From: Cultural Studies and the Study of Popular Culture, John Storey
Chapter Four: Film
By: Tyson Livingston
For the chapter on film, Storey indicates that his aim is to “discuss key moments in the discussion of film and cultural studies” rather than discuss the most recent developments in this area of the field. He divides the chapter into the following sections: Structuralism and Film, Visual Pleasure in Film, and Cultural Studies and Film.
Structuralism and Film
Storey notes two major works in film cultural studies that occurred in 1975: Sixguns and Society, by Will Wright, and ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, by Laura Mulvey. This first section examines Sixguns and Society, which was classically structuralist in its treatment.
Storey begins by discussing the ideas of Ferdiand de Saussure from which much of structuralist theory is derived. He discussed language as a “system of contrasts and opposites... [that] constructs our access to reality” (74). He indicated that language was divided into two parts which produced a third. These are the signifier, which is the inscription of a word, the signified, which is the mental image initiated by that word, and these two come together to produce the sign. Because of the ways these parts interact, “the way in which we ultimately conceptualize the world is ultimately dependent on the language that we speak and, by analogy, the culture that we inhabit” (74). His ideas also include his concept of Language and Parole, where language refers to the structures and rules, and Parole refers to individual utterance. Storey finishes his discussion of Saussure by indicating that, following structuralism, it is the job of the culturist to show how rules and conventions determine the meaning of a given text. He then refers to Levi-Strauss and his example of myth, and how it works like language.
After discussing Levi-Strauss’s example of myth, he then turns directly to Sixguns and Society and indicates how Wright analyzed the Hollywood Western as American myth. By using binary relations and other structuralist techniques, Wright explored how the interaction of the hero, society, and the villain conceptualized American social beliefs and the myth of the American Dream. He also demonstrated how the evolution of the Western through three different periods reflected the change in those social beliefs and the changing perceptions of how to obtain the American Dream based on those beliefs.
Visual Pleasure in Film
In the second section, Storey discusses Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.’ Mulvey seemed to focus on “the male gaze” in cinema, which posited that in film women are viewed as objects of male desire, and also represent the threat of castration.
The first part of this idea seems pretty straightforward, that the woman functions as an object of erotic desire, both for the hero and for the male spectator in the audience. I admit, however, that I am still a little fuzzy on the ins and outs of the second part. Mulvey indicates that when viewing the female form the absence of a penis implies the threat of castration, and that this ‘look’ can only be countered through one of two methods. The first is by investigating the original moment of trauma and then eventually devaluing, punishing, or saving the guilty object. The second is to fetishize the woman so that she becomes a thing of beauty in and of herself, a pure erotic spectacle (78-79). I admit that I am still a little fuzzy on how we get from point A to point B to point C on this part.
Mulvey ultimately argued that this pleasure in the cinema had to be eliminated to free women from ‘the male gaze’. Her work was quite influential, so much so that others have explored and further defined and refined her ideas. For example, examining if the male gaze is always present or just dominate over a ‘female gaze.’ The question has also been raised that her theory doesn’t take into account the possibility of the audience being more than a passive spectator, when in fact the audience would negotiate with the film based on its own experiences and discourse.
Cultural Studies and Film
The last section focuses primarily on the research of Christine Gledhill and Jackie Stacey. Gledhill recognized the act of negotiation between the spectator and the film. She indicated that “meaning is neither imposed, nor passively imbibed, but arises out of a struggle or negotiation between competing frames of reference, motivation, and experience” (80). She further indicated that this negotiation could be studied on three different levels: audience, texts, and institutions.
Stacey elaborates on this approach based on her research from the end of the 1980s where she surveyed women in their 60s who were avid movie-goers in the 40s and 50s. This way she was able to study the actual consumption of the film. Three areas were addressed in her study. The first, escapism was one of the primary reasons her subjects went to the cinema. She determined that this escapism manifested not only from the film itself, but from the environment of the theater, and the community of movie-goers. It also provided a means of escape not only to the utopian vision of the Hollywood screen, but from the hardships of wartime Britain.
The second, identification, indicated that women shared a fluidity of identity with the women onscreen and were able to identify with the actors because of some shared quality or trait, such as hair color. This sharing of identity would often extend beyond he film experience, leaving the spectators with a fantasy of a more powerful and confident self that could ultimately act as a form of resistance.
The third area, consumption, was defined by Stacey as “a site of negotiated meanings, resistance, and of appropriation as well as of subject and exploitation” (84). She gave the example that the fashions of hollywood stars went against the more restricted ideas of british femininity. Therefore the consumption of these films by women were a resistance to extend and negotiate those standards.