October 7, 1997

Wayward Women Analysts of Celluloid

Presenter: Glen Gabbard, M.D.
Reviewer: Bonnie S. Kaufman, M.D.

On October 7, 1997, a sold-out house at the New York Academy of Medicine enjoyed the year’s only New York Performance of Dr. Glen Gabbard’s one-man show Wayward Women Analysts of Celluloid. The notices were raves.

Dr. Gabbard, who with his brother Krin is the author of Psychiatry and the Cinema (1987) and numerous other articles on the subject, presented a compelling look at sex-stereotyping of female analysts in the Hollywood film and offered a sobering hypothesis about the effects of this stereotyping on patterns of referral and psychoanalytic practice. Gabbard looked at more than 300 films involving an analyst, psychiatrist or other mental health practitioner, of which approximately 100 portrayed the work of a female practitioner. By sampling cinematic views of women analysts from a period of six decades (films from the 1940s through the 1990s), he found a curious and consistent pattern: where a female analyst is treating a male patient, the analyst is soon discovered to be asexual, repressed and (beneath a veneer of capability) ineffectual as a therapist until she falls in love with her patient. Often, at this point, the tables are turned, and the patient treats the therapist, effecting a most remarkable transference cure, a cure by love. The analyst is thereby transformed into the cultural ideal of the beautiful, subservient, adoring, normal woman -- the ideal future wife for, and mother of the future children of, the male patient turned mental health hero.

Gabbard notes that many of these films begin by showing a competent-looking female therapist who considers herself (consciously at least) an autonomous person, only to be shown how mistaken she is about herself when she meets and falls head over heels for her handsome patient. She is then forced to see that she has become an analyst because she is sex-starved, unhappily married, guilty about surviving or out-achieving an important male figure from her past, or barren and frustrated. Her professional life, far from being an autonomous developmental achievement, is thus pathologized -- it represents merely her pathetic defense against some psychological trauma, a situation that can be set right only by the love of her patient. Like Sleeping Beauty, cursed by the evil fairy, she pricks her finger and becomes an analyst, only brought to her senses years later by the kiss of her prince (of Tides).

Dr. Gabbard asks us to consider how this Hollywood fiction about the female analyst has remained so stable throughout the decades, through a world war and the sexual revolution, and despite the fact that during this period, Hollywood has at times idealized, and at other times been profoundly disenchanted with, psychoanalysis itself. Why has the image of the female psychoanalyst had such a particular cinematic fate? Why are female analysts in the movies disproportionately often prone to acting out sexually or romantically with their male patients, when the reality is that such acting out is two to three times more common among male analysts with their female patients? Gabbard, who is proficient in the literature of both psychoanalysis and cinema, offers the work of film scholar Laura Mulvey as a first approach to understanding this phenomenon.

Mulvey’s 1977 paper "Visual Pleasure in the Narrative Cinema" has become a classic in the literature of psychoanalytic film criticism. In it, she situates the Hollywood film industry, as an art form and as a mode of production, within the culture of patriarchy, structured according to the needs and fantasies of the male ideal spectator. Within this culture, the male is always the subject -- the active possessor of the gaze or look, and his scopophilic drives are satisfied upon the female, the object of that gaze. This active male subject, the protagonist/hero, is considered to be the source of the narrative movement of the film, while the female is the spectacle that stops the action and threatens the active voice of the male hero. What is the nature of the threat? The dominance of the active male gaze, according to Mulvey, is based on its association with the phallus. The assertive, piercing nature of the look is threatened by its very fascination with that which is its object -- namely, the seductive and phallus-less female. The resulting threat of castration sets in motion a defensive fetishization of the female object -- through a splitting of the ego, she becomes both a reminder of, and a disavowal of, castration.

In the Hollywood narrative film, therefore, the ideal film spectator is a male who identifies with the action-oriented male hero and who constitutes himself as the phallic subject through the act of looking at the (castrated) female. But the threat of castration always lurks just below the surface, and must be warded off. Indeed, as many other film scholars have noted, the film itself functions as a potentially fetishized object, for it is the object of the male gaze, and also an image of something that, in its materiality, is not really there. For Mulvey, this system blocks all routes to pleasure for the female spectator. She has only two choices: to cross-gender identify with the male hero or to maintain a traditional feminine stance and be locked out of the active spectator role.

Gabbard applies this theory specifically to the female analyst/male patient films and concludes that these particular films contain features that do not conform wholly to Mulvey’s model. The female analyst is a woman to be looked at, but she also has a special stature. Because she is a doctor (or has some other degree) she is in a dominant position vis-à-vis her patients. If the typical female heroine is a threat because of her castrated, phallus-less state, the female analyst also threatens because she is, on some level, phallic. When the male patient in such films turns the tables on his therapist and begins to treat her, his defensive reversal (and of course, that of the male director and screenwriter) is activated not only by Oedipal wishes (the castrated woman must be dominated) but also by pre-Oedipal fears (the phallic mother will castrate me). Gabbard suggests that it is the unconscious, universal dread of the pre-Oedipal mother’s power that fuels the action-driven narratives of the Hollywood cinema. The male character (and the film’s creators) must tear down this powerful, charismatic woman, castrate her into femininity and control her with his (their) look. Of course, we might also consider the resonance of the idea of the phallic mother with latent male homosexual anxieties. The female analyst sits behind her patient, enters his mind and explores what is inside it -- an analytic rape.

I asked Dr. Gabbard how he understood the perplexing fact that most of these films about female analyst and male patients were unabashedly melodramas, a genre that has always appealed strongly to women, and where, it would seem, the woman is in fact the ideal film spectator. Men traditionally prefer action/thriller films (hardly surprising) and tend not to get very excited by melodramatic love stories. What, then, motivates these women spectators? Are they all merely dupes of patriarchy, or do these melodramas have some other source of appeal? Dr. Gabbard agreed that Mulvey’s thesis did not adequately address this question.

Mulvey herself was apparently of the same opinion; several years after the paper cited above, she wrote its sequel, Afterthoughts on Visual Pleasure, inspired by Duel in the Sun. Here she addresses directly the pleasure many women (including herself) derive from watching Hollywood films despite their sexual biases. She concludes that women are accustomed to cross-gender identifications and take pleasure in them, carried along, as she intriguingly puts it, by the "scruff of the text." Woman must admit that they do not always experience themselves as marginalized and alienated from any avenues of pleasure, although this is sometimes the case. Mulvey offers as explanation Freud’s model of the little girl who, in her earliest pre-Oedipal years, takes a "masculine position," and hypothesizes that the female spectator may be able to achieve a regressive identification with the male protagonist by reaching back to her own pre-Oedipal active phallic beginnings. (How odd, though, that, to achieve cinematic satisfaction, the female spectator must return to a state of mind that would be "abnormal" in her current life!)

I would offer still another thought about a woman’s ability to identify with the active narrative movement of the film. The Hollywood system is a star system, and the effort to understand the appeal of any Hollywood film must take into account the charisma of its star. The Joanne Woodwards, Natalie Woods, Audrey Hepburns and Ingrid Bergmans of the Hollywood cinema are not only powerful women but powerful people! Look, for example, at Spellbound: Constance, the Ingrid Bergman character, is a repressed female analyst who falls in love with a colleague whom she begins to treat when she realizes he suffers from a traumatic amnesia (a small variation on the usual theme). As Constance’s former training analyst, played by Michael Chekhov, tells her in exasperation, "Women make the best analysts until they fall in love. Then they make the best patients!" Constance seems to follow this script, and fits neatly into Gabbard’s theory and Mulvey’s first hypothesis. But Ingrid Bergman is a powerful star, commanding extraordinary sums of money for her films, and mesmerizing men and women alike with her on-screen and offscreen charisma. Her star power is added to the power of her screen role as analyst and to the power of the phallic mother. The female star, feminine in her beauty, phallic in her power, can perhaps be seen as a link between the film and both male and female spectatorship.

Spellbound, I think, brings up another issue as well -- are all the films to which Dr. Gabbard refers equally dominated by the unanalyzed fears and fantasies of their male creators? Obviously not, and Hitchcock’s films stand out as addressing the questions of spectatorship and action in a more subtle and nuanced way. Although Constance fails to save Gregory Peck from conviction for murder, once he is safely out of the way in prison, she is free to continue a vigorous investigation of the murder. She is able to apply her (and Hitchcock’s and screenwriter Ben Hecht’s) version of psychoanalytic acumen persistently and effectively to the solution of the mystery. Here she becomes the active, "female-yet-phallic" heroine with whom the female spectator can certainly identify; she pits her mind against that of the male villain and carries the day. Sure, she’s motivated by love, but it’s her brain, not her heart, that cracks the case. As Gregory Peck tells her the dream that holds the key to the mystery, she is too filled with feeling to understand it. Later, without him to distract her, she is able to decipher its meaning, and confronts the murderer, who commits suicide under the weight of her accusations. She stops his action, all right, but she functions as an action hero, not as a spectacle. Such ironic undermining of the characteristics of the genre is what we might expect from Hitchcock, who, after all, directed Rear Window, one of the most important, if not the quintessential, film about film-as-fetish -- a film that, through its broken-legged, immobilized (castrated) male protagonist who is reduced to watching the action of the story through his rear window, problematizes the dichotomy of active/masculine and passive/feminine.

Dr. Gabbard closed his talk by asserting his belief that the Hollywood film, with its stereotypes and psychologically motivated biases, has had a significant impact on popular culture, and that images of female analysts as incompetents undone by love may well influence not only the feelings of potential patients about being treated by a woman but also referral patterns of male analysts, who may be reluctant to refer male patients to female colleagues. Of course, as Dr. Gabbard clearly understands, the Hollywood melodrama is but one of many cultural symptoms of the underlying "disease" he has so adroitly revealed and described. It is perhaps the task of the analytic critic not to try to suppress the symptom but to explain the impulse and defense out of which it is created; Dr. Gabbard’s presentation is such an effort and a very entertaining one. May this, and similar critical endeavors, enjoy a long and successful run.