Robin Wood, “Brian De Palma: The Politics of Castration,” from Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, and Wood’s work in general: Robin Wood is one of my favorite film critics. As a man who discovered that he was gay only late in life, Wood has a unique perspective on identity and binaries, and he often takes a mischievous, impish approach to criticism, finding queer aspects in conventional works and expertly breaking down a film’s gender and sexual politics. His essay on Brian De Palma is one of the most fascinating of his texts (and essential to understanding De Palma’s work, I might add), and it is also perhaps the single most brilliant application of the concept of castration to cinema.
“The artistic personality the films [of De Palma] define is that of a fundamentally feminine man who, because he is a man within a patriarchal culture, can view his femininity only in terms of castration.”
Torkild Thanema and Louise Wallenberg, “Buggering Freud and Deleuze: Toward a Queer Theory of Masochism”: In addition to serving as a useful introduction to Deleuze’s understanding of masochism, this essay examines the intersection of sexuality and gender in a way that is not only mind-blowingly brilliant but also just plain fun (and sexy). Like Wood’s essay on De Palma, it examines the possibility of moving beyond a form of male identity and heterosexuality rooted in the phallus. And as Wood redeems Freud’s concept of castration, Thanema and Wallenberg redeem the Freudian concept of the phallus.
“The male masochist, as the phallic women in Newton’s photos, remind us that the phallus is a construction, a disposable and distributable idea, an idea which can be shared between the sexes. Seeking it there, seeking it here—not finding it anywhere, or: since both of us have the phallus, let’s play a new game.”
Gaylyn Studlar, “Masochism and the Perverse Pleasures of the Cinema”: This essay, which is part of Studlar larger book on Josef von Sternberg entitled In the Realm of Pleasure, functions as a full-on attack on Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze. That concept is useful, of course, but it is very limited and it doesn’t reflect the full range of how we experience cinema. Like Clover’s work (see the next item on this list), Studlar allows for the possibility that men might actually identify not with the male characters on screen but with the female characters. In fact, Studlar makes that case that this cross-gender identification might actually be one primary functions of cinema, as well as one of its greatest sources of pleasure.
“Like the wish and counterwish for fusion with and separation from the mother, the wish to change gender identity, the ‘attempt to identify with and to become both parents,’ cannot be fulfilled in ‘reality.’ Laplanche has stated that fantasy is one means of achieving the goal of reintegrating opposite-sex idenfication. Otto Fenichel believed that scopophilic pleasure was dependent on taking the position, not of the observed same-sex participant in intercourse, but the opposite sex. Through the mobility of multiple, fluid identification, the cinema provides an enunciative apparatus that functions as a protective guise like fantasy or dream to permit the temporary satisfaction of what Kubie regards as ‘one of the deepest tendencies in human nature.’”
Carol J. Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film: Simply put, this is one of the most essential books on not only gender but also cinema. It examines a number of horror subgenres (e.g. the slasher film, the possession film, the rape-revenge film) through the lens of gender, and the results are fascinating. You won’t be able to put this book down, and unlike a lot of theory-heavy texts (but like the texts on this list), there’s very little “reaching” going on here: everything that Clover writes is not only highly plausible, it actually explains these genres in ways that no writer has ever done before. Singlehandedly, Clover redeems the entire horror genre.
“The fact that we have in the killer a feminine male and in the main character a masculine female—parent and everyteen, respectively—would seem, especially in the latter case, to suggest a loosening of the categories, or at least of the category of the feminine. It is not that these films show us gender and sex in free variation; it is that they fix on the irregular combinations, of which the combination masculine female repeatedly prevails over the combination feminine male” (from the chapter “Her Body, Himself,” available here).
Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity: I’m actually still working my way through this book (almost finished!) and will probably write something extended on it when I’m done, but suffice it to say, this is absolutely essential reading for anyone who calls themselves a feminist. Your first instinct might be to ask “What does transsexuality and transgender identity have to do with feminism exactly?” This skepticism is indicative of the limitations of how we tend to approach gender and specifically feminism in the mainstream, and Serano expertly makes the case that in order for feminism to be meaningful, it must work alongside transgender people to fight transphobia, cissexism, and “oppositional sexism.” Her work offers a wonderful opportunity to recapture femininity from those who wish to demean it.
“While often different in practice, cissexism, transphobia, and homophobia are all rooted in oppositional sexism, which is the belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories, each possessing a unique and nonoverlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires. Oppositional sexists attempt to punish or dismiss those of us who fall outside of gender or sexual norms because our existence threatens the idea that women and men are ‘opposite’ sexes” (see the rest of this passage here).