Feminist film criticism has its origins in feminist politics and feminist theory. Feminists have various approaches to film analyses and their theoretical underpinnings.
The development of feminist film criticism in the United States has been shaped by three major forces, all of which are phenomena of the late 1960s and early 1970s: the women's movement, independent filmmaking and academic studies. Although the first two movements emphasized a political forum for feminist film critics, university film studies stressed a theoretical approach instead of a political one.
Feminist attention has been paid to the stereotyped images of women in a patriarchally dominated cinema as a likely target for critique. Much of what might be called the first stage of feminist film criticism focused on film images of women and the disparity with women's actual lives. The new feminist documentaries inspired by independent filmmaking and the women's movement were also aimed at rejecting stereotyped images of women. Films such as Growing up Female (1971) and Janie's Janie (1971) presented feminist issues in a direct, accessible way, as a form of political consciousness-raising. Although women's film projects were not limited to documentaries, their explicit concern with women's issues marked them as independent films' most decisive influence on feminist film theory and film criticism.
The women's movement and independent filmmaking seemed to create a clear-cut agenda for feminist film criticism, which was to demystify the negative images of Hollywood and praise the positive images offered by feminist filmmakers.
As a result of the classical cinema's fixation with the hierarchy of the sexes, feminist film critics could have chosen the rather simple task of gathering masses of evidence of women's exclusion and victimization, or the more difficult and exciting job of looking at the contradictions in classical films. These can demonstrate repression or threats that are not resolved. Both hold the potential to upset the status quo of a patriarchal society. In reality, the notion of contradiction has been used in different ways. Some films have attracted interest because they offer exaggerated representations of women as objects to look at. Therefore, musicals featuring the display of the human body, and the female body in particular, have been critiqued as major examples of just what the definition of a woman as a spectacle or as an image entails.
"Contradiction," a term used by feminist film critics, has been understood as showing inconsistency, a blind spot that reveals a weakness in the sexual hierarchy. Howard Hawk's film Rio Bravo is a classic example of the portraying of a contradiction between "woman" and "female." The central "woman" character is a stereotypical sex object. There is also a character who performs the female nurturing role of a housewife and mother. By splitting the functions of female and woman, the film assures that the image of a woman will denote only sexuality. However, when read against the grain, the split reveals a fear of dependence on female labor.
Feminist critical essays frequently begin by discussing an issue of concern to feminists, such as sexuality, race or violence. This will often provide the basis for the argument of the feminist film critic. Feminist film critics also will consider the whole structure of the film, aside from the content, including spectatorship, the look, the role of the gaze and identification. They study previous discussions and the issues and theories surrounding a specific film.
The growth of film theory and criticism from a feminist standpoint was influenced by feminism's second wave and the acceptance of women's studies as an academic subject. Feminist academics began to react to innovative theories that arose from movements in analyzing films. Early endeavors in the United States were generally founded upon theories of sociology and paid particular attention to the role of female characters in narratives of particular films or genres, and of stereotypes as a demonstration of society's idea of women. Many studies have analyzed how females shown in films relate to a wider historical context; the mode of depiction of stereotypes; how strongly the women were shown as either passive or active; and the length of screen time allotted to women.
More recently, feminist thinkers have extended the sphere of their work to encompass analysis of television as well as other digital media. They have also started to examine the ideas of difference and the varying techniques and approaches found under the wider definition of feminist film theory. They have studied the number of methods and the desired results that have influenced the growth and development of film. Disparate notions of feminism, nationalism in both sociological and geographical locations and different ethnic and racial groups, have all been subject to scrutiny.