You will make it through this.
Stay calm. If you are reading this,
you are here.
You are here because you are in danger
and you are in danger because you are here.
—— Daphne Gottlieb, “Final Girl II: The Frame”, Final Girl
Daphne Gottlieb’s 2003 poetry collection takes its name and central concept from an unlikely place—but it’s the place I go when I need to stay calm and read my way through the danger: feminist film theory. Sure, it’s often presented in pop culture as the archetypal arcana of “identity politics,” a confusing swirl of Freudian phalluses and anti-pleasure dissertations. But it’s a primer for understanding the persistently oppressive media landscapes in which we are all constantly immersed. And beyond that, it’s full of thought-provoking analyses of creative labor, and wittily impassioned inspirations for creative practice.
And it gave us the phrase “final girl.” Gottlieb takes her title from Carol Clover’s book on horror cinema, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, published by the British Film Institute in 1992 and nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. Like the idea of the Bechdel Test, the phrase has passed deeply into pop culture: it was the title of the final episode of the first season of knowingly post-feminist TV series Scream Queens. Clover’s formulation is one of a small handful of such phrases, along with Laura Mulvey’s identification of “the male gaze” and bell hooks’ subsequent argument for “the oppositional gaze,” whose popularity pays tribute to the clarity of the writers and the continuing urgency of their arguments for inclusive media. And yet, most people’s imagined shelves of writing about film would most likely fail the Bechdel Test.
Yet long before feminist film theory, female film critics were the source of insight into what to watch for millions of people globally. Despite Meryl Streep’s recent epiphany that there are not enough female film critics, it has traditionally been a high-profile role for female journalists. C.A. (Caroline) Lejeune was the first professional film critic, talking her way into a job at the Manchester Guardian; Iris Barry (London Mercury) and Lotte Eisner (Berlin Film-Curier), while the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) started the first English-language theoretical film journal Close Up, with her ex-husband—and her girlfriend, Bryher. They persuaded writers such as Dorothy Richardson and Gertrude Stein to turn their hands to film criticism, which you can read in the collected Close Up, edited by Laura Marcus.
For many US newspaper readers, from 1968 to 1991 Pauline Kael was the movies.
And she retains her dominance. She is also the only female film writer to have gained credible recognition—four votes, spread across two of her books—in Sight & Sound’s June 2010 poll of the best books on film. All books in the top five are by white men writing about white men. Out of 255 titles selected by 51 contributors (5 female), 23 titles are by nineteen female writers—9%.
It’s astonishing that Mulvey is not cited once. Her 1975 definitional essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”—source of the phrase “the male gaze”—remains the single most-cited article across all of film and media studies. A tour-de-force of feminist writing about film, it also writes towards an emerging feminist filmmaking, including Mulvey’s own. Written out of political urgency rather than academic duty, it has saturated popular culture to the point that it could provide the punchline to a joke on Parks and Recreation.
Susan Sontag also seems a stark omission, but then she never collected her film writing in a single volume. Non-white women number precisely one: filmmaker and theorist Trinh T. Minh-Ha. Full disclosure: I selected Trinh, along with Maya Deren and Anne Carson. On reflection, I’m particularly ashamed that I missed bell hooks, as well as Mulvey, from my list.
As hooks herself writes, she has never been a regular reviewer or columnist on film; her essays and interviews spring from a passion for the medium formed as a viewer, and subsequently as a pedagogical tool for engaging students (see the introduction to Reel to Real). Cannily, she collected her contributions to disparate magazines, newspapers, websites, and personal writing into three collections: Black Looks: Race and Representation, Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representation, and Reel to Real: Race, Sex and Class at the Movies. Her writing on black cinema—championing Julie Dash, Camille Billops, and Isaac Julien, for example—is particularly valuable as a record of films that have been under-served by exhibition and distribution. For thousands of readers, hooks kept Dash’s Daughters of the Dust alive until its DVD release in 2000.
Jacqueline Bobo’s Black Women Film and Video Artists, Beti Ellerson’s Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa on Film, Video and Television, Lingzhen Wang’s Chinese Women’s Cinema: Transnational Contexts, and Elissa Rashkin’s Women Filmmakers in Mexico: The Country of Which We Dream are likewise far more than catalogues or critiques: they are lifelines, dreamspaces, imaginations-otherwise of retrospectives, cinematic versions of what Griselda Pollock calls the “virtual feminist museum.”
While it matters that such film critics and theorists are (in common with non-cismale writers across the publishing landscape) accorded less respect, given less credibility, and seen as less canonical, it matters particularly in relation to the respect/credibility/canon deficit for feminist filmmaking. Put simply: feminist films—when they are made, and they are—get less distribution, less high-profile media, and are less likely to be released on DVD. That means they get taught less frequently, and are less likely to be considered in non-feminist film scholarship. This lack of recognition leads to a vicious cycle of filmmakers being ignored and forgotten, and having to be rediscovered by every generation. As Jill McDonough argued on VIDA, it’s the myth of scarcity that gets perpetuated by the unconscious bias that affects distributors, editors, and viewers—and potential artists themselves, faced with a wall of non- or mis-recognition.
Where can a non-cismale filmmaker see themselves in our culture? Only one female filmmaker, Sofia Coppola, has ever appeared on the cover of Sight & Sound, a salutary fact that stands for a much deeper problem of critical engagement with inclusion in film criticism, as I argued in the open letter I wrote to the magazine (to which I am a contributor) in 2014. Until a VIDA count can be initiated in film criticism and scholarship, it remains an unproven truism, but one that can be supported by observation: far fewer cismale film critics or scholars write about work by non-cismale filmmakers substantively, at feature-length, essay-length, or book-length. Cismale editors are less likely to commission work on non-cismale filmmakers, and that work is less likely to be high-profile; for example, a cover feature.
While I haven’t done a magazine-based survey, a glance at the list of English-language monographs on female filmmakers and their films that I compiled for Political Animals shows that few cismale scholars are writing about non-cismale filmmakers. There are important individual monographs, such Randolph Lewis’s study of Abenaki documentary-maker Alanis Obomsawin, one of the few monographs on a non-white female filmmaker; J.D. Rhodes’ study of Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon,” and Douglas Keesey’s book on Catherine Breillat. Studying female filmmakers in any depth remains almost exclusively a female purview.
Across the major series of academic and popular nonfiction books on filmmakers, representation of female filmmakers runs at about 7%, close to the standard (and undeviating) figure given for female directors in top box-office Hollywood cinema. There are no monographs thus far on trans or non-binary filmmakers. Most of the filmmakers covered—bar Kathryn Bigelow—work in arthouse and independent cinema, where currently women make up roughly 21% of directors, according to studies of festivals such as Sundance, and of European exhibition. That’s a 2/3 gap between film production/exhibition and scholarly representation.
This means that the perceived deficit in female participation (and indeed filmmaking ability) is not so much reflected as reinforced by film publishing. One of the most popular and long-running series in the UK—Faber & Faber’s interviews with directors (now out of print), titled X on X—was very much XY on XY. Cahiers du Cinéma published Varda par Agnès, a testament to Agnès Varda’s longevity, and her long intellectual and social relationship with the magazine. While Faber’s script publication list is healthier, including three screenplays by Sally Potter (Orlando, The Tango Lesson, The Man Who Cried), Potter is also the author of one of their few non-screenplay film titles by a woman.
Potter’s Naked Cinema: Working With Actors is a revolutionary entry into film publishing in a number of ways. Unlike the X on X series, it’s predominantly composed of her interviewing other people. Potter talks to various actors at length and in depth about their experience, not only with her, but across their careers. The condensed first part of the book, Potter’s reflective and pragmatic guide to directing actors, also is a radical departure. It defies multiple assumptions: that actors are “warm props” and solely objects of the (male) gaze; that directors are solo genius auteurs rather than collaborators; that stars are difficult divas and/or blank slates; and that filmmaking is glamorous, self-adulatory fun.
It’s also one of the very few major practical guides to any aspect of filmmaking written by a woman, although it can be shelved with Nadia Denton’s recent double bill The Nigerian Filmmaker’s Guide to Success: Beyond Nollywood and The Black British Filmmaker’s Guide to Success—practical textbooks aimed at markets with which she has personal experience, and that are under-reported, under-theorised, and under-served. Similarly, there are female-authored guides to documentary filmmaking and low budget filmmaking, but they rarely rank as canonical guides, let alone critical writing. As the Sight & Sound list shows, it’s filmmakers such as Robert Bresson and Sergei Eisenstein who apparently hold the keys to the arthouse auteurist kingdom; Robert McKee, Walter Murch, and William Goldman hold a similar sway for American commercial cinema.
One of the first American filmmakers to write about both practical and theoretical issues in detail—from cinematography to exhibition to the meaning of culture—was Maya Deren, who published An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film in 1946. Deren subsequently had experimental filmmaking mansplained to her by non-filmmakers Arthur Miller and Dylan Thomas, who threw in some sexual innuendo to boot, at a Cinema 16 panel in 1953. The boys’ club of the American avant-garde allowed her films and her writing to fall out of circulation. It’s returned thanks to the heroic efforts of Legend of Maya Deren editors VeVe A. Clark, Millicent Hodson and Catrina Neima. For those who can’t afford the massive volume, there’s Documentext’s Essential Deren (and it is).
It was Deren’s example that inspired filmmaker Barbara Hammer, who recounts that Meshes of the Afternoon was the only film directed by a woman that she saw during her undergraduate studies. Hammer went on to make dozens of films, videos, and installations, and to narrate the experience in Hammer!: Making Movies Out of Sex and Life, published by the Feminist Press. Along with Yvonne Rainer’s Feelings are Facts and Michelle Citron’s Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions, Hammer! forms a unique triptych of experimental feminist writing that binds together filmmaking, feminist politics, and lesbian lives, a genre pioneered by Trinh in Woman, Native, Other, where she writes:
By laying bare the codes of literary labor, it unequivocally acknowledges the writer’s contradictory stand—her being condemned to do ‘good work’ in choosing to ‘write well’ and to produce Literature. She writes, finally not to express, not so much to materialize an idea or a feeling, as to possess and dispossess herself of the power of writing. Bliss.
The uptick in memoirs by media-makers such as Lena Dunham and Amy Poehler is intriguing, especially insofar as it might prompt readers to look for more, to seek out, for example, Marguerite Duras’ dreamy, haunted Green Eyes. It includes a magnificent interview with Elia Kazan, mainly about Duras’ desire to get the distribution rights for Wanda, directed by Barbara Loden (Kazan was her husband)—now one of the emblematic “lost” American women’s films of 1970s, along with Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends. But those of us drawn to reading about women’s cinema had long known about Girlfriends from Annette Kuhn’s compelling discussion of it in her classic Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema (updated and reissued by Verso in 1994). The feedback cycle of feminist film history is too important to ignore.
With the new pre-eminence of magnificent filmmakers such as Ava DuVernay, Lana and Lilly Wachowski, Laura Poitras, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Amma Asante, and Céline Sciamma, it’s hard to imagine a time when their films might drop out of circulation—and yet the Region 2 DVD release of Selma didn’t feature DuVernay’s name on the cover; similarly, Carol Morley’s name was nowhere to be seen on the cover of The Falling. When the textual culture of the commercial mainstream remains so implacably opposed to female authorship—even when it has clearly, and successfully, taken place—an alternate textual economy is needed to keep these films and filmmakers alive, if only in readers’ imaginations. As Hammer writes plangently in her memoir:
A film rests in a can until it’s screened but a book can be opened at any time by anyone in any country. It doesn’t require a darkened room, a special location or equipment. I thought a book could be a portal to my films. Perhaps my films, a life’s work, could reach a new audience through the words and stories of my life.
Mulvey’s work is still cited because it still tells a profound truth about dominant cinema and writing about cinema: women’s to-be-looked-at-ness. And if women are to be looked at, they cannot also look—they can’t be active, intelligent, opinionated viewers of themselves. And yet for forty years the question of female spectatorship has been explored by Mulvey in “Afterthoughts,” and then by Mary Ann Doane, Teresa de Lauretis, Tania Modleski, Jackie Stacey, Vivian Sobchack, hooks, and more.
As Gottlieb argues towards the close of “Final Girl II: The Frame,” critical female spectatorship is powerful:
Scream until your eyes work.
They will work when you pick up a weapon.
They will work when something changes
Books and essays about women’s and feminist cinema, by female and feminist critics, are great weapons in the struggle to make change.
SOPHIE MAYER is the author of Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (IB Tauris, 2015) and The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love (Wallflower, 2009), as well as several collections of poetry; most recently, (O) (Arc, 2015) and kaolin (Lark Books, 2015). She is a regular contributor of film reviews to Sight & Sound, The F-Word, and Literal, and of poetry reviews to Shearsman. She is a UK feminist film activist with Club des Femmes and Raising Films. @tr0ublemayer.