A still from The Hurt Locker: This is the imagery, subject, genre and cast that finally afforded a female director an Academy Award.

The (in)visibility of women in the industry. At the Venice Film Festival, director of The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, stands prominently next to her male colleagues, producer Greg Shapiro, actors Jeremy Renner, Brian Geraghty, Anthony Mackie, and scriptwriter Mark Boal

The year is 2010 and for the first time in its 82-year history a woman, Kathryn Bigelow, is awarded Best Director by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

Students draw inspiration from relationships played out in popular culture. In Eminem's hit music video, Love the Way You Lie, a "passionate" relationship ignites, controlled and seductive in one shot ...

... then violently explosive in the next.

Posted on the Internet, this is a music video made by a student for Eminem’s song, Kim. Blinded by passionate rage the boyfriend plunges the knife into his adulterous girlfriend’s throat while Eminem raps, “Now shut the fuck up and get what’s comin’ to you / You were supposed to love me / Now bleed bitch, bleed.”

Often called upon as privileged judges of misogyny, women associated with deviant films are asked to defend industry productions like Cape Fear. This practice also manifests in the production classroom.

A still from the infamous scene between Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) in Blue Velvet. With eyes closed and a hint of both pleasure and disdain, Vallens cocks her head as Booth’s aggression climaxes.

A witness to the events between Vallens and Booth, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) gazes at the aggressive, sexual perversion from a safe distance in Blue Velvet.

Still from a student’s reproduction of the same scene from Blue Velvet. The recycled imagery is void of cinematically expressive techniques and personal connection, thereby failing to communicate deeper meaning or emotion to the audience.

Leticia Musgrove, the protagonist from Monster’s Ball, is a complex character introduced to audiences through graphic violence, graphic sexual acts, and racial hatred. The performance won Halle Berry an Academy Award for Best Actress in 2001, the first to go to a black woman.

Like the world of Leticia Musgrove, Claireece Precious Jones is surrounded by hatred and violence, and marks the next performance by a black woman to earn a nomination for Best Actress by the Academy. In the film Precious, the protagonist endures rape, and physical and verbal abuse.

Rachel Dawes’ death as an expendable character serves male protagonist Bruce Wayne’s character development in The Dark Knight.

Student film still. Violence against women as the central conflict.

Title from a student film. Students must be challenged in thinking about the multiple levels of connotations in their work, and audience reception of it.


Problematic representations

Over the years, the steady beat of violence in student films raised concerns for us, a concern echoed by the overwhelming response to the 2010 UFVA panel. Without an accompanying active professional conversation as to how to address works of replication, faculty operate in isolation when they need to address scripted and seemingly prescribed acts of violence. As we sought for a unified front to combat these issues, we undertook a broader investigation into the causes.

The imagery and narratives that pervade student films spring from their lifelong engagement with popular culture and media entertainment. Our students rarely arrive in the college production classroom with a critical foundation in place. And they rarely have been challenged to think critically about techniques and meanings implied by the work that inspires them to major in film. Film instructors, therefore, must work at understanding our students’ knowledge base. Most often, a student’s primary goal is, like the mass media they admire, to entertain. Consciously or not, this “entertainment” manifests itself in their work as replications of popular media, yielding trends remarkably similar to the student film proposal outlined above.

For example, Eminem’s 2010 hit song featuring singer Rihanna, “Love the Way You Lie,” and its accompanying music video tell a tale of a violently abusive and highly sexualized relationship between a man and a woman. Coincidentally the song pairs two musicians with known histories of domestic violence: Eminem (with ex-wife Kim) and Rihanna (with ex-boyfriend Chris Brown). Eminem concludes his portion of the song with,

“If she ever tries to fucking leave again
I’mma tie her to the bed
And set the house on fire.”

Rihanna’s chorus follows hauntingly,

“Just gonna stand there
And watch me burn
But that’s alright
Because I like
The way it hurts” (Eminem).

The song hit number one on several Billboard charts (Hot 100, Pop Songs, Radio Songs, Rap Songs, and Ringtones to name a few), and it received even more critical acclaim with the debut of the music video starring Megan Fox and Dominic Monaghan (Billboard). Though critics cite the video as controversial, ultimately the message is celebrated as a brave warning against domestic violence (Thomas).

This interesting spin on misogyny, from the unlikely and suddenly heroic messenger Eminem, comes as a surprise after his vicious song Kim, in which he narrates the murder of his real life ex-wife by the same name. In Generation M, a documentary about misogyny and sexism in U.S. media and culture, Dr. Thomas Keith posits that Eminem has had such success largely because his object of aggression is women. A market for misogyny exists, and a deafening silence surrounds it. Contemporary popular culture rewards such behavior, humor, and entertainment with commercial success. That deadly pair, silence and success, makes it extremely difficult for our students to position themselves in opposition to misogyny. It requires risk and vocalization. It requires students to challenge images of misogyny and thus challenge the image of “success.”

Confronting problematic representations will often be met with some form of resistance. Sociologist Neal King has attempted to “discover patterns in filmmaker response to charges of misogyny, in order to draw conclusions about the state of motion-picture marketing and the gender politics of the filmmaker community” (King, 3). These forms of defense are not unique to industry professionals, but extend to the production classroom as well. In his research King outlines three primary methods of denial of injury.

“The first form dismisses such judgments as inappropriate to the realm of entertainment, the second judges the movies not as misogynist, and the third mocks critics as unable to make valid judgments” (King, 3).

When challenging a student to discuss racist, sexist or homophobic films, whether student- or professionally-made, it is not unusual to be met with King’s first method of denial of injury (“It’s just entertainment.”). Such a response automatically places the student in a position of determined disengagement from critical analysis. And if if this argument is directed to a female faculty member, it further positions the instructor as having special interests, being out of touch, or lacking a sense of humor. Conversely, filmmakers often enlist women to assist with such denials of injury.

As “privileged judges of misogyny,” women are often employed by filmmakers to defend the work in question (King, 5). King cites numerous interviews with women in such a position, for example Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet) and editor Thelma Schoonmaker (Cape Fear). King writes,

“The most common form of tacit admission that the film is truly deviant, however, comes in the form of compensation. Filmmakers congratulate the actresses for their courage and note the positive effects that the notorious movies had on their career.” (12).

After all, it took the role of Leticia Musgrove in Monster’s Ball for the Academy to bestow the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role to Halle Berry, the first black woman to receive that honor (2001). And not until eight years later and the role of Claireece Precious Jones in the film, Precious, did the Academy nominate another black actress, Gabourey Sidibe, in that same category (2009). These examples suggest that women have an opening and a future in the industry, but only if they participate in misogynistic roles—tactics that damage women’s progress and further polarize our collective position whether in the industry or in the film classroom.

In considering these examples on the thirtieth anniversary of Citron and Seiter’s article, the contemporary pop cultural landscape does not look dramatically different from their 1981 social environment, albeit with updated technology that communicates sexism at even higher speeds to wider audiences. Sure, some argue that women have made progress. In fact, after a mere 82 years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally awarded Best Director to a woman, Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker, incidentally a military war drama with an almost entirely male cast. The award was a win for women in film, but the triumph was notable because of its glaring exceptionality. Demonstrating a successful future to our female students proves difficult amidst such a pervasive absence of women and women’s success in the field. During Tina Fey’s acceptance speech for the 2010 Mark Twain Prize, she quips:

“I never thought I would even qualify for the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor… Apparently I’m only the third woman ever to receive this award… I do hope that women are achieving at a rate these days that we can stop counting what number they are at things. Yes, I was the first female head writer at Saturday Night Live, and yes, I was only the second woman ever to be pregnant while on the show, and now tonight I am the third female recipient of this prize. I’d love to be the fourth woman to do something but I just don’t see myself married to Lorne [Michaels].” (Mark Twain Prize)

In a culture that provides television, game, new media, political commentary, comedy and music entertainment within the context of misogyny, it’s no wonder students regenerate such themes in their films. And it’s no wonder that students are influenced and inspired when they see the critical acclaim and success of the directors, actors and creative teams involved in producing such content. Unfortunately, this inspiration and influence often translate to empty replications: films riddled with stereotypes and familiar plot points but void of any meaning or real emotion.

Three primary characteristics shape the acts of mimicry in student films: two are narrative-based, and the third, visual. The narrative logic for brutalizing the female body falls into two distinct categories. Either the female cheats on the boyfriend or husband and ends up graphically beaten—assaulted physically and/or sexually—and often killed. Or, the young woman does not know the man or know he has feelings for her, and his violence is an act of unrequited love. This unrequited love needs only a slight motivation, if any, to prompt the attack. Obsession operates as the justification for, or understanding of, the violence. The third characteristic shaping student work manifests itself in the visual aesthetic of the film. Staged and framed depictions graphically, gratuitously and visually break the female body down in relationship to the male gaze. The visual fragmentation underscores the dehumanizing nature of the broken and brutalized body, as the camera constructs a gaze that derives pleasure and power from the fragmentation.

These violent images in student work, as representative of dominant cinematic trends, translate into ideological power struggles in class. In most classroom environments, the majority sets the tone: this is what’s cool; these are the kinds of films that will be accepted here; if you want to entertain your peers, these are your choices. In his article “But It’s Only a Movie,” James Linton writes:

“More generally, popular US films operate as ‘dramas of reassurance.’ The beliefs, attitudes and values presented in Hollywood films tend to resonate with the dominant beliefs, attitudes and values of American society. In other words, the dominant ideology of a society tends to be reinforced by the ideology presented in its films.” (Linton, 8)

The attitudes held by students affect their ability to accept ideologies and images outside dominant dramas of reassurance. These attitudes populate the production classroom. The challenge to succeed and be accepted in such a learning environment is great for those in the minority: women, racial minorities, those identifying as LGBT, or even those who do not have the economic privilege to keep up with mainstream culture. For these students and even for those we may perceive as among the majority, peer pressure is a force that ripples through many students’ creative process and restricts unconventional, critical, or subversive content in their work.

As production faculty, we cannot ignore the pervasiveness of such problematic depictions in student work. The regurgitation of narrative and visual tropes will not fade, and should not surprise us. Students understand the process of replication at play within their work. As one student stated in a course discussion regarding three works with violent assaults in her class, “But this is what we see. Of course it is what we make.” We cannot expect that the content which permeates our media landscape will fail to dominate our classrooms. As such, a strategy of in-class response cannot be our primary strategy of intervention. We must consider pedagogical interventions that permeate course design. These interventions should establish a critical forum for engaging character development and narrative structure at the script level and thoughtful visual style at the production level as means for forging meaning as well as for producing entertainment.

Without such strategies, we enter into a vicious cycle in which stereotypical and damaging representations from mainstream media are regurgitated in student projects, which further alienates marginalized students, promotes uncritical conformity as a path to success, and refuels the Hollywood machine.


As Rob Sabal and other film professors have noted,

“the industrial model of film production is uncritically reproduced at many film schools… Assigning students to a particular role—producer, director, cinematographer, editor—without interrogating the inherent and implied power relationships in this kind of organization invites future conflicts” (7).

Many film schools currently operate under the misconception that to fully prepare our students for industry we must replicate industrial practices in the classroom. Not only does the simple replication of the industry’s hierarchical power relations ultimately create personal struggles within groups, it reproduces the gender disparities at play in professional film production.

The following strategies for improving gender equity in the classroom draw largely upon the goals of critical pedagogy. By that we mean a pedagogy that embraces student reflection on the learning process and challenges ways in which inequality and oppressive relations are generated and replicated in the classroom. Feminist pedagogy is closely linked to critical pedagogy, and to that end, it promotes a learning environment that makes student discussion of authority and gender roles a part of the curriculum.

With inclusion as a primary goal, we foster activities that engage active learning and build in opportunities for students to communicate and reflect upon their own learning and learning styles. This process encourages students not only to take responsibility for their own education but also to be accountable for it. In directly addressing, and deconstructing, power relations within the classroom, we seek to empower those who might otherwise feel excluded or diminished.

Freedom of expression and creative constraints

In any teaching context, instructors grapple with allowing their students freedom to learn and speak while establishing a context for that expression. We focus throughout our teaching practices on media production as a process and a dialogue between maker and audience. The strategies discussed below emphasize discussion, critique, and innovative assignments as effective means of broadening students’ perspectives and opening their eyes to other points of view.

As instructors committed to our students’ growth, we ride a fine line between nurturing unfettered creativity and imposing challenges that enable our students to exceed their own expectations and assumptions. Therefore, we do not ban content we deem unacceptable, but rather we demand that students carefully consider their audience and have well-reasoned and justified rationales for their choices that demonstrate an engagement with issues of representation raised in class. We require that they consider industry issues—again, concerning audience—including film ratings, TV network standards, website terms of service, and so on, when generating their creative content, as these restrictions on content will involve them in constant negotiation in their professional work.

We are firm believers that constraints foster innovation and creativity. Crafting an assignment so that student makers must work within limitations, whether technical, structural, or conceptual, does not curb their freedom; it opens up their problem-solving skills to new ways of thinking. Such assignments do not place prior restraint on student expression. They are designed specifically to enhance the creativity of all students. While some students may object to such boundaries, the framework of the assignment has a practical pedagogical function—with the goal of shaping in the students a keener, more developed ability to express ideas to target audiences.

We are wholly committed to freedom of expression. The shifts in classroom structures called for here involve a fragile balancing act between spurring progressive representations in student work and maintaining an allegiance to free speech. We will never flatly forbid a student from pursuing a particular idea or type of production, nor do we advocate enacting an institutional ban on problematic content.

Our pedagogical practices are not simply academic; they prepare students for the reality of professional production. They enforce the idea that all communication occurs within a context and for an audience. They demonstrate for students that in the commercial production world, expression occurs within limitations.

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