Feminist film theory

Cinema: The Ideal & Reality

Psychoanalysis is of relative importance to film theory, as ‘the cinema engages processes of the unconscious more than any other artistic medium’. (Robert Stam, Robert Burgoyne and Sandy F. Lewis, 1992: 139) Christian Metz explains ‘certain phenomena that psychoanalysis has illuminated or can illuminate occur in the cinema’ (1986: 22). The main question is to what extent does the audience create or understand the meaning behind film? ‘Films themselves only come into being through the fictive work of their spectators… The films images and sounds are not meaningful without the (unconscious) work of the spectator’ (Stam, Burgoyne and Lewis, 1992: 139) Film relies on the audience to create meaning.

Christian Metz has applied psychoanalytic thought to film and spectator theory. He undertook psychoanalysis to understand why we find the cinematic experience so pleasurable. Using Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage he identified the screen as a mirror in which spectators are positioned in the imaginary, where there is a momentary identification. Metz application of childhood development to the theory of spectatorship attempts to understand the pleasure gained from the cinematic experience and why we repeatedly choose to position ourselves as spectators. He defines the cinema theatre as a location where we fulfil our desire to return to the ‘imaginary’ stage. ‘…the subject will attempt to recapture itself as a unified being, the idealised image of the imaginary.’ (Susan Hayward, 2006: 355)

The development of identification is a moment we become aware of ourselves, our identification with the characters onscreen is part of the process of the cinema experience. It’s through the identification of characters that we are able to fulfil wishful desires through them. ‘…the fascination of the cinematic image itself derives from its play of presence and absence- we know that the events and figures we watch on the screen are not really there, yet we believe we grasp them as though in some way they were more real than life.’ (Christine Gledhill, 2007: 353) In other words we become so involved in the fantasy of cinema that we confuse the reality with the fictive production that illustrates unconscious desires that can’t be satisfied in our daily lives.

There are two elements identified within Metz’s theory, the process of identification and desire. We empathize with the characters on screen, but also we have a desire to understand and look at the person being represented. For example, the first image introduced in the Coen brother’s remake of True Grit is that of Mattie’s father. This first image is as though we are reliving a memory of Mattie’s, an image of her father. Throughout the film we are only exposed to the image of the death of Mattie’s father. The audience immediately sympathise with Mattie and share her desire in finding justice. The plot of the film interlinks the spectator’s desire with their identification with the main character.


The story follows Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) on a journey to catch her father’s killer Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), with the help of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) a Deputy US Marshal and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) a Texas Ranger.

Elements of identification help in examining the relationship between the spectator and the film. Within this process the audience engages with the narrative being played out onscreen sharing the desire of the protagonist. The narrative progression fulfils our wishful desire, for example the audience are never shown an image of Mattie’s father apart from a still image of his death. The introduction of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) provides a new patriarchal figure for Mattie, who eventually fills the absence of her father.


As the narrative progresses the relationship between the two characters becomes more personal. This is highlighted during the final scenes of the film; a shot of Cogburn’s coffin is shown and resembles the same shot at the start of the film of Mattie father’s coffin. The filmmakers have shown an implicit connection to the role Cogburn played to a young Mattie.

The relationship between Mattie and Cogburn is not reliant on the unconscious of its spectators as it implicitly shows connections between the two characters. ‘The cinema is attended out of desire, not reluctance, in the hope that the film will please, not that it will displease.’ (Metz, 1975: 19)

On the other hand, we know on a conscious level that film is not real but the conditions in which we view film for example the darkened theatre heightens our senses and makes us more receptive to the images we are shown, this is relative to the point that watching film is like the act of dreaming. ‘Certain conditions make film viewing similar to dreaming: we are in a darkened room, our motor activity is reduced, our visual perception is heightened to compensate for our lack of physical movement’ (Stam, Burgoyne and Lewis, 1992: 143). Because of this resemblance to a dream state we are accepting the image on screen being an impression of reality which is referred to as the fiction effect, ‘because this impression of reality is intensified by the conditions of the dream.’ (Stam, Burgoyne and Lewis, 1992: 144). The psychoanalytic understanding of the dream state is that our unconscious becomes more active according to Freud.

The fiction effect is what drives the spectator in feeling that they are responsible for the production of the cinematic fiction. A spectator essentially takes authorship of the production. Cogburn and Mattie’s relationship is never explicitly discussed throughout the film; the spectator is left to their thoughts to define their own meaning of the text.

Although the narrative instigates a viewer’s desire for the protagonist to succeed, other elements within the film draw on repressed emotions. Conforming to the traditional Western, True Grit is a story focused on vengeance rather than justice, could unconscious desires be the driving force toward our enjoyment of film? Freud believed the mind to be split into three sections consisting of the id, ego and superego. The id is completely unconscious and obeys the pleasure principle. The id is submerged in our unconscious and the ego stops us from acting on these urges. The use of violence is shocking because we know on a conscious level that violence is bad. However we could seek pleasure from violence on an unconscious level. Does film indicate some unconscious desires that we enjoy when played out in the fantasy of film?

For instance, particular elements of film incur an emotional response; the uses of violence in some scenes evoke horror and shock. Although during specific moments we tolerate horrific acts of violence as part of the fantasy, almost seeking a secretive pleasure from it. Part of the fantasy is eliciting an emotional response. For example, during the beginning of the film we see three men being hanged, this shocks the audience, however when Mattie finally comes face to face with Chaney and shoots him we feel a sense of satisfaction and don’t contemplate the seriousness of a 14 year old shooting a man, we identify with Mattie’s cause of seeking justice. Again film allows the role of fantasy to play out situations that cannot be carried out in reality.


Feminist film theory

An aspect worth consideration is the nature of the gaze. A feminist perspective is a relevant theory to explore when understanding the character of Mattie, a 14 year old girl. Laura Mulvey’s essay Visual Pleasures in Narrative Cinema identified the relationship between the screen and spectator. Identifying the construct of cinema was a male one, and the representation of women was simply to be a visual pleasure, an object to be looked at. The female spectator is placed into a position where she accepts watching the film through the dominant male lead or the weak female. She speaks of breaking the patriarchal dominance of men in Hollywood by representing women more favourably.

Genre conventions of the Western typically associate the female role with vulnerability and dependency on men. Mattie’s character in the Coen brother’s version is a contrast to the Henry Hathaway adaptation, where Mattie was presented as a tomboy donning boyish features like short hair and boys clothing. The Coen brothers depict Mattie as feminine donning pigtails as well as portraying a strong intelligent young girl whose bravery during the film matches that of her male companions. However True Grit presents its protagonist as a young female, the male characters show weaknesses making Mattie a more dominant character.

Rooster Cogburn is shown as a drunk while LaBoeuf is shown to be arrogant and self-righteous. Mattie’s weakness is her age, however through the narratives progression we see that her weakness leads her into the passive female role, for example she is caught by Pepper and his men and she suffers a fall due to the kickback of the gun which consequently ends with a snake bite. Although Mattie is a strong female she succumbs to playing a passive role.

In conclusion feminist theory looks at the passive role portrayed by women in film and suggests that the spectator is already positioned as male, making female spectators succumb to the male gaze. While it can be argued that Mattie as the leading protagonist portrays a strong representation of women, genre convention results in her characters desire for happiness being dependent on men. We see Mattie as a grown woman looking for Cogburn whom abandoned her. However, Mattie does not fulfil the expectation of the Western genre as in the final scenes she discusses her choice not to marry. The issue of marriage in the Western was discussed by Mulvey in a later essay in which she discusses the ritual of marriage. ‘This neat narrative function restates the propensity for “woman” to signify “the erotic” already familiar from visual representation’. (Mulvey, 1990: 29)

Overall the study of spectatorship and our relationship with cinema is explanatory in the pleasure of fantasy playing out unconscious desires that cannot be fulfilled in real life. Cinema is an experience which we actively seek to escape from reality. Film gives an alternate reality in which fantasy fulfils our unconscious desires, whether it is instigated by our identification with images on screen or deep rooted unconscious emotions that are freed to be explored in the dream like creation of cinema. On the whole cinema is an escape which allows us to explore thoughts and emotions that otherwise would remain repressed in our unconscious. The film-text engages the viewer ‘in a complex of pleasure and meaning by mobilizing deep-rooted structures of fantasy, identification and vision, and it does this through interlocking systems of narrativity, continuity and point-of-view.’ (Stam, Burgoyne and Lewis, 1992: 142)