Monday, January 07, 2008


Feminist film theory is theoretical work within film criticism that is derived from feminist politics and feminist theory. The portrayal of women, the behaviour of men towards women, their sensitivity, emotions, etc… all form a major component of feminism in cinema.

Before we venture into the topic of feminism in cinema, we should understand how feminism grew as a movement. Primarily feminism is divided into three phases:

1-First-wave feminism,

2-Second-wave feminism, and

3-Third-wave feminism.

First-wave feminism refers to the period of feminist activity in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century. The primarily goal of the movement was to fight inequality and seek rights to vote in parliamentary elections.

Second-wave feminism is generally identified with a period beginning in the early nineteen sixties. Second Wave Feminism has existed continuously since then, and continues to coexist with what some people call Third Wave Feminism. The movement encouraged women to understand aspects of their own personal lives as deeply politicized, and reflective of a sexist structure of power. The Second Wave also saw the beginning of streams of feminist thought which were critical or hostile to transgender and transsexual women.

Third-wave feminism is a term identified with several diverse strains of feminist activity and study beginning in the early 1990s. It was also a response to the backlash against initiatives and movements created by the second-wave.

The representation of women in cinema has always been a subject of analysis and controversy among critics and feminists. Women are used as tools to attract the audiences to the cinema theatre. A recent trend in Indian cinema especially Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu cinema is the use of “item-numbers.” An item-number is essentially a song and dance number where lots of scantily clad women dance to fast paced music and contort their bodies into various poses in the name of choreography. Such songs are cosmetic additions and very rarely affect the story or plot of the movie. It is just a tactic by the producers to ensure that some money is made. Such titillating numbers with suggestive lyrics and choreography are demeaning and an outrage on the sensitivity of the general public. The public has no option but to endure such torture in the name of commercial cinema.

Pornography is another issue that keeps rearing its ugly head; gone are the days when such movies were shown in select seedy theatres. The advent of technology and digital cinema has ensured that pirated DVDs are available in the market for prices as low as thirty rupees. The porn-industry is a full flowing no holds barred win-win situation. Low production costs, no outdoor shooting required, just a bungalow or a flat a bunch of men and women ready to stoop down to any amount of vulgarity for money, a guy with a movie camera, a computer, and blank CDs/DVDs and hey you are in the business. Quality of cinema has come down to such a level that stars of the porn world are acting in commercial cinema and the producers use them as a ploy to generate interest and revenue.

Women are stereotyped into two categories; either they act as eye candy appearing to romance the hero, sing songs, a couple of comedy scenes and then marry the hero/ get killed by the villain. The second category is where the woman is portrayed as an evil scheming vamp all set to destroy the peace and calm of the hero and the hero’s family. This mentality is not just restricted to Indian cinema. Take any Hollywood movie for instance, what do you get- a couple of high octane car/boat/bike/plane chase sequence, lots of special effects, shootouts, some bland humor, two or three steamy sex scenes and or shots of women taking a bath. We have terrorists plotting to destroy cities or sexual predators killing young women or aliens invading the earth or some strange prehistoric creature creating chaos, it is as if the movies are put into pre-designed templates with different actors and actresses.

Slowly the spirit of feminism appeared in European cinema heralded by Italian filmmakers. In Hollywood Roger Corman gave strong roles to his heroines.

In his early, 1950s films, Corman revamped various worn-down genres with a strong streak of feminism. In Gunslinger (1956), the first scene depicts the brutal shotgun murder of frontier Marshal Scott Hood (William Schallert). But as Hood's body hits the floor, his wife Rose (Beverly Garland) instinctively grabs her own rifle, and mercilessly guns down two of the men responsible for his death. At his funeral, Rose takes over her late husband's job, and begins dispensing “gun law”, cleaning up the town. The astoundingly titled epic The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957) deals with the quest of a group of amazons for their missing men; and Sorority Girl (1957) deals with betrayal and social ambition in a college sorority house. Corman tasted success with , Five Guns West (1955), a ten-day western. This was followed in rapid succession by Swamp Women (1955), Apache Woman (1955) and The Oklahoma Woman (1956), all low-budget films that demonstrated Corman's early feminist leanings, as he assigned the major action roles in all three films to a series of self-sufficient female protagonists, rather than the typically generic leading man. In 1956 and 1957, Corman turned to science fiction, horror and teen exploitation films, directing It Conquered the World and The Day the World Ended (both 1956), along with Not of This Earth, Attack of the Crab Monsters, Teenage Doll, The Undead, Sorority Girl, Rock All Night, Naked Paradise and Carnival Rock (all 1957). All of these films, shot on budgets hovering around the $100,000 range, were substantial hits for AIP and Woolner, a New Orleans distributor who also bankrolled some of Corman's early projects. With lurid posters and aggressive advertising campaigns, Corman's films soon found acceptance with AIP's target audience, teenagers, and Corman's directorial style displayed a verve and vigour that many other low-budget films lacked. Corman kept creating films at a frantic pace, directing War of the Satellites, Teenage Cave Man (with a young Robert Vaughn), She Gods of Shark Reef, The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent, Machine Gun Kelly (with Charles Bronson in an early leading role) and I, Mobster, all in 1958.

Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” is a study in feminism. With “The Piano” (1993), Campion traded intellectual evolution for sexual and erotic development. A beautifully told, deceptively simple story, it had as its protagonist Ada (Holly Hunter), a willfully mute Scottish widow who travels with her nine-year-old daughter (Anna Paquin) to New Zealand, where she enters into an arranged marriage with a taciturn, emotionally distant farmer (Sam Neill). Her subsequent affair with her neighbor (Harvey Keitel), which is carried out under the guise of piano lessons, was depicted with scorching yet understated passion, and ably underscored Ada's own multifaceted emotional and erotic development. One of the year's most celebrated films, “The Piano” put Campion at the forefront of contemporary cinema.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s “Naal Pennungal,”(Four Women) is one of the few movies made in India in recent years portraying feminism through the eyes of its different characters. The helplessness and vulnerability of the fairer sex, the inherent strength they have, and the vicissitudes of Fate to which women often fall prey in a male dominated society are some of the issues that get discussed in Naalu Pennungal. A very important aspect of the film is that even seemingly minor characters are portrayed with due importance given to them.

Really hope to see better cinema, what else can I say.


Diya said...

Dear Mahesh,

Thank you so much for help. This aricle is so good! Thanks a lot :).

Anooja said...

hii mahesh... hope u r doing fine

this is a very nice post..

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