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Feminist film theory

Parent categories: feminism - film theory

Related: academic study of pornography - the male gaze - the final girl theory - voyeurism - sadism - scopophilia - women and horror movies

Texts: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema

People: Carol Clover - Barbara Creed - Vera Dika - Mary Ann Doane - Paula Graham - Molly Haskell - Laura Mulvey - Patricia MacCormack - Tania Modleski - Claire Pajaczkowska - Cristina Pinedo - Patricia Pisters - Kaja Silverman - Anneke Smelik - Gaylyn Studlar - Donato Totaro - Linda Williams

Illustration of the male gaze: Un regard Oblique (1948) - Robert Doisneau
image sourced here. [Dec 2004]


Feminists have taken many different approaches to the analysis of cinema. These include discussions of the function of women characters in particular film narratives or in particular genres, such as film noir, where a woman character can often be seen to embody a subversive sexuality that is dangerous to men and is ultimately punished with death.

Feminist horror film theory

The rise of slasher horror was originally seen as a backlash against the feminist movement, especially in America. Critical discussion of gender roles within these films were basically discussion on the one-dimensional characters and the subjugation, sexual objectification and brutal murder of female characters.

The theory during the 1970s and 80s was that the motivation for the crazed psycho killer, was the negative feelings that he associated with a relationship with a woman. This woman was most commonly his mother, sister or a romantic interest who has rejected him. This can be seen in films such as Psycho (1960), who has some serious issues with his mother, or Halloween (1978), in which the killer is incited by his sister's neglect. Thus the female (the individual and the gender as a whole) is blamed for his rage, as well as becoming the victim of that rage. The female is thus seen as entirely responsible for the creation of the rage and is punished throughout the film for its creation. She is also indirectly responsible for the death of male characters within the film as they are victims of the rage she incited.

There is also the obvious issue of victimization. But using this argument to claim that horror films repressed women was seen as at worst - incorrect - and at best - simplistic - by most, even in the 1970s and 1980s horror films were seen to be the enemy of females everywhere. To argue that women are victimized in horror films overlooks the usually equal or proportionate number of males who also meet their, usually grisly, end.

On top of this, many argued that the largely male audience of these films were sexually aroused by the bloody deaths of these women, and that this arousal was caused and/or heightened by cinematic techniques such as camera angles, lighting etc. The film positions women who are sexually active as deserving of punishment. The murder of these women is often shot from the murder's point of view or the "gaze shot" - thus forcing the audience to participate in the murderer's voyeurism. The crime of the female victim is her arousal of the killer and the males in the audience. This theory springs from the perception of the masculine voyeur (whom the viewer identifies with - according to 70s/80s theories) vs. the feminine victim (who is being looked at, by both the murderer and the male gaze of the audience).

The feminist theory around horror films was, at this time, relatively short sighted. It called for positive image of women in from of the camera. It occasionally used psychoanalytical theory to show that women were being subjugated in these films, but did not recognise that it was these underlying patriarchal structures that needed to be changed. In the late 80s and early 90s, feminist theorist started to call upon more than just positive female images to change the patriarchal structure of film narrative. Instead, they realised that the semiotics, narrative structure, and psychoanalysis all must be used in order to confront patriarchal undertones in a film. This was a realisation that came throughout feminist theory - not just in the area of horror theory. Whilst this realisation enabled areas of feminist theory (film and non-film) to advance further, it would soon become irrelevant for horror studies. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminist_Horror_Film_Theory [Jan 2006]

See also: damsel in distress - women and horror - feminist film theory - final girl theory - horror film

Women's cinema

The term women's cinema usually refers to the work of women film directors. It can also designate the work of other women behind the camera such as cinematographers and screenwriters. Although the participation of women film editor, costume designers, and production designers is usually not considered to be decisive enough to justify the term "women's cinema", it does have a large influence on the visual impression of any movie. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_cinema [Nov 2005]

The male gaze

In considering the way that films are put together, many feminist film critics have pointed to the "male gaze" that predominates in classical Hollywood filmmaking. Laura Mulvey's essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" gave one of the most widely influential versions of this argument. This argument holds that through the use of various film techniques, such as shot reverse shot, a typical film's viewer becomes aligned with the point of view of its male protagonist. Notably, women function as objects of this gaze far more often than as proxies for the spectator. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminist_film_theory [Apr 2005]

See Laura Mulvey's essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminist_film_theory [Oct 2004]

Shot reverse shot, the gaze and film theory
Shot reverse shot is a film technique wherein one character is shown looking (often off-screen) at another character, and then the other character is shown looking "back" at the first character. Since the characters are shown facing in opposite directions, the viewer subconsciously assumes that they're looking at each other (a'la the 180 degree rule). However, shot reverse shot is also often combined with creative geography to create the sense that two characters are facing each other, when in fact they're being filmed in completely different locations or at completely different times. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shot_reverse_shot [Dec 2004]

The gaze in visual media theory
The concept of gaze (often also called the gaze), in analysing visual media, is one that deals with how an audience views other people presented. This concept is extended in the framework of feminist theory, where it can deal with how men look at women, how women look at themselves and other women, and the effects surrounding this. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaze [Dec 2004]

Sadism [...]

The dominant criticism of sadomasochism in media and popular culture has been articulated by feminism. According to critics such as Laura Mulvey, sadism is the ruling perversion in cinema, which is complicit with the male gaze. Women are thus controlled within the diegesis by male sadism (investigation/punishment) or sadistic fetishism, “fetishistic scopophilia.”[11]

Gaylyn Studlar notes that what is left out of this model is masochism and proposes an alternative model in which visual pleasure is not sadistic, but rather masochistic. Hence, visual pleasure is related to pre-oedipal pleasure of oral merger and fusion with the mother as opposed to separation and identification with the father.[12]

However, Linda Williams questions the “either/or oppositions” of Mulvey and Studlar’s models by emphasizing the pleasure of sadomasochistic fantasy in its non-fixed, interrelated, oscillation “between masculine/feminine, active/passive, sadistic/masochistic and oedipal/preoedipal” positions. -- Sadomasochism, Sexual Torture, and the Holocaust Film: From Misogyny to Homoeroticism and Homophobia in Apt Pupil, Caroline Joan (Kay) S. Picart and Jason Grant McKahan, accessed Feb 2004

Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (1984) - Teresa De Lauretis

Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (1984) - Teresa De Lauretis [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Teresa de Lauretis is an Italian born author and Professor of the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of several books on semiotics, feminist theory, film theory, and literature, best known for her work in narratology, such as her book Alice Doesn't. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teresa_de_Lauretis [Dec 2005]

And the Mirror Cracked : Feminist Cinema and Film Theory(1998) - Anneke Smelik

And the Mirror Cracked : Feminist Cinema and Film Theory(1998) - Anneke Smelik [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

"Cinema is a cultural practice where myths about women and femininity, and men and masculinity, in short, myths about sexual difference are produced, reproduced, and..."

Book Description
And the Mirror Cracked explores the politics and pleasures of contemporary feminist cinema. Tracing the highly productive ways in which feminist directors create alternative film forms, Anneke Smelik highlights cinematic issues which are central to feminist films: authorship, point of view, metaphor, montage and the excessive image. In a continuous mirror game between theory and cinema, this study explains how these cinematic techniques are used to represent female subjectivity positively and affirmatively. Among the films considered are: A Question of Silence, Bagdad Cafe, Sweetie, and The Virgin Machine.

About the Author
Anneke Smelik received a Ph.D. in Film Studies at the University of Amsterdam and currently runs Bureau Topaaz, a consultancy in visual media.

Women in Film Noir - E. Ann Kaplan

  1. Women in Film Noir - E. Ann Kaplan [Amazon.com]
    Film noir flourished in the years during and immediately following World War II, but the genre has never disappeared, as shown by the recent popularity of films like Basic Instinct, Bound, and LA Confidential. These academic essays, compiled by Kaplan (English, SUNY), ponder the "absent family" in noir, the role of woman as destroyer and redeemer, the common theme of female duplicity, and the role of women in the narrative structure. Other films considered here are Blue Gardenia, Gilda, Double Indemnity, modern noir films like Klute, and the horror classic The Haunting, which one critic sees as a representation of the "disruptive force of lesbian desire." Though few studies of women in this popular genre exist, the book's academic format and language will discourage most general readers.

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