Female sensuality
Past joys and future hopes

by Gertrud Koch
translated by Reinhart Sonneburg
and Eric Rentschler

from Jump Cut, no. 30, March 1985, pp. 67-70
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1985, 2005


Feminists have begun to see that everything woman-made is not necessarily praiseworthy.[1] But if we allow that to be woman-made does not perforce make a product "feminist," we face the considerable problem of having to establish criteria for what we would term "feminist." We need a theory to serve as a starting point from which to elucidate criteria. Using such a framework, we can substantiate these criteria so as to further discuss them. And this brings us right into the thick of things.

If we assume that "feminist film criticism and theory" designate a qualitative category and not simply women concerned with these matters, we do so above all in reference to the women's movement's own discussion of feminism. The women's movement has articulated various theories about women's social status, ones which serve to legitimate political strategies and which also come from and initiate many women's burgeoning new identities. Women's new self-image, kindled by the movement, also acts as the basis of feminist film criticism and as an alternative to the images which otherwise confront women: in billboards, magazines, floor polish cans, postcards, commercials, TV films, and the cinema.

This evolving female self-image necessarily conflicts with the images of women that society-at-large produces. A long process begins, for no woman who grew up surrounded by images hallowing her as an idealized entity can learn overnight to accept herself as her self and not in relation to these idealized images.

So far I have used the term "feminist theory" broadly and do not intend to discuss further the different positions within "feminist film theory." To consider "feminist film theory" is not simply an academic undertaking but is inextricably bound to a larger whole — the autonomous women's movement. "Feminist theory" has political implications because it contributes to its proponents' rising consciousness, thereby also guiding actions. This means with regard to women's relation to their visual images, first of all, that the most justified rage is no good if it remains speechless and unarticulated. We can situate, for example, vociferous reaction to a blatantly sexist film like THE STORY OF O with comparative ease in the framework of present political organizations, but things become more difficult in cases where sexism does not surface so openly. Here, tasks of analytical definition must begin.

Where sexism permeates various modes of expression but is not readily recognizable as the main content or even theme of a film (as the sexism is seen in THE STORY OF O), general "feminist theory" no longer suffices. We need medium-specific insights from film t1eory to articulate our objections and criticism of films intelligently.

For too long many women have assumed that it is enough to be sensitive feminists in order to be capable of judging films' depiction of women. But feminist film theory can turn those presentiments into certainties. In fact, feminist film theoreticians often disagree on a particular film's presentation of women. One person deems sexist what another calls realistic, and so on. This comes only partially from differing feminist positions. To a large extent, it stems from divergent positions within the film theory underlying the arguments.

Images leave a lot of room for interpretation, especially filmed images of women. One reason it's hard to analyze images is because they're inherently ambiguous and resist definitive interpretation. Yet we do not perceive a film as a mere string of images; we attribute meaning to the film as a whole. It is an individual, subjective process familiar to every woman who watches a film. About the film's meaning we often agree with others or we discuss different possible interpretations. But in so doing, we always presuppose that there are better or worse arguments in interpreting a film. We revise our opinion or maintain it — but we must prove it if we do not want to express mere personal prejudice. To justify an argument, we have to recall points within the film which provide the basis for our interpretation. We have to point out which shots and sequences, which special montage effects, plot patterns, or dialogue passages underlie our judgment. What we had been doing informally whenever we talked about a film after we got out of the movies, we can try to perform in a systematic and methodical fashion. Thus we can begin to think about how images generate meanings and how these meanings articulate social and aesthetic connections.

This puts us right into the thick of feminist film criticism. But what is "feminist" about it? Feminist film criticism differs from conventional criticism mainly by being partisan. Although it is not opposed to anti-capitalist, leftist film criticism, feminist film criticism perceives capitalist society in a mediated form, that is, through women's situation. To say that feminist film criticism is partisan, however, does not imply that just being firmly rooted in feminism gives it an advantage over non-feminist criticism in each and every case. Partisanship here simply means that we lay open the positions that have served as the point of departure in developing our criticism — not that these positions are therefore unassailable. If we, as feminist film critics, take sides with women's cause, we do not immunize ourselves against criticism and become right by virtue of our standpoint. On the contrary, we also understand partisanship as the task of defining women's oppression in society and in filmic images as clearly and precisely as possible.

We do not sharpen our arguments in order to assert ourselves among academics or hold our own in critical in-fighting. Above all we seek to put forward incisive arguments in women's offensive for their self-determination and that of their filmic image. All women must know about these arguments — whether the women, as media employees, are trying to influence film products, or whether, as spectators, they have to struggle with the sexist viewing habits of their immediate TV and film environment. "Feminist film criticism," therefore, draws attention to the media's sexist ideology, so that these arguments are, whenever possible, a part of their everyday life.

We also have to develop feminist methods of film analysis because new methods accompany new intentions. Yet we do not create "feminist film theory" without presuppositions — ab ovo, as it were. We can make use of those methods of film analysis developed with the intent of criticizing ideology. And the criticism of ideology exists within the context of materialist social theory, paradigmatically developed by Marx.

Thus, in analyzing film, we must do more than classify female characters according to age, occupation, number of children, and income. We must analyze contradictions in the presentation of women and scrutinize ideological distortions, especially in the mode of presentation, the social utopias contained, or the use of female myths. An empiricist lapse would mean, for example, drawing the conclusion that Mae West plays the role of an emancipated woman merely because she can pick and choose her man. Only by ferreting out the latent meanings of her characterizations will we notice that Mae West by no means stands in contradiction to sexist ideologies and their socio-psychological basis.

In the feminist analysis of sexist ideologies, we need psychoanalytical paradigms. Many women have rejected psychoanalysis as a patriarchal and misogynic theory, but that rejection needs to be rethought. It is possible to reconsider the theory of penis envy, on which many feminists' flat condemnation of psychoanalysis is based, as a theory of power. We can criticize Freud, yet still gain from his insights to utilize the very methods of psychoanalysis for our own purposes.

Thus "feminist film theory" and "feminist film criticism" mean using the following tactics: Use the existing possibilities for the critical analysis of ideology. Use methods from critical sociology. And use a reconstructed feminist psychoanalysis. We need these tools to provide arguments and methods for interpretation which relate concretely to the women's movement and to women's everyday life.

We must not limit ourselves to unmasking sexists and uttering justified demands for a different cinematic presentation of women. Such a procedure remains blind to the matter at hand. If our theory about the specific nature of female labor and its social importance is correct, we will discover in films (ideological products of this society) something which corresponds to our insights, even if distorted. To find such correspondences, we cannot simply examine the cinematic portrayal of women or look for positive models. We must discover concealed proofs of our theories.

Let me illustrate this point with an example. Female labor, the reproduction of domestic labor in the widest sense (i.e., not just through physical labor but also through emotional labor, which mediates social norms, especially in the education of children) plays a fundamental role in reproducing society as a whole. It follows that the objective importance of female labor for society will also appear in films that, on the manifest level, depict only a solidly sexist ideology and capitalist ethic. Using this thesis, we could, for example, analyze Howard Hawk's RIO BRAVO, a so-called men's film. There, irrespective of the female characters in the film, we might detect a portrayal of female labor which plays an important role in the film, even if presented ironically. This happens through the Walter Brennan figure, Stumpy, who stands out from this group of men not only because he is responsible for the housework, but because he also has to take charge of his companions' emotional well-being. Not taken seriously by the others, he makes an important contribution to maintaining their emotional equilibrium and individual happiness. He thus embodies the role which women play in real life. On the other hand, the film's women characters remain only pale projections of a stunted male sexuality, projections that correspond to the sexist division of females into sexual and nurturing object, into whore, mother, lover, and wife. The above analysis indicates that even where men seem to be reproducing themselves autonomously, the need to rely on female labor, at least qualitatively, catches up with them. Therefore the film's use of the Brennan character as "wife" once again point to the objective necessity of female labor in society. And in this film, this traditional division of labor asserts itself behind men's backs and right through their narrow minds.

Here I am reformulating and adding to Claire Johnston's call to search out instances in films where women occur as non-women, as male projections.[2] We can now demand that male "autonomy" be revealed as a usurped autonomy, for men have always been dependent on that very female labor which they disown and whose importance they negate. This insight could very well serve as a point of departure to analyze the so-called men's films. Such an analysis would not only denounce sexism but would make it understood that male ideology denies female labor, which, despite this very denial, has left its traces in these films. This might be the key critical tool we need to account for feminists' subjective enjoyment of films that at first sight are clearly sexist in how they portray women.

Especially in screwball and slapstick comedies, which abound with polymorphic-perverse role changes, women generally get shown in a bad light. Nevertheless the women often come into their own dressed up as men — through the back door of comedy, so to speak. Laughter, a physical expression and reaction that can sneak past to stop signs of taboos, certainly creates here an important precondition. Thus, especially in comic roles and ironical characterizations, recourse to femininity is most likely to take place. In considering such comic devices, we should increasingly reflect upon our own reactions and our viewing experiences in the cinema. Maybe we can learn something, not by suppressing our laughter and genuine reactions to sexist films through a guilty conscience, but by asking ourselves why at certain points we react in such and such a way. For this, however, we need more than just film theory. We must look to theories about the organization of our perceptive capacities and their sex-specific characteristics.


Previous feminist film theory has not considered sufficiently women's inner motivations for going to movies. Feminist film theory has analyzed female film myths, and the relations of these myths to male fantasies, as well as to the male producers and consumers of these myths. However, we have few feminist methodical attempts to explain how female spectators might deal with these myths. This lack seems greatly due to the fact that feminists often have a moral relation to cinema. Following the French school around Lacan, they reject a world of images which they perceive, and rightly so as part of the male symbolic realm. As a consequence these feminist critics rarely consider to what extent film's myths have been internalized by female spectators.

This approach has elsewhere been widely and justifiably attacked, for in such a construct woman is seen as a void, an object, and not as a subject. In contrast, I would like to show how in women's enjoyment of movies, a shift can be well-detected, a shift from woman as object in patriarchal society to subject. Central to this dynamic are two processes. First, woman is socially constituted as spectacle, as a sensual-visual object. On the other hand, the woman as subject also has her own path to the acquisition of the world of objects. Thus I distinguish between men's perception of women and a woman's own perception of herself and other women. In so doing, I assume a basic lack of reciprocity between these two points of view which clearly derives from the sexual inequality common to patriarchal societies.


In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre analyzes how domination is produced through gazes, how exerting the power of the gaze renders the subject into an object, a thing. When someone stares at us, we become their object. Their glance evaluates us. Sartre describes this situation in ontological terms but it is one familiar to every woman. Women regularly experience the domination of appraising glances that reduce them to objects of assessment and subjugation. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre argues:

"I am fixing the people whom I see into objects; I am in relation to them as the Other is in relation to me. In looking at them I measure my power."[3]

"Thus being-seen constitutes me as a defenseless being for a freedom which is not my freedom. It is in this sense that we can consider ourselves as 'slaves' insofar as we appear to the Other. But this slavery is not a historical result — capable of being surmounted — of a life in the abstract form of consciousness. I am a slave to the degree that my being is dependent at the center on a freedom which is not mine and which is the very condition of my being. Insofar as I am the object of values which come to qualify me without my being able to act on this qualification or even to know it, I am enslaved."[4]

We can translate what Sartre discusses in his "Essay in Phenomenological Ontology" into more tangible terms, those of servitude. Less and less do women view such a condition as an ontological one. More and more they seek to end this state of affairs. What Sartre metaphorically describes in terms of the circulatory system and calls a reciprocal process[5] has manifested itself historically in the oppression of women. This happens in anything but a reciprocal way. Women have few occasions to indulge in the power of the dominating stare, which men have traditionally enjoyed. If we free Sartre's text of its ontological underpinning, we confront directly the social problem inherent in the power of the gaze.

In their informative study, "Augen-Blicke: Uber einige Vorurteile und Einschrânkungen geschlechtsspezifischer Wahrnehmung," Gisela Schneider and Klaus Laermann have traced in art history the taboos to which the female gaze has been subject.[6] This micro-sociological account of the female gaze under male domination demonstrates that the Sartrean exchange of gazes is unequal. Schneider and Laermann correctly point out that one of the main characteristics of the male gaze is its desubjectivizing power:

"It is above all the male gaze which continually lapses into this sort of abstraction. Especially when men take a purely receptive stance toward the object of their gaze, they seek to detach themselves. Their ideal mode of seeing is a desubjectivized gaze which appears able to touch everything because nothing touches it. It is both neutralized and neutralizing … The neutralization of his gaze, which he must force upon himself, pushes the merely subjective images and human sensations outside of his periphery."[7]

They attribute a compulsion toward abstraction in the male gaze. Such a psychic mechanism implies a corresponding social concept inherent in our historically evolved patriarchal society. (In other patriarchal societies things might be different.) This is the concept of the bartering society. Here I draw on for my model Alfred Sohn-Rethel's equation of commodity form and mode of thinking, a notion I will first describe before drawing a few conclusions regarding people's perception and construction of visual worlds.

Sohn-Rethel assumes that abstract categorial thinking evolved with the rise of abstraction in bartering values. He likens the bartering of commodities — which takes place in abstract units — to abstract thinking — which moves from concrete objects to categorical abstractions. Such a process of abstraction, no doubt, also applies to visual relations between the sexes. Men turn women into objects and subsume them in market strategies. Such a habit of perception follows from the fact that the male gaze is determined by this commodity form.

The identity of commodity form and mode of thinking, which both find their counterpart in bartering's abstract nature, leads to a perceptual desensualization and desubjectivization of concrete things as well as concrete nature. Concrete and subjective visual impressions become preempted by standardized and abstract patterns. The male image of concrete things becomes a pictogram, a schematic nucleus of a previously concrete visualization. This means that the male gaze is no longer direct; rather it scans abstract patterns before it encounters a woman's sensually concrete image. The desensualization of the visible world goes hand-in-hand with the reification of woman as an object of barter. Following Sartre's analysis of domination through gazing, we can discern a twofold reification of woman in this activity. In the first instance, reification has already taken place before man gazed at woman. It is not the reification of direct interaction, but reification into a commodity that forms the basis of the bartering abstraction. The second instance follows directly from the first one. There, the male gazes at the female with x-ray eyes, with a judgmental stare that sees the pictogram of an abstract and essentialized woman behind her concrete appearance.

With this in mind, we can reconstruct the arguments used by women during the recent suit against the magazine Stern for its sexist cover photos. The concrete situation at the root of this controversy is the following one: a man idles at a newsstand, perusing magazine covers that portray nude women. At the same moment a woman passes by and notices the man gazing at these photographs. He casts an appraising look at her; she in turn feels ashamed. But why does the woman feel ashamed and under what conditions would the man be the one to feel ashamed? In Sartre's mind, a man becomes ashamed when he feels himself observed as a voyeur. But such voyeurism and its inherent transactional reification stand as an accepted social convention — one guaranteed as a male privilege. Thus, the man can overlook his shame by subjectivizing his gaze and transforming it into a scrutinizing and untouchable one. The gaze runs the social gamut of reification and abstraction. Its male bearer summarily compares a standardized image he has of women with the concrete image before him. For the woman, this confrontation means the following: Due to her social status, as shall be seen later, she cannot take recourse to abstract reification. For her the standardized picture of the woman on the cover virtually embodies part of her own social identity. She experiences her own actual subjective identity vis-á-vis this photo as a deviation, a stigma.[8] She feels ashamed on an interactional level because she feels a crucial part of her identity being encroached upon. Even though the woman has the initial advantage (for her gaze unmasks the voyeur), the evasive action of the male succeeds in reducing her to a feeling of shame.

Probably wide-spread male fetishization of certain parts of the female anatomy (beautiful legs, firm breasts, etc.) can be explained in psychoanalytical terms. It also can be explained in terms of commodity fetishism, which views any deviation from the image of ideal woman (stubby legs, flabby breasts, etc.) as lowering a woman's social exchange value. In discussing Sartre's notion of the "body," Herbert Marcuse reveals that the vicious circle of reification ceases once we consider the concrete sensual body as "flesh":

"And the one point, the one moment which appears as fulfillment [sic], possession, is where and when man becomes a thing: body, flesh; and his free activity becomes complete inertia: caressing the body as thing. The Ego, thus far separated from the "things" and therefore dominating and exploiting them, now has become a "thing" itself — but the thing, in turn, has been freed to its own pure existence."[9]

To assert that the lecherous male gaze turns women into "sex objects" seems here valid only when we consider the twofold force of reification. Otherwise we do not clearly see that such designations refer to a desensualized sexuality (one determined by the commodity form) and not to other underlying personal interactions that form the basis of erotic love.

We must also contrast female modes of perception in commodity-producing, patriarchal societies with male ones. Here some hypotheses suggest themselves. As a rule, woman is excluded from the sphere of production. Insofar as her actual social identity does not derive solely from labor outside the house, but rather is also (or primarily), anchored in the sphere of reproduction within a household, she is marked by her daily dealings with commodities in terms of their use value. Indeed, she takes charge of their consumption. The work she performs in the home corresponds to pre-industrial patterns. The activities of washing, ironing, mending, and cooking are sensual and concrete ones, which are not meant to produce commodities that might be bartered on the market. The utility value of these activities is grounded in everyday needs.

Because a woman working in the household is not as bound up in the production sphere nor likely thereby to expand her horizon or influence, her capacity for abstraction may often be relatively underdeveloped. This price comes from society's confining women to an anachronistic pre-capitalistic state. The female penchant for practical thinking emerges as a consequence of this traditional form of socialization. Woman's situation at society's fringe has its concrete and sensual advantages, and ultimately it means for many women an increased sensitivity. In her everyday life, the housewife is responsible for arranging aesthetically the tangible objects within the living space. This includes decorating the apartment, laying out knick-knacks on the mantlepiece, and in general identifying herself with the environment she creates (a beautiful carpet, well-ordered furniture, stately drapes, tasty meals, a well-dressed husband, and immaculately groomed children). Her dress should not only be proper but also pretty; the apartment should be clean and comfortable, meals nutritious as well as delicious; the carpet should not only absorb sound but also be pleasing to the eye. Such an orientation of female labor leads to an aestheticization of woman's everyday existence. At the point where she attempts to transcend the everyday through a symbolic ordering of aesthetic signs, though, she runs up against male patterns of reification and standardization.

Perhaps this explains why women allegedly have a predilection for kitsch. In dealing with the culture industry's standardized products, women lose their aesthetic bearings. The practical sense can no longer distinguish between the categories underlying standardized production. Women have no other alternative but to follow slavishly, over and over again, certain recipes and instructions. They stand at the mercy of the prefabricated designs promulgated by the media. Or when they attempt to exercise some aesthetic autonomy in their housework, they run the risk of confusing things, like putting a plastic sofa on top of a Persian rug or placing artificial flowers in an antique vase. While men in their grey suits with their functionalized preferences escape these dilemmas, women face the reproach of bad taste when their aesthetic sense is confounded by the inordinately large supply of commodities on the market.

A woman's aesthetic needs stand firmly rooted in her everyday experience and are determined further by her minority status. Above all, her sensuality — a result of these activities and this situation — becomes most likely to be punished by patriarchal society. Men have always feared unrestrained female sensuality and therefore strongly forbidden it. Female sensuality only gains social legitmacy as a function of the male psyche. It is, however, severely punished when it tries to go its own independent way. This sensuality may be kept in abeyance by corsets and crinolines, mouselike pleats, modest blushing, and meek glances. Nonetheless, even in the Victorian era where the prevailing image of women was one which totally disavowed their sensuality, women's dreams and fears, which emerged in 19th century literature and art, betrayed a very precise knowledge of this capacity's deeply rooted nature, even when their socialization sought to contain it.[10] Visual curiosity is a means of access to the concrete tangible world, but that curiosity is subject to various — and different — taboos for men and women. Now we must investigate these taboos and their implications for film history and analyze the needs to which cinema caters, how cinema satisfied these needs, and why diverging attitudes toward and preferences for certain genres result from these taboos.


Female sensuality becomes suppressed whenever it transcends the socially accepted domestic realm. When a woman leaves the home, she becomes literally blindfolded. The veil she had to wear in past eras, the make-up, the modestly averted glance, all go to show that these rituals not only hid her from the gazes of others, but that "those others" likewise were also protected by these means from woman's malevolently sensual gaze. In Luchino Visconti's L'INNOCENTE this dialectic appears in a ritualized scene. In the presence of her husband, the woman veils her face before she leaves the house. Certain gestures and camera angles which reflect the husband's attempts to catch his wife's eye suggest the uneasiness with which he is overcome. Has his wife put on the veil to reject the gazes of his male rivals? Or has she done so to go to a rendezvous with her lover unrecognized, thus concealing her longing gazes under a respectable wife's veil?

In the movie theater, the realm of institutionalized voyeurism, women gain a freedom in the protection of darkness to indulge themselves in a voyeurism otherwise denied them. For a long time it was considered improper for a woman to go to the movies unaccompanied. This was not merely a class consideration (the cinema seen as a proletarian diversion). Even when the cinema had been assimilated by the middle class, the taboo remained in the minds of my women who only attended movies on the sly.[11]

Cinema has lost much of its allure for women. In the process of cinema's decline, women — much more so than men — have ceased to pursue their former pastime. The question foremost in our minds right now is this one: To what extent can women's abstention from filmgoing be seen as their reacting to changes in film offerings which have increasingly neglected female viewers' preferences?

The mid-sixties saw the collapse of the old star system in Hollywood films, and from these films the German market had imported the majority of its offerings. Only a few male veterans — John Wayne and several others — survived that system's downfall. Female stars, much more the objects of youth fetishism, had long since retreated from the screen. A new type of multitalented actor was coming to the fore. Commercial cinema, as exemplified by the Hollywood industry, had thus lost its remaining vestiges of aura, the last aura to be found in bourgeois art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Walter Benjamin had foreseen the atrophy of narrative film's aura. Nonetheless, the cinema went on producing auratic elements of consequence, especially in its stars, whose uniqueness and singularity fascinated spectators witnessing the here and now of the screen experience.

Initially we suggested that the concept of standardization follows as a perceptional consequence from the equation of commodity form and mode of thinking. With regard to the culture industry, this means that the increasing standardization and progressive destruction of film's remaining vestiges of aura (in the form of movie stars) stands as a consequence of the inner logic of desensualization and desubjectivization which accompany the male gaze.

Using the term "male cinema" seems quite justified, especially when we are speaking of the standardized output since the mid-sixties. Many of these productions no longer reflect the coherent, closed worldviews and ideologies which had been characteristic of earlier films. These newer films merely depict normative social behavior. In the cinema young people become acquainted with the world of commodities. They learn how to hold a glass of whiskey, how to kiss a woman, how to open the door of an elegant car, how to assert oneself. Traces of standardization, desensualization, and a loss of meaning can be found in the giant culture industry of the Hollywood studios from its beginnings. This is why television usurped Hollywood's throne and stands as a worthy successor — and Hollywood would be the last one to complain about this. European stars like Pola Negri, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich, imported fragments of aura as part of their European cultural tradition and enhanced thereby the identification of their female audiences. The star worship to which women succumbed much more often than men — no female star aroused a male mass psychosis comparable to the one created by Rudolph Valentino among women — corresponded quite closely to the female mode of perception: identification with the narcissistic exaggerations of fanciful costumes and grandiose sets and the predilection for the tangible here and now which complemented the aura around the stars. These factors assured the star-studded Hollywood cinema the loyalty of its female audience.[12]

With its loss of stars and the last auratic moments in its commercial products, U.S. film did not by chance also lose its female audience. In recent years, in fact, the film industry has started again to make films in which women play central roles. On the other hand, though, the desensualized male gaze has been satisfied by the numerous sex films which have emerged. The desensualized standardization of importunate male gazes and the crude impetus toward a "raw lust for possession" (Karl Marx) which are presented in sex films clearly form but two sides of the same coin. They are the poles that hold together male identity without, however, merging its split psyche.

This division of male perception has as a consequence porno houses; these establishments are not simply the invention of a few capitalists. The popularity of such cinemas clearly shows that they cater to needs not otherwise satisfied by the culture industry. This division, however, derives from the male market: it takes its form from male perception. The predicted end of the cinema which Adorno and Horkheimer foresaw already in the 40s has come close to realization:

"If most of the radio stations and movie theaters were closed down, the consumers would probably not lose so very much. To walk from the street into the movie theater is no longer to enter a world of dream; as soon as the very existence of these institutions no longer made it obligatory to use them, there would be no great urge to do so. Such closures would not be reactionary machine wrecking. The disappointment would be felt not so much by the enthusiasts as by the slow-witted, who are the ones who suffer for everything anyhow. In spite of the films which are intended to complete her integration, the housewife finds in the darkness of the movie theater a place of refuge where she can sit for a few hours with nobody watching, just as she used to look out of the window when there were still homes and rest in the evening.[13]


1. This section appeared in a more lengthy version as "Was Ist und Wozu Brauchen Wir Eine Feministische Filmkritik?" in frauen und film, No. 11 (March 1977), pp. 3-9.

2. Claire Johnston, "Women's Cinema as Counter-Cinema," in Notes on Women's Cinema, ed. Claire Johnston (London: British Film Institute, 1975), pp. 24-31.

3. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology, trans. Hazel E. Barnes, special abridged edition (New York: Citadel Press, 1966), p. 242.

4. Ibid., p. 243.

5. Ibid., p. 237:

"Earlier we were able to call this internal hemorrhage the flow of my world toward the Other-as-object. This was because the flow of blood was trapped and localized by the very fact that I fixed as an object in my world that Object toward which this world was bleeding. Thus not a drop of blood was lost; all was recovered, surrounded, localized although in a being which I could not penetrate."

Referring to Sartre's work, Herbert Marcuse describes this movement as a circular one. See "Sartre's Existentialism," in Herbert Marcuse, Studies in Critical Philosophy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), p. 169. Elsewhere in the same essay Marcuse points out an underlying ideological motif: "Behind the nihilistic language of Existentialism lurks the ideology of free competition, free initiative, and equal opportunity" (p. 174).

6. Gisela Schneider and Klaus Laermann, "Augen-Blicke. Uber einige Vorurteile und Einschrankungen geschlechtsspezifischer Wahrnehmung," Kursbuch, No. 49, pp. 36-58.

7. Ibid., p. 47.

8. Cf. Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963), P. 127. Goffman's stigma theory distinguishes between virtual and actual identity:

"The most fortunate of normals is likely to have his half-hidden failing, and for every little failing there is a social occasion when it will loom large, creating a shameful gap between virtual and actual social identity."

9. Marcuse, op. cit., p. 181.

10. Cf. the collection of myths in Hoffman R. Hays, The Dangerous Sex: The Myth of Feminine Evil (New York: Putnam, 1964). Hays interprets these myths psychoanalytically, focusing on the fear of women expressed in them. He neglects to point out the societal patterns from which these myths stem, and therefore he comes to the conclusion that from Poe to Baudelaire women were experienced as fear-inducing. Hays contrasts this with a rationalist model of enlightenment without considering the limitations of a society opposed to true enlightenment. In Baudelaire's work, for example, Hayes overlooks the utopian vision of an asexual society, which avoids the reification of traditional society and thus furthers an authentic expression of sensuality. Explicitly misogynic studies often seem more able to do justice to women's subjectivity than the well-meaning ones which patronizingly refer to the "social" traits of women.

11. Cf. the accounts of female spectators in frauen und film, No. 17 (Sept. 1978), esp. Karsten Witte, "'Meine Ureigene Leidenschaft' Gesprach mit Eisbeth Ries, Meiner Grossmutter," pp. 2627:

"Karsten: When you moved to Hamburg in 1918 and got married, did you keep going to movies?

Elsbeth Ries: No, not at first, because my husband wouldn't go with me. But later on I went to the 'Passage' in the Monckebergerstrasse, sometimes even in the morning. There was also a very good morning program at the Steindamm. I went there often in the morning.

Karsten: Were you allowed to do that?

Elsbeth Ries: What, was I allowed to? I never asked. I had been married for some time and had children.

Karsten: But grandfather was opposed to the cinema.

Elsbeth Ries: Yes, but he never found out. I was always back home by noon and the children were in school."

12. On a political level the worship of movie stars corresponds to idolatry and in fascism to the Fuhrer-cult. Women may enjoy the equality which allows them to vote, but this nominal achievement hardly suffices to break down the social barriers that have created female concretism. Those who would continue to lament the wanting democratic sensibility among women, however, usually are not willing to accept a more encompassing definition of emancipation. Rather than discuss the conservatism of some women in a social context, they insist on pseudo-psychological arguments which in no way mediate psychic and social experience as products of a larger framework.

13. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), p. 139.

Gertrud Koch is a film critic living in Frankfurt, Germany, who writes for the Frankfurter Rundschau and regularly contributes to frauen and film.