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Gender Theory



How are we gendered in cinema, both in terms of content and also of form? These were key questions in the late sixties and early seventies when feminism under the influence of Germaine Greer, Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millet and others first came to prominence through and in the creation of the women’s liberation movements of the period. This was about the raising of consciousness. Firestone’s opening line from The Dialectics of Sex in 1970 insists “sex class is so deep as to be invisible”, while Greer in one article talked about the idea that women wearing underwear said more about men’s desires than women’s needs. Kate Millet in Sexual Politics looked at work by Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer and others and hoped that “a second wave of the sexual revolution might at last accomplish its aim of freeing half the race from its immemorial subordination – and in the process bring us all a great deal closer to humanity.”

Three writers who were interested in addressing feminism and gender in cinema were Laura Mulvey, Molly Haskell and Judith Williamson. Mulvey’s article, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, remains one of the most quoted theoretical pieces in the history of film, and utilised psychoanalytic theory to address the gender problem in film in relation to both formal and representational problematics. For example Mulvey didn’t only want to point out that women were often positioned as subordinate to men in terms of the story, but also in relation to the very gaze of the camera. In Hitchcock’s films she noted that so often women died – in Vertigo and Psycho – for example – or had to get married – as in Marnie. These were Hitchcockian bad girls, thieves in Psycho and Marnie, a liar in Vertigo. But if that wasn’t enough, their duplicity and mendacity were exacerbated by the look in the films being decidedly masculine. “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.”

To help explain why this was such a problem, Mulvey utilised ideas we have already talked about in psychoanalysis – ideas including Lacan’s notion of the mirror phase – and was especially interested in Lacan’s idea of misrecognition. In misrecognition the child has a false sense of unity and, by the same token, in cinema that is so obviously gendered towards the man, there is misrecognition also. As Mulvey says “a male movie star’s glamorous characteristics are thus not those of the erotic object of the gaze, but those of the more perfect, more complete, more powerful ideal ego conceived in the original moment of recognition in front of the mirror.” This is basically similar to John Berger’s claim made around the same time not in relation to cinema, but the history of art generally: “in the average European oil painting of the nude the principal protagonist is never painted. He is the spectator in front of the picture and is assumed to be a man.” By virtue of being positioned so gender specifically in front of the cinema image and the art work, was this a problem of misrecognition in the Lacanian sense, and absolutely consistent with Millet’s comment in Sexual Politics about half the race subordinated – but in this instance chiefly here in relation to being banished from the perceptual gaze? Central to Mulvey’s later analysis was how to make that gaze work for a woman’s cinema, and feminist films championed by Mulvey and others in the seventies were Chantal Akerman films like Je tu il Elle and Jeanne Dielmann, as well as work by Yvonne Rainer and Sally Potter. Indeed Mulvey herself made feminist films – including Riddles of the Sphinx and Crystal Gazing with Peter Wollen.

Molly Haskell’s book From Reverence to Rape, published in the mid-seventies, is a work of cinephilia more than a piece of worked through theory. It is a detailed account of how women have been treated in film, covering classic Hollywood, New Hollywood and also European art-house. At the beginning of her book Haskell says “the big lie perpetrated on Western society is the idea of women’s inferiority, a lie so deeply ingrained in our social behaviour that merely to recognise it is to risk unravelling the entire fabric of civilization.” In a fast-paced look at the way women have been treated in film, Haskell fires out observations like “this love of equals is more frequently to be found in films than in life,” but “in both” she insists, “one point of view – generally the man’s – usually predominates, seeing the “other” as a creature of his own fantasies, as someone deprived, precisely of otherness, who then comes to inherit the burden of his neuroses as well.”  Haskell finds healthy exceptions in mainstream Hollywood, however, and believes that stars like Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn offered strong role models; much more so she argues than many films of more recent years, where the women seem ‘comatose’ and ‘grubby’ in anything from Klute to Nathalie Granger. Whatever the limitations of All About Eve and Now Voyager, Bringing up Baby or The Philadelphia Story, there was a life-force at work. Central to Haskell’s thesis, evident to some degree in her title, was how women’s roles were often much better in the age of the Dream Factory than in modern realism. In both, the woman might have been the object of the gaze, but the earlier actresses could hold it; in modern cinema were the actresses retreating from it? Did they lack Davis’s, Hepburn’s and Crawford’s defiance?

Haskell’s book came out in 1974 around the same time as Mulvey’s article, and they were two very different approaches to the woman’s movement in relation to cinema. Judith Williamson’s work was a product more of the eighties than the seventies, and one of the themes she picked up on in eighties film was the idea of the Single Working Woman. Reviewing films for The New Statesman, she noticed how numerous American movies were tackling the issue, or rather, generally, creating a stereotype. Fatal Attraction, Black Widow, Jagged Edge, Legal Eagles, 9½ Weeks and The Fly were all films with such a character, and most of them made the women either horribly invulnerable – with Fatal Attraction basically a horror movie with Glenn Close the almost indestructible bunny-boiler – or emotionally and sexually vulnerable – as Kim Basinger proves to be putty in the hands of lothario Mickey Rourke.

For all the feminist theory, where was the representational progression, one might argue? Some might say it could be found in the strong women present in films like Aliens, The Long Kiss Goodnight, GI Jane and even Titanic, where Kate Winslet gets to punch a man out with a single impressive punch, and Out of Sight, with Jennifer Lopez taking out a baddy with some swift blows to the body . The women aren’t the psychopaths poor Glenn Close had to play in Fatal Attraction, nor sexually malleable as in 9½ Weeks, but women who could take care of themselves.

However, in the process did they not end up adopting masculine traits? Are European, and especially French films more progressive? We have already mentioned work by Chantal Akerman, but there have also been films by Catherine Breillat, with Virgin, and A Ma Soeur!, Claire Denis with Chocolat and Vendredi Soir, and even the less radical Coline Serreau in film The Crisis and Chaos, where the problem of sexuality and gender has been problematizised in sometimes quite complex ways. In A Ma Soeur!, for example, Breillat wonders whether it is better to be encased in fat or to be slim and beautiful at a tender age, at an age where the mind doesn’t quite know how to cope with the developments of the body and the manipulations of young, and not so young, men. The overweight sister isn’t prey to the same advances as her beautiful older sister, but is perhaps prey to her own resentful thoughts. Breillat doesn’t search out positive representations that are unproblematized, or updated clichés (as we find in Titanic, Out of Sight, Fatal Attraction etc), but the most complex female perspective. On the one hand she shows us the beautiful sister oblivious; on the other the overweight sister strangely observing yet perhaps also envious, even malicious.

What we’ve focused on almost exclusively here is gender in relation to women, but let’s give a passing glance to the beleaguered male, post-feminism. Williamson notices in a minor film like The Good Father that “men are back in vogue”, mentioning films like Kramer versus Kramer and Tootsie where the ‘new’ man wanted a look in. But of course along with the ‘new’ man in the late seventies and early eighties came the hyperbolized man, explored by Nigel Andrews in an article called ‘Muscle Wars’. Here he looks as Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Van Damme and other figures in the landscape who didn’t want to get in on the transformative act like the ‘new’ men, but wanted to do no more than play traditional men but with new, expanded bodies.  In films like Rambo the later Rocky films, and Commando and True Lies, Stallone and Schwarzenegger played larger than life as if for those in the audience who couldn’t cope with real life: the endangering of their conventional masculine status

Slightly more interesting but equally symptomatic was of course the roles Michael Douglas played in a series of films from Fatal Attraction through to A Perfect Murder, including Falling Down and Disclosure. Douglas would often play men where women had power over them financially (A Perfect Murder), morally (Fatal Attraction), professionally (Disclosure), sexually (Basic Instinct), or emotionally (Falling Down). This was the white collar man of entitlement finding the world isn’t quite what he thought it was.

Many of the films we have talked about here are not at all challenging in their form, and barely enquiring in their content: films like Je tu Il Elle and A Ma Soeur! are exceptions. But obviously one of the great aspects of cinema is how symptomatic film can be. It is generally closer to reality than other art forms, and more closely attached to its moment in time – how much easier it is to watch a few minutes of a film and say roughly when it was made than to do the same with a book or a painting. Film constantly gives off signs of its period in the clothing, the hairstyles, the body language and the dialogue; and in some ways Williamson’s investigation of many films in the eighties resembles the Marxist literary theorist George Lukacs claim that sometimes the most bourgeois writers are the best place to go to understand capitalism, not to the radicals. When for example Williamson talks of Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction, or Liam Neeson in Sweet as You Are, she points up the “gorgeous wife, cute daughter…and delightful home with Venetian blinds everywhere”. In reading ‘too much’ into such assumptions pertaining to the perfect life, we can understand quite a lot about those very assumptions.


©Tony McKibbin