Feminist Movement Media: Thoughts? (see previous post)
December 18, 2008
Feminist Movement Media
The second wave of the American women’s movement was an outgrowth of progressive organizing of the 1960s, including the civil rights, youth, and anti-war movements. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), and other proto-feminist texts (like those of women avant-garde filmmakers including Maya Deren, Shirley Clarke, and Carolee Schneemann, all working in the fifties and early sixties), set the stage for this movement, identifying women’s discontent, “a problem that did not have a name.” Then, women who were radicalized and given a set of critical vocabularies through the 60s protest movements, began to add their critique of gender to shared movement concerns about personal freedom, social equity, and structures of domination. Women voiced that sexism within these radical communities, as well as issues like discriminatory work practices, female sexuality and health, day care, education, abortion, and lesbianism were left largely unaddressed by these movements. However, the feminist movement adamantly shared with the New Left a critique of the politically conservative role of the mainstream media, and a commitment to the progressive possibilities within what B. Ruby Rich would call “cine-feminism.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, feminists organized around several media concerns including women’s lack of employment within the field, sexist and stereotypical depictions of women found within dominant media, the creation of a distinctly feminist media education and institutions, and the invention of new languages for avant-garde feminist mediamaking and criticism. Differences within feminism often led to debate between these various projects (particularly between “activist” and “academic” mediamakers and theorists), fueling several active streams of movement media with often contradictory aims. The mid-1980s brought a backlash against feminism (part of a general quieting of the American left). This co-existed in perhaps contradictory ways with contemporary claims of “post-feminism” (the gains of feminism were thought large enough for some to suggest that sexism had been vanquished), and in this climate the feminist media movement collapsed. Discrete feminist practices, on the other hand, continue unabated, and in ever greater numbers, due in large part to the ideas, images, and institutions created during the hey-dey of the women’s movement. While most feminist media institutions closed due to de-funding (as is true for most counter-cultural organizations of this period), feminists continue to visibly contribute to dominant and alternative media, teaching and writing, and media activism. Feminists have professionalized, inhabiting positions of cultural power, just as they have dispersed, bringing their multiple interpretations of gender inequality to other more viable movements. Meanwhile, global feminist media movements have taken on an urgency of their own, learning from, challenging, and adapting the concerns and practices of this highly productive, earlier American tradition.
Feminists were quick to understand that controlling images was central to shaping ideology. They also understood that women were almost entirely unrepresented in the media professions, both within the mainstream and alternative domains. The early and golden days of Hollywood cinema had seen only four women directors: Ida Lupino, Lois Weber, Alice Guy-Blache, and Dorothy Arzner. The alternative media was no better. Very few women directed films, or were trained in media production. Until 1980, less than one percent of all studio films were directed by women. Thus, demands for female inclusion across the media workforce were some of the first made by the movement, continuing to this day because women’s representation in this field remains far lower than in other professions. For instance, the national organization, Women in Film, founded in 1973 in Los Angeles, supports women’s networking and career growth in an industry where, in 2007, less than seven percent of working directors were women, according to Martha Lauzen, a scholar who tracks the industry through an annual study entitled, aptly, “The Celluloid Ceiling.”
Images of Women
In the early 1970s, several highly influential books introduced a consideration of histories and analyses of women’s representation to feminist politics. Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (1970), Marjorie Rosen’s popular Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies, and the American Dream (1973) and Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in Movies (1974) all looked at the stereotypical and sexist depictions of women created by a male dominated industry. Using sociological and historical approaches, these books catalogued common and recurring patriarchal roles for women, all bent upon representing women with maximum sexuality and limited agency. In dominant cinema, women were inevitably seen as sexual objects, suffering mothers, man-hating spider-women, or dependent girls. They were fated to habituate stories organized around either their successful romance and marriage, or their punishment for crimes (of hyper sexuality or other forms of aggression). Feminists demanded more complex (or positive) images of women, and a cinema that would expand to include women’s concerns and a female point of view. Feminists of color, lesbians, and others marginalized within mainstream feminism, began to enumerate their unique stereotypical roles (or absences) within this more global analysis, demanding self-representation and greater visibility, as well.
Feminist Institution Building
As is true for the American counter-culture more generally, feminists understood that beyond critiquing the workings of dominant, patriarchal institutions, the movement needed to form parallel institutions that would enable women’s mediamaking through feminist principles. With a large presence in the 1960s and 1970s, a small number holding out through the de-funded Reagan 1980s, and a few victors continuing into the present, feminists founded a vast array of media institutions including venues for exhibition and conversation, archives, artist collectives, media centers, festivals, conferences, journals, production education, distribution, and funding. For example, 1971 saw the First International Festival of Women’s Film and the First Annual Women’s Video Festival, both in New York. Over 100 films from America, Canada and Europe were screened. In the next few years as many as 50 more festivals took place in America alone. Feminist film festivals, conferences, and seminars began to flourish internationally, as well, including a celebrated if controversial set of feminist screenings at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1972. Feminist production and distribution collectives also flourished. During the feminist media movement’s hey-dey, women could make, fund, watch, talk about, write about, and distribute films within a lively interactive set of feminist institutions. There are currently only about five women’s film festivals held annually in the United States, with about this many more internationally. Feminist distribution companies, journals, and funding sources have similarly declined, as feminist aims have disappeared, become incorporated into the larger goals of progressive media organizations, or have been institutionalized into academia.
Feminist Film and Video
Empowered by the women’s movement and the feminist institutions mentioned above, women began making their own film and video to self-represent female experience and feminist demands. Expanding upon contemporary theories of consciousness raising, film proved an ideal vehicle for the representation of women’s voices bent upon expressing their shared experiences and interpretations of patriarchy through a public discourse that could motivate further analysis and change. Inspired by the feminist credo, “The personal is the political,” a significant majority of feminist media represented women’s biographical or autobiographical images, with feminist historical or political concerns rising from this self exploration. Making use of newly available hand-held and consumer technology, in particular video (which was cheaper to purchase, easier to use, and initially un-territorialized by men), many women were able to bypass sexist media education and professionalism altogether, while a small but growing number of women also began to make their work inside of Hollywood. Furthermore, women began attending, and then teaching within film schools. Beyond growing numbers of educated practitioners, these feminist teachers were changing media education by serving as role models as well as establishing feminist methods for approaching technology and production. In great and continuing numbers, women began producing an eclectic array of media dealing with feminist issues as diverse as women’s sexuality, employment, mothering, abortion, history, labor, and debates within feminism over ongoing concerns including racism and homophobia within the movement. A guiding feminist vision is often also found within media connected to other political movements, such as civil rights, queer, anti-globalization, anti-war or environmental.
Feminist Film Theory
As the feminist film movement expanded the places and processes by which women encountered film, women scholars were radically re-thinking media studies’ relations to film texts. Feminists strove to position, within the heart of film scholarship (where it has stayed to this day), their radical analyses concerning the ways that classic cinema was organized around the production of patriarchal meanings of women. Much of this work was initially inspired by Claire Johnston’s “Women’s Cinema as Counter Cinema” (1973) and Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), which both relied upon feminist interpretations of contemporary critical theory emerging from psychoanalysis, structuralism, Marxism, and semiotics. Moving past the earliest studies which had focused on images or roles of women, foundational feminist film theory set out to understand the patriarchal structures under-girding systems of representation (typically Hollywood), relying, in particular, upon psychoanalytic concepts of the “male gaze” and identification, and Marxist inflected semiotic discussions of ideology. Staunchly anti-realist, and quickly anti-essentialist, these film scholars did not support the kind of political and personal cinema described above—rooted in self-discovery, self-knowledge, self-representation—for in the critical theory they were investigating, the self was in crisis. They argued that realist representation could provide neither ideological or formal analysis nor could it break from the structural limitations of cinematic institutions where pleasures in looking were rooted in patriarchal systems of desire, knowledge production, and identity formation. Feminist film scholarship looked at form, or signifying systems, inspiring a critical look at classic cinema and a celebratory analysis of avant-garde, experimental film. A feminist counter-cinema developed, in close conversation with this more academic tradition. Feminist counter-cinema attempted to radically refigure traditional practices of looking by develping alternative forms and experimental techniques to create a film and a viewer self-aware of the patriarchal structures of cinematic looking, storytelling, and viewing.
Since the 1990s, feminists media scholarship has grown beyond and challenged the narrow but seminal concerns of this early tradition, in directions as diverse, and dispersed as is feminism. Contemporary feminist media scholarship adds theoretical considerations of difference (including race, nation, or sexuality) to re-think spectatorship, textuality and authorship, looks to televisual and digital production where feminists play a larger role in the construction and viewing of images, researches women’s multiple roles in the history of cinema, and focuses upon international and trans-national feminist media, as well as the diverse practices of American feminists. In this way, while feminist movement media is probably a thing of the past, feminist media practices continue to radicalize, in terms of gender and its associated demands, the themes, forms, institutional practices, and analyses of global media.
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical
Directory (Westwood CT: Greenwood Press, 1995).
Alexandra Juhasz, Women of Vision: Histories in Feminist Media (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 2001).
Annette Kuhn and Susannah Radstone, The Women’s Companion to International Film
(London: Virago, 1990).
B. Ruby Rich, Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement
(Durham: Duke University Press, 1998).
Jan Rosenberg, Women’s Reflections: The Feminist Film Movement (Ann Arbor: UMI
Research Press, 1983).