Critique of psychoanalytic theory in its application to feminist film analysis
Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis became a primary tool for feminist film analysis initially among the editors and writers of the British film journal Screen as well as among French film theorists. Byars (1994:95) notes that, although there was a recognition of a power imbalance inherent in society, these psychoanalytic theorists operated with a model which described the masculine as normative and the feminine
as aberrant. These theories, because of their normative reference points, cannot account for or explain resistance. As Byars (1994:95) notes, ‘they represent, instead, the psychic mechanisms for reinforcing dominant ideologies’. Byars goes on to note that the resulting film theory does explain a remarkable number of Hollywood films, and this can be seen in Kaplan’s work, but she notes that ‘it fails to explain and ‘in fact’ misrepresents a significant minority of these texts’ (ibid.).
Laura Mulvey’s work is typical of this theoretical approach which, as Byars (1994:95) notes, incorporates the totalising notion of a ‘classic realist cinema’ with the universalising of a male-oriented theory of psychoanalysis which underestimates ‘both the complexity and variety of mainstream narratives and the potential for consuming them in ways that challenge patriarchy’. The problematic nature of this perspective for feminist film theory is developed by Byars. She (1994:97) contends that, within this realm of film theory, ‘there is no way to explain resisting, different “voices” that function at both the narrative and the enunciate levels, and there is no way to explain the pleasure of the female spectator without reference to a masculine “norm”’.
Both Freudian and Lacanian theories of psychoanalysis function to naturalise the repression of women, limiting and obscuring Variant “voices”’. Within a model of Lacanian psychoanalysis, sexuality is produced in and through language and ‘language constructs woman as not man’ (ibid). Further, the tendency to universalise within the Lacanian approach results in a failure to account for ‘differences among various patriarchal ideologies, and for any concept of struggle and change in ideology. In addition, Lacan’s highly phallocentric theory appears to consign women necessarily and irreversibly to patriarchy’ (Byars 1994:98).
The Lacanian perspective is clearly a difficult one for feminism, and a Lacanian perspective on sexual difference and a feminist one are not coterminous. Mayne (1994:56) contends that ‘Lacan’s sexist wit’ has made it difficult for many critics to understand what his work can offer feminists. While Mayne recognises the value of ‘a critical appropriation of psychoanalysis,’ she warns against the danger of ‘cooptation’ as against ‘appropriation’ (Mayne 1994:56). Lesley Stern notes that,
from a feminist perspective, one would not deny that the patriarchal unconscious is inscribed within cinematic discourse, there is a danger that such an assertion stops at the point of demonstrating the dualities of oppression and seduction and blocks the question of woman’s desire: who speaks it, how is it spoken?
The difficulties of drawing on a psychoanalytic model for feminist analysis have been addressed by a number of feminist theorists, from Constance Penley (1977) and Kaja Silverman’s (1983) accounts,6 to the unparalleled work of Teresa de Lauretis (1984, 1994). Penley provides an analysis of the avant-garde, while Silverman provides an account of theories of the subject in semiology and psychoanalysis. In AliceDoesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (1984), Teresa de Lauretis draws on psychoanalysis, as well as other theories of subject formation such as semiotics and anthropology. She shows that
the distinctive and irreducible gap between woman as image—as object of the male subject—and woman as historically defined subjects is most often ignored or suppressed in analyses of difference and representation. The goal of feminist theory in de Lauretis’ view, is not some Utopian mediation of that gap but, rather, the articulation of its attendant contradictions in the name of women as historical subjects.
De Lauretis considers the relationship between feminism, semiotics, psychoanalysis and cinema. She traces feminist film theory from its critique of sexist stereotyping of women in film in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This relatively ‘early’ theorising drew on the Marxist critique of ideology and, as de Lauretis maintains, ‘pointed’ to the ‘sizeable profits’ accruing to patriarchy from the accepted view of ‘woman as the possessor of an ahistorical eternal feminine essence’ (de Lauretis 1984:4). She notes that the semiotic notion that language and other systems of signification (e. g. visual and iconic systems) produce signs, whose meanings are established by specific codes, was soon seen as relevant to cinema. In particular semiology was seen as capable of explaining how the image of woman was ‘constructed by the codes of cinematic representation’ (ibid.).
De Lauretis sets out two crucial objectives for the text which are central to the analysis of semiology, feminism and representation. The first is to consider theoretical and filmic semiological forms in order to unpack ‘the presuppositions and implicit hierarchies of value that are at work in each discourse and each representation of woman’ (1984:6). As she illustrates, in some instances the representation is sharply focused and clearly articulated, and she uses Freud and Lacan’s theories of psychoanalysis, the writings of Levi-Strauss and Alfred Hitchcock’s films as examples. De Lauretis shows that in other cases—such as Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Umberto Eco’s semiotics or the films of Nicolas Roeg – ‘the representation is excessive, ambiguous, obfuscated or repressed’ (ibid).
The second objective, as de Lauretis notes, is to interrogate these texts and discourses with feminist theory. De Lauretis uses a wonderful example to highlight what she means, drawing on Virginia Woolf’s metaphor, in A Room of One’s Own (1929), of woman as the looking glass held up to man: ‘Women have served all these centuries as a looking glass possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice his natural size’ (Woolf 1929:39), and shows how this is reformulated ‘in Laura Mulvey’s film/theoretical metaphor of woman as image and bearer of “the look” and followed through in its implications for female spectators’ (de Lauretis 1984:6).
Developing an early ‘postfeminist’ model, de Lauretis shows how the work of a range of feminist film cultural and literary critics, including Mulvey and Irigaray, ‘rupture the coherence of address, opening up a space of contradiction in which to demonstrate the non coincidence of woman and women’ (de Lauretis 1984:7). That is, postfeminist writers do not simply demystify the whole concept of the representation of women in filmic, literary or art forms; they seek to ‘dislocate meaning’, to destabilise and finally to alter the meaning of those representations. Postfeminist theories of cultural forms identify ‘sites of oppression’, but they also actively articulate ‘sites of resistance’ within different cultural forms.
De Lauretis examines the relationship between (and traces the assumptions behind) classical semiology and Lacanian psychoanalysis to their common heritage in structural linguistics. She argues that, while semiology disregards the questions of sexual difference and subjectivity as not directly relevant to its theoretical field, and while psychoanalysis sees these factors as its primary focus, both theories deny women the status of subjects and producers of culture.
De Lauretis contends that the position of woman in language and in cinema is one of non-coherence. She argues that
she finds herself in a void of meaning, the empty space between the signs, the place of women spectators in the cinema between the look of the camera and the image on the screen, a place not represented, not symbolized and thus preempted to subject representation.
(de Lauretis 1984:8)
In the last chapter of her text de Lauretis argues that semiotics has shifted theoretically, from a classification of sign systems ‘towards an exploration of the modes of production of signs and meanings, i. e., to the ways in which systems and codes are used, transformed or transgressed in social practice’ (de Lauretis 1984:167). She states that there are two main emphases in current semiotic theory: one is semiotics focused on the subject aspects of signification and strongly influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis; the other is a semiotics concerned to stress the social aspects of signification, its practical, aesthetic or ideological use in interpersonal communication. De Lauretis argues that the work ofJulia Kristeva and Christian Metz is typical of the first area, and the work of Umberto Eco represents the second area.
Teresa de Lauretis’ later work takes these debates forward. In her essay ‘Rethinking Women’s Cinema: Aesthetics and Feminist Theory’ (1985) de Lauretis’
explanation of filmic address, female spectators, and especially representations of difference allows for feminist appropriations of narrative and encourages a more inclusive treatment of feminist interventions. At issue for her are immediate political struggles around the traditionally invisible issues of racial and lesbian difference and the ways multiple narrative viewpoints destabilize the positions of identification available to spectators.
(Carson et a/. 1994:9)
The impact of psychoanalytic theory on both feminist theory and feminist practice, particularly in the area of feminist writing and film theory, has been profound. The implications of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and concepts still resonate within feminist theoretical debates. Feminist theory’s engagement with dimensions of psychoanalytic theory has had both positive and negative effects. On one level, particularly through the work the French feminists, it has encouraged a more deconstructive and reflexive approach to feminism’s critical repertoire, thus encouraging a move in the direction ofpostfemmism. On another level, particularly in the area of feminist film theory, psychoanalytic concepts have been appropriated rather uncritically and have limited the potential of feminist film critics and practitioners for the identification of a ‘range of sites of resistance’ within different cultural forms.