Defining Feminist Film Criticism – Alexandra Heller-Nicholas comments

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Alexandra Heller-Nicholas participated in an informal survey about feminist film criticism for an article published on RogerEbert.com. She’s quoted in brief in the article, but her responses were so complete and compelling that they constitute a personal feminist film critic’s manifesto, of sorts. They should be read in their entirety. Here they are:

How do you define feminism and the feminist point of view in film criticism?

Since 2011 I have focused substantially in my work on gender politics and representations of sexual violence, including two books on the subject; I’ve learned in that time that ‘feminism’ means different things to different people and that this diversity is important. I like ‘feminisms’ plural because it allows different positions to co-exist and be debated and so I don’t sound like I am shouting anyone down I tend to describe my work as ‘interested in gender politics’ rather than feminist because the latter can be read in so many different ways. In short, therefore, feminism is the belief that gender difference relates to power in a way that predominantly favors men, and marks a desire to interrogate that with a focus on change.

What critical criteria are established by your feminist approach to film criticism?

I’m always looking for the way gender difference and power intersect. This is useful as it allows space for non-binary identities also.

Does your feminist point of view, as you define it, influence your preference in film genre, style and story and, if so, how?

I write primarily on horror and exploitation film which I have a strong connection to professionally, in terms of personal taste and also ideologically because I think it is where the imbalances between gender difference and power are rendered most extreme and most transgressive and subversive in sometimes quite surprising, unexpected ways.

Does your feminist point of view set or influence your standards for rating a film as good or bad? If so, how and what is the reason why?

I don’t really think on a good/bad binary because I see my job as a critic more to do with providing context than consumer advice or recommendations, but I think films that show no interest in this question and seek to uphold the traditional patriarchal order of things are simply just a bit old fashioned and tedious and out of synch with the contemporary moment we live in.

Do you think only women are feminist in their film criticism?

Certainly not, but I would add that most male writers I know who have an open, thoughtful approach to gender politics and power in their work would never identify as ‘male feminists’ because that label is so tainted by the Harvey Weinsteins of the world; the label ‘male feminist’ has become a very negative brand, but an open mind and an open heart are available to everybody.

Name one film that satisfies your feminist criteria and explain why.

Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45; a fearless interrogation of gender and power that pivots on a fundamental collaboration between its director and main actor, Zoe Tamerlis, the latter of whom was a political activist. It’s an important film for me as it asks the question: who owns feminist action, and what is lost when we claim it for others?

Name one film that you’ve refused to review –even with a complete pan and slam — because it offends your feminist sensibilities and why.

I’ve never understood the appeal of Tarantino films beyond the now long passe 90s obsession with postmodern pastiche, and have nothing to say about them that is productive: films made for straight white men, by straight white men, I can’t understand why this faded fratboy chic isn’t long past its use-by date.

Are there any filmmakers and actors who consistently meet your criteria for excellent feminist production? Who exemplifies this?

Even when making films about male characters, Lynne Ramsay shows a constantly humane and sophisticated with the pressure of gender roles and the expectations we put on ourselves. Ramsay is interested in the flaws and how they work within bigger cultural and social systems; I think she understands that gender politics is much bigger and more complicated than a focus on ‘men’ or ‘women’.

Have you been assigned to review a film that you found unacceptably anti-feminist in approach and felt that you must self-censor your comments to conform to the expectations of your editor and/or fit the profile of the platform and its readers? Do you think this happens with other feminist film critics?

My work on sexual violence in film – particularly rape-revenge film – means I have seen literally hundreds of these movies, and even the most offensive of them I feel very strongly still reflects something on the gender politics within the culture that produced it. I would rather watch a rape-revenge film than a Marvel film any day.

I can’t speak for other self-identifying feminist critics, but often I believe there’s a worrying degree of performativity sometimes often flagged by the word “problematic”: this is a real red flag for me; a lazy way of getting out of deep critical engagement while still attempting to maintain the moral upper ground. The question of gender politics and power needs much deeper engagement than weasel words like this.

From your feminist perspective, what fits the overall progressive objectives of feminist film criticism? Please rank the following in order of importance to you, and list last and separately those that you don’t agree with at all. Or, if you prefer, comment on each.

  • All female film critics should be considered feminists simply because they are women
      Absolutely not.
  • We need more female film critics’ writings on major media platforms
      “Female” tends to imply biological definitions so I would err to “women film critics” to include the important and often ignored voice of our trans sisters. My view is intersectional: we need more women, yes, but this should also overlap with a demand for more people of colour, more people living with disabilities, more queer voices, more voices from those with diverse class backgrounds.
  • Feminist film critics have to work harder to make their opinions, points of view known
      I think women film critics do in general, regardless of whether they identify as feminist or not. Again, however, I would flag the issue of intersectionality here: it’s not a simple question of gender, but race, class, sexual identity, etc.
  • Equal opportunity and exposure are the primary goals of feminist film critics
      This to me would not apply to self-identifying feminists who are trans-exclusionary or anti-sex worker. So no, I don’t think a feminist position can be reduced this simply.
  • Greater numbers of women writing about a film impacts/boosts audience awareness about that film and its audience appeal
      Definitely.
  • We need more female-centric blockbusters to reach gender parity in filmmaking
      I disagree that women filmmakers are somehow obliged to make films about women characters as I believe that is fundamentally sexist and denies the importance of women-directed films, such as Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here and Athina Rachel Tsangari‘s Chevalier (three of my favourite women-directed films of recent years, all about male characters). Women are capable of telling a range of stories, not just those about women – representation in front of the camera is important, but women filmmakers can tell us as much about gender politics when they tell stories about male characters as women characters. I think aligning women directors with women-centred blockbusters is a grievous and fundamentally sexist error: why can’t a woman make a film about Thor or The Hulk? This implies a weakness; that women can only tell stories about characters of the same gender, which is untrue and a dangerous precedent to set.
  • Re-structuring male-centric plots with female characters counts towards gender parity in moviemaking
      I think it’s not going to hurt but I think the questions are more about who is making the film; who is telling the story.
  • Gender quotas in film festival programming are drawing attention to otherwise overlooked films that meet feminist criteria and standards.
      I don’t believe in quotas at festival level at least (although funding is a different question), but there are examples of festival programmers theming events towards films that encourage women’s voices. Programmers have to want to play films made by women first and foremost, and there are examples that when this happens quotas become irrelevant.
  • The opinions and recommendations of feminist film critics should be considered by film festival programmers.
      I think diversity more broadly is the question, with a focus on intersectionality; instead of all-white all-male programming teams, we need diverse input from women, people of colour, LGBTQI+ folk, etc. I also believe strongly that class should be a factor, which is harder for the reality is most single moms who work two jobs don’t have time to advise film festival panels, and most film festival panels don’t care about their input. How do we address class diversity alongside questions of gender, race, sexuality, etc.?
  • Studies revealing Hollywood’s static gender percentages accurately reflect the breadth of feminist concerns about today’s cinema production
      It’s a starting place and there is a long way to go – we need to look at who is telling these stories, certainly. But this denies art as a creative medium also; I think that feminist film criticism is diverse and should have a range of goals, just as there are a whole range of different ‘feminisms’ for critics interested in gender politics to choose from.
  • Gender parity should be measured not only by numbers/percentages, but also by the presence of feminist themes, stories, aesthetics and technical accomplishment.
      At this point in time, questions of what’s in the film are too reductive along binary gender lines between men and women characters; at this stage at least, I think gender parity needs to focus on the labor force primarily. Who are making films? Who are telling these stories? A film might ‘look’ feminist on the surface but if it’s an almost all-male production crew I become sceptical – someone made a choice not to hire women, no matter how much ‘girl power’ a story might suggest.
  • Gender parity by numbers and percentages would sufficiently fill feminist expectations and satisfy feminist demands for change in today’s cinema scene.
      It’s a beginning and a place to start work, but certainly not the whole picture. While useful, I’m sceptical of any simple equation that is designed to ignore the nuance of art itself; I have huge problems with the Bechdel Test, for example, for many reasons, but primarily because it places women filmmakers who chose not to make films about women characters in a very reductive, negative position (and those films are some of the most important being made right now).

At present, are narrative films or documentaries most effective in delivering diverse and laudable women’s stories to the movie-going public?

To make a broad generalisation, women in my experience tend to find more freedom in documentary filmmaking, but I don’t think it can be reduced so simply. It’s great if women-made documentaries are diverse and laudable, but does that matter if more people are likely to see something like You Were Never Really Here or A Wrinkle in Time? We need women everywhere, making everything, and they are – from horror to pornography to documentaries to melodramas. We need ways to acknowledge the diversity of women’s filmmaking practice that doesn’t risk gendering the act itself along certain generic or budgetary lines.

Assuming that greater exposure of your feminist critical writings — and those of others whose approach rises to your definition of feminist film criticism — can and will effect change in film production, what would you like to see changed in the industry — other than the requisite gender parity?

I honestly think the shift is generational; there is a broad desire for stories told from different perspectives at the moment, and we see that with films like Black Panther. The status quo is changing, and the powers that be in the industry can fight it or roll with it; I would like to see the latter in much deeper ways than lip service. It’s simply good business sense to get more women behind the camera, and I would like to see the industry respond to that beyond seeing women’s filmmaking as a kind of fad.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is an award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She has written for publications including Senses of Cinema, Little White Lies, Overland, The Monthly, 4:3 Film, Meanjin, The Big Issue and Diabolique Magazine, and has written five books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema. She is currently co-editing a book of essays on Elaine May and writing a book on the history of women in the horror genre.