Tuesday, June 12, 2012


All complicated machines and appliances are very probably the genitals -- as a rule the male genitals -- in the description of which the symbolism of dreams is as indefatigable as human wit. It is quite unmistakable that all weapons and tools are used as symbols for the male organ: e.g. ploughshare, hammer, gun, revolver, dagger, sword, etc.-- Sigmund Freud, THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS, Chapter 6.

Clover refuses to call identification with the Final Girl feminist, because of the many reductive psychoanalytic assumptions that have been a hallmark of feminist film theory: she is “a male surrogate in things oedipal, a homoerotic stand-in, the audience incorporate; to the extent she ‘means’ girl at all, it is only for purposes of signifying phallic lack, and even that meaning is nullified in the final scenes [where she picks up a ‘phallic tool’ and inserts it into the killer].” -- Charles Reece quoting Carol Clover here.

I’ve always thought that building feminist critical theories on the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud was akin to building a sandcastle right in the path of the incoming tide.  No matter how ingeniously a critic like Clover attempts to reconfigure Freudianism to accommodate feminine views of sexuality, Freud remains a “one sex” philosopher for whom male sexuality is paramount, as Luce Irigaray noted:

While Irigaray praises psychoanalysis for utilizing the method of analysis to reveal the plight of female subjectivity, she also thinks that it reinforces it. Freud attempts to explain female subjectivity and sexuality according to a male model. From this perspective, female subjectivity looks like a deformed or insufficiently developed form of male subjectivity.-- Irigaray entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

        Freud remains significant in that he formulated his own set of psychological archetypes, archetypes that have become pervasive—though far from universal—throughout many manifestations of art from the 20th century on.  But Freud’s tendency to characterize maleness as “active” and femaleness as “passive” would seem extremely problematic for feminist theory.

Regard, the wording of Reece’s paraphrase of Clover.  The implication is that only by the act of imitating a man—by stabbing with a knife, as a man “stabs” with a penis—that a woman can become empowered.  I’ve argued myself that the fictive act of violence tends to possess a different resonance for female characters as against male characters.  In addition, the nature of sexual dimorphism makes it probable that most if not all genres will always be dominated by male heroes, villains, or monsters.  But that’s far from imputing all power to the male gender, as Clover does by recapitulating Freud's one-sex POV and imputing it to American culture as a general principle:

If the early experience of the oedipal drama can be—is perhaps ideally—enacted in female form, the achievement of full adulthood requires the assumption and, apparently, brutal employment of the phallus. The helpless child is gendered feminine; the autonomous adult or subject is gendered masculine; the passage from childhood to adulthood entails a shift from feminine to masculine.

Here’s one of the iconic scenes of 1980s slasher cinema, from 1981’s HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (spoiler warning ahead):

The illustration does not depict that the (male) victim is bound and helpless to prevent being fed a deadly shish kebab, but it would seem implicit.  Given that this bizarre assault doesn’t depend on sheer muscular power, it’s plain that either a man or a woman could perpetrate it— and indeed, BIRTHDAY is one of the best-known slashers in which the maniac in question doesn’t posses the “Y” chromosome.  But is the deadly shish kebab a phallic substitute, as seen in Freud's summation above?  Or in this case, is it possible that the weapon is just a weapon?

In contrast to the classic “monster movie,” in which the gender of the monster is diegetically clear (however ambivalent in terms of depth analysis), the slasher-film’s roots are in the mystery genre, often making it feasible that the malefactor may be female as easily as male—and indeed, one of the founding examples of the subgenre, FRIDAY THE 13TH, rests on just such a turnabout.  This isn’t possible for slashers based on recurring characters, which align themselves with classic movie monsters in that the monster’s gendered nature is clearly defined.  But for the non-serial type, it seems egregious to view violent acts in themselves as possessing some mysterious “gender aura” that dispels the female’s Lacanian “penis lack” by giving her a substitute penis in the form of a knife or some other “longer-than-it-is-wide” weapon. 

 Clover is correct when she states that "gender is less a wall than a permeable membrane," but her she does not take the implications of this permeability far enough, falling too easily into the trap of Freudian thinking: that a female character automatically takes on "male" qualities simply by the act of defending herself ably.

 In a similar vein is Noah Berlatsky's essay, "Men in Women-in-Prison," which overall is an accurate survey of the women-in-prison subgenre but also succumbs to the same Freudian one-sex essentialism at assorted key points.  Toward the essay's end he quotes Freud's verdict upon male masochism: "For Freud, then, the male masochist's fantasy of being beaten by the mother is meant to conceal the desire for the father"-- which in my view, is one of Freud's most egregious examples of one-sex blindness.  After then citing an alternate view by Gilles Deleuze-- which still doesn't get beyond Freud's patriarchal obsessions-- Berlatsky examines the martial nature of the female protagonists of Jack Hill's THE BIG DOLL HOUSE:

Many of the woman in the film have aggressive characteristics usually associated with men — Bodine knows her way around a machine-gun; Grear, the predatory butch, refers to herself as "old man" and acts towards Harrad and Collier as an abusive husband; Alcott is sexually frustrated, sexually aggressive, and sexually violent in a stereotypical male way; Dietrich explicitly takes the power and gender of a man. These characters are all physically attractive, variously nude, and fetishized. By lusting after these strong, masculinized women, then, you could argue that the male viewer is expressing his wish not to be emasculated, but to be enmasculated— possessed by the father.

        Berlatsky concludes by advocating Deleuze's POV: 'In comparison to Freud, Deleuze better captures the excessiveness of The Big Doll House— the theatricality of the abuse, torture, and violence. When Alcott rapes Fred, it's a joke both on him and on masculinity in general. As Tania Modleski says, "the humorous effect [is] achieved precisely by the incongruity of placing a woman in a position of authority, of substituting her presence for that of the law."'

       As with Clover's "Final Girl" theory, however, the very idea of feminine power is made to seem something other than itself: it can only be a satire of male power, or a substitute for "the law," which is automatically defined by Father Freud as male in nature.  And so Berlatsky, who in theory should be trying to carve out a niche for feminine independence, forces female power into just as much of a second-class status as did Freud. 

       At the end of Part 1 I said:

Part 2 will touch on other problematic aspects of the sort of criticism that is to literature as a prosecuting attorney is to the subject of an indictment.
I must admit that the above essay, having investigated Clover and Berlatsky for a different set of problems related to "Freud anxiety," does not really treat the problems of "prosecutorial misconduct" (although Berlatsky does take a similar attitude with regard to "masculinity")  Part 3, then, will touch on the ethical problems of said misconduct more thoroughly.


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