Defining Feminist Film Criticism – Marilyn Ferdinand comments

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Marilyn Ferdinand 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?

A simple definition of feminism is that it is an ideology that believes women should not be disadvantaged in any way simply because they are women. At a more nuanced level, a feminist—especially a feminist film critic—actively observes, interprets, and, in some cases, promotes the feminine ethos, filling the blind spots men or nonfeminist women have in their understanding of the lives, emotions, and thoughts of women.

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

That all stories have value and should be given the opportunity to compete in the marketplace of art and ideas. That critics should view all stories to the greatest extent possible from a place of humility and eagerness to learn and empathize, including doing research before writing a review.

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

Not necessarily, but I will seek out films by and about underrepresented people and places.

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?

Yes it does. If I feel a film does not honor the people and places it depicts, if it has a bias toward one group to the great detriment of another, if it is not honest, then I will likely give it a bad review. I also give bad reviews to films that are poorly written and executed, regardless of their humanity or lack thereof.

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

They don’t have to be, but it seems that the vast majority of male film critics don’t wrestle with their biases to any great extent.

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

North Country, directed by Niki Caro. The film offers an honest depiction of why a woman would want to work in a traditionally male field, shows the abuse she has to face from the men who don’t like that she’s there, and gives her a life outside of work. Men watching this film are given the opportunity to understand these choices and challenges in an honest, realistic way.

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 only watch films I want to watch because I’m not paid to review, so this hasn’t come up.

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

Charlize Theron is my idea of a self-possessed actor who can play a variety of roles but always remains true to herself. I also think Agnes Varda maintains her unique voice, with sympathy for all her subjects.

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?

No.

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.

Agree

  • We need more female film critics’ writings on major media platforms.
  • Feminist film critics have to work harder to make their opinions, points of view known.
  • Gender parity should be measured not only by numbers/percentages, but also by the presence of feminist themes, stories, aesthetics and technical accomplishment.
  • The opinions and recommendations of feminist film critics should be considered by film festival programmers.
  • Equal opportunity and exposure are the primary goals of feminist film critics.
  • Gender quotas in film festival programming are drawing attention to otherwise overlooked films that meet feminist criteria and standards.
  • Greater numbers of women writing about a film impacts/boosts audience awareness about that film and its audience appeal
  • Studies revealing Hollywood’s static gender percentages accurately reflect the breadth of feminist concerns about today’s cinema production.

Disagree

  • All female film critics should be considered feminists simply because they are women
  • We need more female-centric blockbusters to reach gender parity in filmmaking
  • Re-structuring male-centric plots with female characters counts towards gender parity in moviemaking
  • Gender parity by numbers and percentages would sufficiently fill feminist expectations and satisfy feminist demands for change in today’s cinema scene.

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

Probably narrative because more people go to see them than go to see documentaries.

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’d like to see scripts with more and better female characters—and more women writing them. I’d also like to see films that aren’t for men or women, but for people!

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Marilyn Ferdinand

Marilyn Ferdinand founded and blogs at Ferdy on Films. She cofounded the fundraising For the Love of Films: The Film Preservation Blogathon. She has written on film and film preservation for Humanities magazine, Fandor, Cine-File and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. She lives in the Chicago area.