‘PLEASURES’ AND POPULAR CULTURAL TEXTS
Female spectatorial pleasure has been theorised outside the framework of psychoanalytic film theory. Some feminist film theorists and cultural theorists have claimed that female spectatorial pleasures can be found in particular genres and filmic texts. Modleski (1984:104) maintains that feminists ‘can look for clues to women’s pleasure which are already present in existing forms even if this pleasure is currently placed at the service of patriarchy’. This particular approach highlights the attempt by some feminists working in the area of popular culture to attempt to identify strategies which resist dominant constructions of women’s pleasure through pre-existing popular forms of mass entertainment.
One such popular cultural genre is melodrama. Van Zoonen (1994), drawing on Byars’ (1991) analysis of 1950s melodrama, shows that many technical and narrative aspects of the Hollywood melodrama, for example mise en scene, characters and the narrative itself, establish a very different ‘text – spectator’ relation to the model of male voyeuristic spectatorship. In addition, van Zoonen notes that films with strong female leads, or characters with strong friendship bonds between women, offer different possibilities for female spectatorial pleasure. In these instances the emphasis is on the way different aspects of the text, for example narrative or visual devices, offer different ‘readings’. As van Zoonen (1994:96) comments, ‘how these readings will be actualized by real audiences depends on their particular characteristics and viewing contexts and is not determined by the psychoanalytic drama inscribed by the text’.
Two analyses of films which adopt this approach are Arbuthnot and Seneca’s (1982) analysis of the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes12 and Stacey’s (1987) analysis of the film Desperately Seeking Susan}2 Arbuthnot and Seneca, in their analysis of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, aim to shift the emphasis from an analysis of male viewing pleasures to female pleasures of the classic narrative filmic text. They identify a range of feminist pleasures, including female friendship and the tension between ‘male objectification and women’s resistance’. Similarly, in Stacey’s analysis of Desperately Seeking Susan she claims there is no way that traditional psychoanalytic film theory can account for the fascination both female protagonists express for each other. As van Zoonen (1994:96) points out, the film is not about sexual difference but about difference between women, and it is this type of difference for which Lacanian psychoanalysis can provide no explanations. In a later work, Stacey (1991) outlines two feminist positions on identification within a broader conception of pleasures.
The first position is exemplified in Mulvey’s work which, as Stacey notes, criticises ‘identification of any kind for reproducing sameness, fixity and the confirmation of existing identities’ (Stacey 1991:148). Stacey rejects the psychoanalytic framework and claims that it is possible to reclaim identification as a site of resistance ‘by seeing it as involved in the production of desired identities’ (Mahoney 1994:70), and thus as potentially empowering. She claims that female spectators can experience the pleasures of identification from films with leading female film stars such as Doris Day and Bette Davis. Mahoney notes that these ‘pleasures can arise from acknowledged differences between spectator and star; worshipping the star as goddess or desiring to overcome the gap between them; or they can come from a denial of the distance between self and ideal, namely the widely recognised pleasure of losing oneself in the film’ (ibid.).