Women’s Films and Social Change

Maggie Hennefeld


The New York Times reported some “happy news” in January 2013: “9 percent of the top 250 movies at the domestic box office last year were made by female directors. That’s substantially higher than the 2011 figure of 5 percent.” While the increase in women directors has fostered the visibility of gender politics, the relationship between films made by women and films about the complexities of being a woman remains mystifying. Traditionally, the category “women’s film” has invoked maternal melodramas (“weepies” like Stella Dallas and Now, Voyager), romantic comedies (Sleepless in Seattle, Clueless), and other sub-genres of “chick flicks” that emphasize interpersonal romance and cosmetic transformation above feminist politics or structural change. It is striking how much the recent reporting about female filmmaking seems to take its cues from these longstanding genre conventions. The journalism about recent gains and setbacks for women in film production tends to focus on statistical representation over changes in representational aesthetics.


The Celluloid Ceiling reports that women comprised only 18 percent of all directors, executive producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the 250 domestic top-grossing films in 2012. Laura Beck of Jezebel asserts: “There’s Only 1 Female Director for Every 15.24 Male Ones and Things Aren’t Getting Better.” None of the 22 films nominated for a Palme D’Or at Cannes last year was directed by a woman. Despite a higher proportion of women-directed films at the Sundance Film Festival (in which Lauren Greenfield, Ava DuVernay, and Lucy Walker all won awards in 2012), this festival appears to be more of an anomaly than an impetus for structural reform.


Sundance is the exception that proves the rule of the film industry’s ingrained gender inequities according to industry press discourse. For example, Forbes published these words of optimism in anticipation of the 2013 Sundance: “Maybe the big Hollywood studios don’t always put female directors at the top of their wish lists, but judging from the record number of U.S. competition films directed by women at Sundance 2013—who needs Hollywood?”


This is precisely the problem. Bracketing women’s success in the film industry under certain types of festival venues and distribution networks is another way of marginalizing films made by women. This strategy echoes attempts to delimit women’s films through genre categories like the “weepie” or “chick flick.” It has partly emerged in response to the decline of the Hollywood studio system. Although still immensely powerful, Hollywood no longer reigns supreme as the last word in filmmaking the way it did in the 1940s. The industry now is increasingly organized around niches and networks of production and exhibition, extending from the film festival circuit and even Internet campaigns supported by websites like Kickstarter. However, instead of just asking where women’s films appear, we need to start asking more questions about how they gain visibility in the first place. What do women’s films look like? And how do identity statistics corroborate our notions of what women’s films can be, or of what kinds of social changes they can provoke?


Perhaps the biggest breakthrough has been in the documentary genre. If there is less than one female director for every 15 male ones, there is more than one for every two in documentary production. These gains are significant, but also fall prone to certain dangers given their subject matter. Since films by women are already marginalized, we are often too inclined to view the successful exceptions as truly exceptional, elevating them to the status of gospel. The expert omniscience of the invisible voiceover is of course a longstanding convention of the documentary genre. Lately, the invisible position of a documentary film’s all-knowing narrator seems to find an alibi in the metaphorical invisibility of its female director. The list of recent, woman-directed documentaries with successful market distribution and cultural recognition is quite robust. It includes Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Alison Klayman, 2012), The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, 2012), Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, 2011), Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012), A River Changes Course (Kalyanee Mam, 2013), American Promise (Michele Stephenson, 2013), The Square (Jehane Noujaim, 2013), and The Oath (Laura Poitras, 2010).


More controversial instances of otherwise formulaic documentaries are especially revealing. For example, the hyper-visible censorship of CNN’s Hillary Clinton documentary, which has caused the Republican National Committee to draft a resolution banning the network (along with NBC) from airing GOP Primary debates, ostensibly equates the visibility of women in politics with women’s potential to effect meaningful political change. It bears repeating: visibility and transformation are not the same thing. By scandalizing the GOP’s all-too strategic decision to limit public airing of their ridiculous primary antics, we play into their efforts to make Clinton’s formidable candidacy appear token, when in fact it is anything but token.


Documentary conventions encourage their spectator to take a position in relation to the world. They provide a narrative, a voice, and an organizing framework for smoothing over the complexities and multiple arcs of historical change. Coverage of film industry identity politics often adopts the rhetoric of the documentary voiceover narrator. An article on “The Success of Women Documentary Filmmakers” by Melissa Silverstein repeatedly slips between concerns about female participation and the social impact of the evidence that women’s films document. “Take a look at all the major film festivals that include documentaries and you will see the women’s names are as prominent as the men’s. Lisa Jackson is a woman on a mission. She is determined to relay testimony from the thousands of women of the Congo who were raped and mutilated during many years of war.” While both issues that Silverstein raises are crucial and pressing, it is disturbing to see how fluidly she shifts between them. She conflates professional inequities in Western media production with the sexual violence arising from Congolese genocide.

Gendered ethnographies premised on Western women who spread hopes of democracy and civil rights to developing world oligarchies have leaned heavily on their instruments. Films like Pray the Devil Back to Hell (Gini Reticker, 2008), Forbidden Voices: How to Start a Revolution with a Computer (Barbara Miller, 2012), Invoking Justice (Deepa Dhanraj, 2011), Sisters In Law (Kim Longinotto, 2005), and Camera/Woman (Karima Zoubir, 2012) foster reporting like Silverstein’s by equating the spread of global democracy with the physical presence of women documentary filmmakers. On a structural level, focusing on these examples unifies the profound global complexity of the international film production market.


Far from being limited to Hollywood (very far in fact) or to the Western World, current women filmmakers hail from all over the globe. Women Make Movies’ 2013 film catalog highlights films by women produced in Lebanon, Brazil, Korea, Morocco, El Salvador, Mexico, China, Switzerland, Germany, the U.S., Canada, Cambodia, Pakistan, South Africa, the Caribbean, India, Iran, the Philippines, the Congo, Iraq, Japan, Australia, and elsewhere. However, rather than engaging the narrative overdetermination of female filmmaking’s geographical dispersal, documentaries like Forbidden Voices attempt to map geopolitics neatly onto film industry representation. They unify global juridical issues of sexual rights by filtering them through questions of women’s professional visibility.


For example, Karima Zoubir’s Camera/Woman focuses on a community of divorced female wedding photographers working in Casablanca. Extrapolating the political from the personal and the professional, Camera/Woman uses a verité style to explore broader issues confronting working-class Muslim women in societies undergoing profound religious and economic changes. The filmmaker’s instrument, the premise of these women’s ethnographic visibility, becomes a mystical tool for achieving future social progress and gender equality. Cinema’s ability to overcome spatial distance brings the future nearer to us, displacing space onto a utopian temporality, with no explanation necessary other than the medium itself.


More pointedly, Swiss director Barbara Miller’s Forbidden Voices: How to Start a Revolution with a Computer optimistically imagines global digital networks as the impetus for overcoming regional forms of gender inequality. Documenting “cyberfeminists” who blog about human rights injustice from Iran, China, and Cuba, the film attempts to transcend its own medium format. Limited by a global but restricted festival and DVD market, Forbidden Voices associates gendered violence under repressive regimes with the very survival of traditional media distribution and production economies. According to Miller’s documentary, not only is the medium also the message: it is the benchmark for sexual rights under global democracy.


In order to address these entanglements between industry standards and aesthetic politics more thoroughly, we might begin by considering how profoundly interrelated their implications have become.


1) Women’s Film History

Q: Would it be unprecedented to see more women participating in the industry as filmmakers?


A: No. To quote the British film historian Anthony Slide, “There were more women directors at work in the American film industry prior to 1920 than during any period of its history.” From the French filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché who made over 700 films in France and the U.S. from 1896-1920, to the activist filmmaker Lois Weber, women including Mabel Normand, Helen Gardner, Elvira Notari, Bahiga Hafez, Musidora (Jeanne Roques), Ruth Ann Baldwin, Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Alla Nazimova, and many others dominated international film production. It was not until the emergence and solidification of the Hollywood studio system that women were eked out of directorial roles almost completely (with only a few exceptions like Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino). Historically, women’s participation in filmmaking has helped pioneer the very notion of the film director.


2) Economy

Q: What changes in the structure of big studio and independent filmmaking have enabled gains for women? How might the reorganization of funding opportunities limit gender representation while simultaneously mobilizing it?


A: From the global film festival circuit, which regulates independent sponsorship networks, to Internet and Kickstarter campaigns, new funding opportunities have fostered a greater diversity of voices and perspectives for cinematic representation. As Martha Lauzen argues in her study for Celluloid Ceiling, while women have been more active as directors in top-grossing films, their representation as executive producers has stagnated (at around 18 percent). Women’s film production at once thrives and suffocates through the relative democratization of production opportunities. The politics of marginality often become self-fulfilling prophecies. Feminist projects frequently appeal to clichés about gender inequity, which earns them just enough traction for limited financial support and distribution mobility. From untold biographies of historically remarkable women, to ethnographies about sexual injustice in distant lands, the rhetoric of invisibility both creates new financial incentives while stifling many of the structural critiques embedded in women’s filmmaking.


3) Geopolitics

Q: Where have women been finding entry into the film industry? How does putting women filmmakers “on the map” reinforce or contradict our geographical perceptions about gender and societal change?


A: The catchall objective of “globalism” has become the twin sister of gender equality in film production. How could we even think about formulating an identity politics in 2013 that ignores national, ethnic, religious, and sexual differences? The canon of women’s filmmaking has been disproportionately dominated by Western (and by predominantly white) women’s experimental filmmaking. The list has spanned the careers of Maya Deren, Su Friedrich, Barbara Kopple, Yvonne Rainer, Ulrike Ottinger, Laura Mulvey, Germaine Dulac, Barbara Rubin, Yoko Ono, Miranda July, Marie Menken, Carolee Schneemann, Joyce Wieland, Shirley Clarke, Leslie Thornton, Abigail Child, Chick Strand, and many others.


However, aesthetic experimentation too often stands in for the meaningful extension of gender politics to other spheres of identity construction. It is no longer tenable to imagine a feminist politics based on metaphors about linguistic difference alone. For every retrospective highlighting Joyce Wieland’s or Laura Mulvey’s different film language, there should be an effort to account for how popular film narratives have emerged from actual geographies of sexual inequality. For example, how do films like English Vinglish (Gauri Shinde, 2012), Jassad & The Queen of Contradictions (Amanda Homsi-Ottosson, 2011), Bollywood/Hollywood (Deepa Mehta, 2002), Talaash (Reema Kagti, 2012), and even Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003) reframe critical theories about the feminist politics of difference and identification?


4) Representation

Q: What does a woman’s film look like? Does increasing women’s representation behind the camera fundamentally change the way we perceive the world in front of it?


A: Given the profound impact that film narratives can have on our everyday perspectives, it is inevitable that filmmakers’ own identities would reflect the spectator’s identifications through them. While the director as “auteur” is no longer thought to dictate all textual meaning—film signification exceeds a filmmaker’s agency—this semiotic revelation should not erase the impact of authorial intention entirely. In other words, a film’s meanings are overdetermined. Women’s films, through their sheer representational, historical, economic, and geopolitical disparities, provoke us to entertain arguments whose stakes we cannot conceptualize concretely. Instead of imagining gender politics as the negation or reversal of an oppressive position, we should engage the actual historical conditions of women’s filmmaking through their very political incoherence and fragmentation.


Recent women-directed films have ranged from topical and historical war thrillers like Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness (2011), to documentaries about remarkable figures such as the artist Ai Weiwei and fashion editor Diana Vreeland, to linguistic dramas spanning English Vinglish, The Other Son (Lorraine Levy, 2012), and Where Do We Go Now? (Nadine Labaki, 2011). Devastating documentaries about sexual violence under repressive regimes have circulated internationally alongside satires about scandalous upheavals in sexuality: Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, 2011), Hysteria (Tanya Wexler, 2011), and the U.K./Lebanese co-production aptly titled Jassad & The Queen of Contradictions (Amanda Homsi-Ottosson, 2011).


It is precisely the inconsistencies and tensions among these films that make them useful to contemplate as a common entity. These films challenge us to rethink the relations between women’s films and films made by women, thereby re-awakening us to the present-day politics of a feminism that lacks any single coherent voice or movement to defend it.


Author Bio:

Maggie Hennefeld is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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