by Jane Gaines
Cut, no. 41, May 1997, pp. 45-48
We have come a long way in the nearly twenty years since the JUMP CUT Lesbian Special Section, really the first document to take feminist film theory to task for its failure to imagine the lesbian perspective.[open notes in new window] In those twenty years, the dominant feminist paradigm has been challenged from a number of vantage points, and to a degree it has been checked and modified. The appearance this year of Chris Straayer's important Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies gives us the chance to take inventory, to see how far we have come and where we still need to go if we are to produce a feminist film theory that can imagine a plurality of sexualities, that is, if we are to produce a theory that is sufficiently "queer." Although there have been key essays in collections devoted to gay and lesbian cinema, this is actually the first single-authored book by a lesbian feminist film scholar to take up queer film and video representation as its subject, which means that it has much to prove and a lot of territory to cover. Fortunately it does both.
Without launching any direct challenge, Straayer renders moot many of the basic theoretical premises of classical feminist film theory: that is, that cinema is organized around male to female voyeurism, cinema genders its spectator, and women are excluded from language. Straayer's strategy is to juxtapose a sociology of deviance (queerness, really) with the assumptions that cannot fathom the kind of sexual variegation and gender indeterminacy that she brings to our attention. Against the straitjacket of binarism, she sets an "infinite continuum of sexes," a possibility that not only challenges the great divide between male and female but undermines essentialist positions. She gives us a wonderful array of transgressors from transgendered lesbian Leslie Feinberg to Annie
The challenge to binarism is not necessarily new. What is new is how feminism is being made to stretch, since in its current form neither academic nor movement feminism is able to accommodate the range of ways of being sexual which Straayer describes. As she says, these are sexualities that "pressure" feminism. Sometimes it is hard to locate feminism in relation to the new troublemaking upstart, queer theory. Queer theory is not antithetical to feminism because feminism is a kind of base line for it. Neither is queer theory just one of the many feminisms. Queer theory is feminism and more.
Of the ways of applying feminism as a scholarly endeavor, feminist film theory has proven to be one of the more radical approaches — always staunchly pro-sex and never having the least flirtation with essentialist feminism. Emerging as it has more out of contemporary poststructuralist theory than out of the woman's movement, feminist film theory should encourage the idea of sexualities as made not born. And yet, what do we make of the fact that although many feminist film critics approvingly cite lesbian philosopher Judith Butler, there is still no major attempt to thoroughly rethink classical film theory in the light of her work? Although Chris Straayer uses Butler as one of her starting points and shows us some of the ways Butler's thinking has contributed to questions of representation, in the end Straayer goes her own way. Taking off from Butler's well-known theorization of lesbianism's incoherence and multiplicity, even its "unknowability," Straayer goes further, asserting the full implications of the sexual continuum and the social construction of gender.
Women, she says, are not significantly different from men. Supporting her case with popular typologies, she finds an ideal in "female man-ness," a type which she distinguishes from the older "passing woman" from an earlier period of lesbian history. This is not an aberration from feminism. As I understand it, Straayer wants us to claim the social rights and the status that comes with being men as part of a project of "overthrowing" the categories of male and female. What is bold (and heretical in some camps) about this argument is that although no feminist would disclaim the right to power, many would want the earlier achieved separateness from men as persons as well as from the concept "men."
Yet Straayer's examples continue to argue for the impossibility of such an absolute distinction and go on to make the case for understanding a new suprasexualized type, the She-man, a crossdressed male performer who takes on the sexual attributes of male and female. Seen as early as David Bowie's performance in the 1979 music video "Boys Keep Swinging," this type's breakdown of the gender binary produces an "increase" in his/her sexuality, a "double sexual signification" that heightens the charge. Straayer wants to argue that the legacy of the She-man is not the misogynist transvestite performer but rather feminist performance art (Lynda Benglis and Carolee Schneeman), thus he/she uses female body codes as a source of potency.
Some skeptics may look at the She-man and say, "I just don't see it. It's still a putdown of women," and conclude that Straayer is reading the sumptuous and powerful "She" in the She-man performer against the grain. Maybe the test of Straayer's hypothesis is too obvious-we would just have to ask, "Who gets turned on by the She-man?" Until we have audience data to help us answer this question, I would argue that the She-man needs to be understood in relation to Straayer's entire project, which might be stated as "toward hermaphroditism," and which is perhaps best grasped in her discussion of Jennifer Miller, a bearded woman.
The subject of the videotape JUGGLING GENDER (Tami Gold, 1992), Jennifer Miller is one of Straayer's most dramatic examples of the variations in the sexual continuum and the impossibility of absolutely fixing gender once and for all. As a lesbian, Jennifer identifies herself as a woman and passes as a man, yet her beard, her male secondary sex indicator, throws cultural feminism for a loop. For Straayer, Jennifer Miller exemplifies nature's deconstruction of itself, a naturally occurring exception to "nature's rule." Even better, Miller's exceptionality inspires her own deep critique of gender. "What is a woman?" Miller asks when excluded from cultural feminism's community. Theorizing Jennifer Miller's gender dilemma, Straayer talks about the "gender mirror," the way Miller's "multifaceted" gender is constructed day by day, based on others' responses and constituting gazes.
Film theory and its classical account of subjectivity are implicated on every page of this book, but one of the frustrations as well as the fascinations of Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies is that the wealth of suggestive detail and the stunning analyses of new independent film and video work remain just that. What are the implications for feminist film studies? Straayer's evidence would lead us to hypothesize cinema as one gender mirror among many (and not the most important gender mirror at that). The book signals a shift from the tone of 1970s film theory which often gave the impression that cinema was a major rather than a minor ideological apparatus. As for the gendered look, Straayer reiterates the fact that lesbian looking refutes the "unidirectional" male to female look which privileges the male spectator, requiring instead a bi-directional exchange of looks between same sex characters, placing the burden again on the lesbian spectator who eroticizes looks that may be coded as nonsexual. So far, these are not alterations which feminist film theory can't accommodate; to a degree, it already has since it is now pretty much standard to include lesbian perspectives in discussions of subjectivity and looking relations (although as "exceptions" to the rule).
Straayer really delivers the greatest challenge to what has become understood as "masquerade theory," the explanation of how it is that female viewers negotiate the problem of identifying with male characters. "Spectatorial transvestism" — the concept introduced into film theory in Laura Mulvey' s 1981 "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' Inspired by DUEL IN THE SUN" — is revealed as an appropriation of drag, using transvestism as a metaphor which misunderstands the dynamics of gay male crossdressing. Further, Straayer tells us something that we all should have known: Freudian Joan Riviere's research which led to her theory of "womanliness-as-masquerade" had lesbian implications, ones ignored by Riviere herself as well as by later theorists. What we haven't been able to see, says Straayer, is that behind the distancing mask of femininity is not a woman but a man. And why not? Only an unacknowledged essentialist assumption would hold that behind such an identity mask, behind a gender masquerade, the genuine gender of the one masked, his or her "real sex," can be found. Straayer seems already to have shown us the conservative implications of gender unmasking found in the comedy genre in her brilliant chapter, "Redressing the Natural," which had a critical reputation long before it finally appeared in this book. Several years before the publication of Marjorie Garber's Vested Interests, Straayer analyzed the politics of crossdressing in popular film in this ground-breaking essay that announces a new subgenre: the temporary transvestite film.
Reading Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies is a turn-on in several ways. First, it is exciting to think that the wonderful array of new feminist films and tapes which Straayer discusses will "blow the old paradigm out of the water." She leaves any notion of counter-cinema (the feminist-modernist strategy for challenging classical form) in the dust. How can we still think of Chantel Ackerman's representation of prostitution in her modernist film JEANNE DIELMAN as startlingly revolutionary in contrast with Annie Sprinkle's close up of "female ejaculation" in THE SLUTS AND THE GODDESSES VIDEO WORKSHOP? Yet, with so much new work on sexuality one yearns for critical work to pull it together, to organize it the way 1970s feminist film theory organized the five or six canonical films that served as yardsticks for films and tapes which were never finally made. The range of independent feminist works that Straayer discusses — LET'S PLAY PRISONERS, Julie Zando, 1988; DELIRIUM, Mindy Faber, 1993; BORN TO BE SOLD: MARTHA ROSLER READS THE STRANGE CASE OF BABY M, Martha Rosier, 1988; KUSH, Pratibha Parmar, 1991 — is the range of works we now teach in feminist film courses, courses once organized around counter-cinema's "romanticization of exclusion," to quote Judith Mayne. But one senses that there is no return to the order of 1970s counter-cinema, an order produced out of scarcity (no films) and abstinence (no pleasure), which brings me to the second way in which the book is a turnon.
Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies is all about specifically sexual pleasures, about representations of bodies for potential pleasure and bodies in the throes of pleasure, and none of this is pleasure by conventional means. Underground pleasures are brought up from the deep where they have been out of sight (for mainstream viewers and readers). Thus, one of the most important issues this book raises is the question, "Whose language of pleasure?" All of the old feminist issues of shared language and culture versus separate and oppositional (not necessarily shared) culture come rushing back. Dramatizing this issue of separate male and female cultures vs. shared culture is Straayer's report on her research into the lesbian pornography movement in combination with medical treatises. She details medical discussions of female castration and hypotheses about the female prostate gland, adding this physiological information to lesbian pornography's fascination with the dildo and female ejaculation. Confronting this "evidence," many heterosexual and lesbian feminists will want to challenge why women should discover their own new frontiers of sexuality in terms of male sexuality. What is touted as a new frontier, they might say, has not been new at all, but the same old patriarchal forms and desires, male anatomies rediscovered on female bodies.
Straayer is really beyond these questions. She is so far beyond the old concept that "women remain outside language" that her position may be unrecognizable to some feminists. First, I think she would argue that male and female in contemporary Western culture do share the same sexual iconography, but that different groups (gay male, heterosexual, lesbian) re-inflect apparently similar icons (say, the dildo) very differently. Remember, she is urging us to think in terms of the possibility of a kind of radical hermaphroditism (so far beyond the old 1970s androgyny that it appears exceedingly strange). She does not just argue for seeing male/female similarity in theory, that is, as a kind of logical conclusion to the constructivist approach to gender. Instead, she finds many examples to support a vision not of the "lesbian continuum" but of the "sexual continuum," which means that sexual practice leads and theory tries to follow.
The culminating case for this book is feminist Annie Sprinkle, whose own "pansexuality" may be the best model for the next stage of sexuality for which Straayer is preparing us. An equally enthusiastic sex partner for men as well as women, Sprinkle is difficult if not impossible to locate in terms of conventional sexual coordinates. Her conversation with videomaker Phillip Roth in his videotape, 25-YEAR OLD GAY MAN LOSES HIS VIRGINITY TO A WOMAN, goes something like this:
Annie: "I just became a lesbian myself...It' s a real adventure to change your identity, I think."
Annie is especially thrilled with another new lover, the female-to-male transsexual featured in the tape LINDA/ LES AND ANNIE. The tape demonstrates their lovemaking with his/her reconstructed penis and Annie rhapsodizes about his "succulent nipples," and especially about his/her ability to understand female-specific biological processes. (She is on the last day of her period.) Annie Sprinkle shows us feminist and prostitute not as a contradiction in terms but as a combination signaling a new vanguard of sex radicalism.
One wonders on reading the end of this book if the deja vu experience has to do with a return to the moment in feminist history when feminism itself was still in the vanguard, when it still shocked and unsettled the more wary, when it pushed us to imagine feelings and positions that had been cordoned off as taboo. Like the AIDS education tapes and lesbian porn Straayer features, early women's films were neither slick nor respectable. Some twenty years ago the representation of childbirth on film was considered strange and forbidden. Perhaps the last frontier is the representation of the female orgasm, long suppressed by male-dominated mainstream pornography which has prided itself on "showing all" without censorship. But new questions arise: What does it mean to represent the unrepresentable when the scientific community also disputes the phenomenon's existence? Is visible female orgasm/ejaculation a wonderful case of Butler's performativity where discourse brings it into being before our very eyes? Is this a new power for the documentary video camera — the creation of bodily functions, perhaps an offshoot from the image's ability to make us "desire to do" something, in Straayer's terms. Will the new paradigm be about the move from the "desire to see" (voyeurism) to the "desire to do"?
"Queering" feminist film theory may mean that we no longer raise questions of representation in the old ways. But it would seem to be subject matter alone that now produces the transformation of representation as we now know it. Straayer asks, "Would a fully frontal gay and lesbian cinema need to use substitutions?" Radical content seems to have completely eclipsed questions of radical form. Indeed, Straayer spends relatively little time talking about camera positioning, image quality, or cutting. Still to be dealt with in the future, then, is the question of how new technological languages have brought the periphery incrementally toward the center. What was once secret is now available, what was once relatively direct is now highly mediated, first by cameras, now by a feminist analysis in book form. The secret discourses of lesbian pornography will be less and less able to elude mainstream discovery and consequent appropriation. Yet to worry about the survival of these discourses is perhaps needless in the face of the evidence of the resourcefulness and versatility of minority sex communities.
1. Edith Becker, Michelle Citron, Julia Lesage, and B. Ruby Rich, "Lesbians and Film," Jump Cut 24/25 (1981), rpt. in Jump Cut: Hollywood, Politics, and Counter-Cinema, ed. Peter Steven (New York:
2. Extremely important but not entirely devoted to lesbian film and video are Mandy Merck, Perversions: Deviant Readings (New York: Routledge, 1993); Judith Mayne, Cinema and Spectatorship (New York :Routledge, 1993); Bad Object-Choices, eds. How Do! Look? Queer Film and Video (Seattle: Bay Press, 1991).
3. Two of the most important critiques of binarism are David Rodowick, The Difficulty of Difference: Psychoanalysis, Sexual Difference, and Film Theory (New York: Routledge, 1991); and Mandy Merck, "Difference and Its Discontents," Screen 28, no. 1 (Winter 1987): 2-9.
4. For an overview of queer theory see Michael Warner, Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).
5. I explore the importance of queer theory for feminism at greater length in "Feminist Heterosexuality and Its Politically Incorrect Pleasures," Critical Inquiry 21 (Winter 1995): 382-410.
6. The basic texts are Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990) and Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New York: Routledge, 1993).
7. Laura Mulvey, "Afterthoughts on "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema Inspired by DUEL IN THE SUN," Framework 15/16/17 (Summer 1981): 12- 15.
8. Joan Riviere, "Womanliness as a Masquerade" (1929), in Formations of Fantasy, eds. Victor Burgin, James Donald, and Cora Kaplan (London and New York: Methuen, 1986).
9. Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 1992).
10. For the basic paradigm see Claire Johnston, "Women's Cinema as Counter-Cinema," in Notes on Women's Cinema, ed. Claire Johnston (London: British Film Institute, 1975), rpt. in Sexual Stratagems, ed. Patricia Erens (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press).