The woman with
the movie camera

by Michelle Citron and Ellen Seiter

from Jump Cut, no. 26, December 1981, pp. 61-62
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

"A man has an argument with his girlfriend. The man leaves. The woman gets ready for bed. Later that night, the man returns, breaks into the apartment, stabs the woman to death and stuffs her body into a plastic garbage bag. The man carries the bag downstairs to the alley where he dumps it into a large metal trash receptacle. The man walks off into the night."
— Plot synopsis, proposed three-minute student film project, Fall 1979.

This fairly typical synopsis of a student film treatment in a university film production class indicates a learning environment generally hostile to women. Such ideas for films are only one of a complex matrix of elements that contribute to the adversities women face as student filmmakers. Other inhibiting elements include women's access to fundamental skills, cultural myths about art and the artist, traditional pedagogical approaches used to teach filmmaking, and established hierarchies in the university and media institutions. As women film production teachers we have been working on strategies to combat these many elements that discourage women from entering filmmaking.


Women frequently drop out of filmmaking, or they never pursue it as a subject for study at all. There are several reasons for this. First, women film students lack visible role models. Students usually enter production classes motivated either by the overwhelming mythic presence of Hollywood or by film history classes. In either case, they encounter few examples of women in the media. If the male student has an unrealistic dream of being the next Francis Ford Coppola or George Lucas, the female student may find such a dream inconceivable. Sexism, reinforced by the economic structure of the U.S. film industry, has excluded women from becoming directors. Recent attention given to Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino reinforces even further these women directors' exceptional status and points out Hollywood's pervasive discrimination against women.

The situation is similar in film history classes. Documentary and avant-garde film history, as established through texts, museum showings, and college curricula, recognizes only a handful of women. And inclusion of a few women filmmakers in film courses depends even now on the teacher's gender and orientation. On the film department faculty, men outnumber women in the areas of history and criticism, and overwhelmingly so in production. Even in the university, then, women students are unlikely to encounter alternative role models.

Production classes often treat filmmaking as pure technology, as having no intellectual tradition. Or at least many students perceive it that way. The production class's reputation may discourage women who believe their talents are verbal and visual but not mechanical from entering the field. Women's hesitation is further aggravated by the widespread belief that women cannot handle heavy and often clumsy equipment. We have been asked countless times, "What's a little girl like you doing with a big camera like that?" Both male and female students overvalue men's physical strength. What does it matter whether or not men are stronger then women when both are quite capable of handling the equipment?

To really solve these problems, we need broad social changes in both attitudes and opportunities. But some of the difficulties women face in filmmaking classes can be directly improved by responsive pedagogy. First of all, teachers should present technology in a way which recognizes the unequal distribution of technical knowledge in the culture and the negative socialization of women in relationship to technical skills and information. The teacher must be aware of men's particular cultural privilege regarding technology, and s/he should show an active concern about privileges which s/he does not share with the students, whether these be the result of class, race or sexual status. In film study, class privilege may have granted some students previous access to equipment — in their homes or in better-funded suburban school districts — and also provide them with money to spend on film stock and processing which are very expensive and rarely subsidized by university film courses.

Second, the teacher should be aware of behavior by him/herself and the students which fosters male domination of the classroom and excludes women from full participation. Third, the teacher must reject any approach to film teaching which separates form from content. Such a formalist division is ideological. In particular, it creates an environment where sexism and other reactionary attitudes go unchallenged.

Three power hierarchies affect women's situation in filmmaking classes: male dominance, whether from the teacher or other students; the teacher's position of authority over the student; and the power of technology — knowledge about which has traditionally been accessible only to men. Girls' socialization about technology frequently serves to convince them that they are by nature mechanically inept. Their unfamiliarity with many kinds of technical equipment often leads to great anxiety when operating a camera, and sometimes excessive and paralyzing concern about breaking or damaging film equipment.

The conscientious production teacher faces these problems: how to communicate much technical information, confront students' attitudes toward technology and control classroom dynamics that lead to women's feelings of inferiority. When lecturing on film technology, the teacher must create an atmosphere where students can ask questions without embarrassment or self-effacement. The teacher should always avoid unnecessary jargon, especially when teaching women who are encountering a technical language for the first time.

In some classes, especially with adolescent students, men may continually laugh or talk when women ask questions. Then the teacher should confront the group as a whole with the situation. Discussing the problem openly encourages students to control such offenses through peer pressure, and the discussion also acknowledges as legitimate the women's anxiety. In labs such discussions, at first initiated by concerned instructors, will give women permission to confront male students in the lab who persist in this kind of behavior. Such a supportive atmosphere in the classroom further encourages the women to discuss such problems among themselves outside of class and to form support groups of their own. Advanced students often use jargon to display their superior knowledge and intimidate the other students. The teacher may find it expedient to discourage advanced students from asking inappropriate questions that simply confuse the others in the class. An adequate response to such queries is to offer to discuss them individually after class or during office hours — when the "advanced" student won't have as large an audience to impress.

A more complicated issue involves the way that the film teacher treats ideas about creativity and the artist. As teachers and filmmakers ourselves, we consider it very important to debunk the romantic myth of the individual artist. A cultural stereotype about artists exists very strongly in the minds of the students. This stereotype has an historical genesis and varies slightly from art to art. Since the Romantic period Western artists have tended to define themselves as outsiders, alienated and misunderstood. Such artists (including filmmakers) are stereotypically eccentric, obsessive, and seemingly unconcerned with daily material realities or the profit potential of their work. Additionally, in the visual arts, an incapacity to discuss one's work becomes the hallmark of the "genius." The experience of making art seems so personal and complex it cannot possibly be articulated. In the Romantic tradition, art and creativity are perceived as the result of uncontrollable urges and they seemingly have nothing to do with work. This myth of the artist is especially damaging to women.

Historically, culturally recognized artists are men. Clearly all of the above characteristics of the romantic artist are undesirable for any filmmaking student. Each attribute, if adopted by the student in their concept of their own role, serves to close students' minds in a learning situation and restricts any sense of community developing in the classroom. By tacitly allowing male students in a filmmaking class to act out this stereotype of the artist, the teacher may be perpetuating an image of artistic production which excludes women. Adverse kinds of behaviors attributable to the Artistic Role must be examined and criticized in the classroom situation, particularly since historically women are excluded from participating in them (and may not want to participate in them). As teachers, we encourage the idea that in their daily lives everyone makes some form of art. But in learning filmmaking, where technical competence increases a student's confidence in his/ her ideas, men students often feel "naturally" superior. To explicitly criticize this stereotype of creative genius is crucial to establishing a non-sexist pedagogy in filmmaking classes. Socially, we see it as a step towards opening up filmmaking (and art in general) to women, Blacks, Latinos, working people — all those who have been excluded by the historical and social definition of the artist as white, male and alienated middle class.

We find it effective to begin a semester by discussing how students define the word "create (we developed this tactic to deal with the particularly imposing title of our freshman course: "Creative Processes in Sight and Sound"). Students write a variety of definitions on the board. Their list usually includes the full range of cultural assumptions about artistic production, especially notions about genius, inspiration, mysticism, and originality. The teacher can then suggest the earliest and simplest definition of the word; i.e., to make. We stress that in the class students will learn how to make something, and that capacity to make art does not reside with a small number of "talented" individuals. The students' first assignment leads them to become first aware and then critical of all of the other cultural connotations of the word "create."

Another crucial pedagogical issue in filmmaking is how to teach responsibility. The teacher can never ignore that filmmaking is a powerful social tool. The course must not only impart technical information and skills, but it also must make students aware of filmmakers' accountability for the ideas and implications of their work.

Traditional film teaching emphasizes aesthetics and technique and ignores content. However, film form cannot be divorced from film content in a production class. The film theory which deals with visual coding, narrative conventions of realism, and invisible editing certainly should mean as much to the production student as the criticism student. Because so much of a production teacher's job involves teaching conventions, s/he must learn to present film techniques as historical and constructed within ideology. In many production classes a concept like "suspense" is discussed in terms of editing, composition, lighting, etc., and an example from a Hollywood narrative film shown to illustrate the techniques; e.g., the shower sequence from Hitchcock's PSYCHO. Yet "suspense" here hardly comprises a neutral formal concept. Structures of suspense have developed within a particular cultural context, within established genres, and a major part of cinematic suspense depends on depicting woman as victim. When teachers use "classic" Hollywood films like PSYCHO in a production class, they limit their students' intellectual perspective and promote sexism both in the classroom and the media if they neglect to discuss and emphasize specific narrative and formal techniques that perpetuate cinematic violence against women.

In our course, students present their film treatments orally to the entire class and are held accountable for both form and content. We suggest that students make films about something they know or have thought about. And we actively discourage films which merely imitate Hollywood and television. Not promoting merely personal filmmaking, we do advocate content that is important or relevant to the student.

Mainstream films and television, which tend to be class biased, racist, and sexist, consistently attract our Northwestern University students. For the most part, these students are white and from middle-class professional families. Most consider themselves political liberals and have enough consciousness about racism to themselves censor their scenarios for overtly racist content. However, many male students submit film treatments that are extremely sexist. Violence against women is a favorite student theme. That male students have such a lack of consciousness about these issues alarms us.

We often receive proposals for student projects like the one described at the opening of this article. Certain patterns we have noticed recur in these film treatments: revenge films using explicit violence against women, placing women in seemingly dangerous situations which the narrative resolves as merely a flirtatious game, and using violence against women as part of slapstick comedy. In one film, a burglar is shown breaking into an apartment and terrorizing a woman. The film consists of an elaborate chase through the apartment with extreme close ups of the woman's screaming face intercut with shots of rats crawling through garbage. The accelerated editing ends with a shot of the woman backed into a corner, screaming as the man approaches wielding a billy-club. Another film shows a woman walking alone at night. A car driven by a man follows and passes her ominously three times. At the end of the film, the car pulls up next to her and stop getting in and smiling: ki6ttifnL'Slapstick comedy,' portrayed a man hiding behind bushes and repeatedly jumping out to attack women joggers on campus; such images were accompanied by an upbeat Scott Joplin soundtrack.

In class discussions we try to point out the way that such films confirm dangerous social myths, trivialize violence against women, sensationalize this violence, and deny the seriousness of rape. Ideally, the students themselves collectively question these films' content. Often a student filmmaker learns with amazement how many women and men in the class find his film offensive. To thoroughly discuss film content in class is to enlist peer pressure. This can be the most powerful factor in influencing students to change offensive film ideas and in teaching them to recognize their responsibility to the audience. Discussing scenarios accomplishes an object lesson in both film and ideology at the same time.


In 1978, we (Michelle Citron and Ellen Seiter) became the first women faculty members in the Film Division at Northwestern University. During the school year 1978-79, we shared all the teaching of film production in the department. When we ourselves were graduate students in film, making, we encountered overwhelming male enrollments in film production classes. As teachers, we were able to work together on strategies for improving the situation for women students in filmmaking classes. (In this paper we refer, in all of our examples, to recent experiences at Northwestern University. However, we wish to make clear that Northwestern is a typical rather than exceptional example of academic sexism. In fact, the Film Division at Northwestern pursues non-sexist policies more actively than many other departments we know.)

Despite the fact that overall enrollment at Northwestern University is about 50% women, few women take advanced film production classes. We believe this to be the case at most colleges and universities. In our freshman-level introductory course, part of a two-quarter radio/ television/ film sequence, the ratio of men to women students over the past three years is only slightly unequal. The sophomore level super-8 production course shows a more pronounced inequity. On the senior and graduate level, the 16mm seminar course consistently contains only 10% to 20% women. Sometimes this imbalance has been so extreme as to have twenty men enrolled to just one woman in the class.

Filmmaking courses at Northwestern are divided into lectures in which the instructor explains the technical concepts, screens films, and discusses course projects; and lab sessions, where groups of 5-10 students acquire "hands-oil" experience with the equipment under the supervision of a graduate teaching assistant. The courses last a quarter and are divided into four levels. In the freshman course, the Introduction to the Image, students shoot 35mm slides and some super-8. A sophomore-level course in super-8 is run like a workshop, consisting primarily of critiques and discussions of the students' weekly filmmaking assignments. A two-quarter course in l6mm filmmaking covers black and white non-sync filmmaking in the first part, color and sync sound in the second. An advanced seminar in 16mm filmmaking is offered each quarter with a different topic, e.g., Optical Printing, Directing, Sound Theory, Animation. All levels emphasize the integration of theory and practice. (This commitment to the integration of theory and practice, as well as the basic course structures, were developed over the last eight years by our colleagues at Northwestern: Jack Ellis, Dana Hodgdon, Stuart Kaminsky, Chuck Kleinhans, and the late Paddy Whannel.)

In basic courses, for example, we've used John Berger's Ways of Seeing book and films — as well as the BFI Gauthier slides on the semiotics and ideology of the image. In more advanced classes, readings like Noel Burch's Theory of Film Practice and Eileen McGarry's "Documentary. Realism and Women's Cinema" are required. In the courses using film modes — i.e., documentary, narrative and experimental — as various approaches, we encourage students to think in tens of alternatives to classical Hollywood narrative and use the various film modes to teach them to be self-conscious about techniques they are beginning to use in their own films. Examples of short films which we use are these: O DREAMLAND, GRANTON TRAWLER, LES RACQUETTEURS, THE RIVER, BEGONE DULL CARE, MOTHLIGHT, NINE VARIATIONS ON A DANCE THEME, FRANK FILM, and MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON. Indicative of the problem of having women directors to use as role models is that prior to this year, Northwestern's film library contained only one film made by a woman, an excerpt from Leni Riefenstahl's OLYMPIAD.

We constantly evaluate both the level and our pacing of the presentation of technical material. We have to make sure that all students comprehend technical information. Surprise quizzes which students hand in but do not sign help us keep track of how well the students have absorbed the material. Because filmmaking involves so many "numbers" and brand names, students must understand the categories of film terminology, know where they can look up unfamiliar words, realize that there are often different terms for the same thing (like fullcoat and mag stock), and do a certain amount of memorizing. We often use analogies from more familiar fields such as the water faucet explanation of exposure factors in the Time-Life Photography series book, The Camera. Frequently, we explain an underlying principle. For example, before outlining the three factors which affect depth of field, we review with the class the concept of the inverse relationship. Often we simply reassure students that we ourselves did not always possess a perfect understanding and knowledge of filmmaking. Such reassurance helps in allaying the students' anxieties.

When demystifying art, the artist, and creativity, we find that a good alternative is to emphasize process. If the teacher uses as an example a film made by her/himself, s/he can trace the making of a film from the original idea, through treatments and storyboards, rewrites, test shoots, editing and mixing. We emphasize the many changes that occur between the conception of a film idea and the complete film. And we stress that filmmaking is not an individual activity. Crew members, friends, colleagues contribute to a film, as well as subjects or actors who give the filmmaker input. Such an emphasis on process gives students a better sense of the time element in making a film, of how the filmmaker may change her mind about certain aspects of the film, or of how production may be delayed while raising money or applying for funding. Such a pedagogical tactic gives students a more flexible approach to the filmmaking process than most production textbooks outline, and prepares them better for the amount of frustration and disappointment which often accompanies beginning filmmaking.

We structure an emphasis on process into the course by requiring each student to present a film treatment to the class. This helps acquaint the students with each other's projects and requires students to articulate their film ideas and present them in summaries or scripts accompanied by storyboards. The storyboards are mimeographed so that each student in the class has a copy of every other student's treatment. Because we place an importance on these treatments, we show that we stress conceptualization as well as technical performance as criteria for grading. This means all students have one assignment, at least, where the more familiar skills of writing and drafting are important. Discussion of the treatments also serves to diffuse the teacher's authority in giving criticism. Students are encouraged to critique their own work and each others', to think of improvements for projects other than their own, and to anticipate problems with films. Thus, the entire class benefits from the experience of criticism and learns to accept new ideas or critiques from a variety of sources. These benefits do not occur if the students only discuss final projects individually with the instructor.

The assignments for each class, whenever possible, consist of a series of filmmaking exercises, due every few weeks, which the students screen and discuss in class. We stress the idea that these are exercises, and that each of them (four or more during a 10-week quarter) is equally important. This makes any single lengthy project impossible, and it subverts the students' ideas about themselves as "auteurs" and their films as "masterpieces." We've found that the more specific the assignment for the exercise, the more interesting the students' projects.

Two assignments particularly interesting to women students have been to make a self-portrait, in which the student must describe her/himself without actually appearing in the film, and to film an interaction between two people, which need not be verbal, or spatially and temporally continuous. We advocate these kinds of assignments rather than an exercise to shoot a sequence "a la Hitchcock", or in the manner of film noir, because these latter tend to encourage the student to mimic the kind of ideology expressed in these films as well as the style.

Teaching assistants must be particularly sensitive to feelings of inferiority women experience when operating equipment. The course instructor should advise the teaching assistant about this and sit in on some of the lab sessions. The person actually teaching how to use the equipment must not set her/himself up as the infallible expert; s/he must promote a supportive atmosphere among members of the lab group and develop a way of explaining mistakes which is free from patronizing or ridicule. "Hands on" learning situations can too easily degenerate into merciless teasing of the women students, who are the easiest targets. The teaching assistants must always refrain from such teasing and stop other students from doing it.

The more often students handle equipment, especially in a trial shooting situation where the teaching assistant is present to answer questions, the more they gain confidence. In all classes whenever possible, the teacher should arrange group projects and trial shoots. These are the single most important factor in equalizing the levels of knowledge and self-assurance with the equipment for men and women students. When dividing the labs into groups for shooting, it is sometimes helpful to form same-sex groups. The advantage for women is that the absence of men reduces the amount of tension experienced by the women when using the equipment, and it prevents the more experienced or aggressive men in the class from taking over the project. Although dividing into same sex groups may meet with some resistance by the students initially, women students in the class quickly recognize this system's advantages.

In our own experience we have seen significant and encouraging changes in students' attitudes towards and understanding of filmmaking. Yet we have also encountered a great deal of hostility. Women teaching in a non-traditional field initially encounter enormous distrust and disrespect from students who don't expect to find a woman teaching a technical subject. And our directly confronting sexism in the classroom often provokes even greater hostility and skepticism towards us as teachers. It is a mistake to assume, however, that student films which contain violence against women are in reaction to our teaching practices in the classroom. The phenomenon exists in the classrooms of our male colleagues also and must be seen in the context of cultural milieu that includes such films as DRESSED TO KILL, STRAW DOGS, WINDOWS, etc. The problems women teachers face when confronting these issues are increased because we experience such isolation and lack of job security in the university. Yet all film production teachers can do much to improve the situation for women students in a film production class. Dealing with these issues will lead to the increased enrollment of women in filmmaking classes, and eventually to more women teaching film production and making films. What we offer are some partial solutions until broader solutions and ideological changes have taken place.