Introduction: text, context and the lesbian spectator
The project of articulating a lesbian position within a feminist critique of film theory has been dominated by Mulvey's (1975) dualistic account of the gendered organisation of cinematic space:
In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. (Mulvey, 1975: 62 – emphasis hers.)
Various efforts were made to trouble the binarism of this model and to figure an active female spectatorship within its parameters. Among these were Mulvey's own Afterthoughts on transvestite female identifications (1981) and Doane's (1982) masquerade theory which argued that a covert feminine activity could be read in to the text as a troubling of the institutional mode of representation (IMR) in the noir and western genres in particular. Copjec (1982) redeployed Laplanche's (1976) model of anaclisis to figure pre-discursive (pre-Oedipal) 'feminine drives' which might trouble the emphasis on (phallic) narcissism in accounts of cinematic identification. Dyer (1982) and Neale (1983) also addressed the possible objectification of the male body as object of phallic desire in action genres.
By the end of the 1980s there was a period of reassessment. In her (1987) overview, Merck noted that Mulvey (1981) had, herself, found her female spectator in "the awkward position afforded by the binary structure of the 1975 essay" (5). The possibilities for exit afforded variously by Kristevan semiotics, the theorisation of a pre-Oedipal bond with the mother or of Bakhtin's concept of carnival as ritualised transgression had also been explored. Merck identified a range of specifically feminist approaches to the Lacanian problematic of sexual difference including an Irigarayan celebration of an oppositional construct of feminine difference; a multiplication of categories of difference in order to displace the oppressive hierarchy of a single, over-arching dualism (for example by drawing attention to differences between women); and a Derridean criticism of the foundations of such dualism itself in western metaphysics.
The contradictions which feminist approaches to the film-studies model have produced were summed up by Penley:
In examining the model or metaphor of the cinematic apparatus, the most useful and successful feminist approaches have been those that take film theory on its own terms — semiology, psychoanalysis, textual analysis — while questioning the capacity of each to elide the difficulties specific to feminine sexuality, if not gendered subjectivity tout court. Another approach to the same apparatus question in its relation to ideas like the Imaginary, identification, and repetition, would be to reject, out of hand, all the work produced by film theory on the grounds of its manifest exclusion of the woman; and then strike out along the well-worn dissident paths of a reductive biologism, sociologism, or mysticism of the feminine, resurrecting once again the expressiveness of the women's body or 'women's experience' ... (Penley, 1989: 60)
The limits of the feminist-psychoanalytic model of 'sexual difference' seemed to have been reached by the close of the 1980s. This exhaustion was perhaps an element in a shift, at the end of the 1980s, away from a mode of enquiry focusing on the category of femininity (with its problematic drift towards the naturalisation of 'the woman' noted above by Penley) and towards the category of masculinity.
Silverman (1988) deployed Deleuze's (1971) analysis of Freud's (1924) account of the masochistic fantasy scenario to undermine the purported fixity of masculine subjective dominance. If the resignification of femininity as a positive category could not be effected, then the controlling dominance of the masculine gaze might be troubled instead. Rather than being perceived as universal 'law,' masculinity might be decentred or pluralised and differences of race, or sexual orientation, be opened out.
Why should feminists discuss masculinity now? Why should it be given any priority over other pressing issues? ... [I]t is urgent that feminists examine the cultural construction of masculinity, as well as the psychoanalytic structure of male sexuality, in order to avoid reducing either to monolithic and universal categories. (Penley and Willis, 1988: 4-5)
In this context, Clover (1992) challenged de Lauretis' (1984) argument that, in the mythological structure of the horror genre, there are two basic and fixed subject positions: that of a (phallic) mobile, heroic being who penetrates closed spaces and that of an immobile (feminine) being who personifies the damp dark space constituting that which is to be overcome. Clover counter-argued that gender formations in horror and science fiction genres recall an older 'single-sex' construction of gender in which identifications were more plastic and reversible. The scopic regime of the IMR is effectively disrupted in the horror genre since the phallically-controlling (voyeuristic) gaze of the killer is genre-coded as psychologically out of control and as always-already doomed to annihilation. The phallic gaze is thus disempowered and the male spectator re-aligned with the reactive (feminine) moment of looking — suspended in horrorful anticipation of events which he ultimately cannot control.
Feminist re-conceptualisations based on a de-subjectivising Freudian account of the fantasy scenario, or on Laplanche and Pontalis' (1986) re-reading of this account, also appeared to open out possibilities for moving beyond the binary terms of sexual difference which had foreclosed discussion of lesbian spectatorship. For lesbians, the limits of a discourse of sexual difference are marked not only by the subordination of the feminine sign to the masculine, but also by the hetero-gendered structure of desire which inscribes homosexuality as a pathological disavowal of sexual difference. The desiring gaze must be aligned with an active/ male appropriation of a passive/ female spectacle and lesbian desire can thus figure only as active/ male (inverted).
Studlar (1991) and de Lauretis (1991) constructed desubjectivising (non-identificatory) models of lesbian spectatorship in order to retain a psychoanalytic paradigm of gender and yet avoid its inversionary effects. Whilst Studlar (1991) focused on the lesbian-iconic representation of Dietrich in popular film, for de Lauretis (1991), a lesbian interpretation is possible only when film production and spectatorship both take place in a lesbian context — and thus text and context can be treated as continuous. The specificity of lesbianism is constituted under the sign of desire. In other words, the lesbian spectator can only be discerned in the production of a specifically lesbian desire through the workings of the specifically lesbian text read in a specifically lesbian context. Lesbian desire thus reads not as inversionary but as an interpretative pact among women. However, the power to produce lesbian meanings seems vested solely in the textual producers — the consumer seems to be dragged along "by the scruff of the text".
Although de Lauretis (1993) stated that "redefining the conditions of vision, as well as the modes of representing, cannot be predicated on a single, undivided vision ... (whether as 'lesbians' or 'women' or 'people of color' ...)" (152), this recognition seems difficult to implement in terms of a purely textual practice. In the discussion following her presentation of her (1991) analysis of She Must Be Seeing Things, it was pointed out that de Lauretis had ignored racial specificities in the presentation of its protagonists (264). De Lauretis replied that "... I don't think the film allows one to deal with it beyond locating it as a problem ..." (264 – emphasis mine). She added that for this reason her work had focused on the (non-racially-specific) question of fantasy (264). In the (1993) text, de Lauretis again addressed She Must Be Seeing Things, but restated her view that "[t]he originality of [the film] is in its representing the question of lesbian desire ... through the feminist-lesbian debates on sex-radical imagery as a political issue of representation, as well as in real life." (153 – emphasis hers). Although she had noted the specificity of the character Agnes' Latina identification, effectively it still failed to 'signify'. That is, the critic may only deal with issues as the text allows.
In terms of this argument, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the lesbian text produced in a white context continues to compel the silence of its racialised 'others' — both as performers and as spectators. Thus, whilst lesbian film-theorists have begun to argue that lesbianism cannot be treated as an undifferentiated category, those models which remain within the textual field of film-theory (which absorbs 'the spectator' to the text) might still be argued to reproduce an exclusionary effect. Furthermore, the constitution of lesbianism under the sign of desire might also be seen as universalising. Despite reference to extra-film-textual lesbian debates (over sexuality) and, whilst 'the lesbian' spectator is no longer characterised merely as an ideal construct of instabilities inherent to the popular film-text and its apparatus, there still seems no way to address issues or identifications which are not addressed by the text itself.
Lesbian identifications might, however, actually resist address through such exclusively textual approaches as that offered by psychoanalytic film theory. Mayne (1991) argued that all spectatorship is inherently contradictory and questioned whether textual analysis of the disruptive potential of lesbianism to the scopic relay should be the primary focus of lesbian criticism. The textual theorist can only point up incoherences in the internal workings of the text and try to 'work' the exposure of its illusions of monolithic power and control. This necessarily effects a largely negative critical practice. "A pessimism about any alternative pleasures has characterized many feminist discussions of the cinema" (Mayne 1993: 70).
De Lauretis (1991), whilst celebrating marginal lesbian performativity, was nevertheless highly critical of the identificatory modes of spectatorship offered by popular representations of lesbianism in mainstream lesbian films such as Desert Hearts. She dismissed male-directed films such as Black Widow or Personal Best, which have been popular with many lesbians (Ellsworth, 1986; Traub, 1991), as "outright obnoxious" (de Lauretis, 1991: 257). A celebratory attitude towards lesbian film which nevertheless articulates a rejection of lesbian readings of the popular text might seem to be challenged by the evidence that many lesbians have generated a culture of pleasure in popular cinema (see, for example, regular reviews of popular film in Diva magazine; Merck 1980; Becker et al 1985; Ellsworth 1986; Case, 1988/9; Traub 1991; Weiss 1992; Tasker 1994; Heller 1994; Hamer and Budge (Eds) 1994; Wilton (Ed) 1995b; Olson 1994, 1997; Patton 1995; Nataf 1995; Halberstam 1995; Modleski 1995/6 — to name but a few). Clearly, these lesbians must have found some way of disentangling themselves from preferred readings or identificatory modes offered by the dominant text.
The film-studies model has tended to rule out any meshing of its conceptual, speculative, textual analysis with historical, sociological or anecdotal accounts of spectatorship. The former disallows the latter since if subjective-identificatory practice is a product of the structure of the text, then there can be no reference to any identificatory processes external to the text: or at least no way to relate them to a specifically textual mode of analysis. Textual theorists also objected that reference to the specificities of extra-textual spectators' identifications (such as lesbianism) tended to posit a mis-placed concreteness (or essence) to such identifications. Most historically based analyses of film, therefore, "tend to be done independently of the kind of apparatus concerns that characterize 1970s film theory" (Mayne 1993: 63). Textual practice is not, however, itself immune from a tendency to reification:
Indeed, some feminist work which takes Mulvey's essay as an inspiration puts forth just as rigidly a master plot of men looking at women from which any possibility of the female subject has been evacuated. (Mayne 1993: 52)
American lesbian critics such as Becker et al (1985) and Ellsworth (1986), who had been less confined by the European (and especially British) mode of textual film criticism, had already taken informal account of anecdotal evidence from lesbian (bums-on-seats rather than theoretically inferred) spectators. More recently, there has also been some general movement in British film studies towards the historicisation of the film text. In feminist work, this has often been effected through conceptualisations of intertextuality: "to refer less to the discursive and self-referential quality of all signification, and more to the ways in which film addresses its viewers across a wide range of texts." (Mayne 1993: 64). This inter-textual approach refers to a wider film culture of popular magazines and advertising as well as to variously-focused accounts of the historical contexts of film production, exhibition, or reception.
While much of the work on spectatorship done in the name of history is extremely critical of that theory, textual analysis has not been rejected but rather revised. For a common point of agreement in studies of intertextuality, exhibition, the cinematic public sphere, and reception is the need not to reject textual analysis, but rather to expand its parameters beyond the individual film text. Textual analysis thus becomes attentive to the intersecting and sometimes contradictory ways in which different forms of address function across different textual registers. (Mayne 1993: 68)
Feminist film theory has not proven satisfactory to lesbian purposes and could also be argued to have reached its limits more generally. In spite of various challenges, however, the psychoanalytic model of gender in film studies has remained crucial to the intelligibility of feminist and lesbian film criticism and practice. At the same time, popular cinema has itself been exhibiting an ever-increasingly self-reflexive mode of address. Awareness of the possibilities for commercial exploitation presented by a diversity of spectatorial practices has been encoded in the diversification of the forms and address of the popular film-text itself. Constructs originally developed within film theory and subsequently transmitted into popular culture by filmmakers who had been through a process of higher education are, by now, very often crucial to the popular intelligibility of dominant texts. The self-motivated femme fatale now lives to fight another day in commercially successful 'post-feminist' films such as A Rage in Harlem or The Last Seduction. In a more limited opening out of address, 'positive image' black male heroes or white female heroines tokenistically save a 'multicultural' world in blockbusters such as Terminator II, or Independence Day.
Idealised 'postmodern,' 'multicultural,' or tokenistic modes of incorporative address may, however, not only be a-historical but actually misrepresent material conditions. For economically marginal communities, and especially for women, these may not have improved or may actually have worsened during the last two decades. Discrepancies between a 'post modern,' or 'multicultural,' representational order (in all its forms of presentation, not just in relation to cinema) and present-day conditions of economic marginality have given rise to some comment, particularly in the UK:
... [T]he lesson of our time is that the distinctive logics of racism can rapidly transport ... neighbours from benevolence and intimacy into a non-negotiable mutual loathing that denies the premises on which the idea of a multi-cultural utopia has so far been constructed. (Gilroy 1993a: 25)
[The political climate] ... has seen a fierce move to the right in the western world in the last 15 years, the balance of forces having shifted firmly against the social and political gains made by women, the black community, and the working class during the 1970s and early 80s ... Poststructuralism has played a major part in the backlash . . . (leading) to a situation whereby any materialist analysis is viewed with suspicion. It has become extremely unfashionable for anyone to claim that material oppression, injustice and inequality exist in the world as structures ... (Wingfield 1994: 21-24)
[A post-modern discourse] is gender depoliticised, sanitised and something difficult to associate with sexual violence, economic inequality, women dying from backstreet abortions. It is gender reinvented as play for those who see themselves far removed from the nitty gritty of women's oppression. (Jeffreys, 1994: 98)
This [culturally-focused] writing suggests the far distance between contemporary consumer culture and the world of long hours, unrewarding work, drudgery and brutal exploitation ... (McRobbie 1997: 76)
Whilst it is clearly crucial that some means of historicising accounts of gendering in cinematic processes be effected, Mayne suggested that it would hardly improve matters to replace the reified dominance of the male gaze by any new "empiricist orthodoxy;" since "history" can also acquire the status of "unquestionable evidence" (1993: 64). A Foucauldian model of discourse, on the other hand, does not posit any area of human consciousness, fantasy, or impulse as a priori to the production of signs. Foucauldian method, which holds textuality (or discourse) in tension with a contingent account of material conditions, may thus offer a solution.
Foucauldian approaches do not currently offer any developed conceptualisation of the specificities of cinema as medium or apparatus, however. Feminist film theory, it would seem, continues to provide the only developed language in which to specify the particular ordering of gender articulated by the cinematic apparatus. Psychoanalytic accounts of representation are obviously not, on the face of it, compatible with Foucauldian (anti-psychoanalytic and post-gendered) perspectives. But in Foucauldian terms, all conceptualisations must recognise the necessary incoherences of any kind of account of 'reality.' By re-articulating models of the apparatus made available by the work of feminist film-theoreticians into a discursive mode, it becomes possible to approach the cinematic process not as the hopelessly monolithic process of the reproduction of women's subordination, but as a site of contestation and transformation.
This is necessary if a lesbian 'history of the present' is to be constructed as an effective map of continued resistance.