07. Feminist Film: The UK and Americas (1970s-80s)

When second-wave feminists came to film in the 1970s as part of their struggle against patriarchy, a tension developed within the community, evidencing a split (not establishing connections) between theory and practice. Competing feminist theories of looking and speaking were at the heart of this split. For those on the “side” of practice over form (grounded in a theory of naming) the real world power relations raised by speaking—risk-taking, violence, or empowerment–were deconstructive of patriarchal power in their own right, without also having to make radical interventions on the level of form. Those insisting upon formal interventions believed there was no way to speak through the gendered pleasures of cinema without disrupting cinematic structures of looking. Thus, the “talking-heads” debates that are sometimes linked to this political and theoretical conflict. Was a woman speaking newly about her experience itself revolutionary, or did this need to be filmed newly as well? B. Ruby Rich shows her hand: “Formal devices are progressive only if they are employed with a goal beyond aesthetics alone. Here, finally, is the end of the line.”

On the “European” “side” was a group of feminists who were contributing to a post-structuralist project based in continental philosophy. Their deconstructivist, formalist project continued the quest to return film language to a “degree zero,” in this case “a new language of desire” that was, according to Laura Mulvey, built using “psychoanalytical theory as a political weapon.” This feminist counter-cinema was bent on understanding “the ways the unconscious (formed by the dominant order) structures ways of seeing and pleasure in looking.” The result was a feminist cinema denying pleasure and closure while re-figuring gender-based looking relations.


Engaged in another but equally theoretical language project, a different group of feminist media activists, including for our purposes, Barbara Halpern Martineau, committed their praxis to using cinema as a tool for self-naming and personal empowerment. She writes: “It seems useful at this point to make a general distinction between the use of talking heads to represent some official or authoritative position, and the use of talking heads of people who are telling their own stories.” Understood by B. Ruby Rich as a tradition more committed to practice, sociology, and personal experience, she also named this group American. “Speaking in one’s own name versus speaking in the name of history is a familiar problem to anyone who has ever pursued a course of study, become involved in an established discipline, and then tried to speak out of personal experience or nonprofessional/nonacademic knowledge without suddenly feeling quite schizophrenic … The distinction between one’s own voice and the voice of history is a handy one by which to distinguish the two types of feminist film criticism.”

While the feminist counter-cineastes enhanced the project of post-structuralist filmmakers with a gendered critique of language, identity, looking, and filmic form, the feminist documentarians joined a lineage including the New American Cinema, with its focus on personal expression, the Third Cinema, with its commitments to realism, reception, and popular media, and radical ethnographic film, a tradition where real-world interactions must be as attended to as formal devices. This explosion of cinema, of both sorts (often found within the same film), and also writing about it, brought women to cinema, itself a political act.

Author’s note: This is the first movement in our study where I have played a part. I have written about the “talking heads” debates in feminist film theory from the point of view of an AIDS activist (feminist) videomaker, and I have made a “talking-heads” documentary about feminist media history (as well as publishing a book from this project). I note my praxis here for two reasons: first, people DO make the histories we study, and second, all such histories are opinionated and political.

13 comments on “07. Feminist Film: The UK and Americas (1970s-80s)

  1. I like all three feminist films. I especially identified with the film by B. Ruby Rich view on transnational documentaries, and government constraints put on gathering of truth telling materials. I totally agree with Prof. Rich that we must go beyond google when searching for truth and information. This will be my goal and purpose when creating my media activist documentaries.

  2. Theory-
    Theory without practice is as useless as practice without theory in the goal of revolutionizing cinema or anything. But the “revolution” is only possible with a set of ideas “theorized” by a group of people who keenly observe the nature and inherent language of which the status quo consist of.

    Mulvey writes, “However self- conscious and ironic Hollywood managed to be, it always restricted itself to a formal mise-en-scene reflecting the dominant ideological concept of the cinema.”. Following what we have discussed in class, the “dominant ideological concept of the cinema” is what most of us, cinema/media consumers, is subconsciously accustomed to. Should we not as filmmakers break away from this familiarity through theory, it would be less likely for us to make conscious decisions in creating an alternative when we are not even consciously familiar that the Hollywood conventional form of film making is just a construct that happens to be the most profitable.

    And this breaking away is only possible through shrewd and sharp observation and analysis—theorizing. By creating a framework (theory) we should see clearly that there is a possibility of creating cinema/media outside of the mainstream, and, the Hollywood [framework] is just one of many possibilities.

  3. “The gaze, as many critics and theorists have argued convincingly, is a key element in the construction of modern subjecivity, filtering ways of understanding and ordering the surrounding world.”


    “So Brokeback was really something of a corrective. It’s almost a historical film from the start of an emerging movement, frankly. And I think its work was done in the years following it. By now, it’s been so totally absorbed in pop culture that it might not be an active influence in the same way. But having said that, there might be a kid in the middle of the country discovering it right now as we’re talking. So it’s probably still a lifeline” -B. Ruby Rich

    In this patriarchal society where straight white men are the epitome of the what it means to be perfect or normal, a film about the forbidden relationship between two gay men set in a Western environment reached critical acclaim. Although this story was told through the conventions and tactics of Hollywood, it was still able to influence and change people’s perception on the idea that only straight couples are the norm. Brokeback mountain deconstructed and in a sense destabilized mainstream societies way of thinking, while also making “queer cinema” a worldwide success.

    -Naeemah Brunache

  5. Ruby Rich – Practice

    “The eloquent analyses of beauty, sexuality, and intimacy in this issue pose a stark contrast to heated debates in academia and the media concerning the phenomenon of “trigger warnings” gathering momentum on college campuses and Internet blogs.2 The phrase has its origins back in feminist blogs as well as best-practices initiatives by sexual-violence survivor groups, particularly online and in online sites set up for those communities, but it has also been used in the context of a more generalized discourse on PTSD and the kinds of experiences, images, or words that can “trigger” a recurrence of trauma.”

    This paragraph speaks of triggers, visual triggers. As a filmmaker we must use visual triggers to evoke power emotional responses whenever possible. It helps to get our points across and tell the audience what we want them to know. No matter if the trigger is positive or negative, the purpose is to get people thinking and or change thoughts or ideas.

  6. Laura Mulvey’s quotation, “How to fight the unconscious structured like a language while still caught within the language of the patriarchy. There is no way in which we can produce an alternative out of the blue, but we can begin to make a break by examining patriarchy with the tools it provides of which psychoanalysis is not the only but an important one.” can be easily distilled and explained by Audre Lorde’s own quote, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

    This basically means that, in order to make true feminist, radical film, you need to break away from the patriarchal structures of film that have already been established. Which is, understandably difficult, considering how that’s pretty much all we see as consumers and all that we’re exposed to in mainstream media. While my relative newness to the idea poses an obstacle in way of my suggesting techniques to go about doing this, I do think Laura Mulvey is on the right track in her quest to take away the power of the gaze by not simply reducing women in her film to objects of beauty.

  7. “The “gaze”, as many critics and theorist have argued convincingly, is a key element in the construction of modern subjectivity, filtering ways of understanding and ordering the surrounding world.” -Laura Mulvey

    This sentence describes the importance of the “gaze” to aid practical films in understanding the filmmakers world. I think to have the “gaze” in a film is practical. It’s the easy route to take. When people fall into conventions like that it becomes less of an effort. The theory falls into place and molds itself into a standard for the sake of the films beauty. I think a theory based film is more effective in that there is more of an effort to show the true theory rather than to beautify it.

  8. The quote I took is from Laura Mulvey’s essay “Unmasking The Gaze: Some Thoughts on New Feminist Film Theory and History” (Page 1)
    “The woman’s eye would then stand for the perception of the feminist film critic, not a single stable way of seeing but one that must find ways of mutating.”

    This statement shows that, yes Mulvey advocates often for a deconstruction of the patriarchal system in order to reconfigure the gaze centered around females on film. However, Mulvey also recognizes the value of applying these ideas to the already established system and using them to “mutate” or rather evolve the methodologies that cause women to perceive self-images on screen as images of objectification. We can change the images by mutating our archaic mentalities into something newer and more substantial for all genders.

  9. Laura Mulvey from Unmasking the gaze: Some thoughts on new feminist film theory and history:
    ” If the image of the female stars are constructed as ” to be looked at”, the women in the audience are drawn into a complicity with the film’s own inscribed ‘gaze’. ”

    What Mulvey is saying here is that not only do the women in film fall victim to the subjectivity in hollywood but also the women who go and see these films. They are faced with their representation or at least the supposed representation that Hollywood wants all women to fall under. By observing what their ideal looks like, women leave with knowledge on how to act, think, speak, dress etc. It is a form of control that women fall under.

  10. Theory of Laura Mulvey

    I ran across an article from Laura Mulvey called “The Earring of Madame de..” In the article, Mulvey talks about a filmmaker, Max Ophul’s who worked on a film in the 1950s I believe called “The Earring of Madame.” Mulvey explains that she believes that the filmmaker Max Ophul’s created another typical Hollywood film that objects women in their form of beauty. It just is a cycle of average to show a woman in movies. Mulvey believes that max created the film out a sort of desperation to fit them in the typical Hollywood style of filmmaking.

    In the article, it states “Comtesse Louise (Danielle Darrieux) is a beautiful woman of the belle époque, married to the charming and sophisticated General André (Charles Boyer). At the very beginning of the film, in a scene shot in a single elegant, extended take, Louise examines her jewels and her valuable possessions to find something she can sell, without her husband’s knowledge, to pay off some debts she has accumulated. Among the excellent Criterion DVD extras is a translation of costume designer Alexander Annenkov’s reminiscences about working on the film. He recalls that Ophuls told Darrieux that her character is essentially empty, a woman without culture whose frivolous life revolves around pleasure. ”

    Max wanted to make Hollywood happy of showcasing the main woman character of the film.

  11. “Lack of memory and a dangerous whitewashing of the past, a process through which socialism has been criminalized and fascism erased in the popular imagination; she warned that such a process can lead to the return of torture (as touted by Trump, for example) as the past arises anew in the present” – B. Ruby Rich

    White washing was and is still a problem with the media.
    Media would always protray certain ethnicities the way people think. For an example white actors playing the role of an asian, hispanic, black, etc. person,they’ll act the way they seem them.

  12. Laura Mulvey theorizes that the destruction of pleasure is a radical weapon against the patriarchal system that has been constructed by Hollywood cinema. In her work titled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” she presents the idea that however “self-conscious and ironic Hollywood managed to be, it always restricted itself to a formal mise-en-scene reflecting the dominant ideological concept of the cinema. The alternative cinema provides a space for cinema to be born which is radical in both a political and an aesthetic sense and challenges the basic assumptions of mainstream film.” I believe she is trying to articulate the idea that because of the rules of mainstream/Hollywood cinema that have been developed through the history of film, they have designated a space in which an alternative form of media can effectively break these rules in order to present differing ideas, topics, subjects, and viewpoints in order benefit those individuals outside of the patriarchal system.

  13. I like that this article emphasized the problem of the disconnect of between theory and practice because the norm is broken and yet the new is( women power) is not yet accepted but are feasible.

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