Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 51-53
Not only for women — but for them in particular — going to the movies today still represents a leisure time activity that is not held in very high social regard. Women who go to the movies regularly, or even occasionally, report that it is subject to a sort of prohibition. It is something that women just don't do. Yet curiously enough, this prohibition is directed, in its aggravated form, primarily towards women who go to the movies alone. Should they go with a male companion, then the movies become socially acceptable. Compared to traditional sanctions against women which prevent them from seeking out public places (bars, streets, stations), the mechanism prohibiting women from going to the movies seems to suggest something more. It goes beyond protection of the private property “woman” from voyeuristic stares or even from her own attempts at making contact, which would disrupt the male monopoly. In this instance the woman is removed from the voyeurism of other men. In contrast, in the case of the latent movie prohibition, the woman is denied her own voyeurism. What is improper in going to the movies corresponds to that repressed, preconscious perversion which patriarchal society allows itself at the movies.
Voyeurism as a stage of early childhood sexuality does not appear only among boys; it also leaves its traces in female socialization. At the same time, it is obvious that voyeurism — as with most female erotic sensations connected to the more aggressive components of touch — became a taboo for women. Social history demonstrates that basically women were desired as objects of male voyeurism, but that they themselves had to conceal their desirability behind veils, screens, and complex makeup rituals. In the eyes of men, they saw only themselves. Certainly that helped pin women down to the narcissistic components in their history of socialization. The more importunate male gaze flings back voyeurism and is recorded in the exhibitionism of the narcissistic woman. Before she can challenge the men — even if only through stares — she is subordinated by the power of the dominating gaze. She may choose a chaste look at the ground (the evacuation of expression, denial, in order to elude the aggression of stares), or she may choose a mask superimposed on the gaze.
One of the most irritating shots in film history draws its ambiguity from the disruption of the taboo against the female stare. In SUMMER WITH MONIKA (Ingmar Bergman, 1952) there is a long static shot in which Harriett Andersson looks directly into the camera. Projected onto the screen, she is staring out at the viewer. Because her gaze is not focused on some imaginary distant point, she appears to be looking directly into the viewer's eyes. This shot was perceived at that time as enormously irritating, and even today it retains much of its suggestive power. Harriett Andersson's infinitely sad, somewhat disparaging stare contains the rupture of female sight, which is denied in-sight into the world. Simultaneously the stare gives off a definite erotic fascination, which is developed in the context of the role of a working-class vamp. The "lost" gaze corresponds to the disruption of the taboo against staring: if someone dares to stare, there is no one left to respond freely. In this one shot alone, the central theme of the film — the unhappiness of love — is mirrored in its entirety. The autonomous, free-staring woman will find no one who can stand her gaze, no one who will not attempt to interrupt and subordinate her sight.
The vamp represents one of the few female images that is allowed to look at men freely. Mae West couples her disparaging meat-tester's gaze directly with carnal motives: after a few knowledgeable glances she taps the men on their rear ends. In contrast to this is Marilyn Monroe's constantly veiled stare. In HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE (J. Negulesco, 1953) she is extremely nearsighted so that she hardly sees anything. Under these conditions she can move about in a provokingly narcissistic way without bothering about male stares. Schneider and Laermann trace the same phenomenon in the social history of the "bella donna" gaze:
Why, then, do women go to the movies? Why do they go to movies which primarily show films in which women offer themselves to the voyeurism of men? I find it too limiting to see here nothing more than a kind of identification with the male aggressor in order to explain how the tyranny of the male stare becomes a generalized principle to which the woman is subordinated. For a time the gaze of men and women is congruent, because their socialization proceeds together as long as both are centered on the mother as love object. Voyeurism is anchored in early childhood. That’s a time when sex role identity is still undefined in the child's consciousness, a time when the child believes it can change sex as it pleases, a time when sex role identity has not yet been perceived as a fact of nature. Early childhood sexuality offers a point of departure for the view, which not only men but also women can activate, an infantile voyeurism that is woman-centered, rather than being fixated on an object relation only with the opposite sex. Thus, male anxiety about female voyeurism certainly goes further than fear of women's appraising gazes at male competition. Indeed it also contains the fear that the female bisexual component can make women into competitors in the object realm reserved for men. The open jealousy of men directed toward the pleasures which women derive from their voyeurism in dressing each other and combing and painting each other has its roots here.
In this context it becomes meaningful to investigate the preferences of women filmgoers for particular stars. For example, the success and popularity of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo among women may have something to do with their glamorous bisexuality. And this might similarly explain why men do not always completely share this pleasure in response to the stereotypes embodied by the two stars.
Many female stars — from Asta Nielsen to Lieselotte Pulver — have at one time or another played a tomboy role. However, few have embodied an androgynous or transvestite image. Often the tomboy role was no more than a dramatic accessory, completely external to the figures themselves. Some of the most impressive examples of aesthetic mystification of sex identity (in film history) can be found in many of Marlene Dietrich's roles, most directly in BLONDE VENUS. (Josef von Sternberg, 1932). Here the androgynous mask and the mother role are coupled in a particularly interesting manner so that the viewer is offered a direct identification set within the child's role. Dietrich's transformation from a show star dressed in a tuxedo to a mother singing lullabies at the cribside is achieved in a single context by means of the charged emotion and identificatory function of the child.
This context relates back to childhood emotions, which are not yet determined by knowledge of the division of sex roles and its resulting voyeurism. Thus, it can also avoid the constant irritations of sexual definition. One can assume that this diffusion of sexual perception crystalizes not only a means of male but also of female socialization. At least we know that as far as children up to the age of three or four years are concerned, they possess no cognitive knowledge about sex difference, despite parents' attempts to clarify biological and social differences. Based on this early childhood ambivalence, then, it is possible to explain the fascination of women for the androgynous image of some female stars. Of course, it cannot be denied that other connotations are superimposed on these images, which relate to interests and needs of male socializing experiences. We will return to this point later in respect to its importance for female viewers.
At the movies, protected by the dark, women can indulge in the voyeurism that is otherwise denied to them. Because they seek it at the movies does not mean, naturally, that they will find what they perhaps unconsciously want to see. First, they are dependent on the offerings of the film market, which has provided little alternative for some time now (evidence for this is to be found in the growing number of "women's cinemas" opening around the country). Numerous films present female stereotypes which do have an empirical correlative in the sociohistorical character of woman. Many men have even produced their films with a special eye toward women viewers. Female preference for melodrama, comedy, and problem films and her rejection of crime, horror, war, western, and pornographic films demonstrate that, within male production, women were able to draw boundaries of acceptability. Besides those genres they preferred, women also went to other films, either because their men wanted to see them or because they were curious about what attracted men to certain female stars.(2)
Other than the few psychoanalytically oriented investigations, it is remarkable that most studies of film reception are based on a role concept defined by social patterns and normative behavior. Moreover, they ignore entirely both the historical context in which these roles are grounded, and the idea of an inner nature comprised of more than the sum of roles and functions ascribed to an individual in a social system. Yet because the social roles in patriarchal society are defined exclusively in relation to the necessity of male roles as the breadwinner and worker, the women's role is viewed only as complementary. It could never constitute her own history, whereas precisely that would be the key to woman as subject. Although those studies which pose this question provide interesting conclusions about sex-specific differences, they are limited by their insufficient theoretical grounding.
Most studies on film reception pose the question of sex-specific differences very superficially. Sex does play a considerable role in research techniques. Other than the age factor, it represents the one truly independent variable for all sorts of statistical calculations. De facto, however, it remains an unknown factor, for as a biological, unchanging quantity it is neither grounded theoretically nor defined by context. Therefore, it cannot come as a surprise that the female sex is usually described in deviation from the male sex. Men like X and women prefer Y. A tour through these studies resembles a glance at a nineteenth-century atlas: blank spaces, unexplored areas that carry the names of the colonizers. The roads are known, the property rights established. Corresponding to the unspoken primacy of research interests into the male half of humanity is the mystification of woman once she has become the center of attention. According to Hegel, patriarchal society produced woman as the inner enemy, the expression of a world living according to different principles.(3) As a consequence, investigations into the female inner nature, into her womanhood, were either abandoned or reduced to mystified natural categories. For if norms can no longer be derived biologically, then the social and ethical legitimation of the whole system of norms is thrown into question. But such questions have always elicited the hatred of those who have an interest in wielding power with no questions asked. As for the tendency to mystify woman, Freud has left little doubt about that:
In several studies the psychoanalytic approach has provided an excellent method for examining the deep layers of film perception by going beyond learning theory models. The psychoanalytic approach aims at the psychic appropriation and conversion of what is seen. It elucidates correspondences to psychological effects in the subject herself/himself. At the same time, this approach assumes that films, too, are constructed by means of psychological mechanisms. As a result, films are able to “touch” analogous structures in the viewer. Films, therefore, are not so much mere reflections of external or social nature as they are reflection and product of the inner nature of the subjects: their wishes, needs, erotic images, drives, etc.
This confusion has been the source of several misconceptions in feminist discussions. For example, it is too simplistic to assert that films by men reflect only men’s view (more or less pathologically distorted perception of women) or that they say more about men's inner nature and the viewers in a patriarchal society than about the women whom they portray as the female viewer. There has not yet been any explanation for the empirical behavior of women who in the last fifteen years have abstained from going to the movies. Yet this was a time during which film offerings indeed fell to a level that exasperated the preference structures of female viewers. The question why women went to the movies before and are now beginning to go again has not been answered, despite the doubtlessly correct implication of patriarchal dominance.
The problem inherent in this question is the idea that the intention of a film can be directly transferred to the viewer. Such an idea probably derives from the remnants of everyday behaviorist consciousness. Numerous arguments from film theory can be cited that contradict this position already at the level of production. Even in the case of a director like Sternberg, who claimed that the Dietrich myth was his invention alone, there still remains a connotative margin. Although the intention of a single man and an authoritarian, patriarchal production apparatus may define a film, the specific value of every visual art and expressive form derives from something else. Images never have the clarity of verbal language, which is able to thrust itself onto conceptual meta-levels and there ascertain its meaning. The concept “table” can subsume all existing examples of tables, but the film image of a table will always be the reproduction of one existing table. The director Sternberg may intend to create the myth of a woman in his reproductions of Marlene Dietrich, yet at the same time this myth contains an existing object of reference. Such concreteness of film images has consequences for perception. Movies can create myths, stereotypes, and clichés (images in the psychoanalytic sense), but they are in no way comparable to conceptual abstractions. They are themselves only reproductions of inner images, preverbal signs from a nonverbal world that can be made accessible only through a long process of interpretation. Of course, the impact of these images is independent of my ability to translate them into verbal expression. I can respond to film without language.
To see is to recognize," wrote Jean Mitry.(5) Psychoanalytic microanalysis of seeing and recognizing shows that subjective desires do not move down one-way paths. Wherever voyeurism is permitted, the subject itself organizes what is to be recognized. In the process of viewing a film, there is a second film in his/her mind, so that a film exists in as many variants as there are viewers. This does not imply that perception is arbitrary. It seems, however, that the margin for subjective appropriation of visual objects is much larger than individual interpretations indicate. For they usually are predicated on the process of translation into verbal language, and they represent experience which has already congealed in the interpretation.
Possibly contrary to the intentions of their creators, film images lend themselves to a variety of meanings. This leads to the hypothesis that such images function for sex-specific perception just as mannerist paintings play with optical illusions. According to the position of the viewer, different motifs appear and the picture reveals a new composition or a new meaning. An example of such a process would be the reinterpretation of the female stereotypes embodied by Marilyn Monroe in her films. Another would be the rebirth of interest in Mae West, an actress whom U.S. feminists in the forties criticized intensely, whereas today they critically accept her autonomous characteristics.
The fact that we lack any reconstructions of historical forms of film appropriation by women is certainly a sign that we have yet to recognize the woman as subject. We know that such forms must have existed empirically, but we do not know how they interacted and what they are today. In the search for her own identity, a woman almost always draws on the images which male society has projected of her. Thus, there has been a series of excellent feminist analyses of female images. They all come to the conclusion that such images are male reconstructions, projections of male myths about women and/or male anxieties. Yet there are almost no attempts to comprehend the subjective meaning of these images for women. Perhaps there is fear of contamination, the fear of losing oneself once again among the false images if the analytic distance is relinquished. Consequently, we know little about the empirical effects and correspondences of these images in women. This suggests more than mere normative pressure for certain kinds of behavior conveyed by the obvious message of the films: what behavior is desired or not, how a hairstyle should look, or how to say goodbye to a husband in the morning. Here the question arises whether there might not be a female subhistory in the appropriation of film. It would not be defined solely by the tyranny of the male stare but would open minimal margins for female projections.
Laura Mulvey has argued in her analysis of psychological structures in Hollywood narrative film that the image of the star Marlene Dietrich is grounded in a mechanism which interprets the woman as a castrated man. Moreover, the mechanism seeks to ameliorate this threatening model of incomparable punishment by offering, instead of a penis [sic], a fetishizing idealization to get over the loss. The image of the vamp is explained, then, in terms of classical psychoanalytical assumptions about the male castration complex which fetishizes the woman according to male needs. Mulvey does not pursue the implications of this Freudian assertion for the female viewer. In Freudian theory, not only the man experiences the woman as castrated but also the woman experiences herself in this way. That would be one explanation for why women (at least so-called "phallic women") enjoy fetishized stars just as much as men do.(6)
It should be noted that Freud's thesis about the female castration complex must be considered within its proper historical context. This is not an anthropologically grounded, natural mechanism in female socialization. Rather, it is a mechanism which is valid for some women, and for those only as long as phallocratic traits are socially immanent. Thus, the phallus which the star fetish is to replace retains its power only when connected with social power, as is generally the case in male societies. The strength of social components in determining sex-role identity has been sufficiently demonstrated by studies on cognitive development among children.(7) Ulrike Prokop mentions that it is possible to find in a reconstruction of this fundamental psychoanalytical assertion an historical, empirical correlative:
Women's oppression does not begin with their false image. This is one of the cardinal mistakes of many analyses. They confuse the effect with the cause, and then they cannot explain why women still want to look at phallocratic films. Not until we have clarified which needs Hollywood's phallocentric films produce and which they appear to satisfy can we understand why women too idolize female stars. That is not to suggest that the reasons for female adulation of male stars such as Rudolph Valentino or James Dean have been explained.
In their well-known study, Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites dissected the "good-evil girl syndrome in U.S. film, and they pointed to several other specific cultural images of women in a comparison of international films.(9) If their conclusions are correct — and there is little reason to doubt it — then we find here a further expression of the needs of the female public. The split into good-bad, mother-whore, marriage-eroticism, and fidelity-promiscuity (topics which constitute the themes of many films), this split indeed corresponds to the psychic split in the woman between the evil, phallic woman and the woman who accepts her subordinate role as weak but good and family-oriented. Clamped between these false alternatives, women begin to long for release into a new identity. The longing existed before the recent women's movement sought to conceptualize and articulate it in order to end the curse of the “mutual affirmation of this false identification" (Prokop). Yet many films thematize this disjuncture, and the parts of the split personality are resolved in apparent harmony. Split erotic needs for unconfirmed sexuality without dependency and norms can be recognized in stereotypes such as the vamp (who throws herself at men) and the cold-blooded criminal (who prefers "bad male company"). A passionate female moviegoer formulated this ambivalence in herself and in film images in the following way: "I always wanted to live as freely as Pola Negri, but in fact I was more like Paula Wessely."(10)
The image of the vamp has far more connotations than the fetishized image of the phallus substitute. For the man she represents the idealized woman, in some cases even stylized into a phallus. Tailored dresses were exceptionally well suited for this purpose. They enwrapped the body like a luminous second skin. In a similar style tight caps often adorned the head to emphasize the rod-like form. In the fifties artificially shaped breasts were not infrequently modeled like the glans of an erect penis. To consider just one example, THE LIFE OF MRS. SKEFFINGTON (V. Sherman, 1944) takes up a type of female narcissism as a subject, which characterizes the vamp just as well as the above-mentioned function for male viewers, i.e., phallic women. Bette Davis plays an exceptionally beautiful young woman who marries an extraordinarily rich older man. In the course of their marriage, Mrs. Skeffington enjoys an extravagant social life primarily in the company of young admirers. When she finally quarrels with her husband, she sinks totally into the attitude of the beautiful spoiled woman who directs all her time and personality toward the exhibition and appreciation of her physical beauty. What autonomy she achieves in this manner is characterized by complete indifference. She has the ability to control men, but she is in no way erotically dependent on them. She collects them as a mirror for her beauty. Naturally a serious illness is the punishment for this woman's narcissism. At the end she returns repentant as an old woman to her husband, who has become blind.
If we ignore the affirmative ending and the general mediocrity of this not atypical film, it illustrates how female stereotypes can be found which also offer gratification to women. And let us not forget that melodrama is one of the genres preferred by women (this film actually tends toward the "problem film" with its political themes of anti-Semitism and Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany). In short, Mrs. Skeffington's narcissism is simply denounced in an affirmative way and pressed into the scheme of the "good-evil girl" so prevalent in the U.S. film. Female beauty, the product of concentrating all energies on exhibitionism and erotic tension within one's own body, is reserved for the husband as the sole benefactor.
In comparison, Marlene Dietrich develops this component of female eroticism much more radically. In BLUE ANGEL (Josef von Sternberg, 1930) she presents an image of autonomy and power which many women yoked into a marriage must have dreamed about. Lola can sing about men who swarm around her like moths around a light bulb. She can attract, among others, the absolutely unerotic Professor Unrat. He, in turn, is prepared to pay the highest price for his love to her. He offers Lola the greatest narcissistic satisfaction by sacrificing his social position for her.
In an early essay on film reception Paul G. Cressey defined the possibilities for projection, introjection, and displacement as modes of identification.(11) We can assume that these modes correspond to preference structures of female viewers. This would suggest that particularly the strongest form of identification, introjection, has become increasingly difficult for women. Consequently women have abstained from going to the movies to a proportionately greater extent because projection and displacement (the weaker forms of gratification) are the only forms left in the declining number of film productions. In fact precisely those genres are disappearing from among film offerings which would be most likely to allow introjective identification. When identification can only be achieved by means of projection and displacement, interest in going to the movies decreases. Indeed, television also offers these possibilities. Yet, because of its specific aesthetic and social characteristics, TV actually tends to inhibit total introjection with all sorts of distracting mechanisms for the viewers.
Cressey's concepts could be reconstructed psychoanalytically according to a model developed by Gunther Salje.(12) Salje asserts that the specific effect of visual media is based on a mode of transference in which preverbal, i.e., presymbolic scenes (as in an “Ur-scene"), are reactivated in the dimension of the unconscious. The clichés are representations of early childhood interactions and forms of experiencing. These are not raised to the level of symbolically mediated representation, as would be the case in therapeutic transference. This is the source of that repressive, pre-rational potential of influence in the visual image: its impact is almost direct. The stronger the transference situation, the more complete is the identification. Although Saije makes the mode of transference the condition sine qua non of film and TV viewing, it should be kept in mind that the intensity of the transference is always dependent on the transference stimuli contained in the film material itself.
The introjective plunge of total identification in such a transference seems to be less and less likely because of the film offerings. The lack of identificatory film images for women corresponds to the absence of women among the moviegoers. Meanwhile the narcissistic and voyeuristic components in the gratification structure of the female viewer have broken down. The image of the vamp, of the autonomous, narcissistic woman has made way for that diffuse female image which only distinguishes between friend and sex object. This polarization corresponds only in a rudimentary manner to the ambivalences and role divisions which constitute womanhood. Thus, the transference situation has become increasingly difficult for women to produce at the movies. Empty TV stereotypes, which are open to all types of projection, lend themselves better to such an end. The absence of women at the movies is part of the identity crisis of womanhood. The female images in films by men draw only on the repressive demystification of woman. Her riddle, her bisexuality, becomes no more than a superficial stimulus in soft-core porno. Grandiose idealization, which, according to Morgenthaler, describes one trait of the perverse,(13) has become eclipsed in film images as an authentic aura of female narcissism.
1. Gisela Schneider and Klaus Laermann, "AugenBlicke. Über einige Vorurteile und Einschränkungen geschlechtsspezifischer Wahrnehmung," Kursbuch, 49 (1977), p. 54.
2. Cf. statements by interviewees in the Ernest Dichter International, Ltd., study, “Freizeitbedürfnisse und Präferenzstruktur des Filmpublikums in der Bundresrepublik," in Dieter Prokop, Materialien zur Theorie des Films (Munich, 1971), pp. 339-82, and Dieter Prokop, Soziologie des Films (Neuwied and Berlin, 1970).
3. According to Hegel (Phänomenologie des Geistes, Hamburg, 1952, p. 340),
4. Sigmund Freud, "Neue Folge der Vorlesungen zur Einführung in die Psychoanalyse," in Gesammelte Werke, vol. 15 (Frankfurt/Main, 1967), p. 140 ("On Womanhood").
5. Jean Mitry, Esthétique et psychologie du cinéma, (Paris, 1963).
6. Translator's note: Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," in Women and Cinema, ed. Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary (New York: Dutton, 1977), pp. 412-28.
7. Cf. "Analyse der Geschlechtsrollen-Konzepte und Attitüden bei Kindern unter dem Aspekt der kognitiven Entwicklung," in Lawrence Kohlberg, Zur kognitiven Entwicklung des Kindes (Frankfurt/Main, 1974), pp. 334-471. Kohlberg asserts that not only does the perception of specific body metaphors contribute to sex role identity, but also obvious social norms about roles.
8. Ulrike Prokop, Weiblicher Lebenszusammenhang. Von der Beschränktheit der Strategien und der Unangemessenheit der Wünsche (Frankfurt/Main, 1976), p. 142 (in excerpt: "Production and the Context of Women's Daily Life," in New German Critique, 13 (Winter 1978), 18-33.
9. Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites, Movies: A Psychological Study (Glencoe, Ill., 1950), pp. 25-46.
10. Cf. Gisela von Wysocki, "Gespräch mit meiner Mutter," frauen und film, 17 (1978).
11. Paul G. Cressey, "The Motion Picture Experience as Modified Social Background and Personality," American Sociological Review 3, No. 4 (August 1938), 516-25.
Displacement, however, denotes a partial substitution of certain personalities and values of one's own social world for the characters and objects in the screen milieu while continuing, as oneself, to experience imaginative participation in the screen action" (p. 520). Pola Negri was the heroine fatale of post-World War I German cinema, starring in films such as Lubitsch's MADAME DUBARRY; Paula Wessely was the idealized "little woman" of twenties' entertainment films.
12. Gunther Salje, "Psychoanalytische Aspekte der Film- und Fernsehanalyse," in Thomas Leithäuser et al., Entwurf zu einer Empirie des Alltagsbewusstseins (Frankfurt/Main, 1977), pp. 261-87.
13. Fritz Morgenthaler, "Verkehrsformen der Perversion und die Perversion der Verkehrsformen. Em Blick über den Zaun der Psychoanalyse," Kursbuch, 49 (1977), 135-51.