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An introduction to feminist film theory
Feminism is a social movement which has had an enormous impact on film theory and criticism. Cinema is taken by feminists to be a cultural practice representing myths about women and femininity, as well as about men and masculinity. Issues of representation and spectatorship are central to feminist film theory and criticism. Early feminist criticism was directed at stereotypes of women, mostly in Hollywood films (Haskell 1973/1987, Rosen 1973). Such fixed and endlessly repeated images of women were considered to be objectionable distortions which would have a negative impact on the female spectator. Hence, the call for positive images of women in cinema. Soon, however, the insight dawned that positive images were not enough to change underlying structures in film. Feminist critics tried to understand the all-pervasive power of patriarchal imagery with the help of structuralist theoretical frameworks such as semiotics and psychoanalysis. These theoretical discourses have proved very productive in analysing the ways in which sexual difference is encoded in classical narrative. For over a decade psychoanalysis was to be the dominant paradigm in feminist film theory. More recenty there has been a move away from a binary understanding of sexual difference to multiple perspectives, identities and possible spectatorships. This opening up has resulted in an increasing concern with questions of ethnicity, masculinity and hybrid sexualities.
Claire Johnston was among the first feminist critics to offer a sustained critique of stereotypes from a semiotic point of view (1973/1991). She put forward how classical cinema constructs the ideological image of woman. Drawing on Roland Barthes' notion of 'myth', Johnston investigated the myth of 'Woman' in classical cinema. The sign 'woman' can be analyzed as a structure, a code or convention. It represents the ideological meaning that 'woman' has for men. In relation to herself she means no-thing (1991: 25): women are negatively represented as 'not-man'. The 'woman-as woman' is absent from the text of the film (26).
The important theoretical shift here is from an understanding of cinema as reflecting reality, to a view of cinema as constructing a particular, ideological, view of reality. Classical cinema never shows its means of production and is hence characterized by veiling over its ideological construction. Thus, classical film narrative can present the constructed images of 'woman' as natural, realistic and attractive. This is the illusionism of classical cinema.
In her groundbreaking article 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' (1975/1989), Laura Mulvey uses psychoanalysis to understand the fascination of Hollywood cinema. This fascination can be explained through the notion of scopophilia, the desire to see, which is a fundamental drive according to Freud. Sexual in origin, like all drives, der Schautrieb is what keeps the spectator glued to the silver screen. Classical cinema, adds Mulvey, stimulates the desire to look by integrating structures of voyeurism and narcissism into the story and the image. Voyeuristic visual pleasure is produced by looking at another (character, figure, situation) as our object, whereas narcissistic visual pleasure can be derived from self-identification with the (figure in the) image.
Mulvey has analyzed scopophilia in classical cinema as a structure that functions on the axis of activity and passivity. This binary opposition is gendered. The narrative structure of traditional cinema establishes the male character as active and powerful: he is the agent around whom the dramatic action unfolds and the look gets organized. The female character is passive and powerless: she is the object of desire for the male character(s). In this respect, cinema has perfected a visual machinery suitable for male desire such as already structured and canonized in the tradition of Western art and aesthetics. [...] --Anneke Smelik via http://www.let.uu.nl/womens_studies/anneke/filmtheory.html [Dec 2005]
And the Mirror Cracked : Feminist Cinema and Film Theory(1998) - Anneke Smelik
And the Mirror Cracked : Feminist Cinema and Film Theory(1998) - Anneke Smelik [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
"Cinema is a cultural practice where myths about women and femininity, and men and masculinity, in short, myths about sexual difference are produced, reproduced, and..."
And the Mirror Cracked explores the politics and pleasures of contemporary feminist cinema. Tracing the highly productive ways in which feminist directors create alternative film forms, Anneke Smelik highlights cinematic issues which are central to feminist films: authorship, point of view, metaphor, montage and the excessive image. In a continuous mirror game between theory and cinema, this study explains how these cinematic techniques are used to represent female subjectivity positively and affirmatively. Among the films considered are: A Question of Silence, Bagdad Cafe, Sweetie, and The Virgin Machine.
About the Author
Anneke Smelik received a Ph.D. in Film Studies at the University of Amsterdam and currently runs Bureau Topaaz, a consultancy in visual media.
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