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Archive for April 16, 2012

The Female Specator: Reappropriation, Transvestism, or Masquerade?

In Laura Mulvey’s article, we were given insight in to the male gaze in cinema. In Doane’s article, Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator, the theorist gives insight into the concept of the female gaze. Can women be spectators? If so, how? In examining these questions, Doane recognizes Freud’s theories on women participation in their own femininity. Woman remains “entangled in her own enigma”(19). She cannot separate herself from the image that represents her. Without this distance, it is impossible for a woman to become a spectator of a feminine image in film. She is too close to achieve voyeuristic pleasure from gazing at a female object on screen. In other words, to gaze at the object is to gaze at herself. However, unlike Freud, Doane isn’t lost in the enigma that is woman, and she certainly does not think that woman are the problem.  How can woman participate in the role of the spectator and find pleasure in cinema?

Doane briefly touches upon the the reversal of the voyeuristic gaze by rendering a male image as an object. The male strip tease or gigolo are not unknown to modern cinema or culture. However, by reversing the gaze “the dominant system of aligning sexual difference with a subject/object dichotomy.”(21) This division of sex perpetuates the lack of distance between a woman and the feminine image in film. She can never assume the role of the female spectator without this distance.

As Irigaray discusses, a problem is language. A man can partially examine himself and successfully define himself in the realm of his language. Woman, on the other hand, are taught the same masculine form of language as man, and therefor cannot possibly identify femininity as a separate entity. Doane argues that this is a source of Freud’s woman enigma. In accordance with this masculization of woman, the female spectator is often one that assumes more traditional masculine spectatorship. (24) Doane parallels this with the idea of transvestism and the ease in which woman assume male characteristics as a mechanism to achieve desire. As opposed to male transvestism (which is an occasion for ridicule) female transvestism is a path towards desire. Doane notes that the construct of sexual mobility in femininity is an accepted cultural characteristic because (in an humorously ironic idea) “it is understandable that a woman would want to be man, for everyone wants to be elsewhere then the feminine position.” (25) This struck me particularly as a sad truth, as feminine characteristics are considered similar to the “minor arts” Doane mentions earlier in the article.

If transvestism is a path toward achieving the female spectator within modern social constructs, why then does woman assume the overly feminine “mask?” Doane notes that forced excessive femininity is not the solution to transvestism as it dissolves feminine identity. By using femininity, the collection of characteristics that culturally “defines” what is woman, as a masquerade, woman acknowledges that femininity is merely a “decorative layer.”(25) The effects of this masquerade are essential in examining the female spectator. One one level, underneath the mask can be hidden masculinity that is kept secret by over compensation of femininity. This relates to transvestism that Doane discusses earlier in the article. On another level, by using feminist as a mask, woman can separate herself from the “womanliness mask.” Doane notes that “the masquerade’s resistance to patriarchal positioning would therefore lie in its denial of the production of femininity as closeness.”(25) The masquerade, for better or for worse, allows woman to achieve the distance from the feminine image that she could not achieve before separating herself from “womanliness.”  She can become the spectator, but only by “using her own body as a disguise.”(26)


Hieroglyphics and Women: Distance & Proximity. L.R. Corcoran

in her chapter, “Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator,” Mary Ann Doane connects particular aspects of Freud’s theory of masculinity creation in negative relation to femininity with a mode of linguistics centered on the nature of hieroglyphics. Doane predicates much of this connection on the enigmatic nature of hieroglyphics; I believe this to be a fair assumption with the one contention: hieroglyphics were indeed understood by the people who wrote them. Doane writes, “On the one hand, the hieroglyphic is summoned, particularly when it merges with a discourse on women, to connote an indecipherable language, a signifying system which denies its own function by failing to signify anything to the uninitiated, to those who do not  hold the key.” I agree wholeheartedly with her that women have functioned as quite the undefinable Other in the patriarchal discourse, but it seems odd to mark indecipherability as chiefly a hieroglyphic attribute. Any language will remain opaque, unless one has a master of its grammar and vocabulary, unless one holds the “key.”

This quibble aside, Doane shows, although hieroglyphics are enigmatic in regards to their complete signification, a certain plasticity of meaning is available immediately by virtue of hieroglyphics being a form of pictorial language. She writes, “Thus, while the hieroglyphic is an indecipherable or at least a enigmatic language, it is also at the same time potentially the most universally understandable, comprehensible, appropriable of signs.” From here, her argumentation begins to move into deeper waters. Doane leans on some structural linguistic theory courtesy of Todorov and Ducrot: a pictorial language would at some point need to generalize. A language, which utilized icons standing in absolute relation to things they represent, would break under its own weight. That is, every thing in the world would need its own pictogram to depict it. Therefore proper nouns, in order to express more general phenomena, need to be made phonetic. In Todorov and Ducrot’s words, “Proper nouns and abstract notions (including inflections) are then the ones will be noted phonetically.”

From this point, Doane rather ingeniously recasts Chodorow’s distinction of femininity being defined by proximity and masculinity defined by abstraction into linguistic terms. That is, if we are to think as women as hieroglyphics, they are enigmatic because they stand in absolute iconic relationship to what they signify, and therefore can not be generalized, i.e., a women’s complete symbolic relation with herself prevents her from entering into the abstracted mode of conventional language. Think Irigaray.

Doane shifts this concept into the form of proximity versus distance. Doane accurately makes the statement that most creative endeavors that are considered high art involve some sort of distance, while those considered low art require a certain amount of proximity. Doane quotes Christian Metz to illustrate this point, “It is no accident that the main socially acceptable arts are based on the senses at a distance, and that those which depend on the senses of contact are regarded as the minor arts.” From this she extracts the need for distance in the act of voyeurism, and that fetish requires this gap between subject and the desired object. This is Pascalian in a sense, it is not the object itself that man desires, it is the pursuit to achieve it.

This paradoxical dichotomy of desire is a main operating structure of the cinema. The subject may possess his object without giving up his cherished distance. Doane writes, “the cinema is characterized by an illusory sensory plenitude..and yet haunted by the absence of those very objects which are there to be seen.” Taking a cue from this suggestion, it seems in our modern era, the internet has replaced the cinema in this regard. It is replete to fill divers desires where the image of the thing can be sought. These online representations will always be haunted by the absence of the real objects used to create them. Thinking of the internet in these terms originally set for the cinema by Doane brings to light the graveness of her remarks. The internet is insidious compared to the cinema, and a study of how we enact this particular mode of fetish online would be an endeavor well worth the effort.