feminist perspective in which the already gutless and emasculated patriarchy is once again blamed wholesale for what’s wrong with American women, or at least the American women as depicted on a flickering spool of celluloid.

The problem?

She’s too beautiful.
She’s not beautiful enough.
She’s concerned only with being beautiful.
She’s not her own person.
She acts too feminine.
Define “feminine”.

She always leans on a man for guidance, sex, protection, kids, marriage, and for her own fulfillment and ultimate happiness.

Well…yes, unless she’s a lesbian. And let’s face it, how many happy lesbians are there in American cinema today? Okay, how many lesbians are there in American cinema today? It’s not a riddle and the answer is – very few.

But consider the flipside of that stereotype: the American male as depicted in American cinema. He’s perpetually butch, buff, and breaking heads in the bar room or on the battlefield. He’s G.I Joe at dawn and Don Juan at twilight, a rogue, a jock, a hot bod bouncing quarters off his shimmering pecs at the beach while rocking the world of every potential Junior Miss within his predatory, testosterone-driven parameter.

Oops, almost forgot, he’s equally as mindless as the American woman on screen and just as incomplete without his girl Friday proudly clutching his swollen bicep before the final credits.

But women like that…don’t they?

Well, no. Or at least they shouldn’t, according to feminists.

Part of the difficulty feminist film theory encounters stems from the fact that it continues to position itself as the “other” in a patriarchal society. Feminists don’t need to point to the obvious external backlash that has reinterpreted their cause as either “monolithic” or “broad-based,” that is, too narrowly construed or too diffused to be of any use to anyone outside of that rabid pack of man-hating, testicle-stomping hypocrites (which is what the conservative left believes is the truth about feminism on the whole).

Yet, despite these external threats, the internal strife amongst feminist film scholars has been a far greater chasm to conquer. One critical distillation is a given: feminist film scholarship enjoys truncating the whole of American cinema in an oppressor/victim model in which men like their women big-breasted and dumb as the proverbial post, and women seemingly enjoy complying with that request. As a result, liberal feminist film theory inadvertently maintains the binary model of sexual differences even as it struggles to dismantle it.

But if American cinema dooms every cinematic heroine to a fadeout in dishpan hands, barefoot pregnancies and the desperately clinging of waifs dripping from the arms of Mr. Right, Prince Charming, et al, then it also imprisons every cinematic hero and anti-hero into that role of the eternal bad guy as far as the liberal-minded female is concerned. There’s no opportunity for equality, even if the guy wants it. There’s no moment when he can just sit back with his beer and cigarette, turn to the objectified bubblehead of external perfection and say, “Okay honey, your turn.”

Feminist film scholars don’t get this. Or if they do, they’re unconcerned with exploring the concept for fear that any deviation from their “men = bad/women = suppressed” model will call into question what is already an unstable theory on increasingly shaky ground.

Now, I’ve run into many a feminist who will explain at length that men on film don’t require in-depth analyses and critical readings because they are part of the patriarchy – hence, they are the obvious problem. End of discussion. The suggestion from feminist film scholars will most likely be that if you (like I) think that the man has been misunderstood in film then you should go soak your head in a pint of queer theory (for those unfamiliar, the homosexual offshoot of feminism proper).

But queer theory has only begun to investigate masculinity in the arts. And there’s a very real problem in letting gay culture and gay literature investigate representations of the heterosexual male. It’s sort of like asking men to explain yeast infections. Thus, while oodles of feminist literature and film scholarship have critically analyzed the female face from every conceivable angle, queer theory has yet to substantially investigate the esthetic beauty of men’s facial features. Instead the body of investigation tends to focus on masculinity in study as part musculature (the functionality of the male body) and part genitalia (both for its practical and symbolic phallic empowerment).

In recent years, some feminist critics and critics of feminism have asked probing questions that investigate the whereabouts of a feminine sub-erotic pleasure in the cinema, in other words, can women get off by watching men just as much as men supposedly get off by watching women. But here again, the whole exercise seems tinged with a tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink/nudge-nudge mentality.

It reduces all women spectators to low morality and rabid sexual fascination for tight buns and ample endowment. Isn’t that what feminists have argued the male spectator has been pleasantly suffering from all along? Instead of elevating their analysis of women’s participation in cinema, feminist scholarship has slowly reduced women’s response to a mirror image or its patriarchal equivalent.

The problem then that most feminist film scholars seem to have with observing their sex on the screen is that they see themselves as either too much the stereotype of predigested feminine ideals, or, as cultural cloning of male stereotypes onto the female body. It’s not enough to see Louise shoot a potential rapist in Thelma & Louise, or to observe Sigourney Weaver gradually transforming in Alien as a “butched” up carbon copy of an iconic anti-hero a la Jean-Claude Van Damme, no. And neither is it satisfactory to assume that this shift toward the ultra-violent grand perversion of their own sexuality is the best that women in film can hope for.

There’s got to be a happier medium. But where is it?

If one accepts gender construction as cultural, then cinema visually illustrates the hyper-pantomime of both masculinity and femininity. It maintains rigid and fixed heterosexual normalcy as its myth. You’re either a guy’s guy or a Sheila. If you’re a lesbian…hey, it’s okay. But you’ll never be the main character in anything outside of a second-rate talk show that quietly eschews your sexual preference as quirky, in vogue, or eccentric. And if you’re gay – well, then there’s the isolated environment presented in “Queer as Folk” or reruns of any number of “homo-friendly” design and decorating shows to live for. How depressing.

While all this is going on, feminist film scholarship continues to maintain that men – all men – are to blame for women’s current representation and misfortune. Frankly, I just don’t get where these chicks are coming from. It seems futile to suggest that a radical break is the only way to get their point across, especially since the attempt at gender anarchy resulted in a 1980s backlash that effectively killed most young girls’ interest in proactive membership.

As for today’s modern young woman, she’s seeking the fashion victim status of respectable prostitution and gearing up to have her mug shot plastered on the back of a milk carton after some thoroughly confused guy – who didn’t take “no” as his answer - leaves her for dead in a dumpster out back of the local Blockbuster, from whence his own crash course in masculine assertiveness has been gleaned.

Hence we’re back where we started with the whole men = evil/women = suppressed model. Yet, today’s young woman is unfazed by her oppression. Instead, she wants sexy. She wants “va-va-va-voom”. She wants to please her man. Oops, there I go again. Stating the obvious and completely overriding the Gloria Steinems of the world who sought to reduce the importance of men to taking out the trash or doing the heavy lifting. Eventually even Gloria had her second thoughts and tied the knot. So, where does that leave feminist film scholarship, Sigmund Freud, Laura Mulvey, and the whole bloody mess?

Well, for starters, any investment in psychoanalysis is fundamentally flawed – even Freud would agree with that assessment. Hence, by association, Laura Mulvey’s theory is predicated upon Freud’s interpretation of the male as the more complete and perfect ego. As such the male is the more idealized gender. This makes him more readily accessible to the cinema spectator. He’s inherently the king of his realm, the master and commander of his cinematic domain, the dude most likely to bag his choice of any number of attractive young hopefuls from a seemingly endless line of parodied womanhood. Damn him! Not exactly.

It is perhaps ironic, though nevertheless relevant, to stress that feminism’s prior reliance has been on theories put forth by Marx, Foucault, Lacan, Derrida and Freud: all men, all instrumental in the formulation, rationalization, articulation and operationalization of feminism as a social movement. As a result, Mulvey’s psychoanalytic benchmark hasn’t so much been the cornerstone of the movement as its weighty headstone by which most of the feminist film scholarship has been dragged under.

As a spring board for exploring male voyeurism and narcissism in the cinema, the psychoanalytic framework completely discards the reality of film, that by its very nature of distilling the whole of human existence into a two hour time frame, film is not and can never be an accurate representation of anything but the most threadbare fundamentals vaguely related to all male/female relationships. May they all just rest in peace.

@2006 Nick Zegarac (all rights reserved).