Lesbian feminist film practice

The overriding assumptions of feminist criticism in the 1970s were mimetic. Since those who controlled capital and the means of cinematic production were principally male then popular cinema could only represent women in male terms — negatively. The IMR was generally seen as irreclaimable to feminist goals.

[F]ilm has depended on voyeuristic active/passive mechanisms. Women, whose image has continually been stolen and used for this end, cannot view the decline of the traditional film form with anything much more than sentimental regret. (Mulvey, 1975: 68)

Black identity, history and culture had also been excluded or misrepresented by mainstream cinema (Mercer, 1988). Many black critics and filmmakers during the 1960s and 1970s rejected not only Hollywood cinema, however, but also white avant-garde film practice:

The challenge facing this [1960s and 1970s] generation of independent Black filmmakers was to find a film form unique to their historical situation and cultural experience, a form that could not be appropriated by Hollywood. (Masilela, 1993: 108)

The initial wave of 1970s feminist and black filmmaking in this context was predominantly documentary in form and positive in approach (Gever, 1987: 58; Florence, 1993: 133; Mercer, 1988). Feminist documentary "described the social conditions experienced by women, as well as collective programmes intended to enlarge the social opportunities available to them [...] Realist documentary scenes and testimony [...] were enlisted as factual proof of women's oppression" (Gever, 1987: 58).

For film-makers, is the way forward to create images for the viewer/spectator to aspire to, or do we document out lives by taking up and confronting everyday realities? Need the two be separated? (Attille, in Attille and Blackwood, 1984: 206).

The form of feminist documentary was seen as the expression of the specific political ethos of radical (lesbian) feminism:

Feminist documentary film-making is a cinematic genre congruent with a political movement, the contemporary women's movement. One of that movement's key forms of organisation is the affinity group. In the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States, women's consciousness-raising groups, reading groups, and task-oriented groups were emerging from and often superseded the organisations of the antiwar New Left. Women who had learned film-making in the antiwar movement and previously 'uncommitted' women film-makers began to make self-consciously feminist films [...] The films these people made came out of the same ethos as the consciousness-raising groups and had the same goals. (Lesage, 1986: 14)

Gay male filmmaking, on the contrary, had taken in European high-art, avant-garde traditions and then mixed them with the pop iconography of homosexual eroticism and a "generous dose of irony" (Dyer, 1990: 101-104). Through the 1960s, an underground circuit grew up to distribute and show avant-garde films to an expanding 'counter-cultural' audience. Feminist films were, originally, somewhat dependent on this infrastructure. Feminist and lesbian films were particularly difficult to fund and distribute, however. The counter-cultural avant-garde, paradoxically, depended heavily on government art subsidies whose mode of allocation discriminated against women. Marginalisation, or male-centred redefinition, of feminist films by 'art-house' distribution and exhibition networks emphasised a need for control over distribution as well as production if a really women-centred cinema was to be possible.

Feminist distribution collectives were set up to distribute films by women which did not fit into male categories of film art. Lesbian and feminist organisational networks provided a circuit in which lesbian and feminist films could be screened to specifically feminist, or lesbian, rather than general art-film audiences. In a separatist ethos, it was also important that films by-and-for women could be viewed in the same feminist contexts which had produced them. This also fostered discussion among women which would ensure that feminist filmmaking remained a part of a feminist political nexus rather than becoming dominated by institutionalised cinematic practice (Merz and Pratibha, 1987; Root, 1985).

Films are required to reclaim history, offer self-definition and create alternative visions [...] Lesbian films cannot be considered outside the context of the lesbian community. (Becker et al, 1985: 306-7)

Black lesbian critics articulated a similar agenda:

Black lesbians need to not only challenge the misrepresentations but, if we believe that film can change things constructively, also form a discourse of our own making and produce, direct, edit, cast in role and distribute films about our lives, by ourselves, for ourselves. (Sulter, 1985: 29)

Sulter (1985) took a negative view of the possibilities for representing black lesbians through dominant institutions, or through white feminist or lesbian film practice, since white lesbian filmmaking showed a tendency towards "reinforcing the power of middleclass [sic] silence and marginalising the Blackwoman's [sic] life and experience" (29). Black filmmakers' collectives such as Black Audio, Sankofa and Albany Video "were rather more successful than white ones in producing films that both break silence over and contextualise gay and lesbian experience" (Florence, 1993: 134).

The deployment of semiotic techniques in film studies during the 1970s and the associated debate on realism increased feminist awareness of the complex productivity of discourse in the reproduction of feminine subordination (Mayne, 1993: 13-22).

The analysis of the workings of classical cinema [...] demanded that feminists make films which, if they did not invent a whole new film language, at least interrogated and refused the old conventions. (Brunsdon, 1986: 53)

The documentary form incorporated the experimental techniques of avant-garde forms such as cinéma vérité but, crucially, the experimental forms of feminist film were perceived as a product of its politicised ethos:

If one looks closely at the relation of this politicised genre to the movement it is most intimately related to, we can see how both the exigencies and forms of organisation of an ongoing political movement can affect the aesthetics of documentary form. (Lesage, 1986: 22)

This highly politicised form of documentary practice was not the only strand of lesbian filmmaking, however. Dyer (1990) traced a connection between gay male underground cinema and 'cultural feminist' lesbian work (1990: 180). Even in this ethos, with its very different aesthetic modes, a discourse of 'female-bonding' still remains the primary referent:

Even when there are no such specific links, there are general similarities between the two. Yet their different contexts give such similarities radically different significance[...] The gay films are individualistic, using psychoanalytic and mythic imagery as a means to express, explore and heal the self. The lesbian films are no less personal, but much less individualistic: the personal becomes the intimacy and inwardness shared by women [...] (Dyer, 1990: 176)

In looking for a way to differentiate a lesbian project, some lesbians looked to sexual as well as, or even rather than, formal deconstruction. Kaplan (1983) argued that lesbians might expressly wish to represent lesbian sexuality as that which defines lesbians, but this would also propel lesbians towards experimental forms:

If several lesbian filmmakers have used the experimental form [...] it may be in an effort to avoid the co-optation of their images by male spectators reared to view lesbian love-making as pornographic. (Kaplan, 1983: 89)

Hammer expressly used experimental forms to avoid reproducing the phallic-voyeuristic gaze (Dyer, 1990: 174-210). In confrontation with lesbian-feminist attitudes towards the representation of lesbianism, Weiss asserted that to imagine "lesbian desire outside of the pornographic parameters of the dominant cinema [...] is a primary [goal] [...] for lesbian independent film, and one of its defining characteristics" (Weiss, 1992: 139). But this would seem to superimpose a more contemporary queer assumption that sexuality is the primary defining characteristic of lesbianism onto 1970s independent lesbian filmmaking. Weiss did acknowledge that Oxenberg and Hammer's earlier work "is not solely a personal, sexual matter, but is a form of social or political liberation:"

Those and other lesbian films from this period had in common their conscious attempts to address a specifically lesbian audience, by relying on the audience's familiarity with the cultural assumptions, symbolism, humor, and radical politics characteristic of the American lesbian-feminist community at that time. (Weiss, 1992: 139)

But to radical feminist filmmakers, sex was not merely a personal matter:

There are women in the movement who engage in sexual relations with other women, but who are married to men; these women are not lesbians in the political sense. These women claim a right to private lives; they are collaborators. (Sheldon, 1984: 7; citing T-Grace Atkinson, "Lesbianism and Feminism" in Phyllis Birkby et al (Eds) Amazon Expedition, NY, Times Change Press)

Many lesbian feminists at that time sought to emphasise that lesbian identity was forged in a symbolic as well as a practical 'woman-identification' and was certainly not reducible to sexual practice. Labyris Rising (1980) intertextually invokes the discursive context of lesbian feminism.

In the [lesbian avant-garde] films [...] lesbianism does entail sexuality, but within the wider sense of woman identification, as is made explicit in Labyris Rising, where one woman has 'woman Identified Woman' sewn on her jeans and another reads the radical feminist magazine Off Our Backs. (Dyer, 1990: 178)

Radical feminist filmmakers put the case still more strongly:

In describing lesbianism as woman-identification, I have given myself a wider brief in my discussion than simply to analyse films from the point of view of women sexual oriented towards women. The power structure that restricts all women's roles in the cinema is one that delimits the roles of lesbians, making it hard to see lesbianism in any other terms than sexual. (Sheldon, 1984: 23)

In 17 Rooms (Or What Do Lesbians Do in Bed?) (1985) Sheldon ironised sexualising patriarchal definitions of lesbianism in a deadpan titillation and frustration of the voyeuristic pleasures promised by the title and inherent to the heterosexual relay. Her film shows lesbians sitting in bed reading to their kids, nursing colds, playing scrabble, and so forth — finally denying the spectator's expectation of seeing any explicit lesbian sex at all.

It seems important to note, however, that Sheldon, writing in 1984, did not articulate any objection to representations of lesbian sexuality by other experimental lesbian filmmakers. Her slightly dismissive tone towards Hammer's highly sexually explicit work seems to have been provoked more by its style in the 'lyrical vein' of what Dyer (1990: 179) called 'cultural feminism' than by its sexual explicitness. A lesbian-feminist negative focus on power-inequalities in representations of lesbian sexuality (rather than this attitude being confined to representations of heterosexuality) reflects an order of feminist concerns more characteristic of the 1980s.

During the second phase in the early 1970s, feminists emphasized women's right to sexual pleasure with women (lesbian feminism). It is only in the third phase of the movement, when the goals of sexual pleasure have become culturally legitimated to a greater extent, that many feminists have begun to emphasize the violence and danger of heterosexual institutions [...] (Ferguson et al, 1984: footnote to p.106)

Furthermore, the withholding of visual representations of lesbian eroticism could be seen as tending to erase the representation of lesbian specificity within feminism. Noting that many heterosexual feminist filmmakers avoided representations of heterosexuality because of the "inherent power relations" of the visual relay, Becker et al invoked a lesbian 'domain' in which such power-relations are always-already disrupted:

The visualization of non-voyeuristic, authentic lesbian lovemaking should be attempted [...] The all-woman environment on the screen and in the audience defines sexuality within a lesbian context and therefore should pose no problem to the representation of lesbian lovemaking. (Becker et al, 1985: 308).

Nevertheless, Becker et al considered the representation of sex to be secondary (308). Whether lesbian eroticism should, or should not, be represented, most lesbian filmmakers and theorists seemed to agree that lesbian identity should not be represented as 'sex.' How, then, was a feminist-deconstructive style to be distinguished from the deconstructive practices of the white, male, middle-class, avant-garde tradition or from heterosexual feminist filmmaking?

Whilst it may be possible to observe characteristic patterns of production, form and content, it is notoriously difficult to define women's or lesbian cinema discursively. Mayne (1990) argued that attempting to define women's cinema as a cinema by women, or by lesbians, is even less practicable for cinema than for literature given the collaborative nature of film and the institutionalisation of its practices. To look for a coherent repetition of formal, stylistic or thematic markers would simply reproduce male-defined criteria of 'art.' In any case, "women's cinema refers to and includes not just a set of films or practices of cinema, but also a number of film-critical discourses" (de Lauretis, 1990: 9). Any attempt to define 'feminist' or 'lesbian' cinema in any case once again re-refers the theorist to the problem of defining the relevant categories of identification. The most practicable and acceptable way to differentiate a lesbian project therefore was by reference to an alternative (lesbian) order of discourse. Although they disagreed as to whether the form of popular cinema can be re-appropriated to a lesbian order of meaning, de Lauretis (1990: 14) and Florence (1993: 143) did agree that subversion of the heterosexual gendering of 'desire' depends crucially on addressing the spectator as female.

With regard to feminist filmmaking more generally, de Lauretis (1988b) suggested that in order to avoid a masculinised perspective, women's social reality needed to be shown in a way which drew the spectator away from unquestioning involvement with the story and into a feminist collaboration with both the female characters and the feminist filmmaker. The most notorious example of lesbian filmmaking representing the 'hidden language" of women and informed by a construct of female-homosociality was A Question of Silence (1982). Three female characters who have never previously met, an isolated housewife, a secretary, and a pub landlady, collectively beat to death the male proprietor of a shop in which one of them has been caught shop-lifting. The Dutch title (De Stilte rond Christine M), which literally translates as The Silence Surrounding Christiane M, links the silence to a specific character, the isolated housewife, who never speaks throughout the entire film. As the narrative unfolds revealing the details of her life it becomes clear that she has ceased to speak as symbolic of her experience that her voice is irrelevant to her environment. She lives in an emotional vacuum; isolated and incomprehensible in the world around her. A female lawyer takes on the women's case and becomes increasingly personally identified with the women's rage against patriarchal society. The lesbian/feminist spectator thus is drawn into collusion with the feminist filmmaker as well as with female characters, forming an exclusively feminist discursive space.

Root noted a marked divergence between male and female interpretations of the film:

There was a marked difference in critical treatment of the film between male and female critics, but also between male and female audience members:

Some women stood up and cheered, while other (often male) viewers left enraged. Female viewers frequently described it as a celebration of gut-level female solidarity and an allegorical tragi-comedy about male society: men, meanwhile, tended to see it as a serious 'social problem' picture or a shocking and disturbing attack on them as individuals. (Root, 1986: 213)

Why should male spectators have 'misread' the text or responded so negatively? It would seem that the problem arises because some competence in the discourses of feminism is required in order to decode the narrative of A Question of Silence. This inverts the discursive exclusion which constitutes the culture of male homosociality. It is probably this deprioritisation of access for the male spectator which was experienced by males as female 'aggression.'

Whilst (socialist) feminist film-studies had developed an account of textual 'subversion,' much lesbian praxis seems also to have referred itself to an assumed feminist 'order of signifiers' or a 'lesbian imaginary' (Hammer, 1993: 70). Feminist reversals of the trope of 'homosociality,' with its metonymic relation to constructs of 'the gaze,' fed into discursive constructs of specifically lesbian forms of counter-cinema. That is, the cinematic gaze would no longer be exchanged along a relay of males, but could be disseminated, instead, among a collectivity of women. Despite its limitations and fragmentations, radical feminism's model of the intra-female bond as symbolic guarantor of feminist meanings was crucial to the formation of lesbian cultural praxis.

Feminist and pro-feminist film practice, as well as lesbian re-coding practices brought to the popular film-text, during the 1970 and 1980s, need to be understood in terms of this radical feminist model of the symbolic or transcendental bond between 'woman-identified women.' This effectively functioned as reverse-discourse capable of guaranteeing the meaning of lesbian cultural production without reference to the phallus as transcendental signifier. That is, constituting an outlaw culture which positively celebrated its unintelligibility to the male spectator.

Publish your own newspaper