Feminism is not passé but it is somewhat in disrepute in and out of academe. In spite of the fact that many women have entered politics and the corporate world and have rallied for reproductive rights, most of the women throughout the world are still second-class citizens.
In films, however, the attitudes toward women become clear, and film can therefore become a vehicle for raising consciousness about the inequities in the treatment of women. It is my contention that an effective way to remind people of the continuing need for feminism is to study it via cinema, and specifically to study the connection between movies and the pleasure in looking, or what Freud called “scopophilia.”
In movies, this kind of looking ranges widely from innocent enjoyment of woman as spectacle to more pathological mechanisms, like voyeurism and its sadistic consequences, where women are violated and/or brutalized.
A startling example of this is the influential horror film “Peeping Tom” (1960), by British director Michael Powell, which equates filmmaking with male aggression. Its protagonist is a filmmaker who plays back the film he makes while killing women with a bayonet on his camera tripod, attached to which is a mirror so that his victim can see herself die. He literally shoots them to death with his movie camera. Images are his weapon.
“Peeping Tom” is an extreme example of the intrusive male look, or what feminists call the “male gaze,” which is grounded in age-old sexist fantasies of domination and submission, control and ownership. But of course there are women who are complicit with their own exploitation. They allow themselves to become erotic objects of contemplation, displaying the glossy surface and optical dazzle of their glamorous bodies. This has been going on in film from the days of Busby Berkeley and “Dames” (1934) to the present.
There is a simple equation between the way movies have demeaned women and their ultimate abuse. This kind of equation extends to gender and multicultural concerns as well, in which a demeaning view of someone with outsider sexual preferences leads to persecution, as in “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999). The equation also applies in films governed by what is called the “imperial” gaze, in which a demeaning view of someone as a racial or ethnic “other” leads to their colonization, exploitation and persecution. Recent films offer many examples: “Chocolat” (Claire Denis, 1988), “The Piano” (Jane Campion, 1993), “Bhaji On The Beach” (Gurinda Chadha, 1994) and “Surname Viet Given Name Nam” (Trinh T. Minh-ha, 1985).
So the study of feminism is important in terms of our basic sense of justice as well as for larger political issues.
Even though the complex emotions integral to our viewing habits are difficult to change, there have been positive developments. While there have always been assertive women, many more have emerged since the ’80s: adventurers like Ripley (in the “Alien” series), “La Femme Nikita,” and “Thelma and Louise.” Many more female aggressors, as in “Fatal Attraction” and “Basic Instinct” have emerged as well since the ’80s.
There are also a number of influential male feminists like Almodovar, Fassbinder, and Godard, who despite his focus on beautiful women in films like “Numero Deux” (1975) and “Two or Three Things I Know About Her” (1966) has always denounced the media’s use of women as consumer objects.
It is my contention that the examination of the role of women, the exploration of the notion that looking is both a sexual act and a form of control, and the study of cultural and political attitudes are all essential to the understanding of the changing roles of men and women in our society.
Ruth Perlmutter’s spring-semester course on Women in International Cinema (Film208/ WSTD228) explores how filmmakers from all over the world look at women—and consequently communicate meaning about men.
Originally published on November 29, 2001