Defining Feminist Film Criticism – Roxana Hadadi comments

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Roxana Hadadi 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?

I define feminism as advocacy and support for gender equality, in particular the dismantling of a patriarchal system is that can often be sexist, racist, and classist. How that applies to film criticism is approaching cinema as an institution that reflects the politics and viewpoints of a film’s creators, and then analyzing how women and men are represented in the film, how they are compared and contrasted, how their needs are demonstrated or met, how they interact. I believe we use objective measures to analyze art that is inherently subjective, and so I realize that I bring all aspects of my identity to my work as a film critic: as a woman, as a feminist, as a first-generation Iranian-American, as a child of immigrants, as someone who was raised Muslim. All of those elements inform how I approach and analyze film.

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

I consider what the film is trying to accomplish, whose viewpoints and politics it reflects, whether women are given agency, identity, and equality in the film, and whether film’s creators included women, either as directors, screenwriters, producers, cinematographers, or any other technical field. Do the women have names? I realized when watching the firefighter-focused film Only the Brave in 2017 that most all of the female characters were only identified as girlfriends or wives, which certainly isn’t representative of women as fully realized individuals. Do the women have friends, other women they interact with, or interests outside of their relationships? Female-focused comedies have become more popular in the past few years I think because of the genre’s willingness to explore women’s lives outside of solely their desire for romantic love. And are the female characters in the film representing or advocating for ideas that push against the status quo? The comedy film Blockers was marketed as another outlandish high school comedy but actually very insightfully considered the sexual experience from the viewpoints of teenage girls, analyzing the double standard that exists between young women and young men. These aren’t necessarily exact critical criteria, but a consideration of a film that speaks to how women would recognize themselves onscreen – their interests, passions, desires, and opinions; how they interact with female or male friends; how they approach their romantic relationships. If all of that is reflected and explored, then I believe the film can be considered a feminist work.

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

Yes, this does influence my preference, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it influences my preferences negatively. Instead, it encourages me to seek out movies from female filmmakers, which may be more difficult to find in theaters, and to support films with female leads or stories that center on the female experience. This means championing films like Skate Kitchen, which I thought deserved the attention that Jonah Hill’s mid90s received; a film about a group of female skateboarders from different ethnic backgrounds pushing each other to skate better, sparring with a group of rival boys, and learning how to grow up. Or films like Widows, which boasted a fantastic female ensemble and analyzed the intersecting ways racism and classism undermine the ability of women to stand on their own. However, I will admit that if a film is particularly egregious in its treatment of female characters, I don’t hesitate to lay into that shortcoming. For example, a film like Polar, in which nearly every single female character is treated as an egregious sex object, deserves to be lambasted for its myopia.

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, this does influence my standards. As I mention earlier, I bring all elements of my own identity into my writing. A film can be objectively well-made, with excellent cinematography and pointed direction and nuanced performances, but if the content undermines or underserves its female characters, I will make a note of that in my review. On the other hand, if a film elevates those ideas but is a little rough around the edges, like the film Never Goin’ Back, I will still recommend it or view it favorably because it is daring to do something that is different from the status quo. I do this because I believe women are underrepresented and underserved in film, and I think it is important to help change this inequality by championing films that explore our identities and speak to our needs.

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

Ah, this is a tricky question! I do not think that only women can be feminist, but I may trust female writers writing about a female-focused film more than I would trust a male writer.

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

Widows is the most perfect satisfaction of my feminist film criteria in 2018, and honestly, in years. I wrote about the reasons why in two different essays for Pajiba: Throughout Many Genres of Films in 2018, Women Said No—Standing Up for Themselves, Their Own Desires, and Their Power and Spoilers: Everyone in ‘Widows’ is Scrambling for Power, and Disrupting a Classist and Sexist Status Quo is the Way to Do It. Below is an excerpt from the second essay that captures my answer to this question:

    Who kills them? The widows, of course; the women they’ve underestimated at every turn, who decide to follow through on a job Harry planned but never had the gumption to attempt: to steal $5 million from Jack Mulligan that he had embezzled from the city. This isn’t to say that the power the women achieve can only come from murder, but it does develop from a place of upending the status quo, of rejecting the structures that men like Jatemme and Tom and Jamal and Jack and Henry and Florek and Carlos and Jimmy have placed upon them. The women can’t be anyone but who they are, but they pretend to be lesser than to gain people’s trust. Who doesn’t want to help a woman in need? Linda pretends to be a new employee at an architecture firm to gain the trust of a widower. Alice pretends to be an endangered Polish mail-order bride to manipulate a woman into buying her guns. Veronica pretends to appeal to Jack Mulligan for mercy while really scoping out the layout of his home. It’s only the non-widow and addition to their crew, babysitter and hairdresser Belle (Erivo), who is beholden to no one, who can stand up to Veronica upon their first meeting (her “You need to watch how you talk to me” is one of the most epic moments I’ve seen in a while), who has been self-sufficient for so long that she can do the job, but she doesn’t need the job.
    The women train, they study, they practice—and they pull it off. The money is the reward, but Widows feels slightly anticlimactic when the heist is done because the moments of character growth are all related to other realms of power. Linda asserts that she’s doing this all for her kids, and the money gives her the ability to re-open her store and provide for her children so that her mother-in-law no longer poisons them against her. Alice escapes both the clutches of her mother and Haas’s sugar daddy, telling him to his face, “I don’t need you to have a nice life. You say ‘life’ like it’s yours to offer, but it’s mine”; when we see her at the end of the film, her body is covered up, wrapped in a giant coat, no longer on display, and she’s having a meal with a female companion. Belle helps her friend (played by Adepero Oduye, the lead of Dee Rees’s Pariah!) pay off her debt to the Mulligans so she can own her salon outright, and is able to take care of her daughter without her mother’s help.
    And there’s Veronica, now without Jamal breathing down her neck over Harry’s theft, now with the knowledge that she no longer needs to mourn Harry, now with the realization that Amanda and her newborn son are alone, just like Veronica is, now with a school library named after her murdered son, established with the money Veronica stole. And in the final moment of the film, when Veronica runs out of the diner to chase down Alice, to ask her how she’s doing, to extend a moment of compassion to a woman for whom she once had no patience and no respect—there’s power in that, too. There can be power in kindness and in camaraderie alongside crime and corruption, and that is the nuance, the depth, and the politics Widows provides.

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 haven’t ever refused to review a film because of this reason. I’ve given pans, as you mention, of films like Polar and Mile 22, but I haven’t turned down an assignments.

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

For filmmakers, I look to people like Debra Granik, Mira Nair, Reese Witherspoon, Gillian Flynn, Sofia Coppola, Ava DuVernay, and Dee Rees. For actors, Viola Davis, Patricia Arquette, Natalie Portman, Amandla Stenberg, Yara Shahidi, Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Emma Thompson, Constance Wu, Maya Rudolph, and Emma Watson, to name a few. These are women who are telling women’s stories, who are putting together projects that focus on women, and who understand the power of working together to keep this movement moving forward.

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?

Thankfully, I have never felt this way. I feel very honored to write for Pajiba, which is decidedly feminist and has never once made me feel like I should censor my thoughts; instead, I am encouraged to explore my reactions and write about them. I do believe this happens with other critics, but I have not personally experienced 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. In order of importance:

In order of importance:

      • We need more female film critics’ writings on major media platforms
      • Equal opportunity and exposure are the primary goals of feminist film critics
      • Gender parity should be measured not only by numbers/percentages, but also by the presence of feminist themes, stories, aesthetics and technical accomplishment.
      • Feminist film critics have to work harder to make their opinions, points of view known
      • Greater numbers of women writing about a film impacts/boosts audience awareness about that film and its audience appeal
      • We need more female-centric blockbusters to reach gender parity in filmmaking
      • Studies revealing Hollywood’s static gender percentages accurately reflect the breadth of feminist concerns about today’s cinema production
      • Re-structuring male-centric plots with female characters counts towards gender parity in moviemaking
      • The opinions and recommendations of feminist film critics should be considered by film festival programmers.
      • Gender quotas in film festival programming are drawing attention to otherwise overlooked films that meet feminist criteria and standards.
      • Gender parity by numbers and percentages would sufficiently fill feminist expectations and satisfy feminist demands for change in today’s cinema scene.
      • All female film critics should be considered feminists simply because they are women
      • 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?

I do believe narrative films are more effective in delivering these stories because I think they are the primary preference for most movie-goers. In general, I believe most people view documentaries as explorations of unique or individual phenomena with particular agendas, whereas I think feature films, as I mentioned earlier, reflect our implicit belief systems and politics in ways that may be more comfortable for average viewers. I think as the stories we see in feature films begin to change, we more steadily change the culture by exposing viewers to concepts about gender parity and equality that they may absorb more readily in that setting than in a documentary setting.

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 would like to see the industry change to more readily explore stories about all kinds of women, in films that are made by women, from different races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, classes, sexual preferences, and so forth. Cinema is still so monolithic, so heavily focused on white male experiences, but it needs to change to explore who we are right now. Women’s representation is key to this, but intersectionality, too, and I hope the industry moves more in that direction.

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Roxana Hadadi

Roxana Hadadi

Roxana Hadadi is a pop culture writer. She is a staff contributor for Pajiiba, Chesapeake Family, and Punch Drunk Critics, and has contributed to Bright Wall/Dark Room and The Washington Post Express. She is a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic and a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association.