It has become a commonly held view, in contemporary film theory, that the simultaneous development of cinema and psychoanalysis at the end of the nineteenth century was not accidental. Mayne (1994:56) contends that the affinity between the two has been described in a variety of ways, ‘from cinema’s obsessive reenactment of those oedipal crises theorized by psychoanalysis to the cinema as a manifestation of Freud’s description of the psychic apparatus’. For feminists the potential usefulness of psychoanalysis for feminists reflects ‘a passionate investment in retrieving and affirming women as subjects in the realm of representation, spectatorship, scholarship and production’ (Carson et al. 1994:7). However, one of the difficulties for feminists is the tendency of psychoanalysis to draw film discourse into a ‘phallocentric orbit and ascribe to identities an aura of universality and inevitability that can lapse into an essentialist view of gender’ (ibid.).
Mayne (1994) notes that what has made psychoanalysis a controversial subject in feminist film theory is not so much the historical and ideological dimension of the affinity between the two but the fact that contemporary theories of the viewing subject have taken the work of Jacques Lacan as their point of departure. She states that there is an almost
irresistible fit between the ‘mirror stage’ and the movie screen, and the relationship between the imaginary and the symbolic has become a grand metaphor for film viewing as simultaneously, regressive and authoritarian. And for cinema, as for Lacanian psychoanalysis, sexual difference is the central determining force.
Psychoanalytic theorists, particularly those following Lacan, maintain that cinema should be understood through structures of ‘the look’ that are central to cinematic identification. Feminist film theory which emerged under this influence seemed to offer a new perspective on their potential. Laura Mulvey’s (1975, 1989) work is, of course, centrally located in these debates and her work is explored at a later point in the text (see Chapter 8). She examines ‘classical narrative cinema’, which is collapsed into Hollywood cinema in much of her work, and the possibilities of a new alternative film practice and film theory. Mayne (1994:50) contends that, whatever connections feminist film theorists have made between a theory of classical cinema and the evaluation of an alternative women’s cinema, ‘the tension between the two is a persistent feature of feminist work on film’. She maintains that a major task for all feminist critics is to rethink dualism itself: E. Ann Kaplan, in her Women and Film (1983:206), has described this process as the need to move beyond those ‘long held cultural and linguistic patterns of oppositions’.
Women and Film is ‘pre-postfeminist’, but an interesting precursor of the debates that followed, and a ‘radical’ (for the time) presentation of key filmic concepts and theories including semiology, psychoanalytic theory, realism and the ‘male gaze’. Kaplan’s objective in the text is to advance and extrapolate on feminist film theory and criticism, particularly feminism’s intersection with structuralism, psychoanalysis and semiology. She focuses on the concept of the ‘male gaze’ which, in terms of the operation of patriarchy, is viewed as dominating and repressing women; it has a controlling power over female discourse and female desire. Kaplan emphasises narrative form and chooses representative examples of female positionings in film while at the same time attempting to maintain historical and filmic specificity. She maintains that dominant film narratives represent women within images that have an eternal status.
Kaplan argues that Lacanian and Freudian psychoanalytic concepts are useful in looking at the construction of women in the classic Hollywood film. She maintains that ‘the tools of psychoanalysis and semiology enable women to unlock patriarchal culture as expressed in dominant representations’ (Kaplan 1983:3). Kaplan argues that these theories assist in understanding ‘female positionings’ and she applies psychoanalytic and semiological concepts and frameworks to the analysis of film.
Kaplan investigates four Hollywood films in depth to reveal the way the dominating male gaze, carrying with it, social, political, economic and sexual power, marginalises women.2 She shows that women are ultimately refused a voice, a discourse, and their desire is subjected to male desire. Kaplan illustrates her point by giving examples of the strategies that are used, e. g. women live out silently frustrated lives or, if they resist their position, they sacrifice their lives for their daring.
As mentioned above, Kaplan’s text is clearly pre-postfeminist in its uncritical use of the concepts patriarchy and oppression. Her approach draws on Symbolic and semiotic models taken from the work of Freud, Christian Metz and Roland Barthes. Metz and Barthes’ work is concerned with a semiotics of the cinema. From Barthes’ position, film is a sign system which functions largely at the level of myth. Signs function through codes and operate at two levels—denotative and comwtative—denotative reflecting a specific signification and meaning, and connotative a specific cultural/ideological context and meaning. It is at this second level, the level of the connotative, that the cinema operates as ‘myth’. Kaplan maintains that in cinema woman (as real woman) is lifted on to the second level of connotation— myth:
she is presented as what she represents for man, not in terms of what she
actually signifies. Her discourse (her meanings, as she might produce them) is
suppressed in favour of a discourse structured by patriarchy in which her real signification has been replaced by connotations that serve patriarchy’s needs.
She contends that our task in looking at Hollywood films is ‘to unmask the images, the sign of woman, to see how the meanings that underline the codes function’.