Gender Performances

WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution is a monumental exhibition.  Many excellent and thoughtful reviews have articulated the impact, the astute curation, and the excitement.  The aspect of the exhibition I found particularly striking was the simultaneous meaning and accessibility of the thematic organization.  What could have so easily been dominated by jargon and an excess of theory was resonant and readable, while actively refusing to oversimplify the works.

Although I had the inclination to ruminate over each theme, I was intrigued by “Gender Performance”, which is articulated on MoCA’s WACK! website: “Gender Performance groups works of film, photography, video, and performance in which artists deconstruct the cultural construction of gender as a category of identity”. Works within this theme include pieces by Sanja Iveković, Suzy Lake, Cindy Sherman, Dara Birnbaum and Adrian Piper, among others.  This category was one of the more intriguing in the exhibition when considered in terms of how the images the artists were manipulating and transforming relate to present constructions of the female identity in mainstream artistic media such as film and photography.


Installation view of WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 2007, photo by Brian Forrest. ARTISTS (L–R): Katharina Sieverding, Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, and Per Olof Ultvedt, ORLAN; image from MOCA.

In 1974, Molly Haskell examined the previous five decades of how women had been portrayed in film through her book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies.  Haskell concludes that films made prior to the strict enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 were more experimental in many ways than the films created in subsequent decades, and her exploration of “The Woman’s Film” creates an interesting dialogue with the concepts explored in WACK!’s Gender Performance.

Haskell defines the Woman’s Film as a genre from the 1930s and 40s in which the woman is at the movie’s forefront:

“If a woman hogs this universe unrelentingly, it is perhaps her compensation for all the male-dominated universes from which she has been excluded: the gangster film, the Western, the war film, the policier, the rodeo film, the adventure film…The well of self-pity in both [the Woman’s Film and the male-dominated genres], though only hinted at, is bottomless, and in their sublimation or evasion of adult reality, they reveal, almost by accident, real attitudes toward marriage–disillusionment, frustration, and contempt– beneath the sunny-side-up philosophy congealed in the happy ending” (155-56).

Many of the films Haskell describes as falling under the Woman’s Film genre would not necessarily be described as feminist when viewed in terms of their narratives and frequently conventional construction of the female characters.  Their significance resides in their presentation of female priorities and fantasies during the 1930s and 40s, when this perspective was missing from mainstream media:

“Because the woman’s film was designed for and tailored to a certain market, its recurrent themes represent the closest thing to an expression of the collective drives, conscious and unconscious, of American women, of their avowed obligations and their unconscious resistance.” (168)

The Woman’s Film ceased to exist in the 1950s, with the availability of television for the housewives who comprised much of the market for the genre.  As Dara Birnbaum’s Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (included in WACK!’s Gender Performances) suggests, unlike the Woman’s Film, television and other areas of visual culture may have included a presence of female characters but the programs were created in such a way that the image they constructed of women and femininity was often destructive and regressive.

Dara Birnbaum, Technology / Transformation: Wonder Woman, 1976

Despite the passage of almost thirty years since From Reverence to Rape was written, women are still considered to be a “niche audience” by the movie industry, as evidenced by the unexpected success of Sex and the City, which bears some relation to the Woman’s Film of the 30s and 40s.  Described as an “unconventional hit” by The New York Times, Sex and the City was certainly noteworthy for the age of its characters; the portrayal of middle aged women as a strong, intelligent, sexy people was all but entirely absent from film thirty years ago.  Yet the ending of Sex and the City still returns to the “sunny-side-up” happy, conventional marriage.


Sex and the City, image from New York Magazine

In contrast, Twilight is a very flawed film, and the book series is regressive through its highly problematic suppression of female sexuality  (The Atlantic presents an interesting but romanticized view on this aspect of the series; Skepchick offers a more critical examination.  Also worth considering is Roger Ebert’s striaghtforward reading).  Nevertheless, the movie has found massive success in appealing to the fantasies of many teenage females through the actions of Bella Swan, a fairly unconventional mainstream female character  (during the poorly written inner monologues of the book, she is at least presented as introspective and intelligent with less conventional interests than shopping and gossiping with the other female characters) who also has a strong affinity for masochism (she is infatuated with a vampire who simultaneously wants to have her as a lover and kill her).

Both Sex and the City and Twilight include facets of the original Woman’s Film: one presents a more complete and meaningful image of the middle aged women, the other features a less conventional female character who exhibits internal and external levels of self.  The popularity of these films offer the possibility that the female audience may more significantly affect mainstream media in the future.  However each film’s problems also suggest how popular culture has not learned as much from Haskell’s and Birnbaum’s critiques as we would have hoped.