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Feminist Film Theory: What is it?

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The media is one the greatest influences we have growing up, the shows and films we watch, the music we listen to and the stories we read can all impact us. So, it’s crazy to think that once, there was a time when women were treated in films in such a way that we cringe to watch them now. I watched an old James Bond film with my parents a few weeks back, and the sheer ridiculousness of how the Bond girls were shown, treated and portrayed was enough fuel really get the feminist spark burning. It wasn’t until second wave feminism, during the 1960’s and 70’s, when people started to question how women were shown in film, and the feminist film theory began to shape.

what is Feminist film Theory?

Feminist film theory mostly began in two places. In the USA, the theory was based on sociological theory, with a focus on the function of female characters within the narratives/genres of films. Critics also examined the stereotypes women were depicted as in films. This included how passive or active they were, and the amount of screen time they were given.

Whereas, in Britain, the focus was on critical theory, psychoanalysis, semiotics (symbols) and Marxism. These ideas eventually made their way into the American scholarly community in the 1980’s. British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, is famous for her work and is credited with coining the term ‘male gaze’.

In 1973 (published 1975) she wrote an essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ one the first major essays to shift film theory towards a psychoanalytic framework. Influenced by theories from Freud and Jaques Lacan, she argued that the viewer is placed in the male subject positions. In contrast, women were placed as the objects of desire. She wrote: “It is said that analysing pleasure or beauty annihilates it. That is the intention of this article.” Her objection was to challenge the old Hollywood ways with a new feminist approach to film making.

Intersectional Feminist Film Theory

In the early 1980’s, the theory begins to approach films through an intersectional lens. In 1981, film journal ‘Jump Cut’, published an issue dedicated to reviewing the lack of lesbian identities in films. Jane Gaine wrote an essay titled ‘White Privilege and Looking Relations: Race and Gender in Feminist Film Theory, in which she examined the erasure of black women by white male filmmakers in cinema. Writer bell hooks also wrote on race and feminist film theory, along with Michele Wallace. As did Lola Young, who argued that filmmakers were unable to break away from ‘tired stereotypes’ when it came to portraying black women.

the Female Gaze

In contrast to Mulvey’s ‘male gaze’, many filmmakers now employ the ‘female gaze’. Which means a piece of work represents the gaze of the female viewer. It also refers to the perspective a female filmmaker brings that differs to male viewers.

The female gaze considers:

  • The filmmaker
  • The characters
  • The viewer

Films made by women, with women and that depict a female point of view or story. Traditionally, this means having a focus on female leads that reflect the desires of the female audience. One of the things that annoyed me about the Bond movie was that the girl climbed a mountain in a wholly unsupportive bikini. Films with the female gaze are often notable for the way the female characters are presented through dress, and in their relationships between, often male, characters. Less sexualisation, more independence and realistic characters which offers insight into the female experience. This applies to TV as well, shows such as Fleabag or the Handmaid’s Tale offering a female point of view, usually by a female creator.

Realistic women and the changing industry

Many of us when watching films, want to see more realistic women. We like the women who have sloppy hair, bad sleep schedules or eating habits, who are well rounded and human. The work of Marjorie Rosen and Molly Haskell was part of a movement for just this; to show women in both narrative film and documentaries, in realistic ways.

In recent years, more and more women have been adding their presence to the film industry. Consequently, from drawing attention to feminist issues and offering ‘true-to-life- views of women, strides are being made in the industry. Check out some feminist film tests here to see how your favourite movies hold up.

In film, we are beginning to see women we recognise.

Women as women, not as things.

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