Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 4, No. 2, 1991
Television and ...
Edited by John Hartley

Building the feminine: feminist film theory and female spectatorship

Gillian Swanson

Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire: The Woman's Film of the 1940s, Macmillan Press, 1987; Deirdre Pribram (ed.), Female Spectators: Looking at Film and Television, London and New York, Verso, 1988.

Since the early eighties, the spectator has become a key centre of debate in feminist film theory. In recent critical studies the female spectator is produced variously as an absence within a mode of address that privileges masculine subject positions, the point of a specific generic address (work on 'women's' genres) and as a subject from whose position textual meaning becomes destabilised and pleasure reconceived.

These debates have keyed into studies of the figuration of the feminine within social and cultural discourses and representational forms in a larger attempt to account for the processes of feminine subjectivity; one that provides a dialogue between the rhetorics of address in popular representation and the forms by which social life is organised and articulated. Feminist theorists have asked not only what the category 'woman' means and how it is produced, but what it means for women to take up their own position in relation to femininity. This has entailed turning away from cataloguing 'correct' or 'positive' images which are seen to voice women's 'reality', for such catalogues not only suggest that there are such final judgments to be made, but also pin down the feminine to an orthodoxy within which no struggle can be articulated. Instead, theorists have sought to find the right range of definitions inscribed within representations of sexual difference, disaggregating those categories which act to fix and polarise sexual difference. They have moved to analyse the diverse modes of subjectivity, to analyse the ways in which we may use our engagement with representational mechanisms to 'perform' the contradictory relations of gendered identities, focussing on differences between women and within the construction of femininity. The female spectator is formed in a delicate balance between the recognisable common strands of female subjectivity and the disparate particularities of her own history.

Two recent volumes show something of the divergent and contested field of the theorisation of female spectatorship, carrying different implications for such new work. Mary Ann Doane makes a specific intervention in Desire to Desire1 with her meticulous analysis of the woman's film of the '40s. She discusses the psychic processes that order women's relation to desire, the textual inscriptions of sexuality and the engagements spectators are offered, showing how these relations are framed and formed by the logics of social discourses. Female Spectators2 , a collection edited by Deirdre Pribram, presents a set of recent essays which draw on different and often contradictory models of spectatorship and subjectivity. The volume represents a summary range of characteristic positions, recent critiques and theoretical developments.

Desire to Desire investigates the forms of representation found in the woman's film, its address to the female spectator and the discursive field of femininity. Arguing that sexual representations, identities and readings are composed from disparate and incommensurate strands, Doane examines their connections outwards; to woman addressed as consumer or signifier of modernity, rebellious sexuality produced in medical discourses as dysfunctional femininity, femininity constructed as pathology. Woman as object becomes one term in a system of positioning, and the text one factor in a series of discursive processes. Thus subjectivity is not reducible to the narrative, the image, the reading, but is produced through a set of intersecting discourses which fragment attempts to construct wholeness. From this analysis of the competing constructions of woman, arises the figure of the female spectator, site of these shifting processes.

This approach reveals a changing emphasis in current theoretical work; 'the' spectator is reworked from what was seen as a stable position into a process, spectatorship. Not only does this challenge a concept of meaning which is 'there' in the text, simply to be 'spotted' (the spectator amounting to a simply reactive mechanism), but it makes possible a model of subjectivity and spectatorship which is a less fixed (and fatalistic) affair, which is not completely secured by the indomitable machine of ideology. The spectator is permitted agency in cultural relations, and the diversity of femininity and of processes of spectatorship is asserted in an excavation of possible reading positions not exhausted by processes of the text.

For Doane this move describes a double-sided project. On the one hand, she explores the range of ways in which femininity is figured, addressed, formed. On the other hand, she hopes to specify a distinctly female subjectivity which does not remain within patriarchal constructions of femininity as 'other' to the central term of masculinity. While this project acknowledges that feminine identity is formed in relation to systems of sexual positioning, it proposes that in their own psychic construction women must do more than merely 'signify' and 'play to' masculinity. Rather than showing 'woman' as "cut to the measure of male desire", 3 Doane attempts to discover the strategic ways that women position themselves in relation to the discourses of popular representations.

The woman's film provides a limit-case genre for Doane because its address to a female audience motivates the incitement of the female gaze at the feminine image. This results in relations of narcissism, proximity, 'over'-identification with the image - particularly shown in the operation of pathos, which demands immersion in the object, a dissolution of the relations which characterise a masculine pattern of imaginary unity. In those forms of cinema that privilege masculine spectator-relations, the image of woman is held within a voyeuristically and fetishistically distanced looking, while narrativity is priotirised over image, closure over disequilibrium. Insofar as it is caught up in these cinematic forms, the woman's film may inscribe femininity distinctively and it may simultaneously seek to provide a textual resolution of its features, one which casts femininity as lacking and deficient. However, the feminine is produced through image and spectacle and so cannot be secured into temporality and closure; it is resistant to narrativity and so its signification disrupts textual coherence.

The disruption which the woman entails for representation is mirrored in the relations of female spectatorship that Doane outlines. Women's more marked narcissism allows identification with the image rather than narrative movement and suggests the impossibility of a stable separation of subject from object for the feminine. Within modes of representation founded on the distanced forms of looking, characterised by voyeurism and fetishism, such constructions of female spectatorship must be fundamentally problematic.

How do these elements come together in the woman's film? If the feminine is primarily signified through the image, then the female spectator's narcissistic identification is directed to the female body. But in the woman's film this body is offered in a de-eroticised form, and so the female spectator is brought to identify with a body that no longer carries the signs of femininity. For "to de-sexualise the female body is ultimately to deny its very existence" (p.19), and this, Doane argues, renders the position of female spectatorship disembodied. The impossibility of occupying an embodied and distinctively feminine position denies the female spectator a place from which to read. Within patriarchal structures where distance from the maternal body is the prerequisite for desire, the woman's inability to perceive this body/image as sexually 'other' produces a 'deficient' relation to language and subjectivity. The woman is cast as object, she can only signify the position of lack structuring male desire.

Desire may be insatiable, it may entail the constantly renewed pursuit for a perpetually lost object, but at least the male has desire (p.12).

Having no access to an active desiring subjectivity, she becomes the subject of passive desire, a masochistic position where her desire can only be directed towards the possibility of masculine desiring. Her only option is the desire to/of desire. The unstable and fractured nature of texts which manage these relations gives a purchase on what the female spectator means to cinema. But despite the force of Doane's analysis, it remains to be seen whether this model gives an equal purchase on what the cinema means to the female spectator.

For while these 'tropes of female spectatorship' may carry force within filmic representation, we should also consider the female spectator in the cinema as a third term, equally fractured and 'troubled' in her subjectivity. The gap between the female spectator in the audience and that posited and addressed by the text, destabilises neat patterns of fragmentation established by the textual analysis of spectatorship. She cannot be secured by accounts of the 'image repertoire of poses' that represent femininity.

Doane's use of her textual focus, however, is carefully formulated within the terms of a heterogeneous spectatorship that exists in the fissures of address. While she is committed to establishing the field of possible meanings within which female spectators may move, she is also concerned to identify and read the "symptoms of ideological stress which accompany the concerted effort to engage female subjectivity within conventional narrative forms" (p.13). This explains her focus on the conception of female subjectivity assumed by these forms of cinema, even if it is at the expense of other engagements and reformulations. Doane sees the potential of her insights as indicating ways of reformulating 'desiring subjectivity for the woman - in another cinematic practice', a different form of representation that would articulate female subjectivity differently.

In its methodology and selection of material (both generic and extra-filmic), this study offers an exciting examination of the mechanisms by which female subjectivity is performed - it provides many points of recognition in the ways we are secured into the forms of engagement which bestow such images and identities with the marks of absolute sense. But to take up its implications fully may point to ways of further reformulating our conceptions of the operation of female desire with these existing popular forms (instead of relying on different cinemas to provide such subject-opportunities) by examining how female spectators use current and well-established modes of representation for their own subjective positioning. This would be to re-evaluate the activity of the female spectator in the cinema and to look for possible engagements not recognised in the offers made by popular representational modes.

Some of the pieces in the anthology Female Spectators are also concerned to shift attention away from the spectator as subject produced through representational address - a static position that could only mirror the text's formulation of woman and allows no space for differences outside the binary opposition of sexual difference. Instead the spectator is understood as produced in representation through a three-sided encounter; that of historically and psychically formed subjectivity, the contradictory meanings, pleasures and positions inscribed within texts and the extra-textual discursive field. This perspective moves the focus away from the critic's authoritative deconstruction of the text and the notion of a constant range of meanings uniformly read from a fixed subject position, and towards a model of reading (and representation) as a contradictory process. Produced in the gaps between different reading positions and the knowledges needed to take them up, this understanding of subjectivity reveals the instability of meaning, and along with it the instability of the ways sexual difference constructs femininity. So Linda Williams, for example, in her essay on Mildred Pierce, discusses the historical context of its initial release in order to build a field of possible readings for its contemporary female spectators. Arguing that film produces contradictory femininities, Williams suggests that the female spectator is subject to "conflicting divisions in her identifications" according to her specific configurations of experience. This allows for a complex understanding of the female spectator's multiple and fragmented relations to the characters and narrative of the woman's film.

The concept of negotiation has been useful in understanding reading activity as an encounter with layers of discourse operating within and outside specific textual boundaries. In her essay, Christine Gledhill develops a model which she applies to both textual construction and engagement, so both meaning and reading activity are given mobility:

Language and cultural forms are sites in which different subjectivities struggle to impose or challenge, to confirm, negotiate or displace, definitions or identities (p.72).

Contradictory, fluid and unstable processes of identity provide a matrix through which representation can be investigated. This account presents the viewing experience as a social situation, charting relations of pleasure and showing how spectatorial positions shift according to the interplay of competing discourses during viewing. Using the film Coma, Gledhill shows how melodramatic codes, feminist definitions of gendered identity, medical discourses and ethical debates and the relationship of identification and desire all help to produce conditions for possible readings through the way the "social negotiation of meaning, definition, identity" (p.74) is enacted around the female character, image and body.

However, in this collection such interventions jostle with narrowly textual models of spectatorship. These may posit the text as a distortion that reflects an already existing ideology which represses actual truths, denies women an 'authentic' position and fails to represent a female consciousness adequately; or they may treat the text as a process which definitively constructs meanings and subjective relations through its formal mechanisms, suggesting spectators make readings and take pleasure in the vision of textual organisation. Despite their differences these accounts cannot carry explanatory power once a frame of the text as origin of meaning is broken.

The pieces by Jackie Pyars and E. Ann Kaplan, for example, list positive and negative features such as kinds of gaze, narrative content and outcome, and character relations. They produce textual readings through which it is suggested the spectator is constructed and controlled: negative characteristics disallow effective spectatorial activity, while a text is satisfactory if it promotes an analytical apprehension in the spectator. Female stars in rock videos are assessed according to how far they construct a progressive analysis of femininity for the spectator to share. Tina Turner's Private Dancer "attempts to expose woman's position in the dominant male imaginary" (p.148). The spectator remains the effect of the text and this bond must therefore be broke for a 'truer' relation - and set of images - to be established. This argument suggests that a more positive relation is to be found in a distanced engagement, although as Tania Modleski has pointed out this reproduces a valuation of masculine psychic relations that replay a separation from the maternal, whereas female relations are underpinned by a lack of separation from the mother (hence Doane's emphasis on narcissistic over-investment in the image of the female body). 4 Perhaps there is no possible 'objective' position from which to form a general model for a politically progressive address.

Byars argues, as others have done, for systems of inequality to be rebalanced. Spectatorship here is about whole identities and stable positions, we simply need to fix what is outside of them. The images are wrong.

If Female Spectatorship is a collection which shows a commitment to diversity, it also shows that one of the difficulties of such a project is to avoid formulating 'whole', if plural, readings so the conscious apprehension of the unified individual becomes the basis of spectatorial negotiation and engagement. The collection as a whole would have benefited from an introduction situating the pieces within theoretical debate and critical history, enabling the reader to produce her own discursive encounters between the range of positions represented. Instead its introduction effaces differences, collapsing the complex history of feminist film theory in 'then and now', overlooking the movement of debate and undervaluing the importance of previous work for enabling us to ask the questions that now preoccupy us. For recent theories of subjectivity in representation have developed from both the insights and disquiets afforded by the illusory certainties of a focus on the textual as either the site of the problem or that of the remedy. And they have enabled a movement towards emphasis on difference in identity which is currently obstructed by an adherence to assuming whole readings and textual fixity. The body of work that interrogates female subjectivity as fractured, contradictory, heterogeneous and formed psychically and historically assumes diversity within individual spectators as well as between categories of women. Subjectivity is not given, it is produced through the relations of representation in a series of mutually constitutive movements, each with their own engagements, investments and negotiations.

It is Teresa de Lauretis' final essay in the collection which most fully examines the way in which subjective relations can inform textual construction. She outlines a dual definition of difference - as a term distinguishing between groups of women, on the one hand, and as a constitutive structure of individual feminine identity, on the other - exploring the implications of this theorising of female spectatorship for a transformative project in feminist film-making. Defining cinema as a "social technology" (the key term in her book Technologies of Gender 5 in which this essay also appears), she uses the film making of Chantal Akerman and Lizzie Borden to show how film may address the spectator as a woman through mechanisms of identification which allow us to situate ourselves within a series of logics established as "female, feminine or feminist" (p.180). She argues that such a space provides the "conditions of representability of another social subject"; women seen in their diverse historical formation.

As spectators we perceive the fragments which constitute our 'selves' within different relations, cast ourselves variously, identify across multiple subject positions. If woman is a 'site of differences' then feminist film would make space for those differences to play themselves out. De Lauretis' model of historical subjectivity suggests feminist film can offer female spectators agency in its address, allowing heterogeneity through an engagement with the diverse strands of their own subjectivity and enabling a recognition of those forms of femininity that define others differently.

From this point of view, the marking out of a characteristically feminine subjective position in Doane's book - the desire to/of desire - may seem unnecessary. To some extent it exists in tension with de Lauretis' assertion of diversity and with Doane's own investigation of the various discourses through which femininity is produced as a term. But there is a need to establish the contours of feminine subjectivity so that the pragmatic, the tactical can be negotiated across the range of differences that specific femininities encompass.

The construction of sexuality is, after all, never a final matter. For fantasy is played out across a range of contradictory subject positions rather than from a point of coherence and stability, in order to overcome the disruptive presence of the unconscious, which Jacqueline Rose points out "constantly reveals the 'failure' of identity". 6

To recognise a specifically feminine desire would require a recasting of the terms by which otherness is constructed. If the masculine position as desiring subject is an illusory and unstable position attempting to overcome its 'failure' through the fantasy of wholeness, the relation of the 'desire to desire' can only be understood as a double instability.

Conceptions of the female spectator that have focussed on the difference between relations offered by mechanisms of identification and desire in the cinema and those in play in the formation of the female subject suggest that she is forced to participate in a process of oscillation. This sets up two constantly opposite terms - active masculinity and passive femininity - between which the female spectator moves in the search for positions of identifications. It is suggested that there is a radical potential in cross-gender identification in the female spectator's ability to take up an active position. 7

But a model of feminine engagement that is based on oscillation assumes masculine patterns of identification and desire as the norm and leaves the structure of difference between the two terms - active/passive, masculine/feminine - intact, thus reaffirming the centrality and imaginary wholeness of masculine subjectivity. The 'progressivity' of active female characters allowing female spectators to exercise active subjectivity is still predicated on a definition of the active in its meanings for masculine identity. Instead one might pose de Lauretis' notion that women participate in a simultaneous double identification with the active and passive positions 8 and thus for example, to take up a recent study of the 'slasher' genre by Carol Clover, identification with the aggressor or hero in these movies can never provide an escape from an identification with the position of the slashed body for female spectators in the same way as it can for male spectators. 9

Further, a notion of "the constitutive embodiment of sexed subjects "10 allows us to assert that taking up masculine or feminine positions means something different psychically to a male or female subject. Identification for male or female subjects is already circumscribed by an identification with an imaginary body, the culturally inscribed sexed body that defines them as male or female. 11 From this perspective I would argue, the female subject's relation to the image of the female body and its cultural inscriptions - the positions or characteristics associated with the female body, such as passivity - must always replay the relation to the imaginary body. And, to continue the example of the slasher movie, female identification with the sexually assaulted or slashed female body would make other identificatory processes problematic for the female spectator in a way that would be radically different from that of the male spectators.

The relation of the female spectator's identification with the image of the female body to the way in which she takes up the gender positions constructed by filmic mechanisms has still to be fully theorised. For example, Clover argues that in the text, "we have in the killer a feminine male and in the main character a masculine female" who triumphs narratively, providing a less sex-specific representation of gender relations which privileges "masculinity in conjunction with a female body". 12 But in the relation between spectator and text, it still remains for us to investigate the extent to which identification with this differently inscribed body may invite sexually differentiated relations to its two component elements; the characterological and narrative 'masculinity' and the 'female body'. Spectators move across positions of identification, are not secured by a 'whole' character/image, but form a network of fantasy relations across various positions inscribed within the flow of images and narrative. Our dispositions to identify take us into varying and contradictory realms. If this is so, we might ask how these disparate identificatory positions are reconciled within the spectator's patterns of engagement, or if they are not, what disturbances do they effect? What does it mean for a female spectator's identification with the bodily imaging of femininity to have it inscribed with the meanings of masculinity?

To disentangle these relations and to assert the importance of the corporeal would be to fully address the question of female spectatorship rather than to remain with the construction of the feminine, noting the disparities and differences in these identificatory processes in ways which cannot support a 'less sex specific' notion of gender relations.

We might also look at how the instabilities caused by female subjectivity's different structure of identification and desire can be used to disorganise the conventional ordering of sexual difference as foundational to identity. The mother as the central object for the formation of the historical and psychic subject, the prerequisite to desire, means something different in its relation to female/male subjectivity. While for the little boy the mother as primary love object must also be separated from so that identification may be formed elsewhere, for the little girl her first object of desire is that on which her continuing experience of identification depends.

For the woman this is replayed in an identification with the features of her own body which invoke the presence of the maternal and so her subjectivity cannot incorporate the sense of perpetual loss which impels desiring masculine subjectivity. Neither can a de-eroticised body, one not represented according to the mechanisms ordered by masculine desire - the distance of voyeurism and fetishism - represent disembodiedness for women. 'Embodiedness', the relation of subjectivity to a sexed body - or an image of one - has a different meaning and a different form for male and female subjects. Thus the tropes of femininity Doane notes in the women's film provide a case for examining the spaces within which female spectators do find positions, within which they may perform its relations.

While male subjectivity depends on asserting distance and difference, the female subject forms individual identity through relations of proximity and recognition and must find its modes of desire within this formation. Female identify therefore blurs polarities of identification and desire: thus proximity and distance are never absolute for the feminine subject. To reconceive the terms according to which otherness is constructed, rather than using such terms to situate the feminine, would mean redefining models of subjectivity according to specifically female patterns of desire. It suggests a transformation of the definitions and knowledges surrounding sexuality and subjectivity. One which has further implications for theorising female spectatorship.

Elsewhere, de Lauretis writes of how feminist studies have reconstituted both the methods and object of knowledge, to produce new knowledges and to transform the conditions of knowing; the way we appraise what is and what can be known. She states that to reshape knowledge is to reconstitute "women as social subjects, as subject of both knowledge and knowing" (13). This understanding of a project of remaking knowledge shifts the terms away from dualist models of feminist film criticism that bestow positive and negative valuations. It acknowledges that absolute positions of dominance and opposition do not exist, that they are both part of the systems of definition within which each position is legible only in relation to the other. It also proposes that this contradiction - that each term in some way reflects, reproduces, represents the other, despite their disparities of power - offers a way of understanding the movement by which such positions are constructed and by which they can be remade. It is an understanding which escapes casting women in the position of victim. While recognising the ways in which women are discursively positioned, it works to transform systems of difference. It seeks to redefine knowledges from the landmarks of the present, from the shadows of those images through which we make ourselves and our desires and through those points of incoherence we can find a basis for reconceiving subjectivity.

Questions still remain to be raised within the debates over spectatorship - questions about the way theory constructs its object. How should we relate femininities constructed as discursive effect, as historical identity or as psychic construction? How should we investigate specifically female processes of identification and desire in their relation to the body, the image, the maternal? In what way should we consider the production of knowledges within and against institutionally formed canons, formulate reading and readings, and give weight to agency? These are questions which address the difficulties central to feminist work on spectatorship; how can feminist theory construct a heterogeneous model of the spectator that also recognises what we share, what unifies us in a point of department and in a common bid for transforming those relations through which we form ourselves.


1. Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire: The Woman's Film of the 1940s (London: Macmillan Press, 1987).

2. Deidre Pibram, ed., Female Spectators: Looking at Film and Television (London and New York: Verso, 1988).

3. These are fragments of the resonant phrases in Laura Mulvey's article 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' Screen v. 16 n. 3 (Autumn 1975) reprinted in C. Penley, ed., Feminist Film Theory (London and New York: Routledge and British Film Institute, 1988). This essay, as Teresa de Lauretis has pointed out (in Alice Doesn't (London: Macmillan, 1984, p.60)) has a crucial historical significance for present work on spectatorship, carried in "the very limits it has posed and allowed to be tested".

4. T. Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much (London and New York: Methuen, 1988), pp.8-9.

5. T. de Lauretis, 'The Technology of Gender' in Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction (London: Macmillan, 1987), pp.1-30.

6. J. Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision (London: Verso, 1986), p.90.

7. For example, see L. Mulvey, 'Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' inspired by King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946)' (1981), reprinted in Visual and Other Pleasures (London: Macmillan Press, 1989), pp.29-38.

8. T. de Lauretis (1984) Ch.5 'Desire in Narrative', particularly pp.143-144. Doane refers to this on pages 6-7 of her introduction 'The Desire to Desire' but then moves away towards a description of the female spectator as a being "stranded between incommensurable entities" (the avoidance of which de Lauretis suggests gives rise to an investment in a double identification) coming down on the side of a masochistic position as being a more accurate designation of "the appeal made to the female spectator by genres which are specifically addressed to her". In this move the element of contradiction slips away along with the priority de Lauretis gives to the 'semiotic history' (p.145) through which subjects read images.

9. This is a point not considered in an important and otherwise fascinating study of the way the slasher genre obsessively replays masculine neuroses and anxieties by disorganising the conventions of masculinity and femininity in their location in male and female bodies. The final hero being female, Clover argues, results in the availability of masochistic identificatory positions, although as she notes, these are positions deriving from specifically masculine anxieties and played out according to the conventions of masculine identification. C. Clover 'Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film' in J. Donald, ed., Fantasy and the Cinema (London: British Film Institute, 1989), pp.91-135.

10. E. Grosz 'Notes towards a Corporeal Feminism', Australian Feminist Studies n. 5, Summer 1987, p.3.

11. This argument can be found in M. Gatens 'A Critique of the Sex/Gender Distinction' in J. Allen and P. Patton, eds., Beyond Marx? Interventions After Marx, Sydney, Intervention, 1983, E. Grosz (ibid), T. Threadgold 'Introduction' in T. Threadgold and A. Cranny-Francis Feminine, Masculine, Representation (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, Australia, 1990).

12. Clover, op cit, p.126.

13. T. de Lauretis, 'Feminist Studies/Critical Studies: Issues, Terms and Contexts' in Feminist Studies/Critical Studies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), pp.1-19.

New: 5 May, 1996 | Now: 16 March, 2015