contributors / people / texts and contexts

Women’s Pictures by Jacqueline Levitin, Jump Cut 1984


Women’s Pictures
Guidelines for Feminist Criticism
by Jacqueline Levitin

from Jump Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 29-30
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1984, 2005

Annette Kuhn. Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982), 226 pages. $11.50

The feminist film circle is known for keeping track of itself. Periodically an article appears taking stock of new developments in feminist film theory, explaining their relative merits and proposing alternatives. Like the women’s movement itself, this writing is polemical. Insults, dressed in academically approved dissections and counter-proofs, lose little of their sting. In such a battleground (battle signals vitality and one’s passion for the subject), Annette Kuhn’s Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema is the gentlest and most comprehensive of feminist film stocktaking. Not an anthology, it nevertheless quotes or footnotes almost every contributor to the field, often in generous terms.

Annette Kuhn makes few claims herself for breaking new ground. Her book rather contains an ordering of knowledge, a catch-me-up, for those whose mind was elsewhere during the last ten years of thinking about women and film. It has a good bibliography if you might wish to pursue that knowledge in English in more detail and a simplified explanation for those (not unusual in this often difficult field) who may have followed the debates but understood little (it provides a glossary). Annette Kuhn is a synthesizer and vulgarizer in the positive, French sense of “attempting to make knowledge popular.” She is a feminist who rationalizes for other feminists the value and necessity of intervention in cinema and who denies the separation of analysis and intervention. She calls for a common front of theory and practice:

“This book could only be written because conditions now seem to exist for feminist film criticism and feminist filmmaking to share some common concerns and goals” (p. x) (1).

And she argues that her own style of analytic intervention finds justification in the women’s movement’s perennial insistence on the significance of representations of women.

Writing a book subtitled “Feminism and Cinema” involves choices. Over the years, one of the lessons taught by the politically conscious in the women’s movement has been to identify who you are and where your ideas are coming from. In this sense Annette Kuhn establishes significant definitions. “Feminism” she defines “very broadly” as

“a set of political practices founded in analyses of the social/historical position of women as subordinated, oppressed or exploited either within dominant modes of production (such as capitalism) and/or by the social relations of patriarchy or male domination” (p. 4).

As for analysis as “cultural intervention,” Kuhn embraces the British (Screen magazine’s) brand of film theory which privileges “an examination of the operation of specifically cinematic signifiers, and also of elements of plot, characterization and narrative structure” which the initial (“American”) approach does address in its “surface reading” of image and role (pp. 6-7). The U.S. approach was not devoid of analysis as others have insisted, she later explains. It, too, was based on theoretical and methodological presuppositions; however, presuppositions were not discussed openly in the critical work. Nevertheless, she adds magnanimously, some Americans have become serious film scholars, as with the Camera Obscura collective.

Kuhn seems nonetheless uncomfortable with an undiscerning “liberal” radicalness she finds in many of her fellow countrymen and women and their French mentors. She seems sufficiently embarrassed by the demands more orthodox Marxist-feminists might make for considering the autonomy of ideological representations relative to economic and historical factors so as to insist on “contextualizing” discussion of film “texts.” Texts, she says, should be situated in relation to the “cinematic apparatus” — the

“various aspects of the institutions historically surrounding the production, distribution and exhibition of films of different types.”

This contextualizing, however, is found both in these orthodox Marxist forms of criticism as well as in less materialist ones in Women’s Pictures itself. Kuhn, following Louis Althusser, insists that

“interventions within culture have some independent potential to transform sex/gender systems” (p. 5, my emphasis).

Ever since Althusser (whom Kuhn does not mention in a curious non-contextualization of her own sources) redefined ideology, a critic can make a little revolution wherever s/he is. I will insist more on this issue of contextualization later, since Kuhn has made it the criterion which distinguishes her work from that of others.

She begins with a preliminary orthodox examination of the dominant cinema as an economic and social institution. Cinema is a commodity, she says, “both as reels of celluloid and as bearers of meanings” (p. 23) which can now be bought directly as videocassettes. As a social institution, since the 1950s cinema has broken down, offering new areas for feminist film production to insert itself. Kuhn then proceeds to explain current trends in general film theory so as to analyze dominant cinema — feminist criticism’s traditional target. She studies film “texts” while explaining the specialized vocabulary of semiotics and structuralism and their premises.

“The textual model for dominant cinema is the ‘classic realist text,’ a type of film text organized around both a certain kind of narrative structure, and a specific discourse or set of signifiers, which becomes the vehicle of the narrative, the means by which the story is told” (p. 28).

She bases her choice of semiotics and structuralism on the serious potential of these methodologies:

“The productivity of textual analysis arises from the fact that it is premised on a notion of film as a dynamic process of meaning construction … Simply by laying bare the process by which [the social meaning] operates in actual films, a feminist textual analysis may inaugurate a deconstruction of patriarchal ideology” (p. 81).

She chooses the methods of semiotics and structuralism because they can demonstrate these issues:

“What functions does a woman character perform within the film’s narrative? How are women represented visually? Are certain fixed images of women being appealed to, and if so how are they constructed through the film’s image and/or narrative? How do women not function, how are they not represented in the film?” (p. 81)

Kuhn’s explanation of semiotics and structuralism refers to the same films that have become staples of film analysis — MILDRED PIERCE and THE BIG SLEEP. She later adds YOUNG MR. LINCOLN and PSYCHO as she expands the discussion on textual analysis into ideological analysis using psychoanalysis. She thus adds Jacques Lacan’s interpretation of psychoanalytic functions to her selection of methodologies. She values Lacan’s interpretation of psychoanalysis, she explains, because it addresses film’s reception:

“We are faced not with a concrete and self-contained textual body, but with a series of dynamic textual operations and relations which become fixed only in the moment of reading” (p. 43).

The psychoanalytic approach, she argues, extends textual analysis to reintroduce film’s context. Where one can draw an analogy between the filmic state, dreaming and unconscious language, “between dream thought and cinematic address … work on the cinematic apparatus is an extension of the work on cinematic enunciation” (pp. 56-57). In an expanded definition of contextualization, she now comes to include in the cinematic apparatus “the entire context, structure and system of meaning production” (p. 56, my emphasis).

But why would a feminist bother with such methodologies? An understanding of the psychoanalytic modes is a

“useful, even an essential precondition … to consider the place of woman — as representation and as viewing subject — within the apparatus of dominant cinema, and also (and consequently) to move towards an understanding of how modes of subjectivity other than those privileged by dominant cinema might be set into play” (p. 59).

Kuhn is careful to pose at every opportunity those questions which anchor the relevance of her discussions to the project of feminist intervention in culture. One still, however, might pause and question. Hasn’t Kuhn been around? Is she ignorant of the fact that psychoanalysis, concepts of absent penises, phallic replacements and Oedipus complexes are not universally warmly accepted by feminists? Wasn’t she taken by Susan Lurie’s wonderfully provocative counter-interpretation of the Oedipus complex?(2) Didn’t she read Julia Lesage’s condemnation of the implications of Freudian theory for women?(3)

With an amazing capacity for academic accountability, Kuhn acknowledges and anticipates objections. She counters that woman’s “lack,” as psychoanalysis terms it, may be interpreted positively rather than negatively so as to posit instead woman’s privileged place in relation to verbal and cinematic language. She offers Luce Irigaray’s suggestion that the two vaginal lips signify a “non-fixity of meaning and subjectivity, as against the coherence and apparent wholeness of subjectivity” implied by the monolithic phallus (p. 65). Earlier, Kuhn indicated that cinesemiotics as a method had been transformed as feminists appropriated it for feminist film theory (pp. 71-72). Although she doesn’t suggest that the same transformation has actually taken place in psychoanalytic textural analysis, she indicates that feminists are opening the field by asking new questions. She cites Laura Mulvey for contributing an important question — the

“ways in which spectators of narrative film are positioned by representations of women, in terms of how spectator-text relations are mobilized in a series of looks which evoke early, even infantile, forms of pleasure and unpleasure.”

Now, she says, a feminist perspective in psychoanalytic textual analysis must be extended into

“a consideration of the question of whether or in what specific ways the gendered subjectivity of spectators may inform these relations of looking” (pp. 79-80).

Kuhn adroitly skirts the problem: “Whose methodology? Feminism, she argues, offers not so much a methodology as a perspective. While feminist film theory may have advocated adopting a methodology that emerges from within the feminist perspective, it has rather “tended to adopt or appropriate methodologies developed outside of the sphere of feminism itself”(71). If we thus employ feminism as a perspective, what we see through our feminist spectacles “informs what we choose to analyse, and perhaps also to some extent how we choose to analyse it” (p. 70). Feminism is not a unitary perspective, she admits.

“The directions taken up to now by feminist film theory and the directions potentially available to it are two rather different matters” (p. 70).

She says that the appropriated methodologies have been sociologically-based methods, in the initial U.S. approach. Or, in the British case, film-theory-based methods were premised on a notion of representation that does not necessarily reflect the position of women in the “real” world. She does not find these different tendencies in feminist film theory as resulting from a self-conscious espousal of any particular brand(s) of feminism:

“Such differences in feminist perspective as do exist tend to be implicit and discernible only after the fact” (p. 72).

But after so carefully setting up the situation, Kuhn does not then contextualize the discussion. She does not explain how in various countries differences have occurred which might influence future choices. She does not explore what potential directions feminist film theory might take other than espousing those methods indicated above; nor does she explore the current body of feminist thinking to find less patriarchal models. In this sense, Kuhn’s investigations of the work of Luce Irigaray are asides to her main focus.

In her concern for solidarity, for a marriage between the two sides of the Atlantic, she actually denies that a real split ever existed: The broadly based concern of most kinds of feminist film theory, she says, has tended to focuses “on the silences of film ‘texts’ in relation to women.” The task is to become “sensitive to what often goes unnoticed, becomes naturalized, or is taken for granted within a sexist society” (p. 73). The call to unity becomes then the justification to return to her presentation of semiotic analysis and to “deconstruct” film texts to discover how they construct women through images and narrative structure. Kuhn takes up the debate on “readings,” how a reading changes the text, and of whether it is significant that a text is already “cracked” ideologically or whether it operates “fully within the dominant ideology” (p. 86).

A return to these questions is welcomed because the readings offer tantalizing ways for looking at and reappropriating dominant cinema’s films and thus for rewriting film history. But these readings also serve to skirt major issues involved in choosing methodologies: First, in a defense of methodologies that proves their efficacy — or for that matter in any current feminist criticism — do we stack the cards? Do we find what we are looking for? Is the methodology proven worthy because it proves what we know to be there? Do we lose the ability to imagine other possibilities? Kuhn asks questions that textual analysis might answer. But she has the answers four pages before she asks the question:

“Woman is constructed as eternal, mythical and unchanging, an essence or a set of fixed images and meanings” (p. 77).

Could we find it to be otherwise?

Second, what possibilities are lost in following a critical methodology that insists on “deconstruction”? What can women create positively as women filmmakers without measuring themselves against patriarchal examples? What opportunities are available for feminist expression other than being “in self-conceived opposition” to dominant cinema?

In this moment of theoretical slippage from neutral to advocate, and in the discussion of experiments by women filmmakers that follows, Kuhn appears to minimize women’s contributions to cinema if those contributions fall outside of her category of “deconstruction” and “counter cinema.” The feminist creation of a particular style of autobiographical documentary seems less significant, for example, than a film that deconstructs the autobiographical form (DAUGHTER RITE, pp. 171-172). Interventions by women within the guidelines of dominant cinema appear to hold less potential than counter cinema, which is seen in the private arena by small audiences and buoyed up by discussions and writing. She advocates guerilla warfare.

All examples Kuhn finds of feminine language — of positive relations to cinematic signification (her examples are somewhat unclear as to why they are positive) — are counter cinema examples. Nowhere does Kuhn mention the work of creative feminists within the system. No mention of the work of Liliana Cavani, Jutta Brückner, Margarethe von Trotta, Marta Meszaros, or a host of others. Chantal Akerman’s JEANNE DIELMAN is only seen in its marginality; the Belgian filmmaker’s attempts to work in mainstream cinema are ignored. The emotions evoked by the screen, even new ones, it appears, are best when distanced. Their novelty cannot just lie in their simply being “our” emotions.(4)

Annette Kuhn attempts to be up-to-date and to marry her concern for contextual analysis with the contemporary issue of pornography. In the chapter entitled, “The Body in the Machine,” she tries to show how some film texts categorized or not categorized as pornography shed light on their institutional, social and historical contexts. But here her efforts seem feeble. She sifts through a long preamble of definitions in a language noticeably filled with, “It seems safe to say,” “It may,” and “It might.” Finally she says little new. Meanwhile, she does not discuss how mainstream women’s films other than those categorized as pornography are marginalized. Similarly, Kuhn passes over the opportunity to situate her own textual readings in contextual terms.

Offering a balance of interpretations of CHRISTOPHER STRONG, she explains that a text may open itself up to multiple readings because “certain meanings … can be got from the films by a situated reading made at a particular historical moment.” Therefore,

“the apparently inevitable, but ultimately unanswerable question of whether or not the original audiences for the [ruptured] films read them as critiques of patriarchal ideology then becomes unanswerable” (p. 94).

Does Kuhn condemn investigations of the historical conditions of production and audience reception in favor of an ever present reading, conditioned by ever present readers with no apparent concern for why they read as they do? How would Kuhn analyze in detail the current films of the dominant cinema, which her predecessors and thus Kuhn tend not to investigate? Would more investigation prove that some readings were not only “privileged” but also correct? Kuhn’s caution to materialize film criticism finally becomes a vague standard. The vagueness seems to arise out of conflicting notions of historicity that Kuhn leaves unexplored.

Is Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema the textbook for courses in women and film we’ve been waiting for? Ultimately, I think not. Kuhn’s discussion of film theory and filmmaking practices offers one of the most thorough set of guidelines for thinking about film I have encountered, but she also closes discussion. While a book called Women’s Pictures should open endless doors, Kuhn’s book, despite its enumeration of possibilities, feels closed. It talks about what has been done, to the neglect of what may yet be explored.

The book addresses a specific theoretical spectrum in a language which I predict today’s students will still find difficult. (The often-imprecise illustrations do little to illuminate her points.) And though Kuhn claims that British feminist film theory, unlike its U.S. counterpart, exists outside the institutions of academia and thus has more of an impact on everyday women (and thus raises the significant question of feminist intervention), I think her volume will not find ready acceptance in the community. This is not to denigrate the importance of what she says, but rather to say that what Kuhn attempts could be said still more simply, more engagingly, less cautiously or academically (with the academy’s tiresome necessity to summarize all debates), and more assertively.

On the other side of the coin, Kuhn’s definitions are clean and for the most part original. She carefully delineates dominant cinema, New Hollywood cinema, counter cinema, avant-garde cinema, feminist cinema and feminine cinematic writing. Thus she corrects the frequent mistake of lumping together all modernist techniques as progressive. Her discussion of realism includes Socialist Realism, an area often ignored in feminist aesthetic discussions (although I would have liked her to suggest examples other than the overused SALT OF THE EARTH).

But her discussion of documentary realism – “direct cinema” she calls it — discloses theoretical holes. Women’s efforts in documentary, she asserts, have been unusual for their characteristic autobiography, non-neutral observation and influence on the subjects themselves. However, she would not have found such characteristics unusual if she had (as she indicates is possible in her footnotes) distinguished the U.S. style of “cinema verite” from the “cinema direct” developed in France and Quebec. What women’s documentary has in common with these latter examples is its political purpose. Like the subjects of Quebec’s cinema-direct movement, the oppressed subjects of feminist documentary were given a voice by filmmakers who identified with their subjects’ oppression. Kuhn misses an opportunity for a contextual analysis that would identify a trend in feminist filmmaking from a class standpoint rather than a purely gender standpoint.

This brings up another potential direction for Kuhn’s investigations: the relation between feminist and third-world aesthetics. Within such a perspective, would “feminine” as Kuhn defines it be gender determined or power determined? Is an anti-monolithic style of signification related more to one’s position in the power structure, or is it gender specific? And, in the same vein, as Kuhn herself warns, does textual analysis which is excessively formalistic run the risk of making us, in Christine’s Gledhill’s words, “lose the ability to deal with its relationship to women as defined in society?” (p. 83) Kuhn’s own attempts at contextualization don’t prove the contrary.


1. Unless otherwise indicated, all page numbers shown for quotations refer to Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema.

2. Lurie, Susan, “Pornography and the Dread of Women: The Male Sexual Dilemma,” in Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography, ed. Laura Lederer (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1980), pp. 159-173.

3. Lesage, Julia, “The Human Subject — You, He, or Me? Or the Case of the Missing Penis,” Screen, 16, No. 2, 77-83. Originally published in JUMP CUT, No. 4 (November/December 1974).

4. Here, as in other areas, Kuhn does not sufficiently credit Bertolt Brecht. Long before he proposed guidelines useful for describing counter cinema. In particular, a Brechtian notion would be that deconstructive cinema, if it defines itself in relation to dominant cinema, is not a static entity.


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