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A Feminine Discourse: Representation, Seduction, and Identification

2.3 Gaze and Seduction

Film is a language and film does have its own language consisting of mise-en-scène, montage, dialogue, music, sound effects and other cinematic factors. Film language, thus, can not only compose narrative, but also create a gaze. “The gaze” is a technical term that


Zygmunt Bauman, “From Pilgrim to Tourist – or a Short History of Identity”, in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay, 19.

originated in film theory in the 1970s, but it is now more broadly used by media theorists to refer both to the ways in which viewers look at images of people in any visual medium and to the gaze of those depicted in visual texts. In film studies or media studies, to gaze implies more than to look at, because “it signifies a psychological relationship of power, in which the gazer is superior to the object of the gaze”46

. Since Laura Mulvey demonstrated how a male gaze mode is formed in mainstream cinema in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, which was published in 1975 and swiftly became one of the most widely cited and anthologised articles in the realm of contemporary film theory, the male gaze has become an essential term in feminist film criticism.

To some extent, Laura Mulvey’s theory is a feminist expansion of the theories of Christian Metz and Jean-Louis Baudry, both of whom analogise the operation of cinema with that of the dream, from semiological and psychoanalytical perspectives. Metz indicates that film can provide the spectator with an experience of “the impression of reality”47

. He further explains that the phenomenon that “films have the appeal of a presence and of a proximity”, is related to the impression of reality, “but its basis is first of all psychological” 48. In other words, “we understand various cinematic structures and phenomena because we have already encountered similar phenomena in the course of our psychic development”49. Baudry explains his ideas in plain words in the essay “The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality in Cinema”. By


Jonathan E. Schroeder, “Consuming Representation: A Visual Approach to Consumer Research”, in Barbara B Stern, Representing Consumers: Voices, Views and Visions (London: Routledge, 1998), 208. 47

Metz, Film Language, 4. 48

Ibid., 5. 49

Noel Carroll, “Review of The Imaginary Signifier by Christian Metz”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 43, 2 (winter, 1984): 212.

comparing cinema and dream, Baudry argues that the mode of looking in a film is simulated to dreaming:

The cinematographic apparatus reproduces the psychical apparatus during sleep: separation from the outside world, inhibition of motoricity; in sleep, these conditions causing an overcathexis of representation can penetrate the system of perception as sensory stimuli; in cinema, the images perceived (very likely reinforced by the setup of the psychical apparatus) will be over-cathected and thus acquire a status which will be the same as that of the sensory images of dream.

It is evident that cinema is not dream: but it reproduces an impression of reality, it unlocks, releases a cinema effect which is comparable to the impression of reality caused by dream. The entire cinematographic apparatus is activated in order to provoke this simulation: it is indeed a simulation of a condition of the subject, a position of the subject, a subject and not reality. 50

“[D]ream is a hallucinatory psychosis of desire”51, according to Baudry’s summary of Freud, in which “the object of desire (the object of need), if it happens to be lacking, can at this point be hallucinated”52

. As with dreams and hallucinations, cinema offers us powerful but illusory perceptions (sound, images, darkness, movement) which give an access to unconscious desires and fantasies. Metz insists that “cinema has its roots in certain unconscious phenomena, notably: imaginary identification, voyeurism, fetishism


Jean-Louis Baudry, “The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality in Cinema”, in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, ed. Leo Braudy & Marshall Cohen, 221, 222.


Ibid., 215. 52

and disavowal”53

. Via identification with the all-powerful sight of the camera, the spectator enters the realm of desire and fantasy. Cinema thus offers its viewer – the filmic spectator – a powerful and eroticised gaze.

Employing semiological and psychoanalytical theories, Mulvey makes the point that cinema can construct a perfect fantasy-world for both voyeuristic looking and narcissism, “in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at”54. She further argues that in mainstream cinema, “pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female”55. Ever since Griffith invented the close-up to capture his leading lady’s (his favourite star, Lillian Gish) beauty in greater detail56, “a disjuncture appeared between the image of woman on the screen enhanced as spectacle and the general flow of narrative continuity organising the action”57

. Woman are displayed and eroticised as sexual beings for the male gaze. Film language produces a gaze model of women’s to-be-looked-at-ness and men’s voyeurism and fetishism.

Though I do not analyse films from a feminist approach, Mulvey’s conception of the male gaze is important for this thesis which focuses on the female images in narrative films. The first issue I need to probe is whether or not, when a female protagonist (or more than one) is placed in a position of agency, she avoids the to-be-looked-at-ness – her objectification as spectacle according to the masculine structure of the gaze. Before


Carroll, “Review of The Imaginary Signifier”, 212.


Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, 16. 55

Ibid., 19. 56

Jean-Luc Godard, “Defence and Illustration of Classical Cinema”, in Godard on Godard, ed. Tom Milne (New York: The Viking Press, 1968), 28. Quoted from Laura Mulvey, Fetishism and Curiosity

(Bloomington: Indiana University Press; London: British Film Institute, 1996), 40. 57

my arguments, I must clarify that I only consider whether the directors eroticise female images for male gaze when they encode their filmic narrative, but cannot draw the conclusion whether the male gaze actually exists when they are decoded by the film spectators, because, just as Stuart Hall notes, the encoding and decoding is often asymmetrical58.

There have already been many studies about the male gaze in narrative films with female protagonists directed by men, such as, Ann E. Kaplan’s “Patriarchal and the Male Gaze in Cukor’s Camille”59 and Mary Ann Doane’s “Caught and Rebecca: The Inscription of Femininity as Absence”60

, to name a few by top scholars. However, I am more interested in examining the male gaze in so-called “women’s films”, particularly the films telling women’s stories made by female directors. The findings will have two possible conclusions: women are or are not displayed as sexual beings for the male gaze in women’s film. Then two questions will follow. 1) How do female directors avoid the male gaze? 2) Why do female directors provide the male gaze? The first question will be discussed in Chapter 3 and Chapter 4, in which three women’s films all show an obvious tendency to avoid the traditional male spectatorship. In Chapter 5, I will focus on the second issue while analysing Xu Jinlei’s A Letter from An Unknown Woman (一个陌生 女人的来信, Yige moshengnvren de laixin, 2005) in which the sexual appeal of woman is magnificently displayed on the screen.


Hall, “Encoding/decoding”, 130. 59

Ann E. Kaplan, Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera (New York: Methuen, 1983), 36-48. 60

Sue Thornham ed., Feminist Film Theory: A Reader (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 70- 82.

However, the gaze and its mutual nature, in a cultural studies approach, actually reflect the power structures – the nature of the relation between the gazer and the gazed- at object. Thus, Mulvey’s male gaze reveals the cultural power relation between two sexes on the basis of sexual difference in patriarchal society as reflected by a certain category of films, namely, Hollywood mainstream films. To restate my opinion, I examine the male gaze in these films not to compare women’s social and cultural position with men’s, but, rather, to probe how these women, who are usually regarded as the weaker group and the second sex, empower themselves through their filmic narratives of women’s stories. In other words, I probe how these female directors identify themselves through their filmic gaze.

Foucault, not following conventional feminist thinking, never spoke of ‘male domination’; instead, he usually spoke of power as if it subjugated everyone equally. In his opinion, body, no matter whether it belongs to a man or a woman, is represented as a machine by disciplinary practices. According to him, the representation of sexuality is actually a power game. From this perspective, the issue of whether these female directors avoid or create male gazes whilst portraying their female protagonists can be considered as a discursive strategy through which they obtain the power to speak, or, in Foucault’s words, obtain “the speaker’s benefit”61

. In other words, the filmic gaze is also constituted into a discursive formation. If it rejects a male gaze, it represents a woman’s rebellious discourse. Conversely, if it provides a male gaze, it represents a woman’s docile discourse. However, both of them emphasise female sexuality, that is, femininity. I summarise three approaches to femininity in filmic discourse as following:


Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (NewYork: Penguin Books, 1978), 6.

1) Displaying women’s bodies. If the male directors capture women’s bodies through their camera lens for their voyeuristic and fetishist desire, does it mean that the female directors who have no sexual desire for women’s bodies (except if they are lesbians) are not interested in portraying women’s bodies? The answer is negative. The fact is that quite a few female directors like to repeatedly portray women’s beauty in great aesthetical detail. Some like Michelle Citron regard it as a compromise for entering mainstream narrative filmmaking.62 Some others like Mulvey believe that “there is pleasure in being looked at”63

and attribute it to narcissism, which is usually considered as a feminine characteristic rather than a masculine one. As Simone De Beauvoir indicates:

The fact is that narcissism is a well-defined process of identification, in which the ego is regarded as an absolute end and the subject takes refuge from himself in it. ………But it is true that conditions lead woman more than man to turn towards herself and devote her love to herself.64

However, all of the opinions mentioned above presume women to be in the passive position in the social and psychoanalytic dimensions. Then, is it possible for us to put this assumption aside so that we may examine the female directors’ display of women’s bodies from another point of view? To display women’s beauty, to highlight female sexual appeal, to be gazed at, if we

62 Michelle Citron, “Women’s Film Production: Going Mainstream”, in

Female Spectators: Looking at Film and Television, ed. E. Deidre Pribram (London; New York: Verso, 1988), 57.


Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, 16. 64

consider it as women’s positive and rational choice (if women are capable of making positive and rational choice), is an intended parade of femininity. If the power of gaze is mutual between the gazer and the gazed at, then to-be-gazed-at can be a process of empowerment too.

2) Portraying women’s tears. Women love depicting women’s tragedy, which is an evident fact. Whether in literature or film works, female authors show a palpable preference for telling stories of women’s suffering, oppression, and dilemma. This is often concluded to be female authors’ self-consciousness of their own sex/gender. I agree that women directors’ consideration of women’s situation and feeling can be, at the very least, partially attributed to their female self-consciousness. However, it is also a channel through which they obtain access to feminine discourse, “for women tears symbolised ‘deep femininity’”65. If displaying women’s bodies objectivises women as sexual beings for a male erotic gaze, by the same token, portraying women’s tears objectivises women for a male psychological gaze.

3) Emphasising women’s rebellion. Besides sentimental discourse, some other women directors choose rebellious discourse to tell women’s stories. In male- centred narrative films, female characters, though not leading the storytelling, are often endowed with relatively important tasks either for filmic narrative or for filmic spectatorship. By contrast, the images of male characters in many women’s films are negligible and extremely pale – they are excluded not only


Susan A. Glenn, Female Spectacle: The Theatrical Roots of Modern Feminism (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000), 20.

from a position of a gaze agent, but also from the filmic narrative, and even from the position of to-be-gazed at. Through totally eliminating men’s intervention, women directors achieve a filmic narrative “all about women” so as to emphasise the “sex of women”, their own sex and their filmic discourse. Conversely, men directors do not need to reject women in their filmic narrative while representing a dissentient and rebellious discourse. To a great degree, women’s gestures of rebellion, which are frequently against men and patriarchy, are actually a feminine representation.

To speak, one needs an identity first. When talking about the relation between identification and assumption of sex, Judith Butler argues:

The forming of a subject requires an identification with the normative phantasm of “sex”, and this identification takes place through a repudiation which produces a domain of abjection, a repudiation without which the subject cannot emerge.66

According to Bulter, to identify oneself as a woman is not to state “I am a woman”, but, rather, to state “I am NOT a man”. To highlight femininity, women directors achieve their sex/gender identification and hence place themselves on a subject-position as women. Simultaneously, they get access to use/play the feminine discourse. Since Foucauldian theories have not particularly considered the issue of femininity power particularly, I will use Baudrillard’s theory about the power of seduction, as a supplement in this thesis. Baudrillard suggests that the power of masculinity and that of femininity function reversibly: “Masculinity has always been haunted by this sudden reversibility


within the feminine. Seduction and femininity are ineluctable as the reverse side of sex, meaning and power” 67

. Here, masculinity and femininity are not considered as sex divisions, but as power forms. Therefore, femininity is not immanent or determined within sex or sexuality, but is something that can be performed, played and used, as Baudrillard says:

A universe that can no longer be interpreted in terms of psychic or psychological relations, nor those of repression and unconscious, but must be interpreted in terms of play, challenges, duels, the strategy of appearances – that is, the terms of seduction. A universe that can no longer be interpreted in terms of structures and dialectical oppositions, but implies a seductive reversibility – a universe where the feminine is not what opposes the masculine, but what seduces the masculine. 68

What is more, Baudrillard indicates that seduction is stronger than power and sexuality, because “it is reversible and mortal”, while “power seeks to be irreversible, cumulative and immortal”, and “sexuality must never be confused” 69


Therefore, the sex/gender identification of women, who are usually considered as the second sex, the subaltern, and the Other, is itself a process of empowerment. By labelling the femininity and appearing weak, women directors manage to empower themselves with the power of seduction.

On the other hand, if we put aside the sex issue, do women gaze at women through the camera lens? If “the mutuality or non-mutuality of the gaze of the two parties can tell 67 Baidrillard, Seduction, 2. 68 Ibid., 7. 69 Ibid, 46, 47.

us who has the right and/or need to look at whom”70, reciprocally, can empowerment be generated through constructing a gaze? As Joshua Meyrowitz notes:

[A] person of high status often has the right to look at a lower status person for a long time, even stare him or her up and down, while the lower status person is expected to avert his or her eyes71.

Therefore, to gaze is a means of identification, too. When a woman director is gazing at another woman through the camera lens, she at the same time differentiates herself from that woman she is gazing at. As Hall suggests, “identities are constructed through, not outside, difference”72

. Through the filmic gazing, and through this repudiation, she constitutes her identity with which to speak, and endows herself with a discursive position. I will specially discuss this issue when analysing Li Yu’s films.