Ah, a question close to my heart, and one that seems to arise time and time again for me. As I see it, there are three defining aspects of a film which could define it as feminist.
#1: Characters and Content
A story of ass-kicking, no-shit-taking badass women, Thelma and Louise is often mentioned as an example of a post-Second Wave feminist film. Most importantly, it is one of the notably successful, big-budget Hollywood films with women (and their friendship, a subject I discussed last week) as main characters and central plot motivators. I would not hesitate to consider the film’s narrative as feminist; the abuse, neglect, and double-standards these women have had to deal with in their lives are explicitly addressed, and hint at wider structures in American society. But (and there is always a but, isn’t there?) the film was directed by Ridley Scott. Can a film directed by a man truly be considered a feminist film? Which brings me to my next category:
#2: Creative Control
There is no more appropriate director to discuss here than Kathryn Bigelow, not only because of the recency of her historic Oscar win, but also because of the film for which she won. The Hurt Locker (2008) is the antithesis to a female-centric film, in its address of a men in their male-dominated field. No one would bat an eyelash at a man directing a rom-com or other outrageously stereotypical “women’s film” genre. But Kathryn Bigelow’s role was consistently a point of wide-eyed discussion, as if the very thought of a woman directing a war film was as alien as The Hurt Locker’s arid landscape. Does Kathryn Bigelow’s very role as director imbue the film with a feminist angle?
Pioneering feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey would disagree with both of my first categories. In her view, the very language of narrative film construction and continuity editing (such as the 180° rule and eyeline match) made it impossible for a truly feminist film text to flourish. In her view, women needed to create a radically different film grammar in order to break from the mainstream cinema which relegated women both narratively and theoretically as objects of the male gaze, a process illustrated in her film Riddles of the Sphinx, composed entirely of a short number of entended 360° pans.
So, then, what makes a film feminist? Characters and content? Its director or other authoring agent? Its formal construction? Or a combination thereof?