- 1 I would like to gratefully acknowledge the support from the Ministerio de Economía y Competitivida (...)
- 2 Jean Stubbs, Cuba: A view from Inside. Short Films by/about Cuban Women. New York: The Center for (...)
1The Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industry (ICAIC) was founded in 1959 only eighty three days after the victory of the Cuban Revolution, with the aim to create a national cinematography and to promote a socialist ideology1. Throughout post-revolutionary Cuban film, themes dealing with a whole range of social issues emerged, hoping that the ideology behind the images would help to shape a revolutionary society with socialist values. Arguably one of the most important revolutionary social changes to have emerged alongside the Revolution was that affecting Cuban women, hence the importance of women´s representation in film during the fifty years of Revolution. During these years the female image has been inscribed into the process of the Revolution and the changes it has brought about in several films, such as Lucía (dir. Humberto Solás, 1968),De cierta manera (dir. Sara Gómez, 1974/1979), Retrato de Teresa (dir. Pastor Vega, 1979), Hasta Cierto Punto (dir. Gutiérrez Alea, 1983), Plaff (dir. Juan Carlos Tabío, 1988) ; Madagascar (dir. Fernando Pérez, 1994) ), Pon tu pensamiento en mí(dir. Arturo Soto, 1995), Manuela(dir. Humberto Solás, 1996), among others. In these narratives women’s issues are implicitly and explicitly embodied. As Jean Stubbs has pointed out : “It is probably safe to say that hardly a single film has not addressed in some way or another changing gender relations within the Revolution”.2
2Fidel Castro stated in his speech in Santa Clara on 6 December, 1966 : “This revolution has really been two revolutions for women. It has meant a double liberation : as part of the exploited sector of the country and second, as women who were discriminated against not only as workers, but also as women”.1 Paradoxically, the portrayal of the sexes in many post-revolutionary Cuban films was at odds with the Revolution’s attempt to revise the female (and hence, the male) role in Cuban society. The old gender stereotypes were not only very much alive, but also advocated by in many of these films ; nonetheless, it is evident that in the Cuban films made around the Millennium, it can be witnessed a “de-gendering” of old stylistic paradigms mainly associated with female gender and an attempt to redefine gender. This act demonstrates the need to question traditional authority, destabilizing conventional filmic, social and political assumptions simultaneously.
- 3 Solás wanted the new generation of Cuban filmmakers—both men and women—to address the existing pre (...)
- 4 Adriana was directed by Mayra Segura, Isabel by Hector Veitía, Julia by Mayra Vilasís, Zoë by Mario (...)
3This study will focus on two eloquently representative short films—Zoë (dir. Mario Crespo) and Adriana (dir. Mayra Segura) from the collective film Mujer transparente (1990), a five-part feature film made by both female and male filmmakers and under the general direction of Humberto Solás, one of the most established filmmakers of revolutionary Cuba.3 I have selected these two episodes directed by a male and a female filmmaker respectively in order to demonstrate that a substantial number of films made by male directors, like those by female filmmakers, have direct and crucial implications for feminism.4 Furthermore, both shortsbreak free from the structures of classical cinema, which rely on patriarchy, binary opposition between genders and the predominance of the male gaze, to present women as authentic identities and not stereotyped images.
4Solás admits that “in order to be consistent with the fact that we live in a revolutionary country… cinema must also be revolutionary” (Pick, 1996 : 56).
- 5 See Lakoff, Robin. Extract from Language and Women’s Place, in Cameron D. The Feminist Critique of (...)
- 6 Mentioned in Ljiljana Marković. “Beyond Binary Opposition: De-gendering and Redefining Gender” Fac (...)
5Both Zoë and Adriana—without losing the essential emphasis on difference—challenge the assumptions of power of earlier Cuban films. Rather than focusing on the dominant traditional dichotomy between the genders : male as a norm and woman as either deficient in relation to or different from the male norm (Lakoff and Tannen, 1975)5, both Mario Crespo and Mayra Segura critique the social relations between men and women, seeking to expand the filmic arena in areas where male filmmakers traditionally have undervalued or even excluded women as subjects, thus endorsing “cultural imperialism”.6
6The exploration of these short films helps to understand the complex nature of the representation of gender in Cuban film around the closure of the twentieth century and identify the areas where the genre is under pressure, needing to change. Film has traditionally been a masculine genre, with male characters assuming positions of authority and power deemed appropriate to the male gender. Such paradigms have become deeply entrenched in the collective psyche, often acting as distorting prisms through which cultural and film analyses have been made. The objective of this study is to move away from this paradigm, and to reposition Cuban cultural and film history around the twenty-first century in terms of a “gendered metaphor”, whereby cultural and film history is understood through the flow and “nomadic flight” of gender that has developed into new systems of thought and assemblages.
7The end of 1980s and early 1990s represent a turning point in Cuban cinema and a departing point for a “revolutionary” approach to gender in Cuban filmography. As Isabel Arredondo notes : “At the end of the 1980s, female representation in Cuban film shifted from history to stories, from the communal to the individual, from type characters representing a group of people to individuals” (Arredondo, 1997 : 25). Cuban pre-revolutionary cinema was characterized by an absence of female agency : representation of women was present from the beginning, “but not in the characterizations any self-respecting person could identify with” (Cowie, 1997 : 17). Overall, this study attempts to demonstrate the extent to which sexual politics is interwoven in any economic, political and socio-cultural formation throughout history, of which Cuba is an enlightening example. During the so called “transitional period” in Cuba (1989-1994)—the Fall of the Revolution with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the fall of the East socialist block, Cuba began to experience a shift in politics, which had a subsequent impact on cinema.
8The collective Mujer transparente was conceived and filmed in the late 1980s within the context of ICAIC’s initiative to create Talleres de Creación (Creative Workshops) encouraging new male and female filmmakers to direct short fictional films. These changes in post-Revolutionary Cuban politics of the late 80s led to a form of rapid modernization of Cuba, which subsequently had an impact on the psychosexual effects of social and economic change on men and women. This new psychosexual formation of gendered identities motivated a search for new trends in gender representation in film, leading to social tensions in films and a shift in emphasis from historical and cultural types of gender to the authentic individuals, as well as the more active participation of women in the creation of narrative image (as opposed to previous feature films where directors were mainly men). Thus, in contrast with the cinema of the past and despite the strong legacy of sexism to challenge and a long tradition of cinematic influence in Cuba, a departure from dominant cinematic structures can be observed, and, more importantly, an attempt to subvert the “male gaze”. Films vindicate the insertion of the personal story into history, the agency of female characters, the creation of new spaces and roles for men and women, the emergence of a new female and male psyche, providing a space for sociopolitical awareness. This elucidates the relation of human consciousness to historical and social process and change.
9Before embarking on the empirical part of this study, it may be helpful to define to what extent Mujer transparente can be considered a revolutionary film which degenders social relations between the sexes and redefines gender. It is evident that all the shorts in Mujer Transparente reveal “an attempt to create a process where women (and the feminine) can be speakers, agents as women”, in their relationship with men (Whitford, 1991 : 129). The collective develops both a critique of the structure of patriarchal thought as well as a strategic restructuring of it aimed at giving a possible space for a different discourse (Whitford, 1991 : 103). The two selected films propose a gender politics that will work on two fronts at once. One is that of “global” politics that seeks to address the problem of women’s universal oppression while the other is of “local” politics that addresses the specificity and complexity of each woman’s particular situation. The protagonists in both films, which have female titles like the rest of the episodes of Mujer transparente, are women. They are of different ages and from different social classes, creating a social panorama of the lives of contemporary Cuban women. There is an individual story in each of the films, although there is a sense of coherence running throughout.
10The film title “Mujer transparente” evokes connotations of invisible women, silenced, not seen, not heard, without an identity—a “sense of feminine self” (Chodorow, 1989 : 180). Conversely, the title could be perceived as portraying women who are now making their ideas heard, visible, and who are clear and transparent to the viewers. Furthermore, the term “mujer” [woman] in singular may refer to the main female protagonist of each story. It also suggests that the situation could apply to the generic term “woman” in society’. Hence the story is universalized. The term “transparente” has been translated as “transparent”, which is defined as “able to be seen through, clear, easily detected, understood, obvious, evident” (The Chambers Dictionary, 1993). Adopting this definition, the female protagonists in each short film can “be seen through”. They feel ‘invisible’ in some way, either to a member of their family, a friend, a colleague or to society in general. It is worth noting that female invisibility is always in the male gaze. The transparency of these women reveals that in the eyes of the male characters they are devoid of any traits of identity. However, it can be argued that Mujer transparente offers a particular area of “visible” feminine discourse which runs through the film, that of feminine introspection. The first step in this process is one of consciousness and awareness. Laura Mulvey sums this up appropriately : “no leap forward could be conceived without the first spring-board awareness of sexist exploitation and cultural oppression” (Mulvey, 1989 : 118). In other words, feminine introspection is crucial before the ensuing and underlying problem of inequality can be addressed and subsequently overcome.
11As the film credits roll across the screen we hear a fragment of a news report on the Cuban radio station “Radio Reloj” [Radio Time], on how to bring up children. This extra-diagetic message could be a direct call to the Cuban nation to re-evaluate the importance of education in the process of changing the mindset of future generations : in the upbringing of children. One needs to “sensitize” them (“sensibilizarlos”) and “educate” them (“educarlos”) in order to form them for life (“para la vida”) and for the Revolution (“para la Revolución”). Mujer Transparente begins with the visual image of the words of Katherine Anne Porter7 taken from the Family Code of 1978 : “¡Detente, detente, siempre puedes detenerte y elegir !” [Stop, stop, you can always stop and choose !].I believe these words to be extremely relevant to the theme of introspection and they also encapsulate the overall message of the film. The words seem to be directed at women in an attempt to encourage them to stop and reflect upon their lives and on their subordinate position in society.
- 8 According to Laura Mulvey, “Women are objects not subjects of the gaze, their bodies erotized and (...)
12Zoë was directed by Mario Crespo. In his film, Crespo depicts a young girl who goes against all the traditional social norms. She appears to be a promiscuous, rebellious and independent student who does not attend her classes in college and lives alone and isolated in a garage. The important variation in the two films is that in Zoë, the female character does not have an introspective voice. The film has a narrative structure with the voice-over absent. Instead, we have access to Zoë’s thoughts just once, via a tape recording played by a male mate, “El Acorazado” (Battleship). The content of the recording has no relevance to the scenes that we are witnessing. Furthermore, the episode is framed within a male gaze. It starts when El Acorazado first visits Zoë in her garage and ends when he leaves it at the end of his visit. The audience’s knowledge about Zoë is restricted to the diagesis of the narrative and through her interaction with her male visitor and co-protagonist. There is no female introspection in Zoë. In Laura Mulvey’s words, it could be argued that Zoë is an object not subject of the gaze, her body being erotized and fragmented.8 Zoë’s opening pose is sexualized, seductive and her arms are over her head in an open pose ; she has short hair and is wearing a man’s loose fitting but flesh revealing top, her image being highly sexualized. This attire contrasts with that of her male classmate. He is dressed in a tight-fitting t-shirt with rigid, vertical lines which might be a reference to the inflexible traditional values of patriarchy he embodies. Zoë has distinct undertones of the femme fatale or film noir in that she attempts to use her sexual attractiveness to manipulate and control her classmate, whom the Dean sends to visit her on account of her absence from college.
- 9 In Mulvey´s opinion, firstly the look of the camera that is inherently voyeuristic and is usually (...)
13As the narrative evolves, Zoë appropriates a masculine position by turning her male classmate into a sexual object. She tells him to take off his trousers after he sits on a paint-stained chair, then draws him naked and seduces him. While she is drawing him, Zoë laughs at his nakedness and makes demeaning comments about him as an eloquent expression of her control over him. In Zoe, the conventional dominant masculine gaze that perpetuates the eroticization of women—as Mulvey proposes—is challenged9. Feminist critic Ann Kaplan says that “the gaze is not necessarily male (literally) but to own and activate the gaze is to be in the masculine position” (Kaplan, 2000 : 34). Nonetheless, the film does not seek female empowerment through the apparent appropriation of masculine traits, it focuses on exploring the complexities of Zoe’s character as a woman through narrative techniques. The cassette recording of her own voice reveals her authentic and inner thoughts of solitude, marginalization and of “convertirse tan fría como una piedra” [turning cold like stone] and opposing to cultural demands. Zoë’s female gaze here is used to highlight the oppressive power of the male gaze, suggesting that true female empowerment is to be found within the self.
14Furthermore, El Acorazado asks Zoë questions, but she ignores them—a reversal of the cultural masculine and feminine roles. In Freudian terms, “perhaps […] asking questions is the only discourse available to women as a resistance to patriarchal domination” (Kaplan, 2000 : 131) Furthermore, she entitles her drawing “Looking for men” and not “‘Looking for a boyfriend” as her classmate suggests. This masculine attitude can also be revealed when she is asked by her male friend about how many men she has slept with and her answer is “hundreds, thousands”, using a masculine way of discourse or “locker room talk” to affirm the appropriation of her masculinized role. Her masculinization can be further exposed when she affords him the culturally feminized position as the receptor of undervaluing and undermining phrases such as : “I do not think about you, I did not vote for you”.
15Zoë’s portrayal oscillates between a complex combination of passive femininity and regressive masculinity. As Doane observes : “it is understandable that women would want to be men, for everyone wants to be elsewhere than in the feminine position” (Doane, 1999 : 138). Mulvey’s insight on why women recur to their sexually appealing image can be explained as follows :
In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is stylized accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness (Mulvey, 1989 : 19).
16The next morning, the daylight—the real world—enters the garage, Zoë’s world and El Acorazado jumps out of bed to get dressed to go back to college. This scene shows Zoë naked and her mate clothed, making her the spectacle in El Acorazado’s and the camera’s male gaze. As he leaves Zoë’s garage, he breaks the deal to make excuses for Zoë’s absence in college. Now the male character is in control, he closes the episode with an eloquent male dominance, leaving Zoë in a marginalized and vulnerable position. The scene seems to have reminiscences with the opening scene of the short ; using the same camera angle and framing as when he “penetrated” Zoë’s garage/world. It can be concluded that in Zoë, the spectator is forced to rely on the male figure to forward the film narrative. The idea of a man forwarding the narrative is related to the male gaze, where male agency takes control, as it has been the case in classical cinema, where “the male protagonist is free to command the stage, a stage of spatial illusion in which he articulates the look and creates the action” (Mulvey, 1989 : 63).
17In the end Zoë’s transgression of social norms leads to her own downfall as she fails college and is left secluded and misunderstood in the marginalizing location of her garage. Mulvey identifies the “concerns of film noir” with the male unconscious’s attempt to escape castration anxiety by “investigating” and “demystifying” the woman, “counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment or saving of the guilty object” (Mulvey, 1989 : 64). The outcome of Zoë’s fate would seem to support this theory as well as the existing Cuban social order with its rigidly defined gender roles, by constructing a powerful, independent woman, only to condemn her in the end.
18Sex scenes in Zoë are of great significance. Kaplan notes that such scenes in film are clearly voyeuristic in nature and a mechanism that the dominant cinema uses to construct the male spectator in accordance with the needs of his unconscious (Kaplan, 2000 : 120). Through voyeurism Zoë is “erotized and objectified”, and thus neutralized for the threat that she poses as a woman (as castrated and possessing a sinister organ) (Kaplan, 2000 : 121). She is turned into an object of the male gaze of the camera, lying naked on the bed on the morning after, while he rushes off to college. At the end of the film,she is left alone in the confinement of her garage—a marginal location that could arguely emphasize the social entrapment Zoë is a victim of. However, Michael Chanan says that “the garage-cum-studio where she lives is used to observe gender and social differences close up, in a mis-en-scene that brings to the screen the milieu of the rebellious young artists of the late 1980s” (Chanan, 2004 : 452).
19But there is ambiguity in the ending. Zoë is sat on the floor with her back to her male mate as he leaves ; this diagetic shot may imply her rejection of cultural norms ; furthermore the brightness of the sunlight that enters the garage as her mate leaves may suggest an enlightening departure for her.Overall, Zoë shows that reversing male and female roles is not progressive in feminist terms, simply destructive as it perpetuates the roles designed in patriarchal society.
20Adriana isdirected by Mayra Segura and is the compelling portrait of an old woman, haunted by regret at having been controlled and isolated in her youth, and the solitude and emptiness of her life as a result. The film’s opening dialogue set over the opening tracking shot, which presents a darkened house, sets the tone of the episode, as Adriana can be heard talking to a repairman who, it becomes clear that, she has hired because she is desperate for company. Adriana’s words “I’m alone” exemplify her isolation and her repetition of “at my age” establish her frustration that her youth was wasted. When she says “God, time flies” this is representative of life having passed her by. The single setting in the film is Adriana’s apartment ; the space is dark, with only streaks of light and muted colours. Adriana is portrayed iconographically as an old woman, conveyed by her sitting in a rocking chair, knitting, wearing dull, drab colours. The image following on from the gloomy and fragmented shots of her stark apartment communicates a sense of boredom, solitude and emptiness. The diagetic sound in the apartment is a radio tuned into the continual news channel, “Radio Reloj” [Radio Time], Segura employs this to emphasise eventful lives, contrasting them with the emptiness of Adriana’s life. The name of the radio station contributes to the theme of the passing of time. The extra-diagetic score uses opera music, which is emotive and evocative to signal Adriana’s escape into a fantasy world.
21The film shows that, in their own virtual world, women have control and can define their subjectivity. Here, Adriana dreams of being young again. The protagonist looks at old photographs and attempts to transform herself to replicate how she looked when she was younger by putting on a white, lace gown, lipstick and fixing her hair. She admires herself in the mirror, which theoretically reflects how society portrays her and seeing her image as young once again she steps into a dream world within which Adriana enters a darkened room lit by candle chandeliers, full of people and approaches a man whom she then dances with. It is significant that Adriana looks at and approaches a young man in this transgressive scene, thus disrupting the male gaze. There is also an emphasis on getting a young man to fix the phone. All this time her inner dialogue says : “Mírame” [look at me], this is accompanied by a close-up shot of Adriana’s smiling face and shots of people turning to stare at her. This may imply that she is not ashamed of herself, as she begins to dance with the man ; however, off-screen female voices then repeat “Eres vieja, eres vieja, eres vieja” [you’re old, old, old], “Mírate” [look at you] and “¿Qué estás hacienda ?” [what are you doing ?] causing the man to disappear, so that Adriana dances on her own signifying that she is coming back to reality. In the next sequence there is a shot of three people staring disapprovingly at Adriana, over which a voice admonishes “Mírate” [look at you], the shot is then reversed to show Adriana covering her face with a veil, symbolising that this cultural reminder provokes shame in her. This is Adriana’s fate – to be trapped eternally as an “old woman”, turning into something useless and unatractive– Gilbert and Gubar’s “monster” (Gilbert and Gubar, 1979 : 3-44).The imprisonment of Adriana behind the veil serves only to strengthen her social isolation and she internalises cultural shame as suggested by the ritual act of covering her face. Symbolically, the veil is a way of defining women and confining them to invisibility in culture.
22The reproving and questioning voices of other people in her dream represent that Adriana’s actions in life have been defined by what other people think. Her own voice is not heard in the inner discourse suggesting that even her inner thoughts are subject to constraint, thus, she is unable to liberate herself from the rule of patriarchal structures. In a flashback Adriana is looking out into her garden at a man who is oblivious to her watching him. Here, the male gaze is reversed as Adriana looks voyeuristically at the man. The power assigned by this gaze is, however, ended by a scolding voice, “¡Cierra la puerta ! No me gusta verte ahí de pie cuando hay hombres fuera” [Close the door ! I don’t like you standing there when there are men outside !]. This is followed by a close-up shot of Adriana’s face, connoting an expression of bitter regret at her imposed subordinance which has prevented her from sharing her life with anyone and resulted in her leading an empty life of unfulfilled desires. It is significant that the character was looking out into the garden, as traditionally women were not allowed to go there without a chaperone. Adriana’s defeat is signified when she rips up and burns her photographs, suggesting a rejection of the past, and does not answer the door to her young repairman, as she realises that all of life’s opportunities have passed her by and she is now too old to be desired by men, conveying her lost illusions. Nonetheless, her attitude could suggest a new start for her as she finally breaks with the oppressive traditions. The camera then leaves the apartment for the first time to follow the repairman out onto the bustling, sunny street, which highlights, by contrast, the bleakness and depressing isolation of the apartment. This episode effectively illustrates the severely repressive structures imposed on women in the past and their damaging effect on their lives.
- 10 “Latin American women…have had to contend with historical forms of exclusion and have struggled to (...)
23Mujer Transparente reveals newand challenging portrayals of femininity, andmasculinity too.The endings of the short films may be ambiguous and arguably the protagonists’ failures to achieve resolution could be considered a reminder in the film that change is not complete and there is a long process of evolution involved in overcoming gender issues in society. However, the impact of the film lies in its portrayal of the complexities of Cuban women in their search for self-identity—their awareness of their own female identity, dealing with the difficulties women were still facing in Cuba while approaching the twenty-first century.10
24Overall,all these short films by male and female filmmakers demonstrate how after thirty years of Revolution, Cuban cinema is thus de-gendering social relations and redefining gender. Mujer Transparente brings transparency to problems with machismo, the exclusion of women within a cultural space, the struggle for women’s liberation, the identity and images of women that construct diverse discourses of femininity, which emerge as the prerogative of women´s voice to freely express when to bring change, when to stop.
25Although male and female filmmakers´ approach to gender representation differ to a certain degree, they arrive at the same focal point : all female characters share the strive for self-realization, trying to etch out a new identity for themselves as women in a revolutionary, changing Cuba. It can be concluded that Zoë and Adriana adhere to Kaplan’s statement : “We just arrived at the point where we must question the necessity for the dominance-submission structure” (Kaplan, 2000 : 130). The very same title “Mujer transparente” seems to be a clear reference to the legacy that tradition has afforded woman, in Kristeva’s words “that which is not represented, that which is unspoken, that which is left out of meanings and ideologies” (Kristeva, 1985 : 45).Both films reveal the complexity of reversing centuries-old legacies of sexual discrimination. Nonetheless, by recording the experiences of female heroines and exposing their dissatisfaction and pain, as well as exploring the repressed expression of the feminine from the male perspective, the films make a profound impact on a tradition that can no longer maintain fossilized and unrealistic representations of woman. Thus the narratives of these films conceive fictional worlds in which patriarchal images and conventions are significantly revised. Eloquently, this collective effort explores how “cinematic codes create a gaze, a world, and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire”, but also how “these cinematic codes and their relationship to formative external structures” must be deconstructed and broken down before they can be challenged (Mulvey, 1989 : 67). Overall, it can be concluded that Revolutionary Cuban cinema has made a great contribution during the last fifty years of Revolution, not only by seducing the audience to think and act, but also by portraying new images of women involved directly or indirectly through the changes, flaws and success of the Revolution. Mujer transparente is part of an important project that painstakingly creates a “revolutionary” place not only for both male and female filmmakers—but also redefines gender—at the forefront of Cuban cinema and gender ethos.