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Cinema & Sexuality: On the Death of the Desiring Woman

November 10, 2009 | By

Why is it that the woman (female lead) in cinema is usually represented as a shadow of the man’s desire – existing only in response to the man’s desires?

An incident occurred one day.
A demoness, Shurpanakha, was wandering about in that area in search of food. She scented some human beings staying there and came to Rama’s hermitage and peeped in. She was instantly struck by the graceful personalities of Rama and Lakshmana and wished to marry one of them. She assumed the appearance of a beautiful damsel and asked Rama to marry her. Rama said: “I am married and my wife is with me here. I cannot bring in another wife. My younger brother Lakshmana is alone and he is also good-looking. Go to him.” Shurpanakha then approached Lakshmana and asked him to marry her. He said: “I am Rama’s devout attendant. If you marry me, you will also become a servant and have to sub serve Sita. Go back and ask Rama.” It was a sport between the brothers (my italics). She was made to go from one to the other several times and became fed up. She angrily said: “it is because Rama’s wife is here that things are happening this way. I am going to finish her off.” So saying, she came to pounce upon Sita. Rama told Lakshmana: “No point in being too light-hearted with evil people. Punish her and drive her away (my emphasis).” Thereupon, Lakshmana went and cut off her ears and nose and drove her away.[1]


5-a (Streetcar named Desire)

Ramayana’s Shurpanakha, Flaubert’s Madam Bovary, Tolstoy’s Anna Karennina, Tennesse Williams’ (and Elia Kazan’s) Blanche DuBois and Robert Rossen’s Lilith have met with a similar fate in art. The epics have portrayed her as a demon, the novels have shown her to be creature of curious desires and films have sent her straight to the mental asylum. Art in its various forms has usually represented the desiring woman in shades of black. Even if the complexity and the depth of her being and character have been shown, often it is portrayed with either a punitive or a tragic end. She has been mutilated, rejected, feared and thrown mercilessly into an asylum and ostracized for expressing her sexual desires.

Liebman writes in her essay[2] about how Hollywood cinema (mis)appropriates Freud’s Studies in Hysteria in its representation of feminine madness. In what Freud called hysteria and Lacan renamed it as a clinical structure; the hysteric is the perpetually dissatisfied lover. According to this definition, he or she needs to be in the state of sustenance of desire to exist. Generalizing it on lines of gender, the female lives out the structure of the hysteric whereas the male usually lives in showing male madness, the cause is curiosity, guilt or alcoholism but feminine madness, more often than not, is a result of her own sexuality. The domain of feminine madness is grounded in her relationship to sex, sexuality and desire. This is apparent in the way women are punished in the films where they dare to express their sexual desire. They are usually punished in the narrative structure with insanity for expressing themselves – “madness is the punishment for entering the male territory of expressive desire.”

5-b(Dil to Pagal Hai)

Leibman goes on to discuss three films in her essay and the three main female protagonists who play out Hollywood’s representation of Freud’s female hysteric. This study includes the characters of Blanche DuBois in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Deanie in Splendour in the Grass (1961) and Lilith in Robert Rossen’s eponymous film Lilith (1963). All three women of desire, who suffer through the film for their expression of desire are duly punished in the Hollywood diegetic space with insanity in the end.

According to Leibman, the fate assigned to these characters is worse than that which meets the murdered heroines of the film noir. She argues that the film noir space and the heroine are seen as a fantasy space by the audience, but these films, by their allusion to psychoanalysis and psychiatry somewhere legitimize the punitive treatment of these women of desire in a realist form of filmmaking. The supposed legitimacy afforded by Freudian psychoanalysis (the women as hysterics and in need of institutionalization) gives the audience the impression that the inevitable consequence of expression of this “deviant” and criminal desire is the punishment at the hands of the patriarchal phallus. Leibman points out in this, the danger of the effect it could have on real women who experience real sexual desire but need to curb it for the approval of patriarchy. Life and art are intertwined and one perpetually informs and affects the other. If the reel woman is punished for the crime of expression of sexual desire, will the real woman have the wherewithal to express her desire?

Why is it that the woman (female lead) in cinema is usually represented as a shadow of the man’s desire – existing only in response to the man’s desires? Be it a classical Hollywood narrative like Casablanca or a typical and quintessential Yash Raj heroine like in Chandni or Dil To Pagal Hai where the chiffon clad women are dressed to induce the fantasy of the woman which inherently plays into the scopophilic gaze (Mulvey, 1970) of the Other to create the fantasy of the woman while the real, desiring woman pines away. Compare the characters of Karishma Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit and their respective treatment of desire. Kapoor expresses her desire and is thwarted whereas Dixit (Maya in the film – the ultimate fantasy woman) is desired by the male protagonist.

Cinema & Sexuality: On the Death of the Desiring Woman

Fire by Deepa Mehta is also brave in its portrayal of the desiring women.

And what happens to the good woman who does desire? She is co-opted in the heteronormative monogamy of marriage (see Karishma Kapoor’s character again with that famous subversive kiss in Raja Hindustani). She has to be bound within the parameters of heterosexual monogamy to get the approval of the censor board or the self censorship of the directors and audience themselves. The character of the vamp (Nadeera, Helen, Bindu) in earlier Indian cinema still left some space for the desiring woman but in later films, the trajectory of Hindi mainstream cinema has been such that this much space for fantasy has been replaced by faux queerness?[3]

The prostitute is rarely seen as a desiring woman – a woman who wants and enjoys sex. Look at the way the commercial sex worker has been either romanticized (Umraao Jaan) or victimized or is shown to choose a tragic end for herself (Pakeezah) or is rejected by the male protagonist for being so overtly desirous (Devdas) as opposed to the original love interest who is coy and unattainable.. Is mainstream cinema constantly setting binaries of the desiring woman and the desirable woman?

This idea of the woman (as object of the scopophilic gaze and sexuality instead of its subject) is a much debated ground in Psychoanalysis. In Zizek’s reading of Otto Weininger’s sexist writing on women – Sex and Character[4], he makes an unlikely comparison between Weininger and Jaques Lacan. Both, according to Zizek arrive at the concept that the “woman doesn’t exist” (Lacan’s “La Femme n’existe pas”) although they apply it for different purposes. Weininger’s analysis of the loss of female subjectivity comes in a sense to support the existing patriarchal ideology, whereas Lacan’s further analysis of the concept of jouissance is what turns around Weininger’s sexist reading on its head. The idea of excess (Jouissance), according to Lacan, saves the woman from the primal guilt of sexual desire that men face and blame on women – at the same that women also face the guilt imposed from enculturation in a patriarchal society. This guilt stemming from patriarchal enculturation of the symbolic world is what makes women suppress her desires for the most time and is also responsible also for the punishment of those women who dare to step out of this “Lakshman-rekha” of the patriarchal Other.

Cinema & Sexuality: On the Death of the Desiring Woman

The only variance that comes to mind, personally, is the documentary The Tales of the Night Fairies by Shohini Ghosh, where the sex workers, far from being judged morally or shown as victims of societal anomaly, are shown as perfectly expressive subjects of desire. In one scene, where Ghosh is following one particular sex worker, she says, “there are only two enjoyable things in this world – food and sex! I love both”.

Fire by Deepa Mehta is also brave in its portrayal of the desiring women. Films where the desire is expressed (a queer reading could be done) are also films like Sex and Lucia (where the desiring woman is shown to have agency of the kind that most of the other characters don’t), Anatomy of Hell (which is self reflexive in its gaze and woman beckons a gay man and pays him to “look” at her. The scopophilic gaze is completely subverted as the director brings out the extreme fear of the man – his deepest hatred and mistrust of the “strangeness” of this soft, vulnerable flesh that inspires so much disgust.) In the Indian scenario, the expression of desire still seems to be a privilege that the male protagonist has. Hollywood too can be charged with the case of the desiring woman missing from its hall of heroines.

Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is one rare example of portrayal of the feminine desire but of course that can easily be counted as an exception rather that the rule. Bitter Moon by Roman Polanski – an “alchemy of desire” ends violently but before that, interestingly, the desire of the desiring woman finally finds expression in the lesbian dance sequence followed by the two women having sex. The film ends with the murder of the desiring woman. Although the reason why the film is yet interesting is that there is a resolution of the desire – the woman thwarted by the male finds a sexual partner in that very man’s wife! The expression and resolution of desire is what makes this film stand apart in spite of another tragic end.

The Spanish auteur director Pedro Almodovar’s films also have an interesting and alternative representation of all kinds of sexuality – a film like All About My Mother is an example which illustrates the complex web of desire which can be executed in the cinematic medium. It is also interesting to note that this film where all kinds of sexual and other desires are mixed together in a heady cocktail, Tennesse Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire plays a central part in the diegetic space of the film. The lead actresses of the film – those who play the roles of Blanche and Stella respectively are lesbian partners.

SO, is there a possibility of an alternate cinema (within the mainstream) which talks about the feminine desire without a punitive end? Will such cinema have to be produced by women directors? Where is the future of the films of desire? Homosexuality, bisexuality, transvestitism may have come out of the closet, but the question is: when will the desiring woman come out? Or will she forever remain confined-doomed to die like a “madwoman in the attic”[5]?


  1. The passage is from a translation of the Indian epic Ramayana. The episode speaks of the meeting of Shurpanakha with the brothers residing in the forest during their exile – Rama and Lakshman along with Sita.
  1. ‘Sexual Misdemeanor/Psychoanalytic Felony’ by Nina C.Leibman in Cinema Journal 26, No. 2, Winter-1987.
  1. ‘False Appearances and Mistaken Identities: The Phobic and the Erotic in Bombay Cinema’s Queer Vision’ by Shohini Ghosh in The Phobic and the Erotic. Ed. by Brinda Bose and Shubhabata Bhattacharya.
  1. Otto Weininger, or ‘Woman doesn’t exist’ in The Zizek Reader. Ed. by Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Wright. Blackwell Publishers, 1999.
  1. Madwoman in the Attic is a reference to the book by the same name – a seminal Feminist work which analyses literature, woman and madness. It is authored by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. The title is also a reference to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre where Rochester’s “mad” wife is imprisoned in the attic.

(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)

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Pooja Das Sarkar had completed her Masters from TISS in Media and Cultural Studies. Cinema has always fascinated her and her favourites include Woody Allen when it comes to comic genius and Kieslowski when it comes to representing the human condition in sheer poetry.
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