Approximately 20 students and faculty members met in the small auditorium Oct. 31 to engage in a “crash course in foundational feminist film theory,” in the words of Professor of Communication Maria Boyd.
Professor of English Adam Renchen began the discussion with a student-led activity looking at one of the movie posters for “Wonder Woman” (2015), directed by Patti Jenkins.
Attendees practiced looking for patterns before thinking about what these things mean.
As Renchen pointed out, this method of analysis can be used in many scenarios: for example, in an English class for a literature paper or by a doctor doing an intake interview for a patient.
The most interesting observations demonstrated a concept called “polysemy,” described by Boyd as, “an image holding contradictory messages simultaneously.”
On the movie poster, some attendees saw Wonder Woman’s strong, prepared stance. Others noted that her shifted weight indicates the unnatural stance of beauty pageant contestants.
Then students began to dive into film scholar Laura Mulvey’s work, especially her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”
Renchen connected this to the work of Sigmund Freud and talked about this method in the context of literary analysis.
Then Boyd offered a screenshot from Zack Snyder’s “Justice League” (2017), that purports to show Wonder Woman with the villain in her lasso. The shot is framed looking up, as if she could be the person in power.
However, the shot is slightly shifted so that viewers appear to be gazing up at Wonder Woman through the captured villain’s eyes. In fact, they can almost see up her skirt.
Students then discussed how films are primarily made looking through the eyes of men (both literally — since women made up only about 7 percent of industry filmmakers in 2015 and that number is declining — and figuratively, as Mulvey asserts).
Female characters are generally seen as objects for the male characters and male viewers’ pleasure.
While no one present believed that Snyder intended purely to objectify Gal Godot, Hollywood films are products of the culture at large, and it is undeniable that these types of expectations–women as objects, men as subjects–are woven into our culture.
As Boyd mentioned, “[Feminist film theory] is a pair of glasses that you can put on to see [a film] in a different way.”
This introduction to Mulvey’s thesis led to a far-ranging conversation about objectification in comics, the 1970s television portrayal of Wonder Woman by Lynda Carter and genre films from the 1980s and 1990s that feature female protagonists, for example, “Alien” and the “Terminator” movies.
Students discussed the Production Code of 1930 and how that affected film formulas and the Comic Code Authority’s effect on superheroes, in addition to the work of television scholar Julie D’Acci, who has demonstrated that media studies should always be looked at in context.
As many comic book enthusiasts already know, comic book films are essentially extended advertisements for merchandising these days.
Finally, participants asked themselves if Jenkins’ film was truly revolutionary: did it, in fact, privilege the female gaze?
To answer this important question, students and faculty watched a clip of Diana and Steve in an underground grotto when he first arrives at Themyscira and students helped to decode it, during which Boyd offered this advice:
“Don’t just look at what’s being said or done, but really look at how it’s said visually.” Renchen added, “…how it’s framed.”
Afterward, liberal arts major Sarah Sweeney reflected, “It was a pretty interesting topic to talk about women in film in the context of ‘Wonder Woman.’ I’ve never seen it in that way before–in action films, yes, but not in this way.”
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