Women’s cross-dressing films have long been read against the grain of heterosexual romance—Garbo in Queen Christina.

Cahiers du cinéma on Young Mr. Lincoln —a film’s absences reveal dominant ideology.

Debating, feminist critics theorize text-spectator relations in Stella Dallas.

All spectators participate in Lucy’s victimization in Broken Blossoms.

Woman as goldbrick, or woman in charge of her own space? Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Reading against the grain revisited

by Aspasia Kotsopoulos

The notion of a “both-and” of criticism has always been at the heart of my theoretical concerns. In my work I have tried to investigate popular film from the dual position of spectator and critic. Such a contradictory place promises to offer my writing a place of both identification and distance for the ideological analysis of popular film. This kind of criticism has practical implications for me since some of my work outside university involves writing cultural analysis for general audiences. Often, I worry that readers might perceive my writing as a critical review of them and their viewing habits rather than of the film or television show I am analyzing.

Such a commitment to cultural analysis that does not alienate non-academic audiences makes relevant to me Fredric Jameson’s call (1981: 286-92) for a criticism that goes “beyond good and evil.” According to Jameson, a “negative hermeneutic” sees only mass cultural texts’ problems and fails to recognize their Utopian impulses, which he defines as the expression of a fantasy of collective solidarity, social harmony and classlessness that is both an imagined alternative to and a faint criticism of the existing social order ([1979] 1992; 1981: 286-92). Rather than recommend the other extreme—opting for a celebratory “positive hermeneutic”—Jameson proposes a dual hermeneutic, a “both-and” criticism in which mass cultural texts are studied in terms of their ability to express Utopian impulses while simultaneously affirming the status quo.

With this point of departure in mind, I have found it useful for my own writing to engage in a critical-historical evaluation of the role of the feminist film critic. In particular, notions of “reading against the grain” within feminist film criticism provide insight into feminist interpretive strategies and their relation to my writing for general audiences. In fact, these theoretical concerns have engaged feminist film critics and theorists for the last twenty-five years, so that to investigate concepts of reading against the grain lets us view a representative example of feminist film criticism at work.

Reading against the grain relies on a text-based approach to film criticism that provides tools for interpreting ideological contradictions, conflicts between multiple and competing discourses, and relations between spectators and the popular films they watch. As such, a critical review of theories about reading against the grain illustrates the strengths and the weaknesses, the objectives and the impasses of feminist film criticism – both past and present.

The beginnings of a reading strategy

Cahiers du cinéma’s 1969 analysis of Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), reprinted in Screen in 1972 in its first English translation, introduced symptomatic reading to British feminist film critics such as Pam Cook and Claire Johnston. Louis Althusser (1968, trans. 1970: 28-9) coined the term “symptomatic reading,” an interpretive strategy that searches not only for the structural dominants in a text but most importantly, for absences and omissions that are an indication of what the dominant ideology seeks to repress, contain or marginalize. Reading against the grain operates under the assumption that the text comprises a hierarchy of discourses in which one discourse – patriarchal ideology – asserts its dominance over others. Nevertheless, tensions between the dominant ideology and subordinate discourses produce ideological contradictions that the popular film cannot mask nor reconcile, try as it might. Feminist film critics who read against the grain reject “cinematic apparatus” or “manipulation” theory’s monolithic, male-spectator-oriented understanding of how both film and ideology work. “Reading-against-the-grain” theorists seek to explain the female spectator’s relationship to cinema in a way that does not exclude or marginalize her experience. Thus, drawing on Althusser, Cook (1975) and Johnston (1975) are the first to employ symptomatic reading within the context of feminism, to read against the grain the films of Dorothy Arzner, one of the only female directors of the classical Hollywood period.

Cook and Johnston investigate Arzner’s films for dislocations between “the discourse of the woman” and patriarchal ideology (Johnston 1975: 4). These dislocations work to denaturalize objects, relations and behaviors that patriarchal ideology seeks to naturalize. In the Arzner films, moments of fissure appear as a result of the tension between competing discourses, and those moments indicate that a film, though it reinforces the patriarchal status quo in the end, may still contain the seeds of its own criticism – when read symptomatically. Consequently, films like Arzner’s are open to counter-hegemonic interpretations, that is, to readings conducted against the grain. To put it another way, Arzner’s films fall into the category of the “progressive text,” defined by Jean Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni (1971: 27-36) as films “which at first sight seem to belong firmly within the [dominant] ideology and to be completely under its sway, but which turn out to be so only in an ambiguous manner.” Such films follow the conventions of classical Hollywood cinema, which Comolli and Narboni argue perpetuate bourgeois ideology. However, these films still possess “[a]n internal criticism... which cracks the film apart at the seams,” exposing the dominant ideology’s weak points from within. Within the context of feminist readings against the grain, such “progressive” films render the work of patriarchal ideology visible and refuse easy closure, leaving the films “open.”

Written in the area of literary theory, Roland Barthes’ S/Z has also had an influence on feminist film criticism. In S/Z, Barthes makes an aesthetic distinction between open or “writerly” texts and closed or “readerly” texts (1970, trans. 1974: 4-6). 1 Furthermore, his notion of polysemy provides a way of understanding how ideology infiltrates the text but is received by readers in varying ways. According to Barthes, the open text does not follow rules of coherence, linearity or closure; consequently, it has a greater capacity for expressing polysemy or multiple meanings. The closed text, on the other hand, adheres to specifically Western rules of narrative, causality and closure; these place structural limits on meaning, reducing polysemy to what Barthes calls a “modestly plural” range in which a dominant meaning is reinforced by many kinds of textual redundancy.

In a formalist aesthetic hierarchy, developed in the modernist era, textual openness becomes a sign of ideologically progressive high art since it allows multiple interpretations, as well as viewer interaction. In relation to film viewing then, those who would attack Hollywood cinema argue that the viewer completes or produces the open text through the act of viewing. By contrast, closure indicates that Hollywood film is ideologically complicit low art because only one meaning – the one that serves the dominant ideology – is passed on to unwitting viewers who have no role in producing the text.

Another strand in feminist film criticism’s theory of reading against the grain comes from the dramatic theories of the left playwright who had a brief stint in Hollywood, Bertolt Brecht. Continuing certain aspects of the high art/low art dualism, Brecht advocated that politically effective texts must work to distance the spectator, using self-reflexive, anti-illusionist strategies to foreground the artistic process, thus clueing in the spectator to the work of fiction. The concept of distanciation comes from Brecht’s views on epic theater (1964: 33-42) and had a significant influence on 70s film theory, specifically on the discussion of Hollywood spectatorship vs. the potential creation of an avant-garde, revolutionary counter-cinema. Distanciation, according to Brecht, is achieved through strategies that insist on artifice in opposition to the dominant aesthetics of realism and melodrama. Distanciating formal strategies may include direct audience-address or foregrounding the means of production (e.g., in film, displaying lighting equipment). The goal of distancing spectators from the fiction is to place them in a position of detachment which would enable them to contemplate critically the drama’s subject matter in order to decide their attitude towards the conflict portrayed and actively take a stand. Those politically committed theorists and media makers who follow in Brecht’s line argue that only a self-reflexive, anti-illusionist cinema can free the spectator from a purely emotional and sensory experience, which usually leaves him or her open to ideological manipulation.

In the line of Comolli and Narboni, the reading-against-the-grain film theorists who use these theoretical assumptions derived from Althusser, Barthes and Brecht also maintain that deviations from the so-called ideological norm can exist. Even Hollywood is seen as occasionally producing progressive texts, though these are exceptional. Thus, I would argue, reading against the grain does not find dominant ideology as monolithic and homogenizing within classical Hollywood cinema as, say, psychoanalytic film theory does.

Despite reading against the grain’s claims, certain troubling assumptions adhere in this approach. Some critics point out that ideological fissures or contradictions constitute a necessary part of narrative; they are not exceptional nor exclusively found in progressive texts. Janet Bergstrom ([1979] 1988: 83-5), in her evaluation of Claire Johnston’s work, explains that narrative ruptures or gaps are the rule rather than the exception, an indispensable part of a narrative’s movement as a whole; thus ruptures do not offer isolated moments of progressive rebellion. Bergstrom rightly takes issue with the way in which both Cook and Johnston, using what she calls “the rupture thesis,” are able to abstract progressive moments from the text, ignoring how these instances relate to the ideological work of the entire film and narrative. For as Bergstrom puts it, “[T]hese moments only take on their meanings from their value relative to the rest of the narrative” (84). Along these lines, Barbara Klinger (1984) evaluates Comolli’s and Narboni’s theorization of classical Hollywood cinema, and in doing so, questions “the rupture thesis” in film theory, specifically its use in genre studies. Like Bergstrom, Klinger concludes that this thesis “relies on a very restricted formulation of classical narrative which enables deviation from the identified principles to be readily gauged as challenging the entire foundation of the system (43).” Drawing from the work of Maria Corti, Stephen Heath and Stephen Neale, Klinger argues that rupture and containment are, in fact, standard to the classic text.

But in arguing that narrative ruptures offer the exceptional moments in classical Hollywood cinema, the reading-against-the-grain approach reveals it has a rigid understanding of cinema’s relation to ideology. Labeling some films progressive or open because they contain so-called fissures assumes that, for the most part, ideology is constituted as an homogeneous, monolithic, impervious entity that can only be cracked now and then, never dismantled. As a consequence of this view, Hollywood cinema, as ideology’s handmaiden, becomes characterized as structurally and ideologically coherent. In other words, there must be “a grain” to read against. As Klinger states, “This results in an overvaluation and overestimation of inventive, ‘reactive,’ textual elements” (40-41). Judith Mayne (1990: 233) sees as an implication that such a reading strategy “can serve to affirm, rather than complicate, a one-dimensional view of the cinematic apparatus, precisely by defining itself as marginal and thereby affirming the dominion of readings ‘with’ the grain.”

Strategically, the rendering of popular films as fractured or plurivocal works lends legitimacy to the study of popular cinema, a legitimacy otherwise denied by a high art/low art dualism based on formalist principles. Thus, criticisms of reading against the grain are also implicit critiques of its modernist formalist legacy. For instance, Charlotte Brunsdon (1990: 110-11) makes the point that reading against the grain re-makes what seem to be “organic, coherent” Hollywood films into “incoherent, fractured, plurivocal” – that is, high art – texts. Therefore, says Brunsdon, reading against the grain, while helping to draw much-needed critical attention to so-called low arts such as Hollywood cinema, still paradoxically maintains an “aesthetic hierarchy.”

In addition to maintaining an aesthetic hierarchy, reading against the grain also has a dangerous tendency to characterize those eruptions that slip through the cracks of patriarchal ideology as essentially feminine, as Johnston’s use of the term “the discourse of the woman” suggests (1975: 4). This tendency lingers in examples of reading against the grain that borrow aspects of psychoanalytic theory, in particular, the idea that the pre-Oedipal is the site of an unrepressed femininity. In psychoanalytic terms, the pre-Oedipal constitutes a domain in the child’s development that precedes the child’s entry into patriarchal culture. Here, free from the laws of patriarchy, in a state prior to its Oedipal subjugation, femininity exists in its true and essential form, the infant being polymorphous perverse and children of both sexes having a primal identification with a female figure, the mother or even with just her breast. While some examples of this work continue to be informed by traditional psychoanalytic approaches coming from Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, other feminist film theorists theorize the specificity of female subjectivity and female experience by incorporating the psychoanalytic views of Nancy Chodorow and Carol Gilligan.

In either case, however, feminist film critics, reading against the grain for femininity’s disruptive presence risk the same mystification and homogenization of the feminine as is found in Mulvey’s well-known application of apparatus theory in her influential essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Florence Jacobowitz (1986: 27) puts it succinctly when she states, “The claim that the pre-Oedipal is exclusively feminine is a patriarchal view.” Indeed, the idea of a transgressive feminine that escapes patriarchal law perpetuates ideological and patriarchal notions of femininity as “an eternal and naturally subversive element,” to quote Constance Penley (1988: 5). Many feminist film critics have rightly questioned the political usefulness of valorizing pre-oedipal femininity (Gledhill [1978] 1984: 42).

Moreover, the ideological opposition set up between patriarchy and femininity relies on an ahistorical understanding of relations between text and context, and it ignores women’s struggles as a diversely constituted social group existing in history. Following the logic of the above opposition, history and texts would consist of the eternally unfolding struggle between patriarchal law and the forces of femininity. Moreover, historical women’s relations to ideological struggle and to the material conditions of existence would consist of the battle between essences that remain constant throughout time. Feminist film historian Sumiko Higashi (1990: 179-80) raises some of these points when she criticizes Tania Modleski’s work on Alfred Hitchcock. Modleski (1988: 8-9) analyzes the director’s films for “patriarchy’s weak points” and argues for the transgressiveness of the pre-Oedipal moment for the female spectator. Higashi says that although Modleski studies the films

... in chronological order... only once does she interpret texts in relation to historical developments: that of the women’s movement as the context for the extreme misogyny expressed in Frenzy... [A]re we to assume that the construct of the female spectator functions as a constant through several decades?

In a more recent example of this problematic tendency in some feminist film criticism, Jackie Byars investigates 1950s melodrama (1991: 19-20) in order to, as she puts it, “recuperate” Hollywood cinema for its “feminine voices that resist patriarchal dominance.” Byars incorporates many aspects of British Cultural Studies, specifically a Gramscian theory of ideological hegemony, as a way of discussing issues of historical specificity and historical struggle, which, she rightly argues, have been neglected by the dominant approaches to feminist film criticism. In addition, her goal of recuperating popular culture has been an important strategy for feminist film and cultural critics who wish to challenge elitist notions of high art that dismiss popular cultural practices as lowly, feminine and manipulative (cf. Huyssen 1986; Jacobowitz 1990; Modleski 1991). Nevertheless, Byars undercuts the historical specificity she is working towards through her references to “feminine voices.”

Notions of distance and identification and their implications

I want to come back to Higashi’s critique of the female spectator’s constancy through time. In considering reading against the grain, it is especially important to evaluate how the female spectator’s relation to popular film is theorized. In fact, one of the most significant contributions of feminist film critics who read popular films against the grain (particularly films addressed to women) is their critique of the text-spectator relation as conceptualized in the works of Mary Ann Doane and Laura Mulvey.

Psychoanalytic-feminist film theorists such as Doane (1982, 1987) and Mulvey (1975, 1981) inadvertently perpetuate what Patrice Petro (1987: 123) calls “clichés about gendered spectatorship.” In their theorization of male and female spectatorship, Doane and Mulvey define distance as masculine and identification as feminine, with distance serving as the preferred term, connoting mastery over the fiction. Distance becomes valorized as the spectatorial position of choice. To be distanced from the text implies that the viewer has attained mastery over it, escaping the grasp of its ideological manipulations. In response to Mulvey’s theorizing spectatorship as male, Doane uses psychoanalysis to find in the female spectator’s experience a specificity different from the male’s. However, Doane offers conclusions just as pessimistic as Mulvey’s, since she merely adds feminine masquerade to the female spectator’s already-existing repertoire, suggested initially by Mulvey, of masochistic identification and masculine transvestitism. Doane’s argument (1982: 87) is as follows: Because the female spectator over-identifies with the image of Woman – “she is the image” – she cannot gain the critical distance necessary to a fetishizing or voyeuristic male look. Instead, she is doomed to a masochistic spectator-position (unless she becomes distanced from her own image by psychologically wearing her femininity as a masquerade). Unfortunately, as Andreas Huyssen (1986) and Tania Modleski (1991) have shown, this equation of mass-cultural consumption with self-absorbed femininity has been all too pervasive in contemporary social theory. Also, Jacobowitz rightly questions film theory’s emphasis on distance in order to suggest the critical potential of empathy and identification. Jacobowitz (1990: 6) explains the political issue:

The fear of admitting to an intensely felt emotion, one that may even elicit tears, is gendered. The more closely experienced art forms like the opera or melodrama are debased in part, as a form of denial. They threaten masculine codes of emotional repression. The intensity of feeling need not undermine the possibility of critical distance and observation; however, one rarely is committed to issues being dramatized in a completely “detached” manner, if one identifies with oppression and entrapment.

Jacobowitz maintains that denigrating identification as passive and feminine perpetuates unwittingly sexist theories of the spectating subject as well as theories of the popular arts, since so-called low forms like melodramas remain popular among female audiences and have an historical association with femininity.

Discussing melodrama and feminist film theory, Jane Shattuc (1994: 147) argues that identification and empathy have been inadequately theorized in film studies generally, and that feminist film studies itself has either ignored or disparaged identification and empathy—“[pushing] questions about emotional response to the side, [and] preferring the more intellectual or modernist concepts of excess and contradiction which distance the viewer from the power of the text’s conservative morality.” She identifies this reading strategy as a schooled one with not only sexist but racist and classist implications as well. To illustrate, Shattuc refers to Jacqueline Bobo’s study of black women’s reception of The Color Purple (1985). In this study, Bobo (1988) reports that black women have favorable responses to the film and in discussing the film, produce “political” or resistant readings critical of the status quo. According to Shattuc, using a modernist interpretation of their strategies as spectators would trivialize and demean the emotional responses black women have to this film, and it would leave no space in which to consider the progressive dimensions of their reception.

The work of feminist film critics such as Florence Jacobowitz and Jane Shattuc, as well as that of Linda Williams, suggests that the valorization of distance comes at a high cost. In her essay on Stella Dallas (1937), Williams ([1984] 1987) shifts the preferred terms of spectatorship also to argue for the potentially critical value of empathy and identification. 2 Her article also illustrates how reading against the grain as an interpretive strategy has been linked to the idea of a privileged female viewing position – a contested notion in feminist film theory meriting further consideration.

Stella Dallas is an example of the woman’s film, a subgenre of melodrama specifically addressed to female audiences. The woman’s film often includes fantasy scenarios of resistance in which the female protagonist, usually played by a well-known star, enacts a wish, one socially prohibited to her because of her gender. More often than not, the very possession of desire (for knowledge, for sex, for “something else”) is forbidden her, regardless of whether she acts on it or not. Merely to be desiring goes against patriarchal constructions of a self-abnegating femininity. Stella Dallas is the story of a working-class woman, Stella, who has a loving, devoted relationship with her daughter Laurel, whom she has raised alone. In the end, Stella gives up Laurel so that her daughter may live with her upper-class father, Stephen, and his new wife, Helen, who form the perfect bourgeois family. The film sets up a contrast between Stella, the improper, garish and fun-loving mother, and Helen, the ideal mother, cool, calm and self-effacing.

Williams’ analysis of Stella Dallas and the Cinema Journal debates around it foreground some of feminist film theory’s major theoretical conundrums. In the Stella Dallas debates, the authors dispute how to theorize text-spectator relations. Williams writes her article to offer an alternative view of the film to, what she terms, the “monolithic position” taken by E. Ann Kaplan previously. Kaplan discusses the female spectator of Stella Dallas as an “effect” of the text, unable to escape patriarchy’s mechanisms. Kaplan (1983: 83) argues that Stella Dallas continually works to

... [wrench] Stella’s point of view from the audience, forcing us to look at Stella through Stephen’s eyes ... By implicating us – the cinema spectator – in this process of rejection [of Stella as good mother], we are made to accede to the ‘rightness’ of Stella’s renunciation of her daughter, and thus made to agree with Stella’s position as absent Mother (83).

According to Kaplan, the film delegitimizes Stella’s perspective in order to place us, the audience, in line with the ex-husband Stephen’s patriarchal point of view . Although we may feel “sadness” at Stella’s sacrifice, says Kaplan (1983: 84), we nonetheless “accede to the necessity” of this sacrifice because the film structures us to do so. In a later response to Williams’ essay, Kaplan (1985: 42) further notes that the female spectator “cannot simply identify differently than the male spectator in relation to the camera’s look... I do not see how the individual spectator can prevent being structured by the film’s mechanisms.”

While Williams also discusses the female spectator as a hypothetical textual construct, at the same time she does open up the possibility of multiple and even resistant readings, as Carol Flinn and Patrice Petro (1985: 51) point out. In this way, Williams counters Kaplan’s position, a position that argues cinema has only one point of view (i.e., one grain), that of the male spectator in a position of mastery.

Drawing on the work of Nancy Chodorow, Williams insists that since women are socialized differently from men and are situated in a difficult and subordinate position in patriarchy, they will experience certain kinds of conflict and contradiction more acutely than men. As a result, the female spectator will have a different relation to popular film from her male counterpart, especially to films and other cultural practices (e.g., soap operas and sentimental novels) that claim to “address female audiences about issues of primary concern to women” (1987: 305). According to Williams, cultural products like the maternal melodrama “have reading positions structured into their texts that demand a female reading competence” derived from “the different way women take on their identities under patriarchy.”

Williams sees this is “a direct result of the social fact of female mothering” (305). She concludes that the female spectator has the ability to identify with contradiction, with the conflicting, multiple viewpoints brought on by the tension between her desires as a woman – as a desiring subject – and patriarchy’s demands on her to sacrifice desire in the name of maternity. The female spectator experiences empathy for Stella in recognition of the same contradictory demands both she and Stella experience as women under patriarchy. Working with these assumptions, Williams questions the extent to which the female spectator perceives Stella’s sacrifice as just or even necessary (315).

When female spectatorship is read from the position of contradiction that Williams describes, it is possible to find a female voice in popular film. This voice struggles with patriarchal ideology rather than having patriarchy completely negate it, the position that Kaplan argues for. Furthermore, as Patricia Erens (1990: 97) importantly points out, in allowing for identification, Williams does not advocate distance as a prerequisite for critical film viewing. In fact, Williams rejects the “either-or” options set up by Doane and Mulvey in which the female spectator must adopt either masculine distance (via voyeurism or masquerade) or feminine, masochistic over-identification. These two views reduce cinematic spectatorship to an exercise in passive complicity with dominant ideology. Instead, Williams argues that the experience of both distance and identification are necessary to critical and active female spectatorship. As Williams (1987: 317) says,

[R]ather than adopting either the distance and mastery of the masculine voyeur or the over-identification of Doane’s woman who loses herself in the image, the female spectator is in a constant state of juggling all positions at once.

Consequently, the volleying back and forth between multiple and conflicting viewpoints enables “the divided female spectator,” as Williams calls her, to experience empathy for Stella’s sacrifice while at the same time recognizing the ideological contradictions that led to the character’s predicament (320). Therefore, Williams maintains, the female spectator is indeed capable of critical, self-reflective activity.

Williams’ considerations are important for four reasons. First, they raise the issue of how cultural practices relate to the lived, social experiences of women and how women as social subjects may relate to those same practices. In this way both textual address and the context of reception figure importantly in Williams’ argument – the one does not necessitate exclusion of the other. Second, to argue that empathy and identification need not be dismissed as regressive opens up popular cultural practices for a more complex and engaged study than high art discourse allows for. Breaking down the formalist aesthetic hierarchy that places distance above identification, Williams’ essay points to the need to understand the popularity of certain films for women in a way that engages with women’s fantasies and women’s social situations.

The movement beyond the notion of female spectators as masochistic dupes enables the feminist film critic to consider why some popular films appeal to women more than others and what aspect of women’s lives and fantasies these films address. Third, in a far cry from apparatus-theory’s position, exemplified by Kaplan, in which the spectator is constructed completely by the text, Williams recognizes that social experience provides a context for interpretation. Thus, Williams considers meaning as the product of the two-way interaction between an active spectator, possessing a history, and a film-text (although she does this in a problematic fashion, a point to which I return). Finally, the reading strategy Williams describes operates under the assumption that dominant ideology is not all-powerful. Problems and contradictions exist that cannot be masked, and it is possible to apprehend these in order to produce a feminist critique of society.

For that is what William’s essay describes – a reading strategy that is specific to feminist critical activity rather than to the female spectator. 3 While theorizing the female spectator as a construct applying universally to all women, some readings against the grain simultaneously conceptualize the female spectator as a viewer possessing feminist consciousness. Diane Waldman (1988: 80-1) sums up this type of feminist interpretive activity critically:

While I applaud the movement toward an emphasis on interaction between text and spectator, the dethroning of the unexamined assumption that the male analyst’s reading and response is a universal one, and the subsequent attempt to reinsert the female spectator into the picture, I am disturbed by one recent trend in feminist film criticism which attempts to specify the responses of male and/or female spectators to a given text or film genre, and which tends to attribute the hypothesized differences in reading solely to differences in the construction of sexual difference or gender identity. Representatives of this type of criticism also tend to conflate the ‘female’ and the ‘feminist’ spectator.

Waldman indicates the important contribution of reading against the grain to feminist film criticism, precisely, the shift in emphasis from the male spectator to the female spectator. However, she rightly expresses concern with the use of sexual difference as the sole determinant in the spectator’s experience of cinema. While feminist examples of reading against the grain importantly attempt to include female social experience as a context for interpretation, the focus on sexual difference repeats the same problems as psychoanalytic film criticism, neglecting differences in female social experience deriving from multiple and diverse identities. The social dimension of spectatorship becomes constrained by the category of sexual difference, more particularly heterosexual difference. Moreover, the activity of the feminist critic, as Waldman observes, is misrepresented as belonging to the female spectator. Mayne (1988: 28) reiterates Waldman’s position, stating,

However obvious it may be, it is worth recalling that ‘feminist’ and ‘female’ are not the same thing, and if feminist critics can undermine the ideology of the classical cinema, this hardly means that women viewers throughout film history have resisted the ideology of film spectacle simply by virtue of being female.

Feminism as a context for interpretation is in danger of disappearing in the reading-against-the-grain approach, creating a dilemma for the feminist film critic.

“Doubled vision” as an approach to feminist film criticism

Through the exchanges that appear in Cinema Journal regarding Kaplan’s and Williams’s positions, two points emerge that have set the parameters for feminist film studies today. In a revision of her earlier position, Kaplan (1984: 41; 1985: 52) asserts then the need to distinguish between address and reception, that is, between the discursive female spectator constructed through the film’s strategies and the historical female viewer existing in a particular reading formation in time and space. 4 The second point, on which I focus here, is the political necessity of recognizing that the female spectator and the feminist critic are not one in the same, for the conflation of female and feminist in the reading-against-the-grain approach threatens to obliterate feminism as a radical critical tool. As Waldman (1988: 89) explains, this practice

... runs the risk of making feminism invisible, not just ‘feminist film theory’ but feminism as a social and political movement... And in an era when it has become fashionable to talk about ‘post-feminism’ and when there are real threats to the feminist accomplishments of the last fifteen years, collapsing ‘feminist’ into ‘female’ has practical as well as theoretical consequences.

In order to counter the tendencies she describes, Waldman suggests that feminism’s survival depends on feminist critics’ self-consciousness about critical practice. We have to acknowledge feminism’s power to challenge and alter dominant ways of seeing. Waldman urges feminist film critics to be wary of any theory that “allows us to ignore the discursive strategies of the text, to minimize the impact of feminism as theory and practice, or to a-historicize and de-politicize our own acts of reading and interpretation” (90). Hence, the acknowledgment of one’s own reading practice becomes an important political strategy for the feminist film critic.

Julia Lesage (1974) is perhaps the first feminist film critic to have discussed this strategy’s significance. She explains that we have to identify ourselves in our writing as feminists in order to dispel “once and for all the idea that the media just provides entertainment or that we have to take what we are offered” (12). Furthermore, according to Lesage, the feminist film critic must “make her own basic assumptions perfectly clear so that the reader’s response may also be lucid” (16). The goal of feminist film criticism, therefore, is to politicize the reading process, making it an act that is never without ramifications, no matter how common-sensical an interpretation may appear. In this way, feminist film criticism alerts people to the presence of alternative and oppositional ways of interpreting, and as a result, it encourages people to be conscious of the reading practices they employ rather than taking these for granted. Indeed, Lesage (1978: 94) later comments that, as a critic, “[she has] to provide some way of making people see that anyone’s subjective interpretation has a place within a range of subjective interpretations and that they should see their subjective interpretations historically.”

In those cases where the reading-against-the-grain approach collapses female and feminist, it undermines the process of politicizing and historicizing readings. Some critics, writing about feminist film theory, have suggested that the two terms need not be exclusive, though a recognition of the differences between female and feminist is politically necessary. Mayne (1985: 92), for instance, makes the same observation as Waldman, that the female spectator and the feminist critic are not the same, but rather than argue for a split between the two, Mayne suggests that the feminist film critic keep “female” and “feminist” in tension as “connected, yet different. Some feminist critics thus write in a divided voice that calls on that difference.” Here, Mayne cites Lesage’s article ([1981] 1987) on Broken Blossoms (1919) as film criticism that simultaneously “speaks in the voice of feminism” and “as a woman viewer, certainly not in opposition to the feminist, but with a different frame of reference.”

In this article, Lesage discusses Broken Blossoms’s ambiguous treatment of racism, sexuality, child abuse and incest. She also addresses her own ambiguous responses, describing herself as “a woman viewer both drawn to and distressed by this film” (239). Lesage explains that while her pathos is elicited by the helplessness of the abused girl Lucy, the film also makes her and all viewers participate in Lucy’s rape. Lesage explains that patriarchy’s eroticization of male violence and female victimization has an effect on her attraction to the film as a woman viewer, although, as a feminist critic, she finds this attraction disturbing and perverse, viewing it as “a gauge of [her] own colonized mind” (251). In this way, her article self-consciously addresses the tension in her responses between Lesage-as-feminist-critic, possessing a knowledge of the relations between sexual politics and representation, and Lesage-as-woman-viewer, socialized to accept her feminine role under patriarchy and to regard certain images as pleasurable. In the feminist viewing position Lesage and Mayne describe, the feminist film critic can never be fully outside the text’s or hegemonic ideology’s influence. Working with this assumption, feminist film criticism is theorized as a complex process of negotiation.

“Negotiation” is a term frequently employed in discussions of reception and is generally associated with Stuart Hall’s article “Encoding/Decoding” (1980) in which he argues that all readings are negotiated to some degree rather than simply passed on by the text to passive-receptive viewers. He describes three types of readings a viewer may actively construct from a mainstream or hegemonic text. These include a dominant (hegemonic or preferred) reading, a negotiated reading and an oppositional reading. According to Hall, a dominant reading accepts the text’s worldview without question, while a negotiated reading consents to the worldview informing the text at the same time that the negotiated reading questions some of the text’s ideological assumptions. As a result, says Hall, negotiated readings are often “shot through with contradictions, though these are only on certain occasions brought to full visibility.” Finally, an oppositional reading begins from an “alternative framework of reference” that fundamentally rejects the text’s ideological assumptions since they prop up a system the viewer opposes (136-8).

I refer to “negotiation” here specifically in terms of its oppositional potential, that is, as it relates to feminist critical activity, for while all readings may be negotiated to some degree, not all readings are oppositional. By discussing feminist critical activity in this way, I hope to better understand how negotiated readings may become oppositional. In the case of feminism, critics such as de Lauretis, Lesage and Mayne argue that the exposure of ideological contradiction results in an oppositional, feminist stance. To return to Hall’s terminology, the purpose of a feminist reading strategy is to anticipate negotiated readings precisely because they are fraught with ideological contradictions, and then, to bring those contradictions to “full visibility” by interpreting them through an “alternative framework of reference” (in this case, feminism) that is fundamentally opposed to the dominant-hegemonic one.

Feminist film criticism theorized as negotiation posits an internal struggle that occurs within a feminist critic who battles against oppressive discourses found both inside and outside popular films, and who is also a female spectator implicated in hegemonic, yet not always unpleasurable, constructions of femininity and desire. Hence, the feminist film critic’s relationship to the popular film is one that is based on both displeasure and pleasure, both distance and identification. The consequence of this dual relationship is a “both-and” of criticism whereby the feminist film critic is both female and feminist, both complicit and resisting, both a textually-addressed subject and a viewer situated in a particular social and political context. Moreover, the interpretation that results from this “both-and” position animates the film’s contradictions and may indicate something of the contradictory responses viewers may bring to the film (cf. Mayne 1985: 92).

Williams’ discussion of Stella Dallas makes similar claims to Lesage and Mayne, arguing that a critically engaged spectatorship involves the constant movement between both distance and identification. That movement, as a by-product, produces the ability to read contradiction. Williams, however, argues that this ability is a skill belonging to all female spectators, unlike Lesage and Mayne whose work importantly maintains that the reading of contradiction is a specifically feminist intervention in interpretation. It is worth pointing out that, in the “either-or” spectatorial positions Doane and Mulvey establish, the feminist critic, who one must remember is also a female spectator, 5 may choose either masculine voyeuristic distance or feminine masochistic identification—both positions involve a passive viewer who willingly acquiesces to the fiction and its ideology. Therefore, according to the kind of argument Doane and Mulvey represent, feminism, as a viewing position itself, is not even possible.

The notion that I can write as both a feminist critic and a female spectator opens up my capacity to consider the contradictions of popular cinema, particularly its ability to attract and repulse me at the same time. Mayne has consistently maintained this view of feminist film criticism in her work, as has Teresa de Lauretis, on whose theorizing Mayne’s position draws (see Mayne 1990: 6-7; 1993: 71-6). Using cinema as an example, de Lauretis (1984: 15) explains women’s paradoxical relationship to dominant representations:

... [W]oman is constituted as the ground of representation, the looking-glass held up to man. But, as historical individual, the female viewer is also positioned in the films of classical cinema as spectator-subject; she is thus doubly bound to that very representation which calls on her directly, engages her desire, elicits her pleasure, frames her identification, and makes her complicit in the production of (her) woman-ness.

On the one hand, argues de Lauretis, dominant representations include women – they engage women’s desires and pleasures because patriarchal power is dependent upon women’s participation in the reproduction of Woman. On the other hand, women are also excluded from dominant discourses because, constructed as the ground for the exercise of patriarchal power, women are denied agency and subjectivity. Women’s double bind comes from their contradictory relationship to the image Woman – contradictory because the image causes both pleasure and displeasure. This “both-and,” says de Lauretis, necessitates negotiation to either resolve, conceal or, for women possessing feminist consciousness, expose the contradiction between Woman and women. Throughout her work, de Lauretis has written from the position that “a feminist theory must start from and centrally engage” what she terms “the paradox of woman” (1990: 115; see also 1987: 1-30). Indeed, for de Lauretis (1984: 36), the goal of feminist criticism is to “enact the contradiction” between Woman as a historically-specific patriarchal construct and women as historically-constituted social agents in order to demonstrate their “non-coincidence.” Not only is this the purpose of feminist criticism, de Lauretis argues (1987: 10) but it is the “very condition of its possibility.”

The argument here, as in Lesage’s article on Broken Blossoms, is that the tension produced by this contradictory relationship to dominant representations has particular effects on the feminist viewer, resulting in the experience of both pleasure and displeasure at mainstream, hegemonic culture and in the apprehension of “doubled vision,” to use a term from de Lauretis (1987: 10). She uses the term to define the way in which feminist critics experience hegemonic culture. 6 Feminist critics possess “doubled vision,” says de Lauretis because, as both Woman and women, as both female and feminist, they are conscious of “that twofold pull” that constitutes their simultaneous pleasure and displeasure at, inclusion and exclusion by dominant discourses. In other words, the feminist critic is “the divided female spectator” of which Williams ([1984] 1987: 320) speaks.

Significantly, lesbian-feminist film critics have long discussed lesbian spectatorship in exactly these terms. I would like to briefly explore these terms because I think they have implications for feminist film theory and criticism in general. Lesbian feminist critics, seeking ways to discuss female viewing pleasure and an active and desiring female subject, have defined lesbian viewers’ experience of mainstream, hegemonic culture as the tension between pleasure and displeasure, engagement and distance. As Chris Straayer (1984: 42) explains, this contradictory relationship is the result of lesbians “pass[ing] back and forth between [at least] two worlds” – one patriarchal and heterosexist, the other one which Straayer calls “lesbian-created.” Moreover, says Straayer, lesbians find themselves positioned in the first world as both included (“by the fact of their humanness and the assumption of their heterosexuality”) and excluded (by their lesbianism and its resulting challenge to patriarchy).

Along these lines, Manthia Diawara (1988) and bell hooks (1992) write about black spectators’ experiences of white-dominated cinema. Diawara explains black spectatorship of Hollywood cinema as a process often involving a great deal of identification as well as moments of resistance where such identification is refused. Similarly, hooks, from her conversations with black women on their experiences of Hollywood cinema, describes spectatorship involving both pleasure and pain—pleasure when shutting off critique of the images on screen (i.e., forgetting racism) and pain when looking too deeply at those images (i.e., remembering racism) (120-121). hooks explains that while enjoyment of Hollywood cinema is possible in this viewing context, every black woman spectator with whom she talked, “with rare exception, spoke of being ‘on guard’ at the movies” (126).

Diawara, hooks, Straayer and other critics describe a reading strategy that experiences hegemonic culture from the dual position of included and excluded, insider and outsider. This tension between insider and outsider results in doubled vision, a contradictory relation to the images and discourses that the hegemonic culture produces. Describing doubled vision in this way retains the important considerations around the relation between subjectivity and ideology in film spectatorship that was first articulated by feminist film critics such as de Lauretis and Mayne. However, this description of women’s film experience resists the essentialism or totalizing claims of the oppositions “female spectator/feminist critic” or “Woman/women.” In this way, doubled vision expands to include other oppositional reading strategies available to people of diverse identities and experiences.

Approaching feminist film criticism with the kind of doubled vision described here is a particularly productive – as well as strategic – way to discuss popular films. For one thing, this approach to analysis enables the feminist film critic to use contradiction strategically for oppositional purposes, exploiting contradiction’s disruptive potential in the act of interpretation. Second, the “both-and” of distance and identification inherent in doubled vision works to dismantle any valorization of a distanced critic, seen as capable of remaining in a state of ideological purity, outside the popular film’s mechanisms. Indeed, a “both-and” approach to criticism must acknowledge the critic’s investment, involvement and/or pleasure in popular film. Third, and consequently, this way of discussing cinema challenges the high art/low art dualism by seriously engaging with questions of pleasure and the popular, rather than simply dismissing Hollywood cinema as manipulative or ideologically suspect. Fourth, the position of doubled vision challenges the notion of one immanent meaning found in the popular film. Interpreting popular cinema in this way cannot but acknowledge and indeed point to the diverse contradictory experiences viewers may have of Hollywood films.

Finally, this approach to feminist film criticism encourages the feminist film critic to be aware of her role in interpretation, for doubled vision demands the feminist film critic’s vigilance in ascertaining her position vis-à-vis the films she is critiquing and the broader social formation in which she lives. This vigilance requires the feminist film critic to analyze her own responses to the films and to be aware of the contradictory social determinants, derived from lived experience, that may figure in those responses. As Waldman (1990: 311) states, “[B]ehind every hypothetical female spectator is a real or empirical spectator, the feminist critic.”


Reading against the grain is a text-based approach to feminist film criticism that claims to address issues of context via a consideration of gendered spectatorship. But this context has been theorized in far too general terms to be useful on its own. Reading against the grain can have the tendency to essentialize ideological struggle; a film’s competing discourses become interpreted in terms of an eternally unfolding battle between patriarchal law and a naturally disruptive feminine essence. Contradiction also becomes essentialized and even fetishized so that, once it has been abstracted from the ideological work of the popular film, it can be interpreted as progressive. Moreover, discussions of female audiences’ relations to popular films stay limited to the notion of an hypothetical female spectator, and see white heterosexual difference as the primary determinant in meaning production. Such a view of female spectatorship leaves out intertextual practices, diverse viewing situations and multiple identities that can have an impact on meaning-making. Indeed, a cause for concern is the emphasis on a kind of textual address that speaks to women only and usually in the same way, as is the notion of a privileged female spectator, who can, willy-nilly, apprehend contradiction. For if that is the case, what happens to feminism as an oppositional reading strategy?

Nevertheless, my discussion of the role of the feminist film critic in interpretation does address the continuing significance of reading against the grain for feminist film criticism. For instance, the significance of ideological contradiction remains an important component in a feminist reading strategy, as critics such as de Lauretis, Lesage and Mayne demonstrate. While some feminist readings against the grain have the tendency to ascribe this reading strategy to all women, de Lauretis, Lesage and Mayne rightly consider it a specifically feminist intervention in textual politics. Reading against the grain continues to have resonance for feminist film criticism today since it has presented the feminist film critic a valuable guide to “what to look for” in popular film. The significance of multiple, competing discourses, the importance of ideological contradiction, the relevance of the study of popular cinema as it connects to the diverse, lived realities of female audiences – these also remain worthy aspects of discussion.

To return to the concerns that precipitated my backward glance, I would argue that feminist film criticism for a general readership must endeavor to write from both the inside and the outside. As a woman who grew up in the suburbs of Southern Ontario in the 80s, went to the mall, watched soap operas with her friends, and fantasized about Mel Gibson (in his Road Warrior phase), I am an insider. As a Canadian feminist who is the daughter of working-class immigrants of non-Anglo/non-French origin, who reads Marxist criticism, and who prefers independent films by left-wing directors, I am an outsider. But I still love to watch soaps. My purpose in delving into the history of reading against the grain within feminist film criticism has been to theorize this movement between insider and outsider as a strategic reading position – one that avoids the pessimism of traditional left critiques and, at the same time, resists uncritical celebration.

As I conclude, I am reminded of an incident at a magazine I was working before I became its culture editor. Pacific Current, a progressive politics-and-culture magazine based in British Columbia, ran a review of Schindler’s List (1994) that utterly trashed the film. In response, a reader wrote a very angry letter, accusing the writer of reviewing the audience. The respondent felt that the writer was talking down to the people who found this film moving and relevant. I carry this incident with me as a reminder of what good progressive cultural writing should do. It should draw attention to the values at work in a film, and equally consider how and why these ideologies may connect in real ways with people. Understanding what moves people and what captures their imaginations is certainly a lesson those of us involved in movements for social justice would do well to remember.


1. While Barthes used the terms “writerly” and “readerly,” I use the terms “open” and “closed” to denote the same concepts since the latter are more generally employed in discussions of popular culture.

2. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) sparked a similar discussion in feminist film theory and criticism. See Arbuthnot and Seneca (1982) and Turim ([1979] 1985).

3. Modleski (1982, 1988) has made many of the same observations as Williams regarding the female spectator’s ability to identify with contradiction, with the contradictory and multiple viewpoints produced by the struggle between female desire and patriarchal demands for feminine self-sacrifice. Earlier examples of Modleski’s work illustrate the ease with which some feminist film critics had conflated “female” and “feminist.” For example, in her introduction to her book (1988) on female spectatorship and Hitchcock, she states that “[a]n analysis of voyeurism and sexual difference is only one of the ways in which a book taking a specifically feminist approach can provide a much needed perspective on Hitchcock’s films. Indeed, there are many questions that I think begin to look very different when seen by a woman” (14, my emphasis). While this is a problematic tendency, Modleski’s earlier work still yields relevant insights on discussing the relationships between popular cultural practices and women’s social experiences.

4. In 1984, Christine Gledhill and Annette Kuhn also observed the need to distinguish between address and reception. Kuhn argues we need to discern between the theoretical spectator and the social audience ([1984] 1987: 343), while Gledhill (1984: 40) remarks upon “the need to conceptualize the triple relation subject/reader/audience.” This is also a popular refrain in the Camera Obscura special issue “The Spectatrix” (1990) on the female spectator.

5. For the purposes of this article, I will not enter the thorny debate of whether or not only women can be feminists.

6. The term “doubled vision” owes a debt to W.E.B. DuBois, who coined the phrase “double consciousness” to describe the experience of African Americans in relation to dominant U.S. culture ([1903] 1989). My thanks to Julia Lesage for pointing this out.

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