Wages of Cinema – Sexualities

I. Gender as Masquerade in the Viet Nam War Film

The existence of a Viet Nam-movie genre has been traced to the official withdrawal of the United States from the war of colonization in that country. Film historian Robert Sklar observed that in earlier film-era wars (World Wars I and II and the Korean conflict), “[American] motion picture companies cooperated with the government in producing a variety of films … that explained, dramatized, and aided war aims” (335). Rare prowar films (such as John Wayne and Ray Kellogg’s The Green Berets), antiwar documentaries, and “echoes and shadows” of the conflict reflected in genre and exploitation movies were the only possible means for the Viet Nam issue to be tackled in American films, but “after the Communist victory [in 1975], it became possible to look back” (337). It is the manner of this looking back that occasions this essay’s consideration of the French production of Indochine, as well as its insertion into a matrix of ideologically problematic US film practice, that makes the Régis Wargnier film appear innovative, at least initially, in comparison.

11011The Viet Nam film genre, to begin with, is itself a matter of careful periodizing and qualifying, as the above account demonstrates. Writing from the perspective of the present, Michael Selig enumerates that, although the so-called Viet Nam movies share an “appropriation of the language and iconography of a particular historical moment (usually from the ’60s and early ’70s) and the subordination of that moment to ‘traditional paradigms’ which are decidedly not exclusive to the so-called Viet Nam film genre,” the use of such a type of imagery “merely masks the attempts to reestablish a traditional cultural and political identity” to the way in which the American defeat “created a cultural crisis among the American people” (2). Wargnier himself declared as much when he maintained that his objective was to undertake a more responsible retelling of the nature of the colonial conflict (“au milieu de l’Histoire et de voir comment l’Histoire infléchit ces destins”) with his recollection “des grands films romanesques, américains pour la plupart” (Indochine 82).[1]

11011The film’s narrative raises not only the issue of the compatibility of such an approach, but more important, the question of how gender has been configured on separate levels: that of cultural texts, cinema in particular, and that of historical practice, from both sides of the conflict. There is of course the danger, in the latter category, of on the one hand using Viet Nam as a synecdoche of the Other, and of on the other hand conflating the US and France into the West. One way of resolving this predicament would be to further qualify the Viet Nam-as-Other approach as the East, which was the manner in which the war was consistently regarded in cultural texts, and delineating whenever possible which “West” between the two colonial adventurers is being referred to, whether France or the US.

11011Indochine’s initial distinction from the Hollywood Viet Nam project is its farther periodization, the ’50s era of French colonial administration being challenged by the southward advance of Communist liberation fighters. Eliane Davries, a single middle-aged woman, adopts Camille, a “princess of Annam,” after the latter’s parents die in a plane crash; along with Camille, Eliane agrees to oversee Camille’s parents’ plantation. Eliane conducts herself according to strict rules of civil and secular propriety, raising Camille as she would a European child (Camille never speaks Vietnamese even toward the end of the narrative) but also arranging to eventually turn over the plantation to her as well as marry her off to a similarly wealthy native merchant family. Discreetly, Eliane carries on a passionate affair with a French naval officer, Jean-Baptiste, but lets go of the dalliance when the latter insists on his freedom. Unaware of the affair, Camille also falls in love with Jean-Baptiste, prompting Eliane to forbid him from seeing her and rushing Camille’s wedding arrangements with Than, who has also been rebelling against his parents’ (and his country’s colonizer’s) excessive authoritarianism. Camille and Than decide to break up and run away from their respective families, and Camille treks all the way to the far-flung destination that Eliane had arranged for Jean-Baptiste. To get near him she agrees to be sold to slavery, but in his rescuing her she shoots and kills his naval superior, and the two become fugitives who take advantage of the disguises worn by roving theatrical troupes. The couple are separately caught and Jean-Baptiste ends his life on a day-pass at Eliane’s house to see his and Camille’s son Etienne, while Camille suffers six years in prison where she emerges as a hard-line Vietminh cadre. The war ends with the Geneva negotiations which Camille attends and to which Eliane brings Etienne, but the two never get to see Camille.

11011The use of female protagonists to represent the two warring countries may be the film’s most significant contribution to Viet Nam-film generic tradition. Even by standard “positive images” feminist requisites, the figures of Camille and Eliane hold up admirably, particularly in relation to the male characters in the film. Paradoxically, the larger generic framework, that of (European) art-epic production, also ensures that the men do not suffer from lack of sympathy either. Than gallantly agrees to allow Camille to seek her true love and later assists the two of them by recommending them to a Communist-sympathetic theater troupe; expelled from a Paris university for protesting the Banh Bien Phu massacre, he declares to his mother, “The French have taught me freedom and equality; I’ll fight them with those.” Jean-Baptiste is of course the fiery and desirable object of passion shared by mother and daughter, who undergoes a domesticizing transformation when he renounces his freedom for the sake of Camille. The most extreme instance of the movie’s insistent humanism is that of the character of Eliane’s unrequited suitor Guy Asselin, a ruthless counter-insurgency expert who resorts to torture and employs mercenary rebel-hunters, but who offsets such damaging traits by a keen wit, his devotion to Eliane and his job, and his fall from grace with the authorities where he remarks, with consciously ironic self-reference, “The innocents are kicked out, the guilty will go free.”

11011The problematics of this narrative strategy are twofold in nature, one building up from the other. To begin with, it would be difficult to accept as historical fact that women were the major political players in the Viet Nam conflict, whether involving the French or the Americans. In giving prominence to the participation of its women characters, however, Indochine manages to extend viewership identification and sympathy with the real-life power players, the men. The role of women in political life derives from the concept of difference, and the nature of their participation originates with the function of their bodies. Monique Canto relates that, to the questions of how the city can maintain itself and ensure that it satisfies its citizens’ desires,

woman-as-political-animal provides an answer. With woman, a place can be found in political theory for both procreation and the representation of desire – and hence also the satisfaction of desire. Procreation and representation are related questions, moreover; taken together, they indicate the difficulty of conceptualizing, within a given political framework, the possibility of reproduction: reproduction of the real in order to satisfy desire, and reproduction of human life so that the city may endure. (340)

At first glance, this assignation of political value to women on the basis of their bodily difference may seem at odds with the “narrative and visual reconstitution of a heroic male subject, a prerequisite for which is the devaluation and abuse of the feminine” in Viet Nam-film texts (Selig 3). Furthermore, it may not necessarily be possible, though Selig makes the positive assertion,

to account for the films’ consistent effacements of the issues of race, class, nationalism, and gender (their historical misrepresentations, we might say) by focusing on their all too conventional concern with the narrative and visual reconstitution of the male subject and their almost always violent repression of the feminine. (3)

11011If one were to pursue this line of inspecting the physical valuation of women’s bodies in Indochine, there would appear to be the rupturing of its benevolent-because-motherly colonialist capitulation: although it is Eliane who gets depicted as a repressed yet ultimately passionate matriarch, it is Camille who is undressed twice, without her even being sexualized in both scenes the way that Eliane charges her scenes with Jean-Baptiste with her desire for him. What this implies, using standard Orientalist lines of reason, is that the body of the Other can be gazed at with more clinical regard; within the terms of the film, the seemingly indulgent undressing of Camille may also perhaps have been intended to balance her character’s eventual domination of the political narrative, in which it is Eliane’s (and Guy’s and Jean-Baptiste’s) people who are forced to negotiate with hers.

11011Some degree of reductionist danger might also be present herein, though, in that this reading might be too close for a text that operates both as a self-contained attempt at providing high-cultural pleasure and as an insertion into a highly difficult mode of film practice. On the one hand, Hollywood and even mainstream American literary texts on the Viet Nam war can hardly defend themselves from charges of feminizing the enemy in “reducing the Vietnamese to mere ‘gooks’ – something between a woman and an animal” (Lawson 23; also Selig 7-8) and in exploiting “the fear of becoming a woman (of losing one’s ‘balls’) [as] one of the indoctrinational weapons used by the military in preparing young men for battle” (22). On the other hand, the configuration of Eliane and Camille’s sameness, overshadowed by their difference from men, is inflected not merely by the obvious category of gender but the even more crucially political one of class. To use an outmoded application of body discourse, Eliane and Camille can be seen to constitute the head or rational element in fictional interventions on the Viet Nam war, in contrast with the hysterical young males of the standard Hollywood fare who may in this context be seen as obsessed with masculinity precisely because of their feminized function within the dramaturgy in their losing to (and thereby being symbolically “fucked over” by) the enemy.

11011This opens up a more troubling possibility on the use of gender in Indochine: are Eliane and Camille, in their both being privileged members of their respective national bourgeoisies, masculinized in terms of their respective historical agencies? There would be ways of carefully contextualizing the question and advancing answers for each character – i.e., in their portrayal in formal terms (where they function as both mother and lover and are considered in those same terms by the male characters), in their narrative insertions (where class privilege renders them superior to the men around them), in their intertextual contributions (where they serve to “rectify” the feminization of the political players in Viet Nam-film discourse yet function as a rationalizing alternative to the same tradition), and in their significations within historical accounts of the war. This last category may not necessarily encompass certain areas of the previous ones, but the nature of the discursive complications it presents makes it ideal for further pursuing the issues already raised thus far.

11011Indochine in this respect can be seen as falling within a development in ’90s global film practice of the internationalization of the Viet Nam-film genre – i.e., it can be situated within a spate of works unified by their geographic specificity in the Vietnamese nation. These would include Hong Kong and Australian “boat people” texts and the French L’Amant (dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud, based on the autobiographical novel of Marguerite Duras), released the same year as Indochine (Devine 357-58), not to mention the phenomenon of films on Viet Nam, notably Tran Anh Hung’s The Scent of Green Papayas and Cyclo, making an impact in American and European arthouse circuits along with other so-called Asian (actually Chinese) productions. Within such a globalized awareness, the roles that Camille and Eliane perform work not merely as dramatis personae, but as allegorical figures.

11011In this respect, Camille’s sexuality is distinguished by its racialization through a “strategic, rather than merely tactical, deployment of a peculiar ‘silence’” described by Abdul JanMohamed (103) as crucial to the construction of a manichean allegory “which functions as the currency, the medium of exchange, for the entire colonialist discursive system. The exchange function of the allegory remains constant, while the generic attributes themselves can be substituted indefinitely (and even contradictorily) for one another” (106). The question not only of how manichean Indochine as an allegory is, but whether manichean applies in the first place, should not preempt the consideration at least of the two women characters as representations of their respective nations. Within this framework, the danger of appreciating them first of all as bodily entities within the body politic can be expressed in these terms: “When a society or political order speaks generically about ‘the body,’ it can deny the needs of bodies which do not fit the master plan” (Sennett 23).

11011In fact this can be seen in how standard definitions of what constitutes a nation have sought to elide categories of race, language, and religion, relying on the significantly less-political category of geography though ultimately falling back on an even more charged requisite of “a soul, a spiritual principle” (Renan 19). The underside – in fact, a consequence as well – of this desire for understanding one’s own nation and that of others is manifested in the fact that, in terms of Asian scholarship at least,

the negative image of the people subjugated by Western colonial powers, which dominated the colonial ideology, was drawn on the basis of cursory observations, sometimes with strong built-in prejudices, or misunderstandings and faulty methodologies…. Those who proclaimed the people of the area indolent, dull, treacherous, and childish, were generally not scholars. They were monks, civil servants, planters, sailors, soldiers, popular travel writers, and tourists. (Alatas 112)

In the formation of resistance to such gross misrepresentation, what has been described as the Janus-faced nature of nationalism has resulted in a quandary for the female subject: the emancipation of women has been represented in and from the West as one of the many promised benefits of modernity; on the other hand, resistance to the West has entailed with it a resistance to the project of modernity as well, and along with it the vaunted emancipation of women:

Wherever women continue to serve as boundary markers between different national, ethnic and religious collectivities, their emergence as full-fledged citizens will be jeopardized, and whatever rights they may have achieved during one stage of nation-building may be sacrificed on the altar of identity politics during another. (Kandiyoti 382)

11011The collapse of the French colonial system in Indochina bisected not just France’s colonial malaise, particularly in the build-up of Algerian resistance, but also the larger trend of a decline in Western supremacy in Asia (Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars 3), except for the US and its stronghold, the Philippines. Predictably, the right-wing version of the story listed the following differences between, on the left, the sources of French defeat and, on the right, the causes of the Vietminh’s success:

Poor intelligence : Communist mass-indoctrination
Underestimating the enemy : Singleness of purpose
Lack of a positive political programme : United and continuous leadership
Vacillating politicians : Ruthlessness
Left-wing propaganda and sabotage : Good intelligence
Defensive-minded attitude : Good planning
Reluctance to get into the jungle : Support from Red [sic] China
Undue reliance on air support

(O’Ballance 255)

The list evinces not just a willingness to provide more positive (and quantifiably greater) rationalization for the “our” side, but also lays blame on the solidarity of Others – a fact that calls for eventual qualification in the wake of the now-known differences within the then-seemingly stable alliance comprising the USSR, People’s Republic of China, and North Viet Nam. In fact, the French pullout from Viet Nam can be more usefully expressed as “a welcome escape from an impossible situation” (Jenkins 163) wherein “in this proxy confrontation between the superpowers France’s colonial sovereignty was of secondary concern” (162).

11011Moreover, as Benedict Anderson has commented, whatever transnational solidarity was practiced occurred primarily as “an understanding that linked colonial rulers from different national metropoles, whatever their internal rivalries and conflicts” (152-53). More significantly, Anderson maintains that the phenomenon of reverse racist discourse was never expressed in the literature of colonial resistance, proving his point by quoting the Constitution drawn up by Macario Sakay for his rebel Philippine republic – a text that starts by declaring that no citizen “shall exalt any person above the rest because of his race or the colour of his skin; fair, dark, rich, poor, educated and ignorant – all are completely equal” (153-54). Applying this principle to Camille helps to delimit the character’s actual political progression from wealthy and Westernized native to unwavering freedom fighter who retains enough measure of affection for her adoptive mother in breaking down and telling her to leave, since “Your Indochine is no more.”

11011The difference in spectatorship response to the film somehow betokens this less-than-radical desire for the Other to perform within the codes of Western honor and loyalty, notwithstanding the fact that even in the film, it is the Western figure of Guy Asselin who spearheads, consciously and remorselessly, the violation of all the rules of conduct that he claims to stand for. Thus just as much as the film was appreciated in the US for its acceptable, politically (though definitely not historically) correct re-gendering of the Viet Nam narrative, the movie was also known to have turned its Camille performer into an international star in what is perhaps officially the most openly anti-Communist Asian country, South Korea. Here it becomes possible to see, in a strictly delimited sense, how conflicts arising from ethnicity (in this case the potential rejection of a pro-Viet Nam text by a presumably anti-Communist viewership) are resolved through the creation of a separate but related internal conflict (Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry 116-17); in particular terms, these would involve the affinities between Indochine’s liberal politics and the aspiration to handle the threat of Communist North Korea in a manner that would be of mutual benefit to the two states and that would hopefully result in their reunification.

11011Central to the trajectory of the film’s marketing strategy, however, is the figure of France in the film. Undoubtedly the casting of Catherine Deneuve as Eliane Davries was intended to proceed from the play on her renown as the model of Marianne, the symbol of France. Similarly as relevant to the narrative would be her persona as a woman whose cool exterior conceals simmering, even dark, passions (notably in Luis Buñuel’s 1966 film Belle du jour, reissued in 1995). In Indochine the burden of her representational function is demonstrated not so much in the relative respect accorded her body (as opposed to the “humanizing” of her emotions) but in the astounding narrative curve Eliane undergoes, all the while retaining the very same function – that of mothering – with which she first appears in the film and proceeds to render the tale of the triangulated relations with her and her daughter’s lover. At the point where Camille rejects her vision of a happy-ever-after existence in the plantation and where she retrospectively realizes that Camille had planned to abandon her marital commitments, the plot flash-forwards to a now aged Eliane telling the story to a young man, about the age of her lover Jean-Baptiste, but distinctly Vietnamese in features. It is Etienne, her grandson, Camille and Jean-Baptiste’s son, who at one point became entwined in his parents’ legendary exploits when Jean-Baptiste, captured and separated from Camille, had asked villagers to suckle his infant son; so, the legend goes, did the tale of how all Vietnamese women, even those who no longer lactated or who were too young to do so at the time or who had not even seen Jean-Baptiste and Etienne, claimed to have nursed the child.

11011At the point where we first see Eliane and Etienne, however, their intimacy, the low-light situation, and the still-recent memory of her story of Jean-Baptiste (before even he and Camille became lovers) drive home the impression that Etienne is Jean-Baptiste’s latter-day substitute. The second flash-forward, after Eliane relates how Jean-Baptiste was captured and had to enlist, as it were, the women of Viet Nam to nourish his son, distinctly identifies the relation between Eliane and Etienne as grandmother and grandson respectively; the scene is succeeded by Eliane’s acquisition of Etienne from Jean-Baptiste through local colonial and religious authorities, and how she insists on the Oriental practice of slandering an attractive child, in the presence of the bewildered white soldier and nun, in order not to arouse the jealousy of evil spirits. When she explains, “The evil spirits are listening,” however, she casts a glance at them that suggests how she might not hesitate to include them in the category.

11011The last appearance of Eliane and Etienne (whose names at this point suggest sibling, if not twinborn, relations) is at the Geneva convention where Camille, unseen since her rejection of her mother and her mother’s country, and destined never to be seen by either her surviving family or the film viewers, is negotiating for the Vietminh side. Eliane, who could not bring herself to see Camille, instructs Etienne to look for his mother; Etienne realizes the absurdity of his difference and alienation from his biological mother, and rejoins Eliane outdoors. When Eliane expresses regret that mother and son did not find each other, Etienne replies, “Ma mère, c’est toi,” upon which Eliane feigns an accident with the heel of her shoe and turns away so Etienne would not see her expression. The fact that in doing so she turns her back on the audience as well makes it impossible to see her face, and at the same time facilitates the speculation of what she was feeling – grief? happiness? both or neither? – while the official loss of the French colony is being negotiated.

11011That Eliane and Etienne’s dramatic high point should be made synchronous with the 1954 convention brings in the added reading of how the French had retained a bitterness toward their expected ally, the US, along with a respect for the Vietminh, for a succession of reasons:

for Roosevelt’s initial opposition to the reassertion of French control in Indochina after World War II, for [the US’s] subsequent grudging admission that the area lay in the French domain, for its lukewarm diplomatic support during the 1954 Geneva conference, and for its readiness to assume France’s place in Viet Nam immediately after Geneva. (Sullivan 56-57)

Thus the textual production of Indochine itself can be read as a nationalist rebuke to the gung-ho representations of the Viet Nam conflict from Hollywood, but whether at the expense of what may be considered a reverse gung-ho presentation may be an issue that could only be settled in historical retrospect, once, say, other participants in the conflict come up with their sobering reassessments of what they believed had actually transpired.

11011The act of making public what in Western culture is gendered as private (Canto 349-50) – the story of Eliane and Camille – might perhaps provisionally explain why Eliane-as-France should be overvalorized in the multiplicity of her functions – as lover, sister, grandmother; yet it is as mother, first to Camille (Viet Nam) and then to Etienne (the part of Viet Nam that France brought home), that her character serves to modify two related points that have been raised about mothering in feminist discourse. First is the claim that mothers identify more with their female infants than with their male ones, but nurture female infants less because of their ambivalence about growing up in a patriarchy (Hirsch 182-83). Such a typology gets glossed over in Indochine because of the aforementioned agglomeration of other feminine functions ascribed to the Eliane character; further, if we concede that in Catherine Deneuve-as-France the fuller representation would include French men, then her inability to identify with Camille’s cause is in danger of being conflated with her effectiveness as plantation manager. Her relationship to Etienne would seem to be less qualifiedly ambivalent, but it is the Etienne figure that is in question here, particularly in Jessica Benjamin’s suggestion that the son’s rejection of the mother would not necessarily constitute a refusal of her omnipotence as it would entail an attempt by the son to claim the phallus (140). What Etienne rejects would be the omnipotence of his biological mother, Camille; what he claims as the phallus would be, ironically, his refusal to reject his spiritual mother, Eliane.

11011Hence in employing gender as a masquerade in much the same way that femininity operates in its phase of performing the masquerade even without being aware of it, Indochine conducts its critique of the imagining of Viet Nam by the US without acknowledging the radical potential of the Vietnamese’s anti-colonialist project, much less admitting the masculinist nature and cause of the French involvement. The narrative thread of the representation of Viet Nam in the Western imaginary awaits a further and far more unsettling unspooling.


[1] The French passages may be translated as follows: “within the course of History, to see how History determines [human] destiny” for the parenthetical remark, followed by [Régis Wargnier’s recollection] “of the great film romances, especially the American ones.” I am not in a position to determine whether the irony in each of these statements was deliberate or not.

Works Cited

Alatas, Syed Hussein. The Myth of the Lazy Native: A Study of the Image of the Malays, Filipinos and Javanese From the 16th to the 20th Century and Its Function in the Ideology of Colonial Capitalism. London: Frank Cass, 1977.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 1983. London: Verso, 1991.

Annaud, Jean-Jacques, dir. L’amant. Scr. Gérard Brach and Jean-Jacques Annaud. Films A2, Grai Phang Film Studio, & Renn Productions, 1992.

Benjamin, Jessica. “The Omnipotent Mother: A Psychoanalytic Study of Fantasy and Reality.” Representations of Motherhood. Ed. Donna Bassin, Margaret Honey, and Meryle Mahrer Kaplan. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. 129-46.

Buñuel, Luis, dir. and co-screenwriter. Belle du jour. Scr. Jean-Claude Carriere & Luis Buñuel. Paris Film Production & Five Film Rome, 1966.

Canto, Monique. “The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Reflections on Plato.” Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives. Ed. Susan Rubin Suleiman. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985. 339-53.

Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars. The Indochina Story: A Fully Documented Account. New York: Pantheon, 1970.

Devine, Jeremy M. Vietnam at 24 Frames a Second: A Critical and Thematic Analysis of Over 400 Films about the Vietnam War. Jefferson: McFarland, 1995.

Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry (formulated by the Committee on International Relations). Us and Them: The Psychology of Ethnonationalism. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1987.

Hirsch, Marianne. “Mothers and Daughters.” Ties That Bind: Essays on Mothering and Patriarchy. Ed. Jean F. O’Barr, Deborah Pope, and Mary Wyer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. 177-99.

Indochine: Un film de Régis Wargnier. Nanterre: Ramsay Cinema (Reflet), 1992.

JanMohamed, Abdul R. “Sexuality on/of the Racial Border: Foucault, Wright, and the Articulation of ‘Racialized Sexuality.’” Discourses of Sexuality: From Aristotle to AIDS. Ed. Domna C. Stanton. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. 94-116.

Jenkins, Brian. Nationalism in France: Class and Nation Since 1789. London: Routledge, 1990.

Kandiyoti, Deniz. “Identity and Its Discontents: Women and the Nation.” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. 376-91.

Lawson, Jacqueline E. “‘She’s a Pretty Woman … for a Gook’: The Misogyny of the Vietnam War.” Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature. Ed. Philip K. Jason. Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1991. 15-37.

O’Ballance, Edgar. The Indo-China War, 1945-1954: A Study in Guerilla Warfare. London: Faber and Faber, 1964.

Renan, Ernest. “What is a Nation?” Nation and Narration. Ed. Homi K. Bhabha. London: Routledge, 1990. 8-22.

Selig, Michael. “Genre, Gender and the Discourse of War: The A/Historical and Vietnam Films.” Screen 34.1 (Spring 1993): 1-18.

Sennett, Richard. Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization. New York: Norton, 1994.

Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies. 1975. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Sullivan, Marianna P. France’s Vietnam Policy: A Study in French-American Relations. Westport: Greenwood, 1978.

Wargnier, Régis, dir. Indochine. Scr. Erik Orsenna, Louis Gardel, Catherine Cohen, and Régis Wargnier. Paradis Films, La Générale d’Images, Bac Films, Orly Films, & Cine 5, 1992.

Wayne, John, and Ray Kellogg, dirs. The Green Berets. Scr. James Lee Barrett. Batjac Productions, 1968.

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II. Film in the Light of the “History” of Sexuality

Whether sexuality has had an unhistoricizable “history” or, more likely, a number of overlapping, sometimes contradictory histories, the project of attempting any history of sexuality has been fraught with so much basic contentions that to even state that such a history were possible might seem a desperate speculation. Nevertheless, as an endeavor that can be easily situated in the postmodern era, the writing of the history of sexuality, whether as comprehensive argumentation or as localized narrative, cannot be set aside in the meanwhile that its larger kinks still have to be worked out or, phrased another way, “whether poststructuralism itself is in danger of becoming as normalizing as the discourses that it criticizes” (Sawicki 7). Indeed, it is the position of this essay that such kinks work themselves out best within an applicative mode – and that, more important, the emergence of such a history is not just long overdue but is also the only truly viable guarantee for marginal groups against the strictures of oppression levelled at them in the past.

11011In working out the logical supposition that a history of sexuality would be indispensable to film history, this essay intends to commence by looking at the various affirmations and critiques made in its name so far, then proceed to reconsider the very bases by which such a topic as sexuality had been configured as historicizable, before shortly (and, it must be said, provisionally) appraising these ideas’ potential(s) for film history. The need for new approaches to film, or for that matter, political, history was first articulated among cultural feminists, in their cautionary observations, as restated by Linda Alcoff, that the bases of feminism itself might be contaminated with the dominant culture’s misogynist and sexist (and, we might add, homophobic) frameworks (97). Alcoff herself acknowledges two available theoretical possibilities out of this bind, the first in Teresa de Lauretis’s reformulation of subjectivity as “constituted with a historical process of consciousness” and thereby invested with political agency (110), and the second in Denise Riley’s conceptualization of woman “as gendered subject … to avoid both the denial … and an essentializing of sexual difference” (111); to these two Alcoff adds her own: “a conception of human subjectivity as an emergent property of a historicized experience [that allows us to] say ‘feminine subjectivity is construed here and now in such and such a way’ without this ever entailing a universalizable maxim about the ‘feminine’” (115). The limits of such discourses, as earlier emphasized, lay not so much in how a deconstructive project could continually overturn their propositions, if not their premises. More important, the question needs to be raised, of whether such frameworks would lend themselves to historical applications without unnecessarily complicating the presentation and discussion of documentable data.

11011By way of further elaborating on the issue of subjectivity, we need to parse the matter of psychosexual development more closely. Ellen Ross and Rayna Rapp critique the fact that “the most popular perspective on the social shaping of sexuality focuses on individuals in family contexts, almost to the detriment of larger social connections” (52) by way of reinvoking the concept of the social contract within capitalism (68). In much the same way, this resembles the view that heterosex can be seen to fall under state control via marriage while homosex more easily falls under state policing (Goldberg 13-15). In fact these perspectives on psychoanalysis acknowledge the contribution of Michel Foucault, whose own views, as per John E. Toews, regard psychoanalysis as both the “culminating synoptic articulation of a regime of truth” and as a therapeutic practice inserted “within a network of technologies for the reconstruction and redefinition of the body and its pleasures” (129).

11011The boundaries of Foucauldian applications have been apparent to feminists from the start: though Foucault’s emphasis on the body has led to much significant historicizing and revising, Lynn Hunt has pointed out that his own studies consistently assumed a male subject (80-81); moreover, though his refusal to theorize power stemmed from a recognition that doing so would essentialize it, this also resulted in a misrecognition that power was not a gendered phenomenon (84-85). Hunt proposes, as part of a preliminary effort to lay the groundwork for a history of sexuality, “that the terms of Foucault’s argument might be reversed. It is not the deployment of sexuality that solicits a new subject but rather a new version of subjectivity that solicits the deployment of sexuality” (86). Robert A. Padgug in turn suggests three areas wherein discourses on the history of sexuality could be set: first, ideology, with the awareness that sexuality has traditionally been relegated to the private sphere (and therefore disparaged as feminine and queer) and “opposed to the allegedly ‘public’ spheres of work, production, and politics … conceived of as male and heterosexual” (16-17); second, biology, which “as a set of potentialities and insuperable necessities provides the material of social interpretations and extensions; it does not cause human behavior, but conditions and limits it” (19-20); and third, praxis, on both the sexual and nonsexual levels, respectively characterized as relational and social/subjective (21-28).

11011As has already become explicit at this stage, the theorizing of a history of sexuality could be traced back, if an individual source were to be required, to the works of Foucault, primarily his eponymously titled series. The biggest difficulty that presents itself early on is not merely Hunt’s complaint of the texts’ gender bias being both skewed and lying in the wrong place, but in the cultural assumptions underlying the studies themselves. Ironically, the success of The History of Sexuality rests on its critique of European sexual culture, to the point where this same specific culture assumes a uniqueness unavailable to non-European and un-Europeanized contexts; although it might be argued that the global community has hardly been able to immunize itself from polyvalent cultural influences, it would be possible to counter that the insidiousness of Eurocentrism presumes the possibility of marginality even within Europe and among Europeans themselves. Foucault ensures this exclusionary outcome by drawing a distinction between the scientia sexualis of Western civilization and the ars erotica of all the Other major civilizations (57-58), even though the broad outline of his study – that sexual repression served heterosexual imperatives in effectively promoting sexual discourse – can be seen to apply in non-“scientific” cultures, including (as Foucault himself demonstrated in tracing the genealogy of sexual practice) religious cultures in the West itself.

11011In fact, if one were to seek to recuperate the works of Foucault for their radical potential, it might be necessary to observe his call in his essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” to “search for descent” – as “not the erecting of foundations: on the contrary, it disturbs what was previously considered immobile; it fragments what was thought unified; it shows the heterogeneity of what was imagined consistent with itself” (147) – and apply this principle to the study of Foucault as theorist. Although one might protest that this would violate Foucault’s remark in “What Is an Author?” that discourse should ideally circulate “without any need for an author” (138), it would also be necessary to keep in mind that Foucault himself effectively justified a form of authorial existence through his elaboration of the concept of the “author-function.” Within the terms of this essay, such a genealogical project would be twofold in nature: an inspection of earlier related Foucault texts, and a consideration of pertinent biographical information.

11011Foucault’s intention to write a history of sexuality was first explicated in his volume The Archaeology of Knowledge, in which he described a discourse on sexuality as revealing, “not of course as the ultimate truth…, a certain ‘way of speaking’; and one would show how this way of speaking is invested not in scientific discourses, but in a system of prohibitions and values” (193). Curiously, his projected latter-volume studies after his introductory volume indicated a different teleological intention: in chronological order, these subsequent books were to be titled The Body and the Flesh, Perverts, and Population and Races (Macey 354).[1] One way, perhaps the only way at the moment, of understanding why Foucault should be so intensely engaged with politics during the period of his writing The Archaeology of Knowledge may be the known factors of the tension between his disillusionment with the French Communist Party (articulated in his interviews – see “Clarifications on the Question of Power” 262) and the May 1968 uprising of students and workers in France. Ironically, he was in Tunisia when the May 1968 events were transpiring, and it was his involvement in the simultaneous unrest among students in this Third-World setting that Foucault’s acquaintances mark as the start of the philosopher’s politicization (Macey 191). His involvement in fact extended to his initiation in France of a prison-watch system so effective that it resulted in a spate of hunger strikes, mutinies, and suicides (262 et seq.), as well as to his participation in protest actions, directly experiencing in the process instances of police brutality (271, 280, 312-13).

11011The crucial concept in tracing Foucault’s ideational progression – one that would lead to the first volume of The History of Sexuality and account for his rethinking of the succeeding volumes – would be his articulation of the episteme, both “as a totality of relations that can be discovered, for a given period, between the sciences when one analyzes them at the level of discursive regularities” and as “a questioning that accepts the fact of science only in order to ask the question what it is for that science to be a science” (Archaeology of Knowledge 191-92). From this position he effected a shift in conceptual framework from the episteme to the dispositif. Unfortunately Foucault did not have an extensive methodological discourse on the dispositif, the way he did with the episteme in The Archaeology of Knowledge; instead he presented the dispositif as a theoretical innovation in the first volume of The History of Sexuality, leaving it up to other writers to expound further on it.

11011Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow describe the dispositif as “a grid of intelligibility constructed by the historian. But it is also the practices themselves, acting as an apparatus, a tool, constituting subjects and organizing them” (121). Gilles Deleuze further elaborated on the concept in terms of “a tangle, a multilinear ensemble … composed of lines … [that] do not outline or surround systems which are each homogeneous in their own right…, but follow directions, trace balances which are always off balance, now drawing together and then distancing themselves from one another” (159). Deleuze attributes to the dispositif (translated in his essay as “social apparatus”) four dimensions: curves of visibility, curves of enunciation, lines of force, and lines of subjectification (160) – to which he added “lines of splitting, breakage, fracture, all of which criss-cross and mingle together, some lines reproducing or giving rise to others, by means of variations or even changes in the way they are grouped” (162). The problematics begin when Deleuze ventures to valorize the dispositif, mentioning in his text the consequences of its use as “the repudiation of universals” (162) and “a change in orientation … away from the Eternal and towards the new” (163), which do not only also characterize the episteme (not to mention deconstruction theory), but also contradict his answer to a discussant’s question thus:

Could methods analogous to those of Foucault be used to study oriental social apparatuses [dispositifs] or those of the Middle East? Certainly so, since Foucault’s language [langage], which sees things in terms of parcels of lines, as entanglements, as multilinear ensembles, does have an oriental feel to it. (168)

11011While it would be obviously necessary to reject Deleuze’s extramural claims for the dispositif, it might still be interesting, at the very least, to speculate how Foucault’s earlier announced sequels would have turned out had he maintained or elaborated his concept of the dispositif. Instead, Foucault revised his conceptual framework, calling it the “aesthetics of existence,” and wrote his essay “Technologies of the Self” as a blueprint for the forthcoming second and third History of Sexuality volumes. The “aesthetics of existence” appears to be the most problematic concept among the three, premised as it is on themes that recognize and emphasize individual agency (Martin et al. 48-49) but which tend to run up against a larger poststructuralist nihilism when it comes to considering the possibilities of attempting institutional changes (see “Governmentality”).

11011For purposes of involving politically marginalized groups, the dispositif appears to be the most enabling so far among Foucault’s contributions. In fact, where in Archaeology of Knowledge he described “generative grammar” as merely secondary to archaeological analysis (207), as might have been the case with applications of the episteme, the dispositif, in lending itself to (admittedly reductionist) illustrative purposes in the manner of Deleuze’s lines, curves, tangles, and webs, appears to support strategic outlinings of programs of action.

11011Feminist politics exhibits an awareness of Foucault’s progression toward the dispositif:

[Foucault] did not confine his political interventions to the experiments in playing with language characteristic of the literary avant-garde. His books were intended to serve as interventions in contemporary practices that govern the lives of oppressed groups…. Moreover, his skeptical attitude toward Enlightenment humanism, universalist histories and traditional emancipatory theories coincided with feminist critiques of the limits of liberalism and Marxism. (Sawicki 95)

It might be overvalorizing the evidence of history to state that Foucault “wrote from the perspective of a specific intellectual engaged in specific interventions,” but it is certainly undeniable that one of his most important insights “is his insistence that one’s theoretical imperatives and commitments be motivated by specific practical imperatives” (Sawicki 108-09). In this way it becomes possible for feminist criticism to insist that relations of ideology in a text be seen in the contexts of their emergence, with careful attention paid to the interest group’s own private and public spheres (Newton 772-73).

11011In summarily historicizing feminist film history itself, Patrice Petro describes the initial possibilities as one of either choice “between a formal history of filmic conventions and institutions and a cultural history of film reception and spectatorship” (66); then, from what she considered a short-lived and unsatisfactory application of reflectionism (68-70), came the next dialectical stage, as

what began as an attempt to revise the concept of film authorship by rethinking the place of the female director in the history of the Hollywood cinema ended up in debates about the concept of the subversive text – and in arguments (to borrow from Nancy Miller) for a “(new) male monolith of anonymous textuality” that inhibited further discussion of female authorship in the development of the classical film. (73)

From this stage Petro marks the present as involved with studies on spectatorship, or what she calls consumerism, then calls for an expansionist perspective in regarding other eras and national cinemas, while also advocating a return to earlier debates on film history “to address issues that were too hastily dismissed or prematurely foreclosed” (77).

11011What a consideration of the genealogical bases of the Foucauldian project on the history of sexuality adds to this enumeration of approaches is the question of Foucault’s “generative grammar,” or what has been recently reformulated in cultural studies as cultural policy. Understandably the first-order formulation of this principle – that theorizing be made to conform to verifiable institutional programs of action and evaluated according to how they succeed – would not be entirely acceptable for most types of critical analyses. On the other hand, what an awareness of the dispositif does best to the writing of history – of sexuality, of film – would be to inflect the activity with the troubling notion that all may not be well outside the historian’s chamber, by the mere fact that the raw material with which history serves up its narratives necessarily comprises individuals in social ferment: the historian’s labor thus both contracts to involve the individual psychoanalytic realm, and expands to question, and perhaps begin to answer, what has been happening to the social order(s).


[1] As it turned out, only two volumes succeeded the first, both of them published the year of Foucault’s death in 1984: Volume 2 was translated The Use of Pleasure and Volume 3 The Care of the Self. [Update: Volume 4, Confessions of the Flesh, came out in 2018 and was translated into English in 2021.]

Works Cited

Alcoff, Linda. “Cultural Feminism Versus Post-Structuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory.” Culture/Power/History: A Reader in Contemporary Social Theory. Ed. Nicholas B. Dirks, Geoff Eley, and Sherry B. Ortner. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. 96-122.

Deleuze, Gilles. “What is a dispositif?” Michel Foucault: Philosopher. Proceedings of the Michel Foucault, Philosopher International Conference, January 9-11, 1988, Paris. Trans. Timothy J. Armstrong. New York: Routledge, 1992. 159-66, Summary of Discussions 166-68.

Dreyfus, Hubert L., and Paul Rabinow. Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester, 1982.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

———. The Care of the Self: Volume 3 of the History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. 1984. New York: Vintage, 1986.

———. “Clarifications on the Question of Power.” Interview. Trans. James Cascaito. Foucault Live (Interviews, 1961-1984). Ed. Sylvère Lotringer. New York: Semiotext(e), 1996. 255-63.

———. “Governmentality.” Trans. and ed. Pasquale Pasquino. The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality: With Two Lectures and an Interview with Michel Foucault. Ed. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. 87-104.

———. The History of Sexuality: Volume I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. 1978. New York: Vintage, 1990.

———. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.

———. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice 139-64.

———. The Use of Pleasure: Volume 2 of the History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. 1984. New York: Vintage, 1985.

———. “What Is an Author?” Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice 113-38.

Goldberg, Jonathan. Introduction. Reclaiming Sodom. Ed. Jonathan Goldberg. New York: Routledge, 1994. 1-22.

Hunt, Lynn. “Foucault’s Subject in The History of Sexuality.” Discourses of Sexuality: From Aristotle to AIDS. Ed. Domna C. Stanton. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. 78-93.

Lotringer, Sylvere, ed. Foucault Live. New York: Semiotext(e), 1989.

Macey, David. The Lives of Michel Foucault: A Biography. New York: Pantheon, 1993.

Martin, Luther H., Huck Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton. Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.

Newton, Judith Lowder. “Power and the Ideology of ‘Woman’s Sphere.’” Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991. 765-80.

Padgug, Robert A. “Sexual Matters: On Conceptualizing Sexuality in History.” Passion and Power: Sexuality in History. Ed. Kathy Peiss and Christina Simmons with Robert A. Padgug. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989. 14-31.

Petro, Patrice. “Feminism and Film History.” Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism. Ed. Diane Carson, Linda Dittmar, and Janice R. Welsch. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994. 65-81.

Ross, Ellen, and Rayna Rapp. “Sex and Society: A Research Note from Social History and Anthropology.” Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson. New York: Monthly Review P, 1983. 51-73.

Sawicki, Jana. Disciplining Foucault: Feminism, Power, and the Body. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Toews, John E. “Foucault and the Freudian Subject: Archaeology, Genealogy, and the Historicization of Psychoanalysis.” Foucault and the Writing of History. Ed. Jan Goldstein. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994. 116-34.

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III. Pornography & Erotica: Boundaries in Dissolution

The status of pornography within feminist theory can be equated – problematically, of course – with the role that AIDS has played in gay activism:[1] both AIDS and pornography are (or have been perceived as) so much opposed to certain cherished ideals, such as respect for sexual difference in the case of feminism or free exercise of the pursuit of pleasure as a gay-rights touchstone. The very pervasiveness of both issues has in fact led to strategic moves on the part of certain activist organizations premised on the inevitability of, say, AIDS being a biomedical reality that impinges on venereal activity, or pornography being part of the patriarchal power structure that seeks to perpetrate its own interests by naturalizing its own methods of control.

11011In either case there is also the accepted notion that either condition cannot just be wished away, since the requisites for their dismantling lie outside the institutional spheres of influence of these social movements. In their sociological phases, however, the differences between AIDS and pornography are just as crucial: for while AIDS is regarded, at least in official terms, as a disease requiring the search for a cure by both the government and the medical establishment, a certain crucial segment of the entertainment industry (or what may even be categorized as the pleasure sub-industry) actually and aggressively advocates for the persistence of pornographic production.

11011The implications for the feminist movement of such a contestation are complicated by the relative and near-simultaneous recency of the ’60s genealogy of both feminism (as traceable to women’s lib) and, say, a concrete manifestation of a pornographically inflected impulse in the editorial “philosophies” of such publications as Playboy and Hustler. To say that it was once possible to perceive women’s lib and the sexual revolution as mutually beneficent might sound simplistic today, with the historical reality of such an alliance reducible to such still-evocative (and thereby suspiciously nostalgic) imagery such as bra-burning and contraceptive usage. During the mid-’80s, when a succession of Republican presidencies promoted an undercutting of both women’s initiatives and the interests of claimants to the right of free expression, an issue of Jump Cut opened its forum on the topic of Sexual Representation with an article that bemoaned the bid “of the feminist anti-pornography movement … to seek state censorship” (Kleinhans and Lesage 25), citing as an example the alliance made between women’s groups and the Moral Majority in Indianapolis.

11011The logic that may have led to such an apparent compromise may be understood in the light of how a pro-women polemic on pornography had been formulated. Andrea Dworkin, in writing a new introduction to the paperback edition of Pornography: Men Possessing Women, foregrounded the issue of power by analogizing the struggle by women against pornographic exploitation with that of African Americans against slavery (xiii-xv). On the other hand, the then-emergent gay movement constituted a throwback to sexual-libertarian principles, commencing with the manner in which the oppression of gays centered on the nature of their desires and practices. The pathologization of homosexuality not only required responses on the level of psychoanalytic resistances and reformulations, but also necessitated the aggressive display of images considered unnatural and/or offensive.

11011Hence the split within feminism between those who considered pornography “a meaningful text about the sexual act it represents” vis-à-vis those who, like Dworkin, regarded it as “the enabling theory of the acts it represents: a charter for action, or … the claim that pornography is the theory and rape the practice” (Clover 1). In articulating further distinctions among the positions taken for or against the issue, Lynne Segal enumerates three “distinct” ones – liberal, moral right, and feminist (6) – but also qualified that the last one could be further divided between feminists allied with the right and those opposed to censorship, since the blanket condemnation of pornography “discourages us all from facing up to women’s own sexual fears and infantile fantasies” (8), and precludes the provision of “more sexually explicit material produced by and for women, more open and honest discussion of all sexual issues, alongside the struggle against women’s general subordinate economic and social status” (9).

11011From a different perspective – that of the producers and consumers, rather than (notwithstanding a crucial overlap) the promoters and critics, pornography can be seen to have a class inflection wherein it retains the function of being “a medium of sexual exploration and a source of modernization of ideas about sex,” as well as a means of income-earning for women who find it “more acceptable, even liberating, than other forms of labor that may be available to them” (Ross 204). More pertinent to the concerns of this essay would be this consideration of class coupled with lesbian sadomasochism, which “forces the issue of power in relationships into the open, directly challenging the view that all women desire ‘vanilla [or conventional] sex’ and claiming the dominance/submission pattern as a positive feminist possibility and not just a form of male oppression” (Read 289).

11011As may be obvious by now, this essay considers the anti-censorship side of the pornography debate a more enabling though still problematic position, and purports to examine the possible means by which such a proposed resolution (of an as-yet still-unresolved controversy) can be further advanced toward the interests of discursive enrichment; ironically the route by which this strategy can be considered would be from the production, rather than the critical, side of film practice, with the examination of two film texts, Nagisa Ôshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1975) and Bruce LaBruce’s Super 8½, premiered in 1995, as possible models for exemplification.

11011One reason why the critical aspect of what may be provisionally termed pro-pornographic anti-censorship feminism may not be enough for progressive critical purposes is that such a position would be vulnerable to connotative charges, just as anti-pornography censorship crusaders have found it difficult to distinguish themselves from moral rightists. Even within the presumably left-leaning circles of American academe, the defense of pornography, as a tradition, might manage to avoid the girlie-magazines’ “philosophies” but inevitably harkens back to the liberal-humanist tracts that revolved on “the two fundamental questions surrounding pornography: what are the psychological effects of pornographic works on the normal individual…; and to what extent may pornography be judged as legitimate literature rather than merely ersatz eroticism” (Hughes xiv).

11011The historiographic project of delving into the genealogy of the concept of pornography – in contrast with obscenity – has yet yielded that, as a regulatory category, its practice “was invented [during the 19th century] in response to the perceived menace of the democratization of culture” (Hunt 12-13), specifically the increased access of the masses to print media. During an even earlier era of “modern Europe, that is, between 1500 and 1800, pornography was most often a vehicle for using the shock of sex to criticize religious and political authorities” (10). In the meanwhile, however, that a historiographic agenda can be formulated and implemented to restore to pornography its Bakhtinian properties (themselves sources of further problematics) of valorizing the carnivalesque, what may be left for anti-censorship feminists is to move beyond strictly critical considerations of the nature and functions of the pornographic imperative in contemporary Western society.

11011In the Realm of the Senses, though historically a beneficiary of the liberal-humanist defense of freedom of expression, has figured in this venture to carve out a more workable feminist approach to pro-pornographic anti-censorship ideals. In his essay “The Question Ôshima,” Stephen Heath maintains that the movie’s viewership principle is “neither the thematics of voyeurism … nor the binding structure of a classic narrative disposition” (150). Rather, the film draws on

the impossibility of “the seen,” haunted not by a space “off” that must and can be unceasingly caught up into a unity, the position of a view for the viewer, but by a “nothing seen” that drains the images of any full presence, of any adequate view…. The splitting [therefore] of “the seen” turns on the development of a divided inclusion of the spectator. (150-51)

Such an innovative modification of what Heath termed “the look” (150) ushered in not only the question of spectatorial activity. Obviously facilitated by the film’s non-Western originary context, the issue of whether there exists “any clear line between generic pornography and the sophisticated erotic text,” not even within certain traditional distinctions granted by feminists to differentiate erotic works from pornographic ones, can be drawn from its “overall strategy of undercutting the unity and fullness of character” (Turim 86) as a means of advancing its critique of voyeuristic and narrative imperatives.

11011In a manner that can be regarded as recuperatory, certain other readings of the film express appreciation for its decentering of male dominance (Williams 220-22) as well as its avoidance of such generic porn-film staples as “meat” and “money” shots (Lehman 176, 178). Such valorizing has even gone to the extent of maintaining that the female character Abe Sada’s pleasure in her lover Kichi-san did not rely on his penile dimensions (176), notwithstanding the fact that Sada’s increasing desire to strangle Kichi-san derives from their mutual realization that he may be losing interest in their physical experimentations, coupled with their discovery that he tends to acquire an erection whenever she mounts him while strangling him.

11011Apart from ghettoizing certain prerogatives of the porn-film genre as male and thereby un-feminist and vice versa, this critical premise further elides the culture-specific aspects of sexual pleasure. In the Realm of the Senses is obviously set during the commencement of what the Japanese refer to as their era of ultra-nationalism, where even the sight of children taunting an old exposed tramp while waving Imperial Army flags makes understandable the seeking of refuge within the most private possible sanctuaries; as if to literalize this point further, Kichi-san, in his last outdoor shot, is shown headed in the opposite direction as Imperial Army soldiers march by.

11011Thus any possible impression that Sada and Kichi-san may have been intended as indexical signifiers for the decline in political morality of fascist-era Japan cannot prosper within the context of their refusal to acknowledge any responsibility toward the roles and duties expected of men and women in such a presumably militarized social system. Sada enacts the function of a geisha, even if she started out as a domestic helper, and occasionally visits her husband in order to get some money so as to be able to afford her dalliances with Kichi-san. Moreover, she scandalizes the other geishas by constantly indulging in their presence, not in genital copulation (which even a 68-year-old geisha did not mind witnessing and later participating in), but in, as they put it, “always taking him in [her] mouth”: the first time she does it, in private, she causes him to remark, “You’re a strange girl.”

11011A number of other indicators might help bolster this queer interpretive direction – the opening sequence, wherein Sada’s female roommate admits that “Yesterday I had a strange feeling” about her and starts to feel her up, taking her to witness Kichi-san’s conjugal performance with his wife in order to possibly further arouse her; and Sada’s insistence on wearing Kichi-san’s kimono and on him wearing hers when she goes to visit her husband. Perhaps most tellingly, Sada and Kichi-san hold a mock wedding ceremony with other geishas as their guests, with the latter encouraging the couple to indulge in their honeymooning in their presence and then deflowering their youngest member as well, with the use of what may well be the Oriental equivalent of a dildo.

11011These two directions suggested by the differences between this reading of the Ôshima film and that of other still-feminist texts can be better opened up by taking up more frontal discourses on queer pornography. Certain essays by Richard Dyer and Thomas Waugh have brought up, respectively, the conceivably liberatory potentials of reflexivity (Dyer 54) and opposition to so-called “straight porn” in narrative (Waugh, “Hard to Imagine” 71) as well as structural terms (“Gay vs. Straight” 32-34). Curiously, however, and perhaps appropriately for cinema-studies purposes, a recent release, Super 8½, takes up these points within its diegetic framework and provides various deconstructive means, primarily through the use of ironic humor, by which these same instances of applying progressive-genre principles may be inspected without reverting to the limits of what Waugh calls het-porn.

11011Filmmaker Bruce LaBruce had tread on politically incorrect boundary lines earlier in his comic-ironic portrait of a passionate affair between a queeny character, played by himself, and a skinhead punk he had picked up, in No Skin Off My Ass (1990), which itself had encountered censorship problems in Britain and Canada.[2] Matias Viegener’s appreciation of the film proceeds from “its critique of the puritan seriousness and the denial of pleasure in radical politics” and its celebration “of gays and lesbians whose political engagement is more anarchist than liberal, and whose practices promote pleasure in the service of dissent” (129). Super 8½, for its part, takes to logical extremes both this preoccupation with the reflexive self-insertion of the filmmaker as well as his preference for unresolveable political issues, by dealing with the fictional story of a down-and-out gay-porn filmmaker, played by LaBruce and named “Bruce,” and the breakup of his relations with lovers, friends, and associates.

11011Subtitled A Cautionary Bio-Pic, the film imposes its credits onto a comic street encounter that may at first be taken for queer-bashing, but which turns out, as confirmed by radio reports of offscreen police observers, to be nothing more than a mere “domestic dispute” between lovers. The campy elements are underscored through the use of the dance-revival hit “Venus”; but on the other hand the reference to the dismissal by the police of gay serial-killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s public struggle with one of his victims (a Pakistani, the encounter of which was witnessed by women – a conglomeration of gay, foreign, and female Others) provides a sobering undertone and serves to foreshadow the insistence of the tragic within the movie’s viciously funny satirical takes on the pretensions of avant-garde film practice.

11011The film Super 8½ itself is constructed as “Bruce’s” autobiographical summation, originally titled The Real Life of a Pornographer. Within the work, though, are several short segments, announced by titles and filmmakers, done by himself as well as his friendly rival dyke pornographer Googie.[3] I have been able to recognize the No Skin Off My Ass excerpt as deriving from LaBruce’s previous full-length feature, but as to whether this validates the many other excerpts as authentically drawn from his other works, or whether even these had incorporated aspects of his real life (apart from his press statements – see Hannaham 56), may well be beside the point at this stage.

11011In the midst of “Bruce” admitting to increasingly morbid tendencies (“I feel so Joy Division”), Googie holds for his benefit a press conference – upon which the black-and-white film turns into color. “Bruce” ruins for himself this media opportunity by refusing to play according to the rules of his being a minor participant relative to Googie, and refusing to answer a series of questions on his use of deconstruction, the possibility of his having AIDS, his resemblance to Andy Warhol, his feeling on being a has-been, and what had happened to his lover, with whom he had broken up in the course of (making) the film. The end for “Bruce” is enacted in literally a cross-referential manner, with the death scene of the Elizabeth Taylor character in BUtterfield 8 serving to introduce the eulogization by his ex-lover; after the entire closing credits, a dedication, “To Judy,” appears,[4] followed by outtakes with “Bruce” coughing/laughing/crying “Where is everybody? Are we gonna finish the movie?” just when most members of the movie audience would have thought it appropriate to leave the auditorium.

11011The futility of upholding such a sample as Super 8½ as a literal model for emulation is obvious from the start: how many films can be made about actual filmmaking, with the multiple levels of reality made to resonate with one another? Yet there may be a value derivable from the movie’s source of and attempt at jouissance, as formulable in this discourse on Roland Barthes’s Le plaisir du texte and Le degré zéro de l’écriture:

A text will be “homosexual” to the extent that it presents itself as both subject and object of desire, a text in the act of beholding itself, often through the mirror of the other, and loving itself. The text will be continually in motion…. Without end, it will perpetually turn back upon itself, thus rendering any dualistic distinction unnecessary. (Martin 293)

A similarly open-ended approach can be realized in feminist film theory, and in fact already commenced when

Critics of the feminist anti-pornography movement … raised questions of female desire and … challenged feminism to articulate the relations between gender, race, and class. In so doing they have shifted the terrain of the debates and have moved us out of the problematic of pornography in directions that will, in their turn, generate new contradictions and blind spots. (Read 290)

11011LaBruce himself enacts a real-life queer parallel with the feminist debate in his Sight and Sound testimonial, wherein he scored the likes of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation for wanting “to normalize and homogenize homos, to render us as bland and boring and inoffensive as anyone else” (“Obsession” 31), in reference to the organization’s quest for positive imaging of homosexual characters in Hollywood cinema. The extremity of LaBruce’s positioning requires a fuller sampling of his closing remarks, which effect a deliberate blurring of successive boundaries between Hollywood as center and gay porn as periphery to the already-peripheral practice of independent production:

I’ve seen far more convincing and carefully observed depictions of fags in Hollywood flicks than in any earnest, cautious queer activist film, and you can quote me on that, wildly…. I hate to break it to you, but homosexuality is not normal. That’s what makes it so entertaining. And if you haven’t figured out yet that being a fag is all about show business, you might as well let your membership card expire. Hollywood was built on the backs of fags (and fags on their backs) – from hairdressers and make-up artists to art directors and choreographers to actors and directors. It still is today more or less controlled by the gay mafia. So we must know what we’re doing. (31, italics mine)

11011As still-provisional strategies, the resort to reflexivity, the incorporation of the autobiographical voice, the appropriation of elements from “enemy” porn, the solicitation of spectatorial involvement, and perhaps above all the coupling of artistic intelligence with an overriding sense of the ironic, may yet indicate for us the extent to which pornography, in (what could be one of) its progressive-film phases, has been attempting to renew its historically lost function of serving as a thorn in the side of the powerful, rather than of the oppressed.


[1] A temporal link among abortion, pornography, and AIDS as “the three single most powerful issues in the past twenty years” appears in Read 277.

[2] Both films by this filmmaker mentioned in this essay were brought to my attention by Roger Hallas. The Canadian censorship case of No Skin Off My Ass involved its seizure “by the Morality Squad of Toronto” and its being charged “with three violations: bondage, nudity with violence and the sucking of toes” (Murray 422).

[3] These include, as credited to Googie, a Screen Test of the Friday sisters, who prefer to sleep with each other as well as with lesbians and straight men, although they profess to hate the latter; The Lollipop Revolution, a straight-porn excerpt where the stud, unable to achieve an erection, uses a strap-on dildo and wears a wig and thereby performs as a dyke lover; and Submit to My Finger, a take-off from Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise, where the Friday sisters rape and scalp some male victims and ride off, kissing torridly, into the sunset.

[4] Garland? – LaBruce was born the same day the Stonewall-era icon died (Murray 422).

Works Cited

Clover, Carol J. Introduction. Gibson and Gibson 1-4.

Dworkin, Andrea. Introduction. Pornography: Men Possessing Women. 1979. New York: Dutton, 1989. i-xl.

Dyer, Richard. “Idol Thoughts: Orgasm and Self-Reflexivity in Gay Pornography.” Critical Quarterly 36.1 (1994): 49-62.

Gibson, Pamela Church, and Roma Gibson, eds. Dirty Looks: Women, Pornography, Power. London: BFI, 1993.

Hannaham, James. “A Fellating Fellini.” Village Voice 40.10 (March 7, 1995): 56.

Heath, Stephen. “The Question Ôshima.” Questions of Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981. 145-64.

Hughes, Douglas A. Introduction. Perspectives on Pornography. Ed. Douglas A. Hughes. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1970. i-xxi.

Hunt, Lynn. “Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500-1800.” Introduction. Ed. Lynn Hunt. The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500-1800. New York: Zone, 1993. 9-45.

Kleinhans, Chuck, and Julia Lesage. “The Politics of Sexual Representation.” Jump Cut 30 (1985): 24-26.

LaBruce, Bruce, dir. and scr. No Skin Off My Ass. Gaytown Pictures, New Lavender Panthers, & Jürgen Brüning Filmproduktion, 1990.

———. “Obsession: Picking a Bone.” Sight & Sound 5.3 (March 1995): 31.

———, dir. and scr. Super 8½: A Cautionary Bio-Pic. Gaytown Pictures, Jürgen Brüning Filmproduktion, & Strand. 1995.

Lehman, Peter. Running Scared: Masculinity and the Representation of the Male Body. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.

Martin, Robert K. “Roland Barthes: Toward an ‘Ecriture gaie.’” Camp Grounds: Style and Homosexuality. Ed. David Bergman. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993. 282-98.

Murray, Raymond. Images in the Dark: An Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Film and Video. Philadelphia: TLA, 1994.

Ôshima, Nagisa, dir. and scr. In the Realm of the Senses. Argos Films, Ôshima Productions, & Shibata Organisation, 1975.

Read, Daphne. “(De)Constructing Pornography: Feminisms in Conflict.” Passion and Power: Sexuality in History. Ed. Kathy Peiss and Christina Simmons with Robert A. Padgug. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989. 277-92.

Ross, Andrew. No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Scott, Ridley, dir. Thelma & Louise. Scr. Callie Khouri. Pathé Entertainment, Percy Main, & Star Partners III, 1991.

Segal, Lynne. “Does Pornography Cause Violence?: The Search for Evidence.” Gibson and Gibson 5-22.

Turim, Maureen. “The Erotic in Asian Cinema.” Gibson and Gibson 81-89.

Viegener, Matias. “‘The Only Haircut That Makes Sense Anymore’: Queer Subculture and Gay Resistance.” Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video. Ed. Martha Gever, Pratibha Parmar and John Greyson. New York: Routledge, 1993. 116-33.

Waugh, Tom [Thomas]. “Gay vs. Straight,” inclusive of “Men’s Pornography, Gay vs. Straight: A Topographical Comparison.” Jump Cut 30 (1985): 30-35.

———. “Hard to Imagine: Gay Erotic Cinema in the Post War Era.” CineAction 10 (Fall 1987): 65-71.

Williams, Linda. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

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IV. Womanliness as (Masculine) Masquerade in Psychoanalytic Film-Texts

Among American film practitioners, Brian De Palma has staked one of the strongest claims to the late Alfred Hitchcock’s “master-of-suspense” mantle. The manner in which De Palma ensured such a designation for himself might be even more extreme than the case of his French New Wave counterpart Claude Chabrol in that, like Chabrol, De Palma had concentrated on thriller (horror and/or suspense) material, but had also, for roughly the same period of his Hitchcock specialization from the early ’70s to the mid-’80s, inserted a pointed and outright Psycho (1960) tribute – a suspenseful shower sequence – in all of his films.

11011The challenge for any filmmaker interested in following Hitchcock’s footsteps would only begin with an appreciation of the latter’s fluency in audiovisual language. Even more difficult would be duplicating the impact that Hitchcock has had on debates on gender and sexuality, with seemingly every new discursive field having its own appreciators of the radical potential of Hitchcock’s film-texts; witness, for example, this recent valorization:

In so far as this psychoanalytic model of identification clarifies the primary mode of address of classical Hollywood cinema and its codes, it suggests that rather than inserting the male spectator into a fixed, stable heterosexual subject position, Hitchcock’s films return him to the polymorphous sexuality of the pre-Oedipal phase. (Corber 61)

This essay will seek to delve further into what may be regarded as Hitchcock’s legacies, as De Palma has attended to developing them, particularly in the area of psychoanalysis. For this purpose, the essay would rather center on the two De Palma films that deal overtly with psychoanalytic issues, Dressed to Kill (1980) and Raising Cain (1992), rather than engage in a consideration of De Palma’s psychobiography. On this score, Robin Wood, even in his reworking of his study of Hitchcock, has pointed out that Hitchcock’s films in themselves offer sufficient material for whatever auteurist purposes one might require, and that “biographical data may confirm or consolidate a reading arrived at from a careful analysis of the film itself. It follows that such a use is minor, incidental, and never necessary, it merely accords the satisfaction of confirmation” (21). Moreover, it is the purpose of this essay to pursue the issues of sexuality and subjectivity as presented in the psychoanalytic discourse of the film-texts themselves; the drawing of relations between these insights extracted from the said texts and that of the life of De Palma (whether with or without the quotation marks around his name) might have to constitute a new and different project altogether.

11011Dressed to Kill and Raising Cain both deal with men who threaten women, with the men in both instances effecting a transvestic self-transformation in ways reminiscent of that of Norman Bates in Psycho. In Dressed to Kill, Dr. Robert Elliott, a psychotherapist, responds to a sexually frustrated female patient, Kate Miller, who tries to seduce him, by turning into Bobbie (whose identity is revealed only at the end), stalking the patient through the latter’s extramarital encounter, and killing her with a razor. Liz Blake, a hooker, witnesses the crime and is in turn pursued by the as-yet mysterious blonde; Liz is helped along by Kate’s son, Peter, who speculates that since Bobbie can be seen exiting Dr. Elliott’s office, she must be one of Dr. Elliott’s patients (Dr. Elliott makes the same claim to himself – he believes that Bobbie is one of his patients and has taken to criminal acts of violence out of his refusal to grant her a sex-change operation). Liz accedes to the investigating officer’s suggestion to get Dr. Elliott’s address book, and enters the latter’s office using the intent to seduce him as a ploy. This only triggers off Bobbie’s impulses once more within Dr. Elliott, and only the intervention of an undercover female police officer saves Liz from being Bobbie’s next victim (as well as uncovers Bobbie’s real identity); Liz, however, continues to have nightmares of Dr. Elliott escaping from the prison hospital and successfully stalking her as Bobbie.

11011Crucial to the structural requisites of the Hitchcock and De Palma films mentioned so far (Psycho, Dressed to Kill, and Raising Cain) is, even on a literal level, the emergence of the identity of their respective psychopathic killers. In considering how their identities are constructed, it would be possible to proceed from basic class relations and note how the most bourgeoisified among the three, Dressed to Kill’s Dr. Elliott, is also the least sympathetic. However, this would lead the discussion back to a consideration of Hitchcock’s and De Palma’s political sympathies, which would only be a secondary concern at best, given the nature of their film material in these instances.

11011A more appropriate starting point would be that of transvestism. One of the most famous usages (perhaps just as famous for detractors who consider it a misusage) of this phenomenon in feminist film theory is that of Laura Mulvey, particularly in her related essays “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” and “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ Inspired by King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946).” Within the context of this discussion, the problem would not be so much that Mulvey limits, for one thing, the crossing of gender boundaries to female film spectators alone (“Afterthoughts” 37); it would also be possible to raise the possibility, for another thing, that

to hold that there is no such thing as a natural or innate sexuality is not to abjure necessarily the category of the psychic. To jettison psychoanalysis along with essentialism … is to foreclose not just the category of desire but also the question of how desire comes to be articulated within a particular social formation. (Fuss 109-10)

In fact the potential for male subjects to feel that their previously assured positions of patriarchal superiority had been destabilized had already been raised in cinema by way of Hitchcock himself, at least as expounded in Tania Modleski’s formulation, in her discussion of Hitchcock’s work, of the “dialectic of identification and dread in the male spectator’s response to femininity – the movement between … ‘hysteria’ (confusion of sexual boundaries) and ‘paranoia’ (their reinforcement)” (13).

11011In Raising Cain a more extreme fragmentation of the male subject’s psyche is expedited, simply by having Carter Nix suffer from multiple personalities. Carter’s father (also named Carter Nix and played by the same actor), this time the psychoanalyst of the story, orders Cain to kidnap children in order to test his findings on multiple personalities; when the job gets too nasty, however, Carter’s evil twin, Cain (who is external to Carter only in his mind) takes over. When Carter’s wife Jenny, disgruntled by his strange obsessive behavior, resumes an affair with another man, Cain sinks her car, with her inside, in a swamp (the movie’s Psycho reference, rather than a shower scene). She however survives the attempt, confronts Carter, and demands to know where their daughter Amy is. Cain of course had already taken Amy to Dr. Nix, but this time, with Jenny, the police, and her lover following, Margo, a female personality, takes over Carter, rescues Amy from his own father by killing him, and escapes – never to be seen again, except by Amy in her fantasies.

11011Lest we get the impression that these men-in-(gender) crisis frameworks are new, the contestation of the notion that it is the female subject who, in the economy of desire, experiences lack in relation to the phallus has been done before, notably by Marjorie Garber in her strategic expansion of the biological foundations of psychoanalysis to include other animal forms; thus, “phallocentrism is loss of estrus” (120), the latter defined as a recurrent period of ovulation most mammals use as their primary signifier of sexual readiness rather than the penile erection in the human male. On an even more primal level, granting this circumstance, men would thereby be just as susceptible to feelings of lack and envy.

11011In psychoanalytic terms, the parallel concept of the mirror stage, described by Jacques Lacan as “a temporal dialectic that decisively projects the formation of the [male] individual into history,” can be seen to be operating in the De Palma films not as “a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation” (“The Mirror Stage” 4) but rather as a temporal and traumatic progression from the insufficiency of masculinity toward the plenitude of femininity, requiring as a consequence of phallic loss or surrender the undermining of the system of femininity from within – as observable in the always-unstable balance between the psychopathic characters’ weak masculine and strong feminine sides. Hence the differences between the Hitchcock film on the one hand and those of De Palma on the other stem primarily from a shift in the order relations between the sexes. In this instance, Lacan’s assertion – that

If, in effect, the man finds satisfaction for his demand for love in the relation with the woman, inasmuch as the signifier of the phallus constitutes her as giving in love what she does not have – conversely, his own desire for the phallus will make its signifier emerge in its persistent divergence towards “another woman” who may signify this phallus in various ways (“The Signification of the Phallus” 290)

– finds just-as-divergent applications in each temporal instance. In the ’60s film, Norman Bates’s mother, who desires the phallus, finds it in her son and provokes murderously hysterical rampages through him, aggravated by his resistance to her. In contrast, in the ’80s settings, Dr. Robert Elliott’s Bobbie, in an instance of reverse erotic transference, seeks to give up the phallus she biologically possesses (although she provokes similarly murderous outbursts) by desiring a change in sex instead; whereas Carter Nix’s Margo actually strives to save the children kidnapped by her (and Carter’s and Cain’s) father, even if it means killing the father himself – a seizure of the phallus in terms that follow the standard Oedipal trajectory but without the component of hysteria attending the other cases.

11011The shift in social orders between the decades in question should not prove surprising or irrelevant to a discussion of sexualities and subjectivities:

Sex/gender systems are always unstable sociocultural constructions. Their very instability explains the cultural importance of these systems: their purpose is to delimit and contain the threatening absence of boundaries between human bodies and among bodily acts that would otherwise explode the organizational and institutional structures of social ideologies. (Epstein and Straub 2)

The issue of transvestism, in this regard, should also be seen as not necessarily defining the core gender identity of the most “normal” of the three cases (Garber 134), that of Carter/Margo, just as, in contrast, the solidified cross-gendered identities of Norman/mother and Dr. Elliott/Bobbie have rendered them menaces to society in general, and to women in particular.

11011As a feminine project, the pursuit of a phallus with the object of claiming it for oneself may not have seemed possible, much less desirable, at the start. Sigmund Freud describes women obsessed with “becoming like a man” as partaking of, in so many words, weirdness,[1] if not “‘denial,’ a process which … in an adult would mean the beginning of a psychosis” (178); he even goes as far as maintaining that little girls would object to phallic masturbation, even after conceding that possession of the phallus could be a notion conceivable to women (180).

11011One way therefore of postulating what happened to phallic women since the time of Psycho is that the prescriptive measure remarked upon by Freud – that of their equating the penis with (the bearing of) a child (180-81) and coming to desire domesticity – was rejected by them in favor of not just bearing the phallus, but playing with it as well – masturbating it, if you will. In so doing they may have found that pleasure in this instance could be derived from more than just a singular source (as might be the case in the male) – i.e., from the pleasure of playing with an object that one has won and now possesses, plus the pleasure in the knowledge of the displeasure of the (masculine) owner that the object was expropriated from.

11011Given a social condition where characters like Dressed to Kill’s Kate can articulate her sexual interest in men and her indignation about her husband, where Liz can ply her fleshly trade for the purpose of investing in the stock market, or where Raising Cain’s Jenny can decide on her own terms whether to pursue an extramarital fling and later cut up a husband who (through his evil-twin personality) had been abusive toward her, it becomes understandable, not to mention justifiable, that modern-day males in trouble should seek psychic solace in femininity, notwithstanding the neuroses that such an option incites in them.

11011The historical lesson that may be backgrounded against this insight is that the reverse option, that of homeovestism (wearing the clothes of the same sex), has its own pathological consequences for men (Tasker 128-29). In fact homeovestism, although still regarded as a signifier of normalcy, can be revaluated as even more insidious in its capacity for causing psychological damage compared with the transgressive practice of transvestism, in that its designation of increased social and sexual expectations might aggravate the very factors that led to the crisis in the first place.

11011Moreover, the transvestism of De Palma’s male-troubled characters involves more than just the appropriation of women’s appurtenances for fetishistic purposes, as discussed by both John Ellis and Laura Mulvey in relation to, as well as a variant of, voyeurism (Neale 17). What Dr. Robert Elliott and Carter Nix’s common objective is is not that of diminishing the distance between them and their objects of pleasure, but rather setting some distance between themselves and their patriarchal systems, which they have perceived as too crisis-ridden to provide them with much-needed comfort; the boundary they seek to cross by cross-dressing is not over into pleasure (a prerogative possible only for wielders of the phallus), but rather over into the assurance of power, the phallus that they (along with the social structure of masculinity) have lost.

11011To further qualify this view, the realization that Dr. Elliott and Carter Nix do not have the phallus can be further extrapolated along Oedipal lines to their awakening that, between their father and their mother, it is not the former who possesses it either. In Dr. Robert Elliott’s case this perception is implicit, in that Dr. Elliott, as “father” to Bobbie, behaves as a castrating mother would, refusing Bobbie her request for a sex-change and, as Bobbie, castrating women (like Kate and Liz) who behave as if they were bestowed with relative phallic sufficiency; in Carter Nix, on the other hand, this perception is foregrounded in the narrative, when it eventually dawns on everyone else that the senior Carter Nix was able to arrive at his groundbreaking study of multiple personalities by repeatedly and successfully traumatizing his own son in order to induce schizophrenic responses in him.

11011Although it might be too facile to deduce that, in these fictional instances, the phallus has been presumed to be in the mother’s possession, the psychoanalytic framework tends to inscribe a one-or-the-other option. However, if we regard the extreme expectations recognized by feminist studies on the act of mothering (Chodorow with Contratto 88 et seq.) and assume a scenario wherein all these expectations are either met or subverted, then it would be possible to envision a social situation where ownership of the phallus would have passed on from the father to the mother.

11011One last issue that might prove productive to reconsider would be the three paradigms outlined by Kaja Silverman as models of male homosexuality (362-73) – the negative Oedipus complex, where the subject identifies with the mother and desires the father; the “Greek” model, where the subject identifies with the father and desires what the subject himself once was; and the Leonardo model (based on Freud’s analysis of Leonardo da Vinci’s homosexuality), where the subject oscillates between identifying with the mother and desiring what the subject once was, and identifying with what the subject once was and desiring the mother. To this might be speculatively added a fourth paradigm that partakes of Silverman’s models but results in nothing like any of them – in that the subject observes a trifurcated resolve (not an oscillation) in identifying with the mother (as in the negative Oedipus complex and part of the Leonardo model), desiring what the subject once was (as in the “Greek” and Leonardo models), and destroying the father, as per the classical Oedipal model.

11011The necessary qualification here of course is that “homosexuality” in this instance assumes a departure from its usual meaning the way that, say, “phallus” differs from “penis.” Once the male subject has abandoned the ramparts of masculinity, as was the case with Dr. Robert Elliott and Carter Nix, any accusation of homosexuality directed at him would be not just expected of his transvestic transformation, but also not as humiliating as the charge of his having turned (into a) woman – the same explanation advanced in Dressed to Kill as to why Bobbie has her murderous inclinations.

11011And well should the patriarchal order be threatened: for while in the (De Palma films’ fictional) past androgyny would carry linguistic associations with bisexuality and the dilution of masculinity (Pacteau 63), the feminine masquerade as used by these male characters has actually enabled them to acquire an increase in their phallic imperatives – so much so that the most frightened among them (compared to Norman Bates and Dr. Elliott), Carter Nix, manages to stand up to and mortally defy his own father in the end. In concluding her essay on the feminine masquerade, Joan Riviere made a distinction between the woman and the gay man, proceeding however from the similarity that they both desire the father’s penis (44); in De Palma’s men-in-crisis films, what the straight man desires is something worth suffering, turning “homosexual,” perhaps even killing, for: the mother’s phallus.


[1] I would have some problem including this quote in the body proper of the essay because of what seems to me a determinedly unprofessional, or at least unclinical, tone: “The hope of some day obtaining a penis in spite of everything and so of becoming like a man may persist to an incredibly late age and may become a motive for the strangest and otherwise unaccountable actions” (Freud 178).

Works Cited

Burgin, Victor, James Donald, and Cora Kaplan, eds. Formations of Fantasy. London: Methuen, 1986.

Chodorow, Nancy J., with Susan Contratto. “The Fantasy of the Perfect Mother.” Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989. 79-96.

Corber, Robert J. “Reconstructing Homosexuality: Hitchcock and the Homoerotics of Spectatorial Pleasure.” Discourse 13.2 (Spring-Summer 1991): 58-82.

De Palma, Brian, dir. and scr. Dressed to Kill. Filmways Pictures & Cinema 77/Film Group, 1980.

———, dir. and scr. Raising Cain. Pacific Western, 1992.

Epstein, Julia, and Kristina Straub. “The Guarded Body.” Introduction. Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity. Ed. Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub. New York: Routledge, 1991. 1-28.

Freud, Sigmund. “Some Psychological Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes (1925).” Trans. James Strachey. Sexuality and the Psychology of Love. Ed. Philip Rieff. New York: Collier, 1963. 173-83.

Fuss, Diana. Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. 1992. New York: Harper, 1993.

Hitchcock, Alfred, dir. Psycho. Scr. Joseph Stefano. Shamley Productions, 1960.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

———. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” Lacan, Ecrits 1-7.

———. “The Signification of the Phallus.” Lacan, Ecrits 281-91.

Modleski, Tania. The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory. 1988. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Mulvey, Laura. “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ Inspired by King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946).” Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures 29-38.

———. Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

———. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures 14-26.

Neale, Steve. “Masculinity as Spectacle: Reflections on Men and Mainstream Cinema.” Prologue. Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema. Ed. Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark. London: Routledge, 1993. 9-20.

Pacteau, Francette. “The Impossible Referent: Representations of the Androgyne.” Burgin et al. 62-84.

Riviere, Joan. “Womanliness as a Masquerade.” Burgin et al. 35-44.

Silverman, Kaja. Male Subjectivity at the Margins. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Tasker, Yvonne. Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema. London: Routledge, 1993.

Wood, Robin. Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

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V. Postcolonial Conundrum: Third-World Film in Perverse Perspective

Common sense alone would lead us to expect that progressive policies would have undergone some seachange on their way [from the United States] to the archipelago…. Yes, Americans experimented in the Philippines. No, the colony was not a “laboratory of democracy”; it was, rather, a laboratory for the testing of essentially conservative formulas. (May xix)

The emergence of Philippine national consciousness can actually be dated to the turn of the 20th century, when a mass-based anti-colonial revolution, the first of its kind in Asia, marked the beginning of the end of the three-centuries-old Spanish occupation. The political boundary that had set apart the Philippine archipelago from the rest of Southeast Asia had proved sanguinary for its colonizing powers, since the westward and southward spread of Eastern (including Islamic) civilization ensured that the populace would not have been as politically consolidated during the 16th century as those who were living further eastward and northward. In selling the colony to the US for $23 million in the Treaty of Paris, the Spaniards agreed to the staging of a mock battle in Manila Bay that would make it appear that it was the Americans who expelled them, rather than the advancing Filipino troops (Constantino 213). The resulting shift in imperialist occupancy promoted a vicious and protracted war (officially declared over after four years by the US but sporadically waged, supposedly against banditry, for two decades afterward) that foreshadowed the comparatively milder conflicts decades later in Viet Nam (241).

11011More significantly for this essay’s purpose, the Filipino-American War also introduced a number of language systems to a heretofore linguistically divided country: English, Constitutionally mandated as the sole medium of education and as a national language alongside Spanish and Tagalog, the collaborating region’s tongue; and the cinema, introduced during the start of the revolution against Spain and eventually landing the country in the 1984 Guinness Book of World Records edition as the world’s most enthusiastic movie-going nation. A third system of ideas which may be considered a second-order language system in this context would be psychoanalysis, which was progressively gaining headway in Europe and the US even while it was still being further developed by its propounder, Sigmund Freud, well into the 1930s. The manner in which psychoanalysis differs from, say, a Euro-American language (English, in this instance) and art form (cinema) lies not only in the fact that it draws from and contributes to these two systems, but also in the political reality of its cultural specificity.

11011Hence, while it may be successfully argued that Philippine sentiments have been expressed in texts that were English and/or filmic in origin, the notion of Filipinos conducting themselves according to psychoanalytic principles can only be effectively applied to the most highly Westernized members of the local intelligentsia, as well as to Westerners regarding the country’s citizens from an insistently and unapologetically foreign perspective. The fact that the country has been culturally the most Americanized in Asia further complicates this assertion, in that a counter-argument could be formulated, to the effect that most of the political and social structures still in existence in the Philippines were drawn from the model of the so-called US democratic form of government, and are thereby inevitably inflected with the philosophies that have lent themselves to Western ideological practice – those based on psychoanalysis included; furthermore, whether or not significant to the preceding discussion, psychoanalytic concepts are themselves introduced to Filipino students, starting at the secondary-education level.

11011This essay takes the strictly provisional (and obviously pragmatic) view that a psychoanalytic analysis of a Philippine cultural text draws only to a limited extent from the possibility that any adequately schooled Filipino would have been exposed to psychoanalytic ideas and critical practice. More important, whatever general conclusions this study can draw could only be confidently declared as reflecting not so much on the Filipino subject(s) concerned as on the originator of psychoanalytic discourse – i.e., the Western (post-)colonizing subject. My position as a Philippine national utilizing psychoanalysis for the purpose of “reflecting” on Western subjects could itself be subjected to the kind of totalizing deconstruction that would render this very exercise inutile for progressive institutional purposes. What this essay proceeds from, therefore, is a highwire crossing of the expected traversal toward expedient insight without falling into the traps of undue betrayal of the subject on the one hand and abandonment of theoretical exploitation on the other.

11011Psychoanalysis originally served the then-radical function of overturning the body-over-mind hierarchy that typified premodern scientific precepts, with Freud drawing inspiration and intuition from the then similarly radical challenges of Darwinism (Gay 24 et seq.). Anti-colonial writers sought to appropriate psychoanalytic principles by foregrounding the pathologization of racist attitudes in their critiques of the colonial project. Frantz Fanon proposed the category of cultural racism, a form of practice which, unlike racism for the most part, relied on rational and individualized applications (32), but nevertheless resulted in a combination of exoticization and exploitation on the part of the colonizer (35) and alienation (or “deracialization”) on the part of the colonized (38). For his part, Octave Mannoni drew from the Jungian mechanism of projection, where the colonizing subject’s errors of perception are attributed to the object of colonization (198); he also modified the Oedipus complex in what he called the Prospero complex, which enabled him to create affinities between more than just two participants, as per his schematization of the dramatis personae in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: Prospero, the paternalist colonial; Miranda, his daughter threatened by rape at the hands of an inferior being; Caliban, the disgruntled and demonized Other; Ariel, the favored Other who is led on with the promise of prosperity and eventual liberty; and Gonzalo, an old dotard treated with hypocritical respect by Prospero (105-09).

11011Although Fanon engaged in an open denunciation of Mannoni, both can be seen as proceeding from the same premise of the racist nature of colonialism (McCulloch 215), thus opening up the possibility, problematized earlier, for the colonized Other to read the Western colonizer without being read in turn in the same way. A weakness of this approach, however, would be the nature of the intersection between radical psychology and class struggle (210) – a point, to be taken up more fully later, that will yield more fruitful results in the discussion of gender and sexuality. A more basic difficulty lies in the very supposition common to both writers – expressed outright by Fanon in his assertion that “a colonial country is a racist country” (40) and thereby equating racism with normality in racist cultures – vis-à-vis the evidence of how non-colonizing or formerly colonized cultures have since exhibited problems arising from racism practiced against minority groups in the countries in question. More important would be the same insight for which Fanon took Mannoni to task in the latter’s consequential diversion of liberationist efforts toward the psychological and away from the economic: not only would this binary be difficult to maintain, but Mannoni’s observation – that the colonizer may be so caught up in the trappings of power that it is the pleasure of colonial practice, rather than its profitability,[1] that provides him with the motive for persisting in his role (203) – opens up an entirely new possibility which neither writer opted to pursue.

11011The said possibility derives from the writers’ stigmatization of racism as an ultimately irrational activity, with Mannoni, risking a rationalization of the colonialist imperative, admitting that, true to Freudian form, the colonizer’s yielding to such stirrings of what may be called the cultural id provides its subject with some measure of gratification. A rejection of the prerogative of using a racially inflected resistance to colonialism, however, would deprive the colonized subject of the same pleasure that had effectively driven the colonizer in the first place. It may be too facetious at this point to marshal the evidence of how anti-colonial movements have not met with the same degree of success and profitability that colonizing efforts had by explaining that the counter-racist option may have been too readily discarded on the basis of the twin reasons of its being irrational as well as associable with the colonizing oppressor; a better way of phrasing the argument would be to state that anti-racism is a sentiment that is now officially shared by every Euro-American nation that had once indulged in colonial aggression, and therefore every anti-colonial movement that refuses to racialize the enemy might find itself in agreement on this score with a former colonizing power or two. In a postmodern situation where certain ex-colonies are actually in a neocolonial state of economic dependence even as they enjoy, politically and culturally, a postcolonial status (of which the US and its ex-/neo-/post-colony, the Philippines, remains an outstanding example), any form of resistance, whether by enemies of the postcolonial government or by the postcolonial government itself, meets at best with some amount of liberal tolerance on the part of the colonizing center, but only up to the point where the rationality of the dependency relationship begins to be challenged.

11011The means by which psychoanalysis and the cinema fell in with the advance of modernism assumed a different register in the non-Western colonialized world. As in many a Third-World country, the anti-colonial resistance in the Philippines configured the republican seat of power as no better than a puppet regime and appraised modernization as the means by which the US aspired to consolidate its neocolonialist stranglehold on the country. Modernism therefore impacted on the Philippines to a heretofore exceptional degree during the US-sanctioned (and possibly US-engineered) martial-law dictatorship of Ferdinand E. Marcos, when opposition activities could be legally suppressed and US intervention became a more open practice. The scenario helps explain the simultaneous occurrence of certain phenomena that may at first seem to be historical aberrations in themselves: an artificial period of further economic growth fueled by the excessive infusion of foreign loans followed by an abnormal decline that distinguished the country as the most highly developed in the region before and during the early years of martial rule and the least developed afterward; and the flowering of Western art forms, especially industrial-based culture, the cinema foremost among them.

11011Thus the irony of two “Golden Ages” in Philippine cinema occurring during periods when anti-insurgent stability was enforced: the first during the 1950s, when the US refined its psy-war tactics for subsequent application in Viet Nam in its suppression of the Communist peasant-based movement, which had returned to the policy of armed struggle after the US reneged on its promise of remuneration after the Communist movement’s successful participation in anti-Japanese guerrilla warfare during World War II; and the second, as already expounded, during martial law. Central to a consideration of this essay’s psychoanalytic project would be a 1979 product that in many ways has become the most celebrated film event in the Philippines: personally selected for competition in the Berlin Film Festival by festival director Moritz De Hadeln, it was preempted from doing so by a year-long ban imposed by the military censors; upon its release in 1980, its original title, Manila by Night, was changed to City After Dark, and its permit consisted of a multiple-page single-space listing of visual cuts and aural deletions that mostly specified sex scenes, cusswords, references to political issues and figures, and all mention of the word “Manila” (Office of the President 19937-38). The mangled release won the critics’ best-film prize, and the integral version was subsequently premiered under the censorship-exempt Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, a Marcos-era agency that found itself in the paradoxical position of proving the regime’s libertarian position in the wake of the international outcry following the assassination of oppositionist leader Benigno S. Aquino Jr.; it has since consistently topped local best-film surveys (Davíd 135) and was cited as one of four Filipino films in the Sight and Sound historical survey of world cinema (December 1994 supplement).

11011Formally, Manila by Night is a multiple-person narrative consisting of major characters separately tallied at nine by the critics’ group in its quarterly citations and at thirteen in the published screenplay’s “Cast In Order of Appearance” (Bernal, “Manila by Night” 23). The movie takes after the format of a number of European and later American films,[2] most notably Robert Altman’s Nashville – a source that Ishmael Bernal, the filmmaker, had acknowledged. Robin Wood critiques the format as aiming “to reach and satisfy as wide a youth audience as possible” (216) and associates Nashville’s “multi-plot, multi-character structure” with the disaster movies popular during the same decade (29). Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner, on the other hand, draw a distinction between disaster films and what they termed group films (including in their definition Nashville and Secaucus Seven but not Big Chill), which, apart from having several characters, would prescriptively display such other traits as open-endedness, distantiation, generic playfulness, and attempts at demythologization (269-82); their valorization, however, reaches its limit in their clarification that “the criterion for judging such matters should be pragmatic, one that measures the progressive character of a text according to how well it accomplishes its task in specific contexts of reception” (268).

11011An effective way of commencing an appreciation of the multiple-character format would be the splintering by Mannoni of the basic two-agent system that constitutes the Oedipus complex. Two difficulties that may be raised against the Prospero complex, however, would center on the ultimate collapse of the multiple-player situation onto the centrality of Prospero himself as sole phallus-wielder, as well as the historical record of its inutility in colonial and postcolonial discourse; if, that is, Mannoni had intended his analysis to expose the workings of the colonizing subject’s psyche, then it may be pertinent to raise the issue of how far the other participants in colonialist struggles, whether colonized or colonizer, have seen fit to adopt his diagnosis, the way that Freud’s Oedipus complex has been treated by the very cultures that it was purportedly critiquing.

11011It may be more practicable then to effect a return not so much to the Oedipus complex as to the other psychoanalytic concepts that derive from it. Primary among these would be Freud’s exposition of group psychology, utilized in the West for primarily therapeutic purposes and thereby understood as referring to small and deliberately formed assemblies. The interesting aspect, for purposes of this discussion, of Freud’s analysis of group psychology is that it delineates a state of affairs that is not only social in nature, but that also calls for political measures – i.e., the condition of a leader imposing restrictions on a group in order to ensure a relation of subordination toward himself, and who aims to legitimize his undue measure of influence ideally through “the illusion that the leader loves all of the individuals equally and justly” (56). The use of the primal father and the horde as originary models indicates that group therapy, much less small groupings, need not be one of the Freud essay’s main discursive priorities; in fact, Homi Bhabha has drawn from Freud’s description of the melancholia that ensues from the excessive criticism by the ego ideal of the ego for the latter’s awareness of its own inferiority (64) as equivalent to the “‘projective disincorporation’ by the marginal of the Master” as an early step in colonial disengagement (Bhabha 65).

11011What this essay would like to develop, however, is Freud’s qualification of the oppressed group member’s (or Other’s) circumstance as actually oscillating between melancholia and another condition – that of mania, wherein “the ego and the ego ideal have fused together, so that the person, in a mood of triumph and self-satisfaction, disturbed by no self-criticism, can enjoy the abolition of his inhibitions, his feelings of consideration for others, and his self-reproaches” (64). A politically inflected analysis that expresses interest in the seemingly less enabling aspect of the Other’s psychological constitution will have to see where Freud had been able to develop his concerns herein earlier; the one area that suggests itself, in line at least with the objective of elucidating the film-text at hand, would be that of perversion, definable in this instance as mania manifested in terms of acts of sexual transgressions.[3] In the Philippines, the injunction to observe the reproductive imperative in sexual conduct finds itself suspended between two options that have both been coopted by foreign forces: that of population control, promoted by the US and the World Bank through the Philippine government, and that of anti-contraception, advocated by the Catholic Church through its hierarchy in the Philippines. The institutional motives can be thus reduced to the following formulation: the economic colonizing power desires a lesser colonized population in order to lessen the impact of destitution attendant to the expropriation of wealth from the colonized country; the cultural (in this case, religious) colonizer, on the other hand, realizes a paradoxical alliance with the anti-colonial (and anti-religious) radical in their common call for reproductive sexuality, but with opposing visions in mind – the former that of institutional stability through an increase in the faithful, the latter that of instability and subsequent discontent.

11011If we grant, as is consistent with the practice, that population control measures not only do not aim to destabilize the principle of reproductive sexuality but actually promote it by overvaluing the act of reproduction, then what such complex signals induce in the colonized subject would be a sense of alienation from the reproductive imperative arising from the inability of any available institution to ensure a choice that would psychically benefit the said subject more than it would either of the opposing foreign forces. Cornelius Castoriadis describes in this wise, pace Freud, the “impossibility” of psychoanalysis and pedagogy “in creating autonomy for their subjects by using an autonomy which does not yet exist” (Castoriadis 6) being resolved in turn by the similarly “‘impossible’ task of politics – all the more impossible since it must also lean on a not yet existing autonomy in order to bring its own type of autonomy into being” (7). In designating politics as the activity which aims to institute an autonomous society – i.e., “one which not only knows explicitly that it has created its own laws, but has instituted itself so as to free its radical imaginary and enable itself to alter its institutions through a collective, self-reflexive, and deliberate activity” (7) – Castoriadis upholds Freud’s postscriptural remarks (Freud 67-68) in his declaration that the goal of the autonomous society would be the creation of autonomous individuals (Castoriadis 7), though without taking into account Freud’s discussion of the role of myth (Freud 68-69) and its definitionally utopic resonances.

11011The manner, therefore, by which Manila by Night alarmed the martial-law censors may have been expressed in terms of an anxiety regarding how Filipinos may be apprehended in heterocentrist and dimorphic Western culture – a position that was later implicitly modified, in allowing the uncensored version limited exhibition at a government venue, to that of how such immoral characters were merely ruptures in an otherwise intact body politic.[4] A different way of explicating the movie’s delineation of polymorphous perversities would be to submit that such a state had been induced by colonial excess; this would however lead back to Bhabha’s contention that melancholia, rather than mania, is the route to anti-colonial awakening, as well as bring up the too-apparent difficulty of finding such an awareness in any of the movie’s characters in the first place. The quandary in this case stems from affixing correspondences between political entities and Freudian psychical elements: the colonial subject (equivalent to the fictional characters of Manila by Night) as the id, the critical spectator (including the filmmaker) as the ego, and the cultural censor as the ego ideal, necessarily conflated with the colonizing subject – which in turn would also conflate into itself the politico-economic power (the US) and the religious power (the Church). More productive insights may be yielded if the censor were seen as assuming the function of the ego in relation to the colonizer, and thus be seen as caught between on the one hand providing Freud’s “illusion of love” for its subjects and demonstrating its worth to its leaders (in terms of Catholic morality), and on the other hand asserting its supremacy over its subjects and proving its benevolence and consequently its approbation among its subjects to its leaders (in terms of American populism).

11011This more complex operation of the censorship function allows us to approach the text as more than just an instance of condensation and/or displacement, or rather as dreams that have been converted into symbolic images as a result of repression. Where the critical ego can be made to understand that the ego ideal might be repressive because it is being repressed in turn, the political project, as defined earlier by Castoriadis, focuses on autonomizing the colonized society in the instance of Manila by Night, not by reading the film-text as a fiction, but by simply reading it and letting the question of its validity bother not the colonized subject but the colonizing reader. The process would involve the recognition by the colonizer of himself in the Other that would lead to the colonizer’s attempt at the destruction of the Other in fantasy (Benjamin 36-39), but only, it is implied, in a fantasy that the colonizer can control.

11011In combining the Western normative standards of dimorphism and heterocentrism in terms of quantified object relations, the category of unisexuality, as opposed to bisexuality, shapes up as the logical limit: if not heterosexuality, that is, then better homosexuality rather than bisexuality. The masculinist gendering of this line of thinking extends the hierarchization even further by overturning it at one point, thus: for women, if not heterosexuality, then better bisexuality, where reproduction can still be chanced, rather than lesbianism. The resultant descending categories of straight male, straight female, homosexual male, bisexual female, bisexual male, and lesbian may occasionally undergo shifts among the inner terms, but social evidence generally points to the primacy accorded the straight male and the subnormality accorded the gay female.[5]

11011The necessarily binaristic relation between any two categories constitutes a throwback to the Oedipal scenario, with subsequent attempts (including Mannoni’s) aimed at decentering the as it were two-party system. Ronald Britton proposes parental sexuality as the means by which (unlike in Mannoni) the father would not remain supreme; this results in what he called the Oedipal illusion, where the reality of the child’s wish to re-enter the mother through her genital passage being obstructed by the father, is occluded by a phantasy of Oedipus, now enthroned, ignoring the fact that his queen is both his wife and his mother (93). Consequently, “curiosity is felt to spell disaster…. The discovery of the Oedipal triangle is felt to be the death of the couple [and therefore] the arrival of the notion of a third always murders the dyadic relationship” (94). The impasse in this formulation is twofold in nature: first is the elision of the crucial stage in the Oedipal narrative – the slaying of the father – and second, again in terms of this essay’s interests, is the persistence of a two-party system in either instance of Oedipus in relation to his father or of him in relation to his mother. The value of Britton’s formulation, however, is that it introduces the possibility of a single actant actually playing out more than one role, and in doing so upsetting the order maintained illusionistically.

11011The valuation of the straight male in Manila by Night can be seen to undergo this trajectory, but whether the (fictional) subject himself arrives at this realization may be questionable, and much less would be the concern herein. A casual glance at two available contemporary sources of Westerners gazing at Filipino sexuality helps illustrate how working within an alien framework of analysis affects the perception of the object itself. The first, an empirical study of comparative homosexualities in a number of national contexts including the US, lumps together the Philippines along with a number of other Third-World countries, presumably on the basis of their common experience of Hispanic colonization, as its way of explaining the fluidity of Philippine male sexuality (Whitam and Mathy 153-56). Although the study favorably compares the option of machismo, which justifies homosexual relations within the binary of masculine dominance and feminine submission, to that of American heterosexuality, the authors also acknowledge, though without supplying the necessary empirical contrivances, that the Philippines is unique in representing the erotic tradition “of Southeast Asia, the most tolerant area of the world with respect to variant sexuality” (144-45).

11011The other text, a tourism guide to gay Philippine life, avoids the pitfall of seeking explanations by way of analogous Western, specifically Latinate, tradition, but nevertheless resorts to basic still-Western categorizations in describing Filipino men thus: “‘Straight’ is gay and gay is gayer” – this as a chapter subtitle, immediately followed by the observation that “Filipino sexuality has many hard to explain [sic] aspects” (Itiel 10). More knowingly, the guide differentiates between Philippine male sexuality and machismo by asserting that “Being ‘straight’ in the Philippines doesn’t dictate one’s sexual role play” (11). The reason why this second text arguably falls back on an even more basic and naturalized Western framework draws from its insistence on defining gay-available straight men as not straight, and therefore merely “straight.” While it may be imperative to look further into a perversion of what is already “perverse” to begin with, it would also be helpful to see what the implications of such an insistence on Westernized categorizations lead to. Granting the feminization of the Other already imposed by Orientalism, the fact that such potentially gay men can still be called “straight,” even within quotation marks, implies, if these men were Western, the condition of bisexuality, as valorized by Freud himself. But again, since these men are not men enough by virtue of their Otherness, then as non-men (and therefore, still within the existing binary, as women), their capacity for straightness would mark them as lesbians.

11011The potential for radical applications of this insight can be appreciated via a recollection of the historical teleology from gay through queer to lesbian as narrated from within the ranks of lesbian activism itself. As the first visible participant in sexual activism, the (necessarily masculinized) gay person found himself dichotomized, in then-emergent public and legal debate, into either a responsible citizen (and therefore monogamous or, at best, celibate) or a dangerous solicitor; the queer response was to uphold the latter category rather than allow gays to be accepted at the expense of the very sexuality that always-already defined them in the first place (Smith 206). The lesbian predicament was that, in the privileging of the male homosexual even after the shift in discursive strategies, the homosexual woman remained equated with the responsible-citizen codification via the sexist configuration of women as sexually passive and therefore harmless, as reflected in the invisibility of lesbianism in sodomy laws (207). In her bid to secure socially discursive visibility, the lesbian saw her options as falling within the “harmless” rather than the “dangerous” sphere of comprehension: sexualized, she was regarded as a poor substitute for the heterosexual man; desexualized, she was depicted as seeking either to mother or to be mothered (Richardson 191-93).

11011Such a no-win situation extended to lesbians’ bid for visibility, in their call to use slogans that assert that dykes “Solicit and Fuck Too” (Smith 210), a representational bid that has carried over to the use of active-passive interplay and even sado-masochism in lesbian pornography (Richardson 197). But just as lesbians had seen their sexuality appropriated by feminists in the clamor for “political lesbianism” where the options for dominance and submission were rejected (195), the quest for queer-inflected visibility presents the same danger of legal repression faced by gay males (Smith 210), while the promotion of lesbian sexuality in pornography stands in danger of either straight-male acceptance or, in its more extreme phase, alienation from even lesbian subjects themselves (Richardson 198). Tamsin Wilton, in quoting B. Ruby Rich, echoes the perception that “while gay men may unearth gay material, lesbians must conjure it, invent it” (7) – a complaint that in fact can be turned around and converted into a strong point.

11011Recent discourses that appear to be most applicable to the lesbian predicament as recounted herein reconsider the condition of invisibility (notably in Phelan) – not as a form of edenic nostalgia, but as a further means of distinguishing subjects formerly oppressed by their concealment from public awareness and acceptance. Judith Butler, in writing of the Foucauldian regimes (primarily that of heterosexuality) of discourse/power that regulate the materialization of sexual norms (15), stresses that

it will be important to think about how and to what end bodies are constructed as it will be to think about how and to what end bodies are not constructed and, further, to ask after how bodies which fail to materialize provide the necessary “outside,” if not the necessary support, for the bodies which, in materializing the norm, qualify as bodies that matter. (16)

In this essay’s admitted valorizing of Manila by Night as a multiple-character Third-World text, one can readily draw correspondences between two items mentioned. On the one hand would be Butler’s paradoxical configuration of bodies that “fail to materialize” serving material functions by way of helping define the bodies that are granted material privilege, in both physical and pecuniary senses. On the other hand would be the cultural text’s capacity to leave historical traces and generate ideological shifts in its wake without necessarily allowing itself to be the same body that it had been for prior and current experiencers. Even more uncanny, although this would be a point too ambitious and open-ended for this essay to pursue, would be the manner in which these latter-day discourses on gender and sexuality conjure up the Philippines’s still-enduring anti-colonial response – that of guerrilla warfare. It were as if the eventual articulation of what may have been at this point the most successfully suppressed First-World gender-cum-sexuality wound up sounding not much different from the long-complaining Third-World voice, with both realizing upon their asynchronous awakening the need for small-scale struggles of attrition premised on the readiness for covert operations and aimed at maximizing popular sentiment for the movement and against unconscionable oppressors.[6]

11011In taking up arms against the phallic system, some debate has predictably been directed at the signifier of desire itself; among the notable alternative propositions to the immutability of the phallus are the anus in Guy Hocquenghem’s advocacy of homosexual desire (97-100), Butler’s postulation of the lesbian phallus (57 et seq.), and, in postcolonial terms, the adjunction of the body through the hand to include the writer’s pen (Mishra and Hodge 283). Teresa de Lauretis, however, argues that the mediating term in perverse desire should be not the phallus but rather the fetish, since the instinctual investment it represents resides “not in the mother (negative Oedipus) or in the father/father’s child (positive Oedipus), but in the female body itself, ultimately in the subject’s own body-image and body-ego, whose loss or lack it serves to disavow” (289). The negotiation in psychoanalysis toward an order that could be termed postpatriarchal might assume certain features of postcoloniality in that the persistence of oppressive structures is not denied even as the subject’s agential potentials are being critically explored beyond the “exorbitation of discourse” that writers like Bhabha are discommended for (Parry 43). The condition of what can similarly be termed postphallicism may be derived from De Lauretis’s decentering of the phallus – i.e., a multiplicity of alternatives in relations of contention and complementariness, rather than a singular attribute subsuming all others, can be put to work.

11011As a multiple-character sample situated within this ongoing inspection of its levels of consciousnesses, Manila by Night also functions beyond merely fragmenting traditional notions of character. The resultant reliance on types facilitates the move away from concepts of property and money economy associated with modernist capitalism and toward the Western reader’s postmodernist realities of corporate individualities (Suvin 688). More important, the constant shifting of identification from one subject to another without any singular subject predominating enables the configuration of a social formation – an abstract super-character that is literally socially constructed. If one were to unreservedly drive this argument to a state that could be pronounced progressive, one could advance this milieu character as a figure to be set against the father, thus ensuring its being both distinctively non-patriarchal and protective toward its subjects in a manner that partakes of both feminist-motherly nurture and lesbian-perverse alterability attributable to the fictional nature of the text.

11011In a worst-case scenario where the possibility of critical annihilation appears inevitable, the entire super-entity along with its comprisable subjects could simply dissolve in its presentational mode and constitute the equivalent of a dream that can always threaten to recur. If on the other hand the preceding statement were to be regarded as too visionary to lend itself to questions of institutional change, one can still safely enlist the horde of leaderless subjects whose adaptability applies not just to their agglomeration but to their individual sexualities: developmentally regressive, carnally productive without being reproductive, disclosing without the solicitation of sympathy, they foster the Othering of the powerful by revealing what patriarchy has denied as consequences of its historical interventions and has largely managed to suppress within its own boundaries. There is more to be feared, after all, in the return of the unrepressed.


[1] Strangely enough, this same attitude has been assumed, in the case of the Philippines at least, by the colonizers themselves – expressed of course in the form of complaints about the unprofitability of the colonial possession (Anderson 305-06). There are two ways of responding to this reductive remark, neither of which should necessarily negate Mannoni’s point altogether. First, the nature of colonial exploitation, particularly in the case of continuing counter-insurgency expenditures, facilitates a whole lot of shadowy transactions which makes it not just possible but even desirable to claim losses in order to justify repressive measures and exude an aura of benevolence in the colonizer’s persistence in the face of the colonized’s hopelessness. Second, the global development of capital does make colonization unprofitable for the state after the initial stages of exploitation, when the country’s natural resources get depleted and/or such blatant exercise of power becomes untenable – in which case representatives of the colonizing power’s private sector (comprising Church officials in the case of Spain and bureaucrat-capitalists in the case of the US in the Philippines) take over and provide the motive for maintaining colonialist relations. In both cases the transition from classical colonialism to, if not national liberation, then neocolonialism, appears to be inevitable.

[2] The 1970s saw a relative proliferation of multiple-character films, with the Encyclopedia of Pop Culture, in its entry on thirtysomething, attributing the phenomenon to the maturation of baby-boomers (thus drawing a lineage from Howdy Doody through Woodstock to John Sayles’s Return of the Secaucus Seven and Lawrence Kasdan’s revisionist The Big Chill – Stern and Stern 519).

[3] Again, the cautionary view that such a category is of necessity always-already culture-specific can range from as wide as cross-species studies, which could facilitate the conclusion that the exclusive sexual orientation in normative North American practice may actually be atypical of primates in particular and mammals in general (Pavelka 22-23), to relatively more localized observations of how reproductive sex, as a sine qua non in such Judaeo-Christian contexts as American culture, leads to a two-sex and two-gender system (Herdt 80).

[4] The compromise version submitted to the censors in a last-ditch attempt to obtain approval for participation in the Berlinale includes a where-are-they-now sequence that declares how seven of the major characters had transformed themselves into responsible members of Philippine society.

[5] Michel Foucault has speculated that the proprietary function assigned to women by heterosexual men has made it easier for women to engage in bisexuality than for men to do the same, for two reasons: first, men had to prevent women “from having contact with other men, so … more tolerance was exercised with regard to the physical rapport between women”; and second, straight men “felt that if they practiced homosexuality with other men [sic] this would destroy what they think is their image in the eyes of their women” (“Sexual Choice, Sexual Act” 299). This line of logic can be seen as an interiorizing of the functional moralism I used to draw up the hierarchy of what may be termed preferable preferences.

[6] An early ’90s “Vision Statement” released by the “National Democratic Front [of the Philippines] in the US” included a section on “Gender Justice and Equality” that denounced “discrimination based on sexual orientation and the separation between public and private, between the personal and the political” (42). Elided, perhaps necessarily, was the question of how Marxist principles could allow the masculinized and heterosexualized class-based struggle for national democracy to make way for the interests of, say, straight women, gay men, and lesbians, especially if certain of these groups’ constituencies do not happen to fall under the category of economically oppressed groups. Just as problematic would be the incongruity of what the statement maintained as the NDF-US’s “struggles in the US [as] part of the national democratic revolution in the Philippines which, in turn, is part of the international struggle against imperialism, neocolonialism, and other forms of domination” (42), even as it clarified that, among other historical instances, “this struggle for freedom, equality, and solidarity … is an anti-imperialist struggle against the US and other foreign entities…” (39).

Works Cited

Altman, Robert, dir. Nashville. Scr. Joan Tewkesbury. American Broadcasting Co. & Paramount Pictures, 1975.

Anderson, Major Wm. H. The Philippine Problem. New York: Putnam, 1939.

Ashbach, Charles, and Victor L. Schermer. Object Relations, the Self, and the Group: A Conceptual Paradigm. London: Routledge, 1987.

Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination. New York: Pantheon, 1988.

Bernal, Ishmael, dir. and scr. Manila by Night. Regal Films, 1980.

———. “Manila by Night: The Uncensored Screenplay.” The Review 4.3 (March 1981): 23-41.

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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