Feminism and Film (Oxford Readings in Feminism) / Feminist Film Theory: A Reader

Article excerpt

Choosing a textbook for a Women in Film or a Film and Gender course is never easy. Students are rarely prepared for the high theoretical pitch of much of the literature, and they often don't expect to work hard in a film course to begin with. My approach has always been to warn students that the course is hard work and then to maintain my high expectations. But I have to find a textbook to support this approach, which until recently was a real challenge.

Two new anthologies-Thornham's 1999 Feminist Film Theory: A Reader and Kaplan's 2000 Feminism and Film-offer excellent choices. Prior to 1999, there were only a few viable classroom choices in print: Feminism and Film Theory, edited by Constance Penley (New York: Routledge; and London: BFI, 1988); Issues in Feminist Film Criticism, edited by Patricia Erens (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), and Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism, edited by Diane Carson, Linda Dittmar, and Janice R. Welsch (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994). Erens and Penley offered collections of what has become the feminist film theoretical canon. Multiple Voices collected a wonderful range of voices, but can be too challenging if students have not read a collection like Erens's or Penley's first. I taught Penley's volume, once, and found that for my purposes, it did not engage psychoanalysis's critics enough, even though my own work is strongly influenced by psychoanalysis. Erens's Issues did noticeably better in that regard, but still didn't nearly suit my needs. I kept looking for some kind of combination, a book that would offer both canonical texts and challenges to them.

The notion of a feminist film theory canon may seem anathema to some, as it does to me in some ways. But as a teacher, I feel an obligation to walk my students through the intellectual history of the topic at hand, and they therefore must read the major debate-generating contributions. To find them collected in one volume makes everyone's life easier. Except that-as we've all learned-there's no one version of a canon, theoretical or otherwise. What that means, in practice, is that any anthology will have strengths and weaknesses, and as an instructor one has to make peace with them.

Enter the two volumes under consideration here. Amazingly, there are now two (!) volumes that I'm happy to teach from. What follows then, is a kind of kid-in-a-candy-shop discussion-all choices are good ones.

Of the two, E. Ann Kaplan's is, not surprisingly, the more "classical." Given the surfeit of essays eligible for inclusion, Kaplan chose as an organizing principle Laura Mulvey's 1975 "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." In the preface, she says:

Many of the major essays in the field responded in one way or another-including outright rejection-to Mulvey's theoretical positions, so I could produce a book of coherent essays by printing work that debated, argued against, or built out from "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." (v)

By this logic, she compiled a collection that includes four large sections: "Pioneers and Classics: The Modernist Mode"; "Critiques of Phase I Theories: New Methods"; "Race, Sexuality, and Postmodernism in Feminist Film Theory"; and "Spectatorship, Ethnicity, and Melodrama." Each section begins with introductory notes, of about ten pages, which are enormously useful for scholars and students alike. Not only does she survey the essays she has included but also discusses some that she has not. This is a welcome way of combining the strengths of both textbooks and anthologies. There is also an ample "Further Reading" appendix, divided by section.

The body of theory generated in response to Mulvey's widely read essay revolves around questions of textuality and reception. Is a masculine position built into film, as her article suggests? If so, is it built into all film? Can women only occupy masculine positions in our engagements with films? …