The crisis of naming
in feminist film criticism

by B. Ruby Rich

from Jump Cut, no. 19, December 1978, pp.
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

"Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collections of letters, whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language — this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable." [1]
— Adrienne Rich 

Adrienne Rich's remarks at the 1976 and 1977 Women's Commission panels of the Modern Language Association inspired this investigation into the nature of language in the field of feminist film criticism. The situation for women working in filmmaking and film criticism today is precarious. While our work is no longer invisible, and not yet unspeakable, it still goes dangerously unnamed. The extent of the problem was manifested in the very decision of a title to this paper, designed to analyze naming in terms of film and the women's movement but limited to the two unsatisfactory choices of "feminist film" or "films by women." Both are vague and problematic names: the one disregarded or even denied by certain women filmmakers and writers, the other descriptive of nothing but a sex-determined ghetto of classification.

I see the lack of a proper name here as symptomatic of a crisis in the ability of feminist film criticism thus far to come to terms with the work at hand. Similarly, it is symptomatic of a basic difference between the name "feminist" and other cinematic names, such as "structuralist" for certain avant-garde films or "melodrama" for certain Hollywood films [2], which despite their deficiencies at least derive from an initial critical inspection of the work itself and constitute descriptions, however distortive, of the film text. Unfortunately, our only name, "feminist," is one with little critical attachment to the work, describing instead the context of social and political activity whence that work sprung more often than the actual text of any given film. The reason for such a difference is to be found in the intrinsic connection between theory and practice in the field which "feminist" came to designate, a connection not found in other areas of film activity.


The connection between practice and theory in feminist cinema is so assumed that its origin and development are frequently taken for granted The following chronology of feminist filmmaking and criticism sketches some major events of the Seventies in North America and Great Britain in order to chart the progression of activity to date.

1971 — Release of GROWING UP FEMALE, THREE LIVES, THE WOMAN'S FILM, and JANIE'S JANIE, all feminist documentaries.

1972 — Events: 1st New York International Festival of Women's Films and The Women's Event at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Publications: 1st issue of Women & Film magazine; special issues devoted to women and film in Take One, Film Library Quarterly and The Velvet Light Trap; women's filmography in Film Comment.

1973 — Events: Toronto Women and Film Festival and season of women's cinema at the National Film Theatre in London. Publications: Marjorie Rosen's Popcorn Venus, first book on image of women in film, and Notes on Women's Cinema, BFI monograph edited by Claire Johnston, the first collection of feminist theory.

1974 — Events: Chicago Films by Women festival. Publications: 1st issue of JUMP CUT; two more books on images of women in film, Molly Haskell's From Reverence to Rape and Joan Mellen's Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film.

1975 — Women & Film ceases publication after editorial board split.

1976- 2nd New York International Festival of Women's Films (smaller, non-collective, less successful than the first) and Womanscene section of women's films within Toronto's Festival of Festivals: i.e., a less political replay of 1972.

1977 — 1st issue of Camera Obscura (journal of film theory founded by the dissident Women & Film members, initially in opposition to it); publication of Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary's Women and the Cinema, first anthology of criticism on women and film.

1978 — Period of normalization now fully underway.

This chronology is a selective one, but I believe that the major activities of the period are included, with two exceptions. Preceding the entire list was the publication in 1970 of a number of crucial feminist works, such as Sexual Politics, Sisterhood is Powerful, and The Dialectic of Sex, which must be seen as the backdrop to these film activities. Second, omitted from the chronology after 1971 are the hundreds of films by women made during the decade, a development presumably known to all of us and clearly another backdrop to this chronology as a whole.

The facts of the chronology suggest a number of observations and conclusions. It is immediately apparent that the 1972-73 period marks a cultural watershed that has not since been equaled and that the unity, discovery, energy, and general we're-here-to-stay spirit of the early days underwent a marked shift during 1975. Since then, the focus of the activity has changed, with new routes leading in the direction of increased specialization (such as Camera Obscura), institutionalization (such as classroom-aimed anthologies), the start of sectarianism, and most recently, a backlash emphasis on liberalization and "human liberation." Perhaps this discovery of increased fragmentation and decreased events comes as no surprise, yet the chronology helps remind us that memory is not playing tricks and that today presents a very different picture.

Another aspect of history made explicit by the chronology involves the initial cross-fertilization between the energies of the women's movement and cinema, which took place in the area of practice rather than written criticism. The films came first. In fact, we find two different currents feeding into film work: one made up of  women who were feminists and thereby led to the other made up of those of us already working in film and led therein to feminism. It was largely the first group of women who began making the films, [3] which were naturally named "feminist", and largely the second group of women, often in university film studies departments, who began holding the film festivals, just as naturally named simply "women and/in film." Spadework has continued in both directions, creating a new women's cinema and rediscovering the antecedents, with the two currents feeding our film criticism, which has drawn from both kinds of knowledge and experience for its dual-purpose discourse.

Reviewing Adrienne Rich's statement of warning, we can take comfort in seeing that the past seven years of work have reduced some of the perils of which she speaks. No longer are woman undepicted in images: even three years ago, Bonnie Dawson's Women's Films in Print could list over 800 available films by U.S. women alone, most depicting women in those images. No longer are women omitted from all biography, nor letters always censored: in this respect, most important is the ongoing work of the collective of four women engaged in The Legend of Maya Deren Project to document and demystify the life and work of a major, under-acknowledged figure in U.S. independent cinema. No longer are women's films so hard to come by: the establishment of New Day Films (1972), Freude Bartlett's Serious Business Company, and the Iris Films collective (1975) ensure the continuing distribution of films by or about women, although the chances of seeing any features by women in a regular movie theatre are still slim (with ANTONIA and Claudia Weill's GIRL FRIENDS the only U.S. films to succeed so far). Returning to the original warning, however, we reach the end of history's comforts and arrive at the nature of our present danger:

"Whatever is unnamed … buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language — this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable."

Herein lies the crisis facing feminist film criticism today, for after seven years of film practice and theory, no new names have come into being. We still lack our proper names. The impact of such a lack on the actual films is of immediate concern.


As a starting point, one classic film rediscovered through women's film festivals indicates the sort of mis-naming prevalent in film history. Leontine Sagan's MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM is a 1931 German film detailing the relationship between a student and her teacher in a repressive girls' boarding school. The film has been widely received as anti-authoritarian and anti-fascist, made as it was during the rise of Nazism in Germany, and containing montages of Prussian-like repression counterpointed to the humanism of the favorite teacher. Typical of this reception was George Sadoul's characterization of MAEDCHEN as "a sensitive and restrained attack on German militarism." [4]

While true enough, this anti-fascism is not as central to the film as its portrait of female eroticism, focusing attention on the erotic attachments of the students and teachers at the school and on the nature of power relations, both pure and corrupt, available to women living under patriarchy. Nancy Scholar, writing in Women & Film, reiterated the emphasis on the film's anti-fascism but extended that definition to include the "antiauthoritarian forces… of love and compassion represented by Manuela and Fraulein von B and the young girls who joined forces with them." [5] In fact, the dynamics of MAEDCHEN are not found only in such external movements or bondings, but rather in the twin internal movements of Manuela and Fraulein von B toward voicing the love that dared not speak its name at film's start. Indeed, MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM is central to this paper's concerns for Sagan's own positing of the act of naming as a pivotal moment in her film.

The scene takes place toward the end of the film, when the schoolgirls gather for a drunken party after the annual school play. Manuela has just starred as a passionate youth and, drunk with punch, still in boy's clothing, she stands to proclaim her happiness and love, naming her teacher Fraulein von Bernburg as the women she loves. Prior to this scene, the lesbian substructure of the school and the clearly shared knowledge of that substructure had been emphasized, even to the point of the school laundress pointing out the prevalence of the Fraulein's initials embroidered on the girls' regulation chemises, clear evidence of the hysterical adulation accorded the teacher by her adolescent admirers; this eroticism had not been in the closet. Yet when Manuela stands and names that passion in her declaration of love, she transforms the acknowledged status quo into a "scandale" and is locked up in solitary, for her speech rather than her acts. Such is the power of a name and the correctly portrayed valor of the naming action. It is ironic that the inscription of the power of naming within the film has not forestalled the continuous mis-naming of the film itself within film history. The problem is even more acute when dealing with contemporary films, where the lack of an adequate language has contributed to an invisibility of certain aspects of our film culture, an invisibility advantageous to the dominant cinema.

"The women say, unhappy one, men have expelled you from the world of symbols and yet they have given you names…, their authority to accord names… goes back so far that the origin of language itself may be considered an act of authority emanating from those who dominate … they have attached a particular word to an object or a fact and thereby consider themselves to have appropriated it … The women say, the language you speak poisons your glottis tongue palate lips. They say, the language you speak is made up of words that are killing you … the language you speak is made up of signs that rightly speaking designate what man have appropriated. Whatever they have not laid hands on… does not appear in the language. This is apparent precisely in the intervals that your masters have not been able to fill with their words … this can be found in the gaps, in all that which is not a continuation of their discourse. In the zero." [6]  — Monique Wittig

The act of mis-naming functions not as an error, but as a strategy, of the patriarchal language; for the lack of a name is no deterrent to catcalls, just as the failure to assign proper names to contemporary feminist films is no protection against the films' de facto acquisition of other names. An examination of a few key films of the Seventies is revealing of the process now in action and the disenfranchisement we suffer as a result.

Chantal Akerman's JEANNE DIELMAN (1975) is a chronicle of three days in the life of a Brussels housewife, a widow and mother who is also a prostitute. It is the first film to legitimize housework, showing a woman's activities in the home in real time, to communicate with veracity the alienation of woman in the nuclear family as it exists under advanced industrialized capitalism. More than three hours in length and nearly devoid of dialogue, the film charts Jeanne Dielman's breakdown via a minute observation of her performance of household routines, at first methodical and unvarying, later increasingly disarranged, until by film's end, the order is permanently disrupted by her murder of her third client. The film was scripted, directed, photographed and edited by women motivated by a consciously feminist sensibility.

Such a sensibility is evidenced, for example, in the choice of camera angle — unusually and surprisingly low throughout. Akerman in one interview explained that the camera was positioned at the height of her eyes; since she is very short, the entire perspective of the film is different from most we are used to seeing, shot by male cinematographers. The perspective of every frame thus reveals a female ordering of that space, an ordering of vision I had recognized before only in the films or videotapes of children, and, in the films of the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, where the angle has been accorded much critical attention as the position of the eyes of someone seated traditionally on a tatami mat observing with Buddhist detachment. Akerman's decision to employ long-shot and medium-shot only marks a desire to hold the protagonist's integrity intact, free of the exploitation of a zoom lens or the rip-off of private space rendered by a close-up. Through such tactics the camerawork manages to stay free of voyeurism in its gaze despite the constant presence of Delphine Seyrig in the title role.

Jeanne Dielman is represented as the archetypal mother and whore, a woman posed in subjugation to and in opposition to the patriarchal order, portrayed by the clients, and by the son, whose unseemly age emphasizes his Oedipal significance. The film is a polemically feminist work on every level of its analysis, style, and representation, but it has been received in critical language devoted to sanctifying the aesthetics stripped of political consequence.

Shortly after JEANNE DIELMAN's premiere at the Cannes festival, European critics had already coined a new name for this unprecedented kind of film, "hyper-realist," in homage to the super-realist movement in painting. However snappy, the name warps the basic nature of the film. Invoking realism, even with a hyphenated modifier, for this film is rather like extolling the murderer to the victim. The inadequacy and dishonesty of the cinematic style called realist have maintained the invisibility of women's lives and perceptions on the screen, substituting an aesthetic more properly called falsism, so pervasive as to force Akerman into her desperate strategy of stylization in order to counteract that false naturalism. In fact, the comparison of Akerman with the super-realist painters obscures the contradiction between their illusionism and her anti-illusionism.

Another name popularly applied to JEANNE DIELMAN is "ethnographic" in keeping with the film's insistence on real-time presentation and non-elliptical editing. Again, however, the name negates a basic aspect of the film by its reference to a cinema of clinical observation, a kind of filmmaking known for its distance and non-involvement with the subject, observational rather than engaged. The film's very warm texture and Akerman's clearly committed sympathies (the Jeanne Dielman gestures borrowed largely from her own mother and aunt) make the name inappropriate.

The critical reception of the film in one paper, the Soho Weekly News, by three different reviewers points up the confusion engendered by linguistic inadequacy. [7] Jonas Mekas questioned,

"Why did she have to ruin the film by making the woman a prostitute and introduce a murder at the end, why did she commercialize it?"

And later, praising most of the film as a successor to GREED, Mekas contended that the heroine's silence was more "revolutionary" than the murder. Mekas thus made a case for the film's artistic merit as separate from its social context, moving the work into the area of existentialism at the expense of its feminism. Amy Taubin considered the film "theatrical" and, while commending the subjectivity of the camerawork and editing, she attacked the character of Jeanne:

"Are we to generalize from Jeanne to the oppression of many women through their subjugation to activity which offers them no range of creative choice?

If so, Jeanne Dielman's pathology mitigates against our willingness to generalize. By holding a reformist position (i.e. she should vary her menu, change her wardrobe) in relation to a revolutionary character (i.e. a murderer), Taubin was forced into a reading of the film limited by notions of realism that she as an avant-garde film critic would have ordinarily worked to avoid. Her review split the film along the lines of form/content, annexing the aesthetics as "the real importance" and rejecting the character of Jeanne as a pathological woman. Again we find a notion of pure art set up in opposition to a feminism seemingly restricted to positive role models. Third, Annette Michelson submitted a written protest to Mekas which defended the film's importance for

"the sense of renewal it has brought both to a narrative mode and the inscription within it of feminist energies" (italics mine).

Michelson's assessment coincides with my own fears regarding the effect of inadequate naming: that the feminist energies are being spent to create work quickly absorbed into the mainstream modes of art that thus renew themselves at our expense.

Similar instances of naming malpractice film are evident in the critical response to Yvonne Rainer's recent films, FILM ABOUT A WOMAN WHO… and KRISTINA TALKING PICTURES. [8] Much of the criticism has been in the area of formal textual analysis, concentrating on the "post-modernist" structures, "Brechtian" distancing, or cinematic deconstruction of the works. Continuing the above-mentioned tactic of detoxifying films via a divide-and-conquer criticism, Brian Henderson presented a lengthy analysis [9] of the central section in FILM ABOUT A WOMAN WHO… according to a semiological model of detailing the five channels of communication utilized by Rainer to present textual information. The analysis was exhaustive on the level of technique but ignored completely the actual meaning of the information (titled by Rainer "emotional accretions"), both the words themselves and the visualization (a man and woman on a stark bed/table). At the opposite extreme, the Feminist Art Journal published an editorial by Cindy Nemser condemning Rainer as a modernist, "the epitome of the alienated artist," and discounting her film work as regressive for feminists, evidently due to its formal strategies. [10]

Both of Rainer's films deal with the relations between the sexes and the interaction of life and art within a framework of combining autobiography and fiction. Whatever the intent of Rainer's filmmaking in political terms, the work stands as a clear product of a feminist cultural milieu. The films deal explicitly with woman as victim, the burden of patriarchal mythology, a critique of emotion, reworking of melodrama for women today, and even (the last film) an elegy to the lost innocence of defined male/female roles. The structure of the themes gives priority to the issues over easy identification with the "characters" and involves the audience in an active analysis of emotional process.

Yet little of the criticism has managed to reconcile an appreciation for the formal elements with an understanding of the feminist effect. Carol Wikarska, in a short review for Women & Film, could only paraphrase Rainer's own descriptions in a stab at FILM ABOUT A WOMAN WHO…, seen in purely artworld terms. [11] More critically, the feminist-defined film journal Camera Obscura concentrated its first issue on Rainer but fell into a similar quandry. While an interview with Rainer was printed alongside an analysis of the films and her work, the editors were obliged to critique the films in the existing semiological vocabulary, taking its feminist value for granted without confronting the points of contradiction within that methodology. The lack of vocabulary once again frustrates a complete consideration of the work. 

Lest the similarity of these mis-namings suggest a mere critical blindness and not a less coincidental tactic, an ironic reversal is posed by the response to Anne Severson's NEAR THE BIG CHAKRA (1972). Silent and in color, the film presents a series of 36 women's cunts photographed in unblinking close-up, some still and some moving, with no explanations or gratuitous presentation.

Formally the film fits into the category of "structuralist" cinema: a straightforward listing of parts, no narrative, requisite attention to a predetermined and simplified structure, and fixed camera position (as defined by the name's originator P. Adams Sitney). Yet Severson's image is so powerfully uncooptable that her film has never been described with this name to my knowledge nor — with retrospective revisionism — have her earlier structuralist films been so named. Evidently any subject matter that could make a men vomit (as happened at one London screening in 1973) offers too much of a match to the critical category, even though the category in question was founded on the irrelevance, the arbitrariness, of the visual images filling the more important structure. Thus can a name be withheld by the critical establishment if its application is not calculated to produce annexation.

"Whatever they have not laid hands on … does not appear in the language you speak," wrote Wittig. Here is the problem: not so much that the names just reviewed are being employed as that other names are not — and therefore the qualities which those names would describe are lost. Where patriarchal language holds sway, the silences, the characteristics which are unnamed, frequently hold the greatest potential strengths. So in the work of Chantal Akerman, for example, what is most valuable for us is her decoding of oppressive cinematic conventions and her invention of new codes of non-voyeuristic vision; yet these contributions go unnamed. In the work of Yvonne Rainer, the issue is not one of this or that role model for feminists, not whether her women characters are too weak or too victimized or too individualistic. Rather, we can value precisely her refusal to pander (visually and emotionally), her frustration of audience expectation of spectacle (physical or psychic), and her complete reworking of traditional forms of melodrama and elegy to include modern feminist culture. Yet such elements, of greatest value to us, are not accorded critical priority.

The effect of not-naming is censorship, whether caused by the imperialism of the patriarchal language or the underdevelopment of a feminist language. We need to begin naming our own films, but first it is necessary to learn to speak in our own name. The recent history of feminist film criticism indicates the urgency of that need.


There have been two types of feminist film criticism) [12], motivated by different geographical and ideological contexts, each speaking in a very different voice.

"History of philosophy has an obvious, repressive function in philosophy; it is philosophy's very own Oedipus. All the same, you won't dare speak your own name as long as you have not read this and that, and that on this, and this on that … To say something in one's own name is very strange." 
— Gilles Deleuze [13]

Speaking in one's own name versus speaking in the name of history is a familiar problem to anyone who has ever pursued a course of study, become involved in an established discipline, and then tried to speak out of personal experience or nonprofessional/nonacademic knowledge without suddenly feeling quite schizophrenic. Obviously it is a schizophrenia especially familiar to feminists. The distinction between one's own voice and the voice of history is a handy one by which to distinguish the two types of feminist film criticism.

At least initially, these two types could be characterized as either American or British: the one, American, seen as sociological or subjective, often a speaking out in one's own voice; the other, British, seen as methodological or more objective, often speaking in the voice of history. (The work of the past few years has blurred the original nationalist base of the categories: for example, the Parisian perspective of the California-based Camera Obscura.

The originally American, so-called sociological approach is exemplified by early Women & Film articles and much of the catalogue writing from festivals of that same period. The emphasis on legitimizing women's own reactions and making women's contributions visible resulted in a tendency toward reviews, getting information out, a tendency to offer testimony as theory. Fruitful in this terrain, the weakness of the approach became the limits of its introspection, the boundaries established by the lack of a coherent methodology for moving out beyond the self. An example of this approach would be Barbara Halpern Martineau's very eccentric, subjective, and illuminating analyses of Nelly Kaplan and Agnes Varda films. [14] A dismaying example of the current decadent strain of this approach would be Joan Mellen's recent book Big Bad Wolves, which offers personal interpretations of male characters and actors in a move to shift attention to the reformist arena of "human liberation."

The originally British, so-called theoretical approach, is exemplified by the British Film Institute monograph on women and film (see above), by articles in Screen, and by the two issues of Camera Obscura (which, like the British writing, defers to the French authorities). Committed to using some of the most advanced tools of critical analysis, like semiology and psychoanalysis, this approach has tried to come to terms with how films mean — to move beyond regarding the image to analyzing the structure, codes, the general subtext of the works. Fruitful for its findings regarding signification, the weakness of the approach has been its suppression of the personal and a seeming belief in the neutrality of the analytic tools, so that the critic's feminist voice has often been muted by this methodology.

Two of the most important products of this approach are pieces by Laura Mulvey and Claire Johnston. [15] Johnston has critiqued the image of woman in male cinema and finds her to be a signifier, not of woman, but of the absent phallus, a signifier of an absence rather than any presence. Similarly, Mulvey has analyzed the nature of the cinematic spectator and finds evidence in cinematic voyeurism, in the nature of the camera look, of the exclusively male spectator as a production assumption.

Another way of characterizing these two approaches would be to identify the American (sociological, or in one's own voice) as fundamentally phenomenological, and the British  (theoretical, or the voice of history) as fundamentally analytical. Johnston and Mulvey's texts taken together, for example, pose a monumental absence that is unduly pessimistic. The misplaced pessimism stems from their overvaluation of the production aspect of cinema, a misassumption that cinematic values are irrevocably embedded at the level of production and, once there, remain pernicious and inviolable. Woman is absent on the screen and she is absent in the audience, their analysis argues. And yet here a bit of phenomenology would be helpful, a moment of speaking in one's own voice and wondering at the source in such a landscape of absence.

As a woman sitting in the dark, watching that film made by and for men with drag queens on the screen, what is my experience? Don't I in fact interact with that text and that context, with a conspicuous absence of passivity? For a women's experiencing of culture under patriarchy is dialectical in a way that a men's can never be: our experience is like that of the exile, whom Brecht once singled out as the ultimate dialectician for that daily working out of cultural oppositions within a single body. It is crucial to emphasize here the possibility for texts to be transformed at the level of reception and not to fall into a trap of condescension toward our own developed powers as active producers of meaning.

The differences implicit in these two attitudes lead to quite different positions and strategies, as the following selection of quotations helps to point up. [16] When interviewed regarding the reason for choosing her specific critical tools (auteurist, structuralist, psychoanalytic), Claire Johnston replied:

"As far as I'm concerned, it's a question of whet is theoretically correct; these new theoretical developments cannot be ignored, just as feminists cannot ignore Marx or Freud, because they represent crucial scientific developments."

In contrast to this vision of science as ideologically neutral would be the reiteration by such theoreticians as Adrienne Rich and Mary Daly that "you have to be constantly critiquing even the tools you use to explore and define what it is to be female." In the same interview as Johnston, Pam Cook elaborated their aim as:

"Women are fixed in ideology in a particular way, which is definable in terms of the patriarchal system. I think we see our first need as primarily to define that place — that women are fixed in."

In marked contrast to such a sphere of activity, the Womanifesto of the 1975 New York Conference of Feminists in the Media stated:

"We do not accept the existing power structure and we are committed to changing it by the content and structure of our images end by the ways we relate to each other in our work and with our audience."

In her own article, Laura Mulvey identified the advantage of psychoanalytic critiques as their ability to "advance our understanding of the status quo," a limited and modest claim; yet she herself went beyond such a goal in making (with Peter Wollen) THE RIDDLES OF THE SPHINX, a film which in its refusal of patriarchal codes end feminist concerns represents in fact a Part Two of her original theory. By moving beyond an analysis of the status quo to an action intervening in its codes, Mulvey thus made a start in the direction of synthesizing the values of the two approaches here delineated.

I have termed the British approach pessimistic, a quality which may be perceived by supporters as realistic or by detractors as colonized. I have termed the American approach optimistic, a quality which may be viewed by supporters as radical or by detractors as unrealistic, utopian. It is not surprising, however, that such a dualism of critical approach has evolved. In Woman's Consciousness, Man's World, Sheila Rowbotham points out:

"There is a long inchoate period during which the struggle between the language of experience and the language of theory becomes a kind of agony." [17]

It is a problem common to an oppressed people at the point of formulating a new language with which to name that oppression, for the history of oppression has prevented the development of any unified language among its subjects. It is crucial for those of us working in the area of feminist film criticism to mend this rift, confront the agony, and begin developing a synthesis of maximally effective critical practice. Without names, our work remains anonymous, insecure, our continued visibility questionable.


Without new names, we run the danger of losing title to films that we sorely need. Further, by stretching the name "feminist" beyond all reasonable elasticity, we contribute to its ultimate impoverishment. Since so many films have continued to be partitioned off to other established traditions — with other names, and with the implication that these other names contradict or forestall any application of the name "feminist" to the works so annexed — the shrinking domain of the "feminist" cinema is fast becoming solely that work concerned with feminism on the simple level of explicit subject matter. "Feminist," if it is to make a comeback from the loss of meaning caused by its all-encompassing overuse, requires surnames, new legions of names to preserve for us the inner strengths, the not-yet-visible qualities of these films still lacking in definition. Because this need is so very urgent, I here offer an experimental glossary of names as an aid to initiating a new stage of feminist criticism.

VALIDATIVE: One of the greatest contributions of feminist filmmaking is the body of films documenting women's lives, political struggles, organizing, etc.. These films have been vaguely classified under the cinema-verité banner, where they reside in decidedly mixed company. "Validative" would be a good name for such films, which function as a validation and legitimation of women's culture and individual lives. The earliest feminist films, listed in the above chronology, were all "validative" cinema. The name has the added benefit of aligning the work with products of oppressed people, whereas the cinema-verité label represented the oppressors, who make such films as the superior outsider documenting an alien culture, often from a position of condescension. By employing such a name as "validative" in place of cinema-verité, we can combat the patriarchal annexation of women filmmakers as "theirs," i.e. professionals not of the culture they are filming. It is a unifying name, conserving of strength.

CORRESPONDENCE: An entirely different name is necessary for other films, like those of Yvonne Rainer, Chantal Akerman, or Laura Mulvey/ Peter Wollen. Looking to literary history for clues, I found a current concern with the role played by letters as a sustaining mode for women's writing during times of literary repression. The publication of historical women's letters, both of famous and ordinary women, has been a major component in the renaissance of feminist publishing; just as the recognition of the long denigration of the genre as somehow not "real" writing, because uncertified by either publishing house or monetary exchange, has been an additional goad for the creation of feminist alternatives to the literary establishment. A cinema "of correspondence" makes a fitting homage to this significant letter-writing tradition of introspective missives sent out into the world. Equally relevant is the other definition of "correspondence" as "mutual response, the answering of things to each other," or to take Swedenborg's literal Doctrine of Correspondence as an example, the tenet that "every natural object symbolizes or corresponds to some spiritual fact or principle which is, as it were, its archetype." [18]

Films of correspondence, then, would be those investigating correspondences, i.e. between emotion and objectivity, narrative and deconstruction, art and ideology, etc. Thus a film like JEANNE DIELMAN is one of "correspondence" by virtue of exploring such correspondence as those between housework and madness, prostitution end female sexuality, voyeuristic and sympathetic cinematography, epic and dramatic temporality, etc.

What distinguishes such films of "correspondence" from formally similar films by male avant-garde filmmakers is their inclusion of the author within the text. Thus, FILM ABOUT A WOMAN WHO corresponds to very clear experiences and emotional concerns in Rainer's life, JEANNE DIELMAN draws upon the gestures of the women in Akerman's family, etc. whereas such films as Michael Snow's RAMEAU'S NEPHEW use the form instead to suppress the presence of the author within the film. (Of course, there is a tradition of "diary" movies by men as well as women, but significantly, the presence of Jonas Mekas in most of his "diary" films — like that of Godard in NUMERO DEUX — is of the filmmaker rather than the "man" outside that professional role.)

It is the correspondence between the form and content, to put it bluntly, that distinguishes the film "of correspondence." Such films are essential to the development of new structures and forms for the creation and communication of feminist works and values. More experimental than validative, these films are laying the groundwork of a feminist cinematic vocabulary.

MEDUSAN: Humor should not be overlooked as a weapon of great power. Comedy is an aspect of feminist cinema which requires further cultivation for its revolutionary potential as a deflator of patriarchal order as well as for the extraordinary leveler and reinventor of dramatic structure in cinema. An acknowledgement of the subversive power of humor, the name "Medusan" is taken from Helene Cixous' "The Laugh of the Medusa" in which she celebrates the possibility of feminist texts "to blow up the law, to break up the 'truth' with laughter." [19] Vera Chytilova's DAISIES was one of the first films by a women to move in this direction, though it was received largely as simple slapstick. Jan Oxenberg's A COMEDY IN SIX UNNATURAL ACTS is an excellent recent example of a "Medusan" film, attacking not simply men or sexism but rather the male-defined stereotypes of lesbianism. Its success has been demonstrated by its raucous cult reception and, more pointedly, by its tendency to polarize a mixed audience along the lines of, not class, but sexual preference. It is disruptive of homophobic complacency with a force never approached by films which are analytical or defensive of lesbianism.

Another highly "Medusan" film is Jacques Rivette's CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING (which may be curious, as it is "by" a man, but production credits do indicate a total collaboration with Juliet Bertho and Dominique Labourier, the two actresses and co-scenarists). The film's characters, Celine and Julie, enter each other's lives by magic and books joined in a unity of farce. Once together, each proceeds to demolish the other's ties to men (an employer, a childhood lover) by using humor as the tool, laughing in the face of the male fantasies and expectations end thus "spoiling" the relationships with a fungus of parody. The film has been criticized as too silly, for Berto and Labourier do laugh constantly — at the other characters, themselves, the audience, acting itself. Yet their laughter ultimately is proven their finest arsenal, enabling them to rescue the plot's girl-child from a darkly imminent Henry-Jamesian destruction simply via a laughing refusal to obey its allegedly binding rules. Again, CELINE AND JULIE has consistently divided its audience according to whom it threatens. It has become a cult feminist movie even as the male critical establishment (except Rivette fan Jonathan Rosenbaum) has denounced the film as silly, belabored, too obvious, etc.

It is not only these feminist films which demand new names, but also the films being made by men about women. One name resurrected in Seventies criticism (by Molly Haskell) was the "woman's film," an originally Fifties term for certain matinee melodramas, now spruced up and cleared of its pejorative connotations, refitted for relevance to women today. Ironically, the name was originally Hollywood's and there it would stay. In the space of four years, Hollywood reclaimed the new "woman's film," officially crowning her in this year's Oscar ceremonies in the form of THE TURNING POINT. These new box office products are not "woman's films," despite their taking the name and leaving the real woman's films still unconsidered, off the screen end out in the dark. Rather, they are male fantasies of women, men's projections of themselves onto female characters. For that reason, I would suggest a new name for such films to call attention to that subtext.

PROJECTILE: For a clear identification of these films' true nature as the fantasy projections of the male directors and for the added awareness of the destructive impact of such illusions on women, the name "projectile" is an appropriate one. It is time that the bluff was called on the touted authenticity of these works, which pose as objective while remaining entirely subjective in their conception and execution. An excellent case in point would be Paul Mazursky's AN UNMARRIED WOMAN as revealed in a recent interview with the director conducted by Terry Curtis Fox. [20]

"Q. Was it difficult to make a woman's picture at this point?"

"A: I don't know if this is a woman's movie or not. I don't know what that means anymore. As opposed to BLACK SUNDAY, it's a woman's movie. But a lot of guys are going to want to see this picture. A lot."

Certainly Mazursky's confusion is justified, for his film is indeed being given a name that is paramountly inapplicable according to his understanding of "a woman's movie." And if we wonder why all the guys are so anxious to see the film in question, the depressingly predictable answer is coming right up.

"I wanted to get inside a woman's head. I've felt that all the pictures I've done, I've done with men. I put myself inside a man's head, using myself a lot. I wanted this time to think like a woman. That's one of the reasons there was so much rewriting … There were many things the women I cast in the film… wouldn't say. They'd tell me why, and I'd say, 'Well, what would you say?' and I'd let them say that. I used a real therapist; I wanted a woman, and I had to change what she said based on what she is. In other words, the only thing I could have done was get a woman to help me write it. I thought about that for a while, but in the end I think it worked out."

AN UNMARRIED WOMAN richly deserves its new name "projectile" as do THE TURNING POINT for its barely disguised misogyny, and Louis Malle's PRETTY BABY for its conversion of the socially retarded photographer E.J. Bellocq's woman-identified voyeurism into a Malle-identified manipulation of women.

These names are a mere beginning. Certainly they do not cover all possibilities, nor can every film be fitted neatly into one clear category. Hopefully the relative usefulness or failings of the suggested names will prompt a continuation of the process by others with a linguistic facility more equal to the task than any individual can hope to be. Again and again, the urgency of the naming task cannot be overstated.

We are now in a period of normalization, a time that can offer feminists complacency as a mask for cooption. As long as we allow others to do our naming, we will go unnamed. It is tempting to be prescriptive, to say that feminist films should be anti-illusionist, or be made collectively, or offer positive role models, a good story or no story. Yet no prescription quite works, and the filmmakers themselves will continue to balk at such Procrustean beds that lop off their edges to fit the theoretical modal.

Likewise with critical practice, which suffers when fossilized into dogma at the expense of growth. Criticism is at its richest for us when it permits a largesse, a generosity of both sensibility and methodology, aimed at creating a critical practice of maximum use not only to ourselves but to all woman making or viewing film. To name is to take possession, and the time is at hand to possess, finally, our own culture by name. [21]


1. This statement is drawn from Adrienne Rich's presentation at the 1976 Modern Language Association, Evening Event sponsored by the Women's Commission and the Gay Caucus. See Adrienne Rich, "It is the Lesbian in Us" in Sinister Wisdom 3, Spring 1977; and the section "The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action" in Sinister Wisdom 6, Summer 1978, which contains the papers from the 1977 Modern Language Association event. See also Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973) for her pioneer analysis of naming as power.

2. "Structuralist" and "Melodrama" were the two names analyzed in papers presented by Bruce Jenkins and William Horrigan respectively, my co-panelists at the Purdue Conference on Film, April 1978, where an earlier version of this paper was read.

3. Women artists working in film continued, as before, to make avant-garde films, but these lie outside my present concerns. I am taking up only that area of intentionally feminist film activity.

4. Georges Sadoul, Dictionary of Films (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972), p. 204.

5. Nancy Scholar, "MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM' in Women & Film, No. 7, p. 71.

6. Monique Wittig, Les Guerilleres (New York: Avon, 1973), pp. 112-114.

7. See Soho Weekly News for November 18, 1976, p. 36, November 25, 1976, p. 31, and December 9, 1976, p. 35.

8. For a fuller treatment of Rainer's work see my article, "The Films of Yvonne Rainer' in Chrysalis, No. 2.

9. Presented at the Center for Twentieth Century Studies (University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee), International Symposium on Film Theory and Practical Criticism, November 1975.

10. Cindy Nemser, "Editorial: Rainer and Rothschild, An Overview" in Feminist Art Journal 4, No. 2 (Summer 1975), 4.

11. Women & Film, No. 7, p. 86.

12. Here I am considering only English language feminist film criticism; there are other complex issues in French and German criticism, for example. 

13. Gilles Deleuze, "I Have Nothing to Admit" in Semiotexte, No. 6 (Vol. 2, No. 3, 1977), p. 112.

14. See Barbara Halpern Martinmau, "Nelly Kaplan" and "Subjecting Her Objectification, or Communism Is Not Enough" in Notes On Women's Cinema, ed. Claire Johnston (London: Society for Education in Film and Television, 1973).

15. See Claire Johnston, "Women's Cinema as Counter-Cinema" in Notes on Women's Cinema, and Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" in Women and the Cinema, ad. Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1977), pp. 412-428.

16. Quotations are taken from: E. Ann Kaplan, "Interview with British CineFeminists" in Women and the Cinema, pp. 400-401; Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi, Adrienne Rich's Poetry (New York: W.W. Norton, 1975), p. 115; Barbara Halpern Martineau, "Paris/Chicago" in Women & Film, No. 7, p. 11; Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Women and the Cinema, p. 414, as well as personal communications. See also E. Ann Kaplan, "Aspects of British Feminist Film Theory' in JUMP CUT, No. 12/13, for an in-depth examination of the British theories and their implications.

17. Sheila Rowbotham, Woman's Consciousness, Man's World (London: Penguin, 1973), p. 33. See also her statement, p. 32, that language always is "carefully guarded by the superior people because it is one of the means through which they conserve their supremacy."

18. Quotations from The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

19. Helene Cixous, "The Laugh of the Medusa" in Signs, 1, No. 4 (Summer 1976), p. B88.

20. "Paul Mazursky Interviewed by Terry Curtis Fox" in Film Comment 14, No. 2 (MarchApril l97B), 30-31.

21. Many of the ideas in this article were first tested in a discussion in Chicago in February, 1978 which has been published as "Women and Film: A Discussion of Feminist Aesthetics" in the New German Critique, No. 13; I am indebted to the three editors and to my co-discussants Michelle Citron, Julia Lesage, Judith Mayne and Anna Marie Taylor for their feedback and support. Thanks also to my friends on the original Purdue panel, Bill Horrigan and Bruce Jenkins, for their reactions and intellectual generosity. Finally, the article has benefited from the tough but sympathetic criticisms of the manuscript by Joan Braderman, Regina Cornwell, and Linda Williams.