Passionate Detachments: An Introduction to Feminist Film Theory

Passionate Detachments: An Introduction to Feminist Film Theory – Review

Kathrina Glitre

In 1972, the feminist film journal Women and Film first appeared in the US; the following year Marjorie Rosen’s Popcorn Venus was published and Laura Mulvey wrote ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (published in 1975). Twenty-five years later, some kind soul has finally undertaken the task of reviewing the development of feminist film theory, in a concise and generally lucid introduction to the notoriously complex field.

‘Passionate detachments’ is a phrase taken from Mulvey’s essay and later adopted by Donna Haraway in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (1991). It denotes the necessary critical distance required by a feminist film theorist engaging in a political vision of culture. Thus, two key ideas become threaded through Sue Thornham’s book: the difficult relationship between ‘woman’ as image, the ‘real-life’ woman as spectator and the feminist theorist as ‘voice’ of women and the centrality of a ‘politics of vision’ to a feminist film theory (and practice). Each chapter of the book ostensibly deals with a crucial area of debate, in a roughly chronological progression from theoretical forerunners, to the assimilation of interdisciplinary theories (structuralism, semiotics, psychoanalysis, ethnographic cultural studies and fantasy) and the consideration of the female spectator ultimately, in all her manifestations of sexual, racial and (to a lesser degree) class identity. The final chapter focuses on the post-modern disease of multiplicity, fragmentation and dissolution, in an attempt to find a way forward that is not based on the loss of specificity.

The benefit of Thornham’s approach is the clear articulation of the reasons for directions pursued. Dissatisfaction with the simple historical approach of Rosen and Molly Haskell (From Reverence to Rape 1974) led British feminists into textual and spectatorial considerations and in particular into appropriating psychoanalytical theory; by the mid-1980s the limitations of an abstract psychoanalytical theory constructed on male subjectivity had become clear and alternatives were searched for. Whilst each chapter tends to surmount the position of the previous one, therefore, Thornham does manage to maintain cohesion by constant reference to the echoes, developments and contradictions between individual feminist theorist’s approaches. However, this does lead to a tendency to interrogate the faults and limitations of a theory primarily in relation to the succeeding position. For example, in the section ‘Laura Mulvey’ in Chapter 2, Mulvey’s neglect of the female spectator in ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ is barely mentioned; ‘Afterthoughts on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” inspired by King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun’ (1981) is not mentioned by name until Chapter 3. Since this book is clearly aimed at first year undergraduates–whose selective reading habits are well-known–the delay in critical interrogation may prove confusing or even misleading.

Particularly worrying (although partly explained by the chronological approach) is the late mention of sexual preference and race as further sites of difference within the spectator–with these ‘added’ differences isolated in individual chapters, as if feminism must deal primarily with gender, not equality. For over half the book, Thornham follows feminist film theory’s lead by assuming the female spectator is White, heterosexual and Western. Unfortunately, once she introduces the possibility that gender is not the beginning and end of difference and domination, her usual clarity wavers. The chapter on ‘Conceiving Lesbian Desire’ is particularly muddled and lacking in critical evaluation. She even misrepresents Julia Kristeva’s theories of the semiotic chora and the pre-Oedipal mother by claiming that they are recognisably feminine (when entry into the symbolic order–and gender differentiation–has not yet occurred). Although the following chapter on racial difference is an improvement, it still lacks analytical bite. The overall effect achieved by the introduction of these two possibilities for ‘rereading difference’ is the sense of the multiplicity of ‘identity’ and the undermining of the psychoanalytical opposition between self and other. Whilst this should suggest a major step forward for feminist theory, the full potential remains undeclared; Thornham focuses on the negative aspects of loss of specificity, rather than the possibility that the psychoanalytical construction of the (male/ White/heterosexual) self and (female/Black/homosexual) other is no more than a patriarchal optical illusion.

Overall, Passionate Detachments generally succeeds in its aim to introduce the central debates of feminist film theory to the uninitiated student. It covers a lot of ground in a very short space–from Simone de Beauvoir to pornography and beyond. Luckily the references are clear and the bibliography is extensive. The only real limitations of Passionate Detachments, ironically, are defined by its subject–the history of feminist film theory. Thus, Thornham herself acknowledges that the activist history of the post-1970s women’s movement and the history of feminist film making both shadow the history she surveys, but cannot be detailed here. Moreover, some areas of film criticism are ignored, mainly because so few feminists have written within them: there is no mention of romantic comedy or the musical (both of which are commonly considered ‘chick flicks’) and little comment on Third World or even European/cinema. More surprisingly, consideration of the star phenomenon is limited, particularly in relation to queer readings of stars such as Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe–readings which can prove subversive for heterosexual females as much as for homosexuals. Thus, whilst Thornham’s book provides a good basis to understanding what has been achieved by feminist film theory in the last 25 years, it is far from a conclusion.

KATHRINA GLITRE, University of Reading ton use of cl

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