Re-vision: the limits of psychoanalysis

by Ellen Seiter

from Jump Cut, no. 33, Feb. 1988, pp. 59-61
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1988, 2006

Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism. Edited by Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp and Linda Williams (Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1984). American Film Institute Monograph Series, Volume 3.

"As women, we have our work cut out for us."  — Adrienne Rich

This volume of feminist film criticism contains four articles originally presented at the "Cinema Histories, Cinema Practices I" Conference (sponsored by the University of Southern California's Center for the Humanities and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Center for Twentieth Century Studies in 1981). Other articles had originally appeared in journals (one each from JUMP CUT, New German Critique and Quarterly Review of Film Studies). The editors, Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp and Linda Williams introduce the volume with an historical overview of feminist film criticism.

As the introduction indicates, the papers from the conference are strongly influenced by psychoanalytic and discourse theory (Michel Foucault figures prominently here) and aim to "provide a number of different entries and suggestions for breaking the hold of a monolithic construction of sexual difference." I shall begin by describing the four papers from "Cinema Histories, Cinema Practices."

Mary Ann Doane's essay, "The 'Woman's Film': Possession and Address," deals with a group of films (DARK VICTORY, 1939; NOW VOYAGER, 1942; SUSPICION, REBECCA, and GASLIGHT, 1944; POSSESSED and THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS, 1947, among many others) in terms of sharing an address to the female spectator rather than sharing the features of a single genre. Doane is interested in female subjectivity and three types of "obsessions" she finds in these films. Those "obsessions" include the films' setting in the domestic sphere and that sphere's association with the uncanny; the medical discourse in the films, which is engaged in the control of the female body; and feminine masochistic fantasies, their relationship to sexuality (one of replacement), and the problematic of this address to the female spectator. This essay appears in Doane's The Desire to Desire: The Woman's Film of the 1940s (Indiana U. Press, 1987). The connection between the ideas in this essay and the historical place of women in the family in the 1940s should make an important contribution to feminist film criticism.

"When the Woman Looks" by Linda Williams offers an analysis of the horror film which makes use of Mary Ann Doane's idea that "the woman's exercise of an active investigating gaze can only be simultaneous with her own victimization." Using examples from the silent period, Williams describes what it has meant in the cinema for women to be blind, to refuse to look, or, most importantly, to dare to return the male gaze. Williams pays close attention to many classic horror films (in particular, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, Rupert Julian, 1925) where the film permits the woman to look and she sees a monster, a distortion of her own image.

Williams interprets this not as the recognition of castration, as Laura Mulvey's and Stephen Heath's psychoanalytic models would suggest, but as "a potentially subversive recognition of the power and the potency of a non-phallic sexuality." Williams then extends this analysis to PEEPING TOM (1960) and DRESSED TO KILL (1980). These films contain the disappearance of the monster and his replacement by a normal-looking man, who (in the latter two films) appears as a woman when enacting violence against women. In this later development, the woman becomes "both victim and monster." Williams' overview of the horror genre, though cursory, situates cinema's increasingly violent misogyny in film history. She traces the way that female desire, once permitted in the woman's look in horror films, now becomes nothing but monstrous and victimizing in film.

Our attention turns from the woman's gaze to the woman's voice in Kaja Silverman's "Disembodying the Female Voice." Her formal analysis of the sound/ image relation in terms of gender concentrates on the conspicuous absence of a female voice-over in classical cinema. This absence symptomizes the exclusion of the female subject from the production of discourse. Silverman's essay has implications for the practice of feminist filmmaking, and it invites the re-analysis of Hollywood films with attention to the construction of the soundtrack and to the way the films obsessively refer the female voice to the female body. Silverman discusses the use of the "disembodied" female voice-over in a number of films directed by women, finding Yvonne Rainer's JOURNEYS FROM BERLIN (1971) a powerful example of this formal strategy.

The final essay in the volume, Teresa de Lauretis' "Now and Nowhere: Roeg's BAD TIMING" is the most indebted to discourse theory. In its choice of topic, it seems the most puzzling essay to find in a book on feminist film criticism. Nicholas Roeg's film BAD TIMING concerns the police investigation of a psychoanalyst who is suspected of attempting to murder and then raping his lover.

De Lauretis' choice of this particular film seems to be a kind of worst-case exercise in proving Foucault's assertion that "the points of resistance are present everywhere in the power network." She also admires the director as auteur a great deal. I cannot summarize Dc Lauretis' complex argument here, but I would suggest her analysis is seriously limited by concentrating on a film such as BAD TIMING, which does not offer most women what it has offered de Lauretis.

These four essays contribute many original and stimulating ideas to feminist film criticism. The emphasis on theoretical perspectives derived from psychoanalysis, however, seriously limits their appeal to a wider feminist readership. Many feminist filmmakers and critics will certainly be troubled by the dearth of references to feminist theorists working outside of film or semiotics, and will be alienated by the frequency with which the names of the fathers appear here. Only Linda Williams' piece has the kind of skepticism about psychoanalysis that most feminists demand. When Mary Ann Doane cites Freud's case study on masochism, "A Child Is Being Beaten," she comes dangerously close to offering Freud's reports on women patients as empirical evidence of the structures of the feminine unconscious.

The influence of psychoanalysis can also be seen in the choice of films to write about. Women's films and horror films contain a lot of vulgar Freudianism, which makes psychoanalytic approaches particularly inviting. Kaja Silverman discusses this work of many women filmmakers, such as Yvonne Rainer, whose films deal on an overt narrative level with psychoanalytic principles. Silverman excludes other filmmakers whose work has broader social implications, such as Michelle Citron. De Lauretis chooses a film that is literally about a psychoanalyst. Altogether they emphasize English-language and avant-garde cinema to the exclusion of other kinds of film and fail to consider class and

Finally, the theoretical perspectives employed in these four essays have reproduced the heterosexism of their model, psychoanalysis. Lesbianism is scarcely mentioned in any essay except B. Ruby Rich's "From Repressive Tolerance to Erotic Liberation: MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM (reprinted from JUMP CUT, No. 24-25. March, 1981). Lesbian filmmakers, writers and journals are consistently excluded from the historical overview in the introduction. Thus lesbianism is marginalized to one essay in the volume and one film in history (as something of the exotic past, Weimar Germany). In a book that purports to see "difference differently, revising the old apprehension of sexual difference and making it possible to multiply differences," this is inexcusable.

B. Ruby Rich's article, along with Judith Mayne's "The Woman at the Keyhole: Women's Cinema and Feminist Criticism" and Christine Gledhill's "Recent Developments in Feminist Film Criticism," are the broadest in scope and the most accessible articles in the book. While teaching feminist film courses at the University of Oregon for the past several years, I have found Rich's essay on MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM to have a profound impact on students, opening up a wide range of critical issues and stimulating discussion throughout the course. The integration of textual analysis of the film with its production history and a sophisticated analysis of the film's social, cultural and political context make Rich's essay an exemplary piece of feminist film criticism.

In "The Woman at the Keyhole," Judith Mayne relates feminist literary criticism to issues addressed in films made by and for women. Mayne discusses the relation between the film and the novel, and she examines both as meditations on the split between the public and the private spheres, arguing that we should consider voyeurism in this context. Mayne's overview includes women as writers of fiction, as critics, and as filmmakers. She places some of the critical questions raised by feminist film criticism in an historical perspective. Mayne defines feminism as "the attempt to theorize female experience into modes of resistance and action."

Christine Gledhill reflects this concern in her extremely useful theoretical summary and analysis, the first essay in the volume. Gledhill traces the ideas of Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan as they have been used by feminist film critics, especially Pam Cook, Claire Johnston and Laura Mulvey. This essay offers both a lucid explication of the theories involved and a careful analysis of the way these theories have directed feminist film criticism away from understanding women in social practices other than cinema by "conflating the social structure of reality with its signification." These theories have also pulled feminist film criticism away from considering the "intersection of gender with class and racial differences among others" because they have adopted Lacan's theory of the subject with its attention to the constitutive force of language.

Gledhill describes the entrapment that has resulted from these theoretical applications in this way:

"The unspoken remains unknown, and the speakable reproduces what we know — patriarchal reality."

She calls for feminist critics to pay attention to what they have left out as they have emphasized the power of narrative structure, to pay attention to "the material conditions in which it functions for an audience." We must not privilege film discourse to the exclusion of all other discourses and practices, according to Gledhill, and we must attend to the interactions and contradictions among these.

The act of re-vision will involve an ongoing evaluation of the consequences of employing psychoanalysis, semiotics and structuralism as dominant theoretical paradigms. We will need to integrate a much broader spectrum of feminist thought in our work. We will need to listen to women of color, lesbians and working class women. And as teachers and critics we must keep in mind Adrienne Rich's words:

"Our struggles can have meaning and our privileges — however precarious under patriarchy — can be justified only if they can help to change the lives of women whose gifts — and whose very being — continue to be thwarted and silenced."[1]


1. Adrienne Rich, "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision," On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979), p. 38.