Female Directors, Female Gaze:
The Search for Female Subjectivity in Film
RUBAIYAT HOSSAIN takes an incisive look into women, femininity and sexuality in film.
“A woman’s vocabulary exists, linked to the feminine universe. I feel this occasionally in that I am inspired by a certain number of attractions, subjects which always draw me rather more than they would if I were a man…I don’t want to make feminist cinema either, just want to tell women’s stories about women.”
According to Agnes Varda, one of the pioneers of French new wave movement –a woman whose name is often conveniently overlooked in the main/male stream saga of European new wave — a woman who has been hidden behind the shadows of Godard, Truffaut brotherhood, there after all exists a “women’s visual vocabulary”.
Women’s existence in society and culture places her in a certain parameter from within which space, from within which safe circle of respectability, freedom and individuality prescribed to her by the patriarchal reform agenda — a woman must operate, bearing the burden of cultural, national, ideological, and spiritual iconification. She is never fully recognised as a human subject; either a Goddess, or a Whore, an animal who is only valuable because of her body parts that can give pleasure to men, procreate to continue the patriarchal kinship lineage.
From the vantage point of a woman, reality is not the same episteme we see in the mainstream world of representation around us. Men and women don’t live the same reality. They belong to different plains of power and are meant to see different versions of the same images as they both stare at one single object, or truth, or reality. The phrase ‘personal is political’ was designed to draw attention to the political meanings and imperatives that derive from women’s everyday experiences of their personal and private lives. In MacKinnon’s words:
“To say that the personal is political means that gender as a division of power is discoverable and verifiable through women’s intimate experience of sexual objectification, which is definitive and synonymous with women’s lives as gender female. Thus, to feminism, the personal is epistemologically the political, and its epistemology is its politics.”
Following feminist scholar MacKinnon and filmmaker Agnes Varda, is there a specific currency in which the female film director’s gaze behind the camera must translate reality? Claire Johnston, the first feminist film critic argues that myth invades film representation in much the same way as it does other cultural artefacts, “myth transmits and transforms that ideology of sexism and renders its invisible.” Social and cultural myths about women transmit themselves in the main/male stream filmic representation validating and creating models for real women in the society to follow and perpetuate the myth of the man made female, creating a vicious circle. The representation of women as subsidiary characters to men in main/male stream films not only validates women’s position in society as sexual objects, but women’s role in the ideological realm of the masculine construct of identity and nation-state:
“Iconography as a specific kind of sign of cluster of signs based on certain conventions within the Hollywood genres has been responsible for the stereotyping of women within the commercial cinema in general.”
A woman’s right to her own body, control over her reproductive organs, choice over her pleasures and desires is the first step towards recognising and realising oneself as an individual female subject. This is exactly what a group of female film makers have been consciously trying to capture in their work — the intimate sexual and larger philosophical discourse of a female’s life. As Agnes Varda has pointed out, there certainly is a female visual currency, a female pool of stories to choose from and female sensibilities to represent.
In today’s world there is no ‘one’ feminist ideology or vision, feminism today is not a single vision, it is rather “a visionary way of seeing”. Today there is no ‘one’ type of feminist films, rather there are films made by different women, representing diverse women, depicting ranges of experiences, feelings and senses women feel — elements that never make into the main/male stream currency of images and desire. The masculine visual economy of desire will only place women in a place from where her sexual beauty is desirable and enjoyable, and secondly place women in a place from where she is forever the secondary object, never the central human subject.
Here we begin to tread on uncomfortable territory. When talking about women’s images as currency of desire, should female directors shy away from showing feminine beauty and sensuality? Should female directors, in order to represent their female protagonist as a ‘human being’ and not a sexual object, defeminise the protagonist, strip her of her female beauty, a beauty which may in many ways overlap with the male/main stream cinematic representation?
Take for instance Aparna Sen’s Parama (1984) and Agnes Varda’s Vagabond (1985). In Vagabond we see a female subject and her journey. Mona, the vagabond is dead, and we trace back to her life to find out why and how she died. The answer is chilling: Mona’s (The Vagabond’s) persistence to struggle against both capitalist and patriarchal structures brings her to death, just like the protagonist is driven to death in Aparna Sen’s Sati (1989). Sen’s Parama attempts death to evade the patriarchal structure, but she survives, finally at the end the human subject Parama emerges; as opposed to the prior sexual object Parama, she is now shaven headed, colourless, stripped of the earlier sexual charms.
Agnes Varda said about the representation of Mona in Vagabond: “it’s clear that she died. Alone in a ditch, frozen, which is an awful death. And the way she looks — she is a mess — she’s the colours of the ditch almost, like the colour of gun.” Thus, stripping the female protagonists of her femininity, her beauty, her sexual charm — has been used as a technique by Aparna Sen and Agnes Varda as one way of representing the female protagonists as human subjects. Curiously, years down the road, following Aparna Sen and Agnes Varda’s recent films, we find validation of feminine beauty, romance, sexual fulfilment — quite contrary to their earlier representations. Did these film makers change sides? Or did they simply, in trial and error method live their lives, make their choices, represent women in their films and finally come to a consolidated space to find the female individual subject — a subject that is all too human and all too woman — strong, confident, pretty, soft, emotional, sexual and sensual?
This leads us to a very tricky question: following feminist theorist Monique Wittig if, “womanhood is a myth”, then how much of it is myth and how much of it is real? If women’s economy of desires has been created by the patriarchal masculine episteme, then how do we know what is our real desire as women and what has been imposed on us? Perhaps, the best way is the trial and error method. As women we need to run free with our desires to come to a place when and where we know who we are and what we desire. This is exactly what the recent prominent female film directors have been doing: searching for the female currency of desire to weed out the myth, bringing in front of the world the personally political narratives of women’s lives, and making visible in front of the world images that are feminine; in Varda’s words again, “the woman’s visual vocabulary”.
In the past decade very important interventions have been made by female directors to represent the diverse experiences and narratives of women all over the globe. Some of these films have been critically acclaimed, for example in recent times a number of female directors have received prestigious awards in Cannes film festival: Jane Campion (The Piano, 1993, Golden Palm), Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, 2009, Jury Prize), Samira Makhmalbaf (The Apple, 1998, Official Selection), Nadine Labaki (Caramel, 2007, Camera d’Or), Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis, 2007, Jury Prize). Directors such as Niki Caro with films like Whale Rider (2002, Audience Choice Award, Toronto International Film Festival), North Country (2005), Laurie Collyer with her debut film Sherrybaby (2006, Official Selection Sundance Film Festival), Deepa Mehta with Fire (1996), Videsh (2008) and Susan Streitfeld with her hugely controversial film Female Perversions (1996) have made extremely important contributions to the examination, analysis and construction of the female subject in film.
Finally with Agnes Varda’s autobiographical film, shot on the occasion of her 80th birthday, The Beaches of Agnes (2008), Aparna Sen’s Mr and Mrs Iyer (2001) and The Japanese Wife (2010), and Niki Caro’s Whale Rider (2002) — the journey to find the consolidated, at ease, at peace individual female subject seems to have arrived at the doorstep of female representation in film.
Psychoanalytic theory, especially with the influence of Freud and Lacan has put sexuality as the centrepiece touchstone to theorise identity formation process. In the language of film searching for subjectivity through the exploration of sexuality has been a very prominent theme in the recent female directors’ works. Parama, Fish Tank, The Piano, Female Perversions, Sherrybaby, Caramel, Fire, Water — all these films deal with woman’s journey into finding herself through the route of sexual exploration. This exploration in some cases remains within the straightforward parameter of breaking social taboos and opting for greater freedom over one’s body. For instance, Aparna Sen’s representation of Parama’s extramarital relationship with a younger man, the lesbian currency of desire created by Deepa Mehta in Fire, Lebanese women’s struggle to gain more control over their sexual life, pre marital sex, quest for love represented by Nadine Labaki in Caramel — all demonstrate women’s social and cultural struggle to gain control over their bodies, their desires and in doing so attempting to sketch out a path to find their individual selves.
Makhmalbaf’s The Apple, or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis demonstrate the social struggle against conservative Muslim cultural norms and local practices that restrict women from let alone exploring their sexuality, but showing their faces unveiled in public.
The films of Jane Campion, Andrea Arnold, Laurie Collyer, Susan Streitfeld go very deep into the female sexual psychology to trace out the process of female identity formation process and the desire of her unconscious that drives her sexuality to create an identity where she will perform according to the male desire. Her adherence and resistance to perform this role is something these directors have very successfully represented in their films. Jane Campion’s The Piano’s protagonist — a woman who does not speak, but plays the piano with passion and senses, finds herself in a troubled relationship with a tribal man who at one point sexually abuses her, takes advantage of her. But in some crooked way, she falls in love with him and him with her.
Now, whether or not this kind of relationship is politically correct according to the feminist ideology is a separate issue. What is interesting is that Campion has successfully explored and represented this dark side of the female psyche with extremely beautiful, poetic and feminine images. Campion has engaged to ponder the price we pay as women for growing up in the episteme of masculine sexual economy — we learn to sleep with the enemy, take pain as pleasure, love the oppressor, sexually desire the killer. In Jane Campion’s erotic thriller In the Cut (2003), the protagonist is immensely attracted to and sexually involved with a man who is a serial killer, a man who kills women, cuts the body parts into pieces and throws them in body bags or down the garbage disposal.
Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank deals with a coming of age girl of 15 who is metaphorically and visually juxtaposed in the film to a chained horse. Fish Tank’s protagonist has a troubled relationship with her mother — a mother who is a sexually starved-drunk-drugged woman in the ghettos of London. The young protagonist falls in love with her mother’s lover, the so-called caring father figure. She ends up sleeping with this man, and when the man refuses to engage in the relationship any further because she is too young, she follows him to his house. When she finds that he has a wife and daughter, she tries to kill his daughter by drowning her in water. The Freudian sexual discourse has been played out in this film where the young girl is at the same time finding a lover and a father in her mother’s lover — she is contending the man’s lover (her mother, whose lover she wants) and the man’s daughter (the daughter she wants to be).
Finally, Susan Streitfeld in Female Perversions gives the most vivid, elaborate, accurate representation of what women become by living under the patriarchal sexual economy. In the beginning of Female Perversions a text appears, providing definition of a perverted object as something that has been restricted to grow in its natural way and forcefully grown into an unnatural shape. Thus, by the title of the film Streitfeld is actually making a point about the patriarchal hegemony — a system of power that forces women to deviate from growing into their original forms, and into ‘perverted’, ‘unnatural’ objects.
Streitfeld’s protagonist, the paranoid, success hungry, outwardly confident, but inwardly extremely insecure and vulnerable attorney who sleeps with both men and women and lies her way around to make it to becoming a judge breaks down one day and goes to spend the night with her sister. While at her sister’s she has a dream, not really a dream, but recollection of an old memory: her father was reading in his study, her mother came in wearing an attractive outfit, sat on her father’s lap and asked for sexual attention. The father blew her away rudely with his fist, she fell on the ground, her nose bleeding. After having this dream the attorney wakes up screaming next to her sister saying, “do you know what I did? I didn’t go to her, I went to him.”
The ultimate complexity of women’s sexual psychology that enables her to live with the oppressor and evolve to love him and stand by him has perhaps not been better depicted in any film than Female Perversions. In all these narratives I describe, at the end the female protagonists get some sort of a resolution, they either go away, or settle with the lover, or realise their inner complex of loving the oppressor and seek to find a way out of it. However, these narratives remain only the first step towards realising the full potential of female subjectivity. Sexual exploration, experimentation and freedom can be the first step, but dwelling in this step a woman will not gain individual subjectivity; rather, prolonged fixation over sexual exploration as a tool to gain subjectivity will drown her further in the masculine sexual economy of desire. This is why, in all these narratives the directors show at least some level of departing from the plane of sexual exploration as the way to find identity and subjectivity.
To put the abovementioned narratives of female sexual deviation in the theoretical context, it is perhaps helpful to revisit Lacan’s discourse of female subjectivity. According to Lacan, the girl’s acquisition of her gendered identity requires the acceptance of her identity as lacking what her mother wants, of what marks cultural identity and power, namely the phallus, the man, the power and his position as the central subject [similar notions explored in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank]. For Lacan, the difference between a young girl and boy is that the girl, as lack, is constituted as a site of negativity; although both genders lose the fusion with the mother’s body, the girl additionally loses any sense of the legitimacy and wholeness of her own body because she lacks any straightforward possibility of identification with the legitimising primary signifier, the Phallus, the Father, the law of the father.
Women in Lacan’s terms represent “the lack of the lack” and her only way out of this lack is to perform the gender role men want her to perform, to see the desire in his eyes for her, and by doing so getting as close as possible to the ultimate object of desire — the phallus — the centre of power — only by reaching this place a woman may gain subjectivity, but since she can never get there the process of gaining a woman’s subjectivity remains unfulfilled in Lacan’s discourse.
Luce Irigaray, a rebel out of Lacan’s school — a woman who challenged masculine philosophy and showed ways to build a female language to author female subjectivity concludes that female subjectivity cannot be articulated within Aristotelian logic. Irigaray rejects the coherence and forcefulness of analytic argument. She defies Lacan’s theory about ‘women as the lack of the lack’ and proposes a new language to understand the identity formation of the girl child. Like Agnes Varda claimed “women’s visual vocabulary”, Irigaray came up with the notion of ‘parler-femme’ [speaking (as) woman]. Irigary has theorised culture and language as phallocentric and unable to express the female currency of desire. Thus she proposed a feminine way, a way out of logic and currency of masculine vocabulary to find women’s individual subjectivity. Irigaray does not believe in the school of feminist thoughts that attempt to abolish the category of gender binary altogether. For her, the demand for equality as a woman is a mistaken expression if a real objective: “to demand to be equal pre supposes a point of comparison. To whom or to what do women want to be equalized? To men? To a salary? To a public office? To what standard? Why not to themselves?”
For Irigaray, it is important for both men and women to discover the new men and women who could coexist together. Women should continue to search for themselves in the feminine language, feminine economy of sexual desire, but at the end of the day, women must finally create their subjectivity based on the idea of a spiritual Divine,
“If she is to become woman, if she is to accomplish her female subjectivity, woman needs a God who is a figure for the perfection of her subjectivity…Divinity is what we need to become free, autonomous, sovereign. No human subjectivity, no human society has ever been established without the help of the divine. There comes a time for destruction. But before the destruction is possible God or the gods must exist”
Agnes Varda and Aparna Sen have seem to have reached a space where they have out run the necessity to show disturbed female embodiment of sexuality and search for subjectivity. In Aparna Sen’s representation of the mentally challenged woman in 15 Park Avenue — the protagonist who disappears into the oblivion of madness due to her insistence of getting the patriarchal prescribed notion of love, marriage and happiness — Sen has created the new female, the woman who can love and contain the ‘Other’ within herself and make the journey to create a ‘new’ man along the process. In Aparna Sen’s The Japanese Wife and Mr and Mrs Iyer, the female representations are very different from that of Parama and Sati. Sen’s protagonists are now in charge, beautiful, sexual, happy and moreover able to create a ‘new’ relationship with men where the woman retains her subjectivity and the ‘new’ man enters the feminine domain of love and coexistence. Perhaps with time, with life, and with experiences Aparna Sen, as a woman in real have reached a consolidated space and that is why she is able to give us the ‘new’ woman in her recent films, where the journey from sexually volatile, fractured female subject emerges as the ‘new’ woman — a woman way too comfortable in saris and feminine charms, kindness and love.
Niki Caro’s Whale Rider brings forth the narrative of claiming a little girl as the prophet of a community, thus seeking the Divine as Irigaray has mentioned in her work. Against all social odds and taboos, Caro’s protagonist establishes herself as the prophet, breaking the myth that only men can be prophets, spiritual leaders and reach the highest state of spiritual excellence. Deepa Mehta’s Videsh departs from the masculine realm of logic and creates a surreal environment where the magic, potions, and superstitions of the private feminine domain appears as a sight of resistance. The protagonist of Videsh is able to conjure up a snake with magic potions in order to fight with reoccurring domestic violence.
The latest film of Agnes Varda, The Plages d’ Agnes or The Beaches of Agnes (2008) is possibly the most successful experimentation by a director to represent the nature of cinema and the deconstructive approach to represent the director within the frames her film. This film begins with Varda setting up pieces of mirrors on the beach and directing her crew. On this beach, she will narrate the story of her entire life: from a little girl growing up and becoming the 80-year-old woman she today is. The images are exquisitely pretty, the use of humour, cartoon, silly female charms, in depth narrative about her relationship with her mother, her husband, her children, the letters she wrote to her unborn child about the father, the love between her and her husband, her career as an independent producer and director, her involvement in the feminist movement, her trips to Cuba and China and finally the death of her husband all feature in this film. Varda talks about the unfortunate exclusion of her as a film director from the grand narrative of New Wave, even though her film Cleo was among one of the very first films of the New Wave.
In one sequence of the film Varda is talking about her love for the beaches and the sea. She says, “beautiful oyster, beautiful waves, the new wave”. As the image of an oyster, resembling very much the female genitalia, dissolves into images of waves on a shore, the cartoon character appears and asks in a funny tone, “Hey oyster! Mussel! Wave! Enough! Tell us instead about the birth of the New Wave.” Another image appears on screen: Varda shows a still image of herself in the middle, index finger on her lips, all around her the pictures of male film directors of the new wave; the cartoon character asks, “Trufaut, Godard, Resnais, Chabrol, Rivette, Demy, And you Varda?” Agnes Varda took her exclusion from the main/male stream patriarchal saga of filmmaking with a twist of feminine sense of humour because she has already created herself as a female subject. Even if she has been hidden behind the shadow of her male counterparts, history will seek her out.
In another image we see Varda dressed like a queen, sitting on a very colorful seat in the belly of a huge colorful whale made out of paper. She says, “nothing could beat surrealist poets and painters, mad love, Baudelaire, Rilke, Prevert and Brassens. We played chance. I feel safe in this belly of this Whale. Shelter from the world.” Then we see her, sitting on chair after her 80th birthday party with a picture of herself framed in her hand. The images dissolves into the small frame, another frame appears and dissolves, as the images keep dissolving into one another, Varda says, “It all happened yesterday and it’s already the past. A sensation combined instantly with image which will remain, while I live, I remember.”
In the end sequence of the film we see Varda sitting in a room on film cans. The walls of the room are made of exposed film strips. She says sitting on cans of exposed film prints,
“once upon a time I made a movie with two beautiful actors which turned out to be a flop. I got all the cans, and unrolled the reels, and two good and beautiful actors became walls and surfaces, bathed in light. What is cinema? Light coming from somewhere, captured by images, more or less dark or colorful. In here it feels like I live in cinema, cinema is my home. I think I have always lived in it.”
Varda seems safe and sound in the belly of the whale — the female world, the currency of female desire and vocabulary of female images, the female subject that she has become and depicted in cinema, the female gaze and female subject she has created for herself and for the next generations of women to come.
Rubaiyat Hossain is a filmmaker and researcher.