Images from Self-Health

The opening shots of Self-Health locate women’s collective identity in the details of their anatomical identity.

The use of close-ups strategically draws our attention to a newly defined corporeal landscape.

Eye-level camera angles situate the viewer within the world of the self-health session; the film invites you to be a participant rather than a voyeur.

One of the session leaders invites the participating women to observe her cervix.

Long shots from a high angle capture groups of women as they collectively explore their bodies.

A close-up of her cervix is also an eye-line match to the women’s collective gaze. In this way, we see what they see.

In the bi-manual exam session, the volunteer, Christy, is consistently framed in medium and close-up shots that include her face.

The film thus balances its emphasis between her experience of the bi-manual exam and the reactions of the other women who learn to perform the exam on her. She is decidedly not merely the object of the lesson, but rather its central subject.

This close-up of a plastic speculum importantly also includes a woman’s face in the background. The professional instrument is thus reclaimed by its object of analysis whose own hands now determine its purpose.



Self-Health, experience and sameness

Despite an espoused insistence on concentrating on the most oppressed, however, the feminist fantasy of solidarity that consciousness-raising was meant to catalyze often lent itself to repressing difference. A powerful fantasy throughout seventies movement rhetoric, literature and film, consciousness-raising became equally problematic for the movement and for theory. According to Carla Kaplan, consciousness-raising was a project of significant albeit unrealized potential:

“[U]ltimately, it was neither challenging nor as provocative as it might have been. Consciousness-raising often failed to reach a truly heterogeneous group of women or even to appreciate the heterogeneity of its own potential practitioners. Many women left consciousness-raising groups disappointed at not being heard and fed up with the subtle pressures to conform to particular viewpoints or to avoid taboo subjects, especially about race and class, about feelings of hostility toward other women and feelings of desire for them.” (155)

Kaplan spells out the intrinsic problems that were built into consciousness-raising’s concept, practice, and theory. Based on similarity, consciousness-raising suppressed the significance of difference. Based on sisterhood, it made claims about womanhood that were soon critiqued as essentialist and exclusionary. Although the slogan for radical feminism insisted that “we are one, we are woman” (Echols 203), the fact was that this rhetoric of sisterhood, as soon as it was uttered, came under assault in the movement from working-class women, lesbians, and women of color.

The way that a pioneering film like Self-Health, for example, screens consciousness-raising into the fabric of a radical film about women reclaiming their bodies from the male-dominated medical-industrial complex locates sameness in the bodies of women who are all white. In Self-Health, by filmmakers Catherine Allan, Judy Irola, Allie Light, and Joan Musante, produced with the San Francisco Women’s Health Center, viewers take part in three group sessions for women. In the first, women are guided through a pelvic self-examination; in the second, women learn how to perform breast self-exams; and in the third women learn to perform bi-manual exams on other women. The women participants are gathered in the intimate spaces of the domestic sphere. In the manner of consciousness-raising sessions, the women form a circle with their bodies, which are casually propped against pillows on the floor. The camera replicates the egalitarian ethics of the consciousness-raising session by granting equivalent screen time to each participant, following the individuals around the circle as they engage in a discussion about their experiences with medical professionals and coming to terms with masturbation, menstruation, and sexuality.

Self-Health opens with a manifesto. Over soft, precise close-ups of the most general anatomical details of female intimacy—nipples, lips, arm pits, and pubic hair—a voice calls forth a new feminist subject: a subject defined by a dialectical relation between the individual and the collective; the female body mediates the exchange. In voice-off, a woman declares,

“We’re learning from our own bodies; teaching ourselves and each other how each of us is unique and the same, and what we need in order to be healthy.”

According to the visuals, what women share exists in the details of their bodies. By reclaiming this “lost territory, which traditionally belonged to our doctors, our husbands, to everyone but us,” the film suggests that women can lay claim to a veritable sisterhood. As the title appears during a long take that begins at a woman’s face and ends on her pubic mound, mapping “the lost territory” at stake, the voice-off proclaims, “and now it’s time to get it back.” By framing the women who speak in eye-level medium shots, the camera situates the spectator within the circle of women. The seamless editing between shots of women speaking replicates motions that might be natural for a person sitting among the women in the circle. Intimately situated within the most private kind of conversation, the spectator is not at all a voyeur, slyly perceiving but unperceived. Rather, the spectator becomes a participant of the group session. Self-Health thus reconfigures the cinematic representation of women’s bodies, recuperating them from the medical as well as the cinematic gaze and claiming them for women and for a presumably female audience.[11] [open endnotes in new window]

Once the film pursues the documentation of the three main workshops, the camera techniques focus on synching image to sound. The result is a film that evidences a commitment to message and content: women have historically been alienated from their own bodies by a male-dominated medical establishment; the film is one attempt to regain connections and territory. Provided with speculums, mirrors, and flashlights, women need first of all to assume a responsibility for knowing their own bodies—for recognizing the shape, feel, and characteristics of their cervixes, uteruses, and breasts. By extension women will have gained a power to control their health, reproduction, and holistic sense of self where the outside is coterminous with the inside of the body.

The film’s aesthetics focus on a linear trajectory, which begins with alienation and the sense that women individually experience this estrangement from the medical establishment. Then, through sharing their experiences, women realize that alienation is rather a collective experience. In voice-off, which accompanies a long-shot of three women lounging on a sheet examining their cervixes, a woman explains:

“A lot of us have felt the same fears and doubts and we always felt that we experienced them as individuals. And when we’re in a group we realize that many of us have felt the same things; there are fears and doubts that we share together and that we can explore together.”

Visually, the women in the film literally shed their outer layers as they collectively investigate their own and each other’s bodies. The journey takes these women to the interior of their bodies, where their commonality is revealed and then, literally, felt. In a third workshop, the facilitator guides the participant women through the mechanics of a bi-manual pelvic exam. Equal screen time is granted to the woman performing the exam and the woman, Christy, who is being examined. Christy is encouraged to feel for her uterus before the other women in the room are invited to experiment. Throughout the room, where women stand observing and participating in the lesson, comments of surprise abound: “It’s so small!”; “It’s amazing!” The intimacy—and intimate touching—among the women creates the possibility for connection, and ultimately action. Because the filmic techniques stress intimacy and egalitarianism with eye-level shots and medium shots that generally include a woman’s face with her genitals, the viewer metonymically takes part in the shared experience generated on screen. The key to the film lies in the strategies of identification—with the camera and with the women on screen: cervix to cervix, as it were. Interpreting Self-Health’s so-called naïve realism in terms of consciousness-raising we get closer not necessarily to the truth of the movement or of the film itself but rather to the truth of the interrelated fantasies of both the movement and the film. We can also see how the films develop alternative ways of thinking about identification. Whereas The Woman’s Film and Janie’s Janie (1971) illustrate a commitment to maintain a disjuncture between identification and identity, Self-Health slides into the discursive space where identification and identity become one.

Before film theorists in the 1970s linked identification to a mode by which dominant ideology infiltrated narrative cinema, Frantz Fanon used the term to describe post-colonial subjects’ culturally-situated viewing experiences. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon gives the following example in a footnote:

“Attend showings of a Tarzan film in the Antilles and in Europe. In the Antilles, the young negro identifies himself de facto with Tarzan against the Negroes. This is much more difficult for him in a European theatre, for the rest of the audience, which is white, automatically identifies him with the savages on the screen.” (Fanon 152-53) 

Fanon’s point is that cultural context defines the processes of identification for the post-colonial subject. Thus in Fanon’s conception, identification resists stasis and fixity; rather as a psychic process of recognition, identification depends critically on context. Fanon’s insistence on recognition not only with the characters on screen but via the other spectators in the room sheds light on the radical feminist understanding of the role of identification in the process of consciousness-raising. For radical feminists, recognition with other women happened not only as a result of the content of the shared narratives of experience, but within the community of listeners. To identify with women in a consciousness-raising session meant to collectively imagine a political subjectivity for the future, not necessarily to feel confident about the fixed identity of the present. In this way, identification served a forward-reaching goal rather than sedimenting a prior or fully constituted subjectivity.   

The disjunction between a feminist understanding of identification and the concept as it circulated in psychoanalytically-determined feminist film theory should come as no surprise. As Stuart Hall remarks,

“Identification turns out to be one of the least well-understood concepts … It is drawing meanings from both the discursive and the psychoanalytic repertoire, without being limited to either” (2).

In my reading, feminists saw identification through the process of consciousness-raising as the means of calling into being a new feminist subject in solidarity. This is not to say that the effort would ever be either successful or complete. Hall maintains that the fictions motivated by the efforts of belonging—in this case, the fantasy of sisterhood imagined in the process of consciousness-raising—are effectively constitutive of identities despite the “fictional nature of this process” (4). Feminist documentaries such Self-Health and The Woman’s Film, by both performing and constructing consciousness-raising for and among feminist viewers, contributed to the constitution of an idealized and fantasized feminist solidarity. And yet, it is important to reiterate here that they demonstrate varied and telling understandings of the relationship between identification and identity. 

In seventies continental film theory, identification signaled the adverse practices of dominant cinema, which disarmed spectator-subjects of their analytical faculties and lulled them into passive receptacles for the ideology projected from the normative narratives on screen. At best, the film-as-text might evidence enunciative fissures in its ideological cohesion, creating exploitable crises for a resistant spectator. In contrast, for many feminist documentary filmmakers of the early 1970s the notion of identification implied a material, counter-hegemonic practice if it also supported a notion of subjectivity that assumed each subject contained within an authentic core that could be grasped and altered in full. Imbued with utopian potentiality, identification was assumed to be capable of generating a sisterhood among a viable group, “women,” previously distracted from their gender solidarity by the supposedly false divisions that kept them isolated from each other: domestic heterosexuality, class, race.

As I've argued, the fantasy of sisterhood, given flesh in the practices of the real, manifests itself in Self-Health as a function of identification as identity. Another way to say this would be to point out that Self-Health problematically mobilizes an “essentialist” visual and rhetorical construction of the category of women.

As Nöel Sturgeon lays out this contradiction in Ecofeminist Natures, feminist activism and feminist theory are often divided along the lines of essentialism. Feminist activism is usually implicated in problematic structures of essentialism while feminist theory is credited with a more enlightened anti-essentialism. Sturgeon writes,

“the political implications of essentialist constructs of women or of race are some of the central problems of contemporary feminist theory” (6).

Sturgeon’s work on ecofeminism complicates what she sees as a “stalemate” between tropes of essentialism and anti-essentialism within contemporary feminism by paying close attention to movement politics and working in two directions: theorizing activist practice and seeing theory in that practice (11). It is helpful here to keep in mind the specificity and context within which Sturgeon analyses both the critique of essentialism and the mobilization of the category of women for feminist activism. As my analysis of The Woman’s Film bears out, movement-based calls for gender solidarity need not necessarily elide and suppress race and class differences. However, Self-Health exemplifies the ways that the fantasy of feminist sisterhood and the structures of identification mobilized by the rhetoric, practice, and visual representation of consciousness-raising could easily support the marginalization of difference, particularly when the notion of woman at stake is located in the anatomical similarities of the female body.[12] By constructing sameness through anatomy, and constituting identification through identity, Self-Health indeed provides evidence for the anti-essentialist critique of feminism.[13]

To reconsider feminist films of the 1970s with feminist hindsight is a task that mobilizes a host of aesthetic, political, and affective debates about the now-mythical “Seventies” as well as our contemporary moment. While I clearly desire to recuperate many of these films and make claims about their contemporary relevance, I hesitate to make a case based on terms as over-generalized as “the women’s liberation movement,” “realism,” “activism,” or even, “consciousness raising.” For, if the seventies are critiqued variously as essentialist albeit politicized, committed albeit naïve, and embedded in movement politics that were nonetheless misguided, I believe the contemporary critic’s task must be to insist on particularization rather than continued overgeneralization. Each film tells its own stories – stories about its political commitments, political fantasies, ideological revolutions and indeed, ideological shortcomings. In my discussions of The Woman’s Film and Self-Health, I have argued that as a critical point of reference, the rhetoric of consciousness-raising draws us into both the fantasies and the very real limitations of some feminist calls for female solidarity. Rather than insist upon the “real” versus the “contingent,” my appeal to recognize seventies feminist rhetoric as aspirational rather than evidentiary seeks to resist idealizing, romanticizing, or homogenizing both feminist cultural and theoretical production and the fragmented coalition movement politics from which they emerged.

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