Feminist film theory

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See also: Women's cinema

Feminist film theory is theoretical film criticism derived from feminist politics and feminist theory. Feminists have many approaches to cinema analysis, regarding the film elements analyzed and their theoretical underpinnings.


The development of feminist film theory was influenced by second wave feminism and the development of women's studies in the 1960s and '70s. Feminist scholars began taking cues from the new theories arising from these movements to analyzing film. Initial attempts in the United States in the early 1970s were generally based on sociological theory and focused on the function of women characters in particular film narratives or genres and of stereotypes as a reflection of a society's view of women. Works such as Marjorie Rosen’s Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies, and the American Dream (1973) and Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in Movies (1974) analyze how the women portrayed in film related to the broader historical context, the stereotypes depicted, the extent to which the women were shown as active or passive, and the amount of screen time given to women.[1]

In contrast, film theoreticians in England began integrating perspectives based on critical theory and drawing inspiration from psychoanalysis, semiotics, and Marxism. Eventually these ideas gained hold within the American scholarly community in the later 1970s and 1980s. Analysis generally focused on what was described as "the production of meaning in a film text, the way a text constructs a viewing subject, and the ways in which the very mechanisms of cinematic production affect the representation of women and reinforce sexism".[2]

British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey is best known for her essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, written in 1973 and published in 1975 in the influential British film theory journal Screen. The essay later appeared in a collection of her essays entitled Visual and Other Pleasures, as well as in numerous other anthologies. Her article, which was influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, is one of the first major essays that helped shift the orientation of film theory towards a psychoanalytic framework. Prior to Mulvey, film theorists such as Jean-Louis Baudry and Christian Metz used psychoanalytic ideas in their theoretical accounts of the cinema. Mulvey's contribution, however, inaugurated the intersection of film theory, psychoanalysis and feminism.

In his essay from The Imaginary Signifier, "Identification, Mirror," Christian Metz argues that viewing film is only possible through scopophilia (pleasure from looking, related to voyeurism), which is best exemplified in silent film.[3]

According to Cynthia A. Freeland in "Feminist Frameworks for Horror Films," feminist studies of horror films have focused on psychodynamics where the chief interest is "on viewers' motives and interests in watching horror films".[4]

More recently, scholars have expanded their work to include analysis of television and digital media. Additionally, they have begun to explore notions of difference, engaging in dialogue about the differences among women (part of movement away from essentialism in feminist work more generally), the various methodologies and perspectives contained under the umbrella of feminist film theory, and the multiplicity of methods and intended effects that influence the development of films. Scholars are also taking increasingly global perspectives, responding to postcolonialist criticisms of perceived Anglo- and Eurocentrism in the academy more generally. Increased focus has been given to, "disparate feminisms, nationalisms, and media in various locations and across class, racial, and ethnic groups throughout the world".[5]

Key themes[edit]

The gaze and the female spectator

In considering the way that films are put together, many feminist film critics have pointed to what they argue is the "male gaze" that predominates in classical Hollywood filmmaking. Budd Boetticher summarises the view thus:

"What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance."[6]

Laura Mulvey's influential essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema"[7] (written in 1973 and published in 1975) expands on this conception to argue that in cinema women are typically depicted in a passive role that provides visual pleasure through scopophilia, [1] and identification with the on-screen male actor.[2] She asserts: "In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness,"[6] and as a result contends that in film a woman is the "bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning."[6] Mulvey argues that the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan is the key to understanding how film creates such a space for female sexual objectification and exploitation through the combination of the patriarchal order of society, and 'looking' in itself as a pleasurable act of voyeurism, as "the cinema satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking." [3]

While Laura Mulvey's paper has a particular place in the feminist film theory, it is also important to note that her ideas regarding ways of watching the cinema (from the voyeuristic element to the feelings of identification) have been very important to some feminist film theorists in terms of defining spectatorship from the psychoanalytical view point.

Mulvey identifies three "looks" or perspectives that occur in film which, she argues, serve to sexually objectify women. The first is the perspective of the male character on screen and how he perceives the female character. The second is the perspective of the spectator as they see the female character on screen. The third "look" joins the first two looks together: it is the male audience member's perspective of the male character in the film. This third perspective allows the male audience to take the female character as his own personal sex object because he can relate himself, through looking, to the male character in the film.[4]

In the paper, Mulvey calls for a destruction of modern film structure as the only way to free women from their sexual objectification in film, arguing for a removal of the voyeurism encoded into film by creating distance between the male spectator and the female character. The only way to do so, Mulvey argues, is by destroying the element of voyeurism and "the invisible guest".[citation needed] Mulvey also asserts that the dominance that men embody is only so because women exist, as without a woman for comparison, a man and his supremacy as the controller of visual pleasure are insignificant. For Mulvey, it is the presence of the female that defines the patriarchal order of society as well as the male psychology of thought.[citation needed]

Mulvey's argument is likely influenced by time period in which she was writing. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" was composed during the period of second-wave feminism, which was concerned with achieving equality for women in the workplace, and with exploring the psychological implications of sexual stereotypes. Mulvey calls for an eradication of female sexual objectivity, aligning herself with second-wave feminism. She argues that in order for women to be equally represented in the workplace, women must be portrayed as men are: as lacking sexual objectification.[citation needed]

Mulvey posits in her notes to the Criterion Collection DVD of Michael Powell's controversial film Peeping Tom (a film about a homicidal voyeur who films the deaths of his victims) that the cinema spectator’s own voyeurism is made shockingly obvious and even more shockingly, the spectator identifies with the perverted protagonist. The inference is that she includes female spectators in that, identifying with the male observer rather than the female object of the gaze.[8]

B. Ruby Rich argues that women’s relationships with film is instead dialectical, consciously filtering the images and messages they receive through cinema, and reprocessing them to elicit their own meanings.[9]

Coming from a black feminist perspective, American scholar bell hooks put forth the notion of the “oppositional gaze,” encouraging black women not to accept stereotypical representations in film, but rather actively critique them.[10] Janet Bergstrom’s article “Enunciation and Sexual Difference” (1979) uses Sigmund Freud’s ideas of bisexual responses, arguing that women are capable of identifying with male characters and men with women characters, either successively or simultaneously.[11] Miriam Hanson, in “Pleasure, Ambivalence, Identification: Valentino and Female Spectatorship” (1984) put forth the idea that women are also able to view male characters as erotic objects of desire.[11] In "The Master's Dollhouse: Rear Window," Tania Modleski argues that Hitchock's film, Rear Window, is an example of the power of male gazer and the position of the female as a prisoner of the "master's dollhouse".[12]

Carol Clover, in her popular and influential book "Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film" (Princeton University Press, 1992) argues that young male viewers of the Horror Genre (young males being the primary demographic) are quite prepared to identify with the female-in-jeopardy, a key component of Horror narrative, and to identify on an unexpectedly profound level. Clover further argues that the "Final Girl" in the psychosexual subgenre of Exploitation Horror invariably triumphs through her own resourcefulness, and is not by any means a passive, or inevitable, victim. Laura Mulvey, in response to these and other criticisms, revisited the topic in “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by Duel in the Sun” (1981). In addressing the heterosexual female spectator, she revised her stance to argue that women can take two possible roles in relation to film: a masochistic identification with the female object of desire that is ultimately self-defeating or a transsexual identification with men as the active viewers of the text.[11] A new version of the gaze was offered in the early 1990s by Bracha Ettinger, who proposed the notion of the "matrixial gaze".

Realism and counter cinema[edit]

The early work of Marjorie Rosen and Molly Haskell on representation of women in film was part of a movement to make depictions of women more realistic both in documentaries and narrative cinema. The growing female presence in the film industry was seen as a positive step toward realizing this goal, by drawing attention to feminist issues and putting forth alternative, more true-to-life views of women. However, Rosen and Haskell argue that these images are still mediated by the same factors as traditional film, such as the “moving camera, composition, editing, lighting, and all varieties of sound.” While acknowledging the value in inserting positive representations of women in film, some critics asserted that real change would only come about from reconsidering the role of film in society, often from a semiotic point of view.[13]

Claire Johnston put forth the idea that women’s cinema can function as "counter cinema". Through consciousness of the means of production and opposition of sexist ideologies, films made by women have the potential to posit an alternative to traditional Hollywood films.[14] In reaction to this article, many women filmmakers have integrated "alternative forms and experimental techniques" to "encourage audiences to critique the seemingly transparent images on the screen and to question the manipulative techniques of filming and editing".[15]

List of notable feminist film theorists and critics[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Erens, Patricia. “Introduction” Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Patricia Erens, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. pp. xvi.
  2. ^ Erens, Patricia. "Introduction", Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Patricia Erens, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. pp. xvii.
  3. ^ Braudy and Cohen, Film Theory and Criticism, Sixth Edition, Oxford University Press, 2004, page 827
  4. ^ Braudy and Cohen, Film Theory and Criticism, Sixth Edition, Oxford University Press, 2004
  5. ^ McHugh, Kathleen and Vivian Sobchack. “Introduction: Recent Approaches to Film Feminisms.” Signs 30(1):1205–1207.
  6. ^ a b c Erens, P. (1990). Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Indiana University Press. p. 28. ISBN 9780253319647. Retrieved October 27, 2014. 
  7. ^ Swedberg, Deborah (1989). "What Do We See When We See Woman/Woman Sex in Pornographic Movies". NWSA Journal 1 (4): 602–16. 
  8. ^ Laura Mulvey. "Peeping Tom". Retrieved August 27, 2010. 
  9. ^ Rich, B. Ruby. “In the Name of Feminist Film Criticism. Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Patricia Erens, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, pp. 268–287.
  10. ^ hooks, bell. “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader. Amelia Jones, ed. London: Routledge, 2003, pp. 94–105.
  11. ^ a b c Erens, Patricia. “Introduction” Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Patricia Erens, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. pp. xxi.
  12. ^ Braudy and Cohen, Film Theory and Criticism, Sixth Edition, Oxford University Press, 2004, page 861.
  13. ^ Erens, Patricia. “Introduction” Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Patricia Erens, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. pp. xviii.
  14. ^ Johnston, Claire. "Women’s Cinema as Counter Cinema." Sexual Stratagems: The World of Women in Film. Patricia Erens, ed. New York: Horizon Press, 1979, pp 133–143.
  15. ^ Erens, Patricia. “Introduction” Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Patricia Erens, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. pp. xix.

Further reading[edit]

  • Sue Thornham (ed.), Feminist Film Theory. A Reader, Edinburgh University Press 1999
  • Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism, edited by Diane Carson, Janice R. Welsch, Linda Dittmar, University of Minnesota Press 1994
  • Kjell R. Soleim (ed.), Fatal Women. Journal of the Center for Women's and Gender Research, Bergen Univ., Vol. 11: 115–128, 1999.
  • Bracha L. Ettinger (1999), "Matrixial Gaze and Screen: Other than Phallic and Beyond the Late Lacan." In: Laura Doyle (ed.) Bodies of Resistance. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2001.
  • Beyond the Gaze: Recent Approaches to Film Feminisms. Signs Vol. 30, no. 1 (Autumn 2004).
  • Griselda Pollock, Differencing the Canon. Routledge, London & N.Y., 1999.
  • Griselda Pollock (ed.), Psychoanalysis and the Image. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.
  • Raberger, Ursula: New Queer Oz: Feministische Filmtheorie und weibliche Homosexualiät in zwei Filmen von Samantha Lang. VDM Verlag Dr. Müller: 2009, 128 p. (German)