Since writing up the review on Citizen Twain, it’s been weighing on me as to what to review next. Today, my friend Anna suggested that I should review one of Laura Mulvey’s films. That seemed odd and out of the blue, and then she sent me the following link that raises the question: “What makes a feminist movie?”
The article’s short but sweet point is that there are three possibilities:
This opens up a very interesting debate.
Under the first option, a man or a woman could make a feminist film so long as the content and characters drive a feminist message.
The second option means the film must be made by a woman regardless of the message behind it.
The third option means a man or a woman could make a feminist film regardless of the message so long as it doesn’t follow a conventional linear narrative with conventional filmmaking techniques.
The consensus among the respondents in the comments section of the page seems to be that a feminist film is a combination of the first two and that the third only limits your audience (the implication being that the message is lost and the filmmakers are only marginalizing themselves).
I believe all three possibilities could have valid points, but all three also have considerable drawbacks.
For example, although people may believe that formal convention limits a film’s reach, the same could be said of the first option. An overtly feminist film that hammers the audience over its head with its message is about as intriguing and engaging as a war propaganda film. The audience that would be most interested would be those who already believe in the message of the film from the get-go. It takes a certain art to accomplish convincing an audience with an emotional appeal via film – especially on political issues. When done well, it can be intriguing and divisive. Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and Bamboozled are provocative but do they affect audiences the same way as Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby? Is Eastwood’s film too sentimental to be taken seriously? Are Lee’s films too ambivalent, reflective, and at times agitating rather than more obviously persuasive and heart-string-tugging?
There appears to be the potential for a very real practical effect of a film that can humanize the Other’s struggle (in this case, a woman’s struggle) to audiences who otherwise might not immediately sympathize with, or have otherwise felt alienated and isolated from, that struggle.
When it comes to whether or not creative control should factor in, that’s another contentious point. Most “feminist” or “women’s” festivals require that submissions be made by women. The argument here could be that promoting women filmmakers has a real practical effect – you’re literally giving exposure to women filmmakers. This, again, however, has pitfalls. First of all, you could be marginalizing yourself to an audience that only wants to see films made by women or who believe in the argument that only women filmmakers can deliver a feminist message while also alienating yourself from the audiences that would otherwise see your films, but are skeptical of inverting the patriarchal system by only accepting films by women. Second of all, is it necessarily a benefit to be promoting equality if the voices being promoted are only assisting the “oppression” of women? This then slips and slides itself into why should women have to make films about women? I say “slips and slides” since the question at stake is, “What makes a feminist movie?” Not, “should women be expected to make feminist films?”
I’m going to go to the Nazi example, of course. If a non-supporter of the Third Reich makes a Nazi propaganda film that does not change the message of the propaganda film. It is still a Nazi propaganda film promoting the values and beliefs of the Nazi regime regardless of who yelled “action” and “cut.”
Using this logic then, a woman directing a film does not automatically equate to the film being a “feminist film” since the film’s message could either support feminist thought, contradict feminist thought, have absolutely nothing to do with feminist thought, or interrogate feminist thought (which does not necessarily support or contradict feminism).
(With that in consideration, one has to wonder if women’s film festivals have remained marginalized precisely for those reasons.)
So far, option one – possibly. Option two – negative.
Finally, option three. Option three as it’s described is a little disingenuous and one of the most astute comments made by the blogger themself doesn’t illuminate Mulvey quite fairly:
I think your “importance” point is key – they all play a part, and I think it’s ultimately filtered through the viewer’s consciousness.
I also think it’s important to consider the “average film-goer,” in regards to the last point. Mulvey’s film is a rather (how should I say this?) terrible viewing experience. The average film-goer wouldn’t see it, period. It goes hand-in-hand with her husband, film theorist Peter Wollen’s theory of “unpleasure.” There is a reason why conventional film form has developed the way it has: because it is a pleasurable, easy-to-understand viewing experience.
To have feminism in elements of content, character and creative control is as much as a Hollywood film will likely have. But that is more than enough for these films, because it means that this message will reach the widest audience possible.
I agree with the first statement – obviously, the film is filtered through the viewer’s consciousness. So now we find ourselves wading in the murky waters of sender-channel-receiver. The sender may have a message they want to deliver, but they have to do it through a channel that filters the message which may result in intended meanings by the sender getting filtered out. When the receiver finally receives the message, they are receiving with a set of experiences, and it through a channel whose effects, that the sender will likely have never considered or incorporated in the crafting of their message. This is familiar to anyone who has read criticism on On the Waterfront in which one set of critics read it as a mea culpa for Kazan’s testifying to HUAC while others read it as a defense of his actions. A more recent example would be a comparison of Roots to Django. I doubt anyone would assert that Roots is a pro-slavery or racist portrayal of African-Americans. Django, on the other hand, has fervent supporters and just as fervent detractors. (Interestingly enough, I have yet to see anyone who has made the argument that Django is not progressive because it’s made by a white man. Instead, the argument is that it’s Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist style that holds the film back from make any relevant strides.)
The blogger , filmschooled, states that “[Mulvey’s work] goes hand-in-hand with her husband, film theorist Peter Wollen’s theory of ‘unpleasure.’” I’m not clear on what is meant by “hand-in-hand”, but when it comes to “unpleasure” Mulvey’s stance is quite clear:
The satisfaction and reinforcement of the ego must be attacked. Not in favour of a reconstructed new pleasure, which cannot exist in the abstract, nor of intellectualized unpleasure, but to make way for a total negation of the ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film. The alternative is the thrill that comes from leaving the past behind without simply rejecting it, transcending outworn or oppressive forms, and daring to break with normal pleasurable expectations in order to conceive of a new language of desire.
When it comes to unpleasure, she says she’s not for it. When it comes to a “new pleasure” there’s a detection of ambivalence. On the one hand, she does not want “a reconstructed new pleasure.” On the other hand, she wants to transcend “oppressive forms” and to “break with normal pleasure expectations in order to conceive of a new language of desire.”
Ultimately, Mulvey’s beef is this. She believes conventional linear narratives are a form of mastery. (By linear, she means chronological: intro-rising action-climax-resolution.) Mastery produces pleasure because it involves the conquering of something that would otherwise cause us anxiety. Specifically, in Mulvey’s argument, she asserts that since psychoanalysis has put forth the claim that women cause castration anxiety in men, the way for men to overcome the anxiety is to master the female form in one of two ways:
- Scopophilia. The root is “scopo” — to look (scope, periscope, telescope, etc.). The suffix is “philia” – to love (cinephilia, pedophilia, etc.) So a scophophile would be someone who takes pleasure in looking. The idea is that in order to overcome or short-circuit castration anxiety, the viewer/filmmaker turns woman into an object to be controlled by their gaze. The woman becomes a fetish object (a passive object to his active control). How do you do this? Let your imagination run buckwild, but one way is to simply show a woman fully nude on screen just long enough to create a titillating arousal.
- The second way, or “avenue” as Mulvey calls it, is to make the woman the subject of inquiry and then to place her in a position of passivity in contrast to the male’s active role. Mulvey explains it as:
…preoccupation with the re-enactment of the original trauma (investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment, or saving of the guilty object (an avenue typified by the concerns of film noir)
In essence, two forms of mastery. This becomes really tricky because Mulvey also argues that putting a woman in the position of a mastery role is to be placing her in drag. By having a woman take the active role and place males (or anything else) into the passive role is just reinforcing the rules/system by which “patriarchy” rules: the active/passive binary system.
So Mulvey’s “answer” is to break up mastery. Whether or not she accomplishes that is up to the viewer. (And I happen to agree with the blogger filmschooled in that Mulvey’s work is “a rather terrible viewing experience.”)
Although Mulvey’s essay appears to imply that no films have ever succeeded in what she is proposing (lucky for us she picked up a camera to show us how), she does give kudos to Hitchcock. That is, for Mulvey, one way to short circuit the mastery system to make the audience hyperaware of the mastery taking place. She points to Vertigo as the perfect example in that Scottie Ferguson “masters” Judy Barton. He demystifies her, finds out her “secret”, picks out her clothes to wear, forces specific jewelry on her, and even forces her to dye her hair. As he masters her he also masters his fear by returning with his fetish object (Judy) to the location of the original trauma linked to his fetish object. According to Mulvey, Hitchcock makes us aware of our role as spectator and makes us feel uncomfortable as Scottie goes through his twisted, obsessive control of Judy.
You could make similar arguments in relation to Psycho or Peeping Tom as we’re made uncomfortable by the blatant voyeurism involved – although, unlike Scottie, the protagonist is perceived as mentally ill in both Peeping Tom and Psycho, which provides the normal audience with the opportunity to disconnect or detach themselves from the protagonist – that is to say, audiences can point to Norman Bates and say, “Boy, that guy sure is fucked up.” (The old, “Well, that’s THEM. That’s a mentally ill person. That’s not ME.”) Whereas with Scottie, we have seen his unfortunate trauma in the opening frames of the film, we relate to his vulnerability, and that vulnerability is double-downed on early in the film as he gets duped. He is an Everyman who goes through some heavy shit and then becomes obsessive-compulsive in his struggle to regain control of his life and his mental health.
What’s interesting about Mulvey’s analysis of Vertigo is that it’s difficult to disagree with her in that one could see that this could have been Hitchcock’s intention and that most audiences would agree with her if they’d read her understanding of the film. So although she’s advocating feminism through a formal (re)construction of cinematic storytelling, when it comes to Vertigo, we’re back to the “content and characters” as well as either audience reception or authorial intent (this second part is never made clear by Mulvey as it is simply her interpretation of Vertigo in relation to her theory rather than outwardly asserting that Hitchcock intended for us to read it this way or that audiences receive the film in the same way she interprets it).
If there is necessarily a way to “test” these three avenues, I’d love to see how. I am attracted to the middle path of suggesting that a combination of all three could factor in, but it seems to me option 1 reigns supreme as a man, woman, or transgender could easily make a feminist film. It is a point that feminists and those in support of any women’s filmmaking movement may want to take into consideration.
- Feminist Elitism: Male Feminists, Feminist Ally… How About Just Plain ‘Feminist’? (rubyfruitsydney.wordpress.com)
- Celebrities Who Say They ARE Feminists (thegloss.com)
- Margaret Thatcher was no feminist | Hadley Freeman (guardian.co.uk)
- Iron Lady was a self-serving anti-feminist (irishtimes.com)
- The Feminist Porn Book Editors Respond to Gayle Rubin (susiebright.blogs.com)
- what happens when beyonce’s not a feminist. (cndaussin.wordpress.com)