Introduction to panel session:
"Cinematic Symptoms of Masculinity: Trauma, Hysteria and Difference".

Caroline Bainbridge
Candida Yates
University of East London
London, UK

Introduction; aims and context for the two papers in this panel.

In recent years, psychoanalytic feminists in film and cultural studies have turned their gaze upon the riddles of masculinity. This interest reflects the scrutiny of masculinity more generally, where it is now often argued that contemporary European and American societies are witnessing a crisis of masculinity. Whether this crisis represents a shift towards more positive and reflexive masculinities, has been the subject of much debate, and this debate provides a context for the two papers in this panel. The focus of our dialogue will centre on the popular cultural trope of masculinity in crisis as represented in contemporary cinema.

There are competing views about the representation of masculinities in popular cinema. For example, on the one hand, some argue negatively, that the changes and uncertainties of modernity have elicited a defensive and even paranoid cultural response in the media. Yet on the other hand, it is argued positively, that contemporary post-modern culture has opened up new hegemonic spaces that are able to facilitate alternative less rigid and less defensive masculinities. Our papers have more in common with the latter perspective, as, in some ways, they do seem to point to the ways in which new cultural spaces may be opening up within popular cinema. Such spaces potentially facilitate, the emergence of alternative, more nuanced images of masculinities. We hope, however, to move beyond this binary model of theorising masculinity in crisis as either being necessarily positive or negative. In the papers we offer here, it is more a case of seeking out a kind of transitional space that ultimately may nevertheless be reigned in by the insistence of the hegemonic set of discourses around representation. Despite these dangers, by drawing on psychoanalytic explanations of trauma, hysteria and fantasy, we hope to show that these cinematic representations of masculinity are often highly complex, ambiguous and transitional, and as such, may lie somewhere in-between. In the end, we settle on the importance of seeing representations of masculinities as forming a continuum. As we go on to discuss in our papers, this has implications for the kind of identifications and affective responses that are opened up for the spectator and the readings that are created as a result.

Representations of male trauma have been a recurring theme in recent popular cinema and it is this, which necessitates the cultural and psychoanalytic analysis of trauma and its related themes in cinema. We use the psychoanalytic concepts of trauma and hysteria, jealousy and masquerade, to think through the possibilities of masculine subjectivities and their relationship to issues of sexual difference. The ubiquity of films that depict images of male suffering is telling, particularly within the current cultural context where the old fictions of masculinity are unravelling. Trauma theory is useful to think through issues of masculinity in crisis, as it touches on, and addresses the tensions, which underpin the masquerade of masculinity and the fragility of its construction as a provisional and impossible ideal. In addition, trauma theory has recently made in-roads into the discipline of screens studies (Radstone, 2001 and Hammond, Humphrey, Randell & Thomas, 2003). As Caroline goes on to argue in her paper, from a psychoanalytic perspective, the concept of trauma involves two moments, the first, which refers to the moment of trauma itself (repressed memories of the primal scene) and the second, which involves the memory or rather the perception of that event. How one perceives a past event and then responds to that perception in that second moment of trauma provides a useful paradigm to think through issues of the perceived crisis of masculinity. For example, the current cultural "undoing" of hegemonic masculinity and the perception of crisis may be precipitating the kind of repetitive psychic fantasies and defence mechanisms analogous to those experienced by the traumatic subject, who is unable to live with the perception of a past event. The unbearability of what lies beneath (or its absence) sets off a desire to deflect and cover up the losses, and in doing so, the subject becomes endlessly and hysterically trapped in that first moment of trauma. The experience of suffering, or its representation in film, is thus arguably analogous to a hysterical defence against the losses of masculinity.

On the one hand, this scenario taps into the scepticism of those who critique the cultural crisis of masculinity in negative terms, and suggests that post modernity engenders empty fetishistic spaces for identification, rather than transitional ones which imply movement and creativity (Butler, 2000; Kirkham and Thumim, 1995). However, one can argue that the slippage from trauma to hysteria may, on the other hand, have a usefully disturbing effect, as it arguably provides the spectator with a glimpse of something else and the unspeakable losses of masculinity that lie beneath the excesses of the text. As Juliet Mitchell (2000) reminds us, the experience of trauma is not a static one, as the subject may move between the first and second moments. This slippage between the two traumatic registers may provide new insights, enabling the creation of new spaces from which to imagine ontological change and the radical possibilities of something new and different.

How is one to define and name this transitional mode of masculinity, which is always in process and which doesn"t lose its nerve, whilst constructing itself? Without wishing to reproduce the old cultural binary oppositions associated with active masculinity and passive femininity, one can define more ambiguous representations of masculinity as "feminine" because of their textual open-ness and the lack of closure around the meanings of the text. Of course, attempting to "feminise" masculinity is fraught with difficulty and needs to be understood in the context of a long debate around the gendered constitution of subjectivity in language. In these papers, we feel uneasy about the inflections of such terminologies and try to avoid being trapped in a system of discourse that maintains these hierarchies. Instead, we draw on the metaphorical usefulness of the notion of the feminine and try to highlight the ways in which transitional masculinities seem to colonise a similar space within hegemonic discourses. In contrast to the more rigid narratives and voyeuristic looks that hitherto characterised much of the dominant Hollywood cinema, these new representations of men also suggest new modes of masculinity that are less narcissistic, more nuanced and complex. We argue that a key aspect of this is the capacity to live with difference without resorting to the old defensive subject positions when faced with and set alongside the complexity of the other. As Candida discusses in her paper, the Other in this context, does not only refer to the feminine. The perception of otherness also refers to the differences between men and the difficulties of maintaining and living with that difference, as opposed to slipping into destructive and rivalrous subject positions.

However, it is often the case that new "transitional" images of masculinity may also be at the cost of representations of Woman. For example, her presence may be marginalised in relation to the portrayal of the "new" man, who may enviously colonise the cultural space of sexual difference, formerly occupied by women. Thus, as in the image of the exaggerated suffering of the jealous man, the hysterical defence against the perceived trauma of loss and difference may also extend paradoxically to the mimicry of femininity. As with Sara in The End of the Affair, the difference cannot be sustained and she has to die as the result. By contrast, in Memento, our certainty about the death of Leonard"s wife is gradually undone by the textual play with the spectator, so that, by the end of the film, we no longer know whether she is alive or dead. This seems to parallel our uncertainty about Leonard as a narrator and shows up his apparent trauma as hysterical symptom.

Whilst utilising different methodologies, the aim of this panel is to use our papers create a dialogue with each other, and with you (the audience), about these issues. Before turning to those papers, it would be helpful to provide a context for our discussion by pointing to the areas where our ideas overlap and diverge. Firstly, whilst we both use discourses of cultural and psychoanalytic theory to discuss the construction of masculinities, we nevertheless use different methodologies and to an extent, this reflects our different research backgrounds. Caroline"s paper focuses on issues of textuality, narrative and form to explore the fiction of selfhood and the construction of masculinity in Christopher Nolan"s film Memento. In terms of affect, Caroline is particularly interested in the relationship between trauma and the spectator and the way in which our relationship to cinema is undone in that moment of traumatic identification with the text and its hysterical response to the perceived crisis of masculinity. Candida"s paper uses Neil Jordan"s film The End Of The Affair to explore the relationship between jealousy, masculinity and difference as exemplified through fantasies of Englishness and the literary ownership of Graham Greene. Candida"s methodology uses a psychoanalytic cultural studies approach, which combines issues of textuality and representation with an analysis of its cultural reception and the psychic fantasies, which underpin it. Whilst implicitly taking into account issues related to spectatorship, she is more concerned to address the psychosocial implications of the film as discussed through its reception in the UK press.


Butler, A. (2000) "Feminist theory and women"s films at the turn of the century", Screen, vol. 40, no.1, spring.

Hammond, M., Humphrey, D. Randell, K. & Thomas, P. (forthcoming July 2003) "The Trauma Debate Continued", Screen, vol. 44, no. 2.

Kirkham, P. and Thumim, J. (Eds.) (1993) You Tarzan, Masculinity, Movies and Men London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Kirkham, P. and Thumim, J. (Eds.) (1995) Me Jane You Tarzan, Masculinity, Movies and Women. London: Lawrence & Wishart

Radstone, S. (Ed.) (2001) "Trauma and Screen Studies: Special Debate", Screen, vol. 42, no. 2.


The End Of The Affair, dir. Neil Jordan, 1999, US/Ger. Prod. Columbia Pictures.

Memento, dir. Christopher Nolan, USA, 2000, prod. Newmarket Capital Group.