Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 17, May 2004



Jane Sloan


Contest and Renewal:

Butler's _Women's Cinema_



Alison Butler

_Women's Cinema: The Contested Screen_

London: Wallflower Press, 2002

ISBN 1903364272

134 pp.


Alison Butler's _Women's Cinema_, part of Wallflower Press's Short Cuts series of introductory film studies texts, shows considerable strength in explaining a wide range of difficult concepts that have concerned feminist film theory and practice over the last 25 years. The author, a Lecturer at the University of Reading in England, is on solid ground in underlying her approach with critical works from outside these fields, such as Benjamin Anderson's _Imagined Communities_. [1]


Butler's introductory synthesis of the literature coincides with a period of stasis in the academic debates around feminist film theory that marked the 1980s and 90s. It is preceded by many similar introductions written by authors who found themselves obliged to clarify a starting point for their own monographs on the subject. During this period, much energy was expended attempting to grasp the whole for feminism -- narrative theory, psychoanalytic theory, aesthetics, film practice -- to the extent that the relationships became elusive, and the thorny entrance way led to comparatively little diversity within the films actually discussed. With the reorienting of scholarly work towards gender studies and global studies, this need for a prescribed path -- some new books barely mention the debate at all, instead moving ahead on their own terms -- has lessened. [2] A pre-publication reviewer for this book states that the author has clarified these 'vexed, overly debated issues once and for all', [3] and I echo the idea that this masterly synthesis comes with good timing. Certainly, in 1999, Judith Mayne's wondering about what other discipline has discussed the same essay (Mulvey's 'Visual Pleasure') for 30 years, and if the dominance of critical theory isn't just another form of (patriarchal) mastery, spelled a bit of an off note. [4] Her observation fits very well, in fact, with Butler's reliance on the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who worked outside the prevailing semiotic-structuralist-psychoanalytic construct, to guide her to the conclusions of this book.


Butler's overview of the debate on women's cinema is compelling partly because she determines it is not necessary to address every theoretical concern, but simply begins with the broadest definition -- films for women, by women, and about women -- then picks and chooses among the theoretical underpinnings as she sees fit, focusing on examples where all three conditions are met. Sensibly and without extensive justification, she chooses to discuss in detail two areas: the debate around women's cinema in 'Anglophone film theory', and women's practice within 'some major traditions' (2). In the arrangement and content of her book, Butler also implicitly sees film theory as a critical theory, reflecting practice rather than prescribing it.


Shoring up this most broad definition of women's cinema, she states that it is neither a genre, nor a movement. Further, it cannot have a history for the reason it cannot be identified in the way, for example, that a national cinema can. Instead, she sees it as overlapping with other 'cinemas', movements, genres. Resulting from this view is a notion of women's cinema as 'minor', after Deleuze and Guattari's book on Kafka's work as 'minor literature'. [5]


This concept of minor cinema is quite fruitful for the purpose of concluding the debate on the strong political ground that most interests Butler. Since a 'minor' cinema is one that politicizes everything, women's cinema well qualifies, generally finding struggle in all aspects of life, and value in confronting it. Further, a minor literature is written by marginalized authors, and so focuses on the challenges of belonging to an out-group. This means its politics are closely concerned with boundaries, and in this way, the boundaries of women's cinema: who practices, who doesn't, who identifies, who doesn't, who watches, who doesn't; where its content begins and ends can be left open. Above all, the approach is subjective, the complete evocation of the personal as political.


By leaving aside the boundaries, moving ahead, and looking at women's cinema practice within other cinema traditions, Butler allows herself immersion in a chosen series of 'major' traditions, a grounding that contributes greatly to her critically acute and wide-ranging readings.


Butler's introductory overview of the last 25 years of feminist film theory is one of the best. The issues are well known. They begin in the late 1960s with a 'split' among those engaged, which was clearly articulated by Teresa de Lauretis. On the one side, she stated, are those interested in political activism involving 'consciousness raising, or self-expression, or the search for positive images', and on the other, are those interested in 'formal work on the medium understood as a social technology', for the purpose of disengaging the 'ideological codes embedded in cinematic representation'. [6] The latter, in general, won out. Certainly even those questioning it have been obliged to address the issues it raised, and therefore, to some extent commit to the 'master' theory informing it.


Butler believes that this theoretical emphasis dragged along with it the whole of women's cinema (filmmaking), and so defined the practice of it in the limited manner of the problematics of film theory and Hollywood. For those intending to create films in response to this call, this led to an emphasis on the search for the female gaze, desire, and narrative agency, all pre-defined as impossible within conventional narrative feature filmmaking. Not every filmmaker fully identified with women's cinema responded to this call, one of the more clear-cut cases being Margarethe von Trotta.


While crediting John Berger with the concept of the 'look', Butler leaves behind his larger concerns with class in _Ways of Seeing_, even though they dovetail well with her eventual conclusions. [7] Instead, she relates his line of reasoning closely to that put forward by Laura Mulvey, who endorsed avant-garde filmmaking as a model and insisted on the negation of dominant (Hollywood) aesthetics on the basis of the Male gaze and it's objectification of women. Mulvey's thesis has a literal quality, based primarily as it was on psychoanalytic meanings of static images. But her stating of the three different looks involved in any cinematic enterprise (camera, audience, and between characters on the screen) and the way they function in Hollywood continuity editing (the first two being obliterated by the last) went far to suggest an alternative practice for filmmakers. [8]


However, the point-of-view continuity system that produces the dominating look (gaze) and 'seamless' quality of some Hollywood films, binding the spectator into the fiction and making it seem 'real', had been deconstructed by many creative filmmakers since at least the 1940s. The original psychoanalytically based definition of the Hollywood system as bourgeois (patriarchal) aesthetic was articulated by Jean-Pierre Oudart through close analysis of Robert Bresson's model alternatives _Proces de Jeanne d Arc_ (1960) and _Une femme douce_ (1969). [9] Ironically, these were films that feminist theorists ignored as patriarchal 'art' cinema, characterized by Claire Johnston to be even more dangerously mystifying than the Hollywood system. [10] To further the irony, Oudart concludes that the non-existence of the binding suture (shot/reverse shot) in _Une femme douce_ succeeds in expressing the communication gap between the man 'looking for difference, absence, fascinated by lie, attached to his own jealousy', and the woman, 'looking for presence, identity, truth'. [11] That is, the 'disengaging' of the 'ideological codes embedded in the cinematic representation', that de Lauretis described as a goal of feminist film, results in _Une femme douce_, a feminist commentary. [12]


Continuing to build her case, Butler foregrounds the complaint of B. Ruby Rich in 1978, who wondered whether or not women in the movie audience could, in fact, be enjoying only their theoretical invisibility in the films they saw. [13] Even more pointedly, she quotes at length the admonition of Claire Johnston (in 1973) concerning women's counter cinema as a discursive struggle and the 'negative aesthetics' of the avant-garde:


'Hollywood as a dream machine producing a monolithic product . . . is a very conventional view held by reactionary film critics for decades. It expresses a distaste for the masses and an elitism . . . To counter the objectification of women, collective fantasies must be released: women's cinema must embody the working through of desire: such an objective demands the use of the entertainment film.' [14]


In quoting Johnston's idea 30 years later, Butler asserts that the reasoning remains strong because it incorporates the ideological contradictions of most art practice, and even parallels the 'postmodern preoccupation with appropriation, citation, rewriting' (11). She then goes on to synthesize at length Johnston's essay on _Maeve_ (1981) -- a conventional narrative film directed by an Irish woman, Pat Murphy, who made one more film, _Anne Devlin_ (1984), and then spent many years outside feature filmmaking (presumably because of her exclusive focus on women's issues) before producing _Nora_ in 2000. As the occasion of Johnston's final essay, _Maeve_ opens her eyes, just as Deleuze might have expected, to a new theory of how films speak and how they might be read, a theory where 'formalist criteria for assessing whether a film is progressive or reactionary are secondarised'. [15] Further, _Maeve_'s use of filmic conventions actually 'works within and against their conventional deployment', due to its particular placement of Maeve within the republican politics of Ireland at the time. [16] In other words, the film depicts a many layered struggle within the context of a specific historical time and place. Further, that specific context includes many more codes than the technical ones of cinematic representation.


Butler continues her argument that narrative is an essential tool of feminism with a return to the work of Teresa de Lauretis. If the 'stories' depicted by women's cinema are concerned with the representability of women as social subjects -- involving formal strategies leading to alternative narrative systems, differences in 'look' and editing patterns, genre bending, gender and role reversal -- by 1987 (after many years of feminist filmmaking) de Lauretis states that there is in addition a third component. This component of women's cinema is an aesthetic of reception, coming from the need to address the specific communities that foster feminism -- marginal and emergent groups. In this way, de Lauretis writes, one can work against 'imaginary self-coherence', and avoid aiming for a universal, multinational audience, by addressing a particular one in its 'specific history of struggle'. [17] This definition of women's cinema, Butler asserts, is 'rigorously exclusive on political grounds' (17).


Butler then returns to Deleuze and Guattari's work on Kafka as minor literature written in a major language, and sees a convergence with feminist film theory in all of its attributes: 'on displacement / dispossession / deterritorialization, on a sense of everything as political, and on all parts of the narrative taking on collective value (20). As such, a minor cinema is characterized by the granting of prominence to the socio-political context, and an aesthetic open to all kinds of practice -- conventional, experimental, avant-garde, Hollywood or 'art' cinema. Following this line of thinking, women's cinema functions as the 'projection of community, rather than an expression of it' (21). Not understood within any of its host cinematic or national discourses, and without a critical approach that emphasizes the value and diversity of its otherness, it is vulnerable to being developed merely as generic role reversal comedy/tragedy. From here, it's a brief hop to the conclusion of women's cinema as minor, rather than oppositional, the word Butler uses to describe the theoretical efforts of the past.


A word on this verbiage: outside academic circles (and this series is designed for a general audience as well as students), the harm of relating the term 'minor' to women's cinema is considerably more risky than that for Kafka, who is, without doubt, a major author. Women's cinema is a much more fragile enterprise, and even some women have been known to question the importance of it. As distribution is partly tied to importance (often, even just an impression of it), and access to of any of these films is a significant concern, terming them 'minor' risks the appearance of devaluation.


Regardless of its naming, this pluralistic critical approach has grown, along with the wide variety of ways that feminist cinema happens. As scholars focus on various types of cinema -- national, genre, or minority -- they invariably address the impact of feminism and women's films on whatever topic they write.


However, Butler's aside that 'women's filmmaking did not develop at the same rate, or, generally, in the same direction as feminist film theory' (3), takes on greater weight as she proceeds with her introductory text. Inevitably, she must pay attention to the 'feminist canon, dominated by cinematic counterparts of the theory', and listed by her as: Chantal Akerman, Marguerite Duras, Bette Gordon, Sally Potter, Yvonne Rainer, and Helke Sander (8). This is a mixed, if conscientious list, where Duras and Sander provide brackets suggesting the extremes of the theoretical 'split'. Duras, with an entire academic journal devoted to her work -- the epitome of 'disengaging the codes' -- is an academic powerhouse not to be ignored, while Sander represents the socialist origins, the activist, straightforward, light hearted, and always deeply intelligent filmmaker who is an important antidote to the others. Explicit here also is the elision of race, for which feminist film theory, particularly in its base construct of the male gaze and in the 'overvaluing of female desire' (107), has been criticized. Butler addresses this lack implicitly by not following through on the list -- Duras, Gordon, and Potter are mentioned only in passing, while whole sections of Butler's book are given over to Julie Dash and Tracy Moffatt, along with the considerable attention given to Indian and Arab productions.


Nonetheless, the canon persists, rationalized primarily by the fact that over time these filmmakers are those most cited by feminist critics and theorists. [18] The personalities listed, aside from their necessary auteur status, present significantly varying productivity and subject matter, having most in common the creation of work that presents itself as entertainment of a cerebral sort. Additionally, and understandable given the tolerance for anything women-related/supportive that is sometimes seen as feminism, there is a disconcerting confusion of self-expression with art in some of the work.


Butler begins the critical chapters of her book with an overview of Hollywood practice, describing the interest of silent film in class issues and sexual politics, the move away from progressive content that came with sound and the Production Code (including the negative effect on women in the industry), and the revival of realism beginning in the 1970s: _Girlfriends_ (1978), _Love Letters_ (1983), _Blue Steel_ (1990), _ Little Women (1994), _Ballad of Little Jo_ (1993), and _The 24 Hour Woman_, 1999. Given her overall concern with race issues, a substitute like Alison Anders's _Mi vida loca_ (1994) in place of the over-discussed _Blue Steel_ might have improved this section. Nonetheless, Butler's choices here are historically and theoretically rich, allowing her to fully describe the contradictions of working in a generic popular cinema, while desiring to present new subject matter. She gently critiques some of the received wisdom around this valorized set of films, and finds in Nancy Savoca, a filmmaker not always recognized for her feminist work, someone resolutely and subtly focused on social change.


In a chapter on authorship in experimental cinema, once again Butler's choice of films and filmmakers is eclectic and thoughtfully focused on the broadly political, bringing back into this context the neglected and important work of Valie Export, while looking forward to the new generation of museum-installed video work through a section on Mona Hatoum. Here Butler also examines the two auteurs most identified with women's cinema, Chantal Akerman and Yvonne Rainer. In discussing two of Akerman's lesser known early films, Butler illustrates how difficult it is to move away from the prevailing psychoanalytic readings of the feminist canon towards a more fulsome understanding of their aesthetic. She sensitively describes nearly the whole of _News From Home_:


'static shots, many of them centering the street so that its lines of perspective dominate as they recede towards a vanishing point, giving depth and direction to the image. Traveling shots predominate in the last portion of the film, as it proceeds to its final shot . . . taken from a ferry, of [the Manhattan skyline] receding in the distance' (81).


Butler then offers a reading around the film's 'linear, diachronic evolution, recapitulating the infant's entry into culture in terms of the elaboration of a film language' (82). While Akerman's films, all fine art, can be read in any number of different ways, it is their exceptional rigor and expressiveness that allows them to be understood so. Akerman's design, in editing, in composition, in all formal considerations, is consistently engaging, and always capable of providing pleasure in itself. The discursive aspect of the work is amplified primarily through this strength. This kind of meaning arising from rigorous design is in stark contrast -- and I think it's one of the sources of Butler's relative valuing of the two filmmakers -- to Rainer's more didactic method of stating an ideological theme, then figuring out the filmic elements to put together the message. Alternatively, Butler finds explanation for Rainer's limitation in her stated definition of women's cinema, faulting Rainer's work on the basis of its inability to 'invoke collectivity while respecting difference' (86), and bolstering her criticism with Patricia Mellencamp's admonition about Rainer's _Privelege_, that 'it fails to listen and speaks for others'. [19]


Butler's final chapter, in its global focus most completely her own, introduces several important contemporary and historical currents with sections on 1970s German feminist cinema, 1990s Iranian cinema, and an analysis of Moufida Tlatli's _Silences of the Palace_ (1994), that suggests a handful of potential theses. There is also an important contrasting of Jane Campion's _The Piano_ (1995) and Claire Denis's _Chocolat_ (1988), which points out the latter's superior grip on racial politics, and is significant because Denis is one of the few feminist auteurs that can be said to critically rival Campion. The section on Iran, focused on Rakshan Bani-Etemad, is also forward-thinking in light of the Iranian New Wave's well known core of accomplished male 'art' directors, many of whom use beautiful young actresses in the typical way of international 'art' cinema. Bani-Etemad, on the other hand, is a mainstream filmmaker working in the generic mode of melodrama with considerable cinematic skill, and employs established, even middle-aged actresses. She effectively brings class issues and modern sexual attitudes into her depictions of Iran, and the strength of her work is revealed by the fact that it is shown outside Iran at all. This chapter of Butler's book is very strong in its diversity and quality, and it carries the book forward to her conclusions about the current state of women's cinema: 'There is now enough [women's filmmaking] in a wide range of styles and from a variety of cultures for a different kind of writing to come to the fore, writing which is historical and comparative.' (119)


Finally, Butler's use of the films of Deepa Mehta is a wonderful leap into the growing world of feature films focused on cultural and political resistance, made by feminist women and men, and documenting the political realities of globalization. These films are sometimes characterized by an easy use of the Hollywood cliche of the you'll-laugh-you'll-cry variety, and completely engaged with controlling point-of-view to communicate a serious commentary on western hegemony. They effectively illustrate it in a specific time and place, using the Hollywood style, binding the spectator into a concrete world of contradictions around sexuality, gender, class, and race in the 21st century.


This is an excellent book, not only as an introduction to women's cinema, but also as a step forward in its study. Butler's placing of Mehta, an Indian-born Canadian filmmaker, at the center of a 'transnational cinema', is progressive, especially alongside her acknowledgment of _Fire_ (1996) as an 'imperfect film' (120). This illustrates the feminist spirit of openness and generosity within Butler's criticism, but also underscores the many grounds on which a film from a minor cinema might be successful. Cinematographic excellence, like formal rigor or a counter-aesthetic, is just one way (a cursory look at some of the films men have justified as important shows us that very well). The fact is _Fire_ has spoken to many disenfranchised people, just as the fury of _Bandit Queen_ (1994) has. These instances of great audience attraction show how perceptive Butler is in her conclusion that women's cinema 'exists only in the eyes of its beholders, crossing boundaries between forms, periods and cultures to engender feminist communities' (122). It's a functioning if messy ideal, and it has forebears. Oddly, but perhaps because of the deeply plowed depth of theoretical ground that Butler must move through, four of the most important of these forebears are not mentioned in her book.


While Butler takes pains to note she has been selective, and though it's clear she must be, it is still interesting to wonder why some filmmakers do not appear -- by that I mean their names are not mentioned at all in any context -- given their prominent and early association with feminism and women's issues, and the highest regard of the international film community: Mai Zetterling, Marta Meszaros, Maria-Luisa Bemberg, and Kira Muratova. There are certainly other well known women filmmakers who are not mentioned -- Agnes Varda or Safi Faye, for instance -- but these four have spent long careers solely focused on the depiction of feminist ideas and power politics. They are the esteemed first wave of the modern era, women who found their inspiration in the women's movement of the 1960s, and who, before anyone else, made complex socio-historical narratives pointedly focused on women's lives. Born between 1922 and 1931, they approached their work with maturity and a significant experience of art, culture, politics, and life. They mastered funding strategies and film production, winning international prizes with films about pesky women who rebel, insist on their rights, and question authority. Three of them eventually filmed 'great lives' of women: Agnes von Krusenstjerna (Zetterling), Edith Stein (Meszaros), and Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz (Bemberg). All worked with superior collaborators, and creatively critiqued the prevailing aesthetic along with innovative subject matter. Muratova and Zetterling made their first features in 1964. Meszaros's first feature was made in 1968, and Bemberg began, at the age of 48, in 1980. The last two are each the subject of scholarly monographs, an infrequent honor for any woman filmmaker. [20]


Why have they so fallen out of fashion? Clearly it has something to do with the rarified nature of women's cinema as described by Butler. Also, many of the most relevant and important films have fallen from distribution or not been transferred to video. Some are only available in archives, more are not available at all. Lastly, like Margarethe Von Trotta's _Rosa Luxembourg_, the protagonists of the films are flawed, often deeply. Consistently engaged in even-handedly expressing the dilemma of women's condition, these films are works of narrative art that do not fit well on either side of the theory split described by Butler, which itself has been exclusionary. More often than not, they are about open resistance and its consequences, making 'positive images' part of the mix, instead of a goal. At the other extreme, all might be grossly characterized as examples of the mystification of psychological realism and 'art' cinema. While it may be that 'art' cinema cannot be theorized as successfully as genre cinema for the purpose of revealing the dominant ideology, dismissing such alternatives leaves out a significant audience.


Of course, there are other reasons, but Butler's call for more work of a historical and comparative nature should help retrieve these films and others for a growing feminist audience. Efforts will be made to document films that have disappeared, and their historical import will be detailed. Butler herself has made a start by bringing new names into an introductory context, and conceptualizing women's cinema as incorporating the broadest base of films and filmmakers.


Rutgers University

New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA





1. Benjamin Anderson, _Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism_ (London: Verso, 1991).


2. For example, Murray Pomerance, ed., _Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls: Gender in Film at the End of the Twentieth Century_ (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001).


3. Pamela Church Gibson, back cover.


4. See Judith Mayne, 'Introduction', _Framed: Lesbians, Feminists and Media Culture_ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).


5. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, _Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature_ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).


6. Teresa de Lauretis, quoted on p. 3.


7. See John Berger, _Ways of Seeing_ (London: Penguin, 1972).


8. See Laura Mulvey, 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', _Screen_, vol. 16 no. 2, 1975, pp. 6-18.


9. See Jean-Pierre Oudart, 'La Suture', _Cahiers du cinema_ no. 211, April 1969.


10. See Claire Johnston, 'Women's Cinema as Counter-Cinema', in Sue Thornton, ed., _The Feminist Film Reader_ (New York: New York University Press, 1999), p. 33.


11. Jean-Pierre Oudart, 'Bresson et la verite', _Cahiers du cinema_ no. 216, October 1969, p. 56; my translation.

12. de Lauretis, quoted on p. 3.


13. See p. 5.


14. Claire Johnson, quoted on p. 9.


15. Johnson, quoted on p. 12.


16. Ibid.


17. de Lauretis, quoted on p. 16.


18. An informal survey of 21 academic books on the general topic of feminist film/women's cinema published from the mid-1980s to the present shows that the subjects most frequently written about are: generic Hollywood (18), alternative/independent Hollywood (11), Akerman (10), Rainer (9), horror/thriller genre (8), Marleen Gorris and Sally Potter (tied with 5), Julie Dash (4), and Jane Campion (3). After that it's one or two for everyone else. Others getting one or two essays are Sander, Duras, Gordon, Margarethe Von Trotta, Sara Gomez, Lina Wertmuller, Laura Mulvey's _Riddles of the Sphinx_, Liani Cavani, Doris Dorrie, Mai Zetterling, Mira Nair, Clara Law, Banietemad, Diane Kurys, Jane Campion, Marion Haensel, Marta Meszaros, and Monika Treut.


19. Mellencamp, quoted on p. 86 of Butler.


20. Catherine Portuges, _Screen Memories: The Hungarian Cinema of Marta Meszaros_ (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993). John King, Sheila Whitaker, and Rosa Bosch, eds, _An Argentine Passion: Maria Luisa Bemberg and Her Films_ (New York: Verso, 2000).



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2004



Jane Sloan, 'Contest and Renewal: Butler's _Women's Cinema_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 17, May 2004 <>.


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