Cultural Studies Essays - Mainstream Feminist Film

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Mainstream feminist film criticism, in no way acknowledges black female spectatorship. It does not even consider the possibility that women can construct an oppositional gaze via an understanding and awareness of thepolitics of race and racism.

Feminist film theory rooted in an historical psychoanalytic framework ...actively suppresses recognition of race...of racialized sexual difference many feminist critics continue to structure their discourse as though it speaks about 'women' when in actuality it speaks only about white women.

The debate surrounding feminism andfeminist film theory is a relatively new concept and one that is still notfully appreciated within the confines of contemporary political discourse, asPateman (1988:219) details.

Despite all the social changes andlegal and political reforms of the past three hundred years the question ofwomen's subordination is still not seen as a matter of major importance eitherin the academic study of politics or in political practice.

As a novel concept, it comes aslittle surprise to learn that feminism and women's rights film theory withinthemselves contain a degree of paradoxes and misinterpretations, the greatestsingle blot on mainstream feminism's young copybook being the fraughtrelationship with race that the movement has hitherto attempted to disguise viaa broader propagandist campaign of female solidarity. The issue, in terms ofspectatorship, does not have its roots in a deliberate policy of alienation,which characterised the maleordered society's tense relationship between blackand white but, rather, is the result of the nature of feminism as a politicaltheory and the socioeconomic manner of its fruition.

It is therefore prudent to firstexamine the genesis of feminism and its role in film theory to evaluate whetheror not mainstream feminist film criticism acknowledges black femalespectatorship and, likewise, to ascertain if the allegation that mainstream feministdiscourse pertains only to white women is true or not.

Feminism was borne out of the sameera of emancipation that characterised the civil rights movement in America andmuch of the terminology used to galvanise the first phase of the women'sliberation movement borrowed heavily from the AfricanAmerican struggle forequality in the sixties. Indeed, the phrase 'sexism' was coined directly fromits association with 'racism' and the name of the Women's Liberation Movementwas offered as a deliberate homage to the Black Liberation Movement. Feministssaw in the AfricanAmerican struggle a mirror image of their own oppression atthe hands of a predominantly white, malecentric society.

Thus, the feminist movement emergedfrom the same scarred social terrain of postwar America, spreading over timefirst to Europe and then to the remainder of the world. Its genesis as anoffspring of the civil rights movement is a highly significant point and shouldnot be forgotten within the bounds of this essay. Although the finer points offilm theory, incorporating spectatorship and visual aesthetics, may have veeredfrom the original course, the fundamental concept of alienation was central toboth movements.

Certainly, the early feminists or'firstwave' feminists (until the advent of the more radicalised leftwing'secondwave' of feminism towards the end of the 1970's) saw a reflection oftheir own struggles in the black liberations movement, a point that Stam(2000:170) expands upon. Many feminists built their analysis of sexism onprevious understandings of racism, a move that recalled the earlier parallelismbetween the firstwave feminist critique of paternalism and the abolitionistcritique of slavery.Feminism has always had more affinity with the black civil rights edicts thanwith the policies of the white, male dominated western state. It is incorrect,therefore, to claim that mainstream feminist theory was unaware of theintricacies of the politics of race when it was given confidence by that verystruggle.

Feminism, as a political creed, waslikewise a child of Marxist political and film theory, taking up the reignscast aside from the class war by using the same central theme of struggle to highlightthe lack of opportunity for women in film and in society in general. Feministfilm theorists used traditional examples of male mainstream filmmaking tounderscore how men are always seen as the active subject of the narrative,consigning women to the passive object of a spectator's gaze - merely thepassengers of a vehicle driven by men, a fact underscored succinctly bynovelist Angela Carter (1978:60).

In the celluloid brothel of thecinema, where the merchandise may be eyed endlessly but never purchased, thetension between the beauty of the woman, which is admirable, and the denial ofthe sexuality which is the source of that beauty but is also immoral, reaches aperfect impasse.

This gendercentric, sexual view echoedMarxist social and political notions of the perpetuation of the ruling classes,which argued that the middle and upper classes use the media, politicalinstitutions, financial institutions and, increasingly, film to maintain thestatus quo and quench the thirst of the leftists and the radicals.

The result of the strong, pervadingMarxist influence upon mainstream feminist film theory was an overemphasisupon gender solidarity to the extent that the term 'women' was seen as agalvanising phrase to band all of the disassociated, disenfranchised anddissatisfied female members of society under the same broad sociopoliticalumbrella. As Charlotte Brunsdon (1997:184) points out, this was ultimatelydetrimental to the overall success of mainstream feminism as well as bypassingthe more obvious racial and ethnic divides within such an allencompassingnotion.

The problem is that feministparadigms, particularly in their more popular manifestations, include quite developedideas about identity, about what women do and do not enjoy, and what is and isnot in their interests. Although this can be very challenging and thoughtprovoking, it can also be very undermining or alienating for female students,who can experience a pressure to defer to (feminist) definitions and accountsof their own identity and experience, or at least of the category - women - towhich they think they belong.

A paradoxical element can be seenin relation to the maturity of modern feminist theory whereby, on the one hand,the mainstream movement advocated the solidarity of all women in the ongoingstruggle against the patriarch society yet, on the other, exacerbated racialdivides by excluding the idea of a unified feminist experience. This uneasinesswith the term 'woman' and the limitations engendered by such a farreachingscope was translated to the moviemaking apparatus where the white feministagenda stood apart from its black sister movement, where notions ofspectatorship were measured and meted out through white eyes only.

An important feature to bear inmind, throughout the duration of the discussion, is the mindset and longtermgoals of the few women who were, and remain, in a position to finance, produceand make films of a feminist disposition. As Margaret Dickinson (1999:72)points out, many of the pioneering policies of mainstream feminism in the1970's and 1980's were too concerned with the careers of women alreadyestablished in the industry.

In a theoretical sense, allwomen stood to benefit from the loosening of the straightjacket of a maledominated film industry but, in reality, as with every other capitalistindustry, the majority of mainstream feminist films served only to further cementthe position of the fortunate few within the new establishment and did nothing topromote the interconnected interests of ethnic minorities such as black women.

Dickinson is quick to also pointout the divergence of ideology within the feminist movement, identifying asplit between the mainstream feminist film theorists and the younger generationof student feminists, who were generally more radical in their views. Likewise,she is keen to draw attention to the same flaw within the British black femalemovement of the era where the Black Media Worker's Association (formed in 1981)was of a much more mainstream agenda than the more radical Association of BlackWorkshops formed three years later. The same divisions between mainstream andradical beset both white and black feminist film theorists alike; it would bewrong to think of the black wing of the movement as being somehow moreprogressive or more unified in their pursuit of feminist emancipation. Feminismand feminist film theory, black and white both, was home to divisions markedalong traditional lines of conservatism and radicalism.

All of the above pertains totheory, garnered mostly out of universities and intellectual institutions,beginning in the 1960's and becoming more radical as the 1970's drew to aclose. Yet radical feminist writers such as Mary Daly and Susan Griffin(1987:7) saw the debate surrounding theory as, a masculine form of discoursewhich maintains male dominance by coopting women and suppressing thefeminine.

These radical feminists believedthat mainstream feminism was merely an extension of the male centric sociopoliticalorder with the upshot being that the ongoing debate pertaining to theory consignedthe issue of ethnic groups, such as blacks - groups that essentiallyconstituted a minority within a minority - to the ideological wasteland.

It must be remembered that much ofthe theoretical debate was formulated by white, middleclass, educated womenonly, which is a highly significant point in the establishment of anyalternative political, social or cultural creed, as Charles (2000:201) explains.The socioeconomic context in which social movements are located provides thematerial basis for their emergence and sets their limits on the effectivenessat the level of policy change.Although this point was recognised by writers such as Daly and Griffin, it didnothing to change the fact that black women, on the whole, had little or noaccess to either white mainstream feminism or later, more radical offshoots ofthe same branch.

Another important factor toconsider and a key fabric within the tapestry of mainstream feminism and filmtheory is the presence of sexuality, which only served to nudge black roles ofspectatorship further down the political agenda. It was only when theconsiderable lesbian voice within the broader remit of mainstream feminism becamemore unified, radical and political in its scope that the women's movementbecame visibly more leftwing, militant and aggressive, as Eisenstein (1984:48),writing at the time, ascertains. The womencentred perspective drew, in thefirst instance, upon the theoretical writings of lesbian feminism in the early1970's.

The influence of gay women on theformation of feminism, particularly feminist film theory and production, shouldnot be underestimated, especially during the 1980's and 1990's. To be a lesbianwas considered more radical and purely 'female' than to be a black feministadvocate of women's rights within certain sections of the mainstream feministmovement; the lesbian voice was certainly more audible than the black cries inwestern societies.

Yet, while this may be true in someparts of the world, in others, the dual legacy of sexuality and gender roles infeminist filmmaking has served to increase the attention paid to race as aseparate but at the same time interlinked issue of feminist political policy. InAustralia and New Zealand, for instance, countries with a rich history of filmmakingand, importantly, a small lifespan as independent Commonwealth nations, therehas been an upsurge of feminist films that centre upon the indigenous, ethnicor black experience, where the issue of race politics is used to furtherunderline the alienation of all women under a male dominated system of government.

Robson and Zalcock (1997:109) arguethat the role of black women and black spectatorship in feminist films in thisregion is a fundamental precept to a perspective that is admired throughout theworld for its honesty in portrayal, where black women play central roles infilm and are not reduced to mere spectators.

The 1990's have witnessed a newmood in Australasian women's filmmaking. It is a mood of confidence andstrength and it stems from two roots: the feminist impulse of the 1970's filmmakers and the politics of identity in the 1980's, with its demand for adiversity of representation from the margins. This dual legacy is apparent inrecent films made by women of colour and lesbians, and it is to be celebrated,given the systematic exclusion or misrepresentation of black and homosexualcharacters from commercial cinema for most of the hundred years of itshistory.

Furthermore, viewed from the blackperspective, white western mainstream feminist filmmakers have merelyattempted to highlight inequalities within their own cultural setup, pinpointingconditions that are unique to the white female experience. In dramas that areset in predominantly white areas, for example, it is understood that the roleof the black female, where such a role exists, is reduced to that of aspectator precisely because of the unique nature of the white experience.

Indeed, black feminist writers andfilm makers of the 1970's and 1980's followed along broadly similar lines intheir depiction of the black female experience on screen. And, for blackfeminist film makers who were inspired by the desire to produce a true to lifeaccount of the experiences of black women, particularly black women in urbanAmerica, this meant turning the camera back on itself to focus on the domesticlife of the postwar black patriarch family.

Many of the black feminist films ofthe 1980's, such as Suzanne, Suzanne (independently produced anddirected by Camille Billops and James Hatch) focused on domestic violencewithin the AfricanAmerican home, perpetrated by the domineering male head ofthe household, going, as McDowell (1989:78) deduces, against the grain of theromantic notion of the story of the black family cum black community headed bythe black male who does battle with an oppressive white world.

Black feminist filmmakers such asthis have only succeeded in attracting criticism from black male writers andanalysts for what they perceive, according to Valerie Smith (1997:206) as,traitors to the race who are overly influenced by the white female agenda.And herein lays the truth concerning black and white feminist film theory: bothrely on one another for inspiration and both borrow from each other'smanifestos. And, more importantly, both have been under almost constant attackfrom male critics who wish to divide the female political camp so as toperpetuate their cultural dominance; rarely does a woman from either the blackor the white perspective criticise feminist film.


The convergence of favourable socioeconomicconditions prevalent almost exclusively in white, middle class areas meant thatthe makeup of the mainstream feminist movement was overly psychoanalytical innature, whose films often served only to further alienate the movement. Aslittle more than a footnote in the broader political agenda, the issue of racepolitics within feminism was left barely touched upon.

The legacy that the feminists lentfrom the civil rights' movement, namely a sense of siege mentality borne out ofstruggle and inequality, turned itself against the goals of the movement andits first, tentative steps into film because, as Steven Shaviro (1993:66)claims; psychoanalytical discourse, even at its ostensibly most critical, doesnothing but reinscribe a universal history of lack and oppression. We cannotreally oppose the dominant maleheterosexual order when our only language isthe code that designs and ratifies precisely that order.

Yet, as the feminist movementmatured, so it's various branches - homosexual, racial, hardline political -explored new avenues for making their point via the medium of film. As arelatively young concept, the postmodern feminist movement cannot be judged interms of racial or ethnic lines, only in the light of a minority movement withlittle authority in what remains a white, male dominated industry.


S. Bourne, Black in the British Frame: Black People inBritish Film and Television, 18961996 (Cassell; London & Washington,1998)

C. Brunsdon, Screen Tastes: Soap Opera to Satellite Dishes(Routledge; London & New York, 1997)

A. Carter, The Saideian Woman and the Ideology ofPornography (Harper & Row; New York, 1978)

N. Charles, Feminism, the State and Social Policy (St.Martin's Press Inc; New York, 2000)

M. Dickinson (Edtd.), Rogue Reels: Oppositional Film inBritain, 194590 (British Film Institute Publishing; London, 1999)

H. Eisenstein, Contemporary Feminist Thought (UnwinPaperbacks; London & Sydney, 1984)

C. Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Polity Press;Cambridge, 1988)

J. Robson & B. Zalcock, Girls' own Stories: Australianand New Zealand Women's Films (Scarlet Press; London, 1997)

S. Shaviro, The Cinematic Body: Theory out of Bounds,Volume 2 (University of Minnesota Press; Minneapolis & London; 1993)

V. Smith (Edtd.), Representing Blackness: Issues in Filmand Video (Athlone; London, 1997)

R. Stam, Film Theory: an Introduction (Blackwell; Malden& Oxford, 2000)

C.A. Wall (Edtd.), Changing our own Words: Essays onCriticism, Theory and Writing by Black Women (Rutgers University Press;Brunswick, 1989)

C. Weedon, Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory(Blackwell; New York, 1987)

Selected Articles

D.E. McDowell, Reading Family Matters, in, C.A. Wall(Edtd.), Changing our own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory and Writing byBlack Women (Rutgers University Press; Brunswick, 1989)

V. Smith, Telling Family Secrets: Narrative and Ideologyin Suzanne, Suzanne, in, V. Smith (Edtd.), Representing Blackness:Issues in Film and Video (Athlone; London, 1997)