Film 299 Post

F299: Research Update #12

Below are my notes for Chapters 2 and 3 of Violent Women in Contemporary Cinema by Janice Loreck.

CHAPTER 2: Science, sensation and the Female Monster: Trouble Every Day

  • Animal-women, bestial aliens and wild human-hybrids are among the most enduring types of violent women in cinema. 
  • people affected by a mysterious illness that compels them to viciously attack their sexual partners, resulting in several gruesome scenes that the film shows in intimate detail 
  • Their stories centre on scientific voyeurism: in Splice (Vincenzo Natali, 2009), for example, the animal-woman is an experiment in genetic engineering; in Species, she is an alien-human hybrid raised in a lab; in Cat People, she is treated as a neurotic and hypochondriac; in Captive Wild Woman, she is once again a scientific experiment, this time in the human endocrine system. 

The monster as ‘curiosity’

  • She is therefore a feminine object of a masculine scientific drive for knowledge. 
  • However, whereas the Woman regularly describes and reflects upon her own experiences during therapy (and therefore has agency in her own treatment) Coré’s affliction renders her virtually mute and helpless. 
  • Coré is an object to be ‘aggressively revealed, unmasked, discovered’ by the investigators in the story, and, by extension, the spectator 
  • This figure is a female monster, either artificially created or naturally occurring, whose anoma- lousness positions her as both a terrifying antagonist and an epistemo- logically arousing object of enquiry.  
  •  The scientist typically has two responsibilities that are in direct conflict with one another. 
    • Firstly, his own desire for knowledge compels him to study the female curiosity. Usually, the woman possesses physical attributes that make her a tantalising object of enquiry.  
    • Secondly, the scientist must also contain the woman, a task that is usually incompatible with his desire to unlock her secrets. 
  • Her very subjectivity is antagonistic; in her unknowability, she challenges the scientist’s persona as a possessor of knowledge. 
  • On one hand, the female monster’s death and the destruction of her body can be interpreted as an ideological manoeuvre. By removing the threat that she poses to masculine scientific knowledge, the film reinstates patriarchal authority. 

Vision and Sensation

  • the film seems to intrude on the personal space of the spectator 
  • earlier representations of female ‘freaks’ and oddities by reversing the way that subjectivity and monstrousness are engendered by more distanced, voyeuristic modes of spectatorship 
  • Mise-en-scène and narrative invite an epistemophilic mode of looking in relation to the female monster as a curiosity, either by literally objec- tifying the woman in the diegesis or by positioning the onlooker in terms of his or her remoteness to the female specimen. 
  • These scientific horror films also enforce distance between the monster and the scientist (and spectator) through the use of props and sets. 
    • Sometimes the female monster will quite literally be kept in a cage or vessel within a labora- tory, surrounded by the paraphernalia of remote scientific observation such as microscopes and computer monitors. 
  • In her study of the monstrous-feminine in cinema, Barbara Creed argues that cuts to a black screen like this one represent an abyss: ‘the cannibalizing black hole from which all life comes and to which all life returns’ (1993: 25). 
    • These brief moments where the films’ aesthetic conveys the collapsing of distance between the female monster and her victim tend to be a catastrophic consequence of the scientists’ failure to control the violent female; 
    • however, they tend to be fleeting moments, with the film quickly restoring a distanced, monocular perspective
  • aesthetic of abjection 
    • Defined literally as that which is ‘cast off’, abjection involves an experience of the pre-Symbolic: the things that have been culturally and psy- chically rejected in order to accede to subjectivity. 
    • According to Creed, the ‘images of abjection’ that are frequently found in horror cinema include blood and viscera, corpses, saliva, sweat and tears (1993: 10); substances that exemplify the abject or ‘not me’
  • “work of abjection” or “abjection at work”’ 
    • Representations of the abject onscreen can inspire a sense of defilement in the spectator; to illustrate this, Creed cites the colloquial expressions for a particularly frightening horror film such as ‘it “made me sick” or “scared the shit out of me” 
  • This tactile, abject visuality influences the film’s inscription of violent female subjectivity at the same time as it breaks with generic expectations of it as a ‘restrained’ art film.  
  • The film positions the spectator into an experience of ontological encounter with the transgressive woman. 
  • Rather than differentiation, this produces an equivalence between the subject and the Other that is facilitated through the processes of spectatorship initiated in the film. 

Sound, space and monstrous encounters

  • troubles the spectator’s orientation by generating a sense of bodily invasion. 
  • This contrasts with the way that the classic horror discovery plot engenders monstrous female Otherness; instead of enabling a unified and separate voyeuristic gaze, tactile sound in Trouble Every Day enacts contact between the spectator and the violent woman. 
  • sounds evoke a sense of contact
    • This haptic sound positions the listener in terms of his or her proximity to the monster herself, as well as a sympathetic experi- ence of the onscreen events. 
  • Sound here suggests an encounter – a collapsing of clinical observation – that positions the listener not as a discrete, masterful subjectivity but in terms of his or her fluid proximity to Coré. 
  • horror films frequently use cinematographic techniques, such as zooms and tracking shots, to implicate the spectator’s body in encounters with the monster onscreen
  • Some films figure the monster as literally repulsive – their victims flinch, look away or shield themselves upon encountering the terrifying creature – whereas other horror films convey the monster’s attraction or pull.  
  • smooth space is immersive and undifferentiated, whereas striated space is ‘in principle infinite, open, and unlimited in every direction; it has neither top nor bottom nor cen- tre; it does not assign fixed and mobile elements but rather distributes a continuous variation’ 
  • This abyss, she writes, represents the archaic mother figure that is explicitly associated with the maternal body
  • ‘boundaries, designed to keep the abject at bay, threaten to disintegrate, collapse’, explains Creed (1993: 29),
    •  whereas Marks suggests that smooth space ‘does something to dissolve the boundaries between the beholder and the thing beheld’ (2004: 80). 
    • For Marks, smooth space is also evocative of haptic sensation; because smooth space is immersive, it is ‘felt’ on the spectator’s body. 
  • The film’s depiction of smooth space positions the spectator into a contaminating closeness with Coré as the violent female monster. 
  • As Marks explains, this embodied immersion in space dismantles the rigid construction of distance between the self and other that is called into place by the scopic regimes of classical narrative cinema, producing a sensation of being closer to the object, even ‘the possibility of one becoming the other’ 
  • Trouble Every Day enacts an encounter with the violent female Other, insisting that she is not an entity to be quarantined and controlled by patriarchal power, but an otherness that can trouble the very metaphysical foundations upon which masculine subjectivity is conceptualised as a discrete and sovereign wholeness. 


  • Both are wary of the kind of scientific, hierarchical, masculine knowledge that erects divisions between subjects and simultaneously creates the female enigma.  
  • Whereas von Trier’s film engenders the violent woman by manipulating spectators’ expectations of the film’s art cinema genericity, Denis’s text interrogates the categories of human personhood by provoking an embodied, sensory horror reaction in the spectator. 
  • As such, the world of Trouble Every Day is one where violent men and aggressive women possess an ontological contiguity. 
    • To express this, the film creates a viewing experience that promotes closeness and, at least for the film’s running time, breaks down barriers between the violent woman and the onlooker. 
  • Trouble Every Day is therefore best described as a filmic thought- experiment that queries the nature of selfhood, mobilising the violent woman to destabilise gender, humanity, violence and monstrosity.
  • Trouble Every Day answers the desire to know the violent woman by challenging fixed notions of subjectivity and otherness altogether. 

CHAPTER 3: Sex and Self-Expression: Fatal Women in Baise-moi

  • One of the most enduring images of female violence in the Western cultural tradition is that of the dangerous seductress. 
  • This continuing association between female eroticism and malicious intent has led Alice Myers and Sarah Wight to declare that all women’s violence is framed in terms of gender difference and sexuality: 
    • ‘[W]hen a woman commits an act of criminal violence,’ they write, ‘her sex is the lens through which all of her actions are seen and understood’ (1996: xi). 
    • Laura Sjoberg and Caron E. Gentry go further, arguing that ‘a woman’s violence is a sexual event’ (2007: 46) (original emphasis).  
  • A cursory survey of cinematic representation since the 1940s shows that films frame a woman’s aggression as contiguous with her sexuality in a variety of different ways. 
    • Some films represent women’s allure as both a means of obfuscating her nature and as a weapon to be wielded against men.
    • Other films equate feminine sexuality with a more ontological danger; for example, the abject female monsters of Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) and Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) horrify because they expose ‘the fragility’ of the symbolic order that governs masculine subjectivity (Creed 1986: 48). 
    • Other films position a violent woman’s sexuality as evidence of her all-encompassing corruption 
  • women’s violence see these murder- esses as ‘motivated by their overwhelming perversion 

Reframing sex in Baise-moi

  • Sexually explicit sex acts are once again appearing in esthetically ambitious films depicting complex and explicit sexual relations that are neither the whole point of the film (as in pornography) nor tacked on gratuitously (as in soft-core ‘exploitation’). 
  • Instead, sex has an expressive function in Baise-moi insofar as it shows Nadine and Manu’s subjectivity as marginalised women. 
    • Put another way: whereas a woman’s sexuality is often used as a point of occlusion – or, conversely, of visual objectification – Baise-moi is an exploration of Nadine and Manu’s experiences as subjects of a particular milieu.  
  • the film is about ‘wounded women, abused by and used by men, by women, by the world’ and is therefore an ‘exploration of two women of the underclass’. 
  • Hetero-erotic spectacle in Baise-moi therefore operates as an expressive strategy that represents Nadine and Manu’s experience – their boredom, their social and cultural milieu, and their identities as violent women. 
  • Critics link the film’s hetero-erotic spectacle with a filmic milieu that possesses particular creative goals: specifically, the representation of human experience. 

Visual Culture and Identity

  • the film itself also frames its sex scenes as expressions of the protagonists’ identity 
  • Baise-moi shows Nadine and Manu’s sexual encounters using an aesthetic that Linda Williams calls ‘maximum visibility’: the defining characteristic of mainstream pornography. Williams observes that the principle of maximum visibility can manifest in a variety of different stylistic regimes; however, its enduring goal is to make the sex act as visible as possible. Common aesthetics include ‘close-ups of body parts’, the lighting of ‘easily obscured genitals’, the use of ‘sexual positions that show the most of bodies and organs’ and, very importantly, the image of ejaculation 
  • Rather than adding these scenes to sate an objectifying male gaze, Baise-moi uses maximum visibility to communicate the classed and gendered conditions of the protagonists’ experience. Specifically, the aesthetic produces them as women whose lives are shaped by the sex industry and saturated with pornographic imagery; where sex is frank, utilitarian and brief. 
  • Maximum visibility becomes a way of conveying Nadine and Manu’s position as subjects of a particular marginalised economic, sexual and cultural milieu. 
  • ‘framed by various realist modalities . . . to reveal the emotional, experiential and social realities of sex and sexuality’ (2006: 43).
    • The way that Baise-moi establishes this sense of authenticity contrasts with one of the classical femme fatale’s deadliest characteristics: her ability to falsify sexual interest.
  • Sex scenes in pornography therefore attempt to ‘force’ women into similarly observable displays of sexual pleasure. 
    • This explains the prevalence of coercive sex in pornography where a woman is ‘made’ to experience pleasure through forced intercourse.  
  • Williams argues that the logic of maximum visibility cannot represent female pleasure, partly because women’s orgasms are an internal physiological response that have no parallel with the male ‘standard of evidence’ (1989: 49–50). 
    • The logic of maximum visibility therefore coerces female sexuality into phallocentric schema of meaning. 
  • Baise-moi frames these scenes as an expression of Nadine and Manu’s sexual experience and enjoyment, comprising the very aesthetic that pervades the protagonists’ world. 

Maximum Visibility and Emotion

  • exposing the inner emotional experience of its two protagonists 
  • ‘the wobbling flesh is all too tragically human’ 
  • ‘There’s a joyousness and abandon here that hints at another, more pleasurable world . . . beyond the brutality’ (2001: n.p.). 
    • Instead of arguing that the erotic sequences are base and emotionless, these critics suggest that such moments contribute to the personal expressivity of Baise-moi. 
  • Bainbridge suggests that cinema can therefore represent sub- jectivity by externalising the subject’s internal life, with emotions acting as both evidence and an affirmation of personal experience  

Returning the Gaze

  • I have argued that hetero-erotic spectacle takes up a special role in Baise-moi, wherein it operates to signify the violent woman’s subjectivity. However, I have not countered the argument, made by several researchers, that cinema objectifies the violent woman. 
  • Christine Holmlund argues that beautiful, violent heroines ‘are not nec- essarily a cause for feminist jubilation’ because their subversiveness is limited by their eroticised presentation. 
    • They are almost always ‘white, lithe and lovely’ and do not necessarily represent the far less glamorous personas of real women who kill  
  • classical cinema produces women in terms of their ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’, indicating that a structuring, scopophilic masculinity engenders their representation. 
  • O’Day posits that the action heroine’s beauty ‘allays’ the transgression that her violence makes to normative gender categories 
  • Whereas ‘traditional’ spectatorship theory (or, more specifically, the psychoanalytic model that hypothesises the possibility of voyeuristic pleasure) presumes a unidirectional gaze between the spectator and the screen, the filmic strategy of ‘looking back’ brings the spectator into an awareness of his or her subjectivity in relation to the depictions onscreen. 
  • Maximum visibility and other forms of erotic spectacle can change how subject positions are inscribed in the cinematic apparatus. 
    • This mode of spectatorship has implications for how the woman is represented, chiefly because it inscribes her as another subject rather than an objectified Other to a masculine gaze. 
  • Baise-moi uses maximum visibility to ‘look back’ at the spectator. Whereas most films introduce their ‘fatal women’ or ‘babe heroines’ in ways that quickly establish their ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’, maximally vis- ible scenes in Baise-moi acknowledge the spectator in ways that disrupt voyeuristic visual pleasure. 
  • Instead of titillating the onlooker, however, the combination of sexual violence and maximum visibility in the rape scene ‘looks back’ at spectators 
  • However, the rapists’ aggression haunts the scene as a potential point of identification for the spectator. Viewers can imagine a sadistic response to the sequence (even if they, themselves, do not expe- rience such a reaction) and may strongly wish not to identify with the attackers. 
  • The possibility of pleasure in the men’s violence thus exists as a hypothetical response to the rape scene. It operates as a fantasy, a negative way of relating to the film, in the mind of the spectator. 
  • Triadic identification occurs when a spectator momentarily identifies with an imagined (and usually policing) societal gaze: a ‘third’ look that intervenes in the relationship between text and spectator. 
    • In particular, when a spectator suddenly becomes aware that he or she is watching material that the broader society might deem inappropriate, he or she may experience intense feelings of shame and self-awareness. 
    • As Laine explains, this occurs because spectators internalise societal norms that operate as an imag- ined look – ‘the “panoptic” look of the larger social structures’ 
  • the voyeur can only feel shame once he or she conceptualises the Other as a subject and identifies with the Other’s gaze. With the realisation that oneself exists as an object for the Other, the Other therefore becomes a subject, an individual, in the mind of the voyeur. 


  • When women kill in cinema, sex very often precedes, follows or precipitates their violence. 
    • As Sjoberg and Gentry observe, ‘women’s involvement in sexual activity is somehow always closely linked to women’s violence’ 
  • Popular genres that link female violence and sex emphasise the woman’s hetero-erotic appeal in ways that betray an organising voyeuristic subjectivity inscribed in the text. 
  • Drawing on the aesthetic of maximum visibility, the film positions the onlooker in a relationship of anti-voyeurism to the text 
  • It is a film that wants to avoid the coercion – or the ‘magic trick’ – of forcing violent women to speak about their intimate sexual subjectiv- ity. Instead, Nadine and Manu unmask themselves using the very por- nographic idiom that they are familiar with (and, controversially, that objectifies them as women).  
  • Indeed, the sex scenes between the Man and Woman, which are often bitter and violent, underscore the lack of communication between the two. 
    • At one point, the Woman demands that the Man slap her across the face while the two are intimate together; later, she attacks him at a vulnerable moment during intercourse. 
  • Baise-Moi is a film about violent ‘lower class’ women, made by supposedly marginal women. The mainstream doesn’t want to hear about people with nothing, the disenfranchised, the margin- als, taking up arms and killing people for fun and money. It hap- pens, of course, but we’re not allowed to acknowledge it. 
  • As these comments suggest, Baise-moi is a film that uncompromisingly relates the violent woman’s experience to the spectator, even if this process involves exposing audiences to aspects of Nadine and Manu’s lives that they may not wish to confront. 
    • To know the violent woman in Baise-moi is to witness all parts of her experience: her hedonistic pleasures, her sexual victimisation and her brutality. 
Film 299 Post

F299: Research Update #11

Below are my notes for the Introduction and Chapter 1 of Violent Women in Contemporary Cinema by Janice Loreck.


  • Although a man’s violence might be represented as heroic or villainous, rarely is his capacity for physical aggression depicted as problematic in and of itself. When a woman commits an act of violence, her behaviour – indeed, her very existence – causes profound unease and questioning. 
  • The past century has seen a range of violent women appear on cinema screens, such as the femmes fatales of 1930s and 1940s film noir, the female freaks and monsters of 1950s horror films, the vigilante heroines of 1970s blaxploitation, and the beautiful warriors of late 1990s and early 2000s action cinema. Popular cinema of the past decade has showcased dozens of such character types. Athletic protagonists feature in Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014) and Haywire (Steven Soderbergh, 2011); violent girls appear in Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, 2010) and Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder, 2011); female avengers populate Kill Bill Vols 1 & 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003; 2004) and The Brave One (Neil Jordan, 2007); and psychotic murderesses star in Excision (Richard Bates, Jr, 2012) and Nurse 3D (Doug Aarniokoski, 2013). 
  • These texts indicate that the violent woman’s transgressive subjectivity is under negotiation within multiple milieus of film culture. 
  • they also initiate a discussion about female violence, an act that signals their consequence in the broader culture’s exploration of gendered identities. 
  • In History of Animals, Aristotle describes females as ‘more compassionate than man, more easily moved to tears . . . more shrinking, more difficult to rouse to action’. Although the origins of this concept are millennia old, the idea of female non-aggression continues to manifest in all manner of contemporary discourses (even those that are seen as ideologically opposed to one another). As Laura Sjoberg and Caron E. Gentry write, ‘A conservative interpretation [of gender] sees women as peaceful and apolitical, a liberal view understands women as a pacifying influence on politics, and feminists who study global politics often critique the masculine violence of interstate relations’     
  • At the same time, however, madwomen, female monsters and killers are ubiquitous in global narrative traditions in ways that suggest that women have an innate capacity for vindictive cruelty; that they are, so to speak, ‘more deadly than the male’. 
  • ‘Women’s violence falls outside of . . . ideal-typical understanding of what it means to be a woman’ because ‘women are not supposed to be violent’ (2007: 2) (original emphasis). Moreover, as observed by Hilary Neroni, the violent woman is a disruptive figure who overturns ‘the ideological structures (most especially those involving gender) that regulate our experiences’ (2005: x). Whether they are depicted as heroines, villainesses or morally ambiguous characters, women who harm other people are challenging, ‘difficult’ subjects who undermine some of the most entrenched gender norms of Western culture. 

Violent Women in Cinema

  • observe that ‘a rich and diverse literature’ surrounds women who commit acts of violence onscreen 
  • ‘film-as-cultural-symptom’ hypothesis – sees the violent woman as a product of changing cultural attitudes about gender. Researchers such as Frank Krutnik have linked the femmes fatales of the original film noir cycle to the upheavals in the workforce and family during the 1940s post-war period (1991: 63); Stephane Dunn and Yvonne D. Sims associate blaxploitation vigilantes with second- wave feminism and the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s (Dunn 2008: 126; Sims 2006: 26); Lisa Coulthard and Rebecca Stringer connect popular action heroines to the post-feminist and neoliberalist eras of the 1990s (Coulthard 2007: 154–5; Stringer 2011: 269). Such research conceptualises the violent woman as a textual manifestation of an anxiety, trauma or ambivalence about gender that is characteristic of a particular historical moment. 
  • The other most common critical means of assessing the violent woman in popular cinema has been to investigate her as a trope of a specific genre, such as horror, film noir, action, slasher film, rape- revenge or exploitation.  
  • more recent work by Sherrie A. Inness (2004) and Marc O’Day (2004) on the action cin- emas of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, Jacinda Read (2000) and Barbara Creed (1993) on the rape-revenge cycle, and Dunn (2008) and Sims (2006) on 1970s blaxploitation. In most cases, these studies’ primary goal is to give an account of how the violent woman integrates with the tropes, pleasures or functioning of a chosen genre. For instance, the work of O’Day, Inness and Dunn singles out narra- tive agency and display of corporeal utility as key traits of the violent woman in action and blaxploitation; such traits are essential to ensur- ing the forward momentum of these genres’ plots. Similarly, according to Creed’s analysis of horror cinema, the female monster complements the genre’s raison d’être: that is, she horrifies audiences with her abjec- tion (1993: 7). Another example is Mary Ann Doane’s analysis of the femme fatale, in which she states that the fatal woman’s deviousness integrates with the investigative, ‘hermeneutic drive’ of the hard-boiled noir film 
  • These scholars conceptualise women’s violence as indicative of a mode of existence that arises from living as a woman in a phallocentric, patriarchal society. Violence has a metaphoric function, gesturing towards the specificity of women’s experience in a culture that elides female subjectivity. 

Women’s violence and filmic taste-categories

  • A survey of the violent woman in cinema shows that she appears prolifically in ‘low’ cultural forms such as exploitation cinema 
  • all of the films considered in this book present the violent woman as a complicated individual, making her available for scrutiny and contemplation. 

The violent woman as an enigma

  • observe that female murderers are ‘othered’ as a means of dealing with the challenge they make to gender norms. 
  • contemporary cultural discourses ‘have fully othered the vio- lent woman’ by constructing them as biological or psychological oddi- ties: such women ‘are not women at all, but singular mistakes and freak accidents’ (2007: 13). In her examination of legal discourses, Morrissey argues that prosecutors do not allow for the possibility of female violence, instead characterising women who kill as victims of circumstance rather than possessing a capacity for aggression. For Morrissey, this reveals ‘the exclusionary operation of discursive identity formation’ which cannot conceive of women as anything other than passive victims of violence (2003: 3). In such conceptions, the notions of the ‘subject’ and the ‘Other’ that these scholars use refer to personhood as an effect of structure; that is to say, the subject (and by implication the violent woman) is not an essential being but is produced by the systems and actions of language known as discourse. Such systems and actions, for Sjoberg, Gentry and Morrissey, disallow female violence, framing it as an unnatural phenomenon. 
  • Such reports represent the violent woman as an inscrutable or shape-shifting figure who is defined by mystery and elusiveness. 
  • the paradigmatic expression of this in film culture is the figure of the duplicitous femme fatale, a female character who is unpredictable and ‘never what she appears to be’ 
  • Julie Grossman notes that the conceptualisation of the femme fatale as unknowable overlooks the oft-complex representations of women in the genre: ‘the opaque powerful woman persists in objectifying female experience,’ she writes, because ‘the “femme fatale” is a symbol of fears about absolute female power, not a representation of complex female experience . . . which is often present in connection with film noir’s women’ (2009: 5). In addition, violent men are also occasionally presented as enigmatic or Other. 
  • That said, the association between femininity and mystery is culturally pervasive to the point where it becomes a dominant framework or reference point for women’s violence. Indeed, while Grossman criticises the insistent figuring of the femme fatale as an enigma, the fact that this has been a historically prevalent way of thinking about women in film noir indicates that the enigma has a powerful cultural existence as a concept. 
  • A key issue at stake in films that depict the homicidal woman is therefore how they respond to her construction as ‘an epistemological trauma’ or mystery. The characterisation of the violent woman as a problem in need of resolution meshes with the expectation that art and ‘quality’ cinema will explore the intricacies of human personhood for the spectator’s pleasure. 
  • This book therefore examines how each film attempts to make women’s violent personhood intelligible or, at the very least, interrogate how her mystery has been formed. 

Violent women in contemporary cinema

  • As Neroni writes, present-day culture is marked by an inabil- ity ‘to comprehend the complexities of femininity as an identity that includes violence’ (2005: 161). I argue that the films examined in this book not only encourage the spectator to consciously engage with such complexities; they also present this engagement as a central viewing pleasure for the spectator. 

CHAPTER 1: Horror, Hysteria and Female Malaise: Antichrist

  • The depiction of a violent, psychologically disturbed woman in Antichrist recalls the diagnosis of hysteria, a pre- dominantly feminine disease of both the mind and body 
  • The term originates from the Greek ‘hystera’ meaning ‘uterus’, and one of the earliest accounts of a hysteria-like illness is found in Plato’s Timaeus, in which he describes the disorder as the consequence of a distressed, ‘unfruitful’ uterus that moves around the body, obstructing respiration (2014: 132). Antichrist similarly links the female protago- nist’s aggression to her reproductive capacity insofar as her symptoms arise after the death of her only child. 
  • violent woman’s cultural construction as an enigma. Filmic narratives frequently betray a specifically epistemological anxiety about the violent woman’s subjectivity, positioning her as a ‘problem’ that must be solved: by foregrounding the Woman’s debilitating grief and anxiety, Antichrist certainly constructs a scenario that positions her as a mysterious entity

A mutual misunderstanding

  • As she arches her body, her chest rises and falls rapidly, mimicking the ‘hysterical seizure’ or ‘grande hystérie’, a full-body episode that supposedly resembles both childbirth and orgasm 
  • Antichrist in fact engages in a critique of the subjectify- ing medical power that the Man wields over the Woman. Although the film rearticulates a ‘mad’ or ‘bad’ cultural narrative of female violence – a formulation that imagines women’s aggression as a product of either her intrinsic evil or insanity (Morrissey 2003: 33) – it is also highly concerned with problematising masculine authority.  
  • Confused and enraged, the Man strangles the Woman to death, thereby perma- nently eliminating the threat she poses to his life and his authority as an analyst. 
  • Antichrist uses the figure of the feminine hysteric to foreground the oppressiveness, and limits, of masculine knowledge (rather than, for example, femininity’s horror). 
  • In ending so violently and with few conclusions about the ‘true’ cause of the woman’s illness, Antichrist could be accused of ulti- mately representing the violent, hysterical woman as an unsolvable enigma – an unresolved conundrum with which to undermine mas- culine authority. 
  • stripped of their individuality, these women seem to symbolise a supernatural or possibly even malevolent force of femininity, just as the Woman claimed. However, the image of the Man standing mystified as the women swarm around him foregrounds his ignorance. Male mis- understanding, rather than the horror of femininity, is the point that concludes Antichrist. 

Horror, drama, and generic provocation

  • Antichrist also undertakes several formal manoeuvres that position violent femininity as an expressive tool for critiquing male power. 
  • this boils down to the film’s evasive uncertainty about whether to represent [the female protagonist] as a case of psychological trauma or an incarnation of mythic evil. 
  • After Nic falls to his death, the Woman’s deep depres- sion becomes a plot event that requires resolution; it is the puzzle that organises the narrative. The spectacle and narrative fact of her grief encourage spectators to scrutinise her symptoms for clues regarding the nature of her malaise and to participate in her diagnosis, casting the Woman in the role of hysteric and the onlooker as analyst. A series of intense physical spectacles in the early parts of Antichrist reinforce this positioning: the Woman suffers panic attacks, hyperventilates, and, in one scene, beats her head against the edge of a porcelain toilet bowl. The Woman – her emotions and her subjectivity – becomes the enigma that initiates the narrative and positions the viewers in a state of non- knowledge about the woman onscreen. Moreover, the dialogue in these scenes invokes the discourse of psychology as a basis for understanding her behaviour. The Man insists that the Woman’s grief is ‘not a disease’ but ‘a natural, healthy reaction’ and encourages her to explore her emotions. The Man is clearly overconfident in his approach; he super- ciliously brandishes his wife’s medication and insists that she return home from hospital. 
  • Rather than maintaining a characterisation of the Woman’s violence as having its aetiology solely in psychological distress, the plot events of Antichrist pose a second possibility: that her behaviour is attributable to her inherent and supernatural feminine evil. The mysterious events that occur midway through Antichrist enact a generic shift away from psychological realism towards a regime of verisimilitude more appropriate to horror cinema. 
  • In its transformation from a meditation on the effects of grief on a woman’s mental state to a fatal spousal conflict with supernatural overtones, Antichrist can be understood as a psychodramatic art film that becomes a horror film 
  • This shift sees the film dispense with a clear psychological rationale for the Woman’s hysteria and instead insinuate that her behaviour is attribut- able to intrinsic evil. The tacit suggestion that supernatural entities are implicated in her actions is consistent with the popular horror genre’s regimes of verisimilitude: witches, demons and evil entities surface repeatedly in horror films 
  • In its depiction of a disordered doctor-patient relationship, the film instead entertains an extremely provocative (and, for many, ideologically unacceptable) explanation for the Woman’s violence: namely, that it stems from her inherent feminine evil. This deliberate generic frustration amounts to a formal subversion of the spectator’s gaze; the film invites, and then denies, the spectator’s drive to reveal, uncover and unmask the woman. 
  • the plot particulars of Antichrist also characterise the drive for knowledge as an explicitly masculine mode of looking. In the context of the film, psychology is a male discourse that superciliously acts upon the Woman via her husband. By char- acterising femininity as mysterious and possibly even evil, Antichrist allows its female protagonist to evade the Man’s – and the spectator’s – subjectifying desire to account for her illness. 
  • Critiquing the spectator by invoking an extremely misogynistic (not to mention archaic) rationale for female violence is undoubtedly a problematic manoeuvre that con- tributed to the audience’s outrage after the film’s premiere at Cannes. 

The visible and the knowable

  • Since Laura Mulvey’s treatise on visual pleasure provided a foundational account of the way that cinema positions women in relation to the psychic needs of the masculine spectator, the role of vision in the production of female subjectivity has been of interest to feminist scholars. Yet such regimes can also be described as driven by pleasure in knowledge. 
  • Film representation must therefore establish a direct correlation between the observable and truth. 
  • Niche cinema forms place exclusionary requirements upon their audience, demand- ing high levels of cultural competency in order to foster a pleasure in interpretation or reading 
  • ‘the visible’ does indeed equal ‘the knowable’. The early scenes of the film establish two cinematographic styles that visually signify the Woman’s objective and subjective experience, thereby suggesting the possibility of interpreting the Woman’s malaise and providing a kind of pleasure in knowledge associated with art cinema modes of spectatorship.  
  • hand-held style to signify diegetic reality and high-speed footage to represent subjective reality, with the hand-held camera showing events occurring in real time and space and the high-speed camera depicting the Woman’s fantasies or imaginings 
  • the hand-held camera gives the spectator a powerful omniscience, allowing her or him to see the Woman’s private, anguished moments 
  • In contrast, the high-speed sequences represent events occurring in the characters’ imaginations. These images are steady, vividly colourised and extremely still. 
  • Both of these camera styles make the Woman available for the spectator’s scrutiny: the hand-held enables an unfettered access, whereas the visualisation sequences render the Woman’s psyche ‘observable’, thus empowering the spectator to inspect her mind as well as her body. Precisely because of their dreamlike, fantastical qual- ity, these images reaffirm vision’s positivist value. 

Examining the patient

  • figuration of female subjectivity through the representation of the face. Faces are a key point of feminist interest 
  • As Doane remarks, the face is figured as ‘the instance of subjectivity’ and ‘the mark of individuality’ 
  • faces are a focal point for the epistemophilic gaze – the face is ‘the most readable space of the body’, the most immediate signifier of emotion and unique identity, as well as a site that requires special interpretation on the part of the onlooker 
  • In keeping with Doane’s descriptions, the intense focus on the face in the early scenes of Antichrist elevates the Woman – particularly her emotions – to the status of a narrative enigma to be solved. 
  • The intense focus on the face in the early scenes of Antichrist is part of the film’s elevation of the Woman and her subjectivity to the status of a narrative enigma to be solved. Faces in close-up function as surfaces where emotion, character psychology and motivation manifest. 
  • If, as David Bordwell suggests, characters in art cinema search for the aetiologies of their emotions (1979: 58), spec- tators at the start of Antichrist are implicated in a process of connecting the expressions that manifest on the Woman’s face with her interior psychic state. Although the face is a surface, it has also been described as having a special profundity linked to the subject’s essential personhood; for instance, being described as ‘a mirror of the soul’ 
  • The visual representation of the Woman’s face in Antichrist sug- gests that it possesses a profundity of meaning – a subjectivity – avail- able only to those who can decipher it.  
  • (Veiling) This intensifies the hermeneutic drive of the gaze by aesthetically representing the face as a mystery. 
  • By becoming a surface that shows only the lack of an interior, the Woman’s face is unavailable to be read or scrutinised. Instead, the face becomes what I call a visage: an objectified likeness that indicates the terrifying absence of the soul rather than a hidden profundity. 
  • By morphing the face to represent the horrifying lack of an interior rather than a profound per- sonhood, the film inhibits the spectator’s ability to decode the Woman. 
  • all see a female heroine paradoxically evade patriarchal power precisely through her victimisation and, in some cases, violent death 

Spectacles of Violence

  • Popular and academic discourses often imply that film violence should have an identifiable meaning or utility; for instance, as a function of artistic expression or social comment  
  • On one hand, the film’s representation of violence recalls the real and continuing acts of misogyny perpetrated against women in the historical world. 
  • Antichrist largely withholds the means to make sense of the Woman’s violence as rooted in a psychological malaise or demonic monstrosity. The image of her self-mutilation may show, as Linda Badley suggests, that the Woman has ‘internalized’ misogynistic violence, or it may simply be misogy- nistic discourse articulated in visual form (2010: 149). Like the Woman herself, violence in Antichrist is an inscrutable symptom: a spectacle with ambivalent meaning. 


  • Antichrist frustrates the aggressive impulse to unmask the woman that appears in cultural narratives about women’s violence.    
  • the film refuses to fully explain the origins of the woman’s murderous behaviour, offering incomplete or risible explanations designed to pro- duce frustration in the onlooker 
  • Antichrist is therefore best described as a sympathetic retelling of the ‘woman as enigma’ narrative insofar as it characterises the Woman as a misunderstood figure rather than a threatening entity. Although she brutally injures the Man, the Woman is positioned at all times as a victim of her husband’s corrosive attentions, and she pays for his therapeutic failures with her life. This strategy notably departs from earlier representations of hysterical women in horror and thriller texts 
  • Certainly, the Woman of Antichrist meets the same deadly fate as these other violent women. Instead of straightforwardly portraying femininity as frightening and mysterious, however, Antichrist condemns male misunderstanding of femininity. 
  • While Antichrist is critical of masculine power, it is important to note that this does not necessarily entail it engaging in feminist film practice
  • some reviewers who comment on the film’s gender politics take the opposing view, arguing that Antichrist disseminates a misogynistic representation of the female protagonist under the guise of an artistic right to provocation 
  • When the Man asks his wife if she wants to kill him, she replies: ‘not yet.’ Her response indicates that, like the horror film villainesses that precede her, the Woman threatens the male protagonist’s survival and is thus ‘responsible’ for her fate.
Film 299 Post

F299: Research Update #10

Below are my notes for Afterthoughts on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” inspired by Duel in the Sun by Laura Mulvey.

  • First (the “women in the audience” issue), whether the female spectator is carried along, as it were by the scruff of the text, or whether her pleasure can be more deep-rooted and complex. 
    • it is always possible that the female spectator may find herself so out of key with the pleasure on offer, with its “masculinization,” that the spell of fascination is broken. 
    • On the other hand, she may not. 
    • She may find herself secretly, unconsciously almost, enjoying the freedom of action and control over the diegetic world that identification with a hero provides. 
    • It is this female spectator that I want to consider here. 
  • Second (the “melodrama” issue), how the text and its attendant identifica- tions are affected by a female character occupying the center of the narrative arena. 
    • Rather than discussing melodrama in general, I am concentrating on films in which a woman central protagonist is shown to be unable to achieve a stable sexual identity, torn between the deep blue sea of passive femininity and the devil of regressive masculinity
  • The emotions of those women accepting “masculinization” while watch- ing action movies with a male hero are illuminated by the emotions of a heroine of a melodrama whose resistance to a “correct” feminine position is the crucial issue at stake. 
    • Her oscillation, her inability to achieve stable sexual identity, is echoed by the woman spectator’s masculine “point of view.” 

The female spectator’s pleasure: Freud and Femininity

  • For Freud, femininity is complicated by the fact that it emerges out of a crucial period of parallel development between the sexes; a period he sees as mascu- line, or phallic, for both boys and girls 
    • “In females, too, the striving to be masculine is ego-syntonic at a certain period-namely in the phallic phase, before the development of femininity sets in. But it then succumbs to the momentous process of repression, as so often has been shown, that determines the fortunes of a woman’s femininity.”
    • On Femininity:
      • We have called the motive force of sexual life “the libido.” Sexual life is dominated by the polarity of masculine-feminine; 
      • There is only one libido, which serves both the masculine and the feminine functions. To it itself we cannot assign any sex; if, following the conventional equation of activity and masculinity, we are inclined to describe it as masculine, we must not forget that it also covers trends with a passive aim. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition “feminine libido” is without any justification. 
      • the accomplishment of the aim of biology has been entrusted to the aggressiveness of men and has been made to some extent independent of women’s consent. 
  • Freud introduces the use of the word masculine as “conventional,” apparently simply following an established social-linguistic practice 
  • secondly, and constituting a greater intellectual stumbling block, the feminine cannot be conceptualized as different, but rather only as opposition {passivity) in an antinomic sense, or as similarity {the phallic phase). 
    • This is not to suggest that a hidden, as yet undiscovered femininity exists but that its structural relationship to masculinity under patriarchy cannot be defined or determined within the terms offered. 
    • The correct road, femininity, leads to increasing repression of “the active” {the “phallic phase” in Freud’s terms). 
      • In this sense Hollywood genre films structured around masculine pleasure, offering an identification with the active point of view, allow a woman spectator to rediscover that lost aspect of her sexual identity, the never fully repressed bed-rock of feminine neurosis. 
  • On Narrative Grammar and trans-sex identification
    • In “Visual Pleasure” my argument was axed around a desire to identify a pleasure that was specific to cinema, that is the eroticism and cultural conventions surrounding the look. 
    • Now, on the contrary, I would rather emphasize the way that popular cinema inherited traditions of story-telling that are common to other forms of folk and mass culture, with attendant fascinations other than those of the look. 
    • Freud points out that “masculinity” is, at one stage, ego-syntonic for a woman.  
    • For a girl, on the other hand, the cultural and social overlap is more confusing. Freud’s argument that a young girl’s day-dreams concentrate on the erotic ignores his own position on her early masculinity and the active day-dreams necessarily associated with this phase. 
      • In fact, all too often, the erotic function of the woman is represented by the passive, the waiting {Andromeda again), acting above all as a formal closure to the narrative structure. 
    • Three elements can thus be drawn together: 
      • Freud’s concept of “masculinity” in women, 
      • the identification triggered by the logic of a narrative grammar, 
      • and the ego’s desire to phantasize itself in a cenain, active, manner. 
      • All three suggest that, as desire is given cultural materiality in a text, for women {from childhood onwards) trans-sex identification is a habit that very easily becomes second Nature. 
      • However, this Nature does not sit easily and shifts restlessly in its borrowed transvestite clot 
  • The heroine causes a generic shift
    • two functions emerge, one celebrating integration into society through marriage, the other celebrating resistance to social demands and responsibilities, above all those of marriage and the family, the sphere represented by woman 
    • the development of the story acquires a complication. The issue at stake is no longer how the villain will be defeated, but how the villain’s defeat will be inscribed into history, whether the upholder of law as a symbolic system (Ranse) will be seen to be victorious or the personfication of law in a more primitive mani- festation (Tom), closer to the good or the right 
  • On one side there is an encapsulation of power, and phallic attributes, in an individual who has to bow himself out of the way of history. On the other, an individual impotence rewarded by political and financial power, which, in the long run, in fact becomes history. 

Woman as signifier of sexuality

  • the symbolic equation, woman equals sexuality, still persists, but now rather than being an image or a narrative function, the equation opens out a narrative area previously suppressed or repressed. She is no longer the signifier of sexuality (function “marriage”) 
  • Now the female presence as center allows the story to be actually, overtly, about sexuality: it becomes a melodrama. It is as though the narrational lens had zoomed in and opened up the neat function “marriage” (“and they lived happily . . . “) to ask “what next?” and to focus on the figure of the princess, waiting in the wings for her one moment of importance, to ask “what does she want?” 
    • Here we find the generic terrain for melodrama, in its woman- oriented strand. The second question (“what does she want?”) takes on greater significance when the hero function is split 
  • the narrative drama dooms the phallic, regressive resistance to the symbolic. Lewt, Pearl’s masculine side, drops out of the social order. Pearl’s masculinity gives her the “wherewithal” to achieve heroism and kill the villain. 
    • The lovers shoot each other and die in each other’s arms. 
    • Perhaps, in Duel, the erotic relationship between Pearl and Lewt also exposes a dyadic interdependence between hero and villain in the primitive tale, now threatened by the splitting of the hero with the coming of the Law. 
  • Stella, as central character, is flanked on each side by a male personification of her instability, her inability to accept correct, married “femininity” on the one hand, or find a place in a macho world on the other.
  • The masculine identification, in its phallic aspect, reactivates for her a phantasy of “action” that correct femininity demands should be repressed. 
    • The phantasy “action” finds expression through a metaphor of masculinity. Both in the language used by Freud and in the male personifications of desire flanking the female protagonist in the melodrama, this metaphor acts as a straitjacket, becoming itself an indicator, a litmus paper, of the problem inevitably activated by any attempt to represent the feminine in patriarchal society. 
    • The memory of the “masculine” phase has its own romantic attraction, a last-ditch resistance, in which the power of masculinity can be used as postponement against the power of patriarchy. 
  • Her “tomboy” pleasures, her` sexuality, are not accepted by Lewt, except in death. So, too, is the female spectator’s phantasy of masculinization at cross-purposes with itself, restless in its transvestite clothes. 
Film 299 Post

F299: Research Update #2

Below are my notes in Laura Mulvey’s Essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. It is a compilation of my understanding of the major points of the essay, as well as its application in the image of the “violent female”.

Woman as bearer of meaning

  • Phallocentrism and all its manifestations depend on the image of the woman, particularly the castrated women, in order to make sense of its ideology.
    • Her desires and existence are encapsulated in her longing to transcend her castration. She has no other meaning apart from being the bearer of the bleeding wound.
    • She is nothing but a signifier of the male “other” in a patriarchal culture, where her role is to fulfill his desires, obsessions and fantasies.
  • In the patriarchal subconscious, the woman plays two main parts:
    • Her lack of a penis represents the threat of castration
    • Once she fulfills her function of bearing a child, she raises it into the symbolic by raising the child as a signifier of her desire to possess a penis.
  • Her purpose, once fulfilled, puts her meaning into an end. She is now meaningless and is left only as a memory in the world.
    • She is not a maker of meaning, but tied to her place in silence as only a bearer of it.
  • The dominant ideology dictates that any form of analysis or criticism of pleasure or beauty, destroys it.
    • A woman’s challenge is to fight the dominant ideology coursed through a structured language, while tied to the limitations of her reality under a world of patriarchy.
  • In terms of cinema,  historically, despite the strong ideological language in place, an alternative cinema was able to develop. However, it still adapted the formality of the dominant ideology.
    • A politically and aesthetically avant-garde cinema is now possible, but it can still only exist as a counterpoint.
    • With the mainstream cinema still unchallenged, it is continuously coding the language of the patriarchy.

Pleasure in Looking at the Human Form

  • Cinema provides a sense of scopophilia, meaning the love of looking, and pertaining to the predominantly male gaze encapsulated in mainstream film.
  • Looking generates pleasure as much as being looked at does. The former is stereotypically male’s, while the latter is a pleasure stereotypically assigned to females.
    • Too much looking, on the other hand, may lead to obsession and perversion, wherein sexual satisfaction can only be achieved through looking.
    • Cinema’s tendency for exhibitionism gives power to the lookers by enriching their experience of their voyeuristic fantasies through the projection of the objects of their repressed eroticism.
  • Mainstream film, above all, focuses on the human form through camera movements, space, scales, and stories.
    • There is a romantic affair between the image and self-image which found itself extremely expressed in the medium of film. This generates such overwhelming recognition from the audience.
  • In the pleasure of looking, there are some contradictory aspects:
    • First, scopophilia arises from pleasure in looking by using  another person as an object of sexual stimulation. This is a sexual instinctual function.
    • Second, innate narcissism and the ego results in identifying with what is being seen. This is an ego libido function.
    • Both aspects have to be incorporated into an ideology to gain meaning.

Woman as the image, Man as the bearer of look

  • What is essential and highlighted in a woman is her “to-be-looked-at-ness”. The male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female who is characterized and styled for maximum erotic and visual impact.
  • A woman’s presence is a staple in a typical narrative, but her character’s visuals tend to freeze the storyline in order to give focus to eroticism.
  • Budd Boetticher said: “What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.”
  • The woman functions both as an erotic subject for the male characters, and the male audience. The male gaze stikes her from within and outside the screen.
  • On the contrary, the male cannot bear the burden of being objectified. Thus, his role is to forward the story when the woman freezes the narrative with her visuals.
    • He commands the scene and generates all the action needed.
  • The woman’s presence cannot command the story because her imagery beyond sexual objectification is that of castration and, thus, unpleasure. Women exist mainly for sexual difference and objectification.
    • She is an icon displayed for the enjoyment of men. If this purpose is unfulfilled, she is just an image of pain and anxiety.
  • When the male is reminded of the castration anxiety by the woman, he escapes by:
    • Investigating and trying to demystify the woman, and devaluating and punishing her
    • He forces a change in her, in a battle of strength and sanity,  ultimately trying to defeat and destroy her
    • If unsuccessful, he substitutes her for another object of his fetish, or turns her into a fetish so that she becomes an object of lust, and not anxiety.
  • The woman knows that her role is to perform for the male to keep his interest. But in the process of performing for him, he attempts to break her down and expose her.

Further points:

  • Cinema has invoked scopophilic instinct in its audience, as well as the ego libido.
  • Women represent castration threats which are absorbed by voyeuristic tendencies and are fetishized so as to reduce anxiety.
  • Cinema builds how a woman should look because the focus is on her to-be-looked-at-ness
    • Cinema highlights this by controlling time through the narrative and the editing, as well as space.
    • “Cinematic codes create a gaze, a world, and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire.”
  • Cinema encapsulates three different looks: 
    • that of the point of view of the camera as it records 
    • that of the audience as it watches the film
    • that of the characters within the illusion of the screen
  • As soon as fetishist representation of the female image breaks the illusion of the screen, and the fully erotic image is exposed to the viewer, the woman is fetishized, frozen, and emphasized to keep the spectator from looking at, thinking of, any doing anything else other than wallow in her imagery.

Realizations: Relationship to the Violent Female

It was previously stated that when the male is reminded of the castration anxiety brought about by the woman, he escapes by, first, trying to demystify her. This happens during the typical treatment of films when it comes to violent women. Men are usually depicted at the peak of their curiosity, treating the female as if she were an experiment or a scientific subject. He tries to break down the “mystery” behind her violence. This way, the violence of the woman is not the focus, but rather, it is the male ego and his perseverance in examining the subject that is highlighted. 

If the man’s ego, strength, and knowledge end up being challenged or threatened by the violence of the woman, he tries to devalue and punish her. The film typically supports the devaluation of the violent female by showing her in very vulnerable positions. She is reduced to an animal being punished, rather than a troubled human being. The male punishes, mocks, and tortures her in an attempt to change and, eventually, demystify her. If he fails to do so, he makes it his mission to destroy her. This is why most violent women in films end up dying a cruel fate. It is the female who conforms to societal stereotypes who end up surviving in the story. 

Lastly, if the man cannot destroy her, in a desperate attempt for his ego to prevail, he ends up fetishizing her. The film usually romanticizes this by making the male fall in love with the violence of the female, or embracing her nature and even sharing in her pursuits. This way, violent or not, the female is back to playing the role she was meant to play — the object of his lust and fantasies. She could not and will not be able to escape because, at the end of the day, it will always be about the male ego, the dominant ideology, and the eyes within and in front of the screen, which she is made to serve.

Possible topics for further discussion:

  • The language, practice, evolution, and analysis of the scopophilic instinct and ego libido towards the female object in Philippine Cinema 
  • The ideology of the patriarchal order in Philippine Cinema
  • Evolution of a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness in Philippine Cinema, or in certain auteur’s works — this will be technical and will look into film form and elements, as well as psychology.


  • Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. ScreenVolume 16(3), 6-18.
Film 270 Post

Week 12: A Time to Talk

In 1997, the famous Ms. Universe pageant asked, then candidate, Sushmita Sen a question that would trigger discussion all over the world. She was asked, “What is the essence of a woman?” To this, she replied,

“Just being a woman is God’s gift. The origin of a child is a mother, a woman. She shows a man what sharing, caring, and loving is all about. That is the essence of a woman.”

(Sen, 1997)

Although her answer highlighted the caring and nurturing qualities of a woman, it also put a spotlight on motherhood. And, while the whole world was discussing what should be the answer to this question, most were agreeing that to be able to give birth or to mother a child is the essence of being a woman. This, in itself, is troublesome because it puts aside women who are unable to produce children because of medical reasons. It also disregards women who choose not to have children, or could not adopt, or could not afford surrogacy, and so much more. Pinpointing the essence of a woman to just her ability to reproduce is locking her purpose into a society-given task which, if she fails to do it, would decrease or even eliminate her value as a person. Sen’s answer, as heartfelt as it is, highlighted “sharing, caring, and loving” as women’s traits, despite the fact that these qualities should be present in all types of people. As a matter of fact, in any way one looks at the question, there could never be a correct answer because the question, itself, is what is problematic. To look for the essence of a particular person is to basically ask what differentiates her/him from anyone else. It’s a question of identity, and it’s troublesome because it cages and reduces that person into a certain trait or quality. It is a question that does not seek to explain, but rather seeks to impose a definition, as a means of exerting power. The fact that this question was asked to a woman, in the most prestigious pageant in the world where she is supposed to reign, just shows how the world belittles a woman’s glory and tries in any way possible to take her away from her rightful pedestal. I, for one, would argue that the essence of a person lies in their sense of identity and the strength and determination that goes with assuming this identity. But with a world so obsessed with defining someone’s identity, this “identity” becomes a task, an element to be proven and questioned, rather than what one ought to live by. For people to live out their respective identities, they must face the challenge of getting out of society’s definition of them. This is exactly the unnecessary challenge imposed on members of the community, most particularly on the LGBTQ+ community.

With the rise of the LGBTQ+ empowerment, the world is determined to better understand their identity, but in the process of doing so, we are once again falling into the pithole of putting stereotypes. These stereotypes, not only serve as limiting entities, but rather they instill certain impressions on these groups of people in order to generate further hatred and avoidance geared towards that which they do not understand. It is only common, after all, to fear what one does not understand. 

“It is the ideological function of the lesbian body to warn the ‘normal’ woman about the dangers of undoing or rejecting her own bodily socialization. This is why the culture points with most hypocritical concern at the mannish lesbian, the butch lesbian, while deliberately ignoring the femme lesbian, the woman whose body in no way presents itself to the straight world as different and deviant.”

(Creed, p. 101, 1995)

The lesbian community, for example, have been stereotyped for being the “tomboy” persona, a woman who typically dressed and acted like a man out of her desire to be a man. This stereotype puts the “essence” of the community in the way they dress and behave. This also completely sets aside lesbians who are society’s definition of “feminine” in action and appearance. In the context of film, along with the butch lesbian is typically the comedic gay character, who acts “feminine” and dresses in women’s clothing. They are also typically shown in beauty parlors, as well as comedy bars. Do not get me wrong, some of these stereotypes are truthful. There are such people as butch lesbians and comedic gays in parlors, but there is an outrage for such representation in the media because it limits people’s image of them to just those. Such images are what people get used to, and when they end up being shown something else, they react negatively and shocked because, to them, what they are seeing is not anymore Queer Cinema, but misrepresented people who are “bad” examples. The danger is in idealizing a kind of queer because it marginalizes and, therefore oppresses, everyone else outside that limited definition.

 “…the politics of representation is still the method of choice in the popular gay press, where it has devolved into movie-star interviews that let us know which actors are out of the closet, and brief film reviews that help us to locate “positive” or “liberating” images of gay people.”

(Hanson, p.6, 1999)

The world is so curious and invested in people coming out of the closet. Whenever a celebrity does it, it’s always all over the news. A person’s sexuality is always a big deal to the point that people are bombarded with questions the minute there is a speculation about their sexuality. Someone’s sexuality is none of anybody’s business, whether the person chooses to hide it or not. It should be celebrated but it is not for another person to pry on. The dream is to live in a society where people don’t have to come out anymore because being queer is normal. Technically speaking, “coming out” is at the service of the heterosexual, as much as it is a celebration of the identity of the person coming out. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where sexuality is a huge part of gossip culture because to be queer is to be “unnatural”.

“We have been compelled in our bodies and in our minds to correspond, feature by feature, with the idea of nature that has been established for us. Distorted to such an extent that our deformed body is what they call “natural,” what is supposed to exist as such before oppression. Distorted to such an extent that in the end oppression seems to be a consequence of this “nature” within ourselves (a nature which is only an idea).”

(Wittig, p.9, 1992)

By this definition of Wittig, during oppression, that is, in the state of queerness, one exists as an “unnatural”. She furthers by saying that “One is not born, but becomes a woman” (Wittig, p.10, 1992). I definitely agree that it is nurture and culture which forms the identity, and not biological factors. However, the use of the word “unnatural” is problematic for the masses. To say that being a lesbian, for example, is “unnatural” because women are formed and are not born by “nature” just makes it easy for society to tweak this and put on a negative connotation to being queer. We are arguing that gender due to nature does not exist and it is extremely ironic that nature, particularly biology, is also the primary argument for the discrimination of the queer community. People who take pride in discriminating genders would just argue that being “unnatural” connotes a problem, psychological perhaps. The challenge in this case is, therefore, how to translate the cultural contribution to one’s identity in a way that could be understood well by the masses and not be an added factor to further discrimination.

“To refuse to be a woman, however, does not mean that one has to become a man…For a lesbian this goes further than the refusal of the role “woman.” It is the refusal of the economic, ideological, and political power of a man.”

(Wittig, p.13, 1992)

This beautifully put quote from Wittig further emphasizes that things are not just black and white. It was never about being just either a female or a male. There is a wider spectrum between the male and the female that people have to understand. And the breaking of these black and white definitions goes beyond furthering into the borders of masculinity and femininity. It also involves the refusal of an ideology and an economic and political assertion of power. To deny the dualist stereotype is to deny power to a system that placed dualism as a dominant structure in the first place. This is why the call for a progressive representation, not just in media, is important because it goes beyond dualism and tries its hardest to explore and understand the marginalized communities. But what is, in fact, a progressive representation?

“Instead of psychological complexity, we find predictable types and cardboard role- models. Instead of intellectual depth, we find a political slogan disguised as a narrative. Instead of aesthetic ingenuity, we find a stilted form of social realism. Instead of “accurate” or “positive” images of the gay community, we find an anodyne fantasy of the gay community.”

(Hanson, p.8, 1999)

“I was troubled by a pronounced audience tendency: the desire for something predictable and familiar up there on screen.”

(Rich, xxii, 2013)

As previously mentioned, it is very likely for society to keep falling into the trap of stereotypes, especially because queerness is attached to capitalism because it is linked to what is marketable and what the audience will like. We cannot change the tendency that the audience will want to look for a familiar stereotype or something that they are used to. However, we can try to change that which they are used to. 

“Instead of being politically correct about what we see, we are asked to be politically correct about how we desire.”

(Hanson, p.13, 1999)

We need to examine our own desires as much as we need to examine what is being desired. It is important to call out misrepresentations, but it is equally as important to look into our own tendencies and, therefore, our own standards because, more often than not, these standards are highly influenced by the power in play in the society. A progressive representation is that which is inclusive, therefore, our standards have to be inclusive, as well. All representation matters because, the moment you put people in a box, you oppress them. Queer people, just like any other character in a film, have to be able to be everything, from heroes to villains. Their representation should not be limited only to what is “politically correct” because this is, yet, another definition that may be limiting. When there are limitations, chances are, you remove their possibilities. 

In order to promote inclusivity in forming queer characters in cinema, there has to be enough discourse. Another danger to this is the bias against emotional discourse. Wittig describes it as “the one which says: you do not have the right to speech because your discourse is not scientific and not theoretical“ (Wittig, p.26, 1992). It is, in essence, a wrongfully put assumption that you do not know what you are talking about because of your biological limitations characterized by your emotions. For example, people feel strongly about their sexuality as being queer, but this identity is invalidated by society because they assume that it is based on emotion and not scientific facts. The society nowadays, being in an age of exploration and new discovery is, fortunately, more open to discourse. However, in this discourse, a common mistake is to engage in conversation for the mere purpose of generating yet another definition. Society should stop trying to define. It seeks to get a glimpse of queerness, for example, just so it could be put on a canvas. It’s effort to understand is equated with the effort to produce something marketable and definable. This way, cinema is not progressive in its totality, but performative because, more than trying to market queer, it is also still sanitizing it to fit a certain definition. Current cinema, in this sense, is still a barrier to progressive representation.

Lastly, just as with the argument that nothing is ever natural and that culture prevails, we have internalized everything, including homophobia and biased judgment towards the queer community. We were not born politically correct and incorrect. Rather, it is us who decided which aspects of culture we will allow ourselves to be instilled with. This is why discourse is extremely important. We need to keep talking about these things because they matter in as far as people are actually being oppressed. The moment we stop talking about something, it ceases to matter. So we need to keep discussing progressive representation, especially in the media, which is highly influential. And in doing so, we need to ask the right questions, and not keep questioning the essence of things, seeking to define a scope which is immeasurable in the first place because, at the end of the day, the essence of a person is not what matters, but rather her/his freedom to assume fully the person that s/he is born to be.


  • Creed, B. (1995). Lesbian Bodies: Tribades, Tomboys and Tarts (1st ed.). London: Routledge.
  • Hanson, E. (1999). Introduction. In E. Hanson, Out Takes. Duke University Press.
  • Rich, B. (2013). Introduction. In B. Rich, New Queer Cinema. Duke University Press.
  • Wittig, M. (1992). One is not born a woman, The Straight Mind. In M. Wittig, The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Beacon Press.
Film 270 Post

Week 9: A Question of Possession

Let’s get a bit personal. When I was a child, I was introduced into the world of fairytales through the very first Disney princess film that I watched, Cinderella. Young as I was, I automatically fell in love with the idea of having a fairy godmother, wearing pretty dresses, singing with animals and, of course, falling in love with a prince and living happily ever after with him sweeping me off of my feet and into the castle of my dreams. However, as I grew up, my fondness in reading and watching has introduced me to many more versions of Cinderella such as Ella Enchanted and Ever After, which tackled her story in different ways, but with both refusing to portray her as a damsel-in-distress, but a rather independent and strong character. Of course, in my fascination, I eventually ended up discovering some other versions which are very grim and involved sisters cutting off their heels and getting their eyes pecked by birds. Still, I read and read and was fascinated by the different portrayals and versions of the same character throughout different times and cultures. The same is true with my relationship with music. Being a musician, myself, I have always been fond of listening to modern takes of old classic hits. It’s always refreshing to hear an artist cover a song because each take is reflective of different emotions and contexts, making each listening experience unique and new.

As evident with what I have shared so far, I have always been more inclined to focusing on the content rather than who made it. I was always the person in the group who knew the song but not the singer. This tendency of mine made it difficult for me to adjust in my years in secondary school, as well as in college, because higher education demanded a certain fixation on authorship. In every literary lesson, there always had to be prior research and discussion on the author before we proceed to talk about the work. Everything was talked about—from the author’s childhood, career, issues, difficulties, advocacies, down to gossip. And all these were somehow incorporated into the discussion of the work as an effort to “contextualize” it. This led me to my understanding that the need to always look for and get to know the author was a staple item in the process of the analysis of art. With this, I have identified four main reasons as to why there is such a need in the first place.

First, and probably the most relevant reason nowadays, is the demand for accountability. We live in a fortunate time where change is being proactively pushed for. To state an example in the context of cinema, early films have always been about strong masculine characters saving damsels-in-distress. Female characters have always been subjected to the male gaze, and their primary purpose in a film is to supply the sexual visual needs of the dominantly male audience. Back then, white actors painting their faces black to portray African or Asian characters was totally acceptable. Stereotyping was the norm, racist and sexist jokes were also funny to the audience, and LGBTQ+ characters were always comedic side roles. Fortunately, the succeeding generations have grown to realize that these portrayals are not accurate, and neither are they okay. “Clearly, the cinema “reproduces” reality” (Comolli & Narboni, p. 755, 1971), and these portrayals unrealistically fail to capture the totality of the human beings they have been trying to show. Instead, they created their own version of reality that was watched by all and, thereby, influenced the actual reality to be shaped accordingly. And now, humanity has been shaken enough to understand how they have been played by what was shown to them all along. This led to anger, frustration and, eventually, the demand for change. 

The primary steps taken in this demand was to call out the continued misrepresentations and, in contrast, to acknowledge those who are doing things rightfully. In the process of calling out, it is understandable that there is a need to identify who is responsible for such work of art. This eventually puts emphasis on the determination of who is accountable for this wrongdoing so that the public could criticize and, somehow, crucify the author. Although some call outs are necessary because this is how the generation of artists will learn from their mistakes, still, there are some call outs that are unnecessary and were only triggered by the “cancel culture”. Nevertheless, such are reflections of a society outraged by the tremendous errors of the past. On a positive note, the same society also looks for the author of a “rightful” piece and glorifies her/him for getting things right. The author is amplified as much as her/his work so that s/he may serve as an example to aspiring and current artists about what the current generation demands for in terms of content. Such process is, indeed, a product of the evolution of society and, with it, the evolution of art.

The second reason for the need to identify a sole author of an artwork is the innate human desire to interpret art. I would like to quote a statement by Susan Sonntag that absolutely agree with,

“Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.”

(Sonntag, p.4, 1966)

It is very human for us to look for the meaning behind things which we do not understand. Art can be a surreal experience, unique and different to each who views it. Despite the fact that some art aims to mimic reality, realities of the artist still differ from the realities of the viewer. This tension behind realities creates confusion and possible misinterpretation of the work. Naturally, we are scared of what we don’t understand, so we seek comfort in one who can explain things. In the case of art, this pertains to its maker—the author.

“The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author “confiding” in us.”

(Barthes, p.313, 1967)

People demand for the explanation when they are aware of the existence of the person who they can demand it from. By pinpointing who is accountable for a work, they seek the affirmation of their interpretations because having a realm of endless possibilities to a story is more frightening than taking a single explanation as it is and moving on. People crave for the gossip, the facts, the ultimate “truth” of the art, and they do not hesitate in identifying the author, cornering her/him, and imposing that it is her/his responsibility to explain the art which s/he enabled them to consume. This desire to interpret ultimately leads to the third reason for seeking the author, which is the people’s urge to criticize.

“When the Author has been found, the text is “explained” — victory to the critic. Hence there is no surprise in the fact that, historically, the reign of the Author has also been that of the Critic. In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered.”

(Barthes, p.316, 1967)

Back then, when criticism was largely equated to interpretation, the goal was to derive meaning from the work, and the easiest way to do so was to let the artist explain. The reason behind this was most likely because of the urge to verify first the meaning of a work before saying something about it. It was ultimately playing safe to avoid errors in judgment and to form a more concrete opinion based on the established meaning of the work, rather than one’s own interpretation, which is deemed unreliable as compared to the artist’s claim. Once one true interpretation has been established, another objective might be to find loopholes.

“Once we realize that it is the nature of the system to turn the cinema into an instrument of ideology, we can see that the filmmaker’s first task is to show up the cinema’s so-called “depiction of reality”…Certainly there is such a thing as public demand, but “what the public wants” means “what the dominant ideology wants.””

(Comolli & Narboni, p. 755, 1971)

As a capitalist product, cinema, both consciously and unconsciously, complies to the system it adheres to. In line with criticism is the objective to inspect whether or not the work of art complies (or complies enough) to the standards revolving around the ideology it is bound to. The critic will, not only try to find loopholes in the work’s adherence, but also question the sufficiency of its conformity. The critics are also tasked to determine how the author makes use of the ideology in the work, whether or not s/he tries to oppose or agree with it, and whether the art is a criticism of this ideology or a complete product of it. 

“Every film is political, inasmuch as it is determined by the ideology which produces it.”

(Comolli & Narboni, p. 754, 1971)

“In this sense, the function of an author is to characterize the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses within a society.”

(Foucault, p.305, 1969)

Another task of the critic, once provided with the definition and meaning of the art by the author, herself/himself, is to determine the politics of the work. In its purpose of disentangling the work, rather than deciphering it, the critic determines where the art stands in terms of its politics. Whether or not it goes for or against the system, there will always be criticism depending on the standards of those in power. Ultimately, the author will be held accountable for the work’s standpoint in matters that it does not necessarily address, but is obliged to address as per the dominant ideology. 

The final reason for the need to identify a sole author of an artwork is the desire to humanize the work. When a work of art is associated with a singular name, its transcendence is reduced to a humanized entity, thereby making it more accessible to those who wish to grasp it. The artwork, in its full form, is beyond human understanding. When it is (a) accounted for, (b) interpreted, (c) criticized, and thereby (d) humanized, it is reduced to something tangible and ultimately to what it really is—a capitalist product. When the viewers are finally able to take a hold of art, they eventually are inclined to possess it and, finally, co-author it.

“We know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”

(Barthes, p.316, 1967)

In society’s quest to dwell on the author, I would like to state that it is impossible for a work to have one singular author. There is no such thing. Each person holding a pen, a brush, or a camera has realities which are products of the works that precedes them, as well as the evolution of the society they live in. There are multiple influences in one mind and, therefore, many voices in one text. To give credit to only one voice is to disregard the history of the others. The experience of art is unique to each individual, based on their own personal realities. As a reader, for example, reads a text, s/he reads it and reflects on it based on her/his reality. Therefore, the meaning of the text diverts away possibly from what the “author” originally intended. As the reader unintentionally personalized the text, s/he becomes co-author of the work because, by this time, the work is already her/his own. Art, then, becomes possessed by s/he who digests it, reflects on it, and embodies it. It is rare for art to be taken as it is. Even so, it is still contextualized according to the realities of the readers-turned-co-authors. Ultimately, consumers of art are co-authors because they take the art and make it their own. During this process, the initial “author figure” is aware that s/he must let go of the work because it is not her/his anymore. Art is and has always belonged to everyone. The sooner we realize this, the more likely we can finally focus on giving due appreciation to the power and transcendence that every work of art rightfully deserves.


Barthes, R. (1967). The Death of the Author. Aspen, 313-316.

Comolli, J., & Narboni, P. (1971). Cinema/ldeology/Criticism.Screen121(1), 752-759.

Foucault, M. (1969). What is an Author?. Lecture, Collège de France.