If late-twentieth-century publishing increasingly became a department or specialism within vast multi-media conglomerates, it is also the case that for many men and women reading novels is now inseparable from their wider consumption of cultural narratives via film and television. To a large extent, these media currently occupy the space that once belonged to the literary public sphere and they are among the primary sites within which our sense of ourselves as gendered subjects or individuals is imaginatively engaged and tested out across a variety of cultural forms. The multiplier effect of one cultural form upon another can be considerable. To take a relatively small example: the release of the Merchant-Ivory film of E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View in 1985 led to the sale of two million copies of the novel, compared to a mere 50,000 in Forster’s own lifetime (Glover 1996: 30). As we have already noted, in Habermas’s view this massification of the media and their concentration in the hands of a small number of giant corporations have been central to the public sphere’s decline, turning a ‘culture-debating’ public into an audience of culture-consumers (Habermas 1989: 159). In the remainder of this chapter we will look at some of the weaknesses of Habermas’s position from a gender perspective.
While Habermas has recently conceded that his original analysis was ‘too pessimistic’, partly because it ignored ‘the cultural context of [media] reception’, his model of the public sphere was also flawed by his idealization of print culture and his corresponding failure to address fully its tendency to exclude female participants (Habermas 1992: 427—8, 438—9). At one level these criticisms suggest some fairly straightforward revisions. By simultaneously questioning the assumptions behind Habermas’s model and taking a fresh look at the history of the cinema, for example, it should become possible to bring women back into the picture. However, as we will see, it is debatable whether Habermas’s thesis can really survive this kind of close, gender-sensitive scrutiny.
To begin at the beginning: one of the main themes in debates about the impact of film on early twentieth-century society was a fear that it would radically destabilize the relations between the sexes. ‘Worst of all,’ opined the Chicago Daily News in 1907, the new cheap movie theatres or nickelodeons ‘may become foci for the spread of moral degradation’, places where ‘young girls particularly are in danger of forming associations that are ruinous’ (quoted in Rabinovitz 1990: 74). Behind the paper’s vague, yet undeniably sensationalizing language lay a number of what it believed were worrying developments: the rapid migration into Chicago of people new to American city life, especially young (often immigrant) working-class women, who were able to evade the control of their families in the vast metropolis. Again and again, gullible young women cinema-goers were identified as the problem generated by the new medium. In his satirical essay ‘The Little Shopgirls Go to the Movies’, written in Germany in the 1920s, cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer turned this prejudice on its head and cynically suggested a two-way relay between cinema and society: if ‘sensational film hits and life usually correspond to each other’ it is ‘because the Little Miss Typists [ Tippmamsells] model themselves after the examples they see on the screen’, but it may also be ‘that the most hypocritical instances are stolen from life’ (Kracauer 1995: 292). In film it was possible to have the worst of both worlds.
This mixture of condescension and alarm was not untypical. On the one hand, women were attacked for failing to conform;
on the other, they were ridiculed if they were seen as conforming too much. Cinema appears therefore as a potential site of transgression, a setting that allows women to reveal their troubling otherness, their appetites and their desires. Above all it provided access to new experiences. In 1897 one of the most popular attractions in American movie theatres was a film of a heavyweight boxing championship that ran for nearly two hours. What was truly remarkable was that 60 per cent of the audience consisted of women who, through the medium of film, were for the first time able to watch an intensely physical contest usually reserved for the gaze of men only. Under these novel relations of spectator- ship boxing became visible as a sexually charged event.
Miriam Hansen, who opens her book Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (1991) with this vignette, has argued that the vogue for The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight among women breached ‘the taboo on an active female gaze’, reversing the widespread assumption that it was men who alone possessed the right to look. She reads this episode as a symptom and sign of the emergence of what she regards as ‘an alternative public sphere’ for women, a space within which their needs and aspirations could be articulated, in however tentative a form. Drawing upon Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge’s critique of Habermas in Offentlichkeit und Erfahrung (1972; translated as The Public Sphere and Experience, 1993), Hansen’s methodology locates this female counter-public negatively, searching for those practices that seem to stand out against the dominant order of the modern city and were subject to regulation or adverse comment. Unlike Habermas’s concept of a public sphere, this alternative domain is disorganized, fleeting, evanescent: it springs to life in brief flashpoints or partial traces. Since female suffrage was not achieved until after the First World War, the women who frequented the movies during this period had little opportunity to participate in organized politics; indeed, a remarkably detailed unpublished study of German women spectators by Emilie Altenloh in 1914 actually observed that ‘[w]hile the men are attending political meetings, women visit the movie theater next door where they’ll be met by their spouses when the screening is over’ (quoted in Hansen 1983: 178). At the same time, the cinema was one of the few forms of leisure available to working – class women outside the home that was not an exclusively male preserve. It was cheap and also convenient enough to be squeezed into the interstices of an ordinary day, as part of a shopping trip or on the way home from work, and this mundane accessibility appealed to more affluent women too. Not only was a cross-class audience coming into existence, but there is evidence of some convergence between the classes; Altenloh noted ‘a remarkably homogeneous attitude toward the cinema’ among her female respondents, despite differences of class and marital status (Petro 1989: 19). In a sense, the early silent cinema capitalized upon and extended the reach of the new consumerist economy, epitomized by the department store and the advertisement hoarding, in which women made the main purchasing decisions for the household.
No matter how much or how little money these women had, cinema offered them ‘a spectacle to be consumed’ (Mayne 1988: 78). Because of the growing prominence of female spectators within the movie audience, films began to appear which directly addressed them in a variety of forms. Serials like The Hazards of Helen (1914) ‘featured adventurous, physically active heroines’ and provided ‘pleasure in images of female competence, courage, and physical movement’ (Hansen 1991: 120). Although there were more demure images of femininity in the persons of Lilian Gish or Mary Pickford, representing the conventionally compliant face of domestic virtue, the figure of the spirited modern girl continued into the 1920s through such actresses as Gloria Swanson. But, for Hansen, the star who most dramatically threw the contradictions of female spectatorship into relief was the matinee idol Rudolph Valentino. In the course of an unusually short film career — he first began to attract attention in 1917, yet by 1926 he was dead — Valentino not only made women swoon, his appearances could lead to minor riots.
Valentino’s devoted following shows how the emerging star system was able to give expression to modes of female desire that were deeply at odds with the patriarchal cast of American culture. In the first place, Valentino’s star persona combined considerable exotic allure with a curiously indeterminate eroticism. As a wild
Arab chief, a French nobleman or as a Latin-American horseman and dancer, Valentino was both a sexual predator and a more ambiguous figure whose dress and demeanour often seemed to feminize him. Moreover, the very fact that the films frequently made him the recipient of a prolonged female gaze, an object of spectacular sensuality, served to invert the usual ‘gender economy of vision’ in which it is the woman whose desirability interrupts the forward movement of the narrative. But if Valentino appears to occupy the filmic position traditionally reserved for the woman, it is also crucial that his own gaze will eventually be brought into play, that he is shown to be a desiring subject who can bestow the gift of sexual rapture. However, neither of these moments is ever fully resolved: Hansen insists that Valentino’s look and the identification it provokes are always characterized by an ineradicable ambivalence. Even when the actor’s eyes are ‘riveted on the woman of his choice, he seems to become paralyzed rather than aggressive or menacing’ (279). In the Valentino text, mastery is always ready to yield to vulnerability.
Second, Valentino’s extraordinary appeal to female viewers was extended and consolidated through the medium of publicity: fan clubs and magazines, interviews, competitions and special events. This was a mixed blessing for the movie industry. For although the function of the star system was to guarantee and then intensify the spectator’s psychic and emotional attachment to each individual film, the creation of the star’s persona, of an imaginary identity believed to exist outside the frame of the cinematic text, could also operate in the opposite direction so that visual pleasure was no longer concentrated in the narrative but was instead dissolved into ‘a string of spectacular moments that display the “essence” of the star’ (247). In such a system the careful management of the fans themselves is inevitably a sensitive issue, since they form a collective body whose legitimacy derives from their claim to have brought the star into existence by their own grassroots support; and the fan subculture invariably has the potential to get out of control. In the case of Valentino the relationship between star and female fans was peculiarly obsessive and fetishistic and soon outstripped the bounds of moral and sexual propriety. When women sent him their ‘intimate garments’ in the mail requesting that he kiss and return them, he apparently did so (294). As part of his erotic ‘pact’ with his fans, Valentino arranged to have his corpse displayed before them after his death, to tumultuous effect. It is therefore possible to read the scenes of mass hysteria occasioned by his funeral not just as a collective expression of grief at the loss of an icon, but as a kind of last- ditch revolt by Valentino’s fans against the demise of a symbolic world in which the narrow confines of gender no longer obtained.
This vision of an alternative public sphere is a far cry from anything in Habermas. Yet it should be remembered that Hansen is not concerned with the possibilities for rational-critical debate, but with the opening up ofwhat Negt and Kluge term a new ‘social horizon of experience’, a place where ‘needs, conflicts, anxieties, memories, and fantasies’ can begin to achieve ‘public recognition’ (92). Her arguments are cautious, necessarily provisional and carefully qualified: since it is hard to know how these women ‘received the films they saw and what significance moviegoing had in relation to their lives’, the best that we can do is to ‘try to reconstruct the configurations of experience that shaped their horizon of reception, and ask how the cinema, as a social and aesthetic experience, might have interacted with that horizon’ (101). In a nutshell, Hansen’s credo presents the abiding methodological dilemma confronting all historically based reception studies where first-hand accounts are unavailable, as they almost invariably are.
The most common route out of this impasse is to sift through the film review pages of newspapers and magazines in search of clues to the discursive or ideological context within which viewing took place. This is the approach adopted by Janet Staiger in her book Interpreting Films (1992), an avowedly Marxist analysis of the history of reception in American cinema, one of whose main tasks is to distinguish between the use of ‘dominant’ and ‘marginal’ interpretive strategies among film spectators at any given cultural and political moment. Staiger’s work is often ingenious: when considering the reception of the Judy Garland movie A Star is Born (1954), for example, she takes the opinions voiced by reviewers in the mainstream press as the dominant or hegemonic responses to the film and then takes these as the benchmark against which ‘alternative readings’ can be defined as the ones ‘that do not match’ (Staiger 1992: 157). She is especially interested in explaining the Judy Garland cult among gay men, but her immediate practical difficulty is that the criminal status of homosexuality in the 1950s effectively outlawed any written record of how the film and its star were regarded at the time of its release. Staiger solves this problem by taking the later writings of gay critics like Jack Babuscio and Richard Dyer and then reading them back into the earlier context in order to show how they focus on aspects of A Star is Born that were overlooked by mainstream reviewers. Her warrant for this interpretive move is the development of a new gay cultural criticism as part of the struggle for gay rights following the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, events that coincided with Garland’s death in June of that year. However, Staiger has to assume that this watershed in gay politics created the conditions in which long-suppressed ideas could be made public, a conjecture that begs the question of whether Dyer or Babuscio’s readings really can provide an accurate guide to how gay spectators saw the film several decades ago. In the absence of any reliable evidence Staiger can only hope that oral history will bridge the gap at some point in the future.
In their different ways both Staiger and Hansen set their face against the kind of analysis that regards the spectator’s response as always already encoded into the filmic text. Some of the most widely discussed work on cinema proceeds on this basis. So, for example, Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ draws upon psychoanalysis in order to argue that looking is typically divided ‘between active/male and passive/ female’ components. That is to say, in terms of the positions offered to the spectator in mainstream cinema, the ‘determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female figure’, while ‘women are simultaneously looked at and displayed’ and are the object of ‘erotic contemplation’ (Mulvey 1989 : 19). And in a similar vein, Steve Neale has suggested that the male body cannot comfortably be subjected to the same voyeuristic scrutiny as the woman’s for fear of the homosexual undertones this may evoke. Consequently the spectator’s absorption in the fight scenes of a western or a thriller has a protective quality, denying any hint of an erotic subtext: masculinity is to be tested or proved rather than looked at (Neale 1983).
By contrast, Staiger seeks to account for reader response without privileging a psychoanalytic reading of the cinematic text. For her, psychoanalysis is merely one interpretive strategy among others and what matters is the extent of its influence in any particular historical period. In Staiger’s view there can be no text without an audience, for, without people to interpret it, it could have no meaning: a proposition that she shares with Stanley Fish, though she deploys it to somewhat different ends. As we have seen, Hansen’s Babel and Babylon also aims to contextualize the act of viewing but, rather than dispensing with the filmic text, her approach is to historicize the text-centred model of gendered spectatorship advanced by Mulvey and others by claiming that what it really describes are the standardized ‘modes of organizing vision and structuring narratives’ put in place by classic Hollywood cinema from roughly the 1920s to the 1970s (Hansen 1991: 249). The value of studying early silent film is therefore that it allows us to see a looser, less monolithic set of relations between films and their spectators in operation before the Hollywood mass audience had been fully formed. And it allows us ‘to take the spectator seriously as a productive force’ that can never be wholly swallowed up by the movie industry (89).
Today the spectator is arguably less in thrall to Hollywood cinema than ever before. For despite the importance of feature films to the television industry, the rise of video, satellite and cable has altered the relationship between the public and the private once again. Whereas cinema broke with the private conditions of reading by setting narrative and fantasy in public space, now ‘the compulsive temporality of public projection has given way to ostensibly more self-regulated yet privatized, distracted and fragmented acts of consumption’, placing new stresses upon men and women in the home (Hansen 1993: 198). This is not to say that privatized viewing is completely replacing collective forms of spectatorship. The weekly American ritual of watching Dynasty in gay bars discussed by Jane Feuer in her study of 1980s television is an important contemporary example of the ‘subcultural appropriation of a text’, a moment of collective identity in a political climate not noticeably hospitable to gay rights (Feuer 1995: 135). And the development of the kind of intensive fan culture vividly portrayed in Constance Penley’s work on ‘slash fandom’ points to some dramatic new possibilities for, not only interpreting, but completely reconfiguring popular narratives (see ch.2).
The Kirk/Spock fanzines and re-edited videos go beyond the imitative idolization of stars — singing their songs, acting out scenes from their films — traditionally associated with their followers (see Stacey 1994). Penley argues that in re-imagining the working partnership between the captain and first officer in terms of a ‘passionate lifetime union’ these fanzines not only rewrite the codes of the romance genre, but also construct ‘new versions of female pornography’ through the invention of a guardedly non-heterosexual form of masculinity (Penley 1992: 490—1). These subcultures are part of a wider phenomenon of ‘textual poaching’ which overturns many of the assumptions upon which spectatorship is often thought to be based, giving it a more intensively performative twist. The world of the fan is:
characterized precisely by its refusal to respect cultural hierarchies (the boundary between high and low culture); its rejection of aesthetic distance (the boundary between text and reader); its blurring of distinctions between individual texts, genres, even media; its defiance of conventional conceptions of literary property (the boundary between reader and writer); and its attempt to integrate media content into its everyday social experiences (the boundary between fantasy and reality).
(Jenkins 1990: 151)
But, as we have seen, the irreverence of the fanzine world is far from innocent of gender politics. Cheek by jowl with K/S romances we find songs like Dennis Drew’s version of ‘I Need A Little Girl’ which paradoxically uses the image of an alien woman with dorsal fins and an extra eye to reinstate the normality of male heterosexual desire, a desire that is given a humorous if disturbing inflection, yet which is also reassuringly the same as it has always supposedly been (Jenkins 1990: 161—2).
The highly engaged modes of viewing discussed by critics like Constance Penley and Henry Jenkins belong to the new technological world of electronic reproduction and look forward to the consolidation of new types of fan culture via the worldwide web or the internet. Whether the enhanced possibilities for manipulating the image will completely change the conditions of spectatorship remains to be seen; though it is worth noting that among the fans studied by Penley the distinction between reader, viewer and writer is constantly blurred. If these viewers of Star Trek belong to one of the most creative audiences that have ever appeared, promoting extraordinarily sophisticated fantasies and identifications — Kirk and Spock are felt to have revealed themselves as more desirable because their romantic natures have been demonstrated on screen through a relationship between them that curiously cannot be imagined as gay — it is nevertheless also true that these female fans see their interpretations ‘as amplifying rather than negating or deforming the text’, bringing out elements that were already implicit within it (Penley 1989: 259). Though their adaptations have scandalized the ordinary Star Trek enthusiasts, trespassing upon the sacred preserve of the text, K/S fans regard their activities in a properly conservative light, ‘reading with the grain’ of the narrative instead of brushing against it. Here, at the crossroads of the future, cross-identifications are more star-crossed than ever as the lines between genders become hopelessly entangled in the wake of authentic desire.
The K/S appropriation of Star Trek returns us to many of the issues considered in this chapter and elsewhere in this book. For the practices of these fans enact a virtual stand-off between corporate capitalism, as represented by the owners of Star Trek, and local patterns of gendered consumer power; between the commodification of the body and the muddying of gender boundaries; between the unregulated consumption of pornographic imagery now possible through technologies like the internet and attempts by ordinary men and women to use both narrative and technology to gain greater control over their own lives. At the same time, they perhaps also indicate the vanishing – point of some of our most cherished assumptions: in the K/S world gay and straight, male and female, public and private seem to fold in upon each other and threaten to implode. Neither is quite thinkable without the other, yet as we boldly go into the era of electronic reproduction with its associated struggles around freedom of communication and access, no one can be quite sure precisely where the new frontier of gender truly lies.