Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

On the Existence of Women: A Brief History of the Relations between Women's Studies and Film Studies

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

On the Existence of Women: A Brief History of the Relations between Women's Studies and Film Studies

Article excerpt

I'm honored to have been asked to write a brief history of the dialogue between women's studies and film studies to help introduce this issue of Women's Studies Quarterly. That the history of the relations among film, women's studies, and feminist theory (note I've added a third term) hasn't always been polite enough to be characterized as a "dialogue" (not to mention the fact that a lot of the time we got so mad or so full of ourselves we weren't even on speaking terms) makes the task all that much more compelling. I hope the reader will indulge me in a little personal reminiscence, since I was present when women's studies was just beginning to get institutionalized, when film studies programs were proliferating, and when continental film theory first came to the United States.

In 1973 I was teaching, with a master's degree in English, as a lecturer at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. The young lecturers, who were all hired on three-year terminal contracts, began introducing women's studies- and cultural studies-type courses into the curriculum. What had happened was that the university, which had previously required students to take twelve units of composition and literature, reduced the number of required credits to three units of composition, or, in other words, one English course. Jobs were on the line, and the majority of regular faculty bowed with ill grace to new courses that would up the English department's enrollments, thus preserving their now underenrolled courses-which they saw as maintaining the highest standards of Western civilization.

For our part we were delighted to play the role of barbarians at the gates. We giddily proposed courses called Women in Literature, Black Literature, Madness in Literature, the City in Literature, and a host of others. In my courses on women in literature, I taught novels, supplemented with films, explicitly as consciousness-raising devices, and indeed, saw no difference at that time between teaching and consciousness-raising. At times I would go into the community and take films with titles like Growing Up Female to various women's groups so we could compare our lives with those depicted on the screen, and so I could (woman of the world as I was at twenty-three) educate them about their status as an oppressed group. I wrote little short pieces for local publications on stereotypes (or "images") of women in literature and film. Molly Haskell's book From Reverence to Rape, published in 1974, provided me with material to use in these discussions and in my mini-manifestos.

In those heady days, women were organizing unofficially in universities all around the country, and soon women's studies was beginning to become institutionalized. Many of these programs tended to be sociological in nature, but those of us in literary or film studies generally felt comfortable in them, because we ourselves were oriented towards sociological approaches to the study of literature and film.

When my three-year stint at Old Dominion was over, I returned to graduate school, entering the Modern Thought and Literature program at Stanford, where I was in for a shock. Students had taken over the program and were introducing Marxism, feminism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction into the graduate curriculum by way of what were called "ad hoc seminars." Those of us still stuck in certain older ways of understanding film and literature were summarily dismissed for not understanding the complex workings of language and representation and for our naive belief that literature and film did or could (insofar as it presented positive role models for women) reflect reality. I recall the moment when I felt the full force of the powerful sea change.

I had had, and was thrilled to have had, my first film paper published by Jump Cut, a publication that emphasized Marxist and feminist approaches to film and that tended to focus on the reactionary ideology in Hollywood films and held up as exemplary foreign art films, particularly those produced in countries with Marxist and socialist regimes. …

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