Notes on Claire Johnston’s “Femininity and the masquerade: Anne of the Indies1

To Hilaria Loyo

The development of collective work is obviously a major step forward; as a means of acquiring and sharing skills it constitutes a formidable challenge to male privilege in the film industry [and in film institutions]. As an expression of sisterhood, it suggest a viable alternative to the rigid hierarchical structures of male-dominated cinema and offers real opportunities for a dialogue about the nature of women’s cinema [and feminist film theory] within it.

Claire Johnston2

1973: “Women’s cinema as counter-cinema”:

At this point in time, a strategy should be developed which embraces both the notion of films as a political tool and film as entertaintment. For too long these have been regarded as two opposing poles with little common ground”:3 “it is particularly important to analyse what the nature of cinema is and what strategic use can be made of it in all its forms: the political film/the commercial entertaintment film”.4

Much writing on the stereotyping of women in the cinema takes as its starting point a monolithic view of the media as repressive and manipulative5: in this way, Hollywood has been viewed as a dream factory producing an oppressive cultural product. This over-politicised view bears little relation to the ideas on art expressed either by Marx or Lenin, who both pointed to there being no direct connection between the development of art and the material basis of society. The idea of the intentionality of art which this view implies is extremely misleading and retrograde”.6

The development of the auteur theory [the psycho-textual analysis of films by some Hollywood directors to reveal their contradictory and ambiguous ideological function within capitalism] marked an important intervention in film criticism: its polemics challenged the entrenched view of Hollywood as monolithic […] in demostrating that Hollywood was at least as interesting as the art cinema, it marked an important step forward […] As Peter Wollen says, ‘the structure is associated with a single director, an individual, not because he has played the role of artist, expressing himself or his vision in the film [this “is essentially a bourgeois idea”],7 but it is through the force of his preoccupations that an unconscious, unintended meaning can be decoded in the film, usually to the surprise of the individual concern’.8 In this way, Wollen disengages both from the notion of creativity which dominates the notion of ‘art’, and from the idea of intentionality”.9

1974, co-written with Pam Cook: “The place of woman in the cinema of Raoul Walsh”:

A view of Walsh as the originating consciousness of Walsh oeuvre is […] an ideological concept” and forecloses “the recognition of Walsh as subject within ideology […] We have attempted to provide a reading of the Walsh oeuvre which takes as its starting point Walsh as a subject within ideology and, ultimately, the laws of the human order. What concerns us specifically is the delineation of the ideology of patriarchy – by which we mean the Law of the Father [not men’s Law] – within the text of the film. As Lévi-Strauss has indicated: ‘The emergence of symbolic thought must have required that women, like words, should be things that were exchanged’. The task for feminist criticism must therefore consist of a process of de-naturalization: a questioning of the unity of the text; of seeing it as a contradictory interplay of different codes; of tracing its ‘structuring absences’ and its relationship to the universal problem of symbolic castration. It is in this sense that a feminist strategy for the cinema must be understood. Only when such work has been done can a foundation for a feminist-counter cinema be established”.10

In this paper Pam Cook and Claire Johnston produce a ‘feminist symptomatic analysis’ of Walsh’s film The revolt of Mamie Stover (a film “in which the female protagonist represents the central organizing principle of the text”11), following the guidelines outlined by the editors of Cahiers du Cinema in 1969 and 197012. This type of analysis consists of both establishing “a complex, mediated and decentred relationship” between the “artistic product” and the socio-historical context and undertaking “a reading in the sense of a rescanning” of the film. The reaeding does not seek to offer:

  • a search for hidden meanings” in a buried textual unconscious (Fredric Jameson).

  • a search for what is absent (the repressed) from the textual surface (E. Ann Kaplan’s analyses of noir films): ‘the repressed’ is, by Freudian definition, not an absence but a suppression that has failed.

  • a new interpretation, i.e the translation of what is supposed to be already in the film in a critical system (meta-language) where the interpreter has the kind of absolute knowledge of the exegist blind to the (historical) ideological determination of his practice and his object-pretext”.

  • a “dissection of an object conceived of as a closed structure […] without taking into account the dynamic of the inscription [“a mechanistic structural reading]”.

  • a desmystification in the sense where it is enough to re-locate the film within its historical determinations, ‘reveal’ its assumptions, declare its problematic and its aesthetic prejudices and criticised its statement in the name of a mechanically applied materialist knowledge”.

This type of symptomatic reading not only refuses “to look for ‘depth’, to go from the ‘literal meaning’ to some ‘secret meaning’” but it also offers:

  • a process of active reading” that makes films to say “what they have to say within what they leave unsaid, to reveal their constituent lacks”, their “structuring absences”, “the unsaid included in the said and necessary to its constitution. In short, to use Althusser’s expression – ‘the internal shadows of exclusion’”.13

  • a reading of the 'textual unconscious' as constituted by ‘the repressed’ in the text (the sexual other scene and that ‘other scene’ which is politics). Although this equation between the repressed and the Unconscious deserves to be questioned14, it must be pointed out that, contrary to Fredric Jameson’s undertextual political unconscious, this textual unconscious is on the surface of the text. The repressed meaning is already there” in the formal cinematic signifiers that contradict and make ambiguous the manifest ideological discourse of the film: “all that is involved is traversing the statement to locate what sets it in place, to double their writing”, “to reveal what is already there but silent (cf the notion of palimpsest in Barthes and Daney), to make them say not only ‘what this says, but what it doesn’t say because it doesn’t want to say it’ (J.A. Miller, and we would add: what, while intending to leave unsaid, it is nevertheless obliged to say)”.15

1975: “Femininity and the masquerade: Anne of the Indies

Claire Johnston’s interest in “Jacques Tourneur’s approach to the question of the masquerade” lies on the fact that Anne of the Indies (1951) represents an approach to womanliness as a masquerade that is “more radical” than both the “conventional, fetishized image” and George Cukor’s drawing on it in Sylvia Scarlett (1935).

Whereas in the erotic-fetishized paradigm (“the female star Jean Peters appearing in male attire”), the masquerade serves as “a projection of male fantasy, in which the woman uses her body to disguise herself”16, and in Cukor’s movie the masquerade fulfils the narrative function of showing the female protagonist “acting out masculinity”, in Tourneurs’s film Anne’s masquerade fulfils the narrative function of constituting “an utter and irrevocable refusal of ‘femininity’”17.

According to Claire Johnston Anne of the Indies is “a unique film both in terms of Tourneur’s oeuvre as a whole, and in terms of the classic Hollywood cinema”18 because this film “perhaps marks one of the most radical attempts to explore the fact of sexual heterogeneity in the classic Hollywood cinema, foregrounding the repression of the feminine”.19

This film explores the fact of sexual difference because “it would appear that Captain Providence at one and the same time represents and conjures away the problem of radical heterogeneity, constituting a problem, a trouble within the text; both a threat (i.e. the threat of castration [“she is wounded (‘scars from the English’)”]) and a spectacle (i.e. the masquerade designed to disavow the fact of absence, of the lack)”.20 But in this film, Claire Johnston argues, the masquerade is designed not only to disavow lack, absence, or castration but also to bring to light that the repression of “the idea of woman as a social and sexual being (her Otherness)” is present within the text21.

In locating the problem of castration in quite explicit relation to the masquerade [Captain Providence/Jean Peters], the film favours not only ‘Jean Peters’ “as a phallyc substitute, simbolizing the fear of castration and man’s narcissistic wound” but also the reduction of sexual difference “into the [ideological] dichotomy male/non-male”22: “the masquerade itself indicates the absence of the male the image of Jean Peters serving as no more than the trace of the exclusion” and of “the refusal to recognize the contradiction masculine/feminine altogether”23.

Yet, by linking the masquerade (Captain Providence/Jean Peters) to the question of castration, Tourneur also “plays out the trouble of a radical heterogeneity”24: Tourneur’s movie dramatizes the originary ‘problem’ “for Patriarchal culture”25 (“the Otherness of woman”: Jean Peters)26 before this problem is finally “frozen in the ultimate place of radical absence – death itself”27.

1 In E. Ann Kaplan (ed.) Psychoanalysis & cinema, pp. 64-72.

2 Claire Johnston, “Women’s cinema as counter-cinema”, (1973), in Bill Nichols (ed). Movies and methods: an anthology, vol. 1, pp. 208-217, p. 213. Originally published in Claire Johnston (ed.). Notes on women’s cinema (London: Society for Education in Film and TV, 1973). Reprinted in E. Ann Kaplan (ed.). Feminism and film. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, pp. 22-33.

3 Claire Johnston, “Women’s cinema as counter-cinema”, p. 217.

4 Claire Johnston, “Women’s cinema as counter-cinema”, p. 213.

5 See, for instance, E. Ann Kaplan, “’The dark continent of film noir’: race, displacement and metaphor in Tourneur’s Cat People (1942) and Welles’ The lady from Shangai (1948)”, in Women in film noir. New edition, pp. 183-201.

6 Claire Johnston, “Women’s cinema as counter-cinema”, p. 209.

7 Claire Johnston, “The Nightcleaners”, paragraph n. 7.

8 Peter Wollen, Signs and meanings in the cinema, Secker & Warburg, Cinema One series, London, 1972.

9 Claire Johnston, “Women’s cinema as counter-cinema”, p. 212.

10 Pam Cook and Claire Johnston, “The place of woman in the cinema of Raoul Walsh”, pp. 34-5.

11 Pam Cook and Claire Johnston, “The place of woman in the cinema of Raoul Walsh”, p. 30.

12 Jean- Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni, “Cinema/ideology/criticism” (1969).

13 Editors of Cahiers du Cinéma, "John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln" (1970), pp. 495-6.

14 This equation between the repressed and the Unconscious deserves to be questioned. In his paper on the Unconscious Freud notes: "everything that is repressed must remain unconscious but let us state at the very outset that the repressed does not cover everything that is unconscious. The unconscious has the wider compass: the repressed is a part of the unconscious". Sigmund Freud, "The Unconscious" (1915), vol. 11, p. 167.

15 Editors of Cahiers du Cinéma, "John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln", pp. 496-7.

16 Claire Johnston, “Femininity and the masquerade”, p. 67.

17 Claire Johnston, “Femininity and the masquerade”, p. 66.

18 Claire Johnston, “Femininity and the masquerade”, p. 70.

19 Claire Johnston, “Femininity and the masquerade”, p. 66.

20 Claire Johnston, “Femininity and the masquerade”, p. 67.

21 Claire Johnston, “Femininity and the masquerade”, p. 71.

22 Claire Johnston, “Femininity and the masquerade”, p. 65. “All fetishism, as Freud has observed, is a phallic replacement, a projection of male narcissistic fantasy. The star system as a whole depended on the fetishitation of woman”. Claire Johnston, “Women’s cinema as counter-cinema”, p. 211.

23 Claire Johnston, “Femininity and the masquerade”, p. 67.

24 Claire Johnston, “Femininity and the masquerade”, p. 69.

25 Claire Johnston, “Femininity and the masquerade”, p. 72.

26 Claire Johnston, “Femininity and the masquerade”, p. 67.

27 Claire Johnston, “Femininity and the masquerade”, p. 68.



© 2006, Eva Parrondo Coppel. Se permite la copia y la distribución de este escrito en su totalidad a través de cualquier medio, siempre y cuando su circulación sea sin ánimo de lucro, se haga de forma literal y esta nota se mantenga