POSTFEMINIST PLEASURES IN FEMALE SPECTATORSHIP
The ambiguity in the term ‘female spectatorship’ can be seen in many of the debates outlined, and is addressed by Christine Gledhill in her article ‘Pleasurable Negotiations’ (1988). Gledhill (1988:67) contends that ‘Female spectatorship elides conceptually distinct notions: the “feminine spectator”, constructed by the text, and the female audience, constructed by the sociohistorical categories of gender, class, race and so on’. This distinction is an important one for understanding the nature of the female spectator and the concept of a diverse or differentiated audience response more generally. It also has implications for pleasures and resisting pleasures experienced by differently positioned ‘readers’.
The subject positionings constructed by different texts clearly relate to whether the text (and its inscribed pleasures) is produced for male or female spectators. One area where the male body becomes the object of spectatorial pleasure is television sport and sports photography. Van Zoonen (1994:99) observes that ‘textual devices can modify a full-blown subordination of the male body’. She also draws on the work of Ien Ang (1983), who shows how sports photography establishes the boundaries for visualising the male body within patriarchy. Ang (1983:421, cited in van Zoonen 1994) maintains that ‘These pictures are a compromise between activity and passivity; the male body tolerates the transformation into an object of visual desire only when it is in motion.’ Van Zoonen (1994:104) contends that the way in which the male body presents itself to the female spectator within a patriarchal framework shows that a ‘reversal of masculine structures of looking which is based on identification and voyeurism does not produce an equivalent female voyeurism’. She maintains this confirms the inadequacy of the psychoanalytic model for the female spectator, and shows that despite ‘contradictions within patriarchal culture’, the dominant visual economy is still organised along traditional gender lines.
In a study that highlights the positioning of female spectators within an area designed for masculine viewing pleasure—telerugby—Star (1988) considers the ‘symbolic annihilation’ of women as viewers of Television New Zealand (TVNZ)’s Rugby World Cup. In this article Star draws on gender theory for an analysis of ‘the positioning’ of the audience. In doing so, she draws parallels between ‘soap – opera’ which she argues within the context of media theory is aimed at a female audience and ‘sportsopera’ which she maintains is aimed at a male audience because of its masculinist discourses, e. g. violence, action, death, masculinity, authority and nationalism
Because of our strongly gender marked conditioning, male and female subjects have different positions in relation to all these discourses. The convergence of discourses in a text and the subject positions offered viewers mark soap opera and sports opera as gender directed.
Women and men, she says, will experience the same action in different ways.
Star contends that the masculinist discourses of television and rugby could usefully be called ‘master discourses to stress their hegemonic and phallocratic functions’ (ibid,). Master discourses are linked with both formal ‘compulsory’ institutions as well as more informal patternings, e. g. ‘gendered body language, “compulsory heterosexuality” and everyday “chatter”’ (ibid.).14 Using master discourses in a hegemonic sense, Star is able to show how ‘outsider’ or ‘resisting’ readings can attempt to resist or challenge dominant discourses and ‘to make conscious and explicit what has remained unconscious in the dominant discourse, e. g. the racist unconscious, the sexist unconscious’ (Star 1988:188).
Margaret Morse (1983, 1985), in writing about the discursive nature of television, maintains television only pretends to hold a real discourse with viewers. Morse further argues that ‘the stories told by televised sports discourse are a new form of fiction which masquerades as interpersonal discursive contact’ (Star 1988:190). Star, while agreeing with Morse, wants to go further and maintains that they may be seen as simulations (after the model of Baudrillard) which are an invention of dominant groups. She claims that ‘Television is a cultural artifact. Far from presenting the world as it naturally is, television with its capacity to eavesdrop, survey, record, censor, silence, order, transmit etc…is fruitfully approached as what Michel Foucault would term the apparatus of power’ (Star 1988:189).
In discussing ‘sportsopera’ within the framework of gendered TV discourse, Star clearly identifies the masculinist discourses around TVNZ’s Rugby World Cup, which include: racism, heterosexism, the celebration of masculine mythic values, nationalistic and warring discourse and violence. Extending her debate to televised sport more generally, she argues that it is an area of programming which is a male preserve: ‘Dominated by male sports and male commentators, celebrating macho values, male bodies and prowess, televised sport clearly targets male viewers’ (Star 1988:191).
The discursive location of women in televised sport is a problematic one. Morse (1983:44) defines the position as follows: ‘Sport remains a male preserve, a place of “autonomous masculinity”, freed even from dependence, on woman as other to another identity.’ Star (1988:192) disagrees with Morse and maintains that women are integral to the masculinist discourse of televised sport (sportsopera). As she comments, ‘Women are.. .thoroughly built into sportsopera, as an all-but – invisible otherness, a backdrop, the essential gestalt without which the discourse of masculinity would not function’ (ibid.). Televised sport, and in particular sportsopera, involves the ‘symbolic annihilation of women’. The discourses of televised sport address a male viewer, as Star (1988:193) notes: ‘The viewer situated in the voice over discourse is male. Women are excluded by mode of address.’ Star also discusses the wider ‘power-knowledge’ base of ‘rugby hegemony’, the real corridors of rugby power, e. g. clubs, bars, locker rooms, hotel bedrooms, where the ‘dirty discourse’ occurs. Star maintains that it is the ability of males to control knowledge of and speech about ‘the dirty discourse of rugby’ which establishes the ‘power-knowledge’ base of the masculinist discourse of rugby. Star carefully grounds her analysis within Umberto Eco’s model of ‘phatic speech’ or ‘chatter’.15
There are parallels between sportsopera (televised rugby texts) and soap opera. Star (1988:194) notes both are cheap to produce and deliver large audiences. ‘Classic serial narrative structure moves relentlessly towards closure: equilibrium, disequilibrium, resolution. In soap opera the “closure” is always temporary. Often more enigmas are thrown up than are resolved, giving continuing uncertainty.’ Similarly she argues the televised rugby text has a limited possibility of ‘closure’. As she notes, ‘Soaps and sportsopera both have lots of little climaxes’ (ibid,). Within media theory soaps have frequently been portrayed as female, and it is argued that the reason for this is ‘the perspective and experience of female characters are central to the narrative’ (ibid.).16 Sportsopera, Star contends, similarly operates to create the characteristic male melodrama.
It is claimed that there are other parallels between soap opera and sportsopera in their discursive location of the female and male viewer. Star claims that in both genres committed and sustained viewing is required in order to identify with key characters (players) and to become embroiled in the narrative (game). She notes that ‘Tania Modleski has commented that the classical Hollywood male narrative maximised actions and minimised dialogue. Televised rugby fitted this model perfectly…’ (Star 1988:195).
As mentioned above, one of the most interesting dimensions of Star’s work is her use of Umberto Eco’s concept of sports ‘chatter’. She argues that Eco’s use of sports discourse is useful as it operates on a number of different levels: at the level of the sport itself, i. e. the discourses of the players; at the level of the discourses of the spectator, i. e. the discourses around watching sport; the discourse of ‘meditated sport’ or media discussions of sport; and discourse on discourse, i. e. when the players or media discuss mediated sport. Eco (1969) argues that present-day sport is dominated by the last three discursive levels, which are removed from the sport itself. As Eco maintains, at these latter levels we enter the realm of hyper-reality in which sport itself might well not exist:
So sport as practice, as activity, no longer exists, or exists for economic reasons (for it is easier to make an athlete run than to invent a film with actors who pretend to run); and there exists only chatter about chatter about sport.
It is at this level that Eco’s work is interesting for the general debate, i. e. ‘in the realm of hyper-reality it is the images of sport which become more important than the sport itself (Star 1988:196). Star goes on to show that it is at this level that the ideas of Eco (and Baudrillard) can be seen to parallel the (now contested) debates of feminist theorists such as Ang and Modleski who maintain that soaps create an opportunity for women to share ‘legitimate’ time and interests together, established around television (soap) discourses. As Star contends,‘…soap opera maintains this binary, positive-male/negative-female structuring because, even though the supposed concerns of women are foregrounded, they remain firmly tied to phallocratic, capitalist, heterosexual definitions’ (ibid,).
Star draws further analogies between sportsopera and soap opera through the introduction of (characters) – player-types. The distance between image and reality is collapsed; details of lives beyond (rugby) are filtered through the master discourse of rugby or the nature of soap. As Star (1988:198) notes, ‘the impression of intimacy such technology can provide is distinctly hyper-real in that viewers come to know electronic images and value them as highly if not more highly than the actual game’. She also notes that there is a greater degree of flexibility and space for characters to change. However, Star maintains that in ‘classical male narrative, such changes must be linked to cause and effect’. In the case of rugby, argues Star, changes have been gradual: ‘In the popular consciousness of postcolonial New Zealand, rugby is synonymous with tradition and stability, possibly associated for many with a golden age free from various modern traumas’. Star also notes that, despite the fact that rugby sportsopera is a ‘male form’, the viewing figures for females are high. She notes that non-feminist women are not only interested but ‘flattered’ to be part of the masculinist discourses of rugby. Star states that the whole area of female viewing pleasures in relation to sportsopera needs researching.17
Star states that the masculinist discourses of telerugby are intersected by other factors such as race, ethnicity and nationality. All the male presenters were white and Pakeha (and generally former players). As Star notes, ‘Maori women, and persons whose sexual identity is not heterosexual, were completely invisible’ (ibid.). The media have dealt with the ‘threat’ of feminism in two ways: by processes of accommodation and ridiculing. Star maintains that Roland Barthes’s concept of ‘inoculation’ is useful here: the ‘process by which an apparent show of tolerance. protects against the risk of “a more general subversion”’ (Star 1988:199). Star maintains that feminists have developed a similar concept: ‘recuperation’. She shows that this process of incorporation or ‘recuperation’,18 as used by feminist theorists, is highlighted in the stereotype of the ‘new woman’ as used by advertisers, in television fiction, entertainment and in public service programmes. The stereotype is ‘white, dresses for heterosexually identified men, is competitive, aggressive, materialistic, individualistic and reverses roles with males’ (ibid.). The threat of the ‘new woman’ stereotype has resulted in her ‘neutralisation’ in a variety of different ways: falling for some inferior-status male (e. g. the Mildred Pierce model); being exposed as a lesbian (e. g. the Sister George model); ‘finding herself pregnant or in a traditional family setting (e. g. the Cagney and Lacey model).19
Star cites the work of Julie d’Acci, who has criticised two assumptions of liberal feminists: first, that media should reflect and positively portray ‘real-life’ improvements in women’s position; and second, that representing ‘successful’
women as role models, particularly women from different ethnic backgrounds, will necessarily have an impact on the ‘real situation’ of women. There is rarely any discussion of the relationship between ‘representation’ and ‘real life’ within these theoretical debates. As d’Acci (1987:205) maintains, ‘Appeals for equal rights, equal pay and individualism become appeals for equality of representation [in the media].’ Star notes that the representation of ‘real life‘ in this way does not mean that the media escapes the discourses of ‘bourgeois phallocracy’. As she comments, ‘Rather it is positive to argue that they become collapsed into an unreal world of media simulation and hyper-reality in the manner explored by McLuhan, Debord, Baudrillard, Eco et al.’ (Star 1988:199).
Star observes that, in terms of age, physical appearance, body types, etc., there is a much broader range of television ‘professional male types’ available for men than there is for women. In addition, she notes (1988:200), ‘the new woman stereotype is most frequently represented in a commodity context and almost unfailingly with a man. Her “liberation” and well being are strongly equated with consumption.’ In considering feminist work on male and female newsreaders, Holland (1987) maintains that ‘the treatment of women in the media is still dominated by the central problem of situating women as sexual’ (Star 1988). Star concludes in maintaining that neither news, nor current affairs, nor TV sport are overtly about sex, but that gender and sexuality are a subtext in all three. She claims that the discourses of rugby make this apparent.
In a later article, Star (1992) further develops the concept of the differentiated audience for telerugby and the concept of ‘resisting pleasures’ or ‘reading against grain’. She shows how it is possible to gain pleasure from textual discourses such as the technical or physical aspects of the game (of rugby) without being implicated and positioned as a viewer by the machismo and sexism of the sports text. Gledhill (1988:67) notes that ‘recent work suggests that the textual possibilities of resistant or deconstructive reading exist in the processes of the mainstream text’. This process occurs when the viewer or reader refuses to be constructed by the text. Star (1992) theorises the concepts of ‘pleasures’ and ‘resisting pleasures’ available to feminist audiences within the context of viewing telerugby.
In analysing TVNZ’s Rugby World Cup 1987 viewing figures, Star notes that it attracted a strong female following. In every age category (except among teenagers) the figures for female viewers matched those for males. In the teenage group male viewing figures were six points less than female viewing figures. Star notes that
in so far as telerugby can be said to address women at all it speaks to ‘good’ women playing out ‘natural’ patriarchal roles (girl friend, follower, wife, mother, etc.). The kinds of pleasures available to this group include: sex; familiarity; nostalgia; security; patriotism; recognition and approval; vicarious success through ‘their’ males, the catharsis available
to those who love and understand the game; and the satisfaction of
believing themselves ‘normal’.
Star notes, by contrast, that a different set of pleasures can emerge from different groups of women viewers. Oppositional or ‘resisting pleasures’ emerge from feminist viewers who, in the process, ‘surface’ issues ofracism, sexism, violence, homophobia and machismo in rugby and telerugby.
Star contextualises the symbolic cultural significance of World Cup Rugby in New Zealand, and maintains World Cup Rugby can be placed within the popular culture ‘traditions’ of male spectacle, where the superhero has been ‘writ large’, e. g. Superman, Last of the Mohicans, The Unforgiven. Star notes that telerugby draws on a tradition in which contempt for women was a prominent feature: ‘The old Pakeha hypermasculine narratives of war, violence, sacrifice and death remain central despite loud cries by the NZ Rugby Football Union.. .and TVNZ in the form of “New Image” rugby’ (Star 1992:126). Drawing on Umberto Eco’s terms, Star comments that World Cup 1987 telerugby ‘chatter’ was overwhelmingly by, for and about men.
In terms of theorising women viewers in relation to telerugby, Star in her earlier article (1988) argues that women are not just silenced but ‘symbolically annihilated’ in telerugby. She reviews three theoretical models which feminists have developed in order to understand the questions of female audiences. The first is a ‘socio-historical’ model which emerged from the social sciences and which portrayed women in a filmic or televisual text as a ‘reflection’ of socioeconomic and political circumstances.20 The second model is the psychoanalytic or ‘semiotic model’, and is associated with the work of Laura Mulvey (1975). The third model identified by Star is typified in the work of Linda Williams (1988) and Christine Gledhill (1988), who attempt to transcend both approaches. Star outlines how Williams and Gledhill employ ‘hegemonic’ explanations to patriarchal capitalism. As Star (1992:128) shows, ‘since hegemony is never total and always open ended the meanings preferred by dominant groups are constantly needing to be reimposed in the face of resistance from disadvantaged groups’.
Williams and Gledhill show that the concept of ‘the media audience’ does not simply result from the imposition of the ideas of ruling groups, e. g. white, male, middle-class, media magnates via their global ‘organisation and control of the culture industry’. Star claims that they maintain that instead of addressing issues of ‘dominant ideology’ which could be assumed to be unified and consistent, ‘feminists need to unmask the series of varied strategies which are necessary to keep ideologies dominant in response to changing historical circumstances, especially the challenges of resisting groups’ (ibid,).
Star maintains that the media are ‘sites of constant negotiation’ around money and pleasure which she sees as operating at three interacting levels: institutional, textual and receptional. While understanding the interaction between these levels as significant, Star focuses on the issue of reception/ negotiation in terms of understanding the concept of a differentiated audience. She maintains that
one of the problems of feminist discussions of female spectatorship up until recently has been the tendency to confuse the viewer constructed by the text (which is the outcome of negotiations at the first two levels) with the female audience as socio-historically situated, according to race, class, sexual preference and so on, which occurs at negotiations at this level (Gledhill, 1988; Kuhn, 1982).
Star argues that televised rugby texts can be interpreted or ‘read’ in a variety of different ways by different groups, and she goes on to show how these different groups experience different ‘pleasures’ from viewing. She identifies the following groups: Maori and Pacific Island women, Pakeha, lesbian, heterosexual, working – class, able-bodied, disabled, married, young/old, non-sportswomen, rugby buffs, feminists, non-feminists.