Feminism and film theory

While the psychoanalytic film theory of Christian Metz, Jean-Louis Baudry, and Stephen Heath had initially concentrated on questions of 'primary identification', on the 'reality-effect' and 'subject construction' as the conditions of the classical Hollywood cinema's legibility and textual coherence, feminist film theory began with the realization that this classical cinema was also a system of visual representation implicated and complicit in maintaining sexual difference, i.e. the uneven distribution of power between men and women: 'In this debate [about sexuality and representation], the cinematic image is taken as both the model of and term for a process of representation through which sexual difference is constructed and maintained' (Rose 1986: 199). At least since Laura Mulvey's essay 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' (1975), feminist film theory concentrated on deconstructing the terms of this complicity, eventually focusing on the question why female spectators can take pleasure in watching movies at all, given their sexist ideological import.

This is not just a matter of story material or role modelling. What Mulvey implied about the functioning of narrative and spectacle in classical cinema was that the subject addressed by the Hollywood text is gendered and male by virtue not only of the dominant forms of visual pleasure - voyeurism and fetishism, traditionally analysed as male perversions - but also by the close formal convergence of narrative progress (the desire to see and to know) with the filmic process itself as exemplified in the workings of the cinematic apparatus or 'dispositif (see Rosen 1986). As Mary Ann Doane put it, reviewing the debate some ten years later: 'With respect to a narrativization of the woman, the apparatus strains; but the transformation of the woman into spectacle is easy. Through her forced affinity with the iconic, imagistic aspects of cinema, the woman is constituted as a resistance or impedance to narrativization' (Doane 1987: 5-6). The conditions of female spectatorship in narrative cinema are therefore either submission to the regime of the gaze, the perversion of a perversion so to speak, or involve taking pleasure in the subject effects of a sexual identity not her own: 'Confronted with the classical Hollywood text with a male address, the female spectator has basically two modes of entry: a narcissistic identification with the female figure as spectacle, and a "transvestite" identification with the active male hero in his mastery' (Doane 1987: 9). The very concept of female spectatorship thus names a theoretical impossibility, and in practice produces 'a mixed sexual body,... a hermaphrodite'. While the institution cinema has always courted women as an audience, its textual system works to deprive the woman 'of a gaze ... of subjectivity and repeatedly [transforms her] into the object of a masculine scopophilic desire' (p. 2).

We can see how this might be immediately relevant to The Silence of the Lambs, and not only to the relationship between the female heroine and female audiences, but as a description of the identity-confusion of one of the characters, namely Buffalo Bill, as if he was the very embodiment of the dilemma of Doane's (and Mulvey's) female film spectator.

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