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© Lee Harvey 2012–2019

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A Guide to Methodology

CASE STUDY Women's Pictures: Feminism and Cinema. (Kuhn, 1982)

In Women's Pictures, Annette Kuhn (1982) uses case studies to explore and develop both the nature of feminist film theory and of feminist cinema. On the one hand she develops an embryonic critical methodology for analysing dominant cinematic production. On the other, she applies the same methodology to developments in feminist film in order to fulfil the political intention of her book, viz. the facilitation of feminist film practice.

Kuhn is clear from the outset that dominant cinema as exemplified in the paradigm case of the Hollywood film industry portrays women in mythological terms reflecting patriarchal relations. Without getting into contentious debates about the nature of patriarchy she maintains that it operates relatively autonomously at different moments in history to condition the position of women and that Hollywood films reflect this in their construction of an eternal and unchanging notion of woman

Feminist cinema raises two elements that require attention. First, the nature of cinema and, second, the nature of feminism. She addresses these issues before undertaking her case study analysis.

In order to examine the nature of cinema, Kuhn constructs a kind of ideal type of 'Hollywood movie'. She is by no means the first to do this, even from a feminist perspective, and draws heavily on available literature in film studies journals and on historical studies, such as Molly Haskell's (1974)From Reverence to Rape. [Note 1] The typical Hollywood film constitutes the dominant paradigm of film making.

Kuhn argues that feminism could be seen as a methodology or as a perspective. Her view is that feminism is a perspective, a pair of spectacles (Kaplan, 1976; New German Critique, 1978), through which to view the world, which has a range of techniques available to it for film study. It is a moot point whether feminism should bring techniques developed in its wider spheres of enquiry to film study or whether it should adapt the prevailing film study techniques to feminist ends. Kuhn suggests that the latter has tended to be the major approach of feminist film theorists but this, she implies, has led to feminist film theory in practice fulfilling rather less than its potential.

Dominant cinema

Kuhn's analysis refers to the technology of her time, which was pre-digital and pre-Internet. For Kuhn, dominant cinema refers to both the economic and social institution that produces, distributes and exhibits films for worldwide mass markets and to the textual features of films, that is, what they look like and what kind of readings they construct. Hollywood is the paradigm case, although dominant cinema is dynamic and by no means a fixed entity.

The 'ideal type' dominant cinema film is between one and two hours long; tells a recognisable story using fictional characters as vehicles for the narrative, which has a beginning, middle and end; is exhibited in a darkened public auditorium on a large screen faced by all the seats, access to which is limited to paying customers.

As dominant cinema is so international and pervasive it has important consequences on the presupposition viewers bring to film viewing, which they take for granted.

In dominant cinema film is a commodity in two senses: first as reels of celluloid, second as bearers of meanings.

In dominant cinema, the product film takes on a certain character, defined by its distinct modes of production, viz. division of labour amongst a large employed workforce. The ownership of the product of this labour is vested in production companies. The rights to distribute the film are sold to distribution companies who, in turn, rent copies to exhibitors who charge viewers a fee. Such revenues are the major source of return for investors in the industry in capitalist economies.

The dominant model is breaking down for various reasons including new video technologies, the growth of independent producers, the demands of television, and so on.

Dominant cinema adopts the 'classic realist text' as its textual model. (Otherwise called 'classic cinema', 'classic Hollywood text/cinema' but not confined to Hollywood)

Classic realist text involves a specific narrative structure that is carried by a specific discourse or set of signifiers.

Narrative structure

Formalist analysis of narrative distinguishes the story (the chronological events of the narrative) and the plot (the order in which the narrative events actually appear in the telling of the story). It assumes that individual narratives are simply expressions of underlying structures, or ground rules, common to whole groups of narratives (Barthes, 1977) and that there are a limited number of basic narrative structures that account for all individual expressions.

Formalists see the plot as the trajectory of the narrative, the process of movement between its beginning and its end, with the beginning and end seen as constituting two states of equilibrium. The plot moves from an initial state of equilibrium, which is ruptured by an enigma that sets the narrative in action, to a new equilibrium, which constitutes a resolution of the initial enigma and the closure of the narrative.

The pleasure of the narrative, for formalists, is in part derived from the recipient's anticipation of the narrative's closure, which the plot (a retardation device) is holding off.

Propp (1968), in analysing fairy tales, argued that typically the narrative form is motivated by either a 'villainy' or a 'lack', which disrupts the status quo and is resolved in the story (for example, conquering the villain in combat or obtaining a wife/husband).

The specificity of the classic realist text comes from the articulation of character as a narrative function. Action pivots on central characters who exhibit psychological depth and who are points of identification for readers. Such characters are fictional and their fate is tied up with the progress of the narrative.

Classic realist text denies its own operation in the signification process, in that the discourse seems to be nothing more than the vehicle of telling the story. Dominant cinema conceals its codes by using techniques that reaffirm the 'naturalness' of the filmic event. In so doing, narrative meanings appear to be already constituted in the story.

Dominant cinema in its manipulation of classic realist text uses specifically cinematic devices to draw the spectators into the film narrative and make the reading of the film seem effortless. The use of photographic medium provides an apparent 'truthfulness'. The way images are framed provide indicators of reading, a cut-in close up emphasises detail that can be read as significant to the narrative. Similar effects on reading can be achieved by mobile framing, such as zooming in on detail. Camera movement can be used to move the plot along, as for example, when it is used in place of the character to 'look round' a location (for example in a detective's hunt for clues, as in The Big Sleep (1946)). The mise en scene (the contents and arrangement of a stage setting or film frame) produces narrative meanings related to the spatial location of the story. Editing is another major factor. Dominant cinema conventionally uses continuity editing (which is codified in manuals and often portrayed as the only possible approach to editing). The idea is to make cuts as unobtrusive as possible and thus create the illusion of a seamless and coherent narrative space and time. This serves to make the process of meaning production invisible. Spectators are drawn effortlessly into a narrative that unfolds before them as a series of already-constituted meanings.

The films of dominant cinema usually have no identifiable source of address; they speak to spectators impersonally, and appear to unfold before the viewer. In technical terms, they operate in the register of 'histoire'.  Histoire is that mode of address characteristic of narrations of past events. In such narrations there is no identifiable narrator. 'I' is not enunciated and the events are typically told in an indefinite past tense. An exemplary case of histoire would be a story beginning 'Once upon a time...'.

Histoire incorporates a number of forms of address, and three have been identified. First, the view from behind in which the narrator and readers/viewers know more than the characters. Second, the view with in which narrator/reader/viewer knows no more nor less than the characters. Third, the view from outside when narrator/reader/viewer knows less than the characters.

In this respect, dominant cinema hides its enunciation and gives the appearance of revealing a subject-less account or 'truth'. Further, the classic film form of histoire is the 'view from behind' in that the spectator is in a privileged position of knowledge compared to the characters.

Dominant cinema also makes use of suture to position the viewer in relation to its signification. In histoire the source of enunciation is absent. Suture is the process by which that absence is filled by the spectator. The spectator is stitched into the text. This is done in classic Hollywood movies through optical point-of-view techniques, notably shot-reverse shot structure. A typical shot-reverse shot occurs when two people are having a conversation and the camera (and thus the viewer) stands in for the party that is not speaking, and in that way is 'sewn into' the filmic structure through such continuity editing devices.

Kuhn argues that it is clear that the textual as well as specifically cinematic attributes of dominant (or any other form of) cinema cannot be considered as operating independently of their reception. The spectator and the moment and conditions of reception are each crucial and integral components of film texts. So the text is a set of dynamic operations and relationships that become fixed only in the moment of reading, which is historically specific.

Roots of feminist film theory

Histoire is one of two ways in which a recipient of a speech act is addressed (i.e. modes of enunciation). With discourse every utterance inscribes both a speaker and a hearer ('I' and 'you'). Thus a subject is present throughout.

Feminist film theory has drawn its methods from the sociological study of cultural production, cultural studies, as well as the more limited field of film theory. Sociologically based approaches tend to locate 'images, roles and representations of women in cinema as phenomena reflecting, or perhaps determined by, the position of women in the 'real world''.

Feminist film theory which draws more heavily on film theory, however, tends to premise itself largely on a notion of representation as mediated, as a social and ideological construct, an autonomous or relatively autonomous process of meaning production which does not necessarily relate immediately to or reflect unproblematically a 'real' social world. Here, therefore, the main focus of interest has been the ways in which woman has been constituted as a set of meanings through processes of cinematic signification. In that its topic is the processes whereby meanings are produced in cinema, the body of work drawn upon by this form of theory has been semiotics, together with the related fields of structuralism and psychoanalysis. (Kuhn, 1982, p. 71)

Making the visible invisible

Kuhn points out that feminism is, of course, multi-faceted and not a homogeneous perspective. She suggests that different perspectives will tend to privilege different methodological approaches. However, the relationship, she suggests, will be mediated in practice by the different political questions addressed by various forms of feminism. This is not at all straightforward, however, as different political practices within feminism are not easily pinned down nor has feminist film theory developed an affiliation to any particular feminist perspective or perspectives.

Most kinds of feminist film theory actually share a broadly based concern to look at the cultural products and institutions of a patriarchal society from a feminist standpoint. This concern has tended to be focused on the silences of film 'texts' in relation to women, to 'the exclusion of the woman's voice and her position within the text as object' (Martin, 1976, p. 12). This is a focus which, theoretically speaking, has the potential of cutting across various feminist discourses. (Kuhn, 1982, pp. 72–73)

The usual object of attention of feminist film theory is dominant cinema, and the focus is upon the 'obvious' and 'ordinary' presences and absences of women in film. The 'fundamental project of feminist film analysis can be said to centre on making visible the invisible' (Kuhn, 1982, p. 73).

History of feminist film theory

As Kuhn reveals in her brief review of the history of feminist film theory in the United States and Britain, the tendency in 'making the invisible visible' has been to concentrate on the film text.

The early development in the United States was based loosely on 'social-cultural and journalistic criticism' (Rosen, 1973; Haskell, 1974; Mellen, 1974). This approach had an implicit shared frame of reference, which assumed that film reflected the real world in direct or mediated fashion, thereby transmitting pre-existing meanings. Film is thus seen as a neutral transmitter of already constituted significations. In Britain, feminist film theory drew consciously on the methods and theories that 'were being developed within the narrower field of film studies' and combined them with a feminist perspective to produce a 'variant of feminist film theory which was self-conscious and aimed at being theoretically rigorous' (Kuhn, 1982, p. 76).

This explicit engagement with semiology, structuralism and psychoanalysis lead to the view that film actually produced meanings rather than simply transmitted pre-existing ones.

The British approach concentrated on the text and thus tended to underplay the contextual element. However, the adoption of structuralist techniques did highlight the independent operation of ideology within film texts.

Structuralist approaches to film analysis

Highlight the independent operation of ideology occurs because text-based criticism, founded in a structuralist method, posits the notion that meanings are constituted at least partially in and by texts themselves and that there is not necessarily any direct or unmediated relationship of determination between context and text. (Kuhn, 1982, p. 76)

This approach, premised on Barthes ( 1972, 1977), assumes that a textual analysis that aims to reveal the significatory process will also uncover the textual operation of ideology, for it is in the nature of (bourgeois) ideology to conceal its own operations. Structuralist approaches thus necessitate the deconstruction of the text to produce an ideological reading, so that what was previously concealed is revealed. Film is thus seen as a series of ideological operations through which woman is constructed as 'eternal, mythical and unchanging, an essence or a set of fixed images and meanings', or as Kaplan (1977, p. 404) put it, 'a sign within a patriarchal order'. The development of a structuralist/semiotic feminist film theory intends to expose the processes by which 'woman is constructed as myth, as a fixed signifier, within textual practices of meaning construction' (Kuhn, 1982, p. 77).

By the mid-1970s the distinction between American and British approaches were becoming blurred with the development of structuralist approaches in the United States and the emergence of post-structuralism. Structuralism faces the criticism that emphasising the textual to the exclusion of everything else implies that that an account of the processes of the text offers an exhaustive explanation of the work of signification. Post-structuralism widens the structuralist analysis by taking into account the moment of reading, the role of the reader.

Post-structuralism thus needs to conceptualise both recipient and moment of reception and draws on psychoanalysis to advance theories of human subjectivity which propose that the human subject is both producer of, and produced by, meaning (Camera Obscura, 1976a).

Addressing signification processes requires and engagement with the ideology of the cinematic apparatus. Structuralist approaches have tended to do this by privileging the text. It tends to be formalist in its deconstruction, and focuses on 'structures'. Post-structuralist alternatives consider that meaning production involves the reading subject as well as the text and, thus, focuses on the process of structuring.

Ideological analysis requires some means of engaging the elusiveness of the ideology, which by its very nature, is transparent. One way of doing this is to focus on texts that, because of the operation of ideology, are inherently ruptured. An alternative is to develop a detailed (semiotic) deconstruction of signifiers to lay bare ideology.

The inherent rupture

The first approach to ideological analysis is derived from the contributors to Cahiers du Cinema (1972). They presupposed that hidden work of ideology in classic cinema sometimes revealed itself in 'radically ruptured text' (Comolli and Narboni, 1971), as a series of structuring absences. For example, the Cahiers du Cinema analysis of Young Mister Lincoln points out that history and politics are important structuring absences in the text. Lincoln's position on slavery and other crucial and politically divisive aspects of his life are not dealt with explicitly. Such omissions 'imbue the figure of Lincoln with qualities of universalism' that permit the mythologising of him. However, although the political divisiveness is not overtly addressed, it is unconsciously present, for example, in the repetition of the musical theme based on the Southern patriotic song 'Dixie'. Reading such symptoms opens up the text for ideological analysis. The text is thus deconstructed around this inherent rupture. The analysis of Young Mister Lincoln involved typical methods of deconstruction. The film is divided into narrative segments and each is examined in detail. The commentary thus 'slows down' the film and addresses the underlying operations of the segment. But this analysis of segments is not done in isolation, the processes operating in the segments signal the processes operating in the text as a whole.

Feminist film theory has adopted the idea of rupture in dominant cinema. This strategy assumes a body of Hollywood films that unintentionally contain an internal criticism of that ideology and are 'cracked open internally by the contradictory operation of ideology. The internal tension 'facilitates the de-naturalisation of ideology' because it allows for alternative interpretations that are in opposition to the dominant reading. On this view, one of the tasks of feminist film theory is to seek out such films, reread them and re-appropriate them for feminism thus rewriting film history. This approach underpinned the reassessment of the work of Dorothy Arzner undertaken by Pam Cook (1976) and by Claire Johnstone (1975). The assumption is that Arzner's films are somehow already ruptured and that the analysis has simply to 'chart the function of these pre-existing ruptures'. The act of reading is regarded as 'neutral' and the feminist character of the analysis is seen as residing as much in the films as in the reading of them.

Laying bare

The second approach attempts to 'unpack the ideological operations' of films that appear to be completely 'under the sway of patriarchal ideology' and 'lay bare' the operations of patriarchal ideology through textual analysis. For example, analysing the work of Raoul Walsh, Cook and Johnstone (1974) make no claims to ideological rupture but assume that the feminist reading of the film pinpoints the way in which a classic narrative text functions as ideology. In this approach the reading is situated by the feminist perspective that informs it, which raises feminist questions and thereby produces a feminist analysis. 'That is to say, the reading both comes out of and also constitutes a political position' (Kuhn, 1982, p. 92).

By laying bare the way that the production of meaning operates in particular films a feminist textual analysis has the potential to deconstruct patriarchal ideology. The kinds of question a feminist analysis of film text asks include:

What functions does a woman character perform within the film's narrative? How are women represented visually? Are certain fixed images of women being appealed to, and if so how are they constructed through the film's image and/or narrative? How do women not function, how are they not represented in the film? And perhaps, at a deeper level, a textual analysis might attend to disjunctions, ruptures or inconsistencies in the text, at the level of narrative or image, or both, and ask whether and in what ways woman as signifier or structure informs or relates to these absences. (Kuhn, 1982, p. 81)

Reading as an active situated practice

Kuhn argues the distinction between ruptured and ideologically complete films becomes redundant when one takes the position that reading is an active and situated practice because then the focus of 'analytic activity becomes the process of reading as much as the text itself'. Films thus proffer a range of possible meanings and they will be read in different ways at different times and places. Thus it becomes difficult to argue that some films are inherently ruptured while others are not. Kuhn argues that it is

sufficient to suggest that certain meanings—centered on the notion of a female discourse as against a male discourse, say—can be got from the films by a situated reading made at a particular historical moment. (Kuhn, 1982, p. 94)

The key to analysis is thus the process of reading which ruptures the text by deconstructing it.

Spectator-text relations in dominant cinema is the subject of a semiotically informed psychoanalytic approach to cinema. This psychoanalytic approach goes beyond the semiotic analysis of textual signifiers to consider how cinematic meanings are constituted for viewing subjects, that is, how spectators are caught up in, formed by, while at the same time constructing meanings.

This psychoanalytic model (drawing on Lacanian psychoanalysis) presumes unconscious processes at work in the constitution of the subject of cinema (i.e. the human viewer) which are a product of representational and language processes in the film.

Lacanian psychoanalysis is a Post-Freudian approach to psychoanalysis based upon the work of Jaques Lacan. In the Lacanian model the human subject is formed in relations with the outside world. These relations are developed in the process of language acquisition. The foundation of Lacanian psychoanalysis is that the unconscious is structured like a language and is produced in the same process that the subject is produced. The 'unconscious' is thus a by-product of these language acquisition processes. The subject is not constituted once and for all once language has been acquired but is a dynamic changing construct that is constantly being formed through every speech act. The human subject is thus constituted in and through speech acts. The subject, therefore, is not a unitary cohesive whole, but partial and always in process. Indeed 'ideology', in this model, is defined as the process whereby the human subjectivity takes on the appearance of wholeness.

According to Lacan, the developmental process of human subjectivity is influenced by a number of formative stages in the course of which a series of repressions are produced which become the content of the unconscious. Crucial moments in the process of subject formation are those that relate to looking, such as the 'mirror phase', in which an infant's reflection in the mirror establishes the contours of her or his own body as separate from the outside world. This recognition of autonomy is a prior condition of entry into language, which is premised on the distinction between subject and object. This makes the model psychoanalytic rather than semiotic.

Text and context

Even this psychoanalytic approach, which attempts to relate together spectator and text, must not be adopted, Kuhn argues, entirely at the expense of questions of context. Somehow the semiotic concern with the text and the role of the reader must be interlinked with the social and historical context of individual films. Ideally, Kuhn argues that feminist film theory should aim to delineate the relationship between the text and the level of film production itself, that is, the context. This involves, examining the text for absences or constructions of women and linking that to an examination of how films are put together in the ways they are, the kinds of social relations involved in that process, and the relationships between 'modes of production and the formation of textual structures'.

Kuhn uses case material to explore a text-context approach. She shows how 'the internal operations of film texts may inform analyses of their institutional, social and historical contexts' (Kuhn, 1982, p. 83).

Bringing together text and context raises methodological issues as the epistemological groundings of structural, semiotic and psychoanalytic analyses are at variance with existing historical and institutional studies of cinema. Further, the feminist perspective in a contextual analysis informs the nature of the questions asked and the choice of what conjunctures (instances in the history of the institution) are significant. It is Kuhn's view that

relationships between the operation of film texts and the institutional structures and processes at work in their moment of production can be properly uncovered...only by means of detailed studies of particular instances (Kuhn, 1982, p. 110)

Text and context case study: mapping the field

In the main, despite exhortations to go beyond text analysis (Lesage, 1974; Kuhn, 1975; Place & Burton, 1976), feminist film theory, up to the early 1980s, had not developed in this way.

Kuhn takes pornography as a case study of feminist contextual analysis. She considers pornographic representations in recent cinema and the place of such representations within cinematic institutions and the pornographic apparatus. Pornography occurs in a wide variety of media. Pornography is representation, and like all representation is not a direct reflection of reality but a coded representation. In her examination of pornography in the cinema she addresses the institutional conditions, the textual operations and the spectator-text relationships that relate to three marginally pornographic films.

Kuhn begins by looking at a general definition of pornography drawn from the Williams Committee (Home Office, 1979, p. 103), which refers to sexual representation with an arousal function. This approach privileges a certain reader-text relation, it addresses the reader as a sexed and sexual object. The definition, is furthermore over-generalised at it is unspecific about the nature of the representation of sexual material, and could include the very different representations of 19th century Japanese and 20th century Western pornography (Bos & Pack, 1980). Given the dynamic and relative nature of pornography, Kuhn proposes a less generalised working definition that, although possibly excluding some areas, delineates what is specific about pornography and that addresses the conditions of its social and historical variability.

Pornography is of interest to feminists essentially because it is an objectification of the female body and thereby codes woman as an overt object of (male) looking. As such pornography arguably takes to extremes 'everyday' representations of women, such as can be found in advertising where the female body is both sex object and exchange commodity in its incorporation into another commodity offered for sale (Turim, 1979). Thus feminists tend to concentrate on 'soft pornography' as part of everyday sexism rather than the legally constrained and sanctioned 'hard core' pornography with its deviant or exceptional social manifestation. Thus a feminist perspective in itself raises issues about the nature of pornography, which are integrally related to any definition of pornography.

Thus, in constructing a definition of pornography, Kuhn also outlines a model for analysing the pornographic apparatus and the conditions of its arising in its different forms at different historical moments. Kuhn's general model is that the pornographic apparatus is a social structure that takes its specific form from the specific state and interrelationship of other social formations and structures. Thus she defines the pornographic apparatus, abstractly, at any moment

as the textual and institutional product of the historically specific interactions of its economic, ideological and other conditions of existence (Kuhn, 1982, p. 116)

The point, however, is to descend from the abstract and examine the actual state of the conditioning structures. In her case study Kuhn addresses what she calls the economic, the legal and the patriarchal structures and examines their concrete operation while 'holding analysis at the relatively general level of the current state of the apparatus of pornography across various media in Western capitalist societies, Britain in particular.' (Kuhn, 1982, p. 116).

Pornography is a product of private enterprise in Western economies and the relationship between the pornography industry and the economy are formed by the state of relevant laws and their enforcement, pornography may be a visible sector of private enterprise (with, perhaps, a self-regulatory code as, for example, agreed by the British Adult Publications Association) or an underground and potentially organised criminal activity. Codes of morality and the work of pressure groups (the 'Festival of Light' and the 'Moral Majority') constitute another factor as does the state of technology, and thus the cost and availability of reproducing printed and video material.

Legal constraints effect not only the structures of the pornography industry but are also instrumental in producing social definitions of pornography. This it does in a tautological manner: that which the courts proscribe is pornographic. The problem is that the proscription is relative to time and place and there is no possibility of a 'fixed' legal definition. Although a privileged definition, the legal one may be at variance with popular perceptions of pornography.

The economic and the legal cannot fully explain the textual characteristics of pornography. There is another set of ideological factors, which Kuhn calls the patriarchal, which impinge on the pornographic apparatus. It would be tempting to simply regard pornographic representation as in general reflecting patriarchal order, but Kuhn argues that any specific analysis must 'examine the precise character of patriarchal social relations at any particular conjuncture'. Such social relations may include the following:

the current state of power relations between women and men, both within the family and outside it, the overall position of women of different classes and races within society, current sexual mores, and codes of conduct governing social sexual relations between women and men. Patriarchal relations may also set the terms for forms of subjectivity available in the reader-text relation set up by pornography. (Kuhn, 1982, p. 120)

For example, the violent nature of hard-core pornography in the early 1980s might reflect the desire to render women powerless in the wake of the Women's Movement (Ellis, 1980; Willemen, 1980).

Kuhn uses 'marginal' representations in order to highlight everyday sexism, because of the availability of the films, and because the 'marginality' problematises them in relation to their conditions of existence. The films she uses are Nea (Kaplan, Les Films la Boetie, 1976); L'Amour viole (Bellon, Films de l'Equinoxe, 1977); and Dressed to Kill (de Palma Filmways, 1980). Such films must be situated in relation to their structures of production, distribution, and exhibition, which involve issues of censorship, legal discourse, and public access.

The institutional intersects with the textual in considerations involving the proliferations of certain cycles of films, relationships between legal and other institutional discourses, and the specificity of cinema as a signifying process. Each of the films I will discuss occupies its own space within this complex and interrelated set of determinations. (Kuhn, 1982, p. 123)

Nea  was a French 'art house' film made by a woman director, Nelly Kaplan. It deals with adolescent sexuality through the story of Sybille, a young woman, who writes an erotic novel that results in her experiencing and witnessing various sexual activities. Sybille has supernatural powers that she uses to get what she wants.

Nea was dubbed and retitled Young Emmanuelle given an X certificate and exhibited in soft pornography cinemas in Britain. An 'art' text had been transformed into soft-core pornography by a set of institutional processes; in this case the structures of distribution and exhibition rather than of production. Young Emmanuelle was released in the midst of a cycle of sex films that exploited the success of a long running West End soft-core pornographic film entitled Emmanuelle. The use of the word Emmanuelle in the title of any subsequent film of the period marked it out immediately as a soft-core pornographic movie. The retitling of Nea defined its nature and was designed to expand the potential market for the film. The 'art house' market in Britain is very small and so few foreign art films find an outlet. In finding Nea a different market, the film was transformed to privilege a particular reading. This is not, of course the only reading, witness the subsequent release of the film with subtitles under its original title.

L'Amour viole  is the story of a victim of a gang rape who decides, against advice, to bring the rapists to justice. The film begins with the rape scene and the victim is portrayed sympathetically throughout, and she finally succeeds in her endeavour. L'Amour viole  was also made as an 'art house' movie and although not released in Britain a subtitled version was distributed in the United States under the title Rape of Love. Although the rape scene is 'highly expressionistic' it is unlikely, Kuhn argues, that the explicit portrayal of an act of rape in this movie would be regarded as unjustified because the overall narrative justifies its inclusion. In other words, the isolated violent sex sequence is judged not in itself but on the basis of its function in the film's narrative and cuts would be effected only if the scene is excessive to narrative requirements. The institutional conditions of censorship thus interact with the textual structures to determine the pornographic nature of the film.

Dressed To Kill is a murder movie in which the victim, Kate, is 'bloodily slashed to death in a lift with a cut-throat razor' by her transsexual psychiatrist who she has sexually aroused and who effects the murder, in the guise of his 'female' alter ego, following Kate's sexual liaison with a complete stranger (who is a VD carrier).

This film, not surprisingly, has had a hostile reception from many feminists because of its misogynist portrayal of women. The murder and attempted murders in the film are narratively motivated by women's sexual fantasies and activities. Women are also 'guilty' of being victims and the murderer is a 'woman'. Further,

Women are marked as victims at the level of the specifically cinematic: this is particularly evident in numerous sequences involving optical point-of-view shots on the film's second would-be victim, Liz (who, significantly, is a prostitute). Because reverse shots are withheld, the source of point-of-view is never explicit. The uncertainty as to the identity of Liz's watcher is thereby rendered highly threatening. Despite all this, however, there is little or nothing in the film that would invite censorship. (Kuhn, 1982, p. 128)

The requirements of the British and American censors in having some shots cut because the level of violence was unacceptable; their decision had nothing to do with the film's misogyny. Indeed, no form of partial censorship could deal with the fundamental critique of the films narrative and cinematic codes as far as represent a general attitude towards women and female sexuality. How, Kuhn asks, can patriarchal ideology be censored?

The case of Dressed To Kill offers a powerful illustration of how the terms of a feminist discourse on forms of 'feminine visibility' can exceed those of the dominant legal and quasi-legal discourses, however liberal, on obscenity and pornography. (Kuhn, 1982, p. 128)

Feminist film theory, Kuhn notes, would need to undertake a detailed analysis of the rape sequence 'taking into account the specificity of cinematic codes as they construct spectator-text relations of fetishistic looking' (Kuhn, 1982, p. 209)

Replacing dominant cinema

Kuhn concludes the book by addressing various modes of non-dominant cinema, including direct realism, socialist realism and new women's film. Through case studies she explores how these operate and indicates how they engage the cinematic forms of dominant cinema. Being all realist forms of representation they too reproduce illusionism albeit for oppositional ends. Kuhn, again through specific cases, shows how elements of these forms have been appropriated by feminist counter-cinema and how feminist film has developed along two distinct but complementary lines. The first, deconstructive cinema, projects modes of operation that are consciously based on a deconstruction of dominant cinema. The second, feminist voices, takes deconstruction further and attempts to construct alternative cinematic structures based on women's perspectives. Kuhn reaffirms that neither form of feminist cinema can be seen solely in terms of the intentionality of the text, but must also be contextualised. This requires a consideration of production, distribution and exhibition as well as of the critical reception or discussion in which the film is located.

The embryonic methodology she developed in her pornographic case study is applied only partially and fragmentarily to counter-cinema as her illustrative case studies focus primarily on the text and only hint at any given film's relation to the broader cinematic apparatus and the wider social and historical context. Although this is disappointing, as a fully worked through case study would have been ideal for the purposes of her book, the proposed methodology and its tentative application to pornography in films clearly indicates a critical endeavour that attempts to combine social and historical context with issues of textual meaning production.

Nonetheless, in conclusion, Kuhn's analysis of one feminist counter-cinematic film will be reviewed in detail as it provides a clear example of feminist textual analysis, reveals the oppositional nature of feminist counter-cinema as well as hinting at contextual elements.

Case study

Kuhn's analysis of a 'woman's voice' film Lives of Performers (1972), directed by Yvonne Rainer, illustrates her embryonic methodology as applied to feminist counter-cinema. Lives of Performers reworks conventions of popular narrative genres, in this case drawing on the convention of 'backstage romance' and the 'triangular relationship'. The trio, two women and one man, are real-life performers in the group of dancers working with the film maker, Rainer, and are thus 'playing' themselves.

The film departs quite radically from dominant conventions of film narrative in its ordering and structure, and in the freedom with which it articulates elements of fiction and non-fiction. The plot, for instance, proceeds by leaps and bounds punctuated by running on the spot—by ellipsis and accretion, in other words…The story of Lives of Performers is told with so many asides that we never quite get to the end or the bottom of it. There is no resolution. The 'asides' are the accretions, and the accretions are so many that they seem to call forth gaps elsewhere in the story, as if to make up for lost time. The first sequence shows the performance, whose lives the melodrama is about, in rehearsal for what turns out to be a real-life Rainer performance. An intertitle: 'all at once our tension vanished' leads into the next sequence, in which the three star performers 'recall', as voice-over, their first meeting, with still photographs of Rainer's dance piece 'Grand Union Dreams' on the image track. These recollections are punctuated at points by the film maker's explanations of what is going on in the photographs. Where does the 'real' end and the 'fiction' begin? The subsequent cinematic rendering of the romance is interrupted wherever 'other concerns' seem more important— by a disquisition on acting, for example ('The face of this character is a fixed mask'), or a direct question to the spectator about the problem of character identification ('Which woman is the director most sympathetic to ?' asks one of the women in the triangle, looking directly into camera). The narrative of Lives of Performers has its own logic, then, but it is not that of the enigma-resolution structure of classic narrative. Nor does it construct a closed and internally coherent fictional world: on the contrary, it opens itself up at numerous points to intrusions from the 'real world'.
What does this heterogeneous narrative voice imply for spectator-text relations ? It is clear that none of the subject relations posed by classic narrative is at work here: identification with characters is impossible, and there is no narrative closure. The narrative processes of ellipsis and accretion offer, on the contrary, the possibility of pleasures other than those of completion. Firstly, in moments of accretion (for example, during a long single-take sequence with virtually static camera, in which one of the performers dances a solo), the spectator has the option of pleasurable and open-ended contemplation of an image which constructs no particularly privileged viewpoint. The ellipses offer the possibility of a rather different pleasure, that of piecing together fragments of the story—the active pleasure, that is, of working on a puzzle. The interpenetration of fictional and non-fictional worlds and the lack of narrative closure set up a radical heterogeneity in spectator-text relations, and finally refuse any space of unitary subjectivity for the spectator. The textual practice of Lives of Performers may then be regarded as 'putting in process of the viewing subject'. (Kuhn, 1982, pp. 169–171)

Films like Lives of Performers use a 'feminine language' to offer unaccustomed forms of pleasure. Yet this does not have to be the result of feminist intention. Rainer, for example, whether or not she is a feminist (Lippard, 1976; Rich, 1977), did not consciously intend any specifically feminist content or form in her film. The film was made in the milieu of the New York avant garde art scene. Thus the context within which the film was received was crucial for the meanings it generates.

This is not to say, however, that the signifiers in the film (or any feminine film text) are completely free-floating. As Rainer's stance on feminism is unclear, claiming Lives of Performers as feminist in intent is problematic. Such claims did not arise by chance simply because certain audiences interpreted the film as feminist but because it contains narrative conventions and construct modes of address which are intrinsically feminist. The 'backstage romance' refers to the classic melodramatic genre that has, in dominant cinema, been attractive to and manipulative of women. The film offers both a 'pleasurable reworking and an ironic undercutting of this genre'. Nonetheless,

the question of feminist countercinema is by no means exhausted by a discussion of feminist or feminine film texts: it has, in the final instance, to be considered also in terms of its institutional conditions of production and reception…. As signifying practice, feminist countercinema must be conditioned by its institutional formation, just as dominant modes of cinematic representation... are formed in an by certain institutional apparatuses. (Kuhn, 1982, p. 177–178)

That Lives of Performers was made as part of the avant garde bears on its working methods which are different from the participatory approach of women's collectives, for example. The avant garde production context also affected its distributive mode and its initial art house exhibition. Its critical reception, by feminist film critics, in Britain and the United States, in part transformed it at the point of reception, and it has been taken up by feminists. The openness of Lives of Performers allows it to be read in a variety of ways and the institutional context is therefore crucial to its reception and reading. The appropriation of this avant garde film for feminism 'ensures that certain limits are placed on the range of meanings available for it.


Kuhn also looks at Thriller (Potter, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1979); Daughter Rite (Citron, 1978); and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles  (Akerman, Paradise Films/Unite Trois, 1975). These work in similar but different ways; Jeanne Dielman, for example, concentrates relentlessly on the everyday world of the housewife in developing its murder scenario.

The future development of feminist film theory beyond a concern with textual analysis is, Kuhn argues, a political matter. It is necessary to ask what is feminist film theory for and who is it for? What, in short, is the relation of feminist film theory to practice? Is it to be just another (impotent) academic discipline? Feminist film theory can be instrumental in the promotion of a 'general understanding of the ideological operations of patriarchy at work in various kinds of representations' which may effect transformations at the level of production.

Throughout her study Kuhn intends to relate feminist film criticism to the practice of feminist cinema. Feminist film theory, she argues, develops critical and theoretical language to deal with feminist cinema and this may in its turn inform subsequent film practice. There is, however, a problem of accessibility. This is inevitable at one level given that the theory constructs concepts that are adequate for oppositional or innovatory signifying practices. This theoretical problem is compounded when the practice itself also seeks, through unfamiliar approaches, to revolutionise dominant modes of cinematic representation and spectator-text relations

However, given the central place occupied by questions of language and signification in feminist politics in general, and the challenge to dominant modes of representation posed by feminism, it is, I believe, important to work towards the construction of feminist theories of cinema which are neither theoreticist nor unduly alienating (Kuhn and Wolpe, 1978; Stern 1979-80) but which are at the same time adequate to their objects and purposes. (Kuhn, 1982, p. 196)


Note 1: Molly Haskell's (1974) admirable feminist history of the portrayal of women in Hollywood films is a journalistic descriptive account rather than a piece of critical social research. Having established that Western civilisation takes for granted the myth of the inferiority of women she goes on to show how this myth is re-presented in Hollywood films.  Films are seen as neutral transmitters of already constituted social views of women. These pre-existing notions are not deconstructed in her work. Nor does she attempt a totalistic analysis through the examination of taken-for-granted abstractions or dominant ideological forms. Return


References for this CASE STUDY are available below as well as in the linked references for Researching the Real World

Barthes, R. 1977, Image, Music, Text. London, Fontana.
Barthes, R., 1972, 'The structuralist activity', in DeGeorge & Degeorge (Eds.), The Structuralists: from Marx to Levi-Strauss. New York, Anchor Books.
Bos, M. & Pack, J., 1980, 'Porn, law, politics', Camerawork, 18, pp. 4–5.
Cahiers du Cinema, 1972, 'John Ford's 'Young Mr. Lincoln', Screen, 13, no. 3, pp. 5–44.
Camera Obscura, 1976a, 'Feminism and film: critical approaches', Camera Obscura, 1, pp. 3–10.
Camera Obscura, 1976b, 'Yvonne Rainer: an introduction', Camera Obscura, 1, pp. 53–96.
Comolli, J-L & Narboni, P., 1971, 'Cinema/ideology/criticism', Screen, 12(1), pp. 27–35.
Cook, P., & Johnstone, C., 1974, 'The place of women in the cinema of Raoul Walsh', in Hardy (Ed.), 1974, Raoul Walsh, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Film Festival
Cook, P., 1976, 'Approaching the Work of Dorothy Arzner', in Johnstone, (Ed.) 1975, The Work of Dorothy Arzner; Towards a Feminist Cinema, London, BFI, pp. 9–18.
Ellis, J., 1980, 'On Pornography', Screen, 21(1), pp. 81–108.
Haskell, M., 1974, From Reverence To Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Home Office, 1979, Report of the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship, Cmnd 7772. London, HMSO.
Johnstone, C., (Ed.), 1975, The Work of Dorothy Arzner; Towards a Feminist Cinema, London, BFI.
Kaplan, E. A., 1976, 'Aspects of British feminist film theory', Jump Cut 12/13, pp. 52–55.
Kaplan, E.A., 1977, 'Interview with British cine-feminists', in Kay & Peary (Eds.), 1977, Women and the Cinema: a critical anthology. New York, Dutton.
Kuhn, A., 1975, 'Women's cinema and feminist film criticism', Screen, 16(3), pp. 107–112.
Kuhn, A., 1982, Women's Pictures: Feminism and Cinema. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Kuhn, A., and Wolpe, A., 1978, Feminism and Materialism. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Lesage, J., 1974, 'Feminist film criticism: theory and practice', Women and Film, 5/6 pp. 12–14.
Lippard, L., 1976, From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women's Art. New York, Dutton.
Mellen, J., 1974, Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film. New York, Dell.
New German Critique, 1978, 'Women and film: a discussion of feminist aesthetics', New German Critique, 13, pp. 83–107.
Place, J. and  Burton, J., 1976, 'Feminist film criticism', Movie, 22, pp. 125–133.
Propp, V., 1968, Morphology of the Folk Tale. Austin, University of Texas Press. (First published in USSR in 1928.)
Rich, B.R., 1977, 'The films of Yvonne Rainer', Chrysalis, 2, pp. 115–127.
Rosen, M., 1973, Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies and the American Dream. New York, Coward McCann & Geoghegan.
Stern, L., 1979–80, 'Feminism and cinema: exchanges', Screen, 20(3/4), pp. 89–105.
Turim, M., 1979, 'Gentlemen consume blondes', Wide Angle, 1(1), pp. 52–59.
Willemen, P., 1980, 'Letter to John', Screen, 21(2), pp. 53–65.



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