Illustration by J. Brooks Robinson
The Myth of the F-word
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When George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road came out in 2015, the general response from Team Women was strong, but not all women were on board.
IT’S NOT FEMINIST! declared one high-profile woman cultural critic, and while I harbor no ill-feelings towards those whose views differ from my own, it struck me how vague the term had become, at the expense of propagating personal online brands based on specific interpretations of feminism, rather than the fluid, discourse-provoking notion I understood it to be.
This question of feminism is crucial when thinking through women’s filmmaking — although it’s so often employed broadly as an ideological war-cry, rarely are the terms of engagement specifically defined.
For me, that meaning has become not just blurry, but at worst denies room for the productive debates that feminism encourages. For example: it’s important to remember there are both pro-sex feminists and anti-pornography feminists, all of whom claim a right to the label “feminist” despite having diametrically opposing views on core issues.
But in contemporary discourse, the term gets smooshed into one singular, unified whole, whose meaning remains elusive. The word “feminism” is skewed towards our personal biases, to support our own arguments. In film criticism, this usually plays out when a film is reduced to simplistic, under-explored binaries of progressive vs. regressive, cutting-edge and forward-thinking vs. that omnipresent cliché, “problematic”.
This issue of definition has become for me a fascinating elephant in the room: when I see someone using the term “feminist”, I’m curious about the back-end mechanics of how they deploy it. Is it a starting point, to open up discussion? Or is it a full-stop, a single-word endgame, intent on shutting things down?
Feminism at its best is a vibrant, urgent space for productive debate, and any functional definition must fundamentally embrace its in-built pluralities and yes, space for contradictions. Many self-identifying feminists now opt for the plural – “feminisms” – avoiding the simplistic reduction of “feminism” (singular) as a seemingly magic word that somehow denotes instant wokeness.
Feminism as a starting place
This led me to art historian Peggy Phelan, who offered a possible definition in Helena Reckitt’s 2001 book Art and Feminism: “feminism is the conviction that gender has been, and continues to be, a fundamental category for the organization of culture. Moreover the pattern of that organization usually favors men over women”.
After spending an entire year watching films made predominantly by women directors, Phelan’s definition made a notable impact on how I conceive “feminist filmmaking”. For some, any film made by a woman is automatically “feminist”, which becomes tricky when discussing filmmakers such as Doris Wishman, Roberta Findlay, Elaine May, who have at times explicitly rejected the term (although it can be argued that their working in such a male-dominated industry itself speaks directly to subverting gender relations).
Phelan’s definition is most useful because instead of leading me to ask “is this film/filmmaker ‘feminist’?”, the question becomes more intricate: “how does this filmmaker tackle the interplay of gender difference and power?”.
For starters, this offers a liberation from the widespread assumption that women filmmakers are somehow duty-bound to make films about women characters. While cinema history is full of male filmmakers who sometimes (OK, a lot) fail in the creation of complex, sophisticated women characters, to say men are somehow biologically incapable of doing so is a downhill slide into essentialist Troublesville; it implies the reverse must also be true, that women filmmakers cannot present complex, sophisticated male characters, a position I wholeheartedly reject.
The myth of the feminist film
In considering the films of 2018, I came to realize that many of the films that impacted me the most — in terms of quality and emotional strength — were woman-directed movies about male characters: Chloé Zhao’s The Rider is based on the real-life experiences of cowboy Brady Jandreau, whom Zhao met in South Dakota while making her 2015 debut feature film Songs My Brother Taught Me. She cast Jandreau alongside a number of other untrained actors — his family and friends — in The Rider to present a fictional reimagining of his near-fatal riding accident.
Likewise, Lynne Ramsay added yet another powerhouse title to her astonishing filmography with her adaptation of Jonathan Ames’s 2013 novella, You Were Never Really Here. Collaborating with actor Joaquin Phoenix to tell the story of a veteran-turned-gun-for-hire desperately struggling to align the dark horrors of his past with the traumatic reality of his present.
Far from films about strong women characters, these movies are unapologetically about male central characters brought vividly to life with both empathy and extraordinary creative vision. If we are working from the narrow assumption that “feminist filmmakers” are fundamentally required to tell stories about women characters, films like The Rider or You Were Never Really Here are an inescapably uncomfortable fit.
[Ed. Note: You Were Never Really Here used Endcrawl, which publishes this site.]
Beyond male and female
If we look instead towards gender difference as a tool of cultural organization and power (alongside other intersecting markers of difference such as class, race, etc.), we can think about “feminist filmmaking” in ways far beyond simplistic questions of male versus women characters (I’m looking at you, Bechdel Test).
Alongside other woman-directed films with almost all-male casts — including Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier (2015) and Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999) — the films discussed here may focus on men, but they have a strong feminist core due to their fundamental fascination with assumed norms surrounding gender and how that relates to who has power and who doesn’t. They are interested in the cultural and social power of masculinity and femininity beyond biological categories of male and female. Marked by their humanity as much as their artistry, these films reveal that women filmmakers have the capacity — and the right — to tell stories about men as much as they do women.
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Why is it that "feminism" is so often employed as an ideological war-cry, when the...