Chapter 6: 21st-century media and issues
6.2.2 The female gaze: A look into the realities of women filmmakers (synthesis)
English 102, September 2020
When you are watching a movie, the proper thing to do is give it your full attention. However, even with the utmost attention, there are many things that we fail to consider upon viewing. Some things are more apparent, such as stereotypes, but others, like themes, are hidden underneath, and require a type of literacy in order to understand.
Firstly, we must define some important concepts. In linguist John Gee’s essay titled “What is Literacy?,” he introduces a concept that many of us live without considering. This concept is literacy. Although it sounds like it, literacy is not just something you learn in school. Literacy is the knowledge of the specific language and behavior of a social group or community (Gee 18). For example, if I were a film director, I would know all of the specific terms, technology, and proper etiquette that comes with the job. If I had to explain the job to someone who is not a director, I would essentially have to teach them a whole new language. This is an example of a discourse. A discourse refers to a certain type of speaking, thinking, and behaving that is distinguishable of a community or social group and its members. An “identity kit” is a metaphor that can be used to explain discourses. We can imagine a discourse as a “kit” that contains the tools and instructions to embody a persona (Gee 18). It can also be compared to being in a play. In a play, you have a costume and a script which help you take on a specific role. But we do not all have one single role to play in our lives, we have a multitude. Therefore, literacy is also the ability to switch back and forth between different discourses and knowing when to do so. For example, when you are a child, you are taught to act a specific way at home and a specific way at school. How we are raised can be referred to as our “primary discourse,” whereas everything outside of our initial understanding of the world can be considered as “secondary discourses” (Gee 22). There are two ways that we are introduced to secondary discourses: learning, and acquisition. Learning is a more formal, analytic based way of understanding that we are often taught at school. Acquisition is knowledge that we acquire subconsciously from our real-life experiences (Gee 20).
Now, we can get on to the main topic that I will be discussing: the relationship between womanhood and film, and how it is affected by female directors. The Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles Filmmakers Initiative produced a study on women in the film industry, specifically those participating in the Sundance Film Festival. In their case statement, Sylvia L. Smith Ph.D., the head of the research study and a renowned journalism professor, introduces an important statement to us, that having a female director and/or producer can influence the content of the film. Furthermore, Smith states, female producers and directors affect the representation of girls and women in film through their storytelling (Smith 3). In short, Smith explains that a film directed and/or produced by a woman can be inherently different than a film created by men. This has been proven in studies, one of which found that films with female directors/producers of all genres are less likely to convey acts of violence, and that they are more likely to contain intellectually provocative topics (Smith 3). This is by no means saying that all films created by men are terribly violent and unintelligent—this is simply a critique between two secondary discourses, male filmmakers and female filmmakers, that are distinguishably different. What Smith is trying to get across through this study is that being a female director/producer is more than simply a job to perform, that it is much more than the sum of its parts. It is an experience that affects every aspect of its production.
Women filmmakers have been slowly rising to the surface in the past 60 years. In France, several female directors have become popular for their works centered around womanhood. One filmmaker in particular had a massive impact on gender in French films. Agnes Varda is credited as pioneering the French New Wave movement that defined an era in French history. Her films centered around the realism of life as a woman and made commentary on the traditional stereotypes of women. For example, in Cleo from 5 to 7, perhaps her most well-known film, Varda shows us a day in the life of famous pop singer Cleo as she waits for the results of her biopsy, which will tell her whether or not she has cancer. As the viewer, we come along with Cleo on her 2-hour journey of self-reflection as she awaits her impending diagnosis. In this film, Varda explores the way women are often only appreciated for their beauty, and how this affects a woman’s psyche (Cleo from 5 to 7). Emma Wilson, an academic and writer specializing in French literature and cinema, discusses in her essay “Etat Present: Contemporary French Women Filmmakers” the common theme of intimacy and family in women’s’ film. These films are seen as different from men’s’, but many of the French female directors do not want to be singled out as a separate category. Wilson quotes author Rene Predal explaining how he disagrees with the concept of “women’s’ film” because he believes that women filmmakers have become so prevalent in the industry that they no longer need to be set apart (Wilson 218). Predal is arguing that filmmakers should all be part of one secondary discourse, that is filmmakers in general, because he believes there are no longer gendered differences in film. However, Predal does note that films directed by women have a “tone sometimes far removed from that of filmmakers” (Wilson 218). In this essay, Wilson argues that women have introduced many innovative and thought-provoking themes to the film industry that had not been explored before, drawing from their understandings of womanhood at its core.
The history of women’s’ filmmaking is important to know in order to understand the secondary discourse, and to be able to critique it. During the Victorian era, scholars have discovered that there were many women who worked behind the camera. This was not seen as offensive or shocking because the film industry was still unpopular and did not have a favorable reputation in the first place. This gave women the freedom to explore filmmaking, and they were known to be very proficient at their jobs (Kaplan 16). During this period, there was a strong emphasis on separating men and women into different categories. Women stayed in the home, whereas men were the ones who did all the work. Women working with advanced technologies, and even just having jobs in the first place, went completely against the dogma of society. Inspired by the suffragette movement, women felt empowered and excited to be working with film (Kaplan 16). By 1914, Alice Guy Blache had directed hundreds of films and owned her own studio (Kaplan 16). While her films still adhered to gender norms, she gave her lead women a certain strength and wit that stands out in comparison to the common idea of women as docile and complacent. Lois Weber, another female director, went as far as to make a film about abortion, titled Where Are My Children?, and in this film, makes the case for legalizing abortion (Kaplan 17). This was an insanely radical idea for her time, demonstrating her courage to branch out into uncharted territories. These films expressed the emotions and frustrations of fulfilling the role of wife, mother, home keeper, etc. Many of these films were lost, and soon women would be pushed back in front of the camera, essentially erasing the beginnings of women’s’ film (Kaplan 17). But this history goes to show how women’s’ unique relationship with film was born, and how it was used as a tool for expressing emotions and desires specifically related to womanhood.
One does not have to be a woman to notice the subtleties of female directing and producing. And not every movie by a woman filmmaker will adhere to a specific guideline that makes it identifiable as a “woman’s film.” That is not what I am trying to show you. In fact, what I am trying to show you is the opposite: women filmmakers have broadened the perspective of the viewer, not minimize it to fit one common storyline. Though I have discussed some themes that have been present in women’s’ films, such as intimacy and motherhood, these are in no way only in films with a female director or producer. There are certainly movies nowadays that are directed or produced by men that explore the themes present in many women’s’ films. And there are certainly movies by female filmmakers that do not explore the themes associated with womanhood. To disagree with that would be putting men and women into completely different boxes, to say that there is no possibility for overlap or inspiration between the two secondary discourses.
Somewhat like Predal, I believe women’s’ and men’s’ films should not be seen as completely separate (Wilson 218). That is just playing into the gender roles that are expected of us; it says that we think that women only make films about the feminine, and men only make films about the masculine. However, I do not believe that both discourses should be simply grouped into one. Women’s’ films should not only be seen as films for women, but we also shouldn’t erase everything that makes these movies unique and individual. There is an in-between, where we can agree that female directors and producers and their works are part of the larger community of filmmaking in general, but also celebrate the complexities and different perspectives that have been introduced through women’s’ films.
Cleo from 5 to 7. Directed by Agnes Varda, Cine-tamaris / Rome Paris Films, 1962.
Gee, James Paul. “What is literacy?” Negotiating academic literacies: Teaching and learning across languages and cultures (1998), pp. 51-59.
Kaplan, E. Ann. “Women, Film, Resistance: Changing Paradigms.” Women Filmmakers: Refocusing, edited by Jacqueline Levitin et al., London, Routledge, 2003.
Smith, Stacy L., et al. “Exploring the Barriers and Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers.” Sundance Institute and Women In Film Los Angeles Women Filmmakers Initiative, 1 Jan. 2013, pp. 1–43.
Wilson, Emma. “Contemporary French Women Filmmakers.” French Studies, vol. 59, no. 2, 2005, pp. 217–223., doi:10.1093/fs/kni132.