Feminist Films

Image via Rabii el Jawhari’s Facebook.


Feminist film theorists continue to question the minimized image of women on the screen. They do so by analyzing the relationship between films, the ideological and dominating position of men, the audience’s perception, and women’s reactions. Although feminism now operates within the postmodernist era, highlighting the plurality of culture in general and arts in particular, feminist film theory continues to adhere to its Marxist and psychoanalytic roots. In practice, however, today feminist filmmakers choose the avant-garde method of filmmaking. Nevertheless, both the ideological background and the avant-garde alternative are limited in reaching women consuming films, and thus fail to adequately challenge the negative representations of women worldwide.

Feminists, who still posit that the tenets of feminism are rooted in Marxist theory and the psychoanalytic approach, claim that no other approach yet proves it possible to act outside of them. Generally summarized, Marxism vis-à-vis the feminist project focuses on the conflict between gender norms imposed by the structured order, and oppressed women seeking expressive liberty within a given society. Louis Althusser’s work on social apparatus and the subject-object complex relationship makes the marriage between feminism and Marxism possible. It is the same discourse adopted by feminists, worldwide, who refer to patriarchal hegemony as the signifier, and who determine the signified as embodied in oppressed women, portrayed in various social media and cultural tools, like cinema. Within this context, the man actively shapes the object, as he is the doer of the deliberate action of gazing. Likewise, the woman passively reflects the image, which is the object of the gaze. Laura Mulvey, in analyzing films, divides the male’s gaze into three levels:

“There are three different looks associated with cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion.”

The subjectivity, as tackled by feminists, transcends its context to overlap with the psychoanalytical field, especially when feminists base their studies on Lacan’s notion of the constructed unconscious as a system that functions like language—meaning, being a man or a woman, for Lacan, is a kind of social construction:

“… the most controversial and contested area of Lacanian psychoanalysis: the conceptualization of feminine sexuality. Lacan’s provocative slogans, such as ‘the woman does not exist’ and ‘there is no such thing as a sexual relationship,’ have been greeted with indignation and outrage as well as prolonged and passionate defense. Lacan’s thinking on feminine sexuality is distinguished by two main phases: first, he was concerned to distinguish sexual difference on the basis of the phallus and here Lacan makes significance on the basis of the phallus innovation regarding Freudian thinking. For Freud the question of sexual difference revolved around ‘castration complex,’ that is around whether or not someone ‘has’ or ‘does not have’ a penis. For Lacan, on the other hand, castration is a symbolic process that involves the cutting off, not of one’s penis, but of one’s jouissance and the recognition of lack. In order to represent this lack the subject has two possible alternatives – that of ‘having’ or ‘being the phallus’…”

On the bases of Althusser’s dominant social apparatus and Lacan’s instituted subconscious, feminist film theorists deconstruct the famous classic works that represent women as submissive and muffled objects of sex. If one studies feminist criticism, s/he can notice the way it depicts classic films as reductive since they link power, absolute truth, wisdom, and knowledge to men, while attributing weakness, madness, subordination, and perplexity to beautiful women who should always be feminine to satisfy the male’s sexual desire in one way or another. The feminist criticism here suggests that patriarchy aims to produce films that represent women as commodities, an idea that stems from the Marxist notion of cultural materialism. According to the psychoanalytical lens, the same films offer these women as tools of satisfaction.

Marxism and psychoanalysis, however, are no longer considered trends within the postmodernist paradigm. Yet, feminism, with its aforementioned roots, contributes to the postmodernist plurality that includes discourse on postcolonialism and race. The irritation here, marked by some feminists like Jennifer Hammett, is how postmodernism tries to alienate itself from ideology while feminist film theorists are still using the two previously mentioned ideologies:

“Feminist film theorists continue to embrace the assumption underlying post-structuralist theories of ideology: they assume that the fact that we know the world only through our representation of it necessarily calls our beliefs about the world into question.”

For Jennifer Hammett, feminists developed two methods of criticism: the idealistic method, suggesting critical distance; and the realistic method, referring to lived experiences. Nevertheless, neither reaction is effective since both deal with one limited aspect of patriarchal representation; therefore, both suggest a limited feminist alternative (feminist representation). Hence, a challenging approach, but not an ideological one, is still required to establish a solid feminist background.

Laura Mulvey, as a feminist film theorist, is the first to tackle the issue of patriarchy in films. Her most interesting analyses address the relationship between the audience and the screen. For her, classic films make their viewers practice sexual acts from a distance through voyeurism, suggesting acts of sexual spying. This exists, for example, in films showing male characters looking through pinholes and fissures in doors to discover fragmented or whole bodies of women. Achieving sexual pleasure via looking is what Mulvey refers to as “scopophilia,” reinforced by films offering the audience visual erotic objects. This is, for Constance Penley, a reproduction of Duchamp’s bachelor machines in 1913:

“… to recognize how forcefully the idea of cinema as a technological institutional, and psychical ‘machine’ has shaped our current ways of understanding film. Just as influential, however, has been the theory of classical film narrative as itself a machine, and an avowedly bachelor one.”

Voyeurism and scopophilia come together to shape a patriarchal subject that targets the viewer as the object, but within this process, this object becomes another subject who targets the woman depicted on the screen – a kind of transcendent mechanism for Constance Penley:

“The act of seeing is itself the primary cinematic identification, that images themselves, that is what the images depict (even what filmic processes they present) do not have that much to do with the fundamental form of cinematic identification, the identification that establishes the spectator as transcendent subject.”

Accordingly, Laura Mulvey considers the spectator to be the male who derives his visual pleasure from the patriarchal representation of women. Gaylyn Studlar (1988) opposes this idea and, instead, argues that since the audience consists not only of males but also females—some of whom feel sadistic while consuming the reductive image of women—the audience’s pleasure is somewhat masochistic. Mulvey, eventually, reconsidered her article/manifesto in her Afterthoughts on Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema:

“I still stand by my ‘visual pleasure’ argument, but would now like to pursue the other two lines of thought. First (the ‘women in the audience’ issue), whether the female spectator is carried along, as it were by the scruff of the text, or whether her pleasure can be more deep, rooted and complex.”

This, for me, marks a challenging turning point in feminist film theory requiring serious academic research that may go further than the psychoanalytic approach and transcends the Marxist mode of interpretation. I believe there is a necessity for multidisciplinary research that overlaps both different and suitable open theories to create a clear vision that allows us to talk about a feminist film, and therefore about a feminist cinema. While feminist film theorists conducting the majority of the research tackle audience’s perception, other feminists, like Jennifer Hammett, suggest a focus on how women want to represent themselves. Of course, women do not share a mono-cultural, psychological, economic, political, emotional, intellectual spiritual system. Women live different lives and therefore experience different plights, quests, and pursuits. Consequently, we must take into account that, “Once we recognize that we know the world only as a series of representations, we are better able to represent it differently.” In that vein, the way women perceive the self can change the audience’s perception, which would naturally challenge patriarchal ideology.

Today, it is clear that “the issue is no longer whether we are able to escape the ideological effects of (patriarchal) texts, but how.” Postmodernist feminists begin by not utilizing Freudian psychoanalysis since they view it to be an ideological tool used against women. They attack traditional psychoanalytic ideas about women because of their phallocentric mode and imposed penis envy theory. The psychoanalytic approach, as introduced by Freud, can no longer meet the feminists’ pursuit since it reinforces the mainstream and muffles women’s voices by imposing psychoanalytic-ready conclusions fragmenting women’s experiences. I stress here the plural “s” to indicate the limited psychoanalytic way of dealing with women with different experiences and therefore different positions worldwide.

Unable to identify a distinguished school or trend that can offer an alternative mode of analysis, a crisis arises in feminist film practice. With the failure of the paradigm of structuralism, including psychoanalysis, Laura Mulvey, along with other feminists, escapes to the avant-garde-ist ready solution. Since the term avant garde can mean anything against the traditional Aristotle plot—classicism, structuralism, historicism, positivism, hermeneutics, anthropology, political mainstream, and the long list of the traditional paradigm—feminists quickly seek refuge under the avant garde-ist shelter:

“The alternative cinema provides a space for a cinema to be born which is radical in both a political and an aesthetic sense and challenges the basic assumptions of the mainstream film. This is not to reject the latter moralistically, but to highlight the ways in which its formal preoccupations reflect the psychical obsessions of the society which produced it and, further, to stress that the alternative cinema must start specifically by reacting against these obsessions and assumptions. A politically and aesthetically avant garde cinema is now possible, but it can still only exist as a counterpoint.”

For me, however, the panacea avant-garde term has been exhausted. It covers over aesthetic and ideological diversity theories that at least try to find various definitions: neorealism, surrealism, absurdism, Dadaism, etc. As far as the notion of elitism is concerned, the avant-garde movement opposes the canonized art and culture. These movements try to open themselves to plurality, which means a kind of deconstruction of the institutionalized canon and therefore a way to question the elitism excluding minorities and masses. Paradoxically, the term avant garde is used now to describe films which fail to be popular. The very limited audience consuming these films is depicted as the special elite who can “decipher” what the masses cannot!

Let us examine an example of an uncut, 10-minute-long shot. Characterized by redundant dialogues, fixed frames, and stagnant situations, many people find these long shots to be boring. This tends to be so because these scenes do not portray the fast life and the amount of information people can get in our era within only a few minutes. Of course, I do not deny that the first absurdist, Dadaist, and la nouvelle vague filmmakers were successful in using these scenes because they reflect the same redundant, absurd, and nonsense existence they want to convey. However, everybody now imitates this way of filming just to declare her/his adherence to the avant garde. Though some critics in international festivals feel bored while watching pseudo-avant-garde films, they cannot express their thoughts for fear of being classified as non-elite. This reminds me of the fairy tale of the naked emperor whose dressmakers convince him and his people that the clothes he wears cannot be seen except by the intelligent. Though the emperor sees himself as naked, he does not dare mention his nakedness, and when he goes out to meet his subjects, no one else dares mention it so as not to be thought stupid. Yet, a small girl speaks up: “Wow, the emperor is naked!” And after the girl utters these words, the others start murmuring about the truth she exposed. As such, feminists have not yet suggested a practical manifesto to launch the discussion of feminist cinema.

In tackling the issue of women representation in films, I do not aim to oppose the feminist approach. Instead, I seek new, effective, and challenging tools that can allow practitioners to produce films respecting different images of women in the world. To reach the masses, films representing women should neither adopt an elitist approach nor opt for a mundane, superficial, and banal way of conveying themes. If feminist film theorists want to operate interactively within societies, they should abandon the ideological perspective since the masses in the world do not have the same ideological, cultural, or religious backgrounds. The filmic discourse could then reach pluralities. This can be done by working on two levels: the first level should guarantee an understood technical aspect applied to scripts; the second level should suggest unlimited artistic dimensions applied to the ways artists construct characters’ psyches, themes, framing, points of view, etc. Developing the two levels will allow widespread viewing of these films and at the same time avoid minimized and superficial representation of women.