Reading Guide to Screen, 28: 1, Winter 1987 (Special on 'Difference')   

NB I have noticed, rather late, that most of these pieces (except Greig), are collected in Screen (1992)  The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in Sexuality, London: Routledge. This Reader also contains work on male sexuality, and 'race' and postcolonialism.

Merck M  'Difference and its Discontents', 1--9

The notion of sexual difference gradually came to replace the sexual division of labour as a major factor affecting femininity, especially when the work of Lacan became better-known in the mid-1970s. In Mulvey's terms,  'the meaning of woman is sexual difference, the absence of the penis as visually ascertainable, the material evidence on which is based the castration complex essential for the organisation of entrance to the symbolic order and the law of the father'. The problem with the old approaches was identified as failing to explain the origin of differences between men and women in the first place -- what was needed instead was an account of the 'production of differences through systems of representation... differences that cannot be known in advance' (Adams 1979).  

This led to seeing some fundamental representational, semiotic mechanism at work to generate sexual differences. Via Lacan, semiotics could also be joined to Freud's analysis of the workings of the unconscious. One problem that arose early, was whether or not a the processes of constructing difference were traceable to biology, and the visible differences between male and female genitals [if so, little could be done about it and  the division might seem 'natural']. Freud himself was ambiguous on this matter, stressing genital variations as significant on the one hand, while arguing that pure masculinity and femininity were merely theoretical constructions on the other. The work on castration with its unique power to produce super egos and the rest seems to imply some important biological foundation, however, somehow privileging the main difference between men and women among all the other theoretical possibilities.

Mulvey offered a particular variant of the notion of difference in analysing cinema's text and spectator. Pleasure was divided between active male and passive female, as were the various looks and narratives. Challenges to Mulvey included:

'D N Rodowick  [see below], who challenges its  'fixed polarity' of masculine and feminine positions, its equation of cinematic and psychic processes, its neglect of spectatorly resistance, its homogenised depiction of the classic realist film;

John Ellis, (1982 ) who contests its model of masculine identification, arguing that cinematic identification is  'multiple and fractured';

Janet Walker, [see below ] who criticises its lack of distinction between the reading and the text, its  'denial of the female position' of spectator ship, and its male/not - male binarism;

Steve Neale (1983), who cites voyeuristic and fetishistic looking by male characters at male characters in the Western and the epic;

Ian Green, (1984) who adumbrates the narrative mechanisms which encourage male viewers to identify with the female protagonists of melodrama and film noir' (page 4).

Mulvey (1981) herself finally turned to the question of the female spectator, and introduced  ['Mulvey 2', as it is known in the trade] -- a female spectator can now have a  'libidinal tomboyish activity' as well as the traditional passivity, but only at the price of unbearable tension, since it trespasses on masculinity. Mulvey  (1985) begins to rethink the whole motion of dualism, and tries to find a place for women outside of [their positioning]. A feminist politics should operates in that small space between binary oppositions,  'as the point of disruption and contradiction'.  

It was soon clear that lesbian and gay perspectives were also asserting the rights to engage in politics. Difference theory had not managed homosexuality particularly well, before, part because of biologism -- it became difficult to think of homosexuality as suitably Other from heterosexuality, leading to at best a  'polite silence' (6). Female homoeroticism was also under theorised.  

Otherness had historically considered all sorts of distinctions, not just those pertaining to gender. For De Beauvoir  (1972),'Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought', although Firestone believed the category grew out of the history of sexual division. As a result, feminist revolt would end the cultural importance of otherness.  

However, those who do not share this optimism have other alternatives:

(1) to celebrate oppositional female difference, as in Irigaray

(2) to abandon Lacan and embrace full biological duality

(3) to multiply the categories of difference, including differences between women, in order to take away the significance of a single overarching difference

(4) to try to preserve difference, while criticising the inherent dualism of the position  [attributed to Derrida]  ( page 7)

(5) to try to split the psychic process of sexual differentiation from the semiotic processes of identity and otherness. In this way the male/not male distinction would be dethroned as the major one, permitting more positive notions of women as  '"other than not - male", rather than "other and not - male"  (Monique Plaza)' (7).

Finally, arguments about sexual difference do not always conform to all the variants of feminist politics -- clearly, politics centred on 'an interest group attempting to declare its own specificity against an oppressive norm'  (9) would find a plea for differences unhelpful.

Selected References

Adams, P  (1979) 'Note on Sexual Division and Sexual Differences, m/f: 52

De Beauvoir, S (1972) The Second Sex, Harmondsworth, Penguin

Ellis, J  (1982 ) Visible Fictions, London: Routledge

Firestone, S (1971) The Dialectic of Sex, New York: Bantam Books

Green, I  (1984)  'Malefunction', Screen, 25, 4 - 5: 36 - 48

Mulvey, L  (1975)  'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', Screen  16, 3: 13

Mulvey, L  (1981)  'Afterthoughts on "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" Inspired by  "Duel in the Sun"', Framework, 15 - 16 - 17: 15

Mulvey, L  (1985)  'Changes', Discourse

Neale, S  (1983)  'Masculinity as Spectacle', Screen 24, 6: 2 - 16

Rodowick, D  (no date supplied) 'The Difficulty of Difference', Wide Angle, 5,1:  4--15

Walker, J  (no date supplied)  'The Problem of Sexual Difference and Identity', Wide Angle,  6, 3: 16 - 23


Williamson, D  'Language and Sexual Difference', 10--25  

Film theorists are particularly interested in Lacan who offered a materialist view of subjectivity, unlike the formalism of semiotics and the functionalism of Marxist cultural analysis. However, there are problems with accounts of the formation of the subject in language and sexual difference in Lacan, sufficient to question whether Lacanian theory does offer such a useful interrelation of subjectivity, sexuality and language.  

'The Formation of the Subject in Language'

For Lacan , the subject is an effect created by language, and the means of signification themselves are sexualised --'the positions of male and female identity are associated with the constitutive processes of enunciation' (10). Briefly, Lacan on language argues that signifiers are separated from signifieds, and the former have their own dynamics -- they do not exist merely to represent some outside referent, nor some idealist subject  [although both can anchor the sliding signifiers from time to time]. This is connected to the notion of the unconscious in Freud -- metaphor and metonymy describe the principles of condensation and displacement, and the whole unconscious becomes widened to include an unconsciousness of the process by which subjects are formed in and by language. Thus, specifically, repression involves a metaphor, where the signifier of a sexual trauma is substituted by another term: but the subject remains largely unconscious of this transfer of meaning. Dreams can reveal parts of this linguistic structure. Language constitutes the subject in an unconscious manner, hence  'the unconscious is structured like a language'. This view 'decentres' and relegates consciousness, and also separates the idea of the unconscious from anything to do with biology or psychology.  

However, there is a problem. The structure, of the unconscious, is seen as  'an ideal form existing in a dialectical relation to the subject, who must realise the potential effects of the structure at the level of experience' (12). This somehow validates the experience of the subject, as in empiricism. There is also some tautology here -- the unconscious is by definition something that the subject cannot know about but which makes it possible for the subject itself to know things  (including the whole realm of the imaginary). This whole thing depends on  'the figure of misrecognition, the alleged failure of the subject to see the conditions which govern recognition and identity' (12).

The Imaginary and the Symbolic

This relation is best explained in the mirror phase. The infant between six and 18 months, still without language, recognises its reflected image in a mirror, and thus grasps the notion of a unity of the body and of the subject. However, this is ambiguous, since it follows from an exterior stimulus, a difference between the perceiving subject and the perceived image, and is usually provided  'in the context of the mother's directing look, that is in relation to otherness' (13). Yet this is a form of recognition that guides all subsequent identifications, including those involving language  (the symbolic). Language retains the ambiguities, however -- that we use it to represent ourselves, while recognising it as something other than ourselves. In this way, the imaginary and the symbolic presuppose each other. The imaginary, (subjective awareness) is only possible within a network of symbolic relations in language. Clearly, this has helped to understand the production of subjectivities by film, especially by feminists.  


(1) this whole story of a subject predestined to assume an identity through misrecognition overlooks some discontinuities

(2) two separate notions of lack and difference are involved here. There is the 'realist notion' that the word or image suggests a loss of the actual object [as in the old Da/Fort games], and the idea that signifying elements must feature relations of difference among themselves. The realist notion has led to a whole theory about how cinema signifies, where audiences get involved because of the lack of the object itself and are forced to somehow re theorise it  [Metz's view, argues Williamson page 14]. This re theorisation takes place in the imaginary. This makes lots of assumptions about subjective experience, and works with an assumption of realist representation, allowing no role for cinematic language itself. However, this notion also haunts Lacan, since the subject is also supposed to experience some notion of a  'signifying loss, or experience of difference that... even acts as the motor of linguistic signification' (15)

(3) even where this notion of representation is not permitted, Lacan wants to justify his particular model of language [and of Freud?] by suggesting that it must embody some deeper structure with real effects on consciousness, and connections to this great drama of misrecognition.

 'The Recognition of Difference'

Lacan all describes sexual difference by referring to the term  'phallus', and has immediately been criticised by continuing a phallocratic tradition where women are seen purely negatively, as lacking something, as posing a threat to male sexuality. This has led to, say, Irigary's notion of multiple plural significations, to describe femininity, rather than just as not male

Lacan does argue that sexual differences are not natural, but cultural. Thus [social and cultural]  'desire' replaces the notion of [biological] 'need'. The phallus too, can be seen as purely symbolic, not to be confused with the penis. The work sets out to challenge the notion of symbolic differentiation. However, Lacan is not free of biologism according to Heath [see above], and the danger is that symbolic differences become validated by genital differences. Indeed, how else could the phallus gain such power as the best symbol for sexual difference? For Heath, the unconscious constantly produces differences.  

However, Heath in his turn is in danger of seeing the subject as just an effect of the unconscious structure. This is the real problem in Lacan, of which biologism is only an element. For Lacan, the phallus is a signifier, which indicates the two major kind of symbolic regulation --  'the linguistic structure of the unconscious, and the Oedipal complex understood as the structuring of subjectivity' (17). Thus the role of the father who interrupts the mother child dyad is a signifier  [a representative of the law of the symbolic]. However, why should the subject come to see these two forms of regulation in this way? The subject must perceive these differences and symbolise them if they are to have this permanent effect on subjectivity Some connection between differences at the linguistic level and empirical, perceptible, differences must be assumed.  

Lacan seems elusive on this. He offers only an argument that the role of the phallus is  'veiled', that is misrecognised as before. This misrecognition may arise by confusing symbolic and anatomical differences, or it could be a something quite different -- such as  'the point at which the subject recognises that its own imaginary investment in the mother as having the phallus must fail' (18). Whatever the mechanism, there must be some experience of difference for the subject, somehow connected to important kinds of differences between signifiers. Remember that the differences between signifiers are logical differences, beyond the grasp of consciousness. In this way, there can be no real connection between the imaginary and the symbolic: in order to grasp the cultural and linguistic significance of genital differences, the subject must already have some symbolic potentials, that is it cannot be confined entirely to the imaginary .

The whole motion of differences between signifiers is confined just to one linguistic model, where it is used to establish some rules and conventions for establishing meanings. Difference  'works', only according to these rules,  'it ought not to be thought of as given to  (or withheld from)  consciousness independently of the circulation and use of those rules' (18). The whole connection with Freud results merely from a  'play on the word  "difference"' (19). [The use of the term 'phallus' is another play on words?]  

Lacan's scheme is ultimately incoherent, and he suffers from problems similar to those identified in Althusser by Hirst. There are contradictions in arguing that individuals are constituted as subjects through hailing and recognition -- such recognition again implies some capacity which is somehow outside subjectivity. Interpellation itself involves an empiricist notion of recognition available to all subjects, but the processes of interpellation themselves can only be misrecognised. Hence the  'imaginary relation to the real conditions of existence'.

A Summary of Strategies in Lacanian Theory

Everything turns on misrecognition, but there is a contradiction here too. On the one hand, language retains the potential to show the world to the mind, and this goes on in the imaginary in a distorted way. On the other hand, language is a set of codes which produce particular effects of meaning and recognition, independently of the subject, who can only realise its effects in moments of experience. In this second sense, representation is irrelevant.  

Lacan continually blurs these two notions to produce his idea of the subject as misrecognising itself and therefore experiencing constant division (because the only available language uses signifiers which are divided). There is an underlying rationalism,  'which assumes that the theoretical model it builds comprises an ontological structure which must find its realisation in history' (20). What is required is to rethink the very concept of consciousness instead. 

The whole notion of consciousness is associated with  'phenomenological interventions in linguistics' (21)  [Ricoeur is mentioned]. The idea was to try to use linguistics to understand subjectivities, conceived as a dialectical relation which constitutes both language and subjectivity: the  'speaking subject' brings itself into being by realising using the possibilities in language  (21). Enunciation is the key to this process. For Lacan, there is a similar interplay, but this time leading to an experience of division and lack, since when I use language I experience it as not mine. However this still implies some relationship between linguistic terms and some 'existential relation with consciousness'  (22). Foucault would want to criticise such a view of as an example of the  'transcendental/empirical couple'. Here,  'subjectivity and knowledge are formed within certain empirical mechanisms  (Life, Labour and language)' (22). Analysis of such mechanisms therefore offers some transcendental possibilities to trace out the history of  'Man'. The same kind of procedure enabled analysts to study linguistics empirically but at  the same time to uncover forms of subjectivity. Lacan also retains this idea.  


There are some problems and actually using Lacanian theory to analyse film and culture:

(1)  Diverse representational practices are reduced to the single mechanism of subject formation

(2) different kinds of activities are reduced to one essential structure of subjectivity

(3) the styles of discourse and practices in film are similarly reduced

(4) there is a teleological view that the diverse use of representational techniques are somehow necessary to secure misrecognition

(5) the critique of realism which has developed implies some concealment of the processes of the construction of sense, and a corresponding utopian appeal for the return of the repressed, more of the possibilities which have been suppressed. Mulvey takes this view, arguing that male mechanisms are denied the threat of difference and excess suggested by women, and so do feminists arguing for a new kind of feminine writing.

Lacan can be rescued as long as one refuses to see it as a global theory. Some kinds of discourse might help to organise some kinds of recognition, and some concrete historical notions of subjectivity might be explained well by applying the techniques. Freudian mechanisms might be rethought, or as discourses in the Foucaldian sense, with historical contexts. It seems strange that linguistic differences should be associated with sexual differences, since these have not always been as stable as they appear -- even Freud recognises the possibilities of bisexuality, and polymorphously perverse possibilities. In this sense, polymorphous sexuality might be seen as the source of unrealised differences, a source of endless deferral of identity, a source of equally open and flexible kinds of representation and excess.

Greig, D 'The Sexual Differentiation of the Hitchcock Text', pp 28 -- 47

This is a long and detailed reading of some Hitchcock films which it is almost impossible to summarise effectively, and which deserves to be read in its own right, of course. We can extract a few points of more general interest, however.

Much textual analysis in the 1970s suggested that sexual difference was central to classical Hollywood cinema. The work of Raymond Bellour was particularly important here. Sexual difference motivated narrative by posing a problem of difference, and was resolved in the end, usually by a return to the heterosexual couple. Women offered the key term here, while the desire of the man 'constituted the enunciation of the film' (28) [nb 'enunciation' here refers to the process of actually speaking or offering a message, but it is notoriously difficult to define -- Bellour himself has been translated thus: 'the term [enunciator]... marks both the person who possesses the right to speak within the film, and the source (instance) towards which the series of representations is logically channeled back'-- Stacey, below. Thus is is possible to see Hitchcock himself as the enunciator]. The spectator took over the position of the enunciator 'desired by the text in order to desire like the text'. The critic became a parallel enunciator.

However, there has been criticism of this view, especially turning on the alleged political value of these constructions. Textual analysis can only demonstrate that tendency of the text, its strategies, but many readings are possible, as Barthes in particular demonstrates. Feminist work on fantasy has lent support to this view, demonstrating the possibility of interchangeable roles, and the taking up of alternative subject positions -- the possibility of multiple identities.

Hitchcock films are particularly suitable as a test for these rival approaches. In particular, Bellour needs to be re-read -- his methodology 'may be and has been appropriated, for a dangerous popularisation of pre-set truisms of the nature of sexual difference and the concomitant assertion of a masochistic attitude of the female spectator' (29). This reduces the Hitchcock text, as a production in Barthes' sense, especially weakening the transgressive elements.

A detailed comparison of Bellour's and Greig's own readings ensue.[ I was struck by the similarities between Bellour and Mulvey in this account -- both see women as symbolising difference, both point to similar mechanisms of containment, for example to wound or kill the transgressive woman, or to contain her at the end, both illustrate their arguments by referring to 'looks']. Hitchcock's well-known personal appearances in his films are read as 'an index of the particular relationship between Hitchcock's films and the larger corpus of Hollywood cinema' (page 32). Bellour's readings are also based on Barthes' 'new semiology', focusing the activity of signification, and refusing to acknowledge the author as the source of any privileged meaning, generally decentring any fixed meanings, and celebrating the ambiguity of signification. Enunciation becomes the important signifying activity -- 'a dynamic of the text, to cite the production of meaning,... the point around which all activity coheres' (33). This point is often an actual character, or it may be 'the figure of Hitchcock... author and myth' , or his 'fictional delegates '(33) [a kind of structuralist auteur, then?]. The enunciatory drive is a masculine desire, and its aim is often to possess women, or to follow 'the male Oedipal trajectory'.

However, why should there be just one possible enunciation? Why not a 'biological text, a text of irony where to potential enunciations continually confront each other'? Hitchcock films can be read this way too -- see page 34 for Doane's reading, which stresses the 'hesitancy of the patriarchal hand ' in Marnie. Bellour wants to fix the meaning of the text as soon as he discovers a consistency, driven, no doubt by his politics.

Bellour relies upon Lacan and others in his understanding of the symbolic as constraining system. He relies upon it to describe the emergence of stable masculine identities, relying upon the Oedipal myth. This in turn is identified as central to many Hitchcock films, such as North by Northwest. Such is male dominance, that even the difference represented by women is really only an effect of a male recognition of the split self in the 'mirror phase'. [of Lacanian theory, the recognition that the symbolic is both a vehicle for expression and something other]. 'Hollywood asserts: "Look at the woman -- she's different" in order to promote "Look at yourself -- you're the same (as us)"' (page 36). [A clear difference with Mulvey here, then]. The whole point of the symbolic is to construct a stable male identity .

For Bellour, the Oedipal scenes, and the processes of recognition are endlessly repeated, until they take on the function of a myth. But this constrains alternative readings of texts, as well as cementing the link between Hitchcock films in particular, and Hollywood in general [and the wider system of patriarchy beyond that?]. As with structuralism in general, there still must be an active subject who realises ( 'structurates') the symbolic, however. The text must also be capable of transgression, and can never simply reproduce the symbolic, even though that may be its tendency or 'symbolic pressure'. Yet there seems to be no other way of reading the text [the active subject is, of course, ruled out in advance].

What of alternatives? What about the work on female Oedipal trajectories? Can these also be detected in films? Must such trajectories always end in the reassertion of male control? There must be different point of identification for spectators. Even Hitchcock films can feature a central female figure, and these might be particularly suitable. We might even go beyond this alternation of male and female perspectives, though , via the work on fantasy.

In conventional textual analysis like the ones discussed, the female spectator is marginalised, and her pleasures reduced to masochistic ones. Any independence and autonomy is seen as only relative, and easily recuperated. But fantasy offers more possibilities, and new complexity, or 'possible narratives... all of which display potential and pleasurable subject positions for the fantasist within and outside the text' (40). Freud's work on perversions might be drawn upon here, especially the common fantasy involving the beating of children. It is clear that fantasists can take up different positions in this fantasy, sadistic or masochistic, for example. The pleasure of fantasy is not derived definitively from the text, but from its possible enunciations.

Greig thinks there might be some connection here with the classic realist text, as in McCabe's classic analysis -- in both cases, the source of the organising narrative is denied, and the spectator is offered a passive role. Its very impersonality permits different ways to enter the text, as in Barthes' ' readerly text' (page 42). Both Freud and Barthes stress 'atemporality, substitution, reversibility' in their different accounts, and thus 'both assert the autonomy of the spectator from textual effects' (42). It is likely, then that texts have more than one dynamic or enunciation. The Oedipus complex itself, used to fix the meaning of texts for Bellour, may not be so important -- indeed, Barthes himself suggests that anxiety about castration, which continues and persists, is far more significant [apparently, Bellour and Barthes were discussing Sarrasine at the time] Greig says this indicates Barthes' commitment to 'the continuation of textual reading as a practice opposed to the halting on a final signified'.

There are primal fantasies, as well as primal scenes, and these act to continually realises, or 'structurate' the symbolic. Freudian primal scenes have been identified in Hitchcock films -- in Rear Window, for example and in many others. Psycho is perhaps the best example, with many sequences offering 'a kind of obscene condensation of the primal scene' (45) -- for example, 'Arbogast [the unfortunate private detectives stabbed by Norman Bates dressed as his mother] absailing backwards down the bannister, arms flailing, in a grotesque parody of orgasm' (45).

However, the 'split personalities' of characters like Bates can be read as offering the possibility of different identifications -- but Bellour fails to do this, resorting to 'the very stereotypes which support patriarchy in its cultural superiority' (46). More promising his conception of the subject as 'found in a sort of infinite play of fantasy, at rest in a dynamic structuration... [and of ]... the film text... as continuous interaction of fantasies and denunciations -- and any resultant structure is dependent upon the individual position taken up in relation to that text' (46).

Stacey, J 'Desperately Seeking Difference', pp 48 -- 61

Feminist critics like Mulvey have ignored the pleasure of the woman spectator, especially 'the specifically homosexual pleasures of female spectatorship' (48). There are other absences too -- the male figure as erotic object -- but it has been the notion that the feminine is only an object for male pleasures that has been the main problem. This might be overcome by using forms of textual analysis to identify different spectator positions, or relying upon spectators' subjectivities to provide them with active capacities.

Bellour is reviewed first, and he leaves no room for subjectivities, and thus is 'even more totalistic and deterministic than Mulvey' (Stacey, quoting Bergstrom, page 50). Doane offers another alternative, suggesting that females can also derive narcissistic pleasures by direct identification with women on screen. This is in contrast with male pleasures in voyeurism, itself derived from infant sexuality and the ways in which girls and boys acquire knowledge of difference (51). However, this does not help in the project to explain the role of film in patriarchy, and runs the risk of a vision of feminine specificity which might easily be recuperated by patriarchy [as some kind of biological essentialism].

There is another problem too --'how can we express the extent of women's oppression without denying femininity any room to manoeuvre (Mulvey, 1975), defining women as complete victims of patriarchy (Bellour, 1979), or as totally other to it (Doane 1982)?' (51).

Mulvey (1981) offers the option of celebrating and multiplying differences, and turns in particular to Freud's and the ways in which women have to develop heterosexual femininity through a process of oscillation between masculine and feminine. The character Pearl Chavez does this in Mulvey's example -- see file -- and so can the female spectator, although this is limited and incomplete. Nevertheless, this is a way out of 'linked binary oppositions' (52), which are also described by Kristeva as characterising female homosexuality (as in Kristeva's "I am looking, as a man would, for a woman", or her "I submit myself, as if I were a man who thought he was a woman, to a woman who thinks she is a man" -- Stacey, quoting Doane, citing Kristeva on Stacey's page 52).

In films where women appear as sexual objects, women can identify with a masculine heterosexual desire, or refuse to do so, or take any position in between. What they actually do requires research. Stacey's own reading of two films -- All About Eve, and Desperately Seeking Susan -- shows some possibilities [and some detailed readings follow -- briefly, both feature a female character who strongly identifies with and wants to be like another strong female character].

We might describe these films as demonstrating a female version of the male Oedipal trajectory. Freud had two positions on this, his first one simply reversing the terms, so that female infants had to overcome an illicit love for their fathers. The later one suggests that the mother is a love object for girls as well, providing difficulties in developing a heterosexual identity, but grounding a residual female homosexuality as a source of future pleasure for the female spectator.

What produces narrative desire in Desperately... is the difference between two women, one of whom has kicked over the traces --'Roberta is represented as young, inexperienced and asexual, while Susan's behaviour and appearance are coded as sexually confident and provocative' (60). Roberta finally finds Susan and thus becomes more like her ideal, but this is only a 'temporary narrative fulfilment' (61), since differences between women persist. Nevertheless the pleasures in watching this film for women are likely to be more than just either conventional desire [scopophilia] or identification [narcissism].