Red Lantern" ~ Zhang Yimou
Sheila M. Fram-Kulik
Jacques Derrida philosophizes his anti-masculine-Greek-
Christian theories on the French Feminisms
that have walked with him for guidance.
Nietzsche knows the feminine and sees
the positivity of the use. Cixous transcends
female to a higher plane from where
to see other worlds in writing. "Derrideanism
is the philosophy of the unnatural and,
on occasion, of the supernatural," as
stated by Alice Jardine in Gynesis.
Derrida knows outside the questioning
of subjecthood and suggests to woman
to use writing; releasing woman from
the metaphysical bondage of woman in
phallologocentricism. Derrida knows
woman as putting man in question. He
denaturalizes the world--"explores the
intrasymbolic borderlines of the spatial
words and worlds we thought we knew.(Jardine)"
Derrida uses his style to take up the
task of analyzing the natural. He writes
through the differances. With the Sexual
differences, Derrida knows what Nietzsche
views of woman."Men must remain at a
distance from women(die Frauen), in
order for seduction to operate." But
Nietzsche does not view Feminism. Cixous
avoids the sexual difference by using
the second person in her speaking. We
live in a world of strong identifications,
that leave no room for mobility within
our person and outside of our person."In
our impassioned times on all political
fronts, where it is largely a question
of an open and covert struggle with
the mysteries of sexual difference,
as women we are at theobligatory mercy
of simplifications.(Cixous)"This keeps
woman in the hysteric realm. Each of
these steps that I have taken with woman,
you know me to know woman as too simplistic
with each walk. Songlian's walk was
with no one but you and herself.
In "Raise the Red Lantern", Zhang Yimou
gives Gong Li the character, Songlian,
and she walks with her in her turmoils.
We see on the screen the metaphysical
bondage of the woman, Songlian in her
Chinese world. (This Chinese world of
similar phallocentricism as the Western
world) Songlian is somewhat educated
and has stepped into, for only a moment,
the woman- world that gives off a feminine
power of knowledge. We see Songlian
as the servant to her husband. She gradually
loses her individuality of a name and
is addressed from the beginning as the
Fourth Mistress. We see her as a rival
to the other wives for the glory of
being chosen, the prior evening, to
pleasure her husband. We see her as
mechanical in her acts as the "pleasure
machine" for her husband, the Master.
But Songlian soon takes what she has
learned in academia and questions the
man, the Master. For he is not a Master
unless she is the servant, first. She
sees this world as unnatural and not
what she is used to knowing about marriage.
We see Songlian at a distance; Nietzsche's
distance of woman for the sake of Seduction.
Songlian is the woman at a distance.
The Master keeps his wives at a distance
to keep the Seduction as ever-sexually
arousing. Songlian sees the distance
and tries to bring a closeness between
them but it is stifled by the Third
Mistress and her jealousy over the Master
having a fourth Mistress. The Second
Mistress even tries to turn the tables
with her magical charms. Songlian feels
defeated and tries to recover but her
attempts make the distance between the
Master and her even farther because
she has angered him, extremely. She
becomes even more alone when she is
shunned by the other Mistresses.
We know from the start that Songlian
is decapitated from the strong identifications
that place her within the role of the
collective concubine. She is the Fourth
Mistress, not Songlian as I have stated
before. She has become immobilized in
the rules that a Mistress must follow.
She spies the Master's son playing the
flute and longs to play it as well in
private. Songlian, at one point, loses
her flute that was her father's because
her Master thought that she had received
it from a college male friend. He uses
this tactic to keep her in the role
that she was put in. Her maid states,"Flutes
can only be played by men." She becomes
angered by this remark from the two-
faced servant. Songlian recognizes her
immobilization and tries to lash out
by confronting the Master. When he reveals
his reasons for destroying the flute,
she confrontationally tells him that
it was her father's. The Master only
offers to buy her better ones. Songlian
lashes out again by drinking excessively.
She asks for wine to silently celebrate
her birthday that has been forgotten
or ignored by the Master and the other
Mistresses. She feels a sense of loneliness.
She defies all rules against drinking
excessively and she throws away her
sadness through laughter.
As horrible events unfold, Songlian
descends into a death from the world
that she was forced into. She succumbs
to a mental death that leaves her to
go to another world to live in peace.
Her immobilization has caused her to
become, what Catherine Clement calls,
the hysteric. She brings about a disorder
in the male world of the Master that
keeps her from the rules that are strictly
enforced upon her by every person around
her. Her identification changes and
she soon is named The Mad Woman, the
hysteric, the name that her Master has
given her after he glances at her actions.
Songlian never regains her true name
as Songlian. She never regains her true
nature as woman. She is now forever
What attracted me to this film was the
view of the oppression of women as sexual
machines that must have baby boys for
their Master. I could see that this
was an obvious view of women by even
some men who disagreed with the subjectivity.
Yimou brought out this oppression to
make a point and to question man in
his castle. He brings the woman to the
front and lets her ask the questions
instead of being questioned. He takes
the realism and places it in our hands.
He shows us what China had to offer
for women in that period. What I have
taken from Derrida, Nietzsche and Cixous
are just some of the entrances that
are open to Woman. We see the views,
the differences, the stereotypes, the
identifications of women. So, now then,
we need to change them, deconstruct
them, reconstruct them, remove them,
rewrite them to not exclude the other
possibilities of woman and women.
The Naro Video has most of the films
by Zhang Yimou. I would suggest that
you check them out.
The Yellow Earth (1984) Red Sorhgum
(1987) (this is not at the Naro Video.)
Ju Dou (1990) Raise the Red Lantern
(1991) The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) To
Live (1993) Shanghai Triad (1995)
the Internet page, I have put some addresses
that have articles available about Zhang
Yimou and his films. If you cannot find
a film, please,
E-MAIL me and I will help you out.
And if I can not then I will find someone
Practicing Film Feminism
Dr. Andrea Slane
Film is an entertainment industry, an
art form, and a means to thought and
pleasure. It is a social phenomenon,
bearing the marks of ongoing struggles
over the control of public life, personal
freedoms, and artistic achievement.
Feminist film practice, exercised by
both spectators and filmmakers, understands
these domains as dynamic, where power
is exercised, perpetuated, or forged
into new and more progressive forms.
There are many ways to practice feminism
in film; it is a flexible set of possible
strategies, adaptable, creative, and
occasionally at odds.
The twentieth century can easily be
seen as the century wherein the control
and management of pleasure has always
been a primary arena of social contention.
In part this is due to cultural changes
wrought by the development of an urbanized
industrial economy through the 19th
century, where new working class populations
came to have two things they did not
have under previous economic and social
systems: wages and leisure time (although
neither of these in great quantities).
Hence, when movies became part of the
entertainment scene at the turn of the
century, they joined the booming market
for "cheap amusements", which also included
vaudeville theaters, dance halls, and
amusement parks. They also joined the
ranks of public spaces which civic-minded
reformers sought to regulate.
As large numbers of immigrants and native-born
young women entered the work force in
factories and service work, middle class
reformers launched campaigns which voiced
concerns about the physical and moral
health of these young women. Often led
by Christian women's groups, these reform
movements served as the beginnings of
social welfare policies and helped advocate
for occupational safety standards, minimum
wages and restrictions to child labor.
But some of these groups also feared
that the freedoms young women gained
from earning wages and living away from
their families might lead them to "loose"
morals: premarital sex and other unacceptable
self-indulgences which challenged traditional
notions of the "good" girl. These latter
reform campaigns often focused on working-class
leisure activities, arguing for the
need for local government restriction
It was these forces that tried, almost
from the very beginning of the history
of movie exhibition, to force restrictions
on the movie industry which "protected"
young women from their corrupting influence.
Young women viewers were feared to succumb
to the arousing effects of sitting in
a darkened space amidst mixed gender
company, with emotionally stimulated
images playing before their eyes. These
anxieties about the movies reveal a
class-based difference between some
middle class women's efforts to play
a part in social welfare (a precursor
to ongoing struggles of feminists today)
and some working class women's efforts
to choose their pleasures and live more
autonomous lives. The latter is of course
also an ongoing feminist struggle, and
so this episode in film history helps
lay out the different paths down which
feminist film practice continues to
Feminists do not always agree on the
proper approach to "reforming" the movies
to feminist ends. In some ways watching
film as a feminist means knowing how
to criticize the evidence of gender
hierarchy which the film has set to
celluloid. In other ways it involves
reading "against the grain", or rewriting
some of this evidence by means of creative
interpretation, focusing on the supporting
characters or secondary storylines for
instance, or isolating a single aspect
of a strong female character and ignoring
her final demise. Or it might involve
supporting the work of feminist directors,
writers, and actors (be they male or
female). In all cases, "feminist" means
a wide range of possible strategies.
These strategies might valorize the
diversity of women's experiences. They
might challenge the gender hierarchy
which devalues women. Or they might
unseat the gender binaries of male and
female entirely, opening up new realms
of possibility for a post- gendered
The strategies are varied and many,
and the dialogue between them is what
makes feminist film practice, despite
the reticence of many practitioners
to name themselves as such, a thriving
arena of cultural activity.
Andrea Slane is an Associate Professor
of English at Old Dominion University,
who joined in 1995. She received her
B.A. at Rutgers University and her M.A.
and PhD. at the University of California
at San Diego. Her knowledge of Film
stems from her education and her experience
as an independent filmmaker. Besides
teaching English courses, Dr. Slane
also, teaches film studies at ODU. She
is, currently, working on a new film
of her own. We hope to see the finished
product soon. She has other films that
she has done. If you are interested
in seeing her films, please,
E-mail her. Maybe we can convince
her to make them more available to the
Blue Velvet ~ David Lynch
David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" (1986) depicts
a problematic, perplexing vision of
female sexuality and subjectivity. Written
and directed by Lynch, the film, as
Lynda K. Buntzen notes, "provides a
feminist and psychoanalytic film criticism
with a rare opportunity to test many
of its assumptions (Western Humanities
Review 1988)." Lynch clearly uses Freudian
notions of the Oedipal conflict, sadism
and masochism, and fetishism to motivate
his characters and guide their connections
with one another. In this Freudian realm,
woman is placed in a compromising position
with little chance to tell her own story.
The film opens with Jeffrey Beaumont
returning home from college to take
care of the family business after his
father has suffered a stroke. Walking
home after a visit to his neighbor,
Detective Williams. Jeffrey attempts
to gain information about the police
case but is unsuccessful. Detective
Williams takes on the role of the older,
privileged holder of knowledge that
"one day, when this is all over, " he
will be able to share with Jeffrey.
To Jeffrey's claim of, "I'm just real
curious, " he responds, " I was the
same way when I was your age." Jeffrey
is set in motion as the classic, naive
young man seeking knowledge and adulthood.
What he discovers is that " it's a strange
world." From the detectiveís daughter,
Jeffrey hears of nightclub singer, Dorothy
Vallens who lives in an apartment building
on the "bad" side of town and may be
involved in something. Jeffrey decides
that he wants to hide in Dorothy's apartment
to spy on her. His obsession with solving
the mystery of the ear leads Jeffrey
on an adventure during which he learns
that life is not as it seems in the
freshly cut green lawns and friendly
firemen suburbia of Lumberton. His detective
work unearths the seedy side of town
where drug dealer, Frank Booth, has
kidnapped Dorothy Vallens' son and husband
(who just so happen to be missing an
ear). To keep her family alive, Dorothy
must play a part in Frank's sexual fantasies.
Jeffrey gleans this information from
the closet in which he has hidden.
Dorothy's character immediately poses
a problem for the viewer: Is she a helpless
victim or an agent of her situation?
In a critical scene, Dorothy discovers
Jeffrey hiding in her closet and he
admits that he has watched her undress.
Wielding a blatantly phallic knife,
Dorothy forces Jeffrey to undress for
her. While doing so, she repeats the
same commands that we witness Frank
give her. She seems unable to speak
with her own voice; a helpless victim
of male domination. With Jeffrey completely
vulnerable, Dorothy chooses to seduce
him rather than to act out revenge.
She asks what he wants when she is clearly
in a position to get what she wants.
Why? Because this is how men want to
see her; this is her only option in
Dorothy functions in a patriarchal society
that dictates female behavior. Indeed,
she is written by the male Lynch. Our
society is based on a structure of oppositional
binaries (male/female, good/bad, culture/nature)
that privilege the masculine. Language
has invented these binaries in order
to construct a history of difference.
This is the history that men have written.
In the Newly Born Woman (co-written
by Helene Cixous), Catherine Clement
asserts that women need to take their
turn at telling the history "arranged
the way tale-telling women tell it."
Only then will it be true. In her telling
of the male-inscribed history Clement
intends "to undo it, to overturn it,
to reveal it to expose it." Women as
they really are, not women as they have
been created by men.
Clement discusses two traditional, male-written
depictions of women, the sorceress and
the hysteric. both are "antiestablishment."
They revolt and shake up the public;
"the hysteric unties familiar bonds,
introduces disorder into the well-regulated
unfolding of everyday life." Their history
is ambiguous; one never knows precisely
what happens to them. They disappear
leaving "mythical traces." These "women
suffering for women" are "innocent,
mad, full of badly remembered memories,
guilty of unknown wrongs." Throughout
history, the sorceress and the hysteric
have been designated as a social misfits.
They move among the gaps in the symbolic
order and are considered dangerous because
they make those gaps apparent. They
are double, they side with the regular
as wives and mothers and they side with
the irregular, "those natural disturbances,
their regular periods, which are the
epitome of paradox, order and disorder."
Their very existence is dependent upon
an audience of men who want to witness
their "possession". The women mirror
their audience's projections of desire.
For the sorceress, the "display" of
madness takes place at the festival
where everything is turned "upside down".
Social order is reversed with woman
as the figure at the center to which
the others refer, for she is, at the
same time, bother loss and cause, the
ruin and the reason. She... is the guilty
one. Women are made to atone for the
guilt of their sex. In southern Italy,
women "bitten" by tarantulas publicly
do the "dance of the tarantella" in
order to rid themselves of venomous
desire. They dance in a frenzied pleasure
to the point of collapse. It is only
when their desire has been depleted
that they are able to return to the
social order. The hysteric's stage is
Freud's couch. She tells of the childhood
sexual abuse inflicted by a male family
member, usually her father. After hearing
several similar hysterics' tales, Freud
determines this to be a lie. He moves
the blame from the father to the hysteric.
Freud also finds the mother at fault.
Since the mother is the one who takes
care of the child's body, it is she
who is responsible for sexually stimulating
the child. She, too, is a "double woman"
, she is at once, the castrating mother
to be feared and the seductress mother
to be desired.
Clement contends that the sorceress
and the hysteric no longer exists. Unfortunately,
I donít find this to be the case. Dorothy's
characterization is marked with these
characters' mythical traces. She is
the embodiment of the sorceress, guilty
mother and the tarantella dancer. She
mirrors male desire with no identity
outside her audience. At first, little
is known about Dorothy other than that
she is a seductive singer at the Slow
Club. The discovery of her "domestic"
side, the fact that she is a wife and
a mother, surprises Jeffrey. Like the
sorceress, Dorothy has symbolic mobility.
She moves between the realms of regular
The initial scene between Dorothy and
Frank plays out several strange versions
of Freud's Oedipal scene in which Dorothy
can be blamed as the guilty mother.
Most obvious is Frank's demand that
Dorothy play "Mommy" to his "Baby" in
his psychosexual drama. He simulates
sex with the mother while oscillating
between the role of "Baby" and "Daddy".
He wants to punish Dorothy for her lack
of a penis while at the same time he
fears that she can take his. All of
this is witnessed from the closet by
Jeffrey who can also be seen in the
child role with Dorothy and Frank serving
as surrogate parents. Witnessing his
"parents" sexual union, he too fears
Dorothy's power to "take the penis".
But, he also finds her desirable, tempting.
Therefore, she is guilty for his further
actions. Though it is apparent that
Dorothy does not wholeheartedly enjoy
the demented torture inflicted upon
her by Frank, there is evidence that
she does find elements of it pleasurable.
She desires and initiates sadomasochism
with Jeffrey. So, Dorothy must atone
for her desire. Her torture is the punishment
for her socially unacceptable sexual
behavior. She has been bitten by perverse
desire and must dance the tarantella
in order to be rid of the poison. She
dances with Jeffrey until he destroys
Frank. She must then leave the "natural
mode, the marvelous freedom that is
animal and desiring" behind. In the
final scene, free from her torturer,
she has been returned to her socially
accepted role, the mother to her real
Upon venturing into the crevices of
the Internet to find homepages that
would give me information on certain
films that I am currently viewing, I
stumbled upon some of these addresses
that gave me a wealth of information
and a different eye, a third eye, for
looking at a film from someone's perspective.
found some interesting facts on Zhang
Yimou and his films on the multiple
faces of oppression in the Chinese society.
address that makes accessible other
criticisms and reviews of films are
from feminist views are:
good use of these addresses! I will
have plenty more in the next issue coming
Some writers have E-mail addresses for
you to send any comments on their articles.
Other comments for writers can be E-mailed
to the Editor. Sheila M. Fram-Kulik
Dr. Andrea Slane
Stephanie Leftwich [email protected]