“It’s time to look through these films to see what we can learn from the messy history of feminism on the big (or often small) screen - it’s time to do the dirty laundry.”
Gender and film have always been intertwined, whether it be in terms of representation in front of or behind the camera. As women remain underrepresented amongst film-making positions it is important to look back and appreciate those works of art through the history of cinema that have sought to represent the female experience and called for equality amongst the sexes. It’s time to look through these films to see what we can learn from the messy history of feminism on the big (or often small) screen - it’s time to do the dirty laundry.
The Consequences of Feminism (1906)
In just seven minutes, revolutionary filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché weaves together a narrative of a world under feminist rule - but it is not one that we might have imagined it to be. Now men are the ones who do the laundry and deal with sexual harassment on the street, while women drink and do the harassing. Is this a condemnation of the suffragette movement, or of the patriarchal system? This is still debated. What is not up for discussion is the fact this is one of the earliest examples of gender-related issues both on and behind the camera.
Credited as the first female filmmaker (and one of the first filmmakers in general), Alice Guy-Blaché has historically been overlooked. As the 2018 documentary Be Natural highlights, her work was revolutionary for its time through its realistic and honest portrayals of societal issues. Nevertheless, her name has been largely forgotten in film history and many of her films have been falsely attributed to other (male) directors, or simply lost. The result is that there are culturally significant female filmmakers (feminist or not) whose works remain unseen and underappreciated by the masses.
The Life of Oharu (1952)
Films about gender-related issues have never been fully Western, nor fully female – take Kenji Mizoguchi’s filmography as an example. In The Life of Oharu the violence inherent to a system under patriarchal rule is told through the story of one woman. Oharu is rejected, trampled on, and abused. She is sold as a geisha by her father (mirroring the fate of Mizoguchi’s own sister) after falling in love with a lower-class man, and thereafter struggles to make a worthy life for herself. It is a quintessential study of female oppression and injustice within Japanese society.
It should perhaps be remembered that Mizoguchi did not start with this focus on female characters out of his own will. It was his production company who told him that while they already had one director making films about heroes (Murata Minoru), they needed another to make ones about heroines. This might sound strange to contemporary ears, but what it highlights is the fact that when female-centric filmmaking is demanded, beautiful things happen. And while female directors have often been the ones to put issues of gender equality within film history, the role of male directors must not be forgotten - if only to remind those working now about their responsibilities.
In 1966, Věra Chytilová released her criminally fun film Daisies, wherein two teenage girls wreak havoc through a series of highly inventive pranks. Strange in both form and content, Chytilová explores the breaking of social norms: “I have no desire to cuddle my audience,” she has said in an interview with The Guardian. The movie was banned in her native country of Czechoslovakia and the government effectively barred her from making films, especially following the Soviet invasion in 1968. The abject lack of concern for social norms positioned her work as dangerous, as something to be hidden. While she was able to produce films later on in her life, these were often subject to strict censorship, and she struggled to achieve full artistic freedom. Often cited as a feminist filmmaker (although, like many other female directors throughout history, she rejected this label), Chytilová is a prime example of the sorts of issues women faced when challenging the status quo of filmmaking.
Born in Flames (1983)
In the least futuristic-looking sci-fi film to ever exist, Lizzie Borden takes a look at a United States post-revolution, pre-equality. 10 years after a social democratic revolution, women are still subjected to assault by men. Minority groups still struggle with underpaid jobs. And the “Women’s Army,” a grassroots group raising awareness of these issues, are harassed by state officials. As it turns out, revolution is not so revolutionary after all.
What Born In Flames so artfully captures is the fact that to talk about gender equality is not to speak in a one-directional space. It is also to talk about issues of sexuality, "race", class and so on. Noting that “any move towards separatism - the demand for equal rights for one group alone - hurts our struggle for the equal advancement of all parts of society,” Borden provides a radical view of the intersectionality needed for a truly equal society.
Agnes Varda’s colossal impact on filmmaking is undoubtable, encompassing a large filmography about the precarious lives of women. These are often about the so-called "women’s issues": her 1965 film Le Bonheur explored the fate of the domestic(ated) woman, and she turned her insight on reproductive rights in One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977). But to me, Vagabond is her most revolutionary by being the story of the most forsaken subject of them all: an "unwomanly" woman. A woman without empathy. A woman who’ll sleep with anyone. A woman who reeks of alcohol and who staggers through streets drenched in wine; who has not showered in three weeks and does not care. A woman who has “no plans, no goals… no wishes, no wants…” A hitchhiker. A woman whose dead body we see lying in a strangely contorted position at the very start of the film. A woman called Mona Bergeron (Sandrine Bonnaire).
It is through a series of flashbacks that we learn about Mona - more precisely, we learn what other people think about her. Who is this woman? Varda doesn’t really tell us but she clearly cares, in the same way she cared for those hitchhiking women she’d met in the 80s who inspired her to make the film. An unusual woman takes shape in these shots. Varda wants us to see her, perhaps only to ask ourselves why have I never seen a woman like this before on the screen? Summing up the film, Varda has said: “Mona’s cute, she stinks, and she won’t say thank you. Would you offer her a lift?” It might be worth asking ourselves that very question, and dwelling on our answer.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Céline Sciamma’s newly released film explores the relationship between a female painter and the aristocratic woman whose portrait she is employed to paint. What is so brilliant about it is the unabashed female gaze it presents. It reminds us that gender equality on the screen is not just a matter of characterisation or plot, but also form. Whose eyes are we looking through? And where does the camera linger? As the director herself has noted, “I am the product of male gaze – we all are. I've spent my life loving films that sometimes hated me”. It’s necessary to support contemporary and revolutionary female filmmakers, whether that be Lulu Wang, Ann Hui, Claire Denis or Dee Rees. It is the only way to make sure that these films continue to be made.