Themed Playlist: The Female Gaze
About the lists: Calls to socially distance and self-isolate are driving people to look for things to watch. But the sheer amount of options out there can be overwhelming. For this reason, we at the Centre for Screen Cultures are producing themed playlists of film, video, and television so you can organise your own series or festival at home (or home school). They will update here and here: https://screenculture.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/category/media-playlists/
Leshu Torchin offers: The Female Gaze
The pandemic has forced the cancellation of my Docs@TheByre series, which included two fabulous documentaries: Freedom Fields (Naziha Arebi, 2019) and Yours in Sisterhood (Irene Lusztig, 2018). The former follows three women and their football team over the course of five years in post-revolution Libya, taking on sport, politics, history and hope through a lens of sisterhood. The latter offers a profound and stimulating dialogue across time and place as women today read aloud unpublished letters to Ms Magazine, and reflect on the content, the writer, and their resonance today. Both films, in effect offer a distinctly female gaze in their insistence on a female and intersectional feminist perspective.
I can’t offer that series (although I will programme them again) but I can offer here a selection of films I see as also offering a female gaze. This is a term often used as counterpoint to the male gaze, a term introduced by Laura Mulvey but which has enjoyed considerable escape velocity into popular culture. Whilst the male gaze centres a male spectator to identify with an active male protagonist in stories that speak to him, and which render female figures little more than an object or narrative device, a female gaze intervenes and expands and shatters this framework. A female gaze centres women and their desires. A female gaze can wilfully displace the male gaze that derives pleasure from but refuses the agency of women on screen.
So here are some films that upend the expected looks, pleasures, and narratives:
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma, 2019): This will be one of the best things you watch. It is a film entirely focussed on the looks, loves, lives, and art of women. It’s available through rental at Curzon Home Cinemas: https://www.curzonhomecinema.com/film/watch-portrait-of-a-lady-on-fire-online and via MUBI as of Friday, 10 April.
The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996): I regard this as canon. Anyone studying Film Studies must watch a film that introduces a black queer gaze that takes on spectatorship, intersectional feminism, and film history and the records that are kept. This is available for streaming on a few platforms, including BFI Player on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Watermelon-Woman-Cheryl-Dunye/dp/B07GJWH4NB
The Body Remembers when the World Broke Open (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers. Kathleen Hepburn, 2019): A moving film that traces the interactions of two women with loving and gentle detail. Girish Shambu can say it all better than I can in his Film Quarterly post on ‘Rethinking Film Evaluation’. It is streaming on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/title/81177504
Hustlers (Lorene Sciafa, 2019): Who would think that a film about exotic dancers would refuse the typical lurid objectification to centre entirely on the looks and interests of the women. Intersectional in its feminism as well, it’s a delight. To be found streaming on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and Google Play.
Wild Nights with Emily (Madeleine Olenek, 2019) is an intelligently funny film that takes on the myth of the poet Emily Dickinson as shy spinster recluse as it also plays with the period genre as a mechanism for miniaturising and managing women. As such it playfully takes on the way film, history, and literary criticism lay claim to totalising biographies of women.
Waru (Briar Grace-Smith, Ainsley Gardiner, Chelsea Cohen, Casey Kaa, Renae Maihi, Katie Wolfe, Awanui Simich-Pene, Paula Whetu Jones, 2017) Eight Maori directors come together to tell the story of a tangi for a child who died by the hands of his caregiver. The eight vignettes are woven together in what appears as a single take, providing a perspective both expansive and intimate. [If Vai is at all available, look for that too—a similarly collective endeavour organised by the same producers.] Waru is available to rent on Google Play and YouTube.
Meeks Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010): A film about settler families travelling the Oregon trail, it provides an almost claustrophobic perspective rather than the grand colonising panoramas in which a male gaze command women, natives, and landscapes. It is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden, 1983): This science-fiction film takes place in a New York City where revolution has led to a socialist government. However, as would be little surprise to some of us, this is by no means the end of sexism, racism, and homophobia. This feminist classic continues to resonate with politics of today. A restoration is available for rental or purchase on Vimeo.
Unbelievable (Susannah Grant, Netflix, 2019) Although wrenching, this series refuses the traditional procedural that renders spectacular violence against women before leaving them behind to focus on tormented male detectives and a perverse male perpetrator. Instead, it focusses on the victims, and more specifically, the ways in which they are retraumatised by the ‘justice’ system—ignored, disbelieved, forgotten, as well as two female detectives who take their claims seriously and in doing so (along with detective work) track down a serial rapist. It’s a gruelling experience, but that, too, is part of its significance: why should there be easy pleasure to be found in this topic. (Of course, the show still delivers a compelling story and excellent performances from Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, and Kaitlyn Dever.) It’s available on Netflix.
Shirkers (Sandi Tan, 2018): Although the documentary seems to be about the mystery of a Svengali like figure who absconded with a film made by Tan and her friends, it is equally about the boisterous creativity of these young women and the reclamation of their work. It’s available on Netflix.
I initially added Albertina Carri’s Las Hijas Del Fuego/ The Daughters of Fire (2018) (available on MUBI) to my list, not because I had seen it, but because of the description, which reads, ‘Few films have fought the “male gaze” quite like this one. Argentine director Albertina Carri responds to cinema’s systemic patriarchy with this political porn: a lesbian and feminist road movie that proudly subverts paradigms of beauty, sexuality, and representation with radical determination’. Having now seen it, I must note that the ‘porn’ is indeed literal for those who might not wish to watch strong sexual content. What makes it so compelling is how resolutely these actions on screen, often extended or just cut short, seem to operate for the pleasure of the women on screen and not for the viewer. They are not objects but subjects of the gaze here.
NOTE: This is obviously by no means a comprehensive list. I’ve left out loads as I try to find out streaming and availability. And as Anna Backman Rogers would be sure to ask: Where on earth is Wanda by Barbara Loden [in my list or streaming]? And why have you included no Sofia Copola, especially The Beguiled (2017), which revisits the 1971 film through a distinctly female perspective? And yes, you should watch The Beguiled, which is available to rent on YouTube.
But once I pull at that thread, I’ll not be able to finish for a long time. Contrary to all those who bemoan the lack of female talent out there– there is a glorious amount to find and enjoy.