So, a confession: I've never really liked biographical movies about women I otherwise admire. I'm not entirely sure why - there's something about the cliches they indulge in, the Hollywood-isation. (She lapses into total vagueness revealing, yet again, that she actually don't know much about movies or how to analyse them.) Not long ago, I read a book by a woman I know, Te Whanganui-a-tara/Wellington-based scholar, Bronwyn Polaschek, about bio-pics of women. The book was based on Bronwyn's doctoral thesis and I was thinking of reviewing it. But because of above-mentioned inadequacies, I didn't think I could do it justice. Instead, I decided to do a Q&A by email with Bronwyn to post here for anyone who might be interested in some seriously serious film criticism, analysis, discussion. So, here goes:
The Postfeminist Biopic: Narrating the Lives of Plath, Kahlo, Woolf and Austen
By Bronwyn Polaschek. Palgrave/Macmillan 2013.
Q: In your book, you argue there’s a specific category of biopic that should be considered “postfeminist”. But you acknowledge that the word “postfeminist” itself is one people disagree on. The way you prefer to understand it is as an “epistemological shift”. By that I take you to mean, among other things, that postfeminism isn’t just a backlash against feminism or somehow “after” feminism, but is its own thing. As you put it in the intro to your book, it is an “intersection of feminism with postmodernism, poststructuralism and post-colonialism”. (Let’s not try to define all those contested words for now!) Or, to put it yet another way, postfeminism doesn’t just challenge the things the so-called “second wave” feminists were challenging, it also challenges the “second wave” itself, which I think everyone agrees needed to happen. In terms of movies, then, these are biopics that clearly contain feminist elements, but also much more than that including some critique of those elements, and as such they really do demand their own category, a category you’re calling the “postfeminist biopic”. What made you begin to think that calling or categorising these movies – and the ones you look at primarily are Sylvia, Frida, The Hours and Becoming Jane – as postfeminist (rather than, say, just “feminist”) was necessary?
A: I started with the films. They seemed interesting to me, but I wasn’t sure what I had to say about them, or whether they were linked in any particular way. As I worked through the scholarly literature, I found certain theoretical tools were useful to me in thinking about the films (like, Laura Mulvey’s idea of the male gaze or ideas from feminist film critics about the symbolism of windows, or the effect of the voiceover etc) but I also found the pessimism in much of this material didn’t accord with the vibrancy and intensity of the films themselves. I also felt that many aspects of the films were not captured by applying a feminist lens, including elements that were internally contradictory. Coming across the less well known definition of postfeminism that I use was exciting because it provided a way to make sense of the films, and to see the links between them and with other films being released around the same time. I found I was able to articulate the distinctive features of these films, what separates them from earlier biopics about women. So, to answer your question, it was a long process before I realised the category was ‘necessary’, but when I found it my disparate arguments seemed to fall in line. I started with the material, but had to look to find the right theoretical tools to make sense of it.
Q: You make clear that you want to move away from simply counting up how few women there were in movies (in front of the camera and behind it) and instead to look at the content of movies – the “text” – to investigate “the impact of feminism as a social movement on the biopic genre”. I guess counting isn’t that useful, but just before this year’s Oscars, The New York Times published an article that looked at how much screen-time Oscar-nominated actors got in their respective movies, by (binary) gender and, of course, it was pretty revealing. (Women got less!) Even thought this kind of “cinemetrics” may be of limited value, what do you think it can tell us that might be useful, and could this not link up with your own content or textual analysis in some way?
A: I definitely wouldn’t argue that there is no point in counting. The difficulty is that in the world of film production the results of most counts (women directors, women producers, women editors, women heads of cinemtography etc) are that women are under-represented. In the world of film on the screen, again if we count (number of women’s roles, number of lines women get to speak, extent to which women characters further the plot), women will be under-represented (apart from in counts like, degree of nudity expected in sex scenes or number of disposable characters played). It is certainly worthwhile to theorise about why this is, to consider the development of film in a historical context, to think about the sorts of stories our culture tells. There is a lot of excellent scholarly work dealing with these questions. Feminist film criticism is built on this absence, and the anger it prompts.
My difficulty with this kind of cinemetrics is that by focusing on absence, we can neglect the presence of women and of the changes that have occurred in the film world since feminism. My work is part of an attempt by some scholars to identify the influence of feminism on the films and television shows we watch. In a sense the fact that we have to work so hard to identify this presence speaks volumes, but I think it is constructive, and to be honest heartening, to analyse the work that has been created by women, for women, or with feminist/women’s themes embedded. If we want to answer questions about the function of gender within the film industry, we need both the depressing cinemetrics (which still tells us a lot about women’s role in film), and the kind of analysis that I – and other scholars – develop, which explores how feminism has irreparably altered the film landscape (although perhaps not as feminists themselves envisioned).
Q: I must confess, as a viewer, I wince at most biopics and tend to avoid them like the plague, especially those about women. They always seem to me to be so laden with stereotypes and clichés. (I guess that’s one of the many reasons I’m not a film critic or scholar.) Are their any biopics you would consider “feminist”? If so, what are they and why? If not, why not?
A: There are very few biopics I would call feminist. That is, biopics with an avowedly feminist director or producer, biopics that can be read as feminist, or biopics that were viewed as feminist by audiences. Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table is seen by some scholars as a feminist biopic, though in my view it is more consistent with postfeminism. Other biopics to be read as feminist? Erin Brockovich, The Notorious Bettie Page, Marie Antoinette. The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach is perhaps the best example of a feminist biopic in my view. It tells the story of a little-known woman (and one only famous because of who she married) and her difficult domestic life with a so-called musical genius.
The lack of feminist biopics suggests a difficulty for filmmakers who want to tell feminist versions of biography on film. The problem is that the classical Hollywood biopic formula hasn’t led to particularly revolutionary representations of women’s lives, and certainly not ones that would be adequate from a feminist perspective. So, a filmmaker has the dilemma of whether to use the genre, to take aspects of it but reinterpret them, or to ignore it completely. There are many feminist biographical documentaries about women, such as Laura Mulvey and Peter Woollen’s documentary Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti, or Leslie Thornton’s There was an Unseen Cloud, Moving (about Isabelle Eberhardt). One scholar (Chris Holmlund) calls these “activist bio-pics”. Her label suggests that one solution for feminist filmmakers wanting to represent a life on screen has been to throw out the traditional biopic genre, and replace it with a blend of documentary and biography.
As a sidenote, I’d say you might ask the same question of any genre. Are there any feminist westerns? Feminist gangster films? Feminist romantic comedies? Feminist horror films? Even, feminist women’s films? The larger question of whether popular genre films per se can be adapted for a revolutionary feminist purpose is an interesting one.
Q: I was interested in your comments about the differences between how we might analyse the content of a film, say as a film scholar, versus how the moviegoer sees it. My guess (and I think you suggest this) is that these could be very different. Do you think scholarly textual analysis has any impact on viewer reaction and vice versa? If it does, what kind of impact, and is it useful in analysing a movie? If not, why not and isn’t that a bit of a black mark against scholarship?
A: I would say first that I think the line between film scholar and moviegoer is not always easy to draw. One might define the film scholar as someone working at a university, teaching and writing about film, and the moviegoer as someone who does not read this kind of criticism. But what of the film reviewer? The moviegoer who reads reviews? The moviegoer who has studied film at university? The moviegoer who takes two weeks off during the film festival to attend as many films as she can? What of filmmakers such as Todd Haynes and Quentin Tarantino who are extremely knowledgeable about the history of film (Haynes studied it, Tarantino worked in a video store) and incorporate this knowledge into their own films? You see my point: who are the ‘experts’ of film in our day and age? This is particularly true at the moment when film is so ubiquitous and available. Old films are re-run on television. You can rent almost anything you like, or download it from the internet. The history of film is at the fingertips of anyone interested.
Having said that, there is certainly a group who write the kinds of books I have recently published, people who draw on certain types of theories, who make particular kinds of links, who develop esoteric arguments. I don’t think you can argue that film scholarship of this sort has a direct influence on the viewing of any given film. I went to see the film Hannah Arendt last weekend. I may or may not write something scholarly about it in the future. This is not going to impact on the responses of the audience around me at the time, or the many others who have seen this film (before me) and will be seeing it in months to come. I would argue however that film scholarship contributes to the wider discussion we have about the meaning and significance of films in our culture. This discussion is something scholars can have, as well as film reviewers, archivists, museum curators, film directors, secondary school Media Studies and English teachers, DVD shop owners and staff, people who run and attend film festivals, as well as your general lover of films, or even someone who doesn’t watch a lot of films but has opinions about the ones they do see. The kinds of questions film scholarship asks – what is this film about? What does it mean? How is it doing what it does? – are not the domain only of scholars.
I would also say that even if film scholarship has no impact whatsoever on viewer reaction as you put it, the study of film would still be valid. We study Dickens and Shakespeare though their original audiences are long dead. Films, like other cultural artefacts such as novels, poems, plays, television shows, music, paintings, photographs, are texts we produce to entertain, but also to try to make sense of our lives in some way. From this perspective alone they are worth studying as they tell us about our culture.
Viewer reaction does have an impact on scholarly readings to some extent. There are scholars who focus on ‘reception’ as it’s called, interviewing people who have seen films and asking about their reactions, running focus groups, corresponding by email (or in earlier work, by letter). This has been a rich avenue for scholars to go down, and has opened up the reading of film in many ways. Viewer reaction is something I think scholars should be mindful of, but an entirely scholarly reading of a film is – in my view – also valid, albeit limited in some senses.
A final point, scholarly work certainly impacts on filmmaking. If we return to Todd Haynes, a director I really like, he studied semiotics and art. A film like Far From Heaven is a homage to the 1950s director Douglas Sirk, who was not particularly revered in his lifetime (most reviewers hated his films), but was recognised by film scholars in the 1970s as an important auteur and master of the women’s film genre. Arguably the nostalgia we see now for the imagery, colour and themes of 1950s melodrama, in a show like Desperate Housewives, originates with this scholarly revision of Sirk’s importance.
Q: In your conclusion, you say you’re responding to pessimism in film and feminist studies: first, the pessimism (perhaps expressed in my third question, above) about the simplistic/patriarchal conventions of female biopics; second, that these biopics undermine the gains of “second wave” feminism. As a viewer, I tend to see these kinds of movies as, overall, negative in the way they reinforce stereotypes etc., but I take it for you they would be, on balance, positive. Is that right, and can you explain a bit further why (or why not)?
A: I am certainly more sympathetic to popular culture per se than many scholars. I agree with the school of thought that says it is worth studying popular culture because it is so widely consumed. If people are reading/watching/listening to these texts then it is worthwhile analysing them closely to think about the values intentionally or unconsciously embedded by the creators of the work, as well as the values the audience take away (which can be quite different). Put bluntly it’s important to ask, why do they appeal to so many people?
I think that the relationship between texts and consumers is also more complicated than is often assumed. The pessimism you speak of (and which is shared by many about genre films including the biopic) is based in part on the belief that people ‘believe’ these films, rather than read them. I would argue that consumers of popular culture are far more active than they are given credit for. While they may take a text at face value, they can also read against the grain, or select aspects of a text they like and disregard others. Consumers are critical and discerning, trying out one text, but then switching to another if they don’t find the original one convincing. Often when a scholar takes a closer look at popular texts and those who read/view them, they realise there is much more going on than they initially thought. For example, I really admire Janice Radway’s study of the romance novel. She herself objected to Mills and Boon novels for all the reasons any feminist would, but went to interview a group of women who loved them. She found that the women were constantly evaluating and critiquing the novels as they read. Also – and I think this is a fascinating argument – Radway found that for these women (who were mainly housewives) the very act of sitting down and reading a romance novel during the day was experienced as subversive. In other words, quite apart from the content of the novels, the act of reading them, of stepping outside of their expected role, was something the women enjoyed as a private rebellion against their role as housewife. My point is that thinking in terms of whether biopics are “good” or “bad” may not be the most useful approach. I would ask instead, why are they such a popular genre?
I think it’s important to reflect on the ‘wince’ you mention in question 3. I certainly do wince at many aspects of popular culture. A recent example would be watching Miley Cyrus’s video ‘Wrecking Ball’ on YouTube. I found it very hard to watch. But it’s worthwhile thinking about where that wince comes from. What made it so hard to watch? Is it because I have been trained to recognise and critique any popular culture text that seems to objectify women? Or is it that the music is bad? Am I uncomfortable with a young woman being so sexually explicit? Do I simply dislike images that are so sexually graphic? Is it that the imagery is so painfully clichéd? I think reflecting on when and why we wince is worthwhile. Often when we challenge our own responses, we can see that there may be more to a popular culture text than we first thought. This isn’t to say that I think all popular culture is inherently subversive. Of course it can be conservative and reactionary. More often than not, it’s a complicated mix.
Do I think these postfeminist biopics are overall positive? I suppose I do in that if you asked, is the world a better place with films like Frida or The Hours in it, I would say “yes”. After The Hours was released both Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse appeared on bestseller lists. Frida introduced a far wider audience to Frida Kahlo’s art. So did Sylvia, though to a lesser extent as the film wasn’t as popular. If you read the discussion boards about Becoming Jane it’s clear that many of the people who saw it had little to no knowledge of Austen, apart from what they may have learnt at school. Of course these films include tropes that we object to from a feminist perspective – the obsessive treatment of suicide, the emphasis on women’s love lives, the depiction of creative women as mad/hysterical – but they also celebrate and canonise the protagonists for their contribution to art. This was a theme across the films I looked at and is a positive development in biopics about women. Postfeminist biopics further a core goal of feminist work to revise history and include the achievements of women, and they do it for a broad audience.