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.