PRINT April 1987



Mary Ann Doane's The Desire to Desire: The Woman's Film of the 1940s was published in June 1987 by Indiana University Press, Bloomington, at 256 pages, with 73 black-and-white illustrations. (cloth $35; paperback $12.50)

TOWARD THE END of Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), there is a close-up of some duration of Mia Farrow in spectatorial ecstasy, enraptured by the image, her face glowing (both figuratively and literally through its reflection of light from the movie screen). This rapture persists despite the rather tawdry surroundings of a lower-class movie theater. What the shot signifies, in part, is the peculiar susceptibility to the image—to the cinematic spectacle in general—attributed to the woman in our culture. Her pleasure in viewing is somehow more intense. The woman's spectatorship is yet another clearly delineated mark of her excess. This hyperbolically intimate relation with the screen is assumed by the plot of Purple Rose. In the course of Mia Farrow's fifth or sixth viewing of the film of the same name, she actually catches the gaze of the male romantic lead who notices her, turns, and, drawn by her fascination, steps down off the screen to join her in the “real world.” He rapidly falls in love with her, fulfilling her spectatorial dreams. What strikes me about this scenario is that, given culturally (over)determined structures of seeing, this narrative could work most convincingly only by positing a female spectator. For there is a certain naïveté assigned to women in relation to systems of signification—a tendency to deny the processes of representation, to collapse the opposition between the sign (the image) and the real. To “misplace” desire by attaching it too securely to a representation. The figure of the woman repeatedly viewing the same film (despite the principle that Hollywood movies are made to be “consumed” once) or becoming an avid reader of fan magazines is the condition of possibility of narratives based on her purportedly excessive collusion with the cinematic imaginary.

. . . While it may be argued that, as a historical film, The Purple Rose introduces a distance between its own spectator and its represented spectator, the image retains a great deal of its effect—certainly its recognizability and even familiarity. The idea that the cinematic image functions as a lure, so forcefully elaborated in contemporary film theory, seems to apply even more insistently in the case of the female spectator who, in the popular imagination, repeatedly “gives in” to its fascination. Proximity rather than distance, passivity, over involvement and over identification (the use of the term “weepies” to indicate women's pictures is symptomatic here)—these are the tropes which enable the woman's assumption of the position of “subject” of the gaze. . . .


There is a scene in Mildred Pierce (1945) in which Mildred attempts to convince her daughter Veda to give up her job as a singer in a rather seedy nightclub and return home. When Mildred visits Veda in her dressing room backstage, one of Veda's coworkers comments upon learning Mildred's identity, “I didn't know you had a mother.” Veda replies, “Everyone has a mother.” In a similar scene in The Reckless Moment (1949), the blackmailer, Donnelly, referring to Mrs. Harper's daughter Bea, remarks, “She's lucky to have a mother like you.” Mrs. Harper's immediate response is, “Everyone has a mother like me. You probably had one, too.”

Everyone has a mother, and furthermore, all mothers are essentially the same, each possessing the undeniable quality of motherliness. In Western culture, there is something obvious about the maternal which has no counterpart in the paternal. The idea that someone might not have a mother is constituted as a joke; it is articulated in the mode of the ridiculous or absurd. For the suggestion questions the unquestionable, and the status of the unquestionable is, of course, the natural. Paternity and its interrogation, on the other hand, are articulated within the context of issues of identity, legality, inheritance—in short, social legitimacy. To generate questions about the existence of one's father is, therefore, to produce an insult of the highest order. . . .


There is a crucial and repetitive insistence, in [the gothic-influenced woman's films], on the existence in the past of a woman who once occupied the place of the female protagonist and whose fate—often a violent or unexplained death—the protagonist seems destined to share. The woman sees herself slowly becoming another, duplicating an earlier identity as though history, particularly in the case of women, were bound to repeat itself. . . . The force of the pull toward the initial (historically prior) female figure is demonstrated explicitly by the structure of a syntagma from Rebecca. Joan Fontaine, who plays a character who remains nameless, is represented throughout the first part of the film as passive and incompetent, incapable of assuming the position of mistress of Manderley, overshadowed by the ghost of the absent first wife, Rebecca. Finally, in a scene in which she orders the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, to remove every trace of Rebecca's possessions, the Fontaine character appears to assert her identity by forcefully claiming, “I am Mrs. de Winter now.” Because the character is nameless, however, her assertion of identity can only be the same as a reassumption of the place of Rebecca (who was also “Mrs. de Winter”). Within the field of language the woman is allowed no access to difference and is consigned to an inevitable repetition of the same. Furthermore, the scene of her precarious assertion of identity is immediately followed by a montage sequence of the protagonist's preparations for a masquerade ball, her search for a costume, a different identity to surprise and please her husband. Ultimately she takes Mrs. Danvers' suggestion and chooses for her costume a copy of the dress worn by a female ancestor (Caroline de Winter) whose portrait hangs in the hallway–without realizing that this was the costume worn by Rebecca at a previous masquerade ball. Her repetition or doubling of Rebecca thus takes place via a portrait, another instance of doubling. When the Joan Fontaine character descends the stairway (the traditional locus of female specularization discussed earlier), preparing herself as spectacle for the eyes of her husband, she is unexpectedly confronted with the look of horror which greets her unintended mimesis of Rebecca. Her efforts to masquerade, to become someone else in order to please her husband, are thwarted by the specter of a return to Rebecca, an inescapable mimesis.