Positive Images

by Linda Artel and Susan Wengraf

from Jump Cut, no. 18, August 1978, pp. 30-31
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005


This is a revised version of the introduction to Linda Artel and Susan Wengraf's Positive Images: Non-Sexist Films for Young People (San Francisco: Booklegger Press, 1976), followed by examples of the kinds of annotations which they used in their book, but here about films seen too late to include in that book.

As feminist educators, we are committed to facilitating young people's awareness of alternatives to sex-stereotyped behavior. As feminist media educators we recognize the powerful ability of film and video to present positive role models that encourage this awareness. In an effort to provide easy access to non-sexist media, we have compiled Positive Images, an annotated guide to over four hundred short 16mm films, videotapes, slides and filmstrips in educational distribution.

The primary aim of Positive Images was to evaluate media materials from a feminist perspective. We looked for materials that had at least one of the following characteristics:

  • Presents girls and women, boys and men with non-stereotyped behavior and attitudes: independent, intelligent women; adventurous, resourceful girls; men who are nurturing; boys who are not afraid to show their vulnerability.
  • Presents both sexes in non-traditional work or leisure activities: men doing housework, women flying planes, etc.
  • Questions values and behavior of traditional male/female role division.
  • Shows women's achievements and contributions throughout history.
  • Deals with a specific women's problem, such as pregnancy, abortion or rape, in a non-sexist way.
  • Contains images of sexist attitudes, behavior and institutions that can be used for consciousness-raising. 

While many films contained important non-sexist elements, few fulfilled an ideal standard. A number of films deal with feminist issues but are sexist in the way they treat the subject matter. For example, RAPE: A PREVENTATIVE INQUIRY uses male police as experts, but it ignores knowledgeable female experts such as rape crisis center workers. Some films present women who talk about non-sexist ideas or do non-sexist work, but we see them acting in a way that limits their credibility, as with Mary Tyler Moore in the women's history film, AMERICAN PARADE: WE THE WOMEN. On camera, Moore behaves in a coy manner that suggests she doesn't really want to be taken seriously. Other films undermine women's credibility by using a male narrator who makes condescending remarks about the women in the film. Thus, PERSISTENT AND FINAGLING is a fascinating study of Montreal housewives who mount a successful grassroots campaign against air pollution. However, the value of what the women are doing is continually diluted by paternalistic comments from one of the husbands. Some dramatic shorts portray a strong and independent female protagonist until the final scene, when she is suddenly rescued by a man. For example, in the history drama MARY KATE'S WAR, Kate, a newspaper publisher, develops as a courageous character with ethical integrity until the end when a male friend saves her from political harassment.

Some films are class biased: they present a viable alternative for upper-middle-class women and men but have little relevance for people in other economic situations. JOYCE AT 34 shows a husband and wife - one a writer, the other a filmmaker - equally sharing childcare responsibilities. But this documentary shows no consciousness that this alternative serves only the few who have the luxury of flexible work schedules.

Some films cover women's subjects but lack a feminist perspective. We discovered several film biographies on women that failed to show the subject's strength. For example, a film on Louisa May Alcott depicts the author as a selfless, weepy woman. We also found films that were erroneously (and widely) publicized as nonsexist. In a prime example, HOW TO SAY NO TO A RAPIST - AND SURVIVE, Frederic Storaska, a self-appointed expert, lectures women on how to avoid physical harm from rape. He stereotypes women by dwelling on the use of feminine wiles as the best way to outsmart attackers, and he recommends several defense tactics that other rape experts have found to be ineffective and even dangerous.

Other films portray a strong female protagonist in a non-sexist way yet stereotype secondary characters. In MADELINE, the animation based on Louis Bemelmans' book, the title character is adventurous, but the other girls behave in a very conventional "good little girl" manner. A growing number of career films, especially those on vocational training, include a token girl or woman while the rest of the film presents the standard view of men in that field.

A number of excellent films, in terms of content, have a diminished effectiveness because of technical inferiority - poor sound, aimless visuals, slow pacing. In HEY DOC, a film about a black woman doctor committed to healthcare for the poor, the camera does nothing more than trail after Dr. Allen, much as in a home movie.

Although we have included over 400 selections of non-sexist films, we found that positive images still need to be created in the following areas:

Films for young children: Only a handful of films present positive images at the preschool or primary grade levels. For example, adventure stories with an exciting plot and strong female protagonist are rare.

Biographies of women: Though there are three or four film biographies of Helen Keller and Eleanor Roosevelt, there are none of such women as Emma Goldman, George Eliot, Mother Jones, Rosa Bonheur, Sacajewea, Maria Mitchell, Simone de Beauvoir and Elizabeth Blackwell.

Women's role in history: Several films present a general survey of women's role in U.S. history, but very few deal with their role in specific historical movements and events (settling the West, the World Wars, etc.). Even fewer deal with women's contributions to world history.

Women in non-traditional jobs: Although a number of films survey women working in nontraditional occupations, few films focus on a particular occupation to give an in-depth view. Films about women scientists and mathematicians are notably absent.

Third world women: While there are several films about black women, very few focus on women from other ethnic backgrounds. Furthermore, too many of the existing films treat their subjects as victims rather than as strong women who survive hardship.

Male liberation: Few films offer meaningful alternatives to the traditional masculine values. We did find several films in which boys express tender feelings, but those emotions are most often directed at pets, not people. Also, the sensitive male protagonists in these films are usually from minority ethnic groups - leaving the stereotype of the macho white male unchanged.

Changing definition of "family": Although the number of single parent families is steadily increasing, few films deal with divorce or show alternatives to the nuclear family (communal living or single parenthood), let alone explore the way these alternatives affect sex roles.

The school curriculum needs non-sexist visual media used in conjunction with books in every course. In addition, classroom visits from women and men working in non-stereotyped jobs can present effective and mediate role models. When students read texts and library books or watch films that do perpetuate sex role stereotypes, teachers should promote that kind of discussion essential to develop critical thinking. The curriculum should also include discussions about TV programs, commercials and Hollywood films that students can watch in order to develop such awareness.

A public film program of non-sexist films can effectively be presented at libraries, women's centers or other community centers. We attracted enthusiastic audiences to a series in which the program each week focused on a particular aspect of sex-role liberation - new roles for work, sexuality, women's history, childcare, etc. Knowledgeable speakers from the feminist community led discussions after the films and helped make the programs an active experience for the audience. [The Women's Film Coop Catalog, l974, Box 745, Northhampton, MA 01060, contains a useful description of how to set up and publicize a series.]

We would like to see the time when films showing positive images of women will not require special notice but will be an integral part of our culture. As a means to that change, educators, librarians and others involved with young people need to seek out and screen films that can educate them about non-sexist ways of thinking and behaving.

The following are several descriptions like those published in Positive Images, but of films that have come out since the book was published.

ISABELLA AND THE MAGIC BRUSH (13 min.) Color. $20/$195. 1976. Elementary Level. Filmfair Communications, 10900 Ventura Blvd., P0 Box 1728, Studio City, CA 91604, 213/877-3191.This entertaining modern fairy tale is also that valuable and rare occurrence in children's film or literature, a politically progressive work. Isabella is a clever little girl who uses her wits to overthrow the greedy, oppressive king. But the story does not end here. Isabella has a social conscience. With the power of her magic brush, she gives the townspeople everything they need. Then, recognizing the problems of individual rule, she picks a wise and responsible group of men and women to run the town before leaving to continue her artwork. The whole tale is playfully told with intricate animation. Independent animator Barbara Dourmashkin and her talented co-workers spent endless hours making everybody and everything in the frame move. The cat's tail wiggles. Each villager - including cooks, dancers, musicians, peddlers, kids playing - is shown in action. - L.A.

Filmmaker and scriptwriter Barbara Dourmashkin has just finished another nonsexist fairytale PETRONELLA (based on the Jay Williams book) about a princess who saves a prince. Also from Filmfair.

THE FLASHETTES (20 min.) Color. $38/$335. 1977. Jr.-Sr. High, Adult. New Day Films, PO Box 315, Franklin Lakes, NJ 07417, 201/891-8240. A lively documentary about the Flashettes, a group of black girls age 6-16 who are training to run track. This Brooklyn club was started by two coaches so as to make sure the athletic talent of girls in the neighborhood would not be wasted. They have, by now, also demonstrated how an effective community project for underprivileged young people works. Of course, the film's main focus is to show the value of athletic training for all girls. In brief interviews these girls communicate how running and being part of the group have improved their self-image as well as their physical skill. Much of the film shows inspirational footage of them running, in practice, in competition, always unafraid to use the power of their bodies. Like most black athletes before them, the Flashettes look to winning athletic competitions as a way to improve their opportunities in life. - L.A. Filmmakers: Bonnie Friedman and Emily Parker Leon.

IN THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE CHILDREN (52 min.) Color. $6O/$550. 1977. High School, Adult. Iris Films, Box 26463, Los Angeles, CA 90026. A documentary dealing with the issue of child custody for lesbian mothers. Interviews with custody lawyers, a psychologist, as well as several lesbian mothers and their children reveal the injustices of our legal system. Despite differences in age, race and class, all these women have experienced prejudicial and stereotyped judgments about the kind of mothers that lesbians must be. The quality of love and caring these women can provide for their children is obvious in the film but frequently irrelevant to the courts, who view the women's sexual preference as primary. Discussions with the children reveal an amazing sophistication: one girl says, "If my friends can't accept my mother for being who she is - then forget them." A good film which effectively counters prevailing stereotype about lesbian motherhood.  - S.W. Filmmakers: Cathy Zheutlin, Francis Reed, Elizabeth Stevens.

RAPE PREVENTION FILMS FOR TEENAGERS - Statistics indicate that 50% of all rapes occur between people who are "acquaintances" and that most rapists are between 15 and 24 years old; their victims are between 15 and 19. Therefore, it makes sense to introduce the subject of rape prevention into junior high and high school classrooms. Designed specifically to provoke and motivate discussion, these open-ended films deal with three very real life situations that teenagers might find themselves in.

The three films listed below were directed by Christina Crowley and produced by Nancy Graham and Oralee Wachter in 1977. DON Films, 74 Henry Street, San Francisco, CA 94114, distributes the films. - S.W.

THE PARTY GAME (8 min.)  At a typical teen-age party, seventeen year old Kathy meets Mark. She finds him cute and they start to dance closely. Self-conscious about her friends' comments on the way they are dancing, Kathy suggests that they go out for a walk. Mark interprets her suggestion as an invitation to continue close physical contact in private. Feeling teased and "led on," Mark reacts angrily when Kathy resists his sexual advances. The film ends on a freeze frame of Kathy's face as she tries to defend herself against Mark's violent assault. - S.W.

THE DATE (6 min.) - Charlotte, a black high school girl, is flattered that Raymond, who is older, is taking her out. After an expensive second date they return to Charlotte's empty house. Raymond tries to initiate sex, which he feels Charlotte owes him in return for the money he has spent on their date. Charlotte refuses his advances. Raymond feels ripped off and becomes angry with his own sense of powerlessness. He attempts to rape her. The film freezes on Raymond as he rushes towards her. - S.W.

JUST ONE OF THE BOYS (8 min.) - Mike is a successful high school athlete but is shy with girls. His teammates Ed and Jake decide to cure him of his virginity and arrange for all three of them to go out for a drive with Josie, a girl with a "fast" reputation. Infatuated with super hero Ed, she accepts his invitation but doesn't understand why the other two are coming along. Her eagerness to be with Ed works against her better judgment. Josie and Ed start necking in the car, but Jake, drunk and anxious to get his piece of the action, starts to force Josie to submit sexually. Ed joins in and they call Mike to complete the gang rape. The film ends with a freeze frame of Mike, conflicted with pressure to be "one of the guys" and his disgust at what is happening to Josie.