Alison Bechdel, Dykes to Watch Out For

Introduction to Feminist Film Theory

Instructor: Paige Sweet
The Barnard Center for Research on Women
3009 Broadway
New York, NY 10027

Cinema is a cultural practice that is suffused with myths, narratives, and ideologies about gender, sexuality, race, empire, class, and other power relations. The earliest feminist film criticism was often directed at combating stereotypes, mostly in Hollywood films, but soon critics were borrowing tools from structuralism, semiotics, and psychoanalysis to analyze how sexual, racial, and other forms of difference are encoded or opposed in narrative films. In this course we will situate ourselves at the crossroads of feminism and film to assess how cultural myths and ideologies about gender and sexuality are treated cinematically. What are the critical concepts that a feminist film theory provides, and how do they help us analyze the relations of sex, gender, race, and power as represented in cinema?

We will begin by considering how film is analyzed along various axes of looking relations (using essays by Claire Johnson and Jane Gaines), asking: How do images structure ways of looking? What conventions are used to condition us to look or be looked at? In what ways might we challenge these relations of looking? We will then spend some time grappling with the reasons why feminist theorists have been so preoccupied by “the gaze.” We will consider Laura Mulvey’s theory of the “male gaze,” bell hooks’ notion of the “oppositional gaze,” Jack Halberstam’s use of the “queer gaze,” and Ann Kaplan’s idea of the “imperial gaze.” How is the notion of the gaze different from descriptions of looking relations? What are the uses and limitations of thinking about “the gaze” as a structuring principle? We will conclude by considering other ways of analyzing film, including Ella Shohat’s feminist ethnography of the cinema, as well as experimental filmmakers who attempt to modify the cinematic conventions (such as Trinh T. Minh Ha and Lizzie Borden). We will ask: Must a film be politically significant? How do some films embed critiques that might alter our ways of engaging? What are the critical tools we bring as viewers? We will screen short clips in class, and a suggested list of films to watch in tandem with the readings will be distributed on the first day of class.

Course Schedule

Wednesday, 6:30-9:30pm
March 06 — April 03, 2019
4 sessions over 5 weeks
Class will not meet Wednesday, March 20th.


Registration Open