Critical dialogue
Sexual politics

by Cathy Schwichtenberg

from Jump Cut, no. 28, April 1983, p. 58
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1983, 2005

After reading Maureen Turim's book review of Patricia Erens's feminist film anthology Sexual Stratagems (JUMP CUT, No. 27), I was prompted to reflect on issues related to pedagogy and feminist film studies. Crucially, what is at stake in feminist film studies is the politicization of one's students. At the level of praxis, the teacher must convince her students that they have a stake in feminism and that movies are not simply entertainment but cultural/ideological artifacts, in which representations inform the ways that the students go about constructing their social reality.

Many students may be skeptical or resistant to even the most basic assumptions that feminism and the way in which women are represented in film significantly affect them outside of academia. Other students may already be convinced of the relevance of feminist studies to their lives. They wish to understand how ideology, specifically in relation to film, informs the textual mechanisms that determine certain representations of women. Still other students may already know these things and simply need a historical background to situate the evolution of feminist film studies. Or they may need to be referred to articles that exhibit diverse methodologies brought to bear on texts under the rubric of feminism. Finally, some students who have been marginally interested in either feminist studies or film or both may desire a sense of community with others who share their interests. These students probably look upon the classroom situation as a pretext to develop friendships.

Thus a course in feminist film studies, especially an introductory level course, must somehow satisfy a number of diverse needs and curiosities that the students bring to the course. With such widespread desires and expectations, the teacher's task is certainly not an easy one  — is she to satisfy desires one or two or all of the above? Clearly, she would want to satisfy the needs of all of her students. This brings us to the sticky problem of "how." As Turim rightly points out, there are too few feminism and film anthologies. Those that are available require annotation as a result of the obvious time lags in publication and hence the "datedness" of the material.

But, I don't believe, as I think Turim does, that teachers of feminism and film are confronted with an either/or proposition. The choice between an anthology which presents a diverse (albeit scattered) historical overview or more methodologically rigorous theoretical articles does not exist. Obviously both types of feminist scholarship should be studied, analyzed, and critiqued by students. Maybe this could be done chronologically, so that students have a sense of evolving and developing lines of thought around a central issue or even two opposing views on an issue. It is not enough to indicate that the earlier popular notion of "images of women" has shifted to the very different process notion of "imaging," but rather why, how, when, and what is at stake as the result of such a shift (what is lost and what gained). Other large issues may involve the differences between U.S. feminism and Continental feminism or the political/critical/theoretical implications of a cross-fertilization of the two currents.

While feminist anthologies certainly have their shortcomings, the more theoretical works that Turim points to are equally limited. They too are bound by history and are not definitive; probably a few years from now those works will also require annotation. Any "model" piece of scholarly writing presented to students should be used as an example and critiqued by students. And the methodology perhaps could be imitated and used as a springboard for the students' own formulations.

Certainly, there is no one right way to approach teaching feminism and film. Luckily, the work in this area has yet to be canonized, as has the work in the majority of courses taught in the academy. Significantly, this means that feminism and film is an area still open to methodological and political debate. One of the places for political intervention triggered by debate lies within the academy, which provides a time and place where issues that seriously affect how people perceive the word can be aired, argued, and discussed. This space for po1itical intervention must be left open to provide students with the opportunity to develop their own unique formulations on issues and to refute and challenge previous scholarship in the field.

Feminist film studies is an unique area in that it not only relates to students' lived experiences, but it also provides them with a space for original thought that is all too often stifled in the more canonized disciplines, which remain entrenched in tradition. This space which feminism and film provide should be left open for debate, challenges, new methodologies. We will always be engaged in the process of annotating and amending articles or anthologies, and with any luck our students will help us do it.