Maybe, feminist cinema is about democratizing our characters’ points of view and also democratize who gets to be behind the camera in order to access these topics in another fashion.
Feminist film theory has emerged in the past 20 years to become a large and flourishing field. Its dominant approach, exemplifed by such journals as Screen and Camera Obscura, involves a theoretical combination of semiotics, Althusserian Marxism, and Lacanian psychoanalysis. On this view, human subjects are formed through complex significatory processes,including cinema; traditional Hollywood cinema’s “classic realist texts” are purveyors of bourgeois ideology. Added to this theory by Laura Mulvey’s now-classic essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” [Mulvey, 1975], was the feminist claim that men and women are differentially positioned by cinema: men as subjects identifying with agents who drive the film’s narrative forward, women as objects for masculine desire and fetishistic gazing. Mulvey’s essay is heavily invested in theory. It is cited as “the founding document of feminist film theory” [Modleski 1989], as providing “the theoretical grounds for the rejection of Hollywood and its pleasures” [Penley 1988], and even as setting out feminist film theory’s “axioms” [Silverman, quoted in Byars 1991]. Mulvey assumed a general picture of cinema as a symbolic medium which, like other aspects of mass culture, forms spectators as bourgeois subjects. She used Lacanian psychoanalysis to ground her account of gendered subjecivity, desire, and visual pleasure. Mulvey allowed little possibility of resistance or critical spectatorship, and recognized no variations in structure or effect of realist cinema. Unsurprisingly, her view has been much criticized and further refined, as writers (including Mulvey herself) have noted issues raised by differences among women, phenomena like male masochism, or genres that function in distinctive ways, such as comedy, melodrama, and horror. Still, writers in feminist film theory commonly assume Mulvey’s basic parameters and take some version of psychoanalytic theory as a desideratum. Key issues are often seen only in terms of some refinement or qualification of psychoanalytic theory. Thus Barbara Creed’s book The Monstrous-Feminine argues that the fact that women in horror films are often not victims but monsters “necessitates a rereading of key aspects of Freudian theory, particularly his theory of the Oedipus complex and castration crisis.” [Creed 1993] Creed turns instead to Kristeva’s theory of the abject and the maternal. Far less often, Mulvey’s critics have adopted more sharply different theoretical bases such as cultural studies, identity politics, deconstruction, or the philosophy of Foucault.
The resulting “theory” in feminist film theory is peculiar. What justification does a specifically feminist theory have for adopting the patriarchal theory of psychoanalysis? Why is theory needed at all; what is it a theory of or about? What are its data; do they supply evidence in a non-circular way? How is theory related to feminist action and social change? What is the relevant theory of feminism itself? Theory has usually been more problematic in feminism. Feminist philosophers question patriarchal theories and urge the need to link theory with practice. Jane Flax in ³Women Do Theory² describes patriarchal theory as “territorial” or “entrepreneurial” ‹ something used to prop up forms of dominance [Flax 1979]. In the face of theoretical structures that are abstract, hostile, unintelligible, and disempowering, she says, women understandably panic. Similarly, feminist philosophers like Karen Hanson question why writers in film studies have assumed science as a paradigm of theory [Hanson 1995]. In doing so, they set up film theory as distinct from and superior or even foundational to film criticism. Theory stands somehow over and above the more primitive “data”: it is ideal, abstract, permanent, austere, universal, and true. Allegedly science/theory has the virtues of being unifying, coherent, well-grounded, and explanatory. But film theorists naively invoke concepts that are quite contested, such as explanation, justification, and systematicity. Nor is there operational agreement within the discipline for what counts as evidence, testing, or confirmation of a theory. This differs sharply from feminism’s more usual emphasis on the experiential.
As Hilde Hein notes, “Some feminists advocate a new definition of theory that decenters, displaces, and foregrounds the inessential and that does not flee from experience but ‘muses at its edges'” [Hein 1990/93]. Early feminists took consciousness raising as a model for feminist theory because it is necessarily both experiential and transformative. Feminist film theory however is often universalizing, and it makes use of complex language and alienating categories which deny women’s experiences as active spectators enjoying films or reading them critically. bell hooks argues for example that
Mainstream feminist film criticism in no way acknowledges black female spectatorship. It does not even consider the possibility that women can construct an oppositional gaze via an understanding and awareness of the politics of race and racism. [hooks, 1992/1995]
In sum, many feminists would criticize feminist film theory as overly abstract, totalizing, jargon-prone, and non-experiential. The dominant psychoanalytic focus has created a narrow framework for the analysis of subjects, pleasure, and desire, while alternative feminist accounts are not considered. For example, Silverman notes in Male Subjectivity at the Margins that “The implicit starting point for virtually every formulation this book will propose is the assumption that lack of being is the irreducible condition of subjectivity” [Silverman, 1992]. This approach is odd. Silverman posits a theory of the subject without saying why and without considering alternatives. Similarly, Mulvey posits a theory of desire and pleasure rooted in Lacan’s theory of the self and desire, a view stemming from a particular and highly contested philosophical tradition. To begin from a certain theory of the self or pleasure in interpreting film commits one in advance to categorizations that create the evidence that allegedly confirms them.
An alternative approach would ask how films depict the self and pleasure, or whether viewers can find gaps and ruptures in a film’s depictions. Feminist philosophers present alternative views about the construction of women as subjects of knowledge, vision, or pleasure. Carolyn Korsmeyer argues that feminist aesthetics offers a picture of emotional response to artworks different from the traditional one and from that employed in mainstream feminist film theory [Korsmeyer 1993]. Traditional aesthetics is problematic since it sought only a supposedly “disinterested” pleasure. But psychoanalytic theories of the emotions are also problematic: in treating emotions a matter of the unconscious, they ignore key questions about description, introspection, and moral recommendation. Feminst aesthetics by contrast holds that “perception and appreciation not only entail some particular social standpoint, but are also formed out of the responsive dynamic operating within an embodied viewer” [Korsmeyer 1993].
Philosophers of film can use philosophical defenses of the rationality of emotions to offer new, non-psychoanalytic studies of film pleasures. An emotional response to a film (or other artwork) can be rational, permitting positive claims about the viewer: that she is active not passive, cognizing not simply reacting, and potentially critical not simply absorbing ideological effects. Laurie Shrage argues that concentration on film texts has led to an universalizing of psychological subjects and an overemphasis on readers’/viewers’ passivitiy [Shrage 1990/1993]. Shrage proposes a contextual approach that recognizes considerable variation among an audience’s “cinematic habits.” Similarly, Flo Leibowitz [Leibowitz,1995] utilizes a rhetorical and cognitive approach, rather than a psychoanalytic one, to discuss processes of audience identification with certain forms of melodrama, which she thinks may be a form of rational reflection. And Noel Carroll [Carroll 1990/95] supposes that emotions are complex learned forms of behavior acquired from certain “paradigm scenarios”, and that film among other sources can offer such scenarios. Thus sexist films like Fatal Attraction present a purportedly valid but problematic paradigm scenario about the omnivorously sexual career woman, and about the “appropriate” level of male emotional response to such women.
Some feminist philosophers think that what is needed is not so much one feminist film theory as a number of strategies of feminist critical readings of films. Hanson mentions Stanley Cavell as an example of someone who offers deeply theoretical and philosophical readings by exploring films individually and attentively. While Cavell’s writings on film are idiosyncratic and not necessarily feminist, they offer a springboard for philosophical critiques of assumptions about subjectivity and pleasure still dominant in psychoanalytic feminist film theory [Cavell 1981, 1987]. For example, Naomi Scheman [Scheman 1988/1995] notes that Cavell offers broad and varied notions of the gaze and visual pleasure, enabling one to criticize Mulvey and reject her position that women are subjecs or viewers only “in drag.” But Scheman also criticizes Cavell for reading films to uncover not a feminist but only a feminine gaze, one “conscripted” by a masculinist world. Scheman seeks a more promising form of female subjectivity in film, and cities Foucault’s point that dominant modes of specularity are quite complex and do “not define women as exclusively as either the seers or the seen” [Scheman 1988/1995].
Significant alternative feminist theories might also inform feminist film theory. Liberal, socialist, and postmodern feminism all suggest new questions and frameworks. Liberal feminism has emphasized traditionally female attributes in constructing alternatives to standard ethics, such as maternal ethics, the ethics of care, or lesbian ethics. These models may romanticize women, but they offer more complex accounts of the social nature of the self than the Althusserian-Lacanian ones, since the self is essentially configured in relation to others (mothers, children, sisters, friends, lovers). Alternatively, work by socialist feminists or feminists in cultural studies foregrounds the linked oppressions of gender, ethnicity, race, and class. Ann Ferguson in Blood at the Root describes women’s traditional unpaid forms of labor as a form of “sex-affective production” which has been exploited by men [Ferguson 1989]. Thomas Wartenberg draws on this kind of notion in offering a critical reading of White Palace, a Hollywood film which seems to attend to factors of class and ethnicity [Wartenberg 1995]. However, Wartenberg shows that the film relies on a stereotyped representation of the older, divorced woman, romanticizes the working class, and oversimplifies the nature of class divisions.
Postmodern feminists also present alternatives to a Lacanian-Althusserian theory of the self or subject, since they question standard notions of human identity based on categories of bodily integrity, race, ethnicity, class standpoint, or even gender. Identity is fractured by complex intersecting social technologies. hooks points to Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust as exemplifying a specifically black feminist gaze. Other black writers similarly point to the complicated ways in which a specifically black female identity is represented in films. The postmodern approach to contemporary fractured identities takes filmic signifiers to be recirculated and utilized in a larger system of mass media and popular culture. This sort of approach is used by Tania Modleski in her essay “Three Men and Baby M” to link a popular film with contemporary social and legal issues [Modleski 1991]. Modleski criticizes the allegedly comical inability of the three male adoptive parents in Three Men and a Baby to deal with infantile bodily functions. This comedy climaxes in a scene she describes as shockingly voyeuristic, a close and lingering examination of the (female) infant’s genitalia. But Modleski does not link this sort of voyeurism to an individual viewer’s castration anxiety or threat to subjectivity. Instead, she criticizes the film’s heroic, simplistic resolution as revealing a current social anxiety about changing gender roles.
Alternatives to psychoanalytic feminist film theory raise new questions about the representation of women in films because of their different accounts of the self, agency, identity, and the cultural surroundings of the subject. They reflect more textured and nuanced views about the self’s complexity and emphasze the film viewer’s potential to construct critical readings. In so doing, they offer more scope for feminist social change than a view which maintains we are, in effect, products of the texts around us.
50 Essential Feminist Films
- The Punk Singer, Sini Anderson
An intimate portrait of feminist art-punk activist icon Kathleen Hanna, the frontwoman of Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and The Julie Ruin, and one of the founders of the riot grrrl movement of the 1990s. Interviews from Kim Gordon, Joan Jett, and other cultural compatriots build the lineage of feminism — striking a compelling balance “between history and personality.”
- The Trouble with Angels, Ida Lupino
“Not only did [Ida] Lupino take control of production, direction and screenplay, but each of her movies addresses the brutal repercussions of sexuality, independence and dependence,” Carrie Rickey once wrote of the pioneering and prolific filmmaker. The Trouble with Angels was Lupino’s first film in over a decade and helped former Disney actress Hayley Mills establish the next stage in her career. The coming-of-age tale, set at an all-girls Catholic school, explores the struggles and hopes of young women in a world without men.
- A View to a Kill, John Glen
The James Bond canon is hardly “feminist,” but hear me out. One person who is rarely discussed when it comes to the franchise is one of the most powerful women behind the series, Barbara Broccoli. Daughter of famed producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, who established the franchise as a blockbuster extravaganza, Broccoli started working as a Bond publicist as a teenager. She became assistant director on 1983’s Octopussy at 23 years old and found herself in the same role two years later for A View to a Kill. The Roger Moore-starring film boasts Broccoli’s influence and atypical Bond girl May Day, played by Grace Jones. Bond’s transformation throughout the 1980s saw the secret agent allying with unique female characters who were portrayed more like equals instead of mere eye candy. The Jamaican musician and actress, who has been a raucous proponent of female empowerment for decades, plays a bodyguard in the movie with superior strength — enough to even outperform 007.
- Clueless, Amy Heckerling
One of only a handful of women working behind the camera in mainstream cinema during the early 1980s and ‘90s, Amy Heckerling created a female-led comedy that at first glance doesn’t seem to have any feminist underpinnings, but is full of surprises. Written by Heckerling as a loose interpretation of Jane Austen’s Emma, Clueless boasts a strong cast of comedic women who are not only outspoken and confident, but also reflect on their choices and take responsibility for the course of their lives. Subtle nods to historical pioneers, like the reference to Louisa May Alcott (“Bronson Alcott High School”), are a fun addition.
- Nine to Five, Colin Higgins
“They’re showing the Boss who’s the BOSS!” You’re damn right. And also because: Dolly.
- I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, Patricia Rozema
A Canadian comedy featuring an awkward Girl Friday that touches upon creative frustration, rivalry, and the stigma of women living alone. It’s even Camille Paglia-approved: “Here’s a smaller product with no budget, and you get this wonderful realism and comedy. This girl’s kind of aimless, yet plucky. It’s the twentysomething problem with self-definition.”
- Between Heaven and Earth, Marion Hänsel
Marion Hänsel’s existential, feminist allegory with a sci-fi bent finds one pregnant woman questioning the world around her when her unborn child objects to being born.
- The Headless Woman, Lucrecia Martel
New Argentine Cinema figure Lucrecia Martel draws connections to the country’s dark political/class struggles, transposing its “disappeared” from the mid-to-late ‘70s into a sedate, challenging story about a woman’s fractured state following a fatal accident and its ensuing cover-up.
- Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains, Lou Adler
One of the greatest, albeit most underrated, punk films and proto-Riot Grrrl works, written by Nancy Dowd in her post-Academy Award (Coming Home) era, starring baby-faced Diane Lane as a total badass. The poster’s tagline says it all: “These girls created themselves.”
- Female Misbehavior, Monika Treut
Annie Sprinkle and Camille Paglia star in celebrated lesbian writer-director Monika Treut’s four-part documentary highlighting transgressive sexuality, feminist performance art, and one person’s journey making a female-to-male transition.
- Ai zai bie xiang de ji jie (Farewell China), Clara Law
Hong Kong award winner Farewell to China, scripted by frequent collaborator/partner Eddie Fong and starring the great Maggie Cheung, explores Asian displacement in America. Director Clara Law spoke about the dark origins of the film in a 2010 interview:
I did a lot of research on how Chinese families live in New York. I heard about lots of success stories, but I also heard lots of stories about women having psychological or mental problems. It’s probably because they don’t have to work. They stay home and they become very lonely. As their children grow up and start speaking English to them, they feel very rejected and abandoned, and lots of them developed mental problems. A lot of women committed suicide. There are lots of stories that we’ve heard about. I didn’t make a connection with these women in our films until now.
- Storme: Lady of the Jewel Box, Michelle Parkerson
An intimate documentary about the “Rosa Parks of the gay community.” Stormé DeLarverie, “who may or may not have thrown the first punch at the 1969 uprising at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village,” was an LGBT activist and drag king hailing from America’s first racially integrated gender impersonation show, the Jewel Box Revue (a regular production at the Apollo in Harlem). The performer even caught the attention of photographer Diane Arbus. In her later years she was a bouncer at lesbian bars and emceed pride parties, fighting intolerance and challenging social constructs of gender norms.
- I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, Sarah Jacobson
Radical underground cinema director Sarah Jacobson spoke to Film Vault in 1998 about her movie debut — the feminist splatter short I Was a Teenage Serial Killer — shot when she was only 20 years old:
I consider myself a feminist filmmaker, definitely. The whole reason I got into film was because I never saw cool girls in films that I liked. I have no fear of the word “feminist.” I know that has certain negative connotations to some people, but then why should I let other people’s stupidity bully what I want to do, right?
To me, feminism means that I should have an equal opportunity to do what I want to do as a woman. I don’t want to be better than men, I don’t want to shut men up. It’s like, look, you’ve got your little thing over here, you’ve got your B-movie aesthetic, and I’ve got my interpretation of it that girls can enjoy, too, so you don’t always have to watch the bimbo get raped or slashed or stalked or whatever.
That’s what Serial Killer was, you know? A reaction to the serial killer chic that was so “in” at the time. I thought it would be fun to kind of turn the tables on it all. You had all these guys going, “Yeah! Kill the girl! Kill the girl!” and it was like, “Hey, why don’t we just kill the guy?” But only the stupid ones, because, you know, not all guys are bad. Some of my best friends are men.
- The Student Nurses, Stephanie Rothman
Under the tutelage of B-cinema king Roger Corman, Stephanie Rothman started her film career in the horror and exploitation realm, releasing this subversive movie in 1970 — the first under Corman’s New World Pictures banner. Rothman discussed balancing personal and professional interests within the exploitation genre in a 2007 interview:
Once I paid my debt to the requirements of the genre, allowed me to address what interested me — and continues to interest me today — political and social conflicts and the changes they produce. It allowed me to have a dramatized discussion about issues that were then being ignored in big-budget major studio films: for example, a discussion about the economic problems of poor Mexican immigrants–who were and still are America’s largest immigrant population — and their unhappy, restive children; and a discussion about a woman’s right to have a safe and legal abortion when, at the time, abortion was still illegal in America. I have always wondered why the major studios were not making films about these topics. What kind of constraints were at work on them? My guess is that is was nothing but the over-privileged lives, limited curiosity and narrow minds of the men, and in those days they were always men, who decided which films would be made.
Corman has always employed female directors (including Amy Holden Jones and Rita Mae Brown, who created The Slumber Party Massacre), and he backed up Rothman’s take on the subject in his essential book, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime : “It was important to the filmmakers and me that we have something to say within the films… I insisted each (nurse) had to work out her problems without relying on a boyfriend.”
- Baadasssss Cinema, Isaac Julien
BaadAsssss Cinema gives a platform for blaxploitation greats like Pam Grier to discuss the influence of the genre on cinema, hip hop culture, gender bias, and more. Added bonus: commentary from author and activist bell hooks.
- Sisters in Law, Florence Ayisi and Kim Longinotto
Female magistrates in Cameroon, West Africa seek justice for women and children who have been abused, raped, and neglected. Slant’s 2006 review captures the heart of the film’s message:
Hope springs eternal in the documentary’s greatest scene: Manka, the little girl tortured by her aunt, smiles for the first time in the film as Ngassa teases her about the new clothes she’s been given. It is a vision of healing and possibility that validates a mission with the greatest of intentions: to assert that men and women are equal under the law. For a Muslim culture in Africa, Ngassa and Beatrice Ntuba’s work is perhaps without precedent—by the end, the audience hopes that it catches on and becomes a norm.
- The Body Beautiful, Ngozi Onwurah
British-Nigerian director Ngozi Onwurah’s autobiographical short film (starring the filmmaker and her mother) examines racial and sexual identity (including those linked to the director’s modeling career in a predominantly white industry), body image, and womanhood in the context of memory (the elder Onwurah’s mastectomy is a focus) and fantasy.
- Song of the Exile, Ann Hui
Revered Hong Kong New Wave cinema figure Ann Hui filmed a moving autobiographical portrait of the cultural clashes and identity issues surrounding Hui’s return to Hong Kong and her relationship with her Japanese mother. “She uses a cine-feminist autobiographical practice to engender the genre by interpreting herself publicly in a patriarchal (film) culture,” writes Audrey Yue in her book, Ann Hui’s Song of Exile.
- I Shot Andy Warhol, Mary Harron
Harron’s freshman feature sparked a fascination with figures on the fringe. I Shot Andy Warhol centers on radical feminist and SCUM Manifesto creator Valerie Solanas (played by the fantastic Lili Taylor), who attempted to kill Andy Warhol in 1968. Harron’s dark satire American Psycho often precludes her from feminist discussions, but the film was, in part, a critique of male misogyny (it doesn’t get more direct than Patrick Bateman’s weapon of choice, a phallic chainsaw).
- Morvern Callar, Lynne Ramsay
“Morvern Callar is ultimately about the grieving process, though some viewers are understandably frustrated by a central character who gives off so little emotion and invites so little sympathy. Why should we care?” Scott Tobias of A.V. Club asked, before suggesting: “Well, maybe because Morvern is right to feel burned by the bloody mess her boyfriend has left behind. And maybe because characters don’t have to be sympathetic to be compelling.” Especially women.
- I Will Follow, Ava DuVernay
A model of African-American independent cinema about grief and family — free of the hoary clichés, full of multidimensional characters, beautifully understated.
- Smithereens, Susan Seidelman
A punk, feminist riff on the coming-of-age drama with a real, imperfect woman (Susan Berman) at its center. “I wanted the film to be slightly stylized, but also capture the gritty reality of life in the East Village,” Seidelman told Filmmaker Magazine. “I also wanted Smithereens to include some moments of irony and humor to counter-balance the harshness of Wren’s life. I would call the tone of the film ‘pushed realism.’ The characters are real, the emotions are real, but some of the situations and art direction are ‘stylized.’”
- Female Trouble, John Waters
Giving the bad girls and outcasts a place in the canon — even if they wind up in the electric chair. “My films are about people who would never win in real life. They always win in my movies,” Waters once said.
- Christopher Strong, Dorothy Arzner
Pioneering director Dorothy Arzner, one of the only women to make a successful jump from silent cinema to talkies (becoming as prolific as her male counterparts, if not moreso), helped launch the careers of Hollywood strongwomen like Lucille Ball and Katharine Hepburn. She cast the outspoken Morning Glory actress in 1933’s Christopher Strong:
It’s the story of a record-breaking English aviatrix who falls in love with a distinguished political figure (Colin Clive). As soon as they go to bed together, he insists — late on the very first night — that she not fly in the contest she is entered in. It’s the intelligent woman’s primal post-coital scene. In movies up to the ’70s, this primal scene was never played out satisfactorily; the woman always gave in, either in the paste-up screwball style that provided the fake resolutions of the ’40s, or, as in this picture, fatally. . . . It’s not one that independent-minded women can easily forget.
- Wendy and Lucy, Kelly Reichardt
Kelly Reichardt’s devastating story about a young woman (and her beloved dog) who attempts to start over in life, but is met with heartbreaking obstacles, raises issues of gender/social inequality without maudlin gimmicks.
- 3 Women, Robert Altman
“Possibly the most striking and talked-about ‘women’s films’ of the time; compensatory nods to the fair sex by [an] alpha-male [director], but still memorable,” wrote Molly Haskell.
- Princess Mononoke, Hayao Miyazaki
A thread of feminism weaves itself through the work of Hayao Miyazaki. Perhaps his most mature film, Princess Mononoke features a memorable and tenacious heroine, San, who subverts feminine stereotypes and is written without the fanciful quirks commonly found in animation (hello, Disney). Wolf-goddess character Moro deserves attention as an unlikely mother figure that is fierce and, well, totally pissed off (you would be too if people were destroying your home), but wise and nurturing.
- Dogfight, Nancy Savoca
A rare film set during the Vietnam War and told from the perspective of a woman, Nancy Savoca’s Dogfight reveals a different kind of cruelty people inflict upon one another, off the battlefield — in this case, a group of misogynistic Marines using women in a contest of looks. Lili Taylor’s peace-loving Rose, who becomes one of the targets in this game, soon realizes she’s being courted by River Phoenix’s Eddie for the wrong reasons — though his guilt and seemingly genuine interest in Rose is apparent. Rose confronts Eddie about the game, defending the honor of all women involved, which winds up bringing them closer together. In Old Wives’ Tales: Feminist Re-visions of Film and Other Fictions, author Tania Modleski writes:
In view of the narcissistic self-referentiality of many male-directed Vietnam films, which repeatedly and utterly disqualify women as authorities in matters of war and peace, we can perhaps appreciate Savoca’s audacity in having her heroine’s aspirations and values point a way out of the trap in which the soldier finds himself.
- Alien, Ridley Scott
“She’s not a sidekick, arm candy, or a damsel to be rescued. She isn’t a fantasy version of a woman. The character is strong enough to survive multiple screenwriters. She was lucky enough to be played by Sigourney Weaver,” said Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America President John Scalzi of Ellen Ripley from 1979’s Alien. Defying genre cinema’s gender clichés (she is gender neutral, really) as the clear-minded, intelligent, and capable officer of the ship Nostromo, Ripley is more resourceful than the men who employ her and steps in to take over when all hell breaks loose.
- Orlando, Sally Potter
Our own Judy Berman recently highlighted Tilda Swinton’s performance in Potter’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s satirical text that explores gender and artistic subjectivity, a project that was ambitious in both form and content:
Although it’s far more straightforward a narrative than most of her work, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando still presents one major challenge for the big screen: its protagonist is a nobleman in Elizabethan England who lives a life that spans centuries, and is suddenly transformed into a woman midway through it. Tilda Swinton may be the only (allegedly) human actor equipped to play the role of such a regal, mysterious androgyne, and her performance in this adaptation — also a breakthrough for director Sally Potter — became her signature.
- Born in Flames, Lizzie Borden
Shot in a pseudo-documentary style and set in a futuristic New York City following a socialist revolution, Born in Flames melds science fiction and feminist politics. Despite government changes, sexism and racism are still on the rise, and an underground network of women unite in their own liberation.
- India Song, Marguerite Duras
The wife of a French diplomat in India during the 1930s takes other lovers to relieve the boredom of bourgeois life. Duras blurs masculine and feminine responses to the affairs, deconstructing rigid sex and gender categorizations.
- The Last Mistress, Catherine Breillat
Breillat on why The Last Mistress is a feminist revision of the femme fatale:
Everything was in the book, including the conversations between the Contesse d’Artelles et the Marquise de Flers, when they analyse how you have to manipulate a man, which are indeed very feminist. I knew that people would say I’d written this but it’s in the book, it was written by Barbey d’Aurevilly. However, I have explored the myth of the femme fatale. Vellini is the femme fatale, she’s a ‘flamenco’ character, she comes from Seville, but I approached her through the vamps of the 30s and 40s, Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth; and also Brigitte Bardot in Et Dieu… créa la femme, she has that singular sexual freedom, the freedom to provoke desire knowingly, which caused a scandal when the book came out, and later when Bardot made the film. . . . I thought that the flamenco character [played by Asia Argento] had to be a rock’n’roll character in our times. She had to have a very sexual, provocative side, but also be very androgynous. Rock’n’roll women are both feminine and masculine. They are aggressively sexual.
- A Question of Silence, Marleen Gorris
Hailed as a feminist classic, A Question of Silence finds Marleen Gorris — the first woman to direct a movie that won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film (Antonia’s Line) — explores issues of violence and oppression in a male-dominated society, through a drama about three women who murder a man. Shot in 1982, the film is especially resonant due to the time period, before the legal system had adequately addressed many of the rights and issues affecting women.
- The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques Demy
Celebrated for its vivid milieu, Jacques Demy’s sensitively characterized film is a superior look at an independent woman (Catherine Deneuve) in a romantic narrative who makes difficult choices about marriage, children, and survival that sometimes leave her alone — but she is never lonely because of that.
- Women Without Men, Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari
“When [the novella] was written, it was impossible to talk about politics. When Shirin made the film, she was free, she was out of Iran, she could talk about political change,” Shahrnush Parsipur told an audience in 2012 about the film adaptation of her story Zanan Bedun-e Mardan (Women without Men), directed by Iranian artist Shirin Neshat. In the movie, four Iranian women living in Tehran during the 1953 coup d’état find solace and independence in an orchard.
- Daisies, Vera Chytilová
The young women in Vera Chytilová’s Czech New Wave farce “construct fluid identities for themselves, keenly aware of their sexuality, toying with the men who pursue them. It’s an exhilarating, surreal, anarchic experiment, framed by the turbulent 1960s.”
- Zangiku monogatari (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums), Kenji Mizoguchi
Another unflinching portrait of the exploitation and marginalization of women in Japanese society (drawn in part from the experiences of Mizoguchi’s sister and mother) who make the ultimate sacrifice, with a knowing look at the (weak) men whose successes are dependent on it.
- Dyketactics, Barbara Hammer
Groundbreaking experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer — who tackles issues of gender, sexuality, and aging — directed the first film portraying lesbian lovemaking, made by a lesbian.
- The Sisters Trilogy, Margarethe von Trotta
One of the leaders of the New German Cinema movement and an essential feminist filmmaker, Margarethe von Trotta’s Sisters Trilogy (Sisters, or The Balance of Happiness, Marianne and Juliane, Three Sisters) depicts the rejection of female roles in traditional society and the bonds of sisterhood that are tested by traumatic events.
- All About My Mother, Pedro Almodóvar
“To all actresses who have played actresses. To all women who act. To men who act and become women. To all the people who want to be mothers. To my mother,” reads the dedication in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1999 film All About My Mother. It might be impossible to find a more diverse collective of complex women: a pregnant nun, a grieving mother, a lesbian actress, and a transgender prostitute.
- Sweetie, Jane Campion
Campion’s first feature film is an audacious look at family dysfunction and a pair of sisters — one exasperated and stunted by her sibling’s mental illness. Dana Polan discussed Campion’s ability to depict “the psychosexual realities of women’s lives”:
All of Campion’s features offer versions of this story, as if each were a piece in an overall experiment in which Campion as testing how women wend their way through the thorny terrain of heterosexual desire and dread.
- De cierta manera (One Way or Another), Sara Gómez, Julio García Espinosa, Thomas González Pérez, and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea
Sarah Gomez’s One Way or Another is a significant feminist critique of marginalized groups at watershed moments in history, with a focus on the Cuban revolution.
- Riddles of the Sphinx, Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen
Director Laura Mulvey on her essential avant-garde feminist film, Riddles of the Sphinx:
We were both very interested in the politics of psychoanalysis and feminism and we were both very interested in the question of language and how experimental language could be transferred to film. The theoretical questions we were interested in were similar, albeit a kind of tangle in themselves, a mixture between psychoanalytic theory and aesthetic theory, dislocations between sound and image characteristic of an avant-garde strategy. . . . We were always interested in stories and storytelling. But we were also interested in stories as a way of probing or experimenting with other ways of telling stories. There was perhaps a rather divided sense between feminists who felt female artists could come up with completely new imagery that would reflect women’s sensibility and a feminist aesthetic just by wanting to.
- Daughters of the Dust, Julie Dash
Julie Dash directed the first feature film by an African-American woman distributed theatrically in the United States in 1991 — a stunningly captured look at three generations of Gullah women off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia in 1902.
- Faces, John Cassavetes
Star Gena Rowlands, John Cassavetes’ wife and frequent collaborator, spoke about the director’s uncommonly sensitive look at relationships:
You hear both sides — many feminists attack him. He had a great interest in women and a great sympathy for them. His opinion was that society made women quite crazy — and not just the men. It was their mothers making them crazy half of the time. He said men got all the blame but their mothers told them which way to act and to pretend things that they didn’t feel and say things they didn’t mean, to inflate a man’s ego . . . I just thought he saw through a lot of games.
He had an insatiable curiosity and compassion for just regular people, very often working-class people or artists or women. In Faces, there were older women who expressed their desires and frustrations and that was just not seen at the time. It was considered embarrassing for an older woman to have anything to say about anything emotional.
- One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, Agnès Varda
BFI’s Jemma Desai on Varda’s 1977 film about female friendship and feminism in the ’60s and ’70s:
Agnès Varda’s most overtly feminist film charts the friendship between two very different women. Pomme, a high school rebel, befriends Suzanne, a working class young wife and mother after the suicide of Suzanne’s husband leaves her destitute and hopeless. Through the friends’ very different journeys — Pomme’s subsequent bohemian career as a travelling singer and Suzanne’s period of working class poverty — Varda paints a picture of the utopian optimism and energy of the 1970s feminist movement in France, and of female friendship as a sisterhood that survives against all odds.
- Meshes of the Afternoon, Maya Deren
The bar for avant-garde female filmmaking, born from personal experiences and anxieties. Maya Deren’s 1943 experimental classic builds its interior female perspective and constructs of selfhood through dreamlike imagery.
- The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Theodor Dreyer
Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum on Carl Theodor Dreyer’s crowning achievement, released in 1928, that still painfully echoes contemporary cases of female oppression — the film’s silent context taking on an unintentional resonance:
Carl Dreyer’s last silent, the greatest of all Joan of Arc films. . . . Joan is played by stage actress Renee Falconetti, and though hers is one of the key performances in the history of movies, she never made another film. (Antonin Artaud also appears in a memorable cameo.) Dreyer’s radical approach to constructing space and the slow intensity of his mobile style make this ‘difficult’ in the sense that, like all the greatest films, it reinvents the world from the ground up. It’s also painful in a way that all Dreyer’s tragedies are, but it will continue to live long after most commercial movies have vanished from memory.
- Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Chantal Akerman
The New York Times described Chantal Akerman’s imposing, languid opus and feminist breakthrough — about a widowed housewife and mother who prostitutes herself to survive — as the “first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of the cinema.” Ivone Margulies’ Criterion essay elaborates on the movie’s feminist framework:
In its structural delineation of a link between two prescribed female roles — domestic and sexual, the mother and the whore — the film engages broadly with a feminist problematic, one that takes into account also a woman’s alienation, her labor, and her dormant violence. . . . Many in the avant-garde felt vindicated that this narrative topically addressing women’s issues was so plainly indebted to pure experiments with duration and series. Akerman’s representation of a concrete, defamiliarized everyday was a defining feat.
Why So Many Feminist-Leaning Movies Now?
Maybe Because It’s Time
Call it a pink wave if you must. But there’s no denying that a bunch of feminist-leaning movies are vying for Hollywood’s biggest trophies this awards season.
From animated superhero mom Elastigirl, leaving her husband and kids behind to fight crime in “Incredibles 2,” to a flame-haired Saoirse Ronan leading troops into battle in “Mary Queen of Scots,” a gender-bending Rachel Weisz in “The Favourite” and a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg finding her legal voice in “On the Basis of Sex,” female characters are assuming traditionally male roles on the big screen while contemporary counterparts battle for parity in Hollywood and beyond under the Time’s Up movement.
Even Nicole Kidman’s hollow-eyed detective flips the script on Hollywood gender norms in “Destroyer,” which unravels her troubled past and violent actions rather than those of yet another complicated man.
Although the underlying feminist politics in these movies — intentional or not — seem entirely of the moment, their concurrent arrival owes more to the vagaries of movie production than the galvanizing forces of #MeToo or Donald Trump. They gestated between eight to 20 years.
“I think in particular my film is very much a rallying cry,” says “On the Basis of Sex” director Mimi Leder, whose film centers on Ginsburg’s fight to overturn gender-based discrimination during the 1970s, when it was deeply encoded in our nation’s laws. “A lot has changed, but we still have a long way to go. Even the #MeToo movement right now is still in its infancy, I would say.”
Leder, a groundbreaking female director who won a rare Emmy for directing a drama series in the 1990s before switching to films and circling back again, was attracted to the story, written by the Supreme Court justice’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman, on a personal and professional level. “I don’t ever compare myself to her accomplishments, but in different worlds we have had similar things happen to us. I had to find my confidence, and find my strength, and continue to fight for what I believe in and the things I wanted to do with my life,” Leder says.
Her movie’s Ginsburg, played by Felicity Jones, is outwardly conventional — married, with children — but determined to practice law at a time when doors were closed to women, and ultimately helps outlaw such discriminatory practices. “The film is about a real human being and I responded to that story,” Leder says.
Josie Rourke, another trailblazer in her own right, felt a similar attraction to “Mary Queen of Scots,” about the power tussle between two female claimants to England’s crown. “I’ve spent a big part of my life really considering in a practical way what it is to offer leadership and what the costs and balance of that is,” says Rourke, the first female artistic director of a major London theater (the Donmar Warehouse).
She directed her first movie with vigor, charting the diverging romantic and political paths of Ronan’s Mary Stuart and Margot Robbie’s Queen Elizabeth, each surrounded by men who question their right to rule: Mary repeatedly marries and has a child, while Elizabeth avoids those entanglements.
Pressed why, Robbie’s Elizabeth declares: “I choose to be a man — and marriage is dangerous.” Left unstated: Her mother Anne Boleyn’s brutal fate after she fell out of favor with serial groom King Henry VIII.
“What we have in this movie are two bright young women who are at a point as women of deciding what they most want to do with their bodies, with their romantic lives, with marriage, with children, but at the same time they are politicians,” Rourke says. Given the prevailing rules of succession, it’s impossible “to not have every romantic, sexual act or gesture also be a political one.”
Yet for all their differences, the two cousins shared a sense of sisterhood as “two women trying to be queens at a point at which many people thought it was against God and nature for a woman to be a monarch,” Rourke says. “They challenged each other’s claims to the throne of England, but at the same time they were each the only person who could ever understand what it’s like to be them.”
“The Favourite” is even more daring and gender-fluid than “Mary Queen of Scots.” Yorgos Lanthimos’ twisty tale revolves around power struggles among Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), who arrives at court in reduced circumstances but manipulates her way into favor.
Weisz leans into her character’s gender-bending role, swaggering around in leather boots and a tri-cornered hat at one moment and swanning about in a beautiful gown in another. “Historically, she was a very dominant and domineering character,” says producer Ceci Dempsey, who co-produced with Ed Guiney and Lanthimos, and first became involved with the project in 1998. “She ran the country, really.”
Married to a leading general, Lady Sarah leverages her intimate relationship with the queen to call the shots politically until Stone’s Abigail, who employs more traditional feminine wiles on both genders, enters the picture.
The three characters “all feed off each other, they exist in this triangle that’s constantly rotating,” says Dempsey. “Their energy seems to come from themselves as well as each other.”
Brad Bird, for his part, got the idea for the role reversal at the heart of “Incredibles 2” while promoting the first “Incredibles” movie in 2004, but it took him a while to work out the proper villain for the story. In the first “Incredibles,” husband Bob escapes a soul-crushing job to flex his languishing superhero muscles, but in the sequel, Helen (aka Elastigirl) is the one donning her Spandex again — and reveling in it. “Finally, the superheroes are starting to become legal again, and frustratingly for Bob, the first assignment goes to his wife, who isn’t really pining for it the way he is,” Bird says. “I just thought it would be a great situation and it would be good to see that part of Helen get fed, and to show she’s just as competitive as she steps into that role as Bob is.”
After all, Bird says, the first movie makes it clear from the start that Helen loved being a superhero; she just sublimated that side of herself as a mom. Then when she’s called into action, Bob is the one that stays at home with the kids.
In another gender flip, a woman is the big villain in the sequel. That, Bird says, was the result of story tinkering rather than grand design: He toyed around with various possibilities before creating the roles of Evelyn Deavor and Screenslaver. Evelyn’s prominent role in turn paved the way for a tete-a-tete between her and Helen. “That’s the kind of scene you don’t normally see in animated films,” Bird says. “There are just two women talking about their particular viewpoints.”
Karyn Kusama, meanwhile, was attracted to the complexity of Erin Bell, the wreck of a detective played by Kidman in “Destroyer,” a script collaborators and co-producers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi developed over the course of a decade. Every bit as layered as some of the tortured male cops on the big and small screen, the character is also pissed off — and capable of violence.
“I see her as animated by this somewhat toxic brew of fury and shame, and the shame is mostly directed inward and a lot of the fury she directs outward,” Kusama says. “And fury is something I identify with, particularly now. There are moments when, walking in this world, particularly as a woman, I just feel like breaking stuff. I feel like throwing plates against the wall.
“There was something about this character who had the quality of always living in that space, and there was something to me kind of fascinating about it because there’s a part of me that’s always trying to keep that woman at bay within myself.”
Over the course of the movie, Kidman’s Erin begins to take responsibility for her past failings, something Kusama says men and women both must do for a more humane society. “I just feel like there’s something bracing about studying a woman’s life so intently for two hours,” Kusama says. “That is not an opportunity we get very frequently in the movies.”
But that could be changing, as this year’s cluster of femme-powered movies suggest. Feminists have taken issue with some elements of these stories: Did Ginsburg really have to hesitate in her court room scene to heighten dramatic tension? Ginsburg herself has said that she did not stumble. And “Mary Queen of Scots” has been criticized as too woke with its frank sexuality and color-blind casting.
Overall, however, filmmakers are heartened by the strong cluster of movies with women beyond traditional roles. Certainly “Incredibles 2” did not suffer financially for its role-reversal storyline, ringing up $1.24 billion worldwide, nearly double the original. And “The Favourite,” “Mary Queen of Scots” and “On the Basis of Sex” each made healthy debuts on the specialty circuit late last year.
Filmmakers hope these strong showings will help convince backers that there is indeed a market for movies led by fully realized female characters in a variety of interesting roles beyond the traditional helpmate or woman behind the man, typified by Amy Adams’ Lynne Cheney in “Vice” and Glenn Close’s writer in “The Wife” this awards season. Kusama, for one, is heartened by the fact that the financing for “Destroyer” came together more quickly than usual for one of her projects.
“I’m hoping this isn’t just a trend that just comes and goes, but is the new normal,” Kusama says of this year’s female-powered films. “To me, there’s absolutely no reason that we should ever feel like there’s not that much interesting representation of women on the big or small screen. That should just be business as usual that there are tons of interesting characters.”
“Maybe the market’s waking up to the fact people want to see these movies,” says Dempsey, who over the course of the long gestation for “The Favourite” fended off suggestions it focus on Lady Sarah and her husband rather than the female triangle at the heart of the film. “To me, the ultimate would be that in the very near future, no one ever really remarks on the fact there are three female main characters in a film. That’s sort of the dream, that it becomes sort of normal, and I think maybe this year is a great push toward that.”
Rourke argues that the goal shouldn’t be making movies about strong powerful women per se, but female characters that are allowed to be complicated and vulnerable, just as male heroes are.
“What I’m interested in is seeing all aspects of women’s experiences,” says Rourke. “If we’re in a moment that’s important for the truth of women, what we need to do is tell the whole story of women, and not necessarily leaning into the idea that a strong woman is what we need to be.”
She’s encouraged by the increase in female-centric storytelling on the big screen. “Aren’t there so many aspects of women’s lives that we’re not used to seeing portrayed on the screen? We just need to open the door a bit wider, don’t we? And then other people’s stories can come through,” she says. “I feel it’s starting to happen.”
Leder’s experience filming “On the Basis of Sex” as the Harvey Weinstein allegations broke made her more convinced than ever about the need for gender parity — and films about women like Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“I think these films are a reflection of our society and a reflection of what’s in the climate now, what’s in the air,” Leder says. “Why are these films being made now? Now’s the time.”
Maybe, feminist cinema is about democratizing our characters’ points of view
Interview with Michelle Gualda
The Berlin Feminist Film Week is still running until Wednesday 13th with a program that presents a wide range of topics in its films. One of those films is “Living Tongue” (AKA Lengua Viva) by Argentine director Michelle Gualda. In this interview, we talk about making feminist cinema and what it means, the situation of women in the Argentine film industry, and her short-film featuring a Japanese actress with whom she had to communicate through drawings and signs through the entire shooting.
The first thing I said to Michelle after greeting each other over skype is about the holiday on the International Women’s Day, something she likes with certain amazement. She tells me about the women’s strike in Buenos Aires. “There’s a massive Demo in downtown with several columns: the Legal Abortion one leads the others, my column is also part of it, the Anti-speciesists feminists who argue that if we want to end oppression we ought to end it for all species as well. There are also the Transfeminists, non-binary, and many other columns that feel represented by feminism.”
Seems to be a diversity of positions and opinions within the feminist movement that shares a common base. “It is intended to be as intersectional as possible concordant with what the black feminists from the ’60s said: ‘if it’s not intersectional is not feminism’. And in this case, if there isn’t a gender perspective is not feminism. This is a particular issue in the Argentinian agenda nowadays with a big block of radical feminists who exclude trans women and non binary identities”
So, according to them, not everyone can be a feminist? “Something like that: the entry ticket is to have a vagina, otherwise you can’t be part of it.”
What does it mean to make feminist cinema for you? “I don’t think that is up to me to define what feminist cinema is. But I do think that we, (referring to the general audience), are used to watch stories from an androcentric point of view where there is only one type of man: heterosexual, cissexual, and white. All the stories are crossed by this point of view which was praised back then when women, black people or gays couldn’t make cinema and we would have to settle for having white men tell our stories. Suddenly there was representation in the cinema for all of us allowing us to feel identified and accepted by society with it. While the resources in cinema become more available, it is important that also more voices become available as well in order to tell stories in a more suitable way. If there’s a story of a woman who is going to have an abortion, it would be interesting if it was a woman who tells you that story.
“You can find the same issue with what happened with the Awards-winning film Green book which is told from a white-saviour’s perspective, with all the best intentions, but still, the question remains Is this the best point of view to tell this story? Maybe, feminist cinema is about democratizing our characters’ points of view and also democratize who gets to be behind the camera in order to access these topics in another fashion.”
And how do you see the situation of women in general inside the film industry in Argentina? “There’s a statistic showing that 80% of students are women but that percentage is not then reflected in the industry. And so, there are many socialized women who studied the career and then can’t get a job. The reason for this can be found in prejudices within the industry where people could believe that only men can be gaffers because they will be strong enough to carry a light, for example. I also heard them suggesting to not bring a woman in because it could distract the team.” Did someone say that to your face? “Not to me, but they did to other female colleagues.
“There’s a particular dynamic that encourages masculine creativity and forces the women to mother them. So, you can see that most of the producers are women who have to channel the creative genius of men who can afford to behave out of control. I think that it helps that the most well-known Argentinian director is a woman, (Lucrecia Martel), and it helps the perception but in practice is not like that. There is a gap between the schools and the working industry with the studios not hiring women directors.
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- The Status of Feminist Film Criticism – A Roundup Report