Critical feminist strategems

by Maureen Turim

from Jump Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 69-70
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1982, 2005

SEXUAL STRATEGEMS: THE WORLD OF WOMEN IN FILM. Edited by Patricia Erens. NY: Horizon Press, 1979. hb $15.00, pb $8.95.

The seventies was certainly the decade in which feminist theory began to exert an increasingly strong influence over critical thought about film. Patricia Erens' anthology, Sexual Stratagems represents the early stages of development of that application of feminist theory to film analysis, the initial strategic moves that feminists tended to make.

Implicit in the statement I just made is the assertion that Erens' anthology is already historically dated. It collects articles from 1973-75 whose premises feminist critics have reworked and extended since that time. In that process, we have developed both a growing body of theoretical issues and ourselves as film viewers, critics, theorists and artists. Those of us who have been following and participating in this history will find Erens' selections familiar pieces, will locate them in that history. And in rereading them together in anthologized form, we will perhaps read them differently than we did at the time of their original publication.

But the book is intended, obviously, as more than just a neat scrapbook for the practitioners of feminist filmmaking and criticism. Like an earlier anthology, Women and Film: A Critical Anthology, edited by Karen Kay and Gerald Peary, the book is meant to serve as an introduction. My question: Can anthologies do this effectively? What is the role of editor as critical commentator and analyst in aiding a series of disparate and historically situated writing to cohere and best represent the emerging practice of feminist criticism of culture and art?

That is the tough question that Erens faced. The answer she apparently reached was to leave the material raw and loosely affiliated, to draw few sharp contrasts, or raise few evaluative controversies. She has served us in providing an accessible published resource. But it is not one which I could hand over to students of women and film classes or to interested people outside the field without a great effort at annotation that I wish Erens had included in the book.

In reviewing this book, then, I hope to raise some of the critical questions that I feel are meaningful for the development of feminist theory in the future.

The first question concerns the ways feminist criticism will position itself in relation to film criticism in general. Much of the writing on film, the overwhelming majority of articles, reviews, books, histories, have been written in a popular form. Popular art form invites popular critics to respond in kind. The publishing industry in this country colludes by demanding that its film book selections be mass marketable in a manner in which its literary criticism, for example, need not be. The result is a journalistic style, unfootnoted assertions, historical generalizations that are in the realm of commonplaces rather than research. In an effort not to academicize itself away from its audience, some feminist writing has also sought, for valid political reasons, to avoid male intellectual traditions of argumentation. As a result, some of the early feminist writing cane from an amalgam of this journalistic tradition and this politically motivated nonacademic style.

The anthology begins with a selection that epitomizes this form of popular journalism, an article by Marjorie Rosen that first appeared in Ms. Magazine, and which derives from her book, Popcorn Venus. The book, like Molly Haskell's From Reverence to Rape, provides a decade-by-decade overview of the "dominant stereotypes" of women that appear in Hollywood film. While some of Rosen's analysis and research is certainly a major contribution to feminist film history, one can only despair that her writing adopts a "cute," glib style that at best undercuts her observations and at worst makes her a strange participant in the degradation of women. This degradation takes such forms as her labeling the fetishism of large breasts in the fifties as "mammary madness," and discussing Howard Hughes' influence over Jane Russell's career at RKO in the following terms:

"He deliberately photographed her from her cleavage down to her naval and was so obsessed with the Russell anatomy that he engineered a special brassiere to keep her high, wide and handsome."

When a so-called feminist critic resorts to the same sexist language of innuendo and double entendre as male scriptwriters, publicists and directors, she only perpetuates a sexist representation of women. Further, Rosen's history is dependent on the same Hollywood anecdotes and mythic clichés that we have read in other histories and monographs that gently chronicle the U.S. film industry. One has to question the manner in which Rosen treats such actresses as Clara Bow or Ginger Rogers, since it not only is superficial and historically highly questionable, but filled with latent misogyny.

It is my position that the feminist critic/ theorist has a fundamental role to play in transforming the mode of writing about film. It is a mistake to begin an anthology of feminist criticism with a selection that continues such sexist attitudes in the use of language and the focus of its analysis. I can understand why feminists hoping to reach a larger audience should avoid mimicking the academic excess of scholarly journals of intellectual thought. This can be done by avoiding unnecessary jargon and pretense, and by providing explanations for terminology and difficult theoretical references. The issues of history and theory at stake for feminists merit far more careful consideration than that offered by a popularized style of treatment.

This brings me to a second issue, the use in feminist writing of the term "image." "Image" has become the equivalent of stereotypical presentation. When authors such as Rosen speak of images of women in film, they tend to concentrate on the stereotypes of a period, "distilled" or "extracted" (to borrow Lucy Fischer's interesting terminology in the opening line of her essay in the volume) from many film narratives and many visual framings. The methodological problem at the heart of this practice — differentiation, subtlety — is excluded from the start. We can see how this simplification works in considering Rosen's treatment of Griffith's heroines, in a chapter called "Mary's Curls, Griffith's Girls," in Popcorn Venus, the basic assumptions of which are reproduced in Rosen's essay included in Sexual Stratagems. She boils down all Griffith's films produced between 1908 and 1925 to a uniform female image, the youthful, helpless, virginal Victorian meant to be worshipped and protected. If any of Griffith's heroines were straining against Victorian traditions, such instances are only embarrassing to the critic seeking the uniformity of this kind of generalized image.

Let us rather accept that film narratives tend to display contradictions that can be analyzed for what they reveal of a period's historical ambivalences. I can illustrate the difference between seeking stereotypes and a more subtle and discriminating approach to film analysis by using an example of one of the Griffith melodramas, TRUEHEART SUSIE, starring Lillian Gish. Though this film is as susceptible as any of the Griffith/ Gish collaborations to being mistakenly read as merely exemplifying the Victorian stereotype of demure and self-sacrificing female, I believe that there is far more confrontation with the necessity of transforming values and styles than such an interpretation can account for.

In TRUE-HEART SUSIE, when the camera slowly and critically tilts down Susie's body, in medium close up, voyeuristically scorning her outdated, modest dress, the little girl image is not being revered — the audience is placed in the position of mocking her lack of modernity. Within the narrative, Susie will have to learn some of the current style in order to survive. She compromisingly adopts artifices and modernization as part of a strategy to compete with women whose fashion-consciousness indicates deceiving flirtatiousness and gold-digging ambitions. Further, the fashionable woman — Susie's "rival — once married, lets her appearance she presents to her husband fall into the terrible neglect of a sloppy housedress and pincurled and end-papered hair. Susie will reach a "reasonable" maturation of her appearance, never to return to the unfortunate dowdiness of her earlier costume, but despite this coming of age, the film assures us that Susie's heart remains old-fashioned. Even in this short summary analysis, it should be apparent that "image" used in the sense of stereotype cannot adequately account for the ever shifting and internally contradictory imaging of women in film. The validity of the history being produced and the ideological analysis being generated depends on this theoretical principle of significant differences and specific contextual transformations. It is much more interesting to see TRUE-HEART SUSIE as a discourse on the confrontation of certain Victorian principles with an urgency for adaptation to changing values and social conditions. And in this analysis, auteurist and biographical assumptions about Griffith can cloud the historical function of the images as presented in the film.

If close analysis of image and narrative are not a methodological consideration in Rosen's essay, Lucy Fischer's "The Image of Women as Image: The Optical Politics of DAMES" exemplifies the potential of a detailed analysis mindful of historical context. Still, I wonder why Fischer so completely embraces Rosen and Haskell's delineation of film stereotypes as background to her argument. Also, her discussion of fetishism (one of the few instances of psychoanalytic theory represented in the anthology) falls curiously short of exploring all the implications of the "Girl and the Ironing Board" number. In the number, Joan Blondell is portrayed as a laundress, unattached and longing for romance, who escapes her loneliness by fantasizing that the male clothes she is washing belong to a dream lover. She sings and dances with the articles of clothing. Fischer analyzes the segment as portraying a fetishistic relationship to the love object. She then argues that due to the evidence supplied in the Kinsey report of 1953, we can understand fetishism as an overwhelmingly male syndrome, and therefore see this number as an "imposition of a classically male fantasy on the behavior of a female screen persona."

There are several problems with this line of argument. There is a difference between clinical and cultural fetishism. Whereas one might be less likely to find women who need fetishistic objects for sexual arousal than men, that does not mean that women are necessarily less likely to participate in symbolic investments, in which objects stand in for lovers as part of a romantic imaginary. Fischer fails to distinguish a clinical definition of fetishistic disorder (and its greater clinical incidence in the male population) from an extended cultural definition that is appropriate to representation and figurative imagery. Thus she cannot quite get at the ideological statements being made by the scene. The number has strong implications as the representation of "women's work" and "housework" as a labor of love, in that it covers the boring aspect of this labor with the romance of a sexual fantasy. We can see this scene as borrowing from the traditional sexualization of the laundress in art, annexing this depiction for a popular cultural context, and as prefiguring thousands of television commercials for various laundry products. The question is not one of accuracy of the psychoanalytic formation (do women ever fantasize like this) but rather the use to which the fantasy is being put in the context of its representation. Despite this point of contention, I find Fischer's essay to be one of the most insightful pieces in the volume, since it directly addresses the issues of visual representation in film from a clearly defined feminist perspective.

Of the two selections translated from Ecran, Daniel Serceau's "Mizoguchi's Oppressed Women" is entirely thematic, taking no elements of imaging or narrative structuring into account — factors of analysis that cannot be dismissed as irrelevant, as Serceau does when he labels them merely “directing techniques." Gerard Lenne's "Monster and Victim," a study of women in horror films, scratches a surface of imaging and narrative positioning and its psychoanalytic implications in a number of films, but each film is treated summarily. In mentioning, for example, the panther in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, Lenne acknowledges that her active feline seduction contradicts his previous assertion that women in horror films are passive, beautiful victims. But that one line is all the indication the reader gets of the cat woman, she devil, giantess — all the aggressive, sexual images of women which do appear in horror films, which, of course, exhibit their own brand of misogyny.

Molly Haskell's "MADAME DE: A Musical Passage" is finally more enraptured with an aesthetic of lyricism than it is with searching the implications of that mode and vision in a portrait of a woman from a feminist perspective. Chuck Kleinhans' essay on Godard's TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER, and Ann Marie Taylor's essay on Solás' LUCIA, are nice critical pieces which perhaps should benefit from further theoretical development. But the Brigetta Steen essay on Bergman poses the question of the relation of art to empirical reality in a manner that ignores theories of ideology. This leads Steen to ask the question,

"When Bergman begins to create his own subjective landscape on the screen and to project, through his women characters, his own personal mythos — are we really justified then in evaluating that self-imaginary world by using extrinsic criteria, such as our political convictions or contemporary political views?"

Upon reading this, my dismay over this section of the book, even though it has essays I appreciated, reached its culmination. Whether male- or female-directed, cinematic expression is a cultural form desperately in need of strong methodologies of ideological analysis. Women are one extremely complex issue within this representation and metaphorization, one that should immediately imply a complex imbrication of issues of class, race, social organization, theories of the psyche, pleasure, etc. Despite moments of insightful analysis, this section only weakly hints at the significance of this critical endeavor (the Kleinhans essay best indicates the necessity and method of ideological critique). The main problem is that the essays collage into a disturbingly contradictory presentation, a confusing collection whose common denominator is the word "woman," but whose vision, biases, style, theoretical presuppositions are not even clearly positioned within a debate. The book merely presents its essays impartially as the "best writing" on the image of women in film history.

Fortunately, the second half of the book is much better, and it coheres as a stronger vision of what constitutes feminist analysis. The three essays, by Claire Johnston, Julia Lesage, and Patricia Erens, which comprise the section, "A Feminist Perspective," do provide an introduction to the range of investigation of feminist film analysis and practice. The section on women filmmakers, including Francois Lacassin's essay on Alice-Guy Blaché, Jay Leyda on Esther Schub, Regina Cornwell on Maya Deren and Germaine Dulac, Ruby Rich on Leni Riefenstahl, and Derek Elley on Mai Zetterling, provides valuable historical research on each of these directors.

Ruby Rich's essay raises complex questions concerning history, ideology and culture. I disagree, however, with the way in which she defines documentary, propaganda, and the causal aspects of ideology. She faults Susan Sontag's "promulgation of a Nazi aesthetic underscoring all of Riefenstahl's films and photographs" by claiming that Sontag

"falls into the Kracauerian trap of inverting cause and effect, so that aesthetics and not economic determinants or political strategies — become the cause of Nazism, a patently absurd notion."

Rich fails to understand that in delineating the fascist aspects of Riefenstahl's aesthetics, Sontag was working on a notion of "visual ideology" very similar to that which Lucy Fischer develops in her article on DAMES. And whereas ideology does not "cause" fascism, it surely is important to fascism's ascendancy and maintenance of control. Manipulating ideology for political and economic purposes was a key part of Nazi strategy. Rich strains in the essay to hold onto the term "documentary" as a more accurate label for TRIUMPH OF THE WILL than "propaganda," but this seems to miss the full historical impact of fascism as a self-conscious controlling power. Later in the same essay, Rich takes a somewhat contradictory tack arguing that the "hypnotic manipulation" of TRIUMPH, its seducing the audience through illusionism and romantic tropes, are

"equally the sins of Hollywood, Moscow, China, India, Egypt, Europe, of everywhere in the world where the notion of representing reality is the basis of cinema and the aim of controlling audience response its foundation of ideology."

So on the one hand, the film is simply a documentary. On the other, it is ideological seduction through the mechanisms of representing reality. Either argument will serve to neutralize the specifically fascist character of Riefenstahl's work, which ironically Rich delineates superbly in her discussion of the film. That is, the mobilization of romantic traditions, metaphors, images, the storehouse of Germanic art and culture to serve the trope of Hitler as father, as divinely endowed architect of a social structure full of promise and order, masks all the atrocities his regime had already committed and intended to commit.

Regina Cornwell's essay on Maya Deren and Germaine Dulac is the closest the volume comes to addressing the art of women filmmakers whose films depart from the mode of mimetic narrative representation into more highly figurative and non-figurative forms. Since much impressive work has been done on these two filmmakers and on many others since Cornwell wrote this essay, it perhaps has aged more than other selections. Again we confront an issue of method and style, since Cornwell can say, for example, of THE SEASHELL AND THE CLERGYMAN, that "its only mark of distinction is that it is considered the first surrealist film." The glib dismissal that replaces analysis does not serve the development of feminist criticism. In fact, any historical analysis of Dulac would necessarily have to consider how debatable it is to place this film in the category "surrealist", especially in light of the complex antagonism that developed between Artaud and Dulac over what theories and expression their collaborative effort represented.

The anthology ends with a section of short critical pieces on various films made by women, including Pam Cook's provocative essay on Dorothy Arzner, Karyn Kay's analysis of Nelly Kaplan's A VERY CURIOUS GIRL, and Marsha Kinder's "Reflections on JEANNE DIELMAN," that thoughtfully relates Chantal Akerman's film to a tradition of women's fiction.

If I have seemed harsh on this anthology, if I have questioned its right to present itself as "the best thinking" on the "world of women in film," let me reiterate that as a collection of diverse criticism, it serves a purpose. Let me add that its filmography and bibliography are representative of a sincere effort to analyze the historical repression of women through representation and to make the efforts of women filmmakers known.

Let me, in the style of the essays beginning Part Two of this book, account for some of the strides feminists have made in film analysis and in filmmaking, and indicate directions for future concern.

History — film history and the history of women, cultural history — we are learning how difficult it is to do, how important. We are learning methodologies and theories which transform the kinds of statements we make, the way in which we make them. How does one take apart representation in a film for its historical and ideological meanings? Films make direct statements about women and work, motherhood, aging, power through sexuality, power through nurturing, the family, education, class relations. But so much of the communication is indirect, gestural, situational, embedded in the rhythms of the image, and the lighting. Readings become multiple, the narrative is trying to contain, to legitimize a given dictum. The film is performing, whispering a contradictory message, perhaps only because a given actress is brilliant and strong, perhaps because a contradiction within the society is forcing its way into manifestation in some abbreviated, nearly disguised form.

Theoretically this means that one must recognize some very complex layerings of meanings on conscious and unconscious levels for both the makers and audience. Julia Lesage's outline for a methodology of feminist analysis is fine as far as it goes. But it is evident that in practice, the history and criticism in this volume can follow the general conception in that piece and still produce flat, one-dimensional history, an analysis dependent on only the most obvious line of the narrative, the most immediate reaction to the image.

Few pieces in Sexual Stratagems discuss the specifics of production and audience; few pieces are specific about social/historical milieu or referencing. But more recent feminist writing is placing the act of analysis in a more developed theoretical methodology. Most of it is as yet unpublished. There are several recent dissertations, for example, that concern themselves with the depiction of women during the forties. Diane Waldman has written on women in gothic films of that period, Michael Renov on the representation of women in Hollywood films of 1942 and 1943, and Fina Bathrick on the ideologies surrounding the reestablishment of the woman's sphere in post-WWII culture, by examining films prior to and during that postwar period. The methodology and depth of cultural research in such studies is exemplary. Other notable studies include two dissertations on French films of the twenties by Sandy Flitteman and Wendy Dozeretz, each of which integrates a feminist analysis into new historical research and innovative textual analysis. Let me also cite recent articles and conference presentations by Teresa de Lauretis, Kadja Silverman, Pat Mellencamp, Judith Mayne, Mary Ann Doane and myself, as exploring the theoretical issues of female spectatorship and identification. And Ann Kaplan is working on a book that will synthesize and advance much of this material and hopefully provide a text for women-in-film courses to supplement the deficiencies inherent in anthologies.

Let me end by making a plea for more writing — writing which makes explicit its methodology and its critical assumptions, not only on "women" but on ideology and culture, on psychoanalysis and representation, on class and history. As to the criticism of women filmmakers, let's learn to address in writing the meaning and value of work which is abstract, non-narrative or nonrepresentational. Let's also take seriously Claire Johnston's call for a counter-cinema, one that would radically question self-indulgent biography, given to us transparently. Counter-cinema would demand that the feminist search for self, for individual identity, always be presented problematically and not as a goal in itself, s an inroad to bourgeois complacency. More films as well as more writing. More films informed by the critical history we are assembling, by our knowledge of how feminism cuts through psychoanalysis, history, science and art, transforming our approach to the world. If we use words as expansive as the world of women in film, let them represent a desire for total transformation and improvement of our place, our outlook, our consciousness.