Who is Female Solidarity For? Notes on Mulvey and Mean Girls

Curator's Note

Laura Mulvey's highly generative essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" extends beyond describing sexism by aspiring to dismantle cinema’s phallocentric pleasure through a scrutinizing analysis. Mulvey’s theory, however, may have inspired more critique than new methods of film-making. Blockbuster films continue to be primarily directed, produced, and written by men. Despite this fact, female-led films are popular enough to be considered their own genre. For a feminist mode of film to thrive, it may be necessary to reevaluate current film praxis against criticism of past Hollywood film. Otherwise the sexual division of labor in film will continue to reproduce the psychical patriarchal structures behind mainstream practices that compartmentalize women as the bearers of meaning, rarely the makers of meaning.

So if mainstream cinema is indeed a male-dominated industry, then why invest so much in the female ensemble film? Who do such films benefit? And to what extent can films primarily produced by men be feminist? While these questions cannot be completely answered in this article, a concern that female ensembles can be puppeted to replicate patriarchal ideology should prove the periphery of a film—its camera crew, directors, designers, etc.—needs to be accounted for when evaluating a film’s politics.

Mean Girls (2004) which was written by Tina Fey though directed and produced by men includes a brief vision of entertainment performed and shot through a female gaze—the iconic dance to “Jingle Bell Rock.” Most notable is the scene’s humor, momentarily driven by a clash between the provocative and sexy girl group and the presence of a woman holding a camera. Regina George’s mom (Amy Poehler) is a spectator but someone the audience identifies against. The film encourages the audience to dismiss her presence let alone take her cinematography seriously. But in that same scene, the high-school boys sitting in the auditorium’s front row are comfortable spectators and available for the audience of Mean Girls to identify with. Actresses in the film serve to be looked at and the film works to avoid seeing through their perspective. Then when the music stops playing and Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) begins singing in a heartfelt moment and the entire audience joins along, the girls arguably lose their intimidating sex appeal. The voyeurism is lost as the audience is no longer looking at the girls but now a part of the performance. This loss harkens back to Mulvey’s argument that the narrative in film works to tame the vision of sexually threatening, or “castrating,” women. Moreover, film can work to reaffirm women as objects of the male gaze and exclude them from agentive roles like director or producer, roles that can center a female perspective.

To declare the impossibility of a feminist film in mainstream cinema would be short-sighted. Though it would be just as naive to recognize all displays of female solidarity as feminist, progressive, or radical, especially when the female ensemble film often aligns “female” with hyper-glamorous whiteness. Here Mulvey’s article is useful for testing the degree to which blockbuster cinema has responded to recent feminist criticism. The persistent disproportion between men and women working in the film industry will be a problem to grapple with but acknowledging the complexity of sexual politics hopefully can encourage variation in cinematic practice.

I would like to draw attention to female ensemble films produced outside of Hollywood, side-stepping the film industry’s faults. One collective project “Joanie 4 Jackie” is comprised of low-budget films made by women for other women. Newer media forms, such as online vlogs,  also offer female-produced art and discouse room for expansion. In these alternatives, the female ensemble is not used as a means to benefit a male crew, and it isn't formed for an imagined male spectator. Like Mean Girls and its analogs, female solidarity is at risk of being hijacked and falling back into antifeminist, phallocentric narratives. Though blockbuster films may indeed contain strains of feminism, the potential for feminist film cannot be fully realized unless more attention is given to cinematic art where women occupy roles outside of actress, perhaps enticing less discussion on the male gaze and instead inspiring new theories on the under-discussed female gaze.

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