Feminist film theory

Feminist film theory

Feminist film theory is theoretical film criticism derived from feminist politics and feminist theory. Feminists have many approaches to cinema analysis, regarding the film elements analysed and their theoretical underpinnings.


The development of feminist film theory was influenced by second wave feminism and the development of women's studies within the academy. Feminist scholars began applying the new theories arising from these movements to analyzing film. Initial attempts in the United States in the early 1970’s were generally based on sociological theory and focused on the function of women characters in particular film narratives or genres and of stereotypes as a reflection of a society's view of women. Works such as Marjorie Rosen’s "Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies, and the American Dream" (1973) and Molly Haskell’s "From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in Movies" (1974) analyzed how the women portrayed in film related to the broader historical context, the stereotypes depicted, the extent to which the women were shown as active or passive, and the amount of screen time given to women. [ Erens, Patricia. “Introduction” "Issues in Feminist Film Criticism." Patricia Erens, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. pp. xvi.]

In contrast, film theoreticians in England began integrating perspectives drawn from psychoanalysis, semiotics, and Marxism, and eventually these ideas gained hold within the American scholarly community in the later 1970’s and 1980’s. Analysis generally focused on "the production of meaning in a film text, the way a text constructs a viewing subject, and the ways in which the very mechanisms of cinematic production affect the representation of women and reinforce sexism". [ Erens, Patricia. "Introduction", "Issues in Feminist Film Criticism." Patricia Erens, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. pp. xvii.]

In his article, "From the Imaginary Signifier: Identification, Mirror," Christian Metz argues that viewing film is only possible through scopophilia (pleasure from looking, related to voyeurism), which is best exemplified in silent film. [Braudy and Cohen, "Film Theory and Criticism", Sixth Edition, Oxford University Press, 2004, page 827]

According to Cynthia A. Freeland in "Feminist Frameworks for Horror Films," feminist studies of horror films have focused on psychodynamics where the chief interest is "on viewers' motives and interests in watching horror films". [Braudy and Cohen, "Film Theory and Criticism", Sixth Edition, Oxford University Press, 2004]

More recently, scholars have expanded their work to include analysis of television and digital media. Additionally, they have begun to explore notions of difference, engaging in dialogue about the differences among women (part of movement away from essentialism in feminist work more generally), the various methodologies and perspectives contained under the umbrella of feminist film theory, and the multiplicity of methods and intended effects that influence the development of films. Scholars are also taking increasingly global perspectives, responding to postcolonialist criticisms of Anglo- and Eurocentrism in the academy more generally. Increased focus has been given to, "disparate feminisms, nationalisms, and media in various locations and across class, racial, and ethnic groups throughout the world". [ McHugh, Kathleen and Vivian Sobchack. “Introduction: Recent Approaches to Film Feminisms.” "Signs" 30(1):1205-1207.]

Key themes

The gaze and the female spectator

In considering the way that films are put together, many feminist film critics have pointed to the "male gaze" that predominates in classical Hollywood filmmaking. Laura Mulvey's essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" gave one of the most widely influential versions of this argument. From an explicitly psychoanalytic viewpoint, Mulvey argues that that cinema provides visual pleasure through scopophilia and identification with the on-screen male actor. Mulvey argues that Freud's psychoanalytic theory is the key to understanding why film creates a space where women are viewed as sexual objects by men. She says that it is the combination of the patriarchal order of society and looking as a pleasurable act (voyeurism) that create film as an outlet for female sexual exploitation. An important observation that she makes is that the dominance that men embody is only so because women exist. According to her, without a woman to compare to, a man and his supremacy as the controller of visual pleasure are insignificant. She argues that it is the presence of the female that defines the patriarchal order of society as well as the male psychology of thought.

Mulvey identifies three "looks" or perspectives that occur in film to sexually objectify women. The first is the perspective of the male character on screen and how he perceives the female character. The second is the perspective of the audience as they see the female character on screen. The third "look" joins the first two looks together: it is the male audience member's perspective of the male character in the film. This third perspective allows the male audience to take the female character as his own personal sex object because he can relate himself, through looking, to the male character in the film. This argument, of course, conveniently ignores the presence of Gay males in any given movie audience.

In "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", Mulvey calls for a destruction of modern film structure as the only way to free women from their sexual objectification in film. Essentially weWho|date=June 2008 must take away the pleasure in looking that film allows for by creating distance between the male spectator and the female character. The only way to do so is to destroy the element of voyeurism and "the invisible guest".

Mulvey's argument comes as a product of the time period in which she was writing. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" was written in 1973 and published in 1975. This was during the time period of second-wave feminism, which was a period concerned with the women's achievement of equality in the workplace and the psychological implications of sexual stereotypes. Mulvey calls for an eradication of female sexual objectivity in order to align herself with second-wave feminism. She argues that in order for women to be equally represented in the workplace, women must be portrayed as men are: as lacking sexual objectification.

Critics of Mulvey’s analysis of the gaze challenge that she does not allow for the female spectator. More than that, she does not assume that female viewers will take on a masculine gaze. Mulvey underestimates the female audience's ability to critique and view other females in a masculine way because it would mean that women were actively participating in the oppression of their own gender. Assuming that women would not willingly do this, Mulvey excludes this possibility from her argument, leaving her with a gap in her argument. [ Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” "The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader."] It is worth repeating that Mulvey fails entirely to take into account the Gay male spectator who will respond to Peeping Tom (for example) from neither side of the "gender divide" she posits in her notes to the Criterion Collection DVD of Powell's film. That the homosexual male spectator is actively disinterested in the female onscreen as "sex object" implies that he is reading films through a far clearer lens (again, to reference Peeping Tom), than Mulvey seems willing to allow a male spectator.

B. Ruby Rich argues that women’s relationships with film is instead dialectical, consciously filtering the images and messages they receive through cinema, and reprocessing them to elicit their own meanings. [Rich, B. Ruby. “In the Name of Feminist Film Criticism. "Issues in Feminist Film Criticism." Patricia Erens, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, pp.268-287.]
Bell Hooks, coming from a black feminist perspective, put forth the notion of the “oppositional gaze,” encouraging black women not to accept stereotypical representations in film, but rather actively critique them. [ hooks, bell. “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” "The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader." Amelia Jones, ed. London: Routledge, 2003, pp. 94-105.] Janet Bergstrom’s article “Enunciation and Sexual Difference” (1979) uses Sigmund Freud’s ideas of bisexual responses, arguing that women are capable of identifying with male characters and men with women characters, either successively or simultaneously. [ Erens, Patricia. “Introduction” "Issues in Feminist Film Criticism." Patricia Erens, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. pp. xxi.] Miriam Hanson, in “Pleasure, Ambivalence, Identification: Valentino and Female Spectatorship” (1984) put forth the idea that women are also able to view male characters as erotic objects of desire. [ Erens, Patricia. “Introduction” "Issues in Feminist Film Criticism." Patricia Erens, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. pp. xxi.] In "The Master's Dollhouse: Rear Window," Tania Modleski argues that Hitchock's film, Rear Window, is an example of the power of male gazer and the position of the female as a prisoner of the "master's dollhouse". [ Braudy and Cohen, "Film Theory and Criticism", Sixth Edition, Oxford University Press, 2004, page 861.]

Carol Clover, in her popular and influential book "Men Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film" (Princeton University Press, 1992) argues that young male viewers of the Horror Genre (young males being the primary demographic) are quite prepared to identify with the female-in-jeopardy, a key component of Horror narrative, and to identify on an unexpectedly profound level. Clover further argues that the "Final Girl" in the psychosexual sub-genre of Exploitation Horror invariable triumphs through her own resourcefulness, and is not by any means a passive, or inevitable, victim. Laura Mulvey, in response to these and other criticisms revisited the topic in “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by "Duel in the Sun"” (1981). In addressing the heterosexual female spectator, she revised her stance to argue that women can take two possible roles in relation to film: a masochistic identification with the female object of desire that is ultimately self-defeating or a transsexual identification with men as the active viewers of the text. [ Erens, Patricia. “Introduction” "Issues in Feminist Film Criticism." Patricia Erens, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. pp. xxi.] . A new version of the gaze was offered in the early 1990s by Bracha Ettinger, who proposed the notion of the "matrixial gaze".

Realism and counter cinema

The early work of Marjorie Rosen and Molly Haskell on representation of women in film was part of a movement to make depictions of women more realistic both in documentaries and narrative cinema. The growing female presence in the film industry was seen as a positive step toward realizing this goal, by drawing attention to feminist issues and putting forth alternative, more true-to-life views of women. However, these images are still mediated by the same factors as traditional film, such as the “moving camera, composition, editing, lighting, and all varieties of sound.” While acknowledging the value in inserting positive representations of women in film, some critics asserted that real change would only come about from reconsidering the role of film in society, often from a semiotic point of view. [ Erens, Patricia. “Introduction” "Issues in Feminist Film Criticism." Patricia Erens, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. pp. xviii.]

Claire Johnston put forth the idea that women’s cinema can function as "counter cinema". Through consciousness of the means of production and opposition of sexist ideologies, films made by women have the potential to posit an alternative to traditional Hollywood films. [ Johnston, Claire. "Women’s Cinema as Counter Cinema." "Sexual Strategems: The World of Women in Film." Patricia Erens, ed. New York: Horizon Press, 1979, pp 133-143.] In reaction to this article, many women filmmakers have integrated "alternative forms and experimental techniques" to "encourage audiences to critique the seemingly transparent images on the screen and to question the manipulative techniques of filming and editing". [ Erens, Patricia. “Introduction” "Issues in Feminist Film Criticism." Patricia Erens, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. pp. xix.]


Further reading

* Sue Thornham (ed.), "Feminist Film Theory. A Reader", Edinburgh University Press 1999
* "Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism", edited by Diane Carson, Janice R. Welsch, Linda Dittmar, University of Minnesota Press 1994
* Kjell R. Soleim (ed.), "Fatal Women". Journal of the Center for Women's and Gender Research, Bergen Univ., Vol. 11: 115-128, 1999.
* Bracha L. Ettinger (1999), "Matrixial Gaze and Screen: Other than Phallic and Beyond the Late Lacan." In: Laura Doyle (ed.) "Bodies of Resistance". Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2001.
* Beyond the Gaze: Recent Approaches to Film Feminisms. "Signs" Vol. 30, no. 1 (Autumn 2004).
* Griselda Pollock, "Differencing the Canon". Routledge, London & N.Y., 1999.
* Griselda Pollock (ed.), "Psychoanalysis and the Image". Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.

ee also

*Laura Mulvey
*Carol J. Clover
*Dai Jinhua
*Claire Johnston
*Molly Haskell
*Teresa de Lauretis
*Kaja Silverman
*Bracha Ettinger
*Griselda Pollock
*Women's cinema
*Women Make Movies

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