A key way to understanding the pleasures of cinema is through the analysis of the gaze. In her groundbreaking critique of classic Hollywood cinema, Laura Mulvey arrived at the conclusion that the pleasures of cinema is offered only to a ‘masculine’ spectator. She makes a distinction between men as the active “bearer of the look” and “women as image” to be looked at and fetishised as the object of male heterosexual desire (Mulvey 1975:9). The power of the look is facilitated by point-of-view shots and shot/reverse-shot editing techniques that achieve the effect of seeing female characters as objects of desire through the eyes of the male characters. Attained from these structures of looking in the cinema is voyeuristic pleasure; the spectator has the privilege of ‘invisibility’ – ‘he’ can look without being looked back (Stacey 1994:21).
Mulvey applies Freudian psychoanalytic models to demonstrate that popular cinema does not only offer voyeuristic pleasures of looking, but also fetishistic ones. Oedipal and castration complexes developed from the discovery of sexual differences as children results in unconscious desires and fears that find expression in popular cinematic forms. As voyeuristic looking allows control over the image, fetishistic pleasures enables the male spectator to disavow the threat of castration by denying the sexual difference the woman signifies, objectifying her instead as a fetishised image (ibid:22). The narcissistic drives of the male viewer motivates him to identify with the male protagonist in the screen, making the concerns of the male protagonist the male spectator’s concerns. Building on Lacan’s theory of ‘the mirror phase’, Mulvey locates the unconscious origins of pleasure in identification (Mulvey 1975:10). For Lacan, the early stages of identity formation can be described the moment a child finds her/his image in the mirror (or mother) ‘reflected’ back, and senses a pleasing unity with the image, even when this initial recognition of the self is a misrecognition (Lacan 1977:93-7). Lacan argues that this process of identification will continue as the child grows up and that this how the ego is constituted (Stacey 1994:22).
Mulvey’s model of the male gaze generated considerable criticism in the feminist film criticism community, primarily of the essentialist alignment of masculinity with activity and femininity with passivity, presumptions about the spectator’s heterosexuality, and the Mulvey’s neglect of the female spectator’s pleasures of the look. Arguably, the limitations of Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze and heterosexist binary oppositions are a reflection of feminist film theory’s dependence on psychoanalytic models as a whole. Picking up where Mulvey left off, a number of theorists began their search for the female gaze, the antidote to the male gaze and a potential gateway to understanding and reclaiming female pleasures in film. However, there is little consensus on a singular definition of the female gaze, as Barbara Creed points out four different definitions working within feminist film criticism: the gaze from within the diagetic (the woman on the screen), the imaginary (construction of patriarchal ideology), the theorised (in feminist film criticism), and the ‘real’ woman in the audience (Creed 1989:133).
With much of feminist film theory deeply interwoven into psychoanalytic theory, the female gaze is best understood mainly as that of the hypothetical looking subject than an empirical criticism of the male gaze. Indeed, there are limitations in privileging the concept of ‘woman as viewer’ over actual the feelings, desires, and anxieties perceived by the female audience. Psychoanalysis projects an ahistorical framework of understanding desire and pleasure with little account of race, religion, class, sexuality, and (dis)ability (Stacey 1994:27). Nevertheless, the place of psychoanalytic discourse in exploring textualised fears and desires cannot be underestimated, as it can offer a potentially emancipatory agenda for women in what is understood to be a phallogocentric discursive arena. For the sake of brevity, the theorised and diagetic female gaze will be discussed herein.
A departure from Mulvey’s model of the masculinised viewing subject is the idea of the feminine that looks back at herself as image. According to Mary Ann Doane, the female gaze does not have the capacity to participate in voyeuristic and fetishistic pleasures the way the heterosexual male gaze is set up for, mainly because the gap between the female as viewing subject and the female object of the view cannot be psychically located. For the female spectator, there is “a certain over-presence of the image – she is the image”. The closeness of the female viewer’s relationship with the female image on the screen can only offer a narcissistic desire for the female viewing subject: “the female look demands a becoming” (Doane, 1982:78). For Jackie Stacey, the female gaze should constitute a wider range of desires and identifications that extend beyond erotic fetishisation of other women on screen that often colludes with the dominant patriarchal order (Stacey 1994:134). Identification between women whether across the screen or within Stacey suggests, works on different and multiple levels that involve fascination and aspiration among many de-eroticised articulations (ibid:170-3).
The multifarious, ambiguous, and sometimes contradictory nature of the female gaze will be explored in two Malaysian films, Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam (Shuhaimi 2004) and Chermin (Zarina 2007). Seeing as horror stands as one of the most popular and lucrative genres in the Malaysian film industry (Aquilia 2006:436), understanding the alternative pleasures derived from the female gaze can provide us with some insight on the enduring fascination with the supernatural and the uncanny. The two films chosen herein share significant similarities: both are made by female film-makers and combine local folk lore and superstitions as central themes of their narrative. Interestingly, both feature female supernatural figures as object and bearer of the gaze. Limited to feminist psychoanalytic framework on the gaze, my focus will be on central female characters and the issue of feminine desire and identification with the hope that my reading of Malaysian horror may have subversive qualities that challenge that dominance of the male gaze.
The supernatural female in Malay film
The horror film has enjoyed a long history in Malaysian cinema. During what was considered the ‘golden age’ of Malaysian film-making, two major film companies, Cathay Keris and Shaw Malay Films produced one horror film every month in the 1950′s, with indigenous supernatural figures such as the pontianak and polong as regular characters of the genre (Aquilia 2006:436). However, a culture of heavy-handed censorship and self-censoring that pervaded the Malaysian film industry from the late 1960′s onwards saw a decline in the number of horror films. A few films containing elements forbidden by the state were nevertheless made past the censors (often straight to video by the 1990′s) in spite of the implementation of various censorship policies banning violence, horror, sex, and counter-culture in all media (Khoo 2006:108-112).
Among the stock characters in Malaysian filmic horror that have made the most reappearances is the pontianak, a ghostly vampire-like banshee (Aquilia 2006:436). She has appeared in Pontianak (Rao 1956), Dendam Pontianak (Rao 1957), Sumpah Pontianak (Rao 1957), Anak Pontianak (Estella 1958), Pontianak Kembali (Estella 1963), Pontianak Gua Musang (Rao 1964), Pusaka Pontianak (Estella 1964) and much later in Pontianak Menjerit (Yusof 2005). According to local folklore, the pontianak is believed to be a ghost of a woman who had died at childbirth, or a vengeful spirit murdered by a lover. Her spectre can be seen at night in quiet graveyards or sitting on tree branches, sometimes accompanied by a baby in her arms. The pontianak usually appears as a beautiful young woman in a long dress or tunic who can transform at will into a hag with claw-like fingernails. Her very long hair that sometimes falls down to her ankles conceals a hole in the back of her neck through which she sucks the blood of children (Skeat and Blagden 1965:325-6).
Needless to say, the pontianak has long captured the Malaysian popular imagination, standing in as a metaphor for the violence against women and the violence of being women. Women’s bodies often become the site of anxieties related to modernity and tradition, and also the focus of politico-religious and cultural control of those anxieties in Malaysia. Caught between “competing state and Islamic resurgent discourses”, women are used as “symbols of motherhood, Malay vulnerability, and as boundary markers in their visions of Malaysian modernity” (Ong 1995:163). Such discursive angst about female cultural transgressions inevitably found expression in Malaysian cultural and artistic discourse (Khoo 2006:126), and maintained in local legends and superstitions, especially in reference to the pontianak (Tucker :155).
The figure of the pontianak will be described here as the ‘monstrous feminine’, an object of both desire and repulsion. Informed by psychoanalytic approaches, Barbara Creed describes the different representations of the monstrous feminine within numerous horror genres as an expression of male unease with women’s sexuality and their reproductive capacities. The monstrous feminine can be understood as more than simply a female version of a masculine monster, because the “reasons why she terrifies her audience are quite different from the reasons why the male monster horrifies his audience” (Creed 1993:3). Furthermore, as female characters are generally represented as sexual stereotypes such as the virgin mother-like figure or the whore in film, one can find an overt sexualisation of female monstrosity that is less common in male monsters (ibid:4). Thus, the fascination with and rejection of the monstrous feminine are likely to raise gender-specific meaning.
Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam: Desires for revenge
The monstrous feminine in Shuhaimi Baba’s Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam (2004) is personified by Meriam who led a successful life as a beautiful court dancer before being brutally murdered while heavily pregnant by a spurned admirer, Marsani, and his henchmen. The men then plunder her home taking with them Meriam’s valuable dance accessories and kelong, a Javanese gamelan gong. In her bid for revenge, Meriam returns as a pontianak to terrorise her murderers, and continues to do for decades following her tragic death. The narrative journeys across time to the site of Meriam’s death in the present day, now a construction site for a new housing development directed by Marsani’s building company. Among the members of the construction company is Maria, who not only looks identical to Meriam, but is also a traditional dancer like her ghostly double. Maria inadvertently revives the spirit of Meriam while dancing, who then possesses Maria’s body to complete her revenge on Marsani. Under Meriam’s ghostly influence, Maria creates a disturbance in the construction site when she begins to seduce Marsani’s visiting grandson, Norman, and threatens to murder his wife, Anna. All order is restored, however, when Marsani surrenders Meriam’s belongings to protect himself and his family.
While the monstrous feminine is generally depicted as the ghoulish female villain in film (Creed 1993:4), Meriam returns as the terrifying pontianak seeking revenge on the real villains, Marsani, his male friends, and their family members. Meriam the pontianak is the protagonist, propelling the narrative by a desire for her stolen possessions and justice. The narrativisation of her desires place her as the central figure for the spectator’s identification: through Meriam’s desire, we seek and find fulfilment in attaining justice. But because Meriam is desired by men and admired by women during her lifetime for her beauty and talent as a professional dancer, she confirms Mary Ann Doane’s template of the female gaze of the overlap between the active look and absorption into the cinematic frame as object of the gaze. However, Meriam’s role as object for viewing pleasure is problematised as she is also a figure to be feared. In relation to most male characters, Maria/Meriam (both played by Maya Karin) is represented as equally sexually seductive and dangerous – the classic femme fatale.
The elements of horror in Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam are executed mostly through Meriam’s extreme physical transformations from conventionally beautiful in human-form to corpse-like pallor with bloodshot eyes as the other-worldly pontianak, and her unnerving ability to perform humanly impossible feats. At different points in the film, Meriam’s transformation is enhanced further by the use of the camera close-up to demonstrate the extent of the pontianak’s physiognomy, filling the cinematic frame with her freakish red eyes in an invitation to the viewer to engage in an extreme psychic intimacy and proximity. She looks back. Confronting the pontianak forces the viewer to deal with its abject nature and to instinctively reject it. Paradoxically, the abject “fascinates desire” but such feelings must be repressed if self-preservation is to be protected (Creed 1993:37). The monstrous feminine is a seductive but intimidating figure, and as I will discuss in further detail below, these contradicting articulations found within the psyche reveal more about the internal conflict within the self than anxieties about what is considered “other”.
Chermin: Pleasure of identification
Zarina Abdullah’s debut film Chermin (2007) tells the story of Nasrin (played by Natasha Hudson) whose life is turned upside down by an automobile accident that leaves her facially scarred. While recovering at home, she unwittingly revives the disturbed spirit that resides in an old dressing table mirror. Soon, Nasrin forms a bond with the spirit, Mastura (played by Deanna Yusoff), talking to the mirror as she admires her own reflection that reveals an accelerated recovery of her facial complexion. The spirit who haunts the mirror is later revealed to be Nasrin’s old female relative who practised black magic to win her polygamous husband’s heart. Seeing that her beauty and magic spells show no effect on her husband, Mastura murders his second wife and then kills herself, and dies in front of the eponymous mirror.
Meanwhile, Nasrin becomes increasingly reclusive after she leaves her fiance, and is seen by her mother to be spending most of her time talking to the mirror. When mysterious deaths begin to occur in Nasrin’s village, suspicions are raised against Nasrin when villagers begin to speculate that her facial disfigurement is connected to her unstable psychological state. Nasrin’s mother soon learns that her daughter’s strange behaviour is instigated by Mastura’s evil spirit, and comes to the conclusion that that Nasrin is possessed. She calls for the village holy man to perform an exorcism on Nasrin’s body in what is a bloody, visually visceral dénouement before restoring the narrative order.
Challenging the primacy of the male gaze in conventional cinematic narrative, Nasrin and her mother propel the plot, from their discovery of the haunted mirror and its foreboding powers to their collaboration with secondary characters in containing those powers. Nasrin’s mother becomes the first to see the other-worldly qualities of the mirror before Nasrin, who is consumed by spirit’s power that transforms her, psychologically and physically. As one whose purpose is to restore order in a household without the presence of a man or father until the end of the film, Nasrin’s mother assumes the main role of guardian, not just of Nasrin’s wellbeing but also of the forces between good against evil. Moreover, as one of the central female characters, Nasrin’s mother is not constructed (scripted) as an object of sexual desire, while Nasrin’s transformation from disfigured to an attractive woman is complicated by the spirit possession that turns her into an undesirable member of society. Thus, I would argue that we can intimately identify with the female protagonists who will restore order, but such forms of intimacy are not articulations of ‘erotic object choice’.
The use of the mirror in Chermin is a helpful prop in narrativising the desiring, narcissistic gaze of the female protagonist, Nasrin, in her hopes of a speedy return of her unblemished complexion. By looking at herself in the mirror, we see her looking at herself as the object of the gaze. Nasrin is absorbed by in her own reflection or her Lacanian misrecognition of the self, but also acknowledges her femininity as lack. As the bearer of the look, albeit at herself, Nasrin is the subject and the image. Here, Nasrin’s desire to ‘have’ idealised femininity and identification to ‘be’ the image are collapsed into one as narcissism. But Nasrin disrupts her pleasure of identification by surviving the spirit possession initiated by her desire for an idealised femininity, breaking the mirror into pieces and by effect defeating Mastura, the monstrous feminine. Hence, Chermin serves a critique of female vanity, and imposes a visual assault on the female viewer’s senses in the form of the monstrous feminine as punishment for her narcissistic pleasures.
Feminine pain and pleasures of the look
As mentioned earlier, films inspired by local folk tales of female ghosts and other spirits are simply more than popular entertainment amongst Malaysian audience on a superficial level, but suggest widespread fascination with the the uncanny, and to some extent, thinly conceal societal perceptions concerning ‘bad’ female sexuality (Tucker 2000:154). The uncanny, weird, disgusting, and therefore rejected all belong to the realm of the abject in psychoanalysis. In Powers of Horror (1982), Julia Kristeva identifies the female body as the abject because of its capacity to give birth and as the place of undifferentiated identity. As the pre-symbolic site, the reproductive female body signifies the threat of the loss of meaning and identity in the Real, the primordial abyss, but also the blissful unity with the maternal body. In spite of these tensions, the abject nevertheless represents all that “disturbs identity, system, order” (Kristeva 1982:4). In sum, abjection is the horror of physical engulfment, of not recognising the boundaries between self and other, hence its repression from the phallogocentric symbolic order (ibid:9-10).
Kristeva’s notion of the abject and the boundaries that separate the known and ease (self) from the unknown and distress (other) can be seen as implicated within the representations of the monstrous feminine. Situated between the fluid boundaries that divides beauty/horror, victim/victimiser, and alive/dead (active/passive), the monstrous feminine is unsettling because her presence invites both desire and distress. The putative ‘happy’ ending in horror films is simply an expression of relief from establishing a stability of self following a turbulent test of psychodynamic ambiguities (Creed 1993:14).
The monstrous feminine in Chermin and Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam destabilises her construction as an object for the male gaze, by posing sometimes simultaneously as the abject and as well as the fetishised object of desire; Meriam and Mastura were beautiful when alive (both Maya Karin and Deanna Yusoff were formerly fashion models) and terrifying after death. The central ‘good’ female characters, Maria and Nasrin upset their place as straightforward objects of the male gaze by being closely associated on a psychic level with Meriam and Mastura respectively through spirit possession. As both bearers of the gaze and as ‘image’, Maria and Nasrin display qualities of the monstrous feminine when they are possessed, legitimising them to a behaviour considered contrary to ‘proper’ femininity such licentiousness and hysteria (Creed 1993:31).
To further illustrate the gendered nature of monstrosity depicted in the two film is the association with female reproduction, both literal and symbolic, as a force of terror and paradoxically, death. Pregnancy and childbirth mark the turning of events towards the worst for the central female characters: Meriam is murdered while pregnant, while Mastura murders her female rival after the latter had given birth leaving her in a huge pool of blood as Mastura commits suicide. When Mastura’s spirit is provoked by a bomoh’s (witch doctor) spells, a rush of blood is released from the bottom half of Nasrin’s clothing while she is sleeping, similar to stains that occur during childbirth and menstruation. What Meriam, Mastura and Nasrin embody and are associated with at different points of the film is the abject (female womb, the birth canal, and blood) that corresponds to religious, traditional and superstitious beliefs of the female body as polluting and shameful (Creed 1993:10).
The feminine desire of the abject female subject, identification with the abject feminine and indeed desires between ‘problematic’ women on screen, however, have yet to be fully understood in feminist film theory. Other than the work of Barbara Creed on the monstrous feminine in horror film, analysis of female gaze and spectatorship in horror have been largely ignored by feminist theorists because the Freudian and Lacanian models of the female as castrating and lack respectively have proven to be theoretical dead-ends to emancipatory readings (Creed 1993:152). But the place of the abject body as spectacle has been noted by Linda Williams in the way the bodies of women in horror and fantasy have “functioned traditionally as the primary embodiments of pleasure, fear and pain” and depicted as a spectacle of a body gripped by rapturous sensation or emotion (Williams 1995:4).
As mentioned earlier, the use of psychoanalysis as an explanatory model for the female gaze is beset by feminist film theory’s own dependence on Lacanian and Freudian framework of subjectivity and the dichotomies that privilege masculine activity over feminine passivity. It is probable that these limitations attribute to the understanding of the female gaze as ambiguous, contradictory, and even submissive. Thus, it is worth to bear in mind the social and historical processes that converge with the ‘psychic reality’ in subject formation, illuminating the ways we understand the “socialised urge towards identifying” with the image (Kaplan 1989:198). The absence of the socially and historically-situated spectator – class, race, and sexuality-wise – undermines the place contextualisation of the female gaze has in exploring the means in which the phallogocentric narrative cinema is maintained and perpetuated, and as a result can obscure the different ways of disrupting it.
My feminist psychoanalytic reading of the female gaze in Chermin and Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam does not aim to serve as the definitive “progressive” reading of the text, but rather to suggest that the text be read “against the grain” to reclaim certain pleasures for the female viewer and challenge the pervasiveness of the male gaze. Seeing as popular cinema often subordinates women as under-developed characters and places a premium on female beauty and youth, there can be very little room for an emancipatory way of looking by women and indeed deriving pleasure that is emancipatory rather than in terms of passivity (taking pleasure in being desired) or masochism (desire to submit to masculine will). If all fails, one can placing herself outside the dominant structures of looking that objectifies women and develop an oppositional gaze; a gaze that is critical of identifying with both the image and the diagetic onlooker. The oppositional gaze gains pleasure not from participating in the phallogocentric symbolic order of mainstream cinema, but from resistance (hooks 1992:122-3).
The female gaze can offer insight into the range of possible cinematic pleasures alternative to patriarchal models of spectatorship and potentially liberatory readings of popular film-making. A dependence on purely psychoanalytic models of the gaze has demonstrated to be immobilising for many feminist film theorists (Stacey 1994:130), and as popular cinema continues to capture the female imagination, a call for diversity in theoretical frameworks of the gaze is long overdue. Despite its popularity amongst Malaysian audiences, the horror genre has yet to been rigorously studied, far less from psychoanalytic and feminist theoretical dimensions. Locating pleasures in identification and desires in specifically Malaysian contexts can provide an explanatory model for understanding horror’s enduring popularity and give depth to the received meanings of the image. The figure of the monstrous feminine in Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam and Chermin on the other hand is a useful model in analysing the place of sexual differences in the psyche and the abject female body. And while this essay does not investigate the nature of the female gaze that is embedded in a specifically Malaysian context, the questions raised here concerning the female viewer’s fascination and identification with the image that is historically and socially-rooted will hopefully inspire future investigations and further insights.