Feminism and film method

What is a feminist reading of a classical/post-classical Hollywood film? The most widely imitated model is that inaugurated by Mulvey's 1975 essay 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' (also in Mulvey 1989: 14-26). This complex and polemical piece has often been reproduced, and in the process also been reduced to a checklist of psychoanalytic concepts, such as fetishism, voyeurism, castration anxiety, phallus, and disavowal. Generations of undergraduate and graduate essays have winnowed her argument down to such core statements as 'the gaze is male' (or: 'the man looks, women are to be looked at'), 'sadism demands a story', 'desire is lack'. These were applied to the canon of classical films as well as to more recent mainstream cinema (though it is now also common to find post-classical films being used to critique Mulvey's assumptions). For the subtler narratological and ideological implications of Mulvey's arguments around cinema and sexual difference, there are abundant commentaries published on the topic. Those interested in 'doing' a feminist film analysis may nonetheless - depending on the particular theoretical framework chosen - wish to consider the paradigmatic moves listed below, or look out for common points of critique, when discussing the representation of women in the classical Hollywood text:

• the role model thesis: negative/positive stereotyping (Rosen 1973; Haskell 1973);

• the repression thesis: women generate a contradiction that the text seeks to repress (Cook and Johnston 1988);

• the disturbance thesis: woman is 'trouble' in the system, generating the core dynamics of the male-centred narrative trajectory;

• the containment thesis: classical film needs the woman-as-trouble to function at all, but then has to 'contain' her in order to come to an ideologically acceptable closure (Bellour 2000; Heath 1981);

• the excess/lack thesis: melodrama (Mulvey 1989: 39-44), woman's film (Doane 1987).

Some of the chief points of criticism of Mulvey can also be itemized:

• Her argument is heterosexist (Doane and Bergstrom 1990).

• She (initially at least) makes no room for lesbian identification.

• She devalorizes masochism as an 'originary' subject position of the cinematic experience (Studlar 1988).

• Finally, she posits the ideological construction of gendered identity as a successful, hegemonic activity, whereas it is possible to argue that patriarchal identity-formation via the cinema is only partly successful; hence her theory might be seen as actually assisting ideology in its attempt to construct, via popular culture, gendered identities (see also the quotation from David Rodowick in Chapter 8 above).

In the wake of the intense engagement with Mulvey's theses there have been many exemplary feminist analyses of individual films: those of Mary Ann Doane (1987), Teresa de Lauretis (1984), Kaja Silverman (1988), Barbara Klinger (1994), or Tania Modleski (1988) come to mind.

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