Beyond the Female Gaze:

María Luisa Bemberg’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz


Cynthia L. Stone

College of the Holy Cross

que yo, más cuerda en la fortuna mía,
tengo en entrambas manos ambos ojos
y solamente lo que toco veo.
(Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, poem 152)

In Yo, la peor de todas, filmmaker María Luisa Bemberg explores a redefinition of cinematic desire in which the proximal senses of taste, smell and touch are foregrounded, complementing, at times overwhelming, the traditional obsession with the "look." Bruce Williams, in an analysis of two earlier Bemberg films, postulates the "blinding of the female gaze" in Camila and the "doubling of the cinematographic gaze" in Miss Mary. To this inventory of ways of knowing, I propose adding Bemberg’s exploration of the possibility of moving "beyond the female gaze" in Yo, la peor de todas. As professional screenwriter Linda Seger explains: "Film is a sensual medium. It paints its story through the use of visuals and sound, by showing touch, and with the capability of implying taste and smell" (Seger 1996, 206).

The notion of an eroticism based on smell and touch as well as vision is a key element in much recent film criticism, from Linda Williams and Vivian Sobchack’s emphasis on the corporeality of vision (Sobchack 1992 and 2004) to Steven Shaviro’s "tactile image" (Shaviro 1993) and Patricia Mellencamp’s postulation of the necessity of breaking the link between the pleasures of seeing and of knowing (Mellencamp 1989 and 1999). (1) Questions regarding the consequences for women of the rejection of the body as a precondition for intellectual and spiritual transcendence are as relevant today as in seventeenth-century New Spain during the lifetime of the nun-poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the protagonist of Yo, la peor de todas. (2).

Although there are those who argue that, through her writings, Sor Juana consistently seeks to elide her own sexuality, there is a growing body of criticism that demonstrates a more contradictory movement of simultaneous evasion and affirmation of gender categories. (3) The cinematic motif of the masquerade is potentially illuminating in this regard. As Mary Ann Doane and other film theorists have shown, femininity, when worn as a mask, allows the spectator to maintain a certain critical distance from the image on the screen as well as to as revel in otherness (Doane [1982] 1990). To don a "mask"—whether it functions to exaggerate or disguise traditionally defined gender characteristics—is one way to assert control over one’s own identity as well as over the creative process. The transgressive potential of gender ambiguity is thus encoded as a form of liberation, which is one of the recurring themes in Bemberg’s films (Pick 1992, 79).

Much of the buzz surrounding Yo, la peor de todas since its release in 1990 has focused on the nature of Sor Juana’s relationship with the second vicereine who served as her protector, the Countess María Luisa de Paredes--whether or not their friendship can be characterized as a lesbian relationship and, if so, whether it reads primarily as a narrative of female empowerment or of female abjection. (4) Given that this debate parallels divisions among contemporary literary critics over the interpretation of Sor Juana’s love sonnets and the significance of the renunciation of her status as a public intellectual toward the end of her life, it is not surprising that persuasive arguments can be made for alternative interpretations. (5) (See, for instance, Ramírez 1997, Bergmann 1998, Forte and Miranda 2000, Miller 2000, Negrea 2000, Shaw 2003).

My concern in this essay, however, is to look beyond the anecdotal nature of the relationship between Sor Juana and the vicereine to the ways in which Bemberg uses it to call into question the nature of filmmaking as a predominantly masculine domain. I argue that the ambiguous presentation of the love between the two female protagonists (6) serves an extra-diegetic purpose: namely, to destabilize the traditional equation of filmic desire with the male heterosexual point of view. Moreover, I propose that one of the principal means utilized by Bemberg to achieve this goal is the film’s combination of visual minimalism and abundant references to other sensory stimuli.

In a 1994 interview with Caleb Bach, Bemberg explained her fascination with Jane Campion’s The Piano as follows: "This film of Campion has a very erotic quality, but it’s so different from eroticism told by a man. [….] With Campion you have the sensuality of touching in a very refined manner, subtle, real" (Bach 1994, 26). Although The Piano, which was released in 1993, postdates the production of Yo la peor de todas, which Bemberg worked on from about 1987 to 1990 (Trelles Plazaola 1991, 121), the two films share a similar aesthetic. (7)

The sensuality of the Campion film is intensified by the protagonist’s self-imposed muteness and by the contrast between her severe Victorian dress and the wild New Zealand mise-en-scene. In the case of Yo, la peor de todas, the abstract, minimalist set by Roman Voytek, which echoes the poetic reference by Sor Juana to her body as a "cuerpo […] abstracto," (8) paradoxically intensifies the effect of Bemberg’s decision to "desmonjizar" (de-nun) the film by casting Assumpta Serna, who had recently starred in Pedro Almodóvar’s sexually risque film Matador, as Sor Juana (Trelles Plazaola 1991, 122).

As the film progresses, the stirrings of a sexual awakening on the part of Sor Juana are set in motion through her friendship with the vicereine, who symbolically corporealizes the nun-poet’s formerly "abstract body" via the medium of touch. Ironically, the pivotal moment of touching is also one of the most visually voyeuristic sequences of the film, in which the vicereine watches Sor Juana as the latter hesitantly obeys the command to remove her veil.

Emilie Bergmann argues that the physical contact between the two protagonists in this scene is degrading rather than pleasurable, fraught as it is with unequal power relations and the vicereine’s aggressive attempt to "possess the nun’s unknowable complexity" (Bergmann 1998, 243). Similarly, Denise Miller observes that "we [the spectators], watching from the vantage point of the vicereine (in that for us, too, Sor Juana is in the lower frame), are the empowered voyeurs" (Miller 2000, 152).

Yet the motif of the striptease is here utilized, I propose, along the lines of Stella Bruzzi’s analysis of The Piano, in such a way that the voyeurism does not reinforce the traditional cinematic reduction of woman to mere spectacle:

Traditionally, feminist critics have only been able to perceive a strip as part of a dominant system that aligns ‘sexual difference with a subject/object autonomy’ [….] When, however, the exchanges are defined through touch the relationship defies (or reverses) this binary system, and the dominant discursive strategy is aligned to a female subject. (Bruzzi 1995, 264)

Bemberg uses several strategies to heighten the emotional charge of the moment of physical contact. First, by minimizing the distance between the vicereine and Sor Juana in the sixty seconds immediately preceding the touching. The camera angle heightens the impression of closeness between the vicereine and Sor Juana by flattening out the space between them. Moreover, the vicereine’s commands are delivered in a series of whispers, her breath implicitly caressing the exposed parts of the nun’s face and neck. Although Sor Juana, who is facing the audience, can barely see the vicereine, even when she casts her eyes sideways, she can nonetheless sense her presence by other means.

In other words, the voyeuristic gaze may be aligned with the vicereine, but the stimulation of the other senses is based upon the spectator’s identification with Sor Juana. In terms of the violation of cinematographic conventions, it is not just that the vicereine, as a female, appropriates the male gaze and, with it, the more active stance of the sexually desiring subject. It is also that the spectators’ sense of identification is encouraged to bifurcate, projected onto the "look" of the vicereine and also attached to the extra-visual sensations experienced by Sor Juana.

Another strategy employed by Bemberg in this sequence which heightens the effect of the dynamic discussed above is the relative absence of crosscutting or camera movement. The stillness of the medium close-up of the vicereine and Sor Juana is stretched out over time, thereby adding more drama to the slight motions of their bodies: Sor Juana lifting off the various layers of her veil, the vicereine raising her hand as if to stop the nun from coming closer and then slowly turning Sor Juana’s head to face her, stroking her cropped hair, cupping her chin, kissing her on the lips.

Not until the vicereine moves off-screen and the camera shifts to Sor Juana, who follows the former’s departure with her eyes and upper torso, does the rhythm of continuity editing and of the musical soundtrack reassert itself, with a cut to a close-up of the bookcase where Juana has hidden the necklace bequeathed to her by the vicereine in an earlier scene.

I read Sor Juana’s stroking of the vicereine’s miniature portrait as a substitute for the reciprocating caress she cannot bestow upon the vicereine in person, because of the power differential between them, or her vows as a nun, or her contradictory relation to her own body, or all these reasons and more. Still, the safekeeping of the keepsake against her breast further counters the view that the desire expressed in this sequence is one-sided.

In my 1996 essay, "The Filming of Colonial Spanish America," I critique Yo, la peor de todas for not "communicating with requisite force the internal contradictions at the heart of [Sor Juana’s] Baroque sensibility" (Stone 1996, 319). When I wrote that sentence, I was thinking in particular of certain scenes that contravene Sor Juana’s much touted skill in the art of diplomacy, most notably the one in which Sor Juana reaches through the bars of the locutory to grab Archbishop Francisco de Aguiar y Seijas and force him to smell her woman scent. (9) Other references to the "smell" of women in the film include the scene in which the archbishop has a chamber suffused with smoke from a censer in order to remove the scent of Sor Ursula and her aide who visit him secretly to plot the overthrow of the abbess, Sor Leonor; also, the scenes of Sor Juana dabbing herself with perfume and sweetening her breath with chewing gum before receiving visitors in the locutory.

What I have come to better appreciate through repeated viewings of the film, however, is the centrality of the impact of the Sor Juana’s grabbing of the archbishop in translating into cinematic terms the poetic motif of "encontradas correspondencias," by affirming the possibility of challenging the misogynistic conventions of the modern film industry without resorting to avant-garde, non-linear and non-narrative cinema. In the interaction between Sor Juana and the archbishop, misogyny is defined as a rejection of the smell and touch of women. Yo, la peor de todas is not just a film about Sor Juana; it is also an attempt to begin to chart a path beyond this misogynistic dynamic for those committed to the development of a more woman-centered cinema.

In her analysis of the sequence in the locutory, Denise Miller emphasizes the portrayal of Sor Juana as victim, the implied martyrdom of her outstretched arms as she is abandoned by her confessor in the final shot (Miller 2000, 162-63). As in other parts of the film, however, where contrasting messages are encoded via mise-en-scene versus dialogue, story versus editing (on this characteristic, see Miller 2000 and Negrea 2000), here the angle of framing suggests that Sor Juana is the one who triumphs over her male persecutors. In the shot/ reverse shot sequence between her and the archbishop, the height differential between them is obscured. A similar effect is suggested by Sor Juana’s positioning vis à vis her confessor in the final shot of the sequence. As Father Antonio Núñez de Miranda strides away in his billowing black robes, he moves down screen towards us, leaving her luminous white wimple and tunic dominating the upper visual field.

According to Elena Feder, Sor Juana’s poetic tour-de-force, the Primero sueño, which recounts the quest of the sleeping soul for comprehensive knowledge, does not entail a defeat so much as a disillusionment ("desengaño") resulting from the inevitable setbacks that accompany any search for a new epistemological system:

[The soul] loses the battle, but not the war. [….] The defeat of the soul is not due, as has been claimed, to a failure of the intuition (by curious coincidence, a category of knowledge generally and almost exclusively attributed to women) but rather, as Sor Juana herself underscores, to a failure of the method that the intellectual faculty ("entendimiento" [l. 459]) had employed […] to participate […] in the knowledge of the divine." (Feder 1992, 494)

It is not that Sor Juana calls into question the existence of a higher authority, although some have portrayed her writings in that light. It is that, paradoxically, she both believes and does not believe in the verities of her ecclesiastical superiors.

Deborah Shaw correctly points out that, throughout Yo, la peor de todas, Bemberg downplays the ways in which Sor Juana was "a woman of her age, who shared many of the values of her society," concentrating instead on "Sor Juana’s rebellion against the Catholic hierarchy," a stance more likely to resonate with modern audiences (Shaw 2003, 124-125). My contribution to this discussion is to recast it in terms of its implications for Bemberg’s position vis à vis another hierarchical entity, the modern film industry. Her challenge entailed the search for a means of creative self-expression that could partake of established cinematic conventions while contextualizing them in antiestablishment ways.(10)

If Sor Juana is both victim and victor, and Bemberg’s portrayal of her, a narrative of both female marginalization and female empowerment, what can this tell us about the relative importance of visual and non-visual sensory references in Bemberg’s woman-centered filmmaking? The answer is not a simple dichotomy, with the visual field equated with traditional cinematic power relations and olfactory and tactile stimuli with their transgression. Rather, as noted above, Bemberg tends to combine conventional and anti-conventional presentations.

Linda López McAlister observes "a kind of rigid, static quality" in Bemberg’s films that "is punctuated with unsettling outbursts of irrationality and excess" (López McAlister 1995). Another critic notes that "nearly every scene begins with at least several seconds of stillness […] as if Bemberg started the cameras rolling but forgot to say ‘action’ right away" (Shulgasser 1996). These silences are both auditory and visual and constitute one violation of Hollywood formulae. The "antinaturalistic style" (Glaessner 1991) of this particular film, with its "spare studio sets and theatrical lighting" (Guthmann 1996) and the impression of visual tableaux come to life (Miller 2000), are another deviation from cinematic norms. In other words, Bemberg’s foregrounding of the proximal senses is only one of the strategies she uses to confound audience expectations. Of Bemberg’s best-known films, however, Yo, la peor de todas stands out as the most radical in its exploration of an eroticism based on touch and smell as much as vision.

The symbolic import of transcending the tyranny of the "look" is reinforced in the movie’s penultimate sequence, during which Sor Juana performs the ultimate act of self-annihilation, signing in her own blood her renunciation of the quest for both love and knowledge.(11) Here the breaking of the glasses negates the woman’s appropriation of the cinematographic gaze, but also, paradoxically, serves to refute the traditional patriarchal equation of knowledge with sight. Mary Ann Doane concentrates on the first part of this equation in her classic study of the female spectator, linking the wearing of glasses by women with female autonomy, clear-sightedness, and resistance to patriarchy (Doane [1982] 1990, 41-57). The second part of the equation is foregrounded by those feminist film critics who seek to move beyond "the fallacy of separating spectator from auditor, the deep bias of film theory, dependent on the dominance of vision linked to power and knowledge where ‘to see’ means ‘to understand’" (Mellencamp 1989, 237).

Irena Negrea argues that the visual associations in this scene between Sor Juana and Christ’s halo, crucifixion, and stigmata undermine the authority of Sor Ursula and Father Miranda—the two representatives of the Church hierarchy—thereby diluting the force of her submission. (12) To this I would add that, taken in the context of the film as a whole, with its abundant references to the scent of women, the sensing of another’s bodily presence, and the gentleness of touching, the act of smashing her spectacles in order to the draw blood with which to document her withdrawal from the worlds of courtly and poetic love similarly implies that Sor Juana’s surrender is less than complete. She may be renouncing the world of vision, with its connotations of visibility in the external masculine realm of public spectacle, but not necessarily other forms of sensuality and ways of knowing.

Still, as cinematic spectators, we cannot fully follow her into this more private, idiosyncratic realm. Accordingly, the final sequence of Yo, la peor de todas metaphorically transports us inside Sor Juana’s mind. As Bemberg explains: "I wanted Juana’s cell to be like a round prison, as if it were the equivalent of her own head, like a labyrinth that surrounds her with books, a kind of half-jail, half-refuge" (Pick 1992, 80-81).

Although the books are gone as the camera slowly pans the empty shelves, the effect of the music and long take induces, in this spectator at least, an odd sort of out-of-body sensation, as in Teresa de Laurentis’s metaphor of "looking back at ourselves" ([1985] 1994, 152). It is as if I recognize in the final shot of Sor Juana framed beside the window of her empty cell the contradictions of my own history of simultaneous submission and resistance to patriarchy.

One of the theoretical problems posed by this final sequence within the context of feminist film criticism is the extent to which the rejection of a male definition of woman as spectacle is inextricably linked to a woman’s rejection of her own body. As Patrice Petro explains: "the very opposition between subject and object remains inherently problematic and especially limiting for feminist film histories, failing as it does to account for the paradoxical status of woman in film history as both subject and object of representation" (Petro 1994, 67). There is a way out of this interpretive conundrum, however, if one assumes that the postponement of the body is not necessarily synonymous with its negation (Martínez San-Miguel 1999, 97-99).

The Baroque poet Sor Juana is indeed an apt vehicle for an exploration of this dynamic. Georgina Sabat-Rivers explains Sor Juana’s fascination with the mythological Phaethon as an embodiment of those who dare repeatedly to attempt the same feat only to suffer the inevitable fall (Sabat de Rivers 1991). If one substitutes the impossibility of transcending the image in film, together with the feminist imperative to tease apart the traditional identification of masculinity, knowledge, and sight, it is not difficult to comprehend the attraction for Bemberg in bringing Sor Juana to the screen.

To translate the above insight into more positive terms, "breaking the linkage between scopophilia [the sexual pleasure of sight] and epistemophilia [the sexual pleasure of knowing] has great possibilities for feminism" (Mellencamp 1999, 105). In Bemberg’s portrayal of a seventeenth-century nun’s voyage of self-discovery, Sor Juana’s "cuerpo abstracto" and staged renunciation read not as a transcending of gender differences or a rejection of dependence on the senses, but rather as a creative universalizing of the condition of women, a shattering of visual paradigms into a cinematic synesthesia. (13)



(1). According to Sobchack’s phenomenology of film: "Both spectator and film are uniquely embodied as well as mutually enworlded" and "vision [is] a ‘distance sense’ that, contrary to empiricism, can ‘feel’ the world and entails the proximal sense of touch" (Sobchack 1992, 260, 176). Shaviro, for his part, drawing on the work of Walter Benjamin and Michael Taussig, refers to "the ways in which film renders vision tactile […] by a process of mimesis or contagion" (Shaviro 1992, 52-53). Mellencamp avers "The gaze in cinema has many permutations and options. To Laura Mulvey's triad of the looks of the camera, character, and audience, must be added seeing (and not seeing); interpreting (and misinterpreting); and knowing (and not knowing)" (Mellencamp 1999, 104).

(2). Cfr. Hilda Heine’s discussion of the role of feminist aesthetics in feminist theory: "Since Plato’s glorification of the ‘eye of the mind,’ vision has been regarded as the noblest and most theoretical of the senses, and indeed the propaedeutic to the highest form of ‘seeing,’ which is nonphysical. Because vision is mediated by light and therefore does not have the direct intimacy of touch or taste or smell […. it] is epistemologically privileged" (Heine 1995, 459).

(3). Electa Arenal and Stacey Schlau posit "a female communal voice" among colonial-era nuns which allowed them to evade "the gendered structure of society. They were the only group of females who did not belong to anybody but God, and they were dedicated to the soul, which was said to be genderless" (Arenal and Schlau 1989, 411). According to Yolanda Martínez San-Miguel, "Sor Juana no busca parecer un hombre cuando elide la sexualidad, sino ocultar su femineidad para acceder a un conocimiento que le es negado por ser mujer, pero que quiere adquirir siendo mujer" (Martínez San-Miguel 1999, 73). Rosa Perelmuter clarifies that "se trata, en última instancia, de una voz ambigua que parece desafiar al lector a que adivine, precisamente, ‘si es que se es mujer’" (Perelmuter 2004, 80).

(4). Audrey Gibbs and Nicole Robertson, for instance, critique the sensationalism of the marketing strategy for the film, oriented around titillating references to "lesbian passion seething behind convent walls" (Gibbs and Robertson 2001).

(5). For an overview of the positions of prominent sorjuanistas regarding these controversies, see Scott 1995.

(6). Re the ambiguous presentation of the love between Sor Juana and the vicereine, Karen Hollinger proposes a "cinematic continuum between lesbian films and films of female bonding," with the "ambiguous lesbian film" occupying a middle ground (Hollinger 1998, 6-8). See also Judith Mayne’s discussion of the controversies related to the notions of "permeable boundaries between female bonding and lesbianism" and of a "lesbian continuum" (Pietropaolo and Testaferri 1995, 196, 203-204).

(7). Bemberg’s definition of eroticism echoes Luce Irigaray’s comment that "woman’s desire would not be expected to speak the same language as man’s [….] woman takes pleasure more from touching than looking" (cited in Bruzzi 1995, 264). See also Irigaray’s contrast between a male vision-centered phallocentric sexuality which privileges an economy of property and a more diffuse, plural female sexuality of "two lips […] that caress each other" and which gives rise to an economy of contiguity (Irigaray [1977] 1985). Re the debate over whether a feminine or feminist aesthetics exists, see Ecker 1986. Ecker stresses that it is important to resist the temptation to essentialize femininity by divorcing it from historical and social context or to codify any particular set of creative feminist principles.

(8). The reference in the film is to a poem (romance #48 in Sor Juana’s Obras completas) which includes the following stanza: "y sólo sé que mi cuerpo,/sin que a uno u otro se incline,/es neutro, o abstracto, cuanto/sólo el Alma deposite."

(9). There is no historical evidence to substantiate the impetuousness of Sor Juana’s climactic gesture in the aforementioned sequence. On the contrary, the scholarly consensus of sorjuanistas is that in her dealings with her superiors she was wont to be cautious and diplomatic, well attuned to the dangers implicit in her exceptional status within colonial society. Jean Franco, for instance, stresses how Sor Juana was "a nun living within a system of patronage that she neither resisted nor opposed" and, as a result, her "relationship to these domains of discourse—court and Church—was not […] overtly transgressive" (Franco 1989, 49, 29). Octavio Paz, for his part, notes that: "by temperament and by intellectual and artistic inclination Sor Juana tended […] toward economy and reserve" (Paz [1982] 1988, 225).

(10). Along these lines, the well-known avant-garde film critic, Patricia Mellencamp, also validates the position of those feminist filmmakers who choose more conventional means of expression: "There are many tactics to bring about change. One of the most effective is to tell the story in a familiar style but switch the point of view and enunciation. Many viewers will not notice that the political ground has shifted" (Mellencamp 1999, 107).

(11). The title of the Bemberg film is a reference to a confession Sor Juana signed in her own blood shortly before her death. The exact wording on the manuscript, however, is "yo la peor del mundo" (I, the worst of the world), rather than "yo la peor de todas" (I, the worst of all women).

(12). Negrea also argues that Sor Juana’s signing of her petition in blood undermines the significance of her submission due to its association with the transgressiveness of menstrual bleeding. Although I am not convinced by this particular argument (signing in blood was encoded as an act of piety in the lives of canonical figures such Saint Catherine of Alexandria), I do concur with Negrea’s analysis of other aspects of the mise-en-scene.

(13). My reading of Bemberg’s Sor Juana differs from that of Currie Thompson, who argues that, "[b]y isolating herself and seeking to live in a world of ideas, she epitomizes the archetypal, traditionally male, intellectual" (Thompson 1995, 372). Rather, like Gabriela Weller, I am inclined to view Sor Juana’s reclusion at the end of the film as a final act of resistance (Weller 1997, 8), a refusal to play by the rules of a game to which one is not allowed full access.



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Weller, Gabriela. 1997. "Desobediencias y rebeldías en el cine de María Luisa Bemberg." Nomadías: Revista del Centro de Estudios de Género y Cultura en América. Santiago: Universidad de Chile.

Williams, Bruce. 1998. "The Reflection of a Blinded Gaze: María Luisa Bemberg, Filmmaker." A Woman’s Gaze: Latin American Women Artists. Ed. Marjorie Agosín. Freedonia, NY: White Pine Press.