Whether you agree with any of the major feminist film theorists or not, the new book Feminist Film Theorists: Laura Mulvey, Kara Silverman, Teresa De Lauretis, Barbara Creed written by Shohini Chaudhuri (2006) spurs discussion on a wide range of issues in film. From Mulvey’s “male gaze” to Silverman’s “masculinity in crisis,” Chaudhuri boldly brings up topics that in today’s dominant fiction world are taboo. She examines how the feminist debate has evolved and not shifted or backpedalled by exposing how the feminist film is growing from its early roots in the major feminist film theorists to some of the films people actually know about on-screen today. Yet even these films have a long way to go.
One of Chaudhuri’s major discussion areas is on the science fiction-horror film Alien. In Chaudhuri’s chapter entitled The Mounstrous Feminine, the discussion stems around the idea of how the maternal female body is used as a symbol of the things society fears most, or what symbolically in film is the “monster” and what major film theorists term the abject. According to Chaudhuri’s analysis of Creed’s book Powers of Horror (1980), the monster is that part of ourselves we reject and expel considering it “not me.” In short, the abject is the symbol of the repressed or our “other.” As Chaudhuri reminds us, Freud already established how what is repressed into the subconscious always returns disguised in symbolic form, or in the case of the film Alien, the form of the female monster alien.
Chaudhuri also examines Mulvey’s groundbreaking essay Visual Pleasure And Narrative Cinema, written in 1973 and published in 1975 in Screen. Mulvey’s work was a major breakthrough for feminism due to its analysis of what she termed the “male gaze” and what has come to be known as the “dominant fiction” in film - Dominant fiction might better be known today to some as the Hollywood film versus the independent or foreign film. The camera, audience and male characters in works that use the dominant fiction formula manipulate all elements at the disposal of cinema, including narrative and auteur, to create female characters that are “objects of spectacle through mechanisms of voyeurism and fetishism. . .imposing a masculine view on the audience.” Mulvey’s essay has been the subject of much exposition and criticism.
In the last chapter, Chaudhuri admits “the key concepts that these theorists discuss are in many ways no less pertinent and fraught with complexity than when they were first placed in the agenda.” Chaudhuri discusses that in Mulvey’s new work, Death 24 x a Second (2005), she examines “the changing conditions under which audiences view films, no longer always collectively but often at home on video and DVD, [which] also calls for new theories of spectatorship and reflections.” Mulvey exposes how these new technologies allow for “pensive” or “possessive” spectators, and how the “flow of film [can be] halted and favorite images or scenes repeated” creating a “cinema of delay.” Mulvey highlights how new technology undermines the traditional idea of cause-and-effect which creates more of an avante garde style of film that is available to the people now instead of just the elite.
As Chaudhuri points out, “many people assume we are more ‘progressive’ about gender issues now than we ever have been in the past. . .However, backlashes against feminism show societies have a tendency to move back as well as forward.” Femoinist Film Theorissts: Laura Mulvey, Kara Silverman, Teresa De Lauretis, Barbara Creed is an open re-discussion as well as new discussion on feminist film theory. Just the fact the text is so active in Chaudhuri’s analysis is evidence to the need for further and ever more explorative discourse in feminist film theory.