Monday, September 22, 2008

Feminism in the Film Studies Classroom

Baignade dans un torrent, Alice Guy (1897).

Last week, while completing some lecture notes for an upcoming class, a textbook representative from a major academic publisher popped his head into my office, asking if he could have a moment of my time. The very pleasant and knowledgeable rep. was hoping to learn a bit more about what I teach so that he could better assist me in the selection of textbooks for my upcoming classes, particularly my "Introduction to Film Studies" and "Film History" courses. I tend to try to cut such conversations short, in large part because I know exactly what the person is going to say as he or she attempts to sell me on the publisher's books. The sales pitch usually involves a run-down of the merits of their text and a delicate reminder of just how it improves upon one of the other often-used options in the field. Because my institution is a relatively large one, with over 11,000 undergraduates, these representatives have some sizable stake in convincing me to adopt their book. If we do adopt their book, it means about 200 copies of it will be purchased by our students each semester. That number isn't huge, but it's certainly nothing to sneeze at in an era when textbook sales are plummeting and academic publishers are feeling the effects of the resulting loss in revenue.

In any case, when the representative asked me if there was anything I found lacking in the textbooks currently available for use in core film courses, I quickly pointed out the exceedingly marginal space allocated to women directors in virtually all of the major film studies textbooks. He looked somewhat surprised, but quite sympathetic. He also admitted that even though he'd recently graduated from college and completed several film studies courses at a neighboring institution with a highly-regarded film program, he feared he could only name a handful of female directors. He took a moment to collect his thoughts and then rattled off a depressingly short list of names: "Jane Campion. Penny Marshall, and Sofia Coppola." There was a rather pregnant pause as he struggled for another name before finally adding Leni Riefenstahl, explaining that he'd watched a bunch of her films in a history class. He quickly conceded my point, admitting that if he could only name one female director for each of his four years of film study, there was obviously a problem.

I can't blame one individual for not knowing more about women's actions behind the camera. Let's face it, most undergraduates--and certainly most filmgoers--are woefully unfamiliar with the films of women directors. And who can blame them? Judging by the syllabi available on the internet, many Film Studies programs still relegate women directors to the margins; when their works do appear in the classroom, it is often in stand-alone courses on "women directors" or feminist film theory. Some people would argue that this omission on course syllabi simply reflects one of the long-standing realities of the film business: relatively few women find work as directors, particularly in Hollywood.

Barbara K. Quart, author of Women Directors: The Emergence of a New Cinema (1989), provides (albeit dated) statistics that explain the depth of women's underrepresented status as film directors:
Since half the world's population is female, roughly half of all feature films should be made by women. The actual numbers, as is well known, are shockingly different. One statistic has it that between 1949 and 1979 (and this takes in the period when women started entering feature filmmaking again in numbers), one-fifth of 1 percent of all films released by American major studios were directed by women. Before that, only one woman director, Dorothy Arzner, worked in America from silents and the beginnings of sound in the 1920s into the 1940s--one woman directing in the heyday of Hollywood's productivity and power. Even in the more active years at the beginnings of the film industry, the years that were more hospitable to women, the numbers were small.
Though I would quibble with some of Quart's claims--Arzner was certainly not the only woman making inroads in Hollywood during the 1920s--she calls dramatic attention to women's underrepresented status in what is, arguably, one of today's most important economic and cultural industries.1

In August, 2002, the feminist art-world activist group, The Guerrilla Girls, also tried to call attention to the Hollywood bias against women, publishing a billboard with an "Anatomically Correct Oscar"

The campaign also included the distribution of stickers proclaiming that "The U.S. Senate is more progressive than Hollywood. Female Senators: 9%, Female directors: 4%." And if the response to recent attempts by women to run for national office is any indication of the current state of feminism, to realize that Hollywood, full of supposedly left-leaning liberals, is even more discriminatory towards women is very depressing in deed. As Michelle Goldberg explains in her report for Salon magazine, the study used to provide the statistics for the Guerrilla Girls' campaign suggests that "the dreams that radiate off theater screens and into our culture are still almost exclusively the dreams of men." What's more upsetting are the statistics Salon quotes from a study by San Diego State professor Martha M. Lauzen:
women directed 7 percent of the top-grossing 100 films released in 2000. (In a sample of the top 250 films, the percentage was a little higher, at 11 percent.) Last year, that already dismal number plummeted. 'We're just putting together preliminary figures for films released in 2001. The percentage [of the top 100 films] has gone way down. It looks like 4 percent, which means it's below 1992 levels.'
If all these statistics are true, can we really blame textbook publishers and professors for focusing primarily on works by male directors? After all, they should concentrate on maintaining the pedagogical integrity of the textbooks and the courses that use them, right? And that should mean selecting the most appropriate, high-quality film titles that will best illustrate the film technique or historical development being taught. We shouldn't select "inferior" films simply because they are directed by women, right?

In fact, I firmly believe that the goals of pedagogical integrity and feminist film scholarship need not be mutually exclusive. There are a great many excellent films directed by women that should be included in core courses in film studies and film history. In fact, I believe that the responsible film scholar is obligated to introduce his or her students to works directed by women. We should also feel obligated to include films by other underrepresented groups. Because the textbooks often pay short shrift to such films, if they include them at all, it may mean moving beyond that textbook and supplementing students' readings with articles by feminist film historians and theorists. We may have to pressure publishers to pay more attention to women's rolls in Hollywood, avant-garde and international cinema. Or, it may mean rewriting the damned textbooks ourselves. Otherwise, students will finish their programs with the impression that the Guerrilla Girls' "anatomically correct Oscar" accurately represents the film director, not just Hollywood's gender and racial bias. So with that in mind, I will return to planning next semester's syllabi and I will do my best to work women directors into the calendar--even if they rarely appear in the pages of the textbooks currently available to me.

a scene from Lois Weber's Hypocrites (1915).

1. If you'd like to get a more comprehensive picture of women's roles in the early film industry, take a look at Duke's Women Film Pioneers project website. The work of the Pioneers project makes clear that hundreds of women were involved in behind-the-scenes early film production--as writers, directors, producers, and editors. Though some of these figures have been all but lost to history, this collaborative project seeks to rewrite that history and give women their rightful place within it. Information found there will introduce you to other key figures such as Lois Weber, Jeanie MacPherson, and Alice Guy-Blache, to name but a few.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this wonderful essay! Too Shy to Stop writer Christine Barrett just wrote a piece about Frida Kahlo's visit to Salem College. You can read the full article here.

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