With the purpose of simply putting you in the context of our discussions, here is a (BRIEF) overview of thehistory of the feminist movement.
Feminist history is commonly split into three segments which basically separates the three major waves in chronological order. The first wave spans from the turn of the century to just about the 1960’s. Often called the Woman’s Suffrage Movement period, this slice feminist history is marked by women achieving the right to a political voice (voting) and other civil rights in America by 1920. Indeed, the American constitution was changed adding the ‘19th amendment’ stating that ”The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” (Cornell) Although the term ‘feminism/feminist’ was originally coined in the 1880’s by Hubertine Auclert, a French feminist and suffrage activist, (Cavallaro, p.5) it wasn’t commonly used at all.
The second wave focuses on the 1960’s and 70’s where, as you will soon discover, the bulk of feminist theory was developed. After the popularization of Freudian theories, feminists took psychoanalysis and applied it to their own theorieswhich, especially through cinema, proved quite fruitful. ”The 1970’s tackled the causes of women’s oppression (capitalism/masculinity) describing society as a structure of oppressors (male) and oppressed (female). This moment is usually divided into forms of feminism (liberal, marxist/socialist, cultural/radical). Liberal feminism argues that women’s liberation will come with equal legal, political and economic rights, following Betty Friedan’s attack on medias’ ‘feminine mystique’ which, she argues prevented women from claiming equality.” (Humm,p.6)
The third and final wave, spanning from the 1980’s to the present day, can be seen as an exploration in depth of the theories established in the second wave by scholars and the application of those theories in their respective fields with the purpose of empowering women in all facets of society. In fact, By the 1990’s 90% of the wold’s nations elected women to political positions (women serving as head of state in over 20 countries)
Feminism’s impact ranges from divorce and civil rights reforms in Egypt to sexual harassment cases in Japan (sexual harassment was so intense in Japan that women were even granted their own subway cars in response to the numerous sexual harassment charges in the cramped environment that is a subway system) to the increase to about half of political candidates being women in France. Let us now explore feminism in cinema.
What exactly can be inferred from the term ‘feminist’ within the context of cinema and media arts? How does feminism affect film theory that, in turn, renders it so noteworthy? In this blog, you will discover the history of feminism and film to later be offered some examples of theoretical application. We will present a discussion pertaining to gender and genre relationship, a spin on the male gaze by Sofia Coppola and an important discussion on films often criticized by feminist theorist has being enablers of harmful stereotype. This segments will shed enough light on the subject to answer these questions.
Maggie Humm, author of many essays and books on feminism, namely Feminism and Film, a book which covers cinema’s feminist historical background, describes the dynamics at play in mainstream cinema: ”the eroticisation of women on the screen comes about through the way in which film assumes the spectator to be a white male and encourages his voyeurism, through specific camera and narrative techniques.” (Humm, p.39) This ‘eroticisation’ of women is precisely what feminists seek to abolish.
Through psychoanalysis and the work of Laura Mulvey in particular, which is to be discussed in greater detail later in the blog, films were seen as working much like social mirrors, representing social phenomena found in society.
As one of feminism’s main premises, it is often said that Hollywood’s woman are presented as someone else’s ‘other’ which, as Maggie Humm argues, contributes to a powerful ‘misfiguring’ of the female which is precisely what feminism seeks to disempower. This, combined with the notion that the visual component of cinema and its use within cultural representation, create a strong case for feminist theory. Humm goes on to discuss how ”visual culture reflects society, not just the individual, and it is those reflections on which feminism centres arguing that gender differences and discrimination are the common semantic of all cultures, including media cultures.”(humm, p8) This also works to support racism claims, for example, often associated with Hollywood’s (powerful) misrepresentation of different social groups.
Sociologically-based methods would locate images, roles and representation of women in cinema as phenomena reflecting, or perhaps determined by, the position of women in the ‘real’ world or the wider society. Feminist film theory which draws more specifically onfilm theory for its methods has tended on the other hand to premise itself largely on a notion of representation as mediated, as a social and ideological construct, an autonomous or relatively autonomous process of meaning production which does not necessarily relate immediately to or reflect unproblematically a ‘real’ socialworld. Here therefore the main focus of interest has been the ways in which women have been constituted as a set of meanings through process of cinematic signification. In that its topic is the processes whereby meanings are produced in cinema, the body of work drawn upon by this form of theory has been semiotics, together with the related fields of structuralism and psychoanalysis. (Kuhn, p.71)
It is impossible to be more specific about feminism in film without discussing the infamous Laura Mulvey and her contribution. Often regarded as the godmother of film theory discussing feminism issues, Mulvey laid the foundation for what we now know and consider feminist film theory.
(Here I chose to add an ‘s’ to godmother because, although the most influential, Mulvey was not the only film theorist discussing and advancing the feminist cause. Annette Kuhn being a great example.)
As Humm puts it, ”feminism has no single vision, although it is a visionary way of seeing.” (Humm p.3) Although this is true, all variants of feminist theory advanced by the many contributors usually share three major assumptions: ”gender is a social construction that oppresses women more than men; ‘patriarchy’ (i.e., the male domination of social institution) fashions these constructions; women’s experiential knowledge best helps us to envision a future non-sexist society. These shared premises shape a double agenda; the task of critique – attacking gender stereotypes – and the task of construction, sometimes called feminist praxis – constructing new models.” (Humm, p.5)
As was mentioned in the historical introduction, the 1970’s proved to be the most active and productive period for feminist film theory. In fact, the first feminist writings describing women’s roles in mainstream cinema were found in Marjorie Rosen’s Popcorn Cvenus and Molly Haskell’s FromReverence to Rape (Humm, p13). In addition to these revolutionary texts, a journal entitled Women and Film was founded in 1972. Both Rosen and Haskell described how women’s conventional roles so often represented in Hollywood cinema as mothers or innocent girls next door had ”little representational bite on women’s real identities and experiences.”(Humm, p.13) According to Rosen and Kaskell, ”mainstream cinema did not represent women’s lived experience but only stereotypes of women’s social status” (Humm p13) In other words, films (as social mirrors) reflect social power structures found in society.
By the 1970’s, psychoanalytic had become an integral part of psychology and any popular discourse on human nature. Laura Mulvey’s essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, written in 1973 describes a context in which ”voyeurism, fetishism and narcissism all structure film viewing. Mulvey’s insight, derived from study of the relationships between film techniques, spectators and viewing pleasures, is that films deliberately create masculine structures of ‘looking’. It is ‘the gaze’, Mulvey argues, which is the main mechanism of filmic control. According to Mulvey, mainstream cinema appeals to the scopophilic instinct (a term Freud chose for the activity of looking at another as an erotic object). Mulvey concludes that this gaze is male and that cinema relies on three kinds of gaze: the camera, usually operated by a man, looking at a women as objects; the look of male actors within the film which is structured to make their gaze powerful; and the gaze of the spectator, who is presumed to be male, voyeuristically identifying with the camera/actor gazing at the women represented in fetishistic and stereotypical ways. (Humm p.14)
The key to understanding Mulvey’s theory is Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of ‘looking’. Lacan’s is essentially a theory discussing man’s primordial desire for ‘pleasurable looking’ (often referred to as voyeurism). With it, it is possible to understand how cinema enables female sexual objectification (not to mention exploitation), through the combination purposeful cinematic techniques, and the interaction between the spectator and the image. The male gaze and the dynamics at play in the film/viewer relationships are now widely considered to be the rudiments of feminist film theory. Nicholas’ analysis of Sofia Coppola play on the male gaze by fliping the roles, offers an interesting look at practical application of Mulvey’s theories.
Much of film theory of the past twenty years revisits, challenges or build on Mulvey’s ideas. Mulvey’s essay provides the structural co-oridinates of the first British theories of masculinity and the male spectator. Mary Anne Doane reframed Mulvey’s passive/active binary into an opposition between filmic proximity and distance, Elizabeth Cowie adds multiple cross-gender identifications and Linda Williams utilizes Mulvey’s concept in the context of pornography. Even as early as the mid 1970’s the Open University Media Group were introducing spectator theory into their television programmes and currently Black feminists construct historical spectator models. The special issue of Camera Obscura, ‘the spectatirx’, included over fifty lengthy responses to ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, choosing Mulvey’s essay as the inaugural moment of feminist psychoanalytic theories of spectatorship. In addition a great deal of feminist literary criticism embraces Mulvey’s vision, for example, Sandra Gilbert ad Susan Gubar’s No Man’s Land. (Gilbert, Gubar)
The dialogue between feminism and psychoanalysis has been hugely rewarding. Both share particular concerns: the relation between gender and identifications and issues of repression and the instability of identity. Second, both share key methods: analysing texts, whether these are films or the unconscious, in terms of codes and as it texts can represent the ‘unsaid’ in everyday life. (Humm, p.15) What better way to experience this than to actually analyse films. But before discussing feminism by using concrete cinematic examples, I would like to offer a quote taken from Annette Kuhn which beautifully sets the stage for film analysis:
”Feminism, I would argue, offers not so much a methodology as a perspective – a pair of spectacles, as it were – through which we can look at films. What we see through our feminist spectacles will ofcourse inform what we choose to analyze, and perhaps also to some extent how we chose to analyze it. Feminist theory involves taking up a distinct stance or position in relation to its object, therefore, and this in this sense cannot be regarded as politically neutral. To do feminist theory is, consciously or otherwise, to engage in an intervention within theory or culture.” (Kuhn, p.70)
I think it would be interesting to now compare the treatment of the female characters in each film, with regards to Laura Mulvey’s “male gaze”. In brief, as it has already been explained by Haytham and Nicolas, Mulvey argues that women in film function as “(passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of a man”. This remains true for all the films, though it is more problematic in some than it is in others.
During the first half Breaking Dawn, Bella is depicted as sexual for the first time in the series, since she and Edward have finally gotten married. During their honeymoon, Bella is always seen through Edward’s eyes since he is the only other person in their beach house. Bella spends most of the honeymoon in bikinis and lingerie, but it actually does not read as exploitative. Probably for the first time in the Twilight franchise, Bella demonstrates real agency when she makes it clear that she wants to continue having sex with Edward (who is afraid he will lose control and drink her blood). Futhermore, since the series is targeted towards girls and women, it is much more common in the film to see Jacob or Edward shirtless than it is to see Bella through a problematic gaze.
Salt’s very first scene begins with guards dragging Salt out of a prison cell, in underwear and covered in blood, and torturing her for information. It is an uncomfortable scene to watch, but the director does not make it worse by lingering on her body. The content of the scene is an anomaly within the film, but the camera’s respectful distance is not. Though Salt is basically the only woman in the film, she is not fetishized or subjected to voyeurism. Apparently, the role which Angelina Jolie plays was originally written for Tom Cruise (Mendelson), which might help in explaining why a film starring a notoriously “sexy” actress portrays her in a completely unsexy way. At one point, Salt even goes undercover as a man, completely subverting any male gaze that could be found in the film.
When I began this essay, I did not have high hopes that either of the films would be particularly progressive or subversive of the often-discussed “male gaze”. Now, even though the plot of Breaking Dawn obviously is not great, I have to admit that its lack of the male gaze (and perhaps inclusion of a female gaze) is refreshing. Similarly, I had pictured Salt’s character as more of a femme fatale than she ended up being. I think much of this has to do with the fact that these are films which have women as the protagonists, instead of background players for a male lead. It would be equally interesting, but I predict more distressing, to do a similar exploration of women in top-grossing films with male leads.
SALT // ACTION!
Salt fits firmly within the framework of the action genre, and displays many of the elements that are typical of female-led action films. Action films starring a female heroine typically depict the protagonist as having a “very close relationship to the law” (Tasker 67), and inthe film, Evelyn Salt works for the CIA. There is also a common “revenge/renegade theme” (Freeman) in female-lead action fims. Freeman explains that it “almost seems like the necessary justification for the fact that she is a female in a lead role – that a woman able to take center stage in a male-dominated genre is necessarily an outlaw in one way or another”. Though the film takes many twists and turns and double-crosses, it is eventually revealed that Salt grew up in a crazy orphanage in the Soviet Union in which her mentor Orlov trained her to become a ruthless killer and to obey his orders absolutely. At one point, to prove her loyalty, Salt is made to watch as Orlov kills her husband. At the end it all becomes clear that Salt was seeking revenge on Orlov.
Another element of female-led action is the “catalyzing incident/moment in the film that causes the character to lose her former self and take on a new identity/personality” (Freeman). Through flashbacks, we learn about Salt’s history. At a very young age she is shown as having had facial reconstruction surgery and been brainwashed repeating that her name is Evelyn Salt and that she plans to work for the CIA. However, there are also idyllic, dreamlike flashbacks of Salt’s first meeting with her husband and their lives together. Salt’s catalyzing incident was falling in love: this made her reject Orlov’s conditioning and made her want to lead a normal life. When this life was compromised, she became the renegade action heroine.
BREAKING DAWN AS MODERN MELODRAMA
Of the films I have chosen to discuss, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I is the only one that predominantly targeted toward girls and women (Germain). This is one of the reasons why the film can be categorized as a modern melodrama, even though it has elements of the horror and action genres. In Linda Williams’ essay “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess” she discusses how to define melodrama. Melodrama’s qualities include “lapses in realism”, “excesses of spectacle” and “displays of primal, even infantile emotions” (“Film Bodies” 3). Twilight exemplifies each of those elements: the film has obvious supernatural elements (vampires, psychic vampires, werewolves and psychic werewolves), over-the-top special effects (the vampires “sparkle like diamonds” when they are exposed to sunlight) as well as extravagant sets, such as Bella and Edward’s fairytale wedding. In the film, when it is revealed that Bella’s pregnancy is life-threatening, Edward and Bella’s non-platonic friend Jacob display melodrama’s primal emotionality. Edward goes as far as to suggest that if his fetus ends up killing Bella, Jacob can kill him, as he has “always wanted”.
In addition, in melodrama (as well as in pornography and horror films – what Linda Williams refers to as “the body genres), the “bodies of women figured on the screen have functioned traditionally as the primary embodiments of pleasure, fear and pain” (“Film Bodies” 4), which is exactly how the character Bella functions in Breaking Dawn. As one of the few human beings in the film, Bella can feel (and is inflicted with) pain that the vampires and werewolves cannot. In Breaking Dawn, Bella’s pregnancy makes her weak and gaunt, and when she finally gives birth it is depicted as excruciating and bloody.
Finally, Williams points out that in melodrama, “the quest for connection is always tinged with the melancholy of loss. Origins are already lost, the encounters always take place too late, on death beds or over coffins” (“Film Bodies 11”). This happens almost to the letter after Bella gives birth. Though their baby is healthy, Bella appears to have died in childbirth. Edward plunges a syringe full of his vampire venom into her chest, hoping to turn her into a vampire during the last moments of her life. When it appears that he has failed he breaks down over her body, biting her randomly in hopes to give her more of his venom. However, after he has left her for dead, Bella opens her eyes to reveal the hungry red eyes of a new vampire.
BREAKING DAWN TRAILER
INTRODUCTION // KATIE
My interests lie in popular culture, and especially, womens’ place in it. Most of my work as a studio art major has explored the relationship we have to women who are ubiquitous and are in the forefront of pop culture. It seemed natural to explore feminism and the most popular films of the last two years that have female protagonists.
Based on a YA novel, 2011’s third highest grossing film is Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I (dir. Bill Condon). Most people are probably familiar with the plot of Twilight, but for the uninitiated: Bella Swan is a teenager torn between being in love with Edward (hot vampire) and Jacob (hot werewolf). In this installment of the saga, Bella marries Edward and becomes pregnant with a hungry vampire fetus that threatens her health by growing at an accelerated rate.
2010’s highest grossing film starring a woman is actually Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, but I wanted to avoid discussing more than one film that was adapted from anovel. Instead I will be discussing the next highest grossing film with a female protagonist, Salt (dir. Philip Noice), which doesn’t appear until #22. Salt’s titular character is Evelyn Salt, who is accused at the beginning of the film of being a Russian spy, and flees to try to clear her name.
In this multimedia essay I plan to apply to the films theory that discusses gender within genre, as a way to explore why these films are popular and the way in which they portray women. I also will be comparing the portrayal of women in the films to each other, and discussing the greater impact of gender issues in popular films.
Aphrodisiac by Bow Wow Wow.
Sofia Coppola also modernizes the titled character and the film itself in such a way that challenges notions about what a period film should be like. By having the actors speak with American accents, purposely avoiding significant historical moments in Marie Antoinette’s life and editing various sequences with sporadically diegetic rock music, like the one above, we get the sense that Sofia Coppola is not interested in painting a historically accurate portrait of Marie Antoinette. Conceivably Coppola’s film could be suggesting that a historically accurate representation of Marie Antoinette is unattainable, especially since she was such polarizing and enigmatic person. Therefore, what this disinterest in historical accuracy presents is an opportunity for Coppola to provide Marie Antoinette with a new identity, one fueled almost entirely by consumerism and superficiality.