The movement of feminism has had a terrific effect on the criticism and theory of films. The film industry is viewed by feminists as being a tool used to replicate cultural myths about femininity and women. At the same time it represents cultural myths as well as about masculinity and men. At the core of feminist film critical theory are issues of portrayal and spectatorship. Early feminist criticism railed against stereotypes of females, especially in films produced in Hollywood. Those regular and duplicated depictions of women were labeled as being distortions of an objectionable nature, which could have an adverse effect on female spectators.
Feminists called for the portrayal of more empowering portrayals of women in films. Feminists soon realized, however, that the positive projection of female images was not, by itself, sufficient to realign the fundamental framework of the medium. Feminist critics used semiotics, from literary theory as well as psychoanalysis, in order to attempt to comprehend the overpowering and pervasive imagery that was presented as a reflection of a patriarchal society. Using such theories, feminists have had considerable success in their analyses of the embedding of sexual difference in traditional narrative.
For more than ten years psychoanalysis was the chief criterion in feminist film theory. Following that there was a trend away from a dualist reading of sexual differences to multi-faceted identities, perspectives and perhaps spectatorship. This has led to an increase in the concern with the subjects of masculinity, ethnicity and dual sexualities.
According to feminist film theory there are two sides to visual pleasure that are realized through sexual difference. They termed them a voyeuristic-scopophilic gaze and a narcissistic identification. Both of these constructions rely upon the power of a male character who controls, and on the depiction of the female as an object, for their interpretation. In the language of psychoanalysis, the perception of "woman" contains ambiguity in its combination of attraction and seduction, together with the evoking of a fear of castration. The female part brings along deep fears, reminding the male character as it does of the absence of a penis.
Classic films usually resolve the castration fear and threat either in the structure of the narrative or by evoking fetishism. To assuage the fear and threat of castration in the area of the narrative, the female character is always declared guilty. Either salvation – marriage - or punishment – death – will, by the end of the film, provide closure for the guilt of the woman. These are the two endings traditionally available to the woman.
The absent penis can be replaced by a fetish. The woman is made into a super-polished being, no longer a threat. Making a fetish of the woman turns away the focus from a female "lack" and the female thus becomes a non-threatening, comforting object of pure beauty.
Feminist film theory advocates a feminist counter-cinema look. Feminist scholars define feminist cinema as a forward-looking practice of film, changing the whole viewpoint of the camera. That such a move could take apart any visual pleasure of the spectator was not a worry for women; they saw the demise of the narrative of classical film with merely regret of a sentimental nature.
Feminist film critics refer to the male gaze in Western visual culture. In the early 1980s that became grounds for great controversy as it made no reference to female spectators, of the female gaze, who after all also go to see films. According to Laura Mulvey, a well-known critic in the world of feminist film theory, the "female spectator may not only identify with the slot of passive femininity which has been programmed for her, but is also likely to enjoy adopting the masculine point of view..." In order to acquire proper femininity, women will have to shed that active aspect of their early sexuality. It was not until the late 1990s before female spectatorship was theorized outside the different categories of psychoanalytic theory.
There are many feminists who criticize the feminist film theory as being too abstract, totalizing, jargon-prone and non-experiential. The main focus involving psychoanalysis has made a narrow framework for the analysis of subjects, pleasure and desire, while other feminist accounts, of an alternative view, are not considered.