Chantal Akerman shooting the documentary Grandmothers
As a Cinema and Communications student, my favourite part of the semester is, by far, scrolling through course outlines, eager to discover the movies that will contribute to the expansion of my film repertoire. However, there is one thing that has left me, semester after semester, rather bitter. Approaching the end of my penultimate semester, for my final term, I wish to avoid an outline that promises to allocate a week of class to “women’s cinema.”
Apart from assigning merely four hours to a particularly complex history, the issue with the label of “women’s cinema,” which is meant to include all films made by women, is that it is often wrongly presented as feminist filmmaking. Feminism, by definition, is a political movement that advocates for gender equality. Therefore, a feminist film is a work that is characterized by its transmission of that very message. By virtue of being directed by a woman, a film does not become feminist as not every woman is a feminist and not all feminists are women. For a movie to be feminist, it has to criticize and educate its audience on the gender dynamics and imbalances of our society. The film has to clearly pose a social commentary on the inadequate depiction of the female experience in mainstream films for it to fall into that category. Simply categorizing a film made by a woman as “feminist” is both misleading and disrespectful to the work of those who actually use their art as a political tool.
Moreover, in the context of filmmaking, feminism is heavily intertwined with the concept of the “female gaze,” which designates a specific type of film. The “male gaze,” first coined by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, refers to the idea that, historically, mainstream films were made by men for a male audience, resulting in the fetishization and objectification of women. Contrarily, the female gaze refers to the way in which women are portrayed in movies, through the eyes of female filmmakers, but in a manner that comments on the androcentric perspective. Simply adding a female protagonist is not enough and nor is treating a female character with dignity and humanity: it is the bare minimum. Feminism within cinema should be looked at with importance rather than as a passing trend within the mainstream film industry. As Sofia Betancourt Amor, a 19-year-old Cinema and Communications student puts it, “within the current Hollywood scene, there are certain tropes, like the pretty, but sad [archetype], that are still present in the representation of women, sometimes even in what is presented as ‘feminist.’” Throwing labels around without fully grasping their meaning allows for the industry to capitalize on movements and ultimately impinges upon the feminist discourse.
Furthermore, the label of “women’s cinema” employed to refer to a subgenre of cinema, which features every female-directed film into a single category, is degrading and belittling. The categorization of films directed by women as “women’s cinema,” combined with the labelling of movies made by men as just “cinema,” implies that cinema, at its core, is a male art. Not only is that assessment untrue, but it completely disregards the very history of the seventh art. Since the beginnings of cinema, women have been heavily involved in the making of films. Although mostly shunned from directing major productions, for decades, women have been the invisible pillars of the industry. From costume designing to editing or scriptwriting, cinema as we know it would not exist without women. But even aside from ignoring the past, presenting “women’s cinema” as a subcategory of film, similarly to what horror, science-fiction or comedy films represent, dismisses the work of women as secondary in the world of the superior androcentric cinema.
“What if I just want to make a movie? My gender should not matter. My film should not be subjected to my gender,” says Betancourt Amor. The double standard in the labelling of cinema for men and women additionally suggests that, while men’s films fall into a plethora of genres and categories, a woman’s art is only relevant in relation to her gender. A woman’s existence is not solely dependent on the way she experiences her femininity. Femininity is felt differently by all women. While some female directors will choose to use their art to express and speak about their experience as women, some desire to capture other themes. Overgeneralizing the work of women overlooks the uniqueness of each work and hinders critical thinking. Films made by women should be treated with the same attention as those made by men and deserve the same level of praise and/or criticism.
As a feminist, I do believe that concepts such as “women’s cinema,” “feminist cinema,” and “the female gaze” are essential when discussing cinema and its history, but that they should be regarded as nuanced and complex subjects, rather than as simple and straight-forward categories.