There's more to a positive image than meets the eye

by Diane Waldman

from Jump Cut, no. 18, August 1978, pp. 31-32
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

Susan Wengraf and Linda Artel. Positive Images: A Guide to Non-Sexist Films for Young People. San Francisco: Booklegger Press, 1976. 168pp. $5.50.

Reviewing Positive Images is a deceptively simple task, for one would not expect much controversy to be generated by a catalogue, a resource for teachers and librarians, not a book designed to be read from cover to cover. The authors, Linda Artel, film consultant at the Pacific Film Archive, and Susan Wengraf, a filmmaker and educational media consultant, spent over two years in research previewing films and talking with teachers and librarians, a project which culminated in Positive Images, a guide to over 400 films, videotapes, slide shows, filmstrips, and photographs, which in some manner deal with the problem of sex role. Each entry includes distribution information, price for sale and rental, length of film, color or black and white, recommended age levels, and a brief description with some critical commentary. The authors list the materials alphabetically by title, and include a subject index, list of distributors' names and addresses, and Selected Resources for Non-Sexist Education," a list of books, pamphlets, and articles.

As such, Positive Images seems to be an extremely valuable resource. Not only do the authors cite films which have received attention in recent years, such as GROWING UP FEMALE, UNION MAIDS, THE SAN FRANCISCO WOMEN'S FILM, etc., but they also unearth many unusual films which do not make the usual circuit of Women in Film courses and film festivals. (For example, I was unaware of the existence of WHAT EIGHTY MILLION WOMEN WANT, an early suffrage film (1913) produced by Emmeline Pankhurst, much less of its rental cost or where it could be obtained.) The authors perform another service in that they have included a few films they do not recommend because "they are being widely and erroneously publicized as non-sexist."

Positive Images, then, performs the valuable function of helping teachers supplement and plan their courses, and can save much time and energy by providing sale and rental information. In addition, as the authors themselves note in their preface, they discovered "that some of the most exciting and effective non-sexist media are being distributed by independent filmmakers, feminist groups, and small, alternative companies. Providing information about these little known resources has become an important aspect of the guide, since such sources do not have the financial means for large-scale publicity campaigns.

Having stated what I find to be valuable and useful about the book, I now wish to state my reservations. My criticisms fall into two categories: first, the criteria involved in determining what is to be considered a "positive image," and second, the limits of the very notion of "positive image" itself.

In their forward, the authors describe the "guidelines for selection and evaluation" (see above). This immediately introduces a problem on the theoretical level. What are "positive" characteristics, and what is the relationship of these images to the social reality? This problem can be articulated more explicitly if we look at the contradictions embodied in the pun which constitutes the title Positive Images.

When we speak of a "positive image" in film or photography, we mean that the lights and shades correspond to those of the original subject. Indeed, by extension, one meaning of the word "positive" in a general sense is "concerned only with real things and experience; empirical." On the other hand, "positive" also means "affirmative, tending in the direction regarded as that of progress, constructive," etc. Judging from the above criteria, both meanings are employed. But then we must ask, in ascribing positive characteristics to certain depictions are we claiming a truth value for them? Do they depict things as they really are, or as we think they should be? How do we deal then with the reality of sexism as it currently exists? Because these questions are not raised by the authors, a tension between "things as they are" and "things as they should be" informs many of the film descriptions.

Let us see how the above criteria work in practice. At times they seem to be applied too narrowly, without regard for specific cultural situation or historical context. For example, the entry for BORAN WOMEN:

"In a cattle raising community in Northern Kenya, the women perform the traditional tasks of child-rearing and food preparation while the men manage the herds. Although the women are also responsible for building the cowhide covered dwellings, this too is viewed as 'women's work.'"

Does the term "traditional tasks" refer to a Western tradition of sexual division of labor? Is the film included, then, because women are responsible for the "non-traditional" (in the Western sense) task of building the dwellings, but then critiqued because even this is viewed as "women's work"? Is this a critique of the film, or a critique of the Boran culture?

In addition, this measuring a film's worth against a checklist of "positive" characteristics can seem silly, as in the case of JANIE SUE AND TUGALOO:

"Eight year old Janie Sue lives on a farm and wants to become an accomplished rider. Her goal is respected by her grandfather who teaches her how to control her horse and how to herd cattle. Janie Sue handles her horse well and demonstrates perseverance in learning this skill. Unfortunately, the film shows her trying several times to corner a cow, but never gives us the satisfaction of seeing her succeed."

The authors seem to fault the film for leaving us with a sense of struggle or process instead of supplying the inevitable "happy ending." Or, they can be humorless, as in the case of their description of FREE TO BE YOU OR ME:

"One animated sequence, 'Ladies First,' by humorist Shel Silverstein, is actually misogynist. A prissy little girl has always insisted that 'ladies go first.' When she and her friends are captured by hungry tigers, they say, 'Ladies first,' and eat her first. This story is an inappropriate way to convince little girls or boys that chivalry is ridiculous and even destructive."

Or, even cruelly absurd, as in A DAY IN THE LIFE OF BONNIE CONSOLO:

"Bonnie Consolo introduces herself and tells us that she was born without arms. We see Bonnie do an amazing array of tasks with her feet and legs. She cooks dinner, bakes bread, cans fruit, drives, shops, kills a fly, puts on a necklace, cuts her son's hair and then hugs him. Although performing domestic duties that do not challenge the traditional female role, Bonnie does present the image of a woman who has overcome her particular obstacle with immense strength and courage."

One wonders whether Bonnie Consolo would have to operate a forklift before presenting a totally "positive image" in the authors' terms.

Similarly, we might question the authors' tendency to critique a film for presenting a woman in relation to history in lieu of concentrating on biographical information. For example: THE ELEANOR ROOSEVELT STORY: "The film loses sight of Mrs. Roosevelt as it chronicles historic events." Or MARGARET SANGER:

"Unfortunately, this film spends very little time on the life of Margaret Sanger, the courageous, vital woman who defied societal taboos to create family planning clinics in America. Rather, the film documents the development of family planning and the problem of population explosion, using historic photographs along with early and contemporary motion picture footage."

Do we, as teachers, want to convey a history composed of the lives of "great women" merely to replace or supplement the dominant bourgeois histories of "great men"? (Incidentally, this "courageous, vital woman" by 1916 was presenting birth control as the solution to working class misery and as a means of controlling the birth rate of the "unfit."(1)

This brings me to another major point: the book employs a pluralistic conception of what constitutes a "positive image." The authors often lump together films that clearly represent different class interests, different types of role models, and discuss all with equal enthusiasm. (I am reminded of the scene in ADAM'S RIB in which three women are brought into court by Katharine Hepburn to demonstrate women's equality and/or superiority over men: a forewoman in a factory, an incredibly strong acrobat, and a scientist with various degrees from prestigious universities and a specialty in biological and chemical warfare.)

For example, on p. 119 we find the ARE YOU LISTENING? videotape series described as "a series of sincere and direct discussions among groups of people who are often talked about, but rarely listened to, in our society." Although these groups include "Black High School Girls," and "Welfare Mothers," it also includes "Men Who Are Working with Women in Management," a group of male executives at AT&T, "Women in Management," and "Women in Middle Management." These latter two videotapes, ironically juxtaposed with an entry on WOMEN AND CHILDREN IN CHINA, include a

"[d]iscussion among women in management — a general in the army, a university president, corporation executives, and government officials. The wide ranging discussion covers many important issues: the need to bring a new kind of humanism to management; to avoid playing by 'men's rules'…"

On the following page we have WOMEN WORKERS, in which the director of trade union women's studies at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell talks with a union organizer for the Distributive Workers of America. "They believe that there is a new consciousness among office workers who are banding together for better wages and job conditions." How would this "new consciousness," one wonders, accord with the "new humanism" of the women in management?

(In all fairness to the authors, both of these entries contain the "Not Previewed" designation. The authors in their introduction do note that "certain films present a viable alternative for women and men in the upper-middle class, but are of less relevance to people in other economic situations" and do include critical comments about the assumptions about class in films such as ART OF AGE and CAREERS: WOMEN IN CAREERS. I would hope that a more critical analysis would have been included had they previewed a film such as WOMEN IN MANAGEMENT.)

However, something about the phrase "are of less relevance to people in other economic situations" seems to be slightly amiss. It accepts as a given the structure which permits those "other economic situations" to exist, and fails to distinguish those role models which serve to perpetuate it from those which actively challenge it. This failure to distinguish between types of "positive image" is, of course, not unique to this catalogue but has plagued the feminist movement from its inception. Such a failure has split those feminists who sought liberation and equality through solidarity with other oppressed groups and a radical transformation of society, from those who wanted an equal share in the power structure as it existed, often at the expense of other oppressed groups.

(For example, certain members of the suffrage movement consciously appealed to racist, nativist, and class sentiments in attempting to obtain the vote for women: "There is but one way to avert the danger [of the influence of "undesirables"]," argued Carrie Chapman Catt in 1894, "Cut off the vote of the slums and give it to women …"[2])

Positive Images seems to be predicated upon a notion of a sexist society and media, but with little analysis of how this sexism functions in an advanced industrial capitalist society. In the authors' introduction, they describe a media "controlled by men" and "notoriously sexist," but this is the extent of the analysis. It is little wonder, then, that the authors state that "the powerful effect of media can be refocused to question destructive patterns and demonstrate credible options" and that "film and video can be highly effective tools for introducing new, non-sexist values and encouraging awareness of alternative possibilities for growth" without any indication of the magnitude of the problems involved — ownership of production, access to distribution networks, or transformation of society at large.

But this brings me to my second major criticism of this catalogue — the very notion of "positive image" as a critical concept and a pedagogical tool. The notion of "positive image" is predicated upon the assumption of identification of the spectator with a character depicted in a film. It has a historical precedent in the "positive hero" and "heroine" of socialist realism. It assumes that most of what children see are "negative images," distorted stereotypes, and that the corrective to this is exposure to "positive images" or non-sexist role models. Yet the mechanism of identification goes unchallenged and unchanged. It introduces, I think, a kind of complacency associated with merely presenting an image of the "positive" hero(ine). That this attitude informs this catalogue can be demonstrated by quoting from the authors' instructions, "How to Use Visual Media for Greatest Effectiveness." We are told that "non-sexist visual media used in conjunction with books should be integrated into every part of the curriculum" and, "When students read texts and library books or watch films that do perpetuate sex role stereotypes, discussion is essential to develop critical thinking."

I would strongly emphasize this last sentence, but would extend the "necessary discussion" to those materials deemed "non-sexist" as well. For if the mechanism of identification goes unchallenged, how are students to distinguish between "positive" and "negative" images? And more important, does this concept allow or does it mitigate against the development of those critical tools so necessary for dealing with the dominant media and the society of which it is a part? The authors say, "Children spend more time watching TV than going to school." And a friend who teaches in a daycare center remarked, "Two minutes of the Six Million Dollar Man can counteract the effects of my teaching of non-sexist values for both boys and girls." If this is the case, then perhaps, as teachers, we should stress analysis, critical distance and discussion of any material we use rather than rely upon the identification implied by the "positive image" concept.

Put another way, we should remember that meaning is to be located in the interaction between reader and image and not in the images themselves. This is stressed in an article by Elizabeth Cowie in Screen Education:

"Sexism in an image cannot be designated materially as a content in the way that denotative elements such as colours or objects in the image can be pointed to. Rather it is in the development of new or different definitions and understandings of what men and women are and in their roles in society which produces readings of images as sexist; the political perspective of feminism produces a further level of connotative reading."(3)

(This latter point can be affirmed by anyone who has had the curious experience of re-reading or re-viewing a book or film and reacting in disgust and amazement not only at the representations but at one's former neutrality or even delight in those same representations.)

We certainly should attack blatant sexual stereotypes and applaud "positive images" when they do appear: that these media images do serve to shape children's attitudes, behaviors, and expectations is undeniable. And I don't want to diminish the work which went into the compilation of this catalogue or the potential usefulness of Positive Images. My criticisms are intended to indicate the limits of the "positive image" concept, and to demonstrate some of the important political and pedagogical issues which underlie such a compilation.


1. From David Kennedy, Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger (New Haven, Conn.: 1970), p. 112, quoted in Eli Zaretsky, Capitalism, the Family and Personal Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), p. 123.

2. Cited in Ailen Kraditor, ed., Up From the Pedestal (Chicago, 1970), p. 125, quoted in William H. Chafe, The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic and Political Roles, 1920-1970 (New York: Oxford University Press,. 1972), pp. 14-15. See also Catharine Stimpson's "'Thy Neighbor's Wife, Thy Neighbor's Servants': Women's Liberation and Black Civil Rights," in Vivian Gornick and Barbara K. Moran, eds., Woman in Sexist Society (New York: Basic Books, 1971), pp. 622-57.

3. Elizabeth Cowie, "Women, Representation and the Image," Screen Education 23 (Summer 1977): 19.