What Makes a Feminist Movie?

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?

#3: Form

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?

4 replies on “What Makes a Feminist Movie?”

Your third point really made me pause. I’m generally concerned with content and character when I do film analysis. While this includes discussing things like camera angles and the composition of shots, I’ve really thought about how more technical aspects of film making influence things. You make great points.

I’m going to assert that for the average film-goer, their ability to recognize a movie as feminist or not is largely dependent on the character/story. Creative control and film-making techniques are largely invisible, even in a day where anyone seems to know everything just by doing a google search.Maybe the question shouldn’t be ‘which of these three things defines a feminist film’ but ‘which of these three things is most important in defining a feminist film’?

I think your “importance” point is key – they all play a part, and I think it’s ultimately filtered through the viewer’s consciousness.
I also think it’s important to consider the “average film-goer,” in regards to the last point. Mulvey’s film is a rather (how should I say this?) terrible viewing experience. The average film-goer wouldn’t see it, period. It goes hand-in-hand with her husband, film theorist Peter Wollen’s theory of “unpleasure.” There is a reason why conventional film form has developed the way it has: because it is a pleasurable, easy-to-understand viewing experience.

To have feminism in elements of content, character and creative control is as much as a Hollywood film will likely have. But that is more than enough for these films, because it means that this message will reach the widest audience possible.

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