Feminist Film Theory and How it Can Change Your Favorite Movie

By Pat Sanderson

Everyone has that favorite movie that they know by heart. You can recite the words with the actors as one scene flows to the next and you never miss a single one.

For me, it is The Breakfast Club. I know it frontwards and backwards. There is nothing new about it and every time I watch it, it is like coming home again…until I apply things I have learned about feminist film theory. When I watch it again, it is entirely different experience.

Sound crazy?

Indulge me for a moment. Let me teach you just a few key concepts in feminist film theory, then you can decide if my statement has merit the next time you watch your favorite movie.

Take, for example, Laura Mulvey‘s concept concerning the “Male Gaze“. She first wrote about it in her 1973 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema“. Paraphrased, she says that films are experienced by the viewer through the perspective of a male and, in turn, is perpetuates not only a patriarchal society’s perspective, but reduces the women within the film to sexual objects by placing them on display.

This is achieved in one of three ways when utilizing the male gaze. The first way is through the looking of the male character at the female character. Using the camera and seeing the expression on the male character’s face is one way this is displayed. The camera follows the male character’s line of sight and lingers on the female in frame. The film narrative slows down. Lighting is altered and her face “glows” or a softer filter is used on the lens. Music is added into the film on overlay and evokes an emotional response. The camera may pan up and down the length of female character.

Which gives us number two, the forced male gaze perspective of the spectator looking at the female on film. This includes the fact that women are forced to view the film through a male perspective or to identify with a woman who is objectified and is  used for sexual gratification.

Lastly, the third way is through the male spectator placing himself into the position of the male lead and identifying with him allowing the spectator to take the female character as his own sexual object (such as the male lead does in the film).

This is a bare bones example of a very complicated and multifaceted theory from one author. Feminist Film Theorists by Shohini Chaudhuri is a book that harbors snippets from a collection of essays as well as her own thoughts and feelings on feminist film theory, a relatively new development from the third wave of feminism. It is available in the Salem Library in book or ebook form and is easily found online. Read it and you will never look at a movie the same way again.

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