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Not unlike the emergence of feminist theory and criticism in the domains of art and literature, the women’s movement of the late 1960s and 1970s sparked a focused interrogation of images of women in film and of women’s participation in film production.  The 1970s witnessed the authorship of massively influential texts by writers such as Claire Johnston, Molly Haskell, and Laura Mulvey in the United Kingdom and the United States, and psychoanalysis was a reigning method of inquiry, though Marxism and semiotics also informed the field.

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Feminist film theory has provoked debates about the representations of female bodies, sexuality, and femininity on screen while posing questions concerning identity, desire, and the politics of spectatorship, among other topics. Crucially, an increasing amount of attention has been paid by theorists to intersectionality, as scholars investigate the presence and absence of marginalized and oppressed film subjects and producers. This reading list surveys a dozen articles, presented chronologically, as a starting point for readers interested in the lines of inquiry that have fueled the field over the last fifty years.

Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 6–18.

To put it most simply, Mulvey’s 1975 essay is nothing short of iconic. A cornerstone of psychoanalytic feminist film theory, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” describes the ways in which women are displayed on screen for the pleasure of the male spectator. Many of the essays listed below engage explicitly with Mulvey’s essay and the notion of the male gaze, illustrating what Corrin Columpar (2002, see below) describes as a “near compulsive return” to this pioneering work. But even Mulvey herself would later push back on some of her most provocative claims, including her positioning of the spectator as male, as well as her omission of female protagonists.

Feminism and Film: Critical Approaches,” Camera Obscura 1, no. 1 (1976): 3–10.

Established in 1976, Camera Obscura was (and remains) a groundbreaking venue for feminist film studies. This introductory essay to the first issue contextualizes the necessity of such a journal in a scholarly and cultural environment in which there is a true “need” for the feminist study of film. Camera Obscura was, in part, an American response to the wave of British contributions to the field, often published in the journal Screen (the home of Mulvey’s essay). The editors spend much of this essay unpacking the camera obscura, an image projection device, as a metaphor for feminist film theory, as it functions as a symbol of contradiction that “emphasizes the points of convergence of ideology and representation, of ideology as representation.”

Michelle Criton, Julia Lesage, Judith Mayne, B. Ruby Rich, and Anna Marie Taylor, “Women and Film: A Discussion of Feminist Aesthetics,” New German Critique no. 13 (1978): 83–107.

What makes film an enticing object of study for feminists in the first place? As Criton et al. attest, the answers lie in the social rather than individual or private dimensions of film as well as in its accessibility and synthesis of “art, life, politics, sex, etc.” The conversation featured here provides a glimpse into contemporary conversations about the work of Claire Johnston and Laura Mulvey and psychoanalysis as a shaping force of early feminist film theory. Additionally, they consider how a feminist filmmaking aesthetic can reveal and critique the ideologies that underpin the oppression of women.

Judith Mayne, “Feminist Film Theory and Criticism,” Signs 11, no. 1 (1985): 81–100.

Acknowledging the profound impact of “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Mayne surveys the development of feminist film theory, including both its historical contexts and its fixations upon psychoanalysis and the notions of spectacle and the gaze. Mayne outlines how contradiction—variously construed—is “the central issue in feminist film theory and criticism” (emphasis added). Additionally, the author calls into question the historiography of women’s cinema, noting the “risk of romanticizing women’s exclusion from the actual production of films.” She urges scholars to, certainly, continue the necessary exploration of forgotten and understudied female filmmakers but to also open up the conception of women’s cinema to include not just the work of female directors but also their peripheral roles as critics and audience members.

Jane Gaines, “White Privilege and Looking Relations: Race and Gender in Feminist Film Theory,” Cultural Critique, no. 4 (1986): 59–79.

What, Gaines asks, are the limitations of feminist theory’s early fixation on gender at the expense of nuanced understandings of race, class, and sexuality? While feminist theory may, in its earliest years, have opened up possibilities for interrogating the gendered politics of spectatorship, it was largely exclusionary of diverse perspectives, including, as Gaines notes, lesbians and women of color. In doing so, “feminist theory has helped to reinforce white middle-class [normative] values, and to the extent that it works to keep women from seeing other structures of oppression, it functions ideologically.” Through an analysis of the 1975 film Mahogany and informed by black feminist theorists and writers such as bell hooks, Mayne argues that psychoanalysis ultimately results in erroneous readings of films about race.

Noël Carroll, “The Image of Women in Film: A Defense of a Paradigm,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 48, no. 4 (1990): 349–60.

Carroll theorizes why psychoanalysis was so attractive to feminists in the 1970s and 1980s: by providing a theoretical framework, he argues, psychoanalysis was a means to “incorporate” and “organize” the “scattered insights of the image of women in film approach.” Taking issue with Mulvey’s perspective on voyeurism, Carroll positions the image approach, or the study of the image of women in film—in this case with an emphasis on theories of emotion— as a “rival research program” to psychoanalysis. He argues that paradigm scenarios, or cases in which emotions are learned behavioral responses, influence spectatorship and how audiences respond emotionally to women on screen.

Karen Hollinger, “Theorizing Mainstream Female Spectatorship: The Case of the Popular Lesbian Film,” Cinema Journal 37, no. 2 (1998): 3–17.

Hollinger surveys theoretical responses to lesbian subjectivity and the female spectatorship of popular lesbian film narratives. She articulates the subversive power of the lesbian look as a challenge to Mulvey’s notion of the male gaze, asserting its potential to empower female spectators as agents of desire.

Corinn Columpar, “The Gaze As Theoretical Touchstone: The Intersection of Film Studies, Feminist Theory, and Postcolonial Theory,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 30, no. 1/2 (2002): 25–44.

The male gaze is not, as Columpar articulates, the sole tool “in the contemporary feminist film critic’s box”: so are the ethnographic and colonial gazes, brought to film theory from postcolonial studies. Columpar reiterates that the early fixation upon gender and the male gaze “failed to account for other key determinants of social power and position.” Interdisciplinary perspectives, such as those informed by postcolonial theory, are better equipped to unpack “issues of racial and national difference and acknowledge the role that race and ethnicity play in looking relations.”

Janell Hobson, “Viewing in the Dark: Toward a Black Feminist Approach to Film,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 30, no. 1/2 (2002): 45–59.

Hobson illuminates the absence and/or disembodied presence of Black female bodies in Hollywood cinema. She argues that the invisibility of Black women’s bodies on screen was a defense mechanism against the disruption of “whites as beautiful, as the norm.” By turning away from the gaze and toward the sound of Black women’s disembodied voices in speech and song, viewers are better equipped to recognize how their voices are “used in mainstream cinema by way of supporting and defining the normalized (white) male body,” therefore “ensur[ing] the identity of white masculinity.”

E. Ann Kaplan, “Global Feminisms and the State of Feminist Film Theory,” Signs 30, no. 1 (2004): 1236–48.

Kaplan reflects on her trajectory as a pioneering feminist film theorist, illuminating her shift from cinema’s depictions of the “oppressions of white Western women” to the study of trauma in global and indigenous cinema. Importantly, she notes that in her earlier research, she failed to “confront the really tough questions of my own positionality.” In doing so, she invites readers to consider the ethics of witnessing and white, Western feminist participation in the development of multicultural approaches.

Jane M. Gaines, “Film History and the Two Presents of Feminist Film Theory,” Cinema Journal 44, no. 1 (2004): 113–19.

It may come as a surprise to many that, internationally speaking, women were indeed undertaking various forms of creative labor in the world of film production during the silent era, including screenwriting, producing, directing, etc. The question, then, is not just “why these women were forgotten” but also “why we forgot them.” Gaines considers the “historical turn” in feminist film studies, arguing that scholars must be mindful of how they narrativize and rewrite the rediscovered facts of women’s work in cinema.

Sangita Gopal, “Feminism and the Big Picture: Conversations,” Cinema Journal 57, no. 2 (2018): 131–36.

In this fascinating article, Gopal synthesizes responses to a series of questions posed to film scholars regarding feminist theory, praxis, and pedagogy, as well as feminism as “an unfinished project” and feminist media studies as a “boundless” field. Where theory is concerned, Gopal usefully highlights Lingzhen Wang’s and Priya Jaikumar’s suggestions for more explicitly linking and situating feminist media studies within “the big picture.” Notably, Jaikumar ponders the possibilities of feminism creating a framework such that “it is not possible to ask a question if it is absent of a politics.”

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New German Critique, No. 13, Special Feminist Issue (Winter 1978), pp. 82–107
Duke University Press
Signs, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Autumn 1985), pp. 81–100
The University of Chicago Press
Cultural Critique, No. 4 (Autumn 1986), pp. 59–79
University of Minnesota Press
The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 48, No. 4, Feminism and Traditional Aesthetics (Autumn 1990), pp. 349–360
Wiley on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics
Cinema Journal, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Winter 1998), pp. 3–17
University of Texas Press on behalf of the Society for Cinema & Media Studies
Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 1/2, Looking Across the Lens: Women’s Studies and Film (Spring-Summer 2002), pp. 25–44
The Feminist Press at the City University of New York
Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 1/2, Looking Across the Lens: Women's Studies and Film (Spring-Summer 2002), pp. 45–59
The Feminist Press at the City University of New York
Signs, Vol. 30, No. 1, Beyond the Gaze: Recent Approaches to Film FeminismsSpecial Issue EditorsKathleen McHugh and Vivian Sobchack (Autumn 2004), pp. 1236–1248
The University of Chicago Press
Cinema Journal, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Autumn 2004), pp. 113–119
University of Texas Press on behalf of the Society for Cinema & Media Studies
Cinema Journal, Vol. 57, No. 2 (Winter 2018), pp. 131–136
University of Texas Press on behalf of the Society for Cinema & Media Studies