“Unbecoming Sexual Desires” by Liz Constable
Constable, Liz. “Unbecoming Sexual Desires for Women Becoming Sexual Subjects: Simone de Beauvoir (1949) and Catherine Breillat (199).” MLN. 119:4 (2004): 672-695. JSTOR. Web. 8 Sept. 2010.
About: In Constable’s article she proposes that “Breillat is using the filmic medium to refine Simone de Beauvoir’s understanding of the constitutive link between the words and images representing women’s sexuality, culturally imposed shame, and young women’s emerging experience of sexual subjectivity and erotic intimacy” (676). Constable focuses primarily on Breillat’s film, Romance.
”In interviews, Breillat criticizes France and French society itself for their failures to generate what Tolman calls a discourse of desire for young women, and she situates her films’ thematic focus here: observing and representing how this absence affects young women’s self-construction as sexual subjects and how it shapes their explorations of the different spaces and forms of intimacy” (Constable, 675).
—This relates to my discussion of language in Romance – Marie’s inability to construct a sense of self due to the absence of a “discourse of desire.”
“…her work narrates the tactical use of the body to reunite the body with alienated subjectivity” (Constable, 675).
—I like this use of the word “tactical,” as there it implies agency and the confrontation of something, in this case the social coding the represses women. It also echoes Delleuze’s argument for belief in the body as the only cure to the postmodern, schizophrenic condition.
Constable connects Breillat’s discussion of shame and female sexuality to Simone de Beauvoir: “…Beauvoir’s philosophical and sociological discussions of shame’s effects on young women and her insistence that confidence is in oneself depends primarily on confidence in one’s body” (676)
—Overcoming shame through confidence in and a connection to the REAL body.
“As both Beauvoir and Breillat emphasize, self-conscious shame emerges in young women as a result of a repeated failure to acknowledge the real bodies they inhabit, through an absence of response to their feelings as emerging sexual subjects” (Constable, 677).
—Shame as a failure of recognition is also emphasized in Liza Johnson’s article.
“…Breillat argues cinema could, and should, be formative for young women, and that its images should play a generative role for them as sexual subjects” (Constable, 678).
—Cinema as capable of providing a new, alternative image of the sexual self.
“Breillat’s films, like Beauvoir’s writings, have often stirred indignant, angry responses from viewers and critics on the ground that both portray what critics most frequently designate as emotionally and sexually masochistic female subjects” (Constable, 679).
—Comments on critical opposition.
“…Breillat points us to the indispensable primacy and temporal priority of the other in the development of female sexual subjectivity” (Constable, 679).
—The female sexual identity as formed only in relation to the “other”/male.
“What we call sexual subjectivity depends upon another’s recognition of, and response to, one’s own need to have one’s own experience identified and known as sexual” (Constable, 680).
—Constable points to Paul’s failure to recognize Marie’s sexual needs as detrimental to her sense of self.
“The internal paradox here, Breillat’s film suggests, is defined by the understanding that non-acknowledgement and non-recognition, together with their embedded shaming disavowals (shaming by omission and exclusion), nevertheless impinge on women’s self-construction as sexual subjects” (Constable, 681).
—Paradoxical because it is the absence of something that inflicts harm and stunts the development of self.
Constable uses the term “psychic impingement” to describe the “overbearing social codes tantamount to social violation, prior to any act of literal violation” (681).
—I like this term, “psychic impingement” and the idea that it parallels and precedes physical, sexual violation.
Constable refers to Lauren Brelant’s concept of “institutions of intimacy” and writes, “the societal inducements that promote ‘institutions of intimacy’ also edge into apparent meaninglessness the more unpredictable forms and spaces of attachment through which intimacy suggest itself, obscuring their potentialities through making people consider the recognizable ‘institutions of intimacy’ as the only meaningful ones” (682).
—Scripting of sexual norms puts limitations on an individual’s experience of erotic intimacy.
“Gilles Deleuze sees vicarious experiences of another’s shame as powerful catalysts that provoke people into political philosophical thought” (Constable, 683).
—The power of representation in cinema to transform belief and provoke thought/action.
“Humiliation, degradation, and pain precede in more significant ways than they can be said to define the sexual behaviors viewers see on screen…surrender, as distinct from submission…offers the transformative experience allowing humiliated subjects to un-do frozen psychic options, ideals, and ideas about their needs, to unlock the frozen repetitions of the same psychic patterns and affective responses that would otherwise merely reenact, rather than transform, the scenarios of the original humiliation” (Constable, 685).
—Marie’s humiliation freezes her into a fixed pattern, which she can only undo through sexual surrender to Robert.
“…experiencing shame or humiliation entails taking a self-critical look at oneself from within a dynamic of looks. At least three looks are engaged: that of the viewer, the self as viewed, and the actual or imagined look of the viewer through whose eyes the self undertakes this critical self-interrogation” (Constable, 686).
—I like the way Constable has laid out this triad of looks.
“Potential catalyst of interior dialogues, shame can construct a subject-in-relation over a lifetime, a subject-in-relation whose substance is formed as the sum of cumulative choices, decisions, and acts through a transitive process of becoming…” (Constable, 686).
—“Subject-in-relation” is a concept also discussed by Ann Radaway in “The Ideal Romance” where women can only construct a concept of self through relation to a male partner.
“…humiliation can become the catalyst for legitimate rage…” (Constable, 687).
—Marie not only finds herself through sexual surrender (s/m with Robert), but vents her anger at Paul for his failure to recognize and react positively to her needs.
“…shame-as-process…freezes the transitivity of relational subjectivity, and reduces subjects to a paralyzing mortification of self-estrangement: self-as-stasis. When power structures operate through more systematic use of shaming mechanisms, the feedback loop deforms, rather than informs, the subject, and fuels an internalized self-doubt whose impacts are psychically deadening for the subject” (Constable 687).
—I like Constable’s distinction between the two types of “selves” and her explanation of the feedback loop.
“…Breillat’s representation resides in the way she shows the frequently overlooked dimension of agency that depends, for its coming into being on the reception of emotions by others, not just for their expression” (Constable, 688).
—In other words, up-take of emotion by others is also necessary, not just expression of emotions.
“[Paul’s] masculinity…depends upon a paradoxical seduction of others, exercises in order to better repel them, and is embodied, ironically, in the vestimentary coding of the feminized matador. What better way to use the codes of cinematic mise-en-scene to point to the internalized contradictions of one particular enactment of masculinity? (Constable, 690).
—This is an excellent observation. In most of Breillat’s films, an attractive, “pretty boy” character, obsessed with proving his masculinity is also overly-conscious of his ability to attract women—he both attracts and then repels. He uses the trappings of clothing, dance to lure women. He is, in a sense, a “tease” and his mask can be paralleled to the made-up face of a beautiful woman.
“Within this framework, relationality and intimacy resemble nothing more than bouts of stop-and-start power struggle to prevent oneself from feeling dependent while enthralling the other. Emotional dependency amounts to mortifying and humiliating defeat, while enthralling the other equals ‘honorable’ victory” (690).
—This kind of power struggle exists in nearly all of Breillat’s films and reveals the ways in which ‘institutionalized intimacy’ as it is scripted by dominant ideology traps couples in a battle, which cannot end in victory, but merely co-dependency or death (real or metaphorical).
Constable makes a distinction between “an undeniably masochistic submission to reified (or frozen) ideas of one’s desire (intolerable humiliations), and, on the other, a surrender through which a subject’s needs are reconstructed as relational artifacts as a result of being “read” or “acted on” in a certain way (transformative surrenders)” (Constable, 691).
—Surrender allows the individual to experience scripted intimacy as a construction and to reconstruct new “relational artifacts” that will free her from her psychic paralysis.
“[Emmanuel Ghent’s] perspectives are quite radical in their implications, because he suggests that for certain (previously humiliated) subjects, the controlled surrender, or dissolution of self-other boundaries, is at times the wished for experience that allows such subjects to exhume parts of the psyche that have been buried through the excessive compliance they enact on a daily basis” (Constable, 692).
—I love Constable’s concept of exuming the psyche, which has been buried through habitual compliance. It shows the great hurdle women potentially have to overcome in order to reverse the effects of a lifetime of conformity, whether conscious or not.