ENG 349: Gender & Film is one of several new courses D’Youville will be offering in the upcoming Spring Semester. In a highly popular-culture-ized society, film is one of the heavy hitters making its way even more through the ranks and instilling within it a continual legend. D’Youville’s Department of Liberal Arts (English program) is answering this call, by providing several new installments of Film courses. Already the curriculum has seen Screenwriting and Film Visionaries: Hitchcock Edition. Take a sneak peek at what this new course on Gender and Film will entail from Dr. Elizabeth Finnegan, the very professor who will be teaching it.
J: Principally, we’re given the name of the course, Gender & Film. What exactly does that mean?
F: Well, the course description explains that the class will focus on the concept of gender as it’s represented in the medium of film. In the class, we’ll pay special attention to the way stories by and about women are told, and note what happens to representations of gender, femininity, and masculinity when women are behind the camera. We’ll explore the work of both early and contemporary women directors, in the U.S. and around the world. Additionally, we will consider the rise of queer film and its impact on representations and understandings of gender, so we’ll also look at some films by LGBT filmmakers. What does all this mean? Well, it means first of all that we are going to acknowledge that the representations we get of gender and sexuality in the majority of our mainstream and so-called “alternative” cultures remain fairly static and fairly restrictive in terms of what male and female characters are allowed or expected to do, and in terms of who gets to tell their stories, as well as who the presumptive audience is. Over 95% of the films in theaters are made by approximately 6% of the population—wealthy, straight white American or European men—and feature characters of that same demographic, targeted for audiences of the same demographic. So what are we missing out on in this picture? Quite a bit! This course will try to provide some powerful examples of just what voices and visions are missing from the conversations we tend to have about film, and the ways that these voices can challenge us to think in more complex and nuanced ways about both gender and cinema itself.
J: Where did the idea for Gender and Film come from?
F: As a filmmaker, cinematographer, and film festival programmer myself, I know first-hand the kind of discrimination women filmmakers face in terms of getting funding, distribution, and recognition for their work. And as an ardent filmgoer, I’ve noticed that almost all of the representations of women we get in film are given to us from a male perspective. We almost never get to see women representing themselves, telling their own stories, unless we turn to very independent films which don’t get the kind of distribution or press that land them in multiplex theaters. The perception that women just aren’t making films, or that they’re not making films that are “good enough” to “break through,” is one of the myths that helps to perpetuate the domination of the film universe by the same small but incredibly powerful group. So I wanted to give students a chance to see some films that they wouldn’t otherwise know about, and to talk about what stories, voices, and perspectives we’re missing when we only look at mainstream or even higher-budget independent films, and films made largely by and for a male audience. One of the goals of the class will be to challenge students to shift some of the assumptions that we make when we go to the movies—assumptions about gender as well as assumptions about what a film is or does.
J: What can we look forward to in Gender and Film?
F: We’re going to explore a series of themes and questions, such as: How are women framed in, through, and by film and why do such representations matter? How do these representations inform our understanding of gender in our everyday lives and how have filmmakers and film scholars understood them? How are concepts of masculinity and femininity shaped by film representations? How have women filmmakers challenged, shaped, and changed the form, content and style of movies? How do representations of women differ in mainstream v. alternative/independent and experimental cinema? How/Does the culture of the filmmaker and/or audience affect the message? What happens to concepts of masculinity and femininity in the work of queer filmmakers? What happens to the concept of the “woman filmmaker” when gender itself is destabilized? And we’ll add to this list of questions as we go, working through a wide international selection of mainstream, independent, and experimental fiction and non-fiction films made by women. And we’ll be thinking about the ways that cinematic forms and techniques are used in harmony with or in tension with issues of gender and representation. Many women film artists are working with animation, experimental forms, hybrid documentaries, and shorts, and these don’t fit into the mass marketing format, which is designed for feature-length narratives. Women tend to work in these forms because they don’t get the funding to make big feature films, but these financial limitations have not prevented women from making groundbreaking, innovative films.
J: Now, WIPs can sometimes be a little off-putting. How intense will the workload in Gender and Film be?
The writing for the course will not be overwhelming, I promise! I think of WIP courses more in terms of my heightened involvement with and support of student writing than in terms of the amount of writing. So there will not necessarily be a greater number of assignments than you’d find in a standard upper-level literature course. In WIP classes, I meet with students on a regular basis to go over drafts of their assignments with them, and provide writing-centered feedback as well as content-centered feedback. We’ll also spend some time in class working on writing issues. I will expect to see improvement in student writing over the semester. There will be weekly short online response posts on the readings and film(s) of the week, so that everyone is writing a little bit all semester. Students will be required to respond to each other’s posts to keep the conversation going between class meetings and to amplify in-class discussions. The course is still under construction, so I haven’t made the final decision about formal assignments, but my tentative plan for major assignments is: two short analysis essays based on the informal response posts, and a group project in which students will collaborate to create a film analysis video essay (no previous knowledge or experience required—tech support will be provided by yours truly).
J: Anything else you’d like the readership to know about Gender and Film?
F: If you’re tired of seeing the same boring stories with the same kinds of characters over and over, and you’re tired of one-dimensional, objectified female characters that mainly serve as accessories for the male characters, or tired of LGBT characters that are more like caricatures than real people, this is the class for you. If you are open to interrogating and challenging the politics of representation and would like to see representations of women, men, transgender people, and a wide spectrum of sexualities represented in complex, creative, sometimes challenging, always thought-provoking ways, you will get a lot out of this course. And finally, if you’re interested in learning about a wider range of cinematic formats beyond the standard feature-length narrative films we see in theaters, and exploring the kaleidoscope of possibilities for creative expression in this art form, please sign up!
Spread throughout this post and even more below are a list of topics that will be explored within Gender and Film, take a look! Comment below and tell me what sounds interesting about the course!