Feminism and film

by Helke Sander 
translated by Ramona Curry

from Jump Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 49-50
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1982, 2005

This article was translated from frauen und film, No. 15 (February 1978), pp. 5-10.


"I like chaos, but I don't know whether chaos likes me.”
— Bob Dylan

(This essay is a paper given in Graz, Austria, in November, 1977, on the occasion of the annual fall literature and theater festival there — the so-called "Steirischer Herbst — on the topic, "Is there and what is feminine imagery?")

After thinking about it for a long time, I have come to doubt whether this question makes any sense. But it is so frequently used, along with its variations about the forms of feminine aesthetics and feminine creativity, that it has come to belong to the repertory of many festivals, seminars and symposia. The very peculiar conclusions arrived at these conferences have also begun to work their way into professional terminology, where they tend to confuse rather than clarify concepts as well as to distract attention away from other more pressing questions.

In posing the question, people often make no distinction between feminine or feminist imagery. They use the words interchangeably, even though one word is a biological and psychological term and the other a political one.

As for feminism, the most contradictory and utterly irreconcilable definitions of the term are represented among women's groups that call themselves feminist, whose only common denominator is that they see all women oppressed by patriarchal power structures. But in defining causes, political consequences and relation to other theories about society, opinions diverge so widely — thus far we have not been able to use an exact terminology or refer to a single predominating position which might have set definitions of these terms.

And there has not yet been a feminist art manifesto of the sort that either directly or indirectly political movements bring about, as for example the manifesto of Russian artists shortly after the revolution or of the many European artists groups in the 20s.

But perhaps the initial question also implies that through the feminist movement, certain as yet unrealized feminine qualities — that is, characteristics which have been socially smothered in men, such as sensitivity, fantasy — can be expressed with confidence first in art works by women.

The question about feminine imagery cannot even begin to be answered due to the lack of film-producing women. And it would break all rules of statistics to force a deduction about aesthetic similarities from the 100 films women have produced at different times, in different cultures and countries, about the most varied topics and most diverse genres. Such an effort might be worthwhile if there were anything approaching equal participation of the sexes in the arts. But I doubt then if this question would still interest us.

In addition, we should consider that until very recently femininity was always defined by others, by men. Only now have women begun to comprehend themselves as social subjects and to throw off alien interpretations of their nature and being. The organized expression of these efforts is the women's movement. From all sides and with dissimilar results and battles, these organizations are feeling out the question of what women want, more than the question of what women are.

Women have just begun to dare to see themselves and others, society, with their own eyes. They are beginning to compare alien opinions and theories to their own experiences. They are formuating first concepts, with the help of which we can begin to comprehend the nature of past feminine oppression, today's social contradictions, and our expectations for a different human future.

And in every woman's behavior toward herself and in others' toward women — in laws, traditions, and work regulations — nowadays we always find both images: woman as object and as subject. Therefore, both — the traditional and conditioned, and the politically new — will be present in work by women, including that of contemporary women filmmakers. It is yet to be seen whether women, when first given a chance to do whatever they want, will explode in never-before-seen forms, content and techniques. It will then result from entirely different social conditions.

The visual arts at least tend to answer this question about feminine imagery with “Yes.” Women's preferences for certain genres, materials and forms also seem to express particularly feminine aesthetic concepts. Something like this also floats around in the women's movement. However, it has also been adequately recognized in the meantime that women have usually painted still lives and portraits because they were forbidden to make studies of nudes, to say nothing of the barriers to sculpture.

Such an approach in film aesthetics is by its very nature senseless because we are dealing with standardized materials and equipment. But that does not prevent similar theses from being proposed in the area of film, claiming that women prefer, out of feminist conviction, video, documentary film, and semiprofessional work in groups with other women. Every such argument has economic causes, but this is totally ignored. If one wants to work with film, video becomes a cheaper compromise, documentary films are usually cheaper than features. And the fact that some women filmmakers call on their women friends to help on sound, directing and in other capacities stems from pure need.

So if for all the above-mentioned reasons, we cannot speak of feminine imagery. The women who film or paint, etc., interest themselves less in the question of whether their products are feminine, but rather in whether their products are authentic. The penetration of the women's movement into the arts has made it possible for the first time, systematically, to recognize patriarchal ideologies in art works, that is to say, mostly male art works. The absence of certain sexist stereotypes, which we could find throughout film history in films by women, does not yet constitute a feminine imagery, but rather at the very most leads to attention to sensitivity for image-predominant ideologies.

Until now, with a few exceptions in the silent film era, film has been purely a male domain. As such a widely distributed and immediate means of communication, it has also shaped women's images of themselves, their roles, their ideals and standards of beauty. Women in film were for a long time the artistic creations of those who made the images.

We can perhaps measure the meaning of this indoctrination through false images if we consider that only about two percent of the population reads literature, and literary production has always been less standardized than film production. But nearly everyone shares in film culture through movies and today through television. Although the participation of women working in these media has grown in recent years, women still make up just a fraction of the whole and are almost never involved in decision-making.

The women's movement in the arts now reveals the masculinity mania in art. The movement is freeing the image of women from a "natural feminine state” and from an assumed natural relation to men visually as well. A very simple example of this is that in film even more than in reality, women are expected to be shorter than men. For example, no serious romances could ever occur between partners of the same height, much less between tall women and short men. If this happens, it is always only comical and means that the man in such a relationship is not to be taken seriously. It is new that such a relationship today can be treated with irony, as in that TV news report showing a visit to Mao by Kissinger with his wife Nancy — a head taller than Henry. Mao, giggling, pointed repeatedly at Mrs. Kissinger while looking at Kissinger, as if Mao were bringing a good joke into politics. The newscaster announced this news item with a slight smile.

In recent years, many Hollywood actresses have complained that scripts are no longer being written in which women even appear. We at frauen und film have suggested that this could be perhaps unconsciously a correct and honest reaction to the women's movement. If one has nothing to say, one should remain silent; it is only in keeping with principles that women's roles get eliminated altogether.

I hope I have made clear thus far that the denial of feminine imagery does not mean that art does not vary according to sex, any less than it varies according to class, as socialist theory has analyzed. I do not mean by this that these aspects and others — national characteristics, for example — add up to determine a work of art. Rather, they enter into the formal experience that only an artwork makes accessible.

But just as a progressive social theory has led to a dogmatic aesthetic, that is, the equation of social realism with a thesis about knowledge (about how we experience the forms of knowledge), feminism has also had the tendency to make certain aesthetic categories a measure of the aesthetic experience. Thus spontaneity, in women, is no so much oppressed but rather socially patronized. It has been sharply ideologized, and the form into which this spontaneity flows has been summarily declared to be art. This phenomenon is like the fact that science's being antipathetic to women has led to women's groups' showing a antipathy to theory.

In a turnabout, social deficits are simply idealized and declared artistic victories. From such tendencies within the women's movement itself then, definitions can be arrived at which always see women and their works only partially and not in terms of our whole living condition.

But underlying those sometimes so emphatically expressed women's demands for collectivity and spontaneity is also the wish to abolish the dichotomy which makes some responsible for the production of goods and the others responsible for the arts. At the base lies the wish that it be the fundamental right of every person to work out their experiences in every direction. In the realization of this demand, with all the catastrophes and horrors it brings, lies a piece of utopia. There is only rarely, very rarely, a lucky case when the joint work of non-professionals results in outstanding productions.

I have already implied that women today find themselves in a situation perhaps best compared to that of Kaspar Hauser or the Wild Child. We must first learn to see with our own eyes and not through the mediation of others. And when we have just first begun to talk, we still stutter and write no poetry. This leads feminist artists into conflicts for which there are no solutions and which affect them qualitatively totally differently than male artists.

The women's movement is striving to examine our fragmented history from the point of view of women's interests. So far there has been virtually no division of labor at this, only gargantuan efforts to gather individual insights piece by piece. The questions touch everyone existentially. The forms of confronting issues require again and again that we abandon our own line of work. We have to choose between things of immediate importance to the movement and the requirements of our own work, which is in many ways, however, also based on the entire movement's insights. We are not only building a house, but simultaneously gathering and assembling the materials for it ourselves.

Women artists have worked not only on art but on the movement's pressing problems. They do both always in the hope of soon making their presence there rather superfluous in order to be able to concentrate again fully on developing their own talents. Almost all the women's movements' projects with which we have meanwhile become acquainted are unpaid. They have arisen from this inner contradiction, such as the first women's film festival organized by women filmmakers to familiarize themselves with otherwise inaccessible knowledge; the art exhibitions; the journal frauen und film, for work on which even today no one makes a penny.

Many film projects have also arisen in order to contribute to social campaigns, for example around Paragraph 218 (the Federal law restricting abortions — trans. note), contraceptives, etc. Such work is all born of the desire to support the women's movement in such a way as to have an immediate effect. But this often distracts from women artists' own projects, which are more complicated and stand in a much less direct relation to the movements. The pressure of making many such works without financial support, and often with untrained people, quickly leads to unbearable conflicts with the women filmmakers' own standards of excellence. Later, such films are frequently used in an official context against the filmmakers when they are applying for money.

Furthermore, the art and film market will scarcely allow even a temporary absence. Artists must rigorously pursue their own interests or else be lost. It means being torn back and forth between the women's movement and its demands and its advances on the one hand, and the conditions of artistic work on the other. This contradiction leads to nearly insoluble internal and external problems, which necessarily become apparent in our work. Besides, the competition in the freelance world is murderous. This system again makes women filmmakers themselves into competitors. This is because in comparison to their male colleagues they receive fewer commissions to begin with and do not yet have a lobby of any sort.

Beyond this, many of the qualities which are encouraged in and through the women's movement, such as eliminating hierarchical behavior and irrational authority, and recognizing and paying attention to underrated abilities, are in actual work situations likely to result in catastrophe. Filmmaking conditions are so intertwined with the laws of the market, that humane behavior at work is often interpreted as feminine weakness. Consider too that normal professional work teams derive from labor traditions which fully accept capitalist values.

In short, wherever women land, within a very short time there is nothing but confusion, shock, excitement.

If we also consider that many women, in keeping with their principles, propose to make films on subjects which have arisen from a movement which the ruling powers ignore or fight, then we can get a pretty good picture of what happens before productions, that is, where decisions about financial means are made. Examples of this are almost all of the works which came out of the campaigns against Paragraph 218. Because the political demands of the women's movement could not, in fact, really be theoretically grounded within the public media, this resulted in the semi-professional works which I have already mentioned, often formally quite lacking. These works born of necessity have lead, as I said, to definitions about feminist film and the sort of conclusion that feminist film is presumably "primarily interested in the documentary and mistrusts the power of fantasy."

Still other aesthetic points of friction have arisen in these confrontations. Quite materialistically and simply, the women's movement has begun with itself, with the female body, thereby exposing injustices and alien definitions. Now in many of these films, nude bodies and sexual organs play a role. These are filmed not to awaken erotic feelings in men nor to be sexually neutral or medically functional, but rather to picture the female body so as to lead women into the blank regions of unexplored subjectivity.

Because a female sex organ is immediately associated with pornography and thus banned from all public media, we can imagine the collisions between themes of this kind with public broadcasting stations. The stations follow general guidelines, which clearly forbid showing anything which violates customary moral feeling or which in principle challenges marriage and family. This challenge, however, forms a basis of the entire women's movement. On the international scale, this chapter of women's seeing their bodies with their own eyes is far from having been written to the end. It will become explosive anew when contributed to by our Arab sisters, who must struggle to win not only the filmic right to their own bellies but also even the right to their own unveiled faces. Not long ago a newspaper article mentioned the Turkish censor had forbidden showing love scenes or women in bathing suits in films.

When we perceive our own interests, we do not express that only in tearing down ruling ideologies, but really concretely in confrontations at the work place, now among women filmmakers in the arts industry. Stated otherwise: women's most authentic act today — in all areas including the arts — consists not in standardizing and harmonizing the means, but rather in destroying them. Where women are true, they break things.

With visual material, this "breakage" has been the most progressive in analyses, and the most diffuse in practice. It often makes productions disjointed and inconsistent, especially with women artists who have just begun to work, those not trained in and then building on an art tradition before joining the women's movement and then consciously distancing themselves formally from this tradition.

Of course, we also should not forget that there are women filmmakers and artists who because of personal distance from the women's movement remain altogether untouched by these problems and can for this reason often work much more effectively. Unburdened by politics, they can get commissions and sit on certainty instead of on chaos. In contrast, feminist artists can say with Bob Dylan: “I like chaos, but I don't know whether chaos likes me.”