Student film sequence (1): The fragmented body of the female dances for the male gaze.
Student film sequence (2): The camera continues to behead her as the dance progresses.
Student film sequence (3): Breast, belly and butt separated from face and character development. Her only identity is that of object.
Student film sequence (4): Graphically, gratuitously and visually the female’s body is broken down in relationship to the male gaze.
Student film sequence (5): Frozen, suspended without head or arms, without agency beyond the prompting of or creation of his desire.
Student film sequence (6): She moves in closer and closer, framed by his gaze.
Providing a conceptual framework for promoting thoughtful, expressive student work sets the stage for students to engage more fully with the many possibilities for cinematic production outside Hollywood hegemony. In addition, practical considerations for classroom production make collaboration with fellow students necessary. When teachers prepare assignments that ask students to work together, the students are also invited to think more deeply about the processes involved in collaborative creative work. In this way, collaborating can feed into into a dismantling of problematic content. And, significantly, it integrates women (and other marginalized groups) more equitably into production practice, which opens up the classroom to alternative visions.
One indispensable approach to creating a more inclusive classroom—that also carefully prepares students for production careers—involves demystifying the aura of director as solo creator. Sabal provides an excellent set of best practices for student collaboration that we won’t duplicate here (see “The Individual in Collaborative Media Production”), but one of the ways to encourage students to think about directing in a practical and collaborative light is to spend a session brainstorming characteristics that exemplify a “good” director—and, once these qualities are established, to insist that students aspire to them. In our experience, students quickly realize that what they seek from a director doesn’t align with their mythology. They almost always end up describing a person who listens, inspires, communicates, guides, and manages, not someone who controls, sulks, preaches, blames, or criticizes.
From here, the production teacher can position the director as a leader for group collaboration, locating this role as one much closer to equal with that of fellow crew members. When the class has discussed desirable group process, it mitigates the hierarchical assumptions about what it means to crew on a film and also opens up the possibility of leadership to a wider swath of the class. Students will also discover that at greater variety in the types of leaders they have working on class projects also yields alternative creative interpretations and a wider range of characters and narrative content.
To expand on a crucial point made by Citron and Seiter, creating an inclusive classroom also means characterizing filmmaking as a process, not a product of a sole creator. For students, modeling this strategy often boils down to discussions about communication, as they learn how to communicate effectively in groups, especially before embarking upon a collaborative project.
Even in classes where groups are organized into specific crew positions—director, producer, director of photography, editor, etc.— the class needs to spend a significant amount of time defining the responsibilities of each position and that position’s responsibility to the group as a whole. When each student understands her commitment to the group, that reduces power struggles that often result when groups are thrown together in an ad hoc way. Furthermore, class discussions an increases the accountability each group member has for a specific kind of contribution.
We have also found that throughout the course no student should hold the same position twice. Each student needs an opportunity to perform multiple roles on crews, including those positions traditionally tied to specific gender roles. Such a pedagogical model underscores the importance of the group as a whole in producing the final product, and it teaches how working together is essential to long-range success: process over product.
Confronted with a model of collaboration that challenges preconceived notions of the filmmaking process, students sometimes resist this strategy (as they do other critical pedagogical strategies). They may default to their original behavioral patterns—once the stress of production has set in. One way to ensure they follow this process is to ask groups to create a set of guidelines for acceptable communication that their team will follow before they even begin pre-production. Will they tolerate yelling? What if the director disagrees with suggestions from the D.P.? What will they do if a group member is late or not fully participating? Establishing such expectations reminds students that each group member’s contribution is critical to the success of the project, and it asks students to reflect on their own communication and working styles.
Because the guidelines they establish are agreed upon as a kind of group contract, this portion of the project also ensures accountability for all group members, especially those who might typically be more reluctant to engage actively. For women, then, this process sets up an expectation that they will participate to the same degree as their peers, as required by their crew position and the group contract, and therefore helps to strip stereotypical gender associations from more neutrally defined work roles. Enabling women to move into traditionally masculine roles also helps to diminish gender biases among the rest of the class. Counteracting these “real-life” stereotypes further encourages students to think about the representations they shape in their film work, and where those representations originated.
A final way to upend conventional authoritative structures and thereby call into question how authority is (often problematically) constructed is to integrate students into the assignment creation process. Sharing this responsibility places students in an unfamiliar position of power and gives them a sense how assignments are designed to meet certain learning goals—and ways that assignments sometimes fail. Julia Johnson provides an example:
While some amount of directly calling on students is required to ensure that all students participate in the collective discussion, this method invites students to think about who holds power in the classroom setting and how authoritative structures can privilege some voices and diminish or even silence others. This type of reflection enables students to think about their own positions of power, how they treat those in “inferior” positions, and possibly change their attitude and behavior in hierarchical situations.
Shared assignment creation also encourages more collaborative and active learning. If students are asked to come up with their own learning goals, they not only recognize their investment in what they learn but they also better understand how assignments are designed to meet specific educational outcomes. Fostering such a collaborative environment models power-sharing and provides an alternative to hierarchical production processes that so often isolate marginalized students.
Integrating cooperative learning
In our experience as film faculty, a common and persistent observation is that women students often hang back during technical demonstrations. Men actively take the opportunity to experiment with equipment while women remain observers on the sidelines. Again, a lack of prior contact with much mechanical and electrical equipment together with pressures like stereotype threat feed into this reticence. To combat this imbalance and draw women into the experience, a cooperative learning technique known as “jigsaw” can be easily employed.
A jigsaw strategy uses cooperative learning as a pedagogical approach. Groups are set up to learn the equipment, and for the group to succeed, each individual must succeed. Each member is accountable for contributing his or her share and the group as a whole is accountable for its final product. The jigsaw strategy works like a puzzle. Each student contributes a key element to the end goal, so that “each piece—each student’s part—is essential for the completion and full understanding of the final product. “If each student’s part is essential, then each student is essential.” (Aronson).
For example, a technical demonstration might include three different microphones: handheld, shotgun, and lavalier. After some initial instruction, the class is divided into three core groups that are ultimately responsible for learning all three mics. To achieve this, individual members of each core group are assigned to a specific microphone “learning station.” These new groups work together to master the microphone at their station and become “expert” teams. Once the allotted time is up, everyone returns to their core group, where each “expert” exchanges what they’ve learned with their other core group members. Each member, therefore, is accountable for learning in order to share their expertise with their group. To further ensure accountability, the entire class takes a quiz over all the material at the end of class.
The jigsaw strategy calls for active participation of all members of class and prevents a small group of students from dominating the class as often occurs in less organized learning situations. In addition to removing hierarchical authority from the learning process, it ensures that women and other hesitant or cautious students play a full part of the educational process. Any conflicts or barriers that come up in group work are mitigated by making students accountable for not only their learning but the learning of the group. If a student can’t get past an interpersonal issue, they threaten the success of the group as a whole, so it’s to their advantage to learn how to navigate personal disputes. Jigsaw, then, also challenges students to continue building collaborative communication skills. It models the teamwork needed on a production set in a challenging but more gender-neutral way.
Media faculty can no longer ignore the disparity present in the numbers of women enrolled in and pursuing production, nor can we ignore the gendered breakdown in crew hierarchies. We can no longer justify a failure to challenge the problematic and often violent representations of acts against women that occur in student projects, and by extension, across our multiplex, TV, and computer screens.
After decades of teaching with a “director-oriented” mythology, it is time to overhaul our pedagogy. This transformation is needed on a department level and also needs to be fostered by individual instructors. Adopting new assignments or revamping individual classes is not enough; effective critical pedagogy must permeate the media studies curriculum.
We challenge departments, therefore, to engage formally in discussions and adopt guidelines for teaching that address inequities in gendered practices and representations. Departments must educate their faculty on these issues and establish faculty responsibilities for interrogating these topics in class. They must implement a continuing dialogue about academic expectations and learning outcomes for their students. They must engage in the difficult discussions about reconstructing their curricula, upending the status quo, and ensuring equity.
Our students can bring a fierce resistance to engaging critically with and deconstructing the elements at play in depictions of assault against women. By instituting a departmental culture of creative and critical engagement with student work, we ensure that students address relations between form and content in their foundational understanding of production work. By formulating and adopting a set of guidelines for pedagogical practice as a unified faculty, we would ensure that students address these concepts at multiple stages of their academic career.
Silence is not an option. We fail our students when we do not address their acts of replication, when we allow them to fall back upon claims of “it’s just entertainment.” If we do not challenge perpetuation of misogyny, if we fail to recognize these depictions as such, we become complicit in on-going violence against women—the violence of objectification, the violence of assault. And if we fail to address these issues, we fail to make the classroom and this field a safe pursuit for our female students. On the most basic level, we fail to meet the short term goals of supporting and challenging our students to create vibrant and meaningful work, and to pursue knowledge and critical thought. We fail to meet the long-term goals of diversifying the field of makers and the field of representations. Too much is at stake to treat these concerns frivolously.
Michelle Citron and Ellen Seiter’s call to action was sounded in 1981. After more than thirty years battling the same issues, we are sounding that call yet again. The pedagogical strategies outlined herein both practically assist our students’ development as professionals and make curricular changes that will ensure all students’ learning and growth.