How useful is psychoanalysis in understanding the cinematic representation of women?

Introduction

‘It is widely felt that female characters in film have been restricted to the easy categories that classical narratives and familiar genres demand of them (the typical complaint is that women in films are either ‘virgins, mothers or whores’).’ (Cardwell)In this essay I will be discussing how useful psychoanalysis is in understanding cinematic representation of women. I will be focusing on key influential psychoanalysts from the beginning through to the modern representations of psychoanalysis, beginning with the founder Sigmund Freud but also mentioning more modern theories, such as those of Melanie Klien, Heinz Kohut and Jacques Lacan.
Psychoanalysis is a theory founded by Sigmund Freud (born 1856) in the 1890’s. It is possible to define psychoanalysis in three aspects. The first of these aspects being a method of mind investigation: concentrating on the investigation of the unconscious mind. The second being a method of therapy (psychotherapeutic) that derived from the type of investigation mentioned above. The final aspect can be defined as a group of theories based on the knowledge and data that is provided by the above investigation and treatment of the mind. The themes of psychoanalysis are power, ambition, insecurity, attachment, isolation and longing. (http://psychoanalysiscleveland.org/about-us/about-psychoanalysis-and-psychotherapy/) It is a tool for understanding how the human mind works and it contributes insight into whatever the mind produces. Therefore it has a profound influence on many aspects of twenty first century culture, including cinema. Many of Freud’s key terms have become commonplace in modern society such as repression, libido, superego and fetishism. Freud believed in the Oedipus complex and that the individual who is unable to come to terms with their gender (activity for boys, passivity for girls) may become an hysteric and may display symptoms such as paralysis or amnesia. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Marnie (1964) show examples of the Oedipus complex. Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) was a French psychoanalyst that made huge contributions to the world of psychoanalysis and ‘extend psychoanalytical thought in several directions’ (Holcombe, 2007) . Lacan’s ideas have impacted greatly on feminist theory and also film theory. ‘Some aspects of Lacan have been useful in film theory because he combined Freudian psychoanalysis with semiology, thus offering a means for linking semiotic and psychoanalytic readings of films’ (Kaplan 1983:19). Karen Horney (1885–1952) was one of the first generation of women to be admitted to the study of medicine, she then undertook training in analysis and gained her M.D degree. Horney’s theories questioned many of Freud’s traditional views, especially the male-based view of the psychology of women and argued that the source of ‘female neurosis’ was due to male dominated culture. Her writings had a major impact on the beginnings of Feminist theory in the 1970’s.
As the position of women in society has progressed through time it is clear that the representation of women in film has developed alongside it. The male dominated society of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century is reflected in cinema and film. Women were portrayed in film often in a sexist way, in order to satisfy the male gaze. Out Of The Past (1947) is a classic example of Film-Noir written by Daniel Mainwaring and directed by Jacques Tourneur, which portrays two women from opposite ends of the spectrum. The character of Kathie is represented as the ultimate femme fatale as she attempts to manipulate men as opposed to the men manipulating and controlling the women. Women of this nature during this period were viewed (largely by men) as dangerous and irrational. This is because the femme fatale woman was rebelling against the conventions of traditional society. ‘As soon as the relation between vision and knowledge becomes unstable or deceptive, the potential for a disruption of a given sexual logic appears. Perhaps the disruptiveness can define, for feminist theory, the deadliness of femme fatale.’ (Doane, 1991: 14) However Ann, a character of the same film, is perceived as the traditional woman of the 1940’s who remains loyal to her man despite his disrespect and ill treatment towards her. A more recent example of a dangerous femme fatale character in film is Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) in the film Pulp Fiction (1994) directed by Quentin Tarantino, who is regarded as untrustworthy by her husband, Marsellus. ‘Marsellus cannot successfully or completely hold on to his beautiful Caucasian wife Mia (Uma Thurman), and unwisely has his lieutenants attending to her while he is out of town.’ (Hauke, 2001:58) Women were often portrayed as victims in past films however; it is not unusual for women to be portrayed as victims (in some cases) to this day. East is East (1999) directed by Damien O’Donnell serves as a prime example of women in film being portrayed as victims, in this case a victim in her own home. Ella Khan (Linda Bassett) is subject to violence from her husband, yet she remains loyal to his wishes. Films portray the character of a woman in similar situations as fearful of the males. The progress regarding the position of women in society, their rights and the move towards gender equality has led to a more proportioned representation of women in modern cinema. However, many female characters are still portrayed as inferior to males and still perhaps as a ‘stereotypical’ woman. Laura Mulvey (Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema) argues that in the majority of cinema and film the Male Gaze (the perspective of a heterosexual man) outweighs that of the Female Gaze.
‘In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The deter-mining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Women displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Zeigfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.’ (Mulvey)
Considering the above argument it is suggested that psychoanalysis is useful in understanding the general cinematic portrayal of women, being that they are in fact ineffectively represented due to the power of the male gaze on both sides of the camera.
Since the late nineteenth century women have played a key role in influencing the developments in the film industry. Females’ appearing in films was essential for the progress of the industry despite them being recognized more for their appearance than for their ability. The roles that women played were most likely to be that of the stereotypical gender roles of the time. Female actresses proved to be extremely popular with audiences and thus were an essential to the rise of and popularity of the film industry. As women had an increased role in society and they were able to earn their own income they began to take part in leisure activities associating outside the household with men. One of these leisure activities being the Cinema, and in effect it was in fact the women that were funding the industry. Middle class women began to re-shape the cinema experience for those of the lower classes and film producers focused and relied upon these women in order to promote the industry and help it thrive. Melodrama is something concerned primarily with the domestic and feminine themes, with melodramatic films often including a central female character. Melodrama is a genre that relied upon the interest of female audiences and the ability of female actors for its success. “So why is it that women are drawn to melodramaWhy do we find our objectification and surrender pleasurableThis is precisely an issue that psychoanalysis can help explain: for such pleasure is not surprising if we consider the shape of the girl’s Oedipal crisis. Following Lacan for a moment, we see that the girl is forced to turn away from the illusory unity with the mother in the prelinguistic realm and has to enter the symbolic world which involves subject and object. Assigned the place of object (lack), she is the recipient of male desire, passively appearing rather than acting.” (Kaplan, 1983:26).
As the theories of psychoanalysis have developed from Freud to Lacan and many more it has become apparent as to how cinema and psychoanalysis go hand in hand in understanding the complicated workings of the human mind. “Cinema allows the inner world to be represented through moving pictures – and some of our most vivid modes of “thinking” or “dreaming” occur in pictorial form” (Brearley, 2009). Psychoanalysts and Film Theorists, through their writings and investigations, have helped unveil the links between psychoanalysis and understanding the minds of not only real life characters but also those in film. Ideas derived from psychoanalysis help not only audiences but also many within the film industry understand the behavior of characters on screen and the reasons behind this behavior. Therefore it becomes clear that psychoanalysis has assisted the growth and understanding of the film industry, and thus theoretically it aids film theorists and others in understanding the cinematic representation of women. This is because the women presented to an audience on screen are fictional characters (although sometimes based or modeled on real people) and are being presented in a way that the person/people behind the lens of the camera interpret women. Although the cinematic representation of women does not always reflect todays society, psychoanalysis is useful in film in helping us understand the film industry’s interpretation: “Psychoanalytic ideas help make sense of characters’ behavior, though unlike in real life we don’t have the characters responding to help deepen, modify or falsify our interpretations. Instead, we try to make objective appraisals of what the director presents to us.” (Brearley, 2009).
The Feminist film theory derived from the 1970’s feminist movement where women demanded change in gender equality and representation. Laura Mulvey (1914) is a Feminist film theorist whose work and ideas helped move the orientation of film theory towards a psychoanalytic structure heavily influenced by Freud and Lacan. Mulvey’s intention was to combine film theory, psychoanalysis and feminism. Mulvey argues that most films present women in a way that is intended for male viewers, focusing on the sexualized appearance of women. Mulvey viewed Hollywood Cinema as something that used women as ‘erotic objects’. Voyeurism in film is something that links highly with psychoanalytical theories, and has become a popular topic of debate since the 1970’s around the time of the feminist movement. Its straightforward meaning is the pleasurable observation of someone else’s intimate acts, usually (not always) sexual. The fact that the person/persons are unaware they are being observed is key to the thrill, and thus huge links can be made between audience and film/cinema. “Psychoanalysis has been activated in feminist film theory primarily in order to dissect and analyze the spectator’s physical investment in the film. But to accomplish this, theory had to posit a vast synchrony of the cinema – the cinema happens all at once (as, precisely, an apparatus) and its image of woman is always subservient to voyeuristic and fetishistic impulses.” (Kaplan, 1990:48). Taking into account the links between psychoanalysis and voyeurism its demonstrated that it assists us in understanding the cinematic representation of women and how they are presented to the viewers of film in order to satisfy certain desires, largely sexual.
‘Gaze’ is a common psychoanalytical term brought into awareness by Jacques Lacan and can offer a great deal of insight into the cinematic world, and particularly the cinematic representation of women. In short, ‘the gaze’ means the fear one feels after becoming aware that he/she is a visible object. In film there are numerous types of ‘gaze’, the view of the audience is called the spectators gaze. The objects (characters, setting etc.) the spectators are viewing has derived from the camera’s gaze, usually that of the film director. The gaze is a crucial aspect of psychoanalysis that contributes to understanding the cinematic representation of women as it has huge links with feminist film theory and particularly Laura Mulvey. As mentioned previously, Mulvey suggests that the male gaze often outweighs that of the female in film. Mulvey also argues that the ‘gaze’ belongs to a single gender.
Through assessing many aspects of psychoanalysis and film it seems that psychoanalysis is helpful in understanding the cinematic world as a whole. I consider psychoanalysis to be of great help in understanding the cinematic representation of women. That being how cinema, despite developments in recent years both socially and industry wise, ineffectively represents women as they are today and instead falls into stereotypical ideas and purely satisfies the male gaze. However, it is also arguable that film is often fictional and thus one may believe that in cinema and film a true reflection of society is not necessary. Psychoanalysis has assisted not only film theorists in understanding the industry but has also, through Melodrama and such, helped the industry thrive. It is possible to view psychoanalysis, as a gateway into the minds of those on both sides of the lens, but only vaguely as those in film are unable to widen or provide depth into to the interpretations of those spectating. “Throughout the 1970s, Screen was the most important testing ground for the methodologies that have shaped contemporary film theory: semiotics, Marxism, and psychoanalysis. Central to each is an issue of representation. According to the semioticians, film was to be understood as a systematic network of binary oppositions, organized metaphorically, if not literally, like language. (Carson, 1994:50).
Bibliography – Joe Clifford
Word count
2306
Brearley, Michael. (2009) ‘So, tell me about your director’ – cinema and psychoanalysis. In: The Guardian [online] http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/oct/29/european-psychoanalytic-film-festival-psychoanalysis (Accessed on: 04/04/11)
Cardwell, Sarah. Female Protagonist. In: screenonline.org.uk [Online] http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/824016/(Accessed On: 12/04/11)
Carson, Diane. (1994) Multiple voices in feminist film criticism. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Doane, Mary Anne. (1991) Femmes Fatales: feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge.
Hauke, Christopher (2001) Jung And Film. East Sussex: Brunner-Routledge.
Holcombe, C. John (2007) Jacques Lacan. In: textetc.com [Online] http://www.textetc.com/theory/lacan.html (Accessed on: 28/03/11)
Kaplan, E. Anne (1983) Women & Film Both Sides Of The Camera. Great Britain: Methuen & Co.
Kaplan, E. Anne (1990) Psychoanalysis & Cinema. New York: Routledge.
Mulvey,Laura. (1975) Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. In: Screen [online] https://hypercontent.hull.ac.uk/short_loan_collection/Film_Studies/90102/Mulvey_90102_2620.pdf (Accessed on: 28/03/11)

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