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Moira Sullivan
The Lesbian Look in the Movies
Presented at the 1st National Queer Theory Conference, Lund, Sweden,
October 1998. ©Moira Sullivan, Ph.D
This presentation entitled ” the lesbian look” in movies stems from the use of the term
” the look” which was presented by Laura Mulvey in the 1970’s in a celebrated article called ”Visual
Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. This article was one of the first studies in which the image of woman
was structurally discussed for its symbolic meaning and has been the definitive article on the subject
since then. ’Woman’, said Mulvey was the receiver of the the look , that is to say the receiver of the’ male
gaze’, who is the bearer of meaning. ‘Woman’ is seen but does not see,which was eerily represented in
the character of Lucy commanded to suppress an apparition of Dracula as half man and beast in Francis
Ford Coppola’s Bram Stocker’s Dracula (1992). Woman’s meaning is therefore a fixed and symbolic one,
the reminder that lacking a phallus, she represents and evokes male castration anxiety. This fear is well
illustrated in Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) where men are bitten from the waist down by a shark, in actuality a
modern ’Vagina dentata’ and is recycled in other films such as 'Alien'.
Spectators of film,
according to Mulvey are unconsciously a part of this speculative economy in much the same way that
women are positioned on screen. We also become ’voyeurs’ while watching film which Freud studied ,
called ’scopophilia’ and classified a sexual disorder. Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (GB, 1960) is a good
illustration of this where a deranged filmmaker ’shoots’ and watches his female victims die with a camera
that has a protruding lethal spoke. (Truffaut loved it and felt sympathy for the filmmaker).
It seems no coincidence that ways of seeing became codified in Hollywood film production at the same
time that Freud’s theories describing how the unconscious was structured as language were being
discussed around the world. Mulvey appropriated Freud’s theories of scopophilia and indeed other tenets
to use as a ’political weapon’ in which to analyze film. By studying how women remain one-dimensional
characters in film, seeminlgy 'flattened' by the male gaze, she was able to describe why women appear
so powerless on screen in relation to men who are three-dimensional by comparison.
I always wondered how this process worked for the lesbian spectator viewing 'the flattened female'. I grew
up knowing nothing of Mulvey’s future theories but often wound up identifying with the male gaze. This
was because it seemed to me that women were wimpy and comparatively uninteresting. How long did it
take before Ingrid Bergman stood up to her husband in Gaslight! Later I discovered that actors such as
Barbara Stanwyck, Katherine Hepburn and Kim Novak
portrayed interesting women. Perhaps this was because because somehow these characters seemed to
subvert the classical Hollywood narrative. With them there was some kind of curious ’looking’ which I
came to see as a ’female gaze’. ( I later came to learn that all of these women in real life were either
lesbian or bisexual).
There is an ongoing dialogue in film concerning the lesbian character, who empowered, is the bearer of
meaning and disempowered remains an object of the male gaze.
Film theorist
Claire Johnston, a guest professor at San Francisco State University
where I was a graduate student in film studies, introduced to me the work of Mulvey and also a ’closeted’
director named
Dorothy Arzner,
the only female director working in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940’s. Katherine Hepburn was one of her
first stars, in Christopher Strong (US,1930) where Hepburn plays an Amelia Earhart type character that
commits suicide after she breaks an aviation record. This in order to avoid the stigma of bearing the child
of Sir Christopher Strong, a married man. Johnston argued that Arzner was excellent at subverting texts,
that is, ’going against the grain’ of the conventions of commercial film language so that an alternative
reading was possible. It seemed something of a misnomer to discover that films were considered ’texts’
and analyzing them was called ’reading’. But early film theory borrowing from literature studies employed
such conventions. This all made sense in time. For example, Arzner’s film was after all named after ’Sir
Christopher Strong’ but almost exclusively about Hepburn. What a better way to bring to attention to the
absence yet presence of ’woman’ than to subvert the text!
Hepburn emerges in one noteworthy scene in a silver lamé body stocking dressed as a chrysalis,
something Johnston pointed out was symbolic of the future of women where power relations would not be
based on the suppression of female identity.
The study of the ’subversion of texts’
is an area of film criticism. Another is called ’spectator studies’. Jackie Stacey, co-editor of Screen , a film
journal from the UK,wrote a pioneering study in this area called "Star Gazing" in the early 1990’s. Here
she examined the viewing habits of women in the UK during WWII. It was during this period many women
had spouses or boyfriends who were away in the service, in addition to obviously lesbian or asexual
women. These women confided of their strong identification with female characters such as Doris Day in
Calamity Jane (1953) . One women according to Stacey had seen the film 88 times.
Stacey was a guest at Stockholm University Department of Film Studies with gay film scholar Richard
in 1992. Both made ’readings against the grain’-- the surface of the narrative. According to Richard Dyer,
references to gays and lesbians are the rule not the exception in film.
Such references involve usually a double ’entendre’ or twist such as the ending of Casablanca where
Rick says to the Vichy police captain: ’This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship’.
What is interesting today in the field of cinema studies is the application of specifically ’gendered’ and
lesbian feminist perspectives of ’subverted texts’ as informed spectators. Attributing ’the look’ or bearer of
meaning to women in film is in a hybrid and problematic state. I recall discussions with Johnston about
the existence of ’the look’ in films with lesbian ’content’ or the applicability of a lesbian feminist
perspective to film in general. Yes, subversions were possible, she said, but altering symbolic language
was more difficult. The work of Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray became useful here who have worked
with 'feminine writing'. As Mulvey claimed, ’you can not create language in a vacuum’. Women still made
films which were carbon copies of conventional narratives. Together with a colleague, we presented
Mulvey’s work with a lesbian feminist perspective, the first time in Sweden.
I am interested in the explicit representation of lesbians in film as well as ’reading against the grain’. But,
as in all exploration, it is important to get the story ‘straight’. Each decade produces a different aesthetic
of the ’lesbian look’ forged by social conditions. In the 1990's lesbian representation has been included
within the designation 'queer cinema', coined by Teresa de Lauretis, a cinema studies professor at UC
Santa Cruz . She used the term to include the representation of both lesbians and gays but has since
abandoned the term which she feels has become a 'vacuous' publicist' label.
Progress in terms of empowered imagery is never constant but would appear to ebb and flow with
negative recycled myths about lesbians.
There is an interesting avantgarde film made by Maya Deren in 1945 called At Land . Maya Deren was
the initiator of the second wave of avant-garde films in the 1940’s. She made her own
films on a budget of what Hollywood spent on lipstick
as she liked to say, and traveled across the USA showing them and lecturing on film language. ’Amateur’
film, she said, refers to ’lover of one’s craft’ and she consciously chose not to work in Hollywood. The
short formal of the personal film is especially useful to lesbian filmmakers. It is both economical and does
not fall into the narrative pitfalls of making lesbian feature film which often has some negative (
commercial) influence. Deren influenced a cadres of women (both heterosexual and lesbian filmmakers)
such as Barbara Hammer, a prolific lesbian avant-garde filmmaker active for the past two decades. In
fact, one film in particular inspired a wave of lesbian iconography where Deren is the bearer of meaning.
Here Deren caresses the heads of two women playing chess in order to take back a chess piece she has
stolen. The game is representative of patriarchal order and she runs away as victor down the beach with
her prized possession. At Land was called a lesbian film by Peter Weiss, an avant-garde filmmaker who
made films in Sweden. A journalist from The New Republic called it ’lesbianish’. Deren protested her film
being called ’lesbianish’ because she felt it was an epithet tantamount to using derogatory designations
for African-Americans. Many gay and lesbians were featured in her films although she was herself
The following are examples of films where where lesbians are either the bearer of meaning or flattened by
the male gaze.
All films have a specific aesthetic:
The Fox , (US, 1968) Mark Rydell. A tree falls on the woman of a lesbian relationship. Based on D.H.
Lawrence’s novel, a man enters the scene and convinces one of the women to leave with him. The
punishment for the one who is left behind, the phallic tree.
The Killing of Sister George , (GB,1968) Robert Aldrich Featuring a typical butch-femme relationship of
the late sixties where one of the women in the relationship is forced to drink her lover’s bathwater.
Includes a scene filmed in the famous London lesbian bar, ’The Getaway’.
Born in Flames , (US, 1983) Lizzie Borden. Here, lesbianism is connected to class and sexual politics.
Go Fish , (US ,1994), Rose Troche. A film about lesbian friendship and relationships.
Gia , (US,1997 HBO television. Featuring lesbian supermodel Gia Carangi, (Cindy Crawford was initially
called ’Baby Gia’) one of the first lesbians to die of AIDS. In real life Carangi complained about the
homophobia in the fashion industry. In this TV movie, her lesbianism is toned way down as a ‘phase’ of
the 1970’s.
Ellen , (US, 1993-1998). TV serial by Ellen Degeneres. 'Ellen' is by far an example of one of the strongest
bearers of meaning in this century and the ramifications of her coming out on public TV have far-reaching
consequences which have yet to be fully studied. Now in repeat in Sweden on TV 4 where Ellen has still
not come out. (postscript: now she has!). Ellen has broken the silence of lesbians within a heterosexual
context, and reversed meaning from being an innocuous, asexualized woman to becoming a sexual and
empowered woman. One interesting aspect of her outing is reflected in the film career of her former
partner Anne Heche- whose ability to ’play’ a heterosexual character was questioned in a film when she
was to play opposite Harrison Ford ( protest by Ford). Outing raises the threat of losing ’heterosexual
privilege’--an epistemological switch with consequences.
After Go Fish, by Rose Troche, financed by Samuel Goldwyn, a wave of lesbian films were produced
either explicit or implicit. It was discovered that if a film could appeal to a lesbian public, the box office
draw would increase 10%. ( Survey in "Details" magazine ) Yet asexualized lesbian films abound more
than not like Fried Green Tomatoes, (1991, with strong female bonding Thelma and Louise (1991), GI
Jane , (1997, Demi Moore is insulted to be labeled lesbian because she will have to quit boot camp with
the boys) Boys on the Side (1995, Whoopie Goldberg plays your ordinary asexual lesbian in love with a
woman who is dying of AIDS. The title? ). Sharon Stone’s career was lifted by playing (and laying) a
homicidal bisexual woman in Basic Instinct (1991). All films except Go Fish demonstrate lesbian content
but not a ’lesbian look’. All diminish ’the look’ with either closeted, vague, anti-lesbian, or homophobic
voyeuristic material for male desire and fantasy.
As more women become directors and work with the conscious insertion of content into lesbian
characters and imagery, we will wrestle with the ’lesbian look’. Films must go beyond Thelma and Louise
which are parodies or surrogates of power, outlaws punishable by a ride over the Grand Canyon which
symbolically re-echoes the demise of Katherine Hepburn on her solo flight over the Atlantic in Christopher
Strong or Sandy Fox, felled by a tree in The Fox . ’The look’ is out there!
Luce Irigararay, This Sex Which is not One , tr. G. Gill, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.
Claire Johnston, The Work of Dorothy Arzner: Towards a Feminist Cinema , London: BFI, 1975.
Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Screen, Volume 16, No 3, 1975. Richard Dyer,
Now You See It: Studies on Lesbian and Gay Film , London: Routledge, 1990. Jackie Stacey, Star
Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship , London: Routledge, 1993.
Moira Sullivan, An Anagram of the Ideas of Filmmaker Maya Deren , Stockholm University, 1997.
Moira Sullivan
received her doctorate from Stockholm University, Department of Film Studies in 1997. Her research has
been done transculturally in Sweden, the USA and France. She wrote her doctorate on avant-garde
filmmaker Maya Deren who made films during the 1940’s and 1950’s. At the Stockholm Kvinnohuset
(Women’s House) she has worked to create an exhibition and distribution forum of international women’s
films. She also teaches courses in lesbian film and small film production at Kvinnohöjden in Borlänge. Her
work has been shown at the Denver Underground Film Festival, Paris TV (Canal Plus) and in Lesvos
Greece. Guests she has presented to local public forums have been Barbara Hammer and Yvonne
Rainer. Sullivan is a staff writer for Movie Magazine, San Francisco and, Paris. She
regularly covers Créteil International Films de Femmes, the largest returning women’s film festival in the
world and Cineffable, the largest lesbian film festival in Europe. She is a guest speaker at the gay and
lesbian film festival in Stockholm and at various universities and art colleges in Europe and the USA. She
has authored two web pages:
Maya Deren Forum
Taken from Angelfire.Com
Koivunen A. & Paasonen S. (eds),Conference proceedings
for affective encounters: rethinking embodiment in feminist media
studies ,
University of Turku, School of Art, Literature and Music,
Media Studies, Series A, N:o 49
An important domain of affective encounter is pornography. The non-verbal elements
of images and sounds which convey meaning, mood, and emotion in this discourse
often seem to have an embodied dimension of perception. It is clear that female
emotional response to pornography is divided in terms of spectator interest. The fact
that pornography is a source of pleasure for some and dis-ease for others makes it
a volatile and controversial subject. This article is meant as a ‘door opener’ into a
polemic area which divides feminism. Its concern is the reproduction of the moving
body imagery of pornography foremost by lesbians, and secondly, by heterosexual
In classic pornography woman is a commodited entity where the exchange of
females among males is the main currency. Female desire in moving picture imagery
is often equated with prostitution, rape or bondage where the female body is displayed
fragmented and dismembered. Pornography which literally means ‘writing
about prostitutes’ is a tool for the reproduction of imagery and text to facilitate this
The de nition of pornography will be used operationally in this text, de ned
by law professor Catherine MacKinnon:”graphic sexually explicit materials that subordinate
women through pictures or words”. (MacKinnon:1993, p. 22) According to radical
feminist Andrea Dworkin,”Pornography is central in creating and maintaining the
civil inequality of the sexes”. Anti-pornography ordinances authored by Dworkin and
MacKinnon successfully passed in Minneapolis but ruled unconstitutional in Indianapolis,
USA are considered problematic by both feminists and gay and lesbian activists in
terms of 1)what should legally count as pornography and 2) the limitation of freedom
of expression. In order words, the debate is a battle between anti-pornography feminists
and freedom of expression feminists. The defeat of the Indianapolis ordinance
in part came from the fact that conservative politicians backed the ordinance causing
feminists/activists to withdraw support. Furthermore the application of the ordinance
was believed to be primarily targeted at gay and lesbian pornography. Judith Butler,
to name one example, is an advocate of pornography because censorship is often
particularly leveled against homosexuals.
The mark of Dworkin and MacKinnon nevertheless can be noted in cinema
studies programs where pornography is studied such as by Linda Williams at University
of California, Berkeley. In fact, for the purposes of research at academic institutions
it is common to designate sexually explicit videos as either Dworkin/MacKinnonpornographic
or non-Dworkin/MacKinnon-pornographic.
In order to come to terms with what is meant by pornography in this paper,
it is crucial to identify the criteria used by Dworkin and Mackinnon: “ (i) women
are presented dehumanized as sexual objects, things, or commodities; or (ii) women
are presented as sexual objects who enjoy pain or humiliation; or (iii) women are
presented as sexual objects who experience sexual pleasure in being raped; or (iv)
women are presented as sexual objects tied up or cut up or mutilated or bruised
or physically hurt; or (v)women are presented in postures or positions of sexual submission,
servility, or display; or (vi) women’s body parts--including but not limited
to , vaginas, breasts, or buttocks-- are exhibited such that women are reduced to
those parts; or (vii) women are presented as whores by nature; or (viii) women are
presented as being penetrated by objects or animals; (ix) women are presented in
[email protected]
Moira Sullivan,
Living Communication International, Sweden
Lesbographic Pornography
_affective encounters_
scenarios of degradation, injury, torture, shown as lthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised,
or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual”. (Dworkin and MacKinnon:
It is the thesis of this paper that safeguarding freedom of expression ultimately
means that the ‘coding’ of pornography will remain uncontested. Therefore,
in order to insure this freedom a high price must be paid. The mass-production of
women as prostitutes by the adult entertainment industry is part of the imaginary
realm of pornography. Equally, the sexually liberated woman, heterosexual or lesbian
is obliged to be an advocate of pornography, for it is perceived that harmless indeed
is the scope of the imaginary, with no causality in societal effects, as witnessed by the
backlash against Dworkin and MacKinnon. The issue of pornography has taken many
twists and turns during the second wave of feminism. One major observation that can
be made is ‘anything that can be said against pornography can be used as an argument
for it’. In a perplexing matrix of reversals where philosophy over feminism has
won many inroads, the roots of pornography and its effect on the image of women
has been sidestepped.
In the ‘backlash’ against feminism, pornographic lms by heterosexual women
and lesbians are on the upswing. During the last years, two popular women’s lm
festivals in Paris have showcased pornography made by women: Cineffable ,a lesbian
lm festival in its 11th year (November 1-5 2000) and the 23rd Créteil Film de
Femmes International Women’s Film Festival (March 23-April 2, 2001). Both venues
have standards for lm selection which scrutinize how the image of women is used so
the question is why these lms which 10 years ago would have been rejected made it
to the front line. In fact would they have been made 10 years ago? Festival organizers
claim that the lms were selected because more and more pornographic lms made
by women are being sent in for consideration and therefore need to be addressed-- to
be more precise--because they ‘awaken debate’. The lms were ‘packaged’ at Créteil
for raising ‘taboos’. At Cineffable , the lms were shown late Saturday night, seemingly
for their ‘entertainment value ’ as they are for cable television.
There has been a trend in lm distribution lately to regard pornographic lms
made by women as examples of ‘feminist lms’. Liberal feminists, like their male
counterparts, argue that the prohibition of pornography is a symptom of an archaic
morality. The preciousness of freedom of expression, the denial that there is any
causality to pornographic imagery and the subordination of woman in society, and
an indifference to the conditions under which sex workers work in the adult entertainment
industry safeguard the territory of pornography.
Despite attempts at ‘reinventing ’ pornography, there is nothing revolutionary
in the iconography that would suggest that lms made by women are, as their
distributors advertise, ‘feminist’. The current application of a feminist label to lms
made by women or involving female characters occurs with the use of violence or
sex traditionally in control of male lmmakers and male characters in mainstream
lm. A panel discussion held at Créteil with lmmakers Catherine Breillat (France)and
Shu Lea Cheang (USA) failed to qualify if pornographic lms made by women were
however a ‘new genre’. French feminists, the bulk of the Créteil audience, boycotted
the event and those women venturing arguments against the use of pornography in
the lms were booed and whistled at. There was an invisible kinship between the two
lmmakers in the promotion of pornography as lm currency without any explanation
of how it was any different than that made by men. Here are examples of lms chosen
at women’s festivals this year:
I.K.U starts where Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner ends. In the year 20XX the Genom
Corporation manufacturers robots called ‘IKU Coders ’ which collect orgasm data.
I.K.U.databases are on the net and I.K.U.chips sold in vending machines. A cyber
tool that looks like a gun is used to plug in the client to a number of fantasy hosts
_affective encounters_
and hostesses.There are heterosexual and homosexual possibilities
where sex is simulated.The title of the lm is derived
from a Japanese expression used in reaching orgasm. [http://]
Cheang originally from Taiwan, had been New York
based for the last 20 years.She previously made Fresh Kill,
a popular lm shown at Créteil about pollution in New York
featuring a lesbian couple.She wondered why all the women
were mad at her this time at Créteil and didn’t show up for
I.K.U. which she considered a ‘meta level ‘ of classic pornography. Seemingly knowledgeable
of pornographic lm techniques as the result of making this lm,her rst
‘porno’venture, Cheang explained how the Japanese actors enjoyed working on her
lm and that the exploitative working conditions of porno industry production were
When challenged about her use of conventional pornographic iconography
during the Créteil panel, Cheang said she had not heard the word ‘patriarchal’ in a
long time, and argued that her lm did not t within this paradigm. The human body
in I.K.U., she argued, is a gigabyte hard drive--and body parts, compressed bytes.
She denied that her lm used phallic symbols but were just ‘images’. Cheang furthermore
claimed the vagina is the matrix of desire and no human sexual organs touch
in I.K.U. Cheang identi es herself a ‘trans’sexual which for her means that she has
transcended hetero and homo-sexuality. She advocates returning to the underground
porno lms of the 1970’s in which viewers participated in group masturbation and
also advocates pornography for all sexual lifestyles.
How to Fuck in High Heels
Shar Rednour and her partner Jackie Strano of (Sex Indulgence and Rock’n
Roll) are the producers,directors and stars of
this new dyke porno, a ‘mockumentary’ about
making lesbian pornography--made like a documentary
to poke fun at the genre.[http://]
Actress Shar is lmed by partner/
director Jackie who compares their work to
John Cassavettes and Gena Rowlands.The lm
is about a dominatrix with high heels who has
sex with several women.There are classic sex
industry closeups of sex organs and the staging
of sexual acts is consistent with industry iconography. The main dialogue of the
lm consists of,’yeah,yeah ’, right, yeah, oh baby,shit’, consistent with the dialogue of
classic pornography.The concern that lesbians own their imagery may be valid but a
huge portion of lesbians walked out of the lm at Cineffable this year. The common
complaint was that there was nothing new with this kind of pornography, made by lesbians
or not. In the postmodern era of recycling,the case can be actually made.What
can be noted about this lm and many of its kind by lesbians is that the sexual acts
appear to be a parody of heterosexual pornography, in many ways a theatrical mockery
mirroring back the power relations of industry porn.It is also true that lesbians
making pornography use the imagery in the same way as heterosexual pornography
although it seems clear that women relate to each other in non-hierarchical ways in
this particular lm even while parodying butch/ femme roles.
Jackie Strano is also the lead singer,(third from left in photo) one of the
main songwriters and founder of the all woman hard rock band,’The Hail Marys’ featured
on the soundtrack of the Hollywood lm, Bound (1997) by the Wachowski
Brothers. Strano is a former worker-owner of Good Vibrations and worked for ve
How to Fuck in High Heels, 2000 USA
Shar Rednour, Jackie Strano
I.K.U. by Shu Lea Cheang
Japan 2000.
_affective encounters_
years as a sex educator in GV’s retail and mail order
businesses.(Susie ‘Sexpert Bright was the advisor for
the sex scenes between Meg Tilly and Gina Gershon
in Bound ,shot in one take to avoid censorship).Shar
Rednour (top left) is an editor, author, performance
artist, zine publisher and author of “The Femme’s
Guide to the Universe”.
In Romance, a young woman named Marie tires of her boyfriend’s lack of sexual
intimacy. Instead she begins a journey into sadomasochistic sexual adventure where
she is bound and blindfolded by a teacher and subjected to bondage. She enjoys
this, likening it to death, almost. She has anonymous sex with one man, who then
rapes her but she tells him afterwards that she is not
ashamed. Marie also fantasizes about being gangraped,
her lower and upper body partitioned by a wall
where the lower half is penetrated by anonymous
men. The journey is necessary, argues Breillat, in
order to break the bonds of male domination that
occur in the female imaginary. According to Andrea
Dworkin, these ‘dreams’ are not erotic but ‘dreams
of torture and of hate, in this case hate being
used against female bodies, the instruments of hate
(mental or esh) being used to maim”. (Dworkin,
1983, p. 303.) At the end of the lm as Marie gives
birth to a baby her boyfriend is blown up in the apartment
where she intentionally left the gas stove on.
The teacher assumes the role of father, and birth,
bondage and death are united.
Heterosexual lmmaker Catherine Breillat had
a small part in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) a lm about sex and
the death urge, banned at rst in Italy and in several cities of the USA. She admits
to being inspired by Georges Bataille,who believes that women have two choices: to
be chaste or prostitutes, and the Marquis de Sade--a batterer, rapist and child abuser.
(Dworkin: 1983, p. 70, 151). Out of this pool of mentors, Breillat claims she wants to
highlight female desire in her lms. She admitted at the Créteil panel however that
her biggest victory to date was in portraying the male sex organ. This breakthrough
is praised because it has not been done, she says,--only the female is naked and
exposed in lm.
[http://www.lionsgate le.html?pid=IN-T-00082]
Baise-Moi is a lm making its way around the art
house cinema circuit based on a novel by heterosexual
Virginie Despentes. It concerns two women who
go on a killing spree: one is a prostitute who strangles
her roommate for wanting to drink her alcohol
and the other is an underage porn star who gets
raped and subsequently shoots her brother for getting
upset about it. They both team up, pick up men
at bars and have sex with them. There is one homoerotic
scene in which the women dance together a
common device in pornographic lms which serve
as foreplay for male viewers before the ‘real’ heterosexual
Romance, Catherine Breillat,
France, 1999
Baise- Moi, France, 2000 (“Rape
Me”) France, Virginie Despentes
The Hail Marys
_affective encounters_
The two women shoot a lot of cocaine and eventually one
of them is gunned down at a gas station.The other is
caught by the police while ashbacking about the dance
scene with her slain killer friend/lover(?) In addition to
the lm being pornographic, it was banned in 23 countries
quite probably because the women killed men (and one
woman) and used them as objects. Hence the label, ‘feminist’,
the backlash de nition. The lm has been shown
since April 2001 at Kvartersbion, a small off beat neighborhood theater in Stockholm
to ‘awaken debate’(as at Créteil and Cineffable) and was not allowed to be advertised
nor critiqued in Sweden in advance of the lm’s theatrical release.
Disarming Pornographic Moving Imagery
Laura Mulvey wrote the seminal article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in the
1970’s, since rewritten. What still remains valid is the role of sadomasochistic voyeuristic
imagery in the construction of ‘pleasure ’. Mulvey argued that there is no clear
female gaze in lm put perhaps it can be argued that pornography made by women
is a speculation in which to measure the presence of a female gaze.
Breillat claims she provides a female gaze in her lms as a heterosexual
woman.With a voice over, the character Marie in Romance fantasizes about bondage
and rape which become for her the only way to awaken desire. This is a consistent
convention with Breillat where she tries to construct Eros in the eternal male and
female. However she merely succeeds in role reversals where men do not want to
have sex and women must nd other partners, or where young men’s hearts are
broken with lecherous ‘older’ women such as in her most recent lm Brève Traversée
(2000).It is the Thelma and Louise (1991) syndrome where woman put on the guns
and become outlaws but wind up having to die as punishment (one of the rst lms
during the backlash against feminism labeled ‘feminist’).Despentes ’ bonding of the
female protagonists and exchange of men becomes a similar suicidal mission. These
women do not sweep aside the existing order and break it up,nor rewrite it, but
re-echo industrial codes of pornography.In one scene in Baise Moi, the two female
protagonists visit a sex club and shoot all the patrons including an exploitative sexually
violent murder of a male patron. The rape scene of Baise-Moi which has been
censored in Britain includes raw close- ups which are eroticized. Most of the sex
scenes in the lm were not simulated, all shot in close range.
Shar Rednour and Jackie Strano borrow some of the conventions of classic pornography
from a woman’s point of view, where bondage becomes a metaphor.Since
it’s a ‘mockumentary’ it becomes a theatricalization of classic pornography, but still
with no obvious female gaze. Shu Lea Cheang attempts to transcend sexuality to provide
a host and donor without a body.But it is expected of the spectator to ignore the
visualization of sexual organs and instead imagine them as a hardrive with gigabytes,
proving that the speculation of the virtual is still in an embryonic stage.
When lesbians are behind the camera making hard core pornography are the
lm conditions different? Most pornographic shots are close-ups of sexual organs or
substitutes for sexual organs minus the ‘money shots ’, i.e.shots of male ejaculation-athough there is a revolutionary upswing in depicting female ejaculation, the subject
of many new lesbian documentaries. An inaccurate assumption is that the construction
of these lms does not constitute pornography because of lesbian agency. Even
if the lms are constructed as a lesbian narrative with camera angles,lighting,and
mis-en- scéne,and even if the codes,argot and lifestyles are represented by lesbians
for lesbian consumption, the codi ed images of pornography prevail where desire is
often equated with bondage and rape, like a bandaid on a broken leg.
In fact, pornographic lms appear to be inherently incapable of revealing a
Filmmaker Virginie
Despentes (on right)
_affective encounters_
female ordering of space. According to Luce Irigaray,male desire is based on the
exchange of females among males. Female desire among women on the other hand,
argues Irigaray, circumvents the economy of heterosexuality,and goes beyond the
seller-buyer commodity structure. This is a dated assumption in light of the content
of a number of recent pornographic lms made by lesbians. Marketing mainstream
or lesbian pornography as soft pore or erotic often involves bonding and rape fantasy,
where the erotic and pornographic is inherently complicit.
While pornography may be just a ‘speculation’ it nevertheless is a voyeurist
narrative with affective domains. Not only is there an ‘erotic gaze’ for women but
also for the spectators in the audience. Different degrees of pleasure and distress
are noted by lm theoretician Linda Williams in the same way that images in horror
lms cause pleasure or dis-ease. She argues that pornographic lms are moreover
‘choreographies ’ designed to affect emotions, understandably in multiple ways. Citing
Linda Lovelace’s lm Deep Throat , she claims that by studying the choreography
of images we will understand more about power relations. That is however an analysis
con ned to the screen only. When confronted with the fact that Lovelace was
beaten,harassed and nancially exploited by her husband,Williams answered,’well
she still earned a lot of money as a porn star’. Indeed, the corruption and graft of
the porno lm industry is well documented where 60% of the actors in porno lms
are incest survivors.One Internet website includes the story of a woman whose rst
lover was her father,adorned by pornographic pictures and an animated insert of the
woman giving a blowjob. Jackie Strano also tells of how her rst sexual encounter
was with a trusted male relative on the S.I.R website. Do these revelations affect the
speculation of pornography? Is it still possible to regard this imagery as just choreography
and a document on power relations?
Disassembling images such as the ones used in pornography can be employed
as a tool for understanding the expression of the roots of pornography. By seeing
beyond the choreography of images and how they affect us on a knee jerk level we
will come closer to an understanding of why pornography ‘distresses’ us. Dworkin
and MacKinnon’s argument against the dehumanization of women when presented as
sexual objects or commodities is central to this understanding.
Cornell, Drucilla, 2000. Feminism & Pornography, Great Britain Oxford University
Darren, Alison, 2000. Lesbian Film Guide, London: Cassel.
Dworkin,andrea,1983.Pornography:Men Possessing Women, Great Britain: The Women’s
Dworkin, Andrea And Mackinnon, Catherine, 1988. Pornography and Civil Rights: A
New Day, Minneapolis: Organizing Against Pornography.
Irigaray, Luce, 1985.The Sex Which is Not One, New York: Cornell University Press.
Mackinnon, Catherine, 1993. Only Words ,Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.
Williams, Linda, 1990, Hardcore, London: Pandora Press.
_affective encounters_
Moira Sullivan, a.k.a. Juanita Palomablanca, is the founder of Living Communication
International, a lm art enterprise, and received her doctorate in cinema studies from
Stockholm University in 1997. She is a world expert on the avant-garde lmmaker
Maya Deren and has been invited to Spain, France and Italy for special lm programs.
A lm journalist and lecturer, she regularly attends the Paris based Cineffable and
Créteil women’s lm festivals regularly to keep abreast of new developments in women’s
Cineffable Film Festival,Paris:
Créteil Films de Femmes Festival, Paris : http://www.
Moira Sullivan’s websites:
The Maya Deren Forum:
Living Femme Communication: http://www.angel
Living Communication International:
Email: [email protected]
E-book at
[http://www.utu. /hum/mediatutkimus/affective/procee
dings.pdf], Media Studies, Turku 2001.