Mary Ann Doane on Spectating and Female Desire

Mary Ann Doane’s 1987 scholarly book, The Desire to Desire, examines the role of female spectator.
She begins by asking, what is a female spectator? The vehicle for her research is 1940’s women films. According to Gillian Swanson, author of “Building the Feminine: Feminist Film Theory and Female Spectatorship,” The Desire to Desire “investigates the forms of representation found in the woman’s film, its address to the female spectator and the discursive field of femininity.”
A starting or jumping off point for Doane is Laura Mulvey’s 1975 article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” which first appeared in Screen journal in 1975. In the 1999 version of the same, Mulvey reveals two ways that Hollywood lures male spectators. By including within the diegesis (narrative) (1) female objects to gawk at, for sexual fantasy (2) male action heroes to identify with, for re-building the ego. Differences in how men fantasize and enter films compared to women are based on Freud’s and Lacan’s castration myths. When a male child sees himself in the mirror and realizes he is separate from his mother and that she does not have a penis, he develops a “castration complex.” Watching film may allow him to suspend that fear momentarily by objectifying women, thus creating distance (Freud and Lacan qtd in Doane 14 and 15). Because we are born of language, young children may compare: do you have a penis? You don’t? And according to Lacan, sexual difference is “mapped onto linguistic difference” (Lacan as qtd in Doane 10). Lacking a phallus there can be no ego mastery. The most women can hope for is passivity, submission, suffering with others, and masochism (Freud qtd in Doanne 16)

The aim of Doanne’s study is to outline how a female spectator will be conceptualized.

According to Teresa de Laurentis, spectatorship and identification are processes, not states, and women identifying with male heroes become a non-subject (lack subjectivity) and this has a negating effect (8). In Mulvey’s arguments, double identifying is a form of transvestism, and masculinity should not be requirement to have “agency” (Lauretis and Mulvey qtd in Doanne 8). Female spectatorship is overly narcissistic, resulting in the labeling of woman’s films as “weepies” and “tearjerkers” (9). What happens to passive non-subjects? Their only access to desire is to desire (9). Doane maintains, if we can understand the cinema’s current appeals to pathos, then an alternate experience might be created. `

Through a survey of 1940s “woman” films, Doane determines the outcome of stories; when women desire men, they are negated. With these examples, Doane reveals how film negates active sexual roles for women. One is through inverting the spectator gaze—women who gaze at men are scrutinized by the camera and by their male leads. A case in point is the 1946 film Humoresque directed by Jean Negulesco. According to Freud, identification allows women to express their (hysterical) symptoms but also suffer for others (masochism) (16). His psychoanalytic theory suggests that men and women’s ego identification differs vastly in the cinema. Identifying with the female leads of the 1940s films reinforces submission (with the exception of The Heiress where Joan Fontaine’s character decides to finish the “Z” on her embroidery and tells the hired help to bolt the door, rather than marry the suitor who is clearly after her father’s money). In the love story, Humoresque, “Helen (played by Joan Crawford ) upsets and reverses the opposition between spectator and spectacle” (Doane 99). She is a woman who dares to gaze at a man (Paul the violinist). Wearing glasses and being nearsighted signifies “the perversity of her scopophiliac relation” (Doane 99). The first time she sees the virtuouso she will have an affair with, there is a mirror behind her. Rather than cut to Paul, the camera focuses on Helen, so to male viewers watching the film, she remains the object of male gaze, as well as the object of Paul’s gaze, negating her role in the movie as subject. To punish her for going outside the bounds of family (she is married and Paul’s mother wants him to marry another woman Gina), in the final scene, his mother replaces her in the spectator booth at the concert. As Helen walks to her death in the ocean, the music from Paul’s violin swells. Doane points to Mulvey’s description of “the sadism of narrative” (122), and she raises concern over cinema’s appeal to women’s narcissism, while sending a message of punishment for desiring.

Art patroness Helen, played by Joan Crawford, fixes her gaze on Paul, the feminized violin virtuoso in Humoresque (1946)


The text further expounds that female desire is unwelcome (is impossible) in a patriarchal society. Only passive desire is acceptable. Case in point is “Waterloo Bridge” (1940) with Vivian Leigh. Myra waits for her husband gone to war until being “mistakenly informed” that he was killed in action. She resorts to prostitution for an income. Upon his surprise return, she must be punished for her “disloyalty.” The climactic scene shows closer and closer shots of her face, focusing on her eyes, as lorries approach and run over her in the dark fog of the bridge. Her gaze snuffed out, what her husband remembers is her voice (Doane 122). According to psychoanalytic theory, if women have power in a love story, it is an irrational power. The power of a hysteric. The Bette Davis character in the 1940 film The Letter spends her idle hours lacemaking and is accused by a lawyer of resorting to this hobby to avoid thinking of adultery and killing her lover. Doane reveals it was well known that Freud “tried to contain threatening aspects of female production” by insisting that any act of weaving or braiding was not unlike braiding pubic hair act to act out what it might be like to have a penis. Besides citing Freud, Doanne quotes Roland Barthes, who compares the labor of creating stories to lacemaking. However, Barthes then negates that concession by equating “text” with a fetish, a “phallic substitute” (qtd in Doane 111).


Leslie, played by Bette Davis, in the 1940 film The Letter, crochets lace to divert her gaze from her husband.

Love stories are one of several genres Doane analyses to discuss female spectatorship. She also covers Pathos and the Maternal, Clinical Eyes and Medical Discourse, and Paranoia and the Spectacular. In the films about paranoia, a fear of being subjected to the male gaze is targeted (Doane 127). For instance, in The Spiral Staircase (1946), the antagonist stalks women with physical handicaps. The victim played by Dorothy McGuire is temporarily mute, so cannot call for help (127). In the large mansion, home of a bedridden matriarch, the stairwell from a distance resembles a menacing eye. In the stairwell, there is a mirror where Helen studies her mouth and practices moving it to speak. Besides identifying with her own image, what she glimpses is a “psychotic eye” leering at her in the darkness (127). From the male’s viewpoint lurking in dark, Helen’s face is distorted (127). Her mouth is disfigured and signifies castration: one rationalization for the male antagonist’s attempt to kill or negate her (127).

Questions for future research: To what extent has consideration of the female gaze and uncovering the presentation of sexual differences in film affected how films are made and are received today?

Works Cited

Doane, Mary Ann. The Desire to Desire : the Woman’s Film of the 1940s / Mary Ann Doane. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1987.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44.
Swanson, Gillian. “Building the Feminine: Feminist Film Theory and Female Spectatorship.” Continuum 4.2 (1991): 206-17. Web.

One thought on “Mary Ann Doane on Spectating and Female Desire

  1. Your blog entry does a great job paraphrasing Doane’s arguments and — like Joseph’s entry — helps complicate the arguments raised in Murvey’s work on the gaze. I particularly like how you integrate film stills to illustrate how Doane is connecting visual culture to theories of the feminine. Your research question about the woman’s film of today (contemporary “chick flicks”) is an interesting one, particularly if we start with the role of eyeglasses, mirrors, and windows, which play a role in the examples you cite. (For more on period films, check out the university’s Kanopy service, which offers streaming of classic films.)

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