Aspects of British feminist film theory
A critical evaluation of texts by
Claire Johnston and Pam Cook

by E. Ann Kaplan

from Jump Cut, no. 2, 1974, pp. 52-55
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

Claire Johnston, “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema,” in Notes on Women’s Cinema (London: Society for Education in Film and Television, 1973).

C. Johnston and P. Cook, “The Place of Women in the Films of Raoul Walsh,” in Raoul Walsh, ed. Phil Hardy (Colchester: Edinburgh Film Festival, 1974).

C. Johnston, ed., The Work of Dorothy Arzner: Toward a Feminist Cinema (London: The British Film Institute, 1975).

For the past three years, some women in England have been developing a stimulating and controversial approach to film theory. Their work offers new perspectives on women in film and has many valuable insights, but it also has serious methodological problems. The recent publication of The Work of Dorothy Arzner (containing short essays by Cook and Johnston along with a valuable interview with Arzner by Karyn Kay and Gerry Peary) provides a suitable moment for surveying and evaluating the approaches of Pam Cook and Claire Johnston that are relatively unknown here. After introducing and elucidating the various essays, I will criticize the perspectives in a way that, I hope, will show their work’s importance and also the problems it presents.

That Johnston’s and Cook’s work requires a degree of “elucidation” is, of course, significant. Although the texts in and of themselves are not particularly difficult, they are inaccessible to readers unfamiliar with the theories and basic texts which underlie their analyses. The writers either assume familiarity with the texts they rely on, and then lose a large portion of their readers. Or they are constantly forced to summarize assumptions they are working with, which creates further problems since the concepts are extremely complex. They take many key concepts from fields such as anthropology, psychoanalysis and linguistics, and such references may create difficulties for readers not familiar with these fields. The practice of lifting concepts from such divergent fields in turn raises methodological problems. The connection between film as an art form and the fields drawn on is not given a theoretical base. Mere reference to “key works” does not resolve the methodological questions as easily as the writers assume.

The writers argue that they are aiming at a specialized rather than a general audience. They say they expect teachers and other critics to mediate between themselves and the film audience (although, ironically, the Walsh and Arzner pieces were written for film festivals). Nevertheless, the esoteric stance of the texts is at odds with the early notion that women’s studies should be accessible to a broad spectrum of women. (1) And there is the further unease, as one reads the texts, that comes from doubting that the complex intellectual framework is really necessary for the insights arrived at. Couldn't the same conclusions have been reached in a less complicated manner?

These are issues that will be discussed in analyzing individual essays, for despite the above qualifications, Johnston’s and Cook’s work does warrant careful study. It may be useful to begin by situating the essays and commenting briefly on the influences that shaped the writers’ theoretical positions. Johnston and Cook see themselves as belonging to a minority of intellectuals in England that, over the past fifteen years, has developed an interest in theory in opposition to the traditional British empiricism. This minority centered around New Left Review, the British Film Institute Education Department and the periodical Screen, published by the Society for Education in Film and Television.

There was some early influence from Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, who in the early 60s saw the need to come to grips with mass culture. More recently, they have been influenced by Stuart Hall and the group developing new approaches to cultural studies at Birmingham University. (2) But most influence has come from German, French and Russian ideas, particularly as they have been propagated through Screen and through critics like Peter Wollen (see his Signs and Meaning in the Cinema). Johnston and Cook are not afraid to take concepts from writers representing divergent positions. Thus they make free use of the theories of Brecht, the auteur critics (Cahiers du cinéma), the French structuralists (particularly Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes), historical materialism and Russian Formalism.

The two key perspectives around which most of the ideas already mentioned cohere are those of psychoanalysis and linguistics. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, whose work has become known in England through Anthony Wilden’s book The Language of Psychoanalysis, is often referred to by Johnston and Cook, and a psychoanalytic view is central to their analyses. Juliet Mitchell’s book Psychoanalysis and Feminism also obviously influenced Cook and Johnston, particularly in relation to Mitchell’s linking of Lévi-Strauss’ notion of the exchange of women with key psychoanalytic concepts. The linguistic influence on film criticism began with the work of Christian Metz (see Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema), who, following the work of Roland Barthes (Elements of Semiology) and Ferdinand Saussure (Course in General Linguistics), attempted to elaborate a system of signs for understanding cinema analogous to the science already developed for understanding how language functions.

The influence of many of these ideas is clear in Johnston’s first essay on feminist cinema, “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema” in Notes on Women’s Cinema. The essay marks the first stage of Johnston’s thinking and already reveals what will be a key issue for her—namely, developing a theory that satisfactorily combines the essential insights of both Marx and Freud. Johnston is convinced that the method for developing such a theory is to be found in semiology and structuralism. Asserting the need for a more “scientific” approach to feminist criticism, Johnston attempts to combine a neo-Marxist view of art with insights from Metz and semiology in general. She is unable, however, to overcome an inherent contradiction between two views of ideology. On the one hand, a neo-Marxist view sees art as an economic product which has an ideological component, just as all products do. On the other hand, Johnston is influenced by the work of Louis Althusser, (3) who sees ideology as a series of representations and images and thereby linked to the unconscious.

Johnston seems to agree with neo-Marxist critics in arguing against an idea of art as an autonomous realm disconnected from society. This view, she says, is elitist and “undermines any view of art as a material thing within a cultural context which forms it and is formed by it.” (Notes, p. 29) Like many Marxists, Johnston says,

All films and all works of art are products: products of an existing system of economic relations, in the final analysis. Film is also an ideological product—the product of bourgeois ideology. The idea that art is universal and thus potentially androgynous is basically an idealist notion: art can only be defined as a discourse within a particular conjuncture—for the purpose of women’s cinema, the bourgeois, sexist ideology of male dominated capitalism.” (Notes, p. 28)

The thrust of her essay is to assert the need to elucidate the means by which ideology is expressed in film. With reference to Marx and Lenin, she understands that ideology is a very complex process and that the connection between art and society is indirect.

So far, so good. But at this point Johnston asserts that semiology is useful and introduces a concept of ideology that contradicts the one outlined above. Like Metz, Johnston says that she wants to explain naturalism, to demystify it and make us aware of the illusions we participate in when we accept the naturalist mode in women’s films. She critiques the cinema verite form, claiming that this “cinema of non-intervention” which does not break with the illusion of realism is dangerous because it promotes a “passive subjectivity at the expense of analysis” (Notes, p. 29) Since, according to Johnston, “the ‘truth’ of our oppression cannot be captured on celluloid with the ‘innocence’ of the camera,” for feminist cinema to be effective, she claims it must be a counter-cinema. Johnston here sounds like Godard, particularly when she asserts,

Any revolutionary must challenge the depiction of reality: it is not enough to discuss the oppression of women within the text of the film: the language of the cinema/depiction of reality [sic] must also be interrogated, so that a break between ideology and text is affected.” (Notes, p. 29)

The above statements only make sense if one understands that Johnston is using the word ideology in quite a different way from before. Ideology now no longer refers to the ideological component inherent in all bourgeois institutions and modes of production but to the representations of reality that any society assumes. Johnston puts this best at the start of her Arzner essay where, following Althusser, she defines ideology as a

“system of representations: images, myths, ideas or concepts, rather than concerned with beliefs people consciously hold.” (Arzner, p. 2)

It is these images and myths that need challenging. According to Johnston, feminist filmmakers must confront the representations of reality within the text of the film itself in order to expose their falseness. This confrontation entails making completely new use of cinematic form—organization of individual images (the entire mise en scene), the choice of camera angle, distance, lighting, etc., and ultimately even the technical equipment itself. (4) All the audience’s expectations are to be challenged and normal kinds of identification refused.

Johnston here seems to have allowed the logic of her argument to carry her too far, particularly in relation to the objections to the cinema verite style of many women’s films. Johnston is mistaken in assuming that when women watch other women characters on the screen discuss their lives and their problems on the screen, the audience falls into a “passive subjectivity” that allows the entire film to pass meaninglessly in front of it. Audience reactions all depend on who the viewer is and on what she can identify with in terms of the women characters speaking. Many middle class women, for instance, are moved and touched by JANIE'S JANIE because they understand fully for the first time what it is like to grow up in a working class family and how differently working women are oppressed. Their experience of the film is by no means passive: the women become involved, angered, glad to see Janie’s gradual coming to awareness of her oppression and her organizing to combat it. Working class women may be stimulated by the film to do something to change their own lives and those of their neighbors.

Johnston is too rigid and categorical in asserting that a feminist cinema “must be” a counter-cinema. That may be one form of feminist cinema, but others may do different things in equally effective ways. In fact, Johnston’s kind of feminist cinema is often a failure. Films that Johnston admires which attempt to interrogate the accepted notions of “reality” within their own cinematic structure (e.g., some of the recent Godard films like TOUT VA BIEN, LETTER TO JANE, and VLADIMIR AND ROSA, or the Mulvey-Wollen film PENTHESILEA), often leave the average (and even not-so-average) audience far behind. These films have only an avant-garde appeal, and this elitism is directly at odds with the politics of the people making such films. Audiences become angry at not being able to understand what is going on. Then, arguably the very aims of the directors, namely to awaken people to the ways in which they are being mystified by the “realism” of commercial films, are completely lost. A film like SALT OF THE EARTH is, in its form, typically commercial (utilizing all kinds of familiar Hollywood techniques, including aspects of the gangster and western genres). But its socialist content has an enormous impact on people, possibly just because it is presented within familiar and recognizable cinematic conventions.

One could argue that Biberman, director of SALT OF THE EARTH, effects a break between ideology and text in quite the reverse manner to that Johnston suggests. The “text” is in a familiar naturalist mode, but instead of that mode communicating the expected capitalist, bourgeois ideology (way of representing reality), the signs are changed. The bosses are presented in unconventional, hostile and sinister modes, more like the bad guys in westerns and gangsters, while the people, the mass of Mexican American miners, are presented as the good guys. They are not condescended to in the manner of Ford in GRAPES OF WRATH, but presented from their subjective point of view as heroes of the film. One could make a similar case for feminist cinema verite films like Ashur/Barton/Mulford/Paleweski’s JANIE'S JANIE, Newsreel’s THE WOMAN'S FILM or Reichert/Klein’s GROWING UP FEMALE. These film do not demystify realist conventions in the sense Johnston argues for, but they reorder the signs within that convention, giving us unfamiliar images of women; we make unfamiliar identifications, sympathies, and alliances and are given new perceptions.

A third set of ideas in this first essay shows the influence of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, particularly the essay “Myth Today,” (5) and of an important essay, “John Ford’s Mr. Lincoln” (6) by the editors of Cahiers du cinéma. Johnston applies Barthes’ new definition of myth to women in film, arguing that women should be viewed as a sign within sexist ideology. Taking an example from Sternberg’s MOROCCO, Johnston demonstrates how this approach can expose

“the repression of the image of woman as woman, and the celebration of her non-existence” that happens in commercial realist films. (Notes, p. 26)

Johnston differentiates her approach from what she views as a simplistic sociological one

“based on the empirical study of recurring roles and motifs ... [that leads to] ... a critique in terms of the enumeration of career/ home/ motherhood/ sexuality, an examination of women as the central figures in the narrative, etc.”
(Notes, p. 26)

Finally, following arguments in the Cahiers article, Johnston asserts that Hollywood films are most useful for the study of women since Hollywood is the dominant form of cinema and the one from which many concepts about film genres arise. Quoting Peter Wollen, Johnston says that auteur theories are important because they moved critics on from the idea of intentionality in art. The auteurists defined the critic’s task as that of decoding the “unconscious, unintended meaning” in Hollywood films through a study of obsessions that “are generated by the psychoanalytic history of the author.” (Notes, p. 27) From this point of view, Hollywood can no longer be seen as monolithically repressive and manipulative, a mere “dream factory producing an oppressive cultural product.” (Notes, p. 24) Johnston concludes the essay with short paragraphs on a few Hollywood directors (including Arzner and Ida Lupino as contrasting female directors), demonstrating the large differences between individual directors and anticipating her later study of Arzner.

This last section of the essay, where Johnston argues that Hollywood films are most useful for the study of women, offers an important direction for feminist film critics, one that Johnston herself will take up and contribute to in the essays to be analyzed below. Johnston’s theories seem more useful as an approach to feminist film criticism than as prescriptions for what kind of films feminists should be making. It’s as if Johnston cannot yet integrate her ideas about the counter-cinema with her understanding of how Hollywood functions. Johnston shows in her work on Walsh and Arzner how many important criticisms of patriarchy and capitalism are, in fact, made in certain “progressive” Hollywood films. Yet in her statements about counter-cinema, she argues that all is lost as soon as one uses cinematic forms in conventional ways. What about the “passive subjectivity” engendered by watching Hollywood films? How can these films make the important criticisms they do if their forms do not challenge the basic notions of reality in this culture?

This confusion is, unfortunately, only one of various confusions in the essay. Johnston tries to do too much in a very short space, so that while many new ideas are introduced, none is fully developed. Psychoanalytic concepts (such as the notion of “structuring in repressions” or that of decoding the author’s unconscious obsessions) are not integrated with conventional Marxist notions of films as products of bourgeois ideology. Johnston asserts that “we have to make use of the theory of the unconscious as developed by Freud” to uncover the processes by which ideology gets into the text. However, she does not show why this is the theory that must be used. She does not back up her call for a counter-cinema by suggesting how, given women’s actual political and ideological situation, especially that of women in non-elite classes, this might be done.

Finally, while Johnston’s essay importantly asserts the need for a complex, self-conscious theory of feminist film criticism, her objection to what she derogatorily calls “simplistic” sociological criticism is misleading. If she had Marjorie Rosen and Molly Haskell in mind, it would have been better for her to refer explicitly to their works. Since Johnston cites no particular authors, books or articles, one suspects her of setting up an imaginary opposition. As far as I'm concerned, it’s not so much the sociological and psychological perspectives of Rosen and Haskell that’s a problem as their lack of self-consciousness about their methods.

It seems to me that a feminist critic should, at the very least, place her way of seeing clearly against the dominant male views and methodologies and also make evident the basic differences between a feminist and non-feminist analysis. It is not “feminist” criticism if one simply studies women’s roles as, in the past, people studied men’s roles. Feminist criticism implies an understanding of women’s oppression as a group and then of the class differences among women which, in turn, affect their degree and kind of oppression. Johnston and Cook’s work usefully shows that one must move beyond simply judging images of women as positive or negative, strong or weak, etc.. It looks much more deeply for the reasons why women occupy the place they do in the world of the film. Johnston and Cook show how essentially unquestioned (in this sense, unconscious) patriarchal and capitalist ways of seeing are and how these perspectives reduce women to the level of mere signs.

The high level of abstraction in their writing is, however, a problem from a feminist point of view. Their analysis reduces all women to the same absolute place in a monolithic patriarchal system. That leaves no room for discussing and clarifying specific class differences among women as these differences relate to art works or of analyzing the actual political ends art works may serve. When she discusses the counter-cinema, Johnston makes no distinction between the institutions of film production, film styles and those “representations of reality” that we all assume just by growing up in a particular society. For Johnston, a filmmaker’s refusing to work in conventional styles (or to use the cinematic equipment in conventional ways) and refusing to go along with the assumed representations of reality is part of making the revolution. But the level on which this analysis works somehow fails to take into account the people with whom we are working and whom we want to reach.

Johnston and Cook are on much safer ground, and have much more to offer, in their work on Walsh and Arzner. Here, ironically, they are very much aware of Hollywood as an institution, of the restrictions imposed on directors working in Hollywood and of the enjoyment people get from the narrative and from identifying with characters.

The second essay I shall analyze was written jointly by Johnston and Cook and focuses on Raoul Walsh. The piece follows logically from their notion that Hollywood film, more than any other cinema, reveals how ideology functions in relation to women and from their conviction that Freud’s concept of the unconscious provides the means for understanding how ideology is transmitted. The methodological framework for the essay comes from Jacques Lacan but his ideas are combined with semiotic cinematic terminology and with concepts from Lévi-Strauss.

Johnston and Cook begin by setting forth a brief outline of the ideas on which their analysis depends. The problem here is that in this brief introduction they present very complex ideas. As a result, many readers may either not totally understand or not be convinced of the validity of their theoretical approach. The central Lacanian notion which they use to analyze Walsh’s films is this: On birth the child enters “a world ordered by culture, law and language, and is enveloped in that symbolic order.” This symbolic order is constituted around “the Name of-the-Father” so that

the child, or indeed an human being, as a subject of desire is constituted from the place of the Other: his [sic] ‘I’ is a signifier in someone else’s discourse and he [sic] has to find out how and where ‘I’ fits into the social universe he [sic] discovers.” (Walsh, p. 94)

The writers apparently mean the child enters a basically patriarchal world, dominated by the father, who is placed at the center of the family. Everyone else in that world functions as a sign for the father rather than as a person in her/his own right. Each individual, thus, has to find out what meaning he/she has in the social world. The self has to struggle constantly against domination, against having identity taken away. Cook and Johnston’s general statement apparently refers to both men and women (the male pronouns used in the passage quoted above are confusing). The specific relevance to women becomes clearer in a quotation from Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism. Mitchell says:

The act of exchange holds a society together; the rules of kinship (like those of language to which they are near-allied) are the society. Whatever the nature of the society—patriarchal, matrilineal, patrilineal, etc.—it is always the men who exchange women. Women thus become the equivalent of a sign which is being communicated.” (Quoted in Walsh, p. 96)

Building upon this insight, Cook and Johnston argue,

The use of images of women in Walshian texts plays a subtle game of duplicity: in the traditional classic cinema and 19th Century realism, the characters are presented as’autonomous individuals’: but the construction of the discourse contradicts this convention by reducing ‘real’ women to images and tokens functioning in a circuit of signs the values of which have been determined by men.” (Walsh, p. 94)

This point is the most crucial and relevant one in the Walsh essay and perhaps in Johnston and Cook’s theories to date. The notion of women struggling to define themselves in a discourse established and carried on by men is important as a critical tool for understanding women’s place in many films, but particularly for the forties and fifties Hollywood films now being called “noir” (e.g., MILDRED PIERCE, GIL or DOUBLE INDEMNITY). The concept articulated by Johnston and Cook enables us for the first time to make some sense of women’s functions in these films. They arrived at this perception making good use of Mitchell’s linking Lévi-Strauss’ concept of the exchange of women with psychoanalysis in the way they interpreted Walsh’s films. I will return to this core perception later since Johnston and Cook extend and develop it, in different ways, in their Arzner essays.

Once again, however, their methodology in the Walsh essay is not entirely successful. The pure Freudian thought in passages like the following is hard to accept without any qualification. Speaking about MANPOWER, Cook and Johnston state,

To gain self-knowledge and to give meaning to the memories of the past, (the hero) is impelled towards the primal scene and to the acceptance of symbolic castration. For the male hero, the female protagonist becomes an agent within the text of the film whereby his hidden secret can be brought to light, for it is in woman that his “lack” is located. She represents at one and the same time the distant memory of his maternal plenitude and the fetishized object of his phantasy of castration—a phallic replacement and thus a threat.” (Walsh, p. 95)

Were the entire basis of the interpretation rooted in Freudian thinking, the essay would not be particularly interesting or new since psychoanalytic literary interpretations have abounded for years. The predictable nature of such interpretations takes away from their interest because, given the premises, everything else follows like clockwork. Much more interesting, if methodologically rather jarring, is the way in which Cook and Johnston follow Freudian analyses with concepts from Lévi-Strauss. These move the discussion from an emphasis on the pure unconscious to a focus on general patterns of social interaction, illuminating women’s place in these interactions. Speaking about the same film, the authors go on to say:

Sexual relationships and female sexuality are repressed within the film, and Marlene Dietrich is depicted as only having an existence within the discourse of men: she is ’spoken,’ she does not speak. As an object of exchange between men, a sign oscillating between the images of prostitute and mother-figure, she represents the means by which men express their relationships with each other, the means through which they come to understand themselves and each other.” (Walsh, p. 95)

The lack of subjectivity that many women experience and have observed in screen images (a lack, by the way, that Simone de Beauvoir discussed in her The Second Sex back in 1949) is well explained in such an analysis. The authors emphasize women’s peripheral status in a patriarchal world as they extend Mitchell’s insights to film:

In Walsh’s oeuvre, woman is not only a sign in a system of exchange, but an empty sign ... The male protagonist’s castration fears, his search for self-knowledge all converge on woman ... Woman is ... the locus of emptiness: she is a sign which is defined negatively: something that is missing which must be located so that the narcissistic aim of the male protagonist can be achieved.” (Walsh, p. 97)

Here Freudian and Lévi-Straussian notions are well combined to produce a useful interpretation of the experience of women in Walsh’s films. The essay concludes with an analysis of THE RETURN OF MAMIE STOVER that uses this concept. The authors show how Stover’s attempt to transform her status as object for exchange by developing a “highly articulated fetishized image for herself” fails miserably. She realizes at the end that

the protagonist cannot write her own story: she is a signifier, an object of exchange in a play of desire between the absent subject and object of the discourse.” (p. 104)

Within the terms of the analysis, Johnston and Cook reveal hitherto neglected aspects of Walsh’s films. They suggest new ways of looking at woman’s place in the male world and of understanding women’s status as second class citizens, culturally, intellectually, and emotionally. This theoretical framework provides a means for moving beyond mere content and role analysis with its limited discussion of strong versus weak women, passive versus assertive women, or positive versus negative images. However, the authors unfortunately did not adequately explain their theoretical framework in order to eliminate a sense of its possible arbitrariness. As it is, the reader has to accept without question the premises of the analysis if the discussion of the films is to make sense.

The essays on Arzner further refine the positions developed in the Walsh essay. Johnston’s and Cook’s differing perspectives sometimes merged well in this joint piece, but at other times they seemed to stand side by side, not meshing. In the Arzner pamphlet each writer is able to develop the perspective that interests her particularly.

In her introduction to the essays, Johnston raises an important, if controversial, point about feminism in relation to film history. She takes issue with the way film historians have traditionally “confined themselves to the accumulation of ‘facts’ and the construction of chronologies” at the expense of theory. She argues against merely

“introducing women into the dominant notion of film history, as yet another series of ‘facts’ to be assimilated into the existing notions of chronology.”

Johnston asserts,

Women and film can only become meaningful in terms of a theory, in the attempt to create a structure in which films such as Arzner’s can be examined in retrospect.” (Arzner, p. 2)

Once again, an important point is not developed. One wonders exactly what alternate structure to study film history Johnston had in mind. Women in all fields have been dissatisfied with the methodologies of male historians and have attempted to correct them as well as to simply include women. But Johnston is apparently thinking of structuralism as the method through which to make sense of Arzner’s films. While structuralism does indeed yield important insights, it is not the equivalent of providing an historical framework. Semiology and structuralism are ahistorical methodologies since the theoretical framework is seen as an absolute that can be applied to any work without specific reference to time, place or historical period. This is clear from the absence of reference to the period and dates of the various directors Johnston and Cook have discussed in the essays covered here. The works of Arzner, Walsh and contemporary feminists are discussed according to the same general theoretical position, without consideration of the different historical periods involved. This is not, of course, to say that semiology and structuralism are invalid because ahistorical. I merely want to point out that this entire matter of history is left unresolved after Johnston’s statement in the introduction and indeed in the methodology in general.

In discussing Arzner’s films, Johnston returns to the important notion (first articulated in the essay in Notes on Women’s Cinema and developed further in the Walsh piece) of the conflict between the dominant discourse of the man and the discourse of the woman. Johnston sees Arzner as a director who brings about the break between ideology and text that Johnston had advocated for feminist directors in her first essay. Because Arzner’s films demonstrate this break, Johnston calls them “progressive” despite the fact that they were made in Hollywood. Working with Althusser’s definition of ideology, discussed at the start of the article, Johnston shows that in less progressive Hollywood films, the ideology is assumed and therefore all but invisible. In so-called progressive films, like Arzner’s, the director exposes the ideology by making it explicit.

The analysis of Arzner’s films that follows focuses on the attempt of the woman to locate her place within the dominant discourse, with the result that the male discourse is fragmented:

The central female protagonists react against and thus transgress the male discourse which entraps them. The form of the transgression will depend on the nature of the particular discourse within which they have been caught. These women do not sweep aside the existing order and found a new female order of language. Rather, they assert their own discourse in the face of the male one, by breaking it up. subverting it and, in a sense, rewriting it.” (Arzner p. 4)

Johnston does not explain fully why making the ideology explicit is “progressive.” One can assume that when the patriarchal belief system underlying Hollywood films is “invisible,” women viewers are not in a position to question it. When a filmmaker exposes the belief system that is oppressive to women, she/he helps women to see the truth of their oppression. Johnston proceeds to list the basic situations of the female protagonists in several Arzner films, showing the women’s efforts to transgress the male order and assert themselves as subject.

In each case, as in Walsh’s THE REVOLT OF MAMIE STOVER, the effort is doomed to failure. Arzner, however, refuses the usual happy Hollywood ending, playing out the discourse of the woman to its bitter end, often a suicide. Paradoxically, Johnston nevertheless sees the survival of the discourse throughout the course of the film as a triumph, “a victory against being expelled or erased, ... a triumph over non-existence.” (Arzner, p. 6) That the woman still has no choice in the end but suicide severely modifies the nature of the triumph. Johnston presumably wanted to stress how unusual it was for the woman to put up any struggle for self-definition or to be heard at all in a Hollywood film, but significantly characters who asserted themselves had to end in suicide. Even Arzner could not simply let them survive unpunished.

This analysis of woman’s fragmenting male discourse makes some sense to people who have read the authors’ other essays before coming to the Arzner pamphlet. But to someone picking up the pamphlet with no preparation, the concept of the female discourse breaking up the male one might be hard to accept. In the Walsh essay there is at least some attempt to explain the theoretical underpinning for the complex ideas by referring to Lacan, Lévi-Strauss and Juliet Mitchell. Johnston and Cook evidently expect the theoretical basis for the concepts to be familiar to readers of the Arzner pamphlet. They do not account for how and why the male discourse cones to be predominant or even explain the links between patriarchy as a system and the predominance of the male discourse. Readers may also need an explanation of exactly what “the male discourse” involves.

A second difficulty with Johnston’s essay is its generality, a limitation that Johnston is quite aware of. That difficulty, in part, arises from the context of the pamphlet’s publication. It was commissioned to accompany a festival of Arzner films at the London National Film Theatre, with the essays limited to 1,500 words each. The writers wished to develop many more points fully. The writers also did not have access to Arzner’s films until the very last moment, when they were able to see a few of the most important ones. So the lack of specific and detailed analysis partly comes from their not being able to see all the films. Johnston mainly aimed to establish a context for Arzner’s films and to make a particular case for them, sketching in critical approaches that would support a general thesis. Her thesis is a compelling one, although it is frustrating to be denied more than a schematic treatment of individual films.

The most thorough and satisfactory discussion is of DANCE GIRL DANCE. One could have wished for more detailed examples from specific shots in the films to support the general statements, as for example in the reference to CRAIG'S WIFE. Johnston discusses the device of “making-strange,” a concept taken from Shklovsky’s essay “Art as a Device.” (6) She notes that in CRAIG'S WIFE the dominant patriarchal discourse of the male, which considers the home the place for the family and a haven from the outside world, is dislocated by the discourse of the woman who, with her obsession for cleanliness, transgresses the patriarchal notion of the family, rendering the house “strange” in Shklovsky’s sense:

Here, the rituals of housework and the obsession with order acquire, as the film progresses, a definite validity, and it is evidence of people living and breathing in the house which is rendered strange. The marks of a trunk having been pulled along the floor or someone having sat on a bed acquire a sinister meaning in the text of the film.” (Arzner, p. 6)

This kind of detail from the visual imagery supports the larger point. But on the whole there is too little detailed exploration of the films and inadequate treatment of visual style in terms of its ideological effect. It would be useful if the pamphlet were to be followed up with more thorough analyses of individual films.

But the omission partly comes from Johnston’s methodology. There is no inherent reason why the method should omit specific and detailed explorations of individual films. (7) But for some reason structuralist, auteur and semiological approaches all tend to lose sight of individual films and of the experience of watching a single film because of the all-encompassing abstract “thesis” being developed about a director’s work. The line of reasoning itself tends to preoccupy the writer and to take precedence over the writer’s staying with the individual film. Although the thesis may hold true when the writer surveys the director’s work, it may not illuminate single films not viewed in connection with the whole oeuvre.

In her essay, Pam Cook does give extended treatment to Arzner’s MERRILY WE GO TO HELL, but her piece nevertheless reflects the danger of the structuralist approach mentioned above. Cook takes an interesting argument to extremes, which results in her making rather extravagant claims for Arzner as a revolutionary filmmaker. Like Johnston, Cook begins by disclaiming any interest in making a place for Arzner within some pantheon of famous film directors or in arguing that Arzner’s films are “great” in any traditional sense. Rather she is interested in Arzner as a director working within

a production system already in the late ‘20’s and early ‘30’s highly articulated in terms of the dominant ideology of classic Hollywood cinema.” (Arzner, p. 9)

Concerned with the way that Hollywood films fix the spectator in a specific, closed relationship to the film, Cook wants to explore women’s place within that system of representation. Following ideas developed in the Walsh essay, Cook states,

In this structure, the place of women is defined as the locus of ‘lack,’ an empty space which must be filled in the working through of man’s desire to find his own place in society.” (Arzner, p. 10)

Cook refers to the ahistorical depiction of women (discussed earlier by Johnston in Notes on Women’s Cinema) and claims that

the use of female stereotypes, modified only slightly to meet the demands of changing fashion, has contributed to the propagation of myths of women which relate primarily to the desires of men.”

According to Cook, Arzner’s films are “revolutionary” because they deal specifically with

this problem of the desire of women caught in a system of representation that allows them at most the opportunity of playing on the specific demands that the system makes on them.” (Arzner, p. 10)

Unlike Johnston, Cook is interested in how the spectator is implicated as she questions the “cinematographic representation through which ideology attempts to fix our place for us.” (Arzner, p. 18) For her, a study of Hollywood films is also a study of women’s place in patriarchy, that being the system of representation that these films adopt. Arzner’s films

foreground the contradiction between women’s desire for self-expression and culture, and the cultural processes which articulate a place for woman as spectacle.” (Arzner, p. 11)

We as spectators have to recognize how difficult it is for women to work through their desires under patriarchy.

In her comparatively detailed discussion of MERRILY WE GO TO HELL, Cook outlines the narrative devices that Arzner uses to dislocate the viewer, to prevent identification and involvement in the smooth flow of the plot, and to jolt us out of an expectation at a certain moment in a scene, throwing us into a different perspective. These devices briefly are:
(1) to provide a text which is a series of “tableaux” rather than a sustained narrative,
(2) to interrupt the narrative with “gags” and “pregnant moments,”
(3) to use narrative reversals which again disturb the linear flow of the narrative by pulling us “backwards and forwards in a play between memory and anticipation which defeats any final closure of contradictions,” and
(4) to play with stereotypes. Here Arzner questions the ahistorical myths of women that show them as eternal and unchanging in contrast to men, who are seen as inside history.

Cook’s thesis in this last section is particularly compelling although, as so often in this kind of criticism, it is difficult to be sure that the reading given is, in fact, as definitive as claimed. Cook argues that Arzner undercuts and critiques stereotypes usually presented as eternal and unchanging. Arzner, she says, shows the stereotypes to be “mere constructs of representation,” that is, merely defined by this patriarchal culture and not having a universal or absolute necessity. They are thus open to change. Despite Cook’s interesting discussion of DANCE, GIRL, DANCE in this light, it is hard to go along with her claim that in creating a distance from the images, Arzner makes the audience aware of the function the images serve for men and of the contradictions these images involve for women.

Looking back over these essays, clearly Johnston and Cook have made a significant contribution to developing a theory for understanding the place of women in Hollywood films. They have not yet, however, developed a satisfactory method for combining insights from Marx and Freud. Johnston, as we've seen, moved from a Marxist view of art in her first essay to focusing on the connection between Lévi-Strauss’ notion of the exchange of women and psychoanalysis. The theoretical links still have to be clearly formulated between Marxist economics, with its model of dialectical progress toward revolution, patriarchal social structures, and psychoanalytic concepts of repression and displacement as they function in relation to women.

On the personal level, Johnston and Cook evidently experience conflict between their commitment to socialism (including active involvement in the women’s movement) and their recent theoretical interest in problems of cinematic language and of realism in film. In a recent interview with Johnston and Cook, I asked them about the connection between their sophisticated theoretical interests and their concern with making political films that would serve the women’s movement in some practical way. Johnston responded honestly:

The thing I'm keen on doing next is a film about the whole area of reproduction and how it relates to production, including problems of mothering and child care—there are some very interesting experiments going on now. The whole issue of sexuality is one that hasn't been dealt with in films very much at all. I'm empirical and practical on one level, and when one sees that there aren't films in this area, I'm attracted to the idea of a film that would be very useful. But I'm also aware that that raises all kinds of problems. The whole formal problem is very much linked with notions of sexuality. If one made an avant-garde film or one that dealt with formal problems (like Laura Mulvey’s, i.e. PENTHESILIA, made with Peter Wollen one wonders how useful it would be at the present time. I'm just very schizophrenic about it. I can't resolve it myself at all. I spend a lot of time going around with films, though, and some of them are very limited.” (8)

We all agreed that if we knew the answer to the connection between feminist film theory and Marxist praxis, we would be in a much better position than we are now. Johnston’s statement that “the whole formal problem is very much linked with notions of sexuality” points to a crucial area for further study. Hopefully, she will go on to elaborate her ideas in this connection and thus suggest the way out of the impasse that Marxist feminists are now in.

It was clear from talking with Johnston and Cook that the aim of their work extends beyond mere criticism of art products. As Marxists they are hoping to expose the essential place of women in patriarchy through their study of works produced in this kind of system. They assume that once we know how women have been seen, conceptualized, and mythologized by men, we can begin to study strategies for change. In analyzing the link between ideology and the material base as defined by Marx, Johnston and Cook are doing essential work. Art products provide an area where the links can be most profitably discussed, but the conclusions of the study have vast implications for the position of women in the culture as a whole.

Johnston and Cook assert their objection to any simplistic notion of the connection between ideology and the base. Following Althusser (and people concerned with a Marxist view of culture whose work has been published recently in Screen), they argue that ideology is a relatively autonomous area. Pam Cook says,

This is very crucial for feminism because I think we have a situation where sexism, the patriarchal culture, is in many ways not really even functional for capitalism any more. The ideology of the family, for instance, no longer serves much purpose in capitalism, but it persists as an idea because of the relative autonomy of ideology.” (“Dialogues,” I, p. 12)

Johnston admits that there are enormous gaps in the scientific theories that Marx and Freud, as men, have produced, but

the point is not to discard the theory but to examine points of stress and elaborate them. For example, Freud’s view of femininity was culture bound, but psychoanalysis is not. We must apply theory to the question of femininity afresh, even to what Freud wrote about femininity. This is why Juliet Mitchell’s book is so important. The same could be said for the lack of an adequate theory of domestic labor in Marx. Applying Marxist theory, feminists are coming up with such a theory (cf. Jean Gardiner in New Left Review).”
(“Dialogues,” I, p. 12)

The statement that psychoanalysis itself is not culture bound is, of course, highly controversial (again, one hopes that Johnston will at some point develop such large statements), and the importance of Juliet Mitchell’s book is also debatable. Mitchell does, I think, want and believe in change, but she is evidently persuaded that Freud’s psychoanalytic theory gives a correct reading to the unconscious. She believes that as feminists it is better to know the truth than to run away from it and hopes that by our confronting the true workings of the unconscious, change can come about. Presumably a feminist revolution would entail mass psychoanalysis!

It may also be true that for many feminists, interest in theoretical questions regarding the unconscious and the complex structuralist theory evidenced in the work discussed in this paper seems divorced from everyday practical problems. Some women may be impatient with all the theorizing about the cinema, asking simply for good women’s films that would serve the needs of activists in the movement. In fact, Johnston and Cook are raising crucial questions about culture, art and society that ultimately have great import, not only for feminist ideologies and, indirectly, for feminist actions and practical problems but also for men and the left movement in general. It is up to the writers to make explicit the connections that I've suggested are there if they are to win support for their theoretical position.

Whether one is happy or not with such critical approaches, most people would agree that these British film critics have broached a complex and necessary theoretical area. They are brave enough to confront large issues that few women are prepared to grapple with. They are realistic enough to see their work as part of an essential dialogue, as process rather than completed product. We would do well to respond to the challenge they present in their work, and ourselves engage in the dialogue.


1. That Johnston has not given up this ideal and is also aware of the inaccessibility of her work is evident in her decision to simplify and explain her ideas by writing for the British feminist magazine, Spare Rib, that speaks to a general audience. See her analysis of NIGHTCLEANERS in Spare Rib, No. 40 (October 1975).

2. Cf. the periodical Working Papers in Cultural Studies, published out of Birmingham University, England.

3. Cf. For Marx, trans. by Ben Brewster (New York, 1969); and Lenin and Philosophy, trans. by Ben Brewster (London, 1971).

4. Cf. Eileen McGarry, “Documentary Realism and Women’s Cinema,” in Women and Film, Vol. 2, No. 7, pp. 50-59.

5. Mythologies, trans. by Annette Lavers (New York: Hill & Wang, 1972); the essay on Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln was reprinted in Screen, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Autumn 1972).

6. Cf. Stanley Mitchell, “From Shklovsky to Brecht: Some Preliminary Remarks Towards a History of True Politicization of Russian Formalism,” and Ben Brewster, “From Shklovsky to Brecht: A Reply,” in Screen, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Summer 1974), pp. 74-103.

7. See Stephen Heath’s analysis of TOUCH OF EVIL in Screen, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring 1975), pp. 7-77.

8. “Dialogues with Ann Kaplan,” II, p. 12, Forthcoming.