London Feminist Film Festival 2017: Rio Cinema Archive

In the second part blog of our blog from the 2017 London Feminist Film Festival (see first part here), Selina Robertson contributes an exclusive extract from her presentation on the Rio Cinema archive, one specialising in queer and feminist films. And Elaine Burrows adds her personal reflection on that history.  In conclusion, Ania Ostrowska and Selina reflect on the closing discussion, which featured crucial questions of archives and intersectionality.

History and the Rio Cinema

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Rio Cinema Publicity Materials featuring ‘Peroxide Double’ ©Rio cinema archive 2017

Selina Robertson writes:

Hauntings in the Archive! (see last week’s blog entry) resonated on several fronts with Selina’s doctoral research, especially in terms of those filmmakers’ queer feminist approach to the VBKÖ archive. They were seeking to answer the question of how to write the “disorderly narratives” (as J. Jack Halberstam calls them in In a Queer Time and Place, 2005) within the gaps, absences and silences of the archive. In her talk Selina shared with the audience how her engagement with the Rio Cinema’s archive revealed that throughout the 1980s and 1990s it was a vibrant, inclusive cultural space, supporting a diversity of intersectional queer and feminist cultural production, hosting and supporting a variety of collective, curatorial activity.

The Rio archive, stored on-site, holds not only vital information about how London’s queer and feminist programming and curatorial practices shaped the reception and circulation of alternative moving image practices, it also contains fascinating clues about the cultural memory of the diverse feminist communities, film collectives and activists who came to shape this marginalized history.

Two feminist collectives were particularly active at the Rio throughout that period. The Rio Women’s Cinema Group was established in February 1984 by a group of women associated with the Rio. Every third Thursday of the month, the group programmed double bills of early women’s cinema, classic Hollywood ‘women’s cinema’ and contemporary feminist cinema, followed by discussions. The group was well connected and regularly collaborated with local feminist activist groups and sister film collectives such as Four Corners and Circles[i]. A wide mailing list shows the extensive networks of activist feminist communities in London at the time, including The Feminist Library, Hackney Black Women’s Group and Sisterwrite.

rio image1

Information on Women’s Media Resource Project: ‘…increase job prospects… provide a more positive enjoyment in gaining control of the means of self-expression’ © Rio Cinema Archive 2017

The Women’s Media Resource Project (WMRP), also known as WEFT, was an intersectional feminist collective funded by Hackney Council, Greater London Arts and the BFI. The project started in 1977 with the purpose of bringing to the UK music by lesbian musicians signed with Olivia Records. In 1985 the collective started working with the Rio. WMRP had an intersectional feminist curatorial agenda to create a lesbian feminist social space through which to organize discursive mixed media events, film and video screenings, and training sessions for women to work in the music industry at the Sound Kitchen, located in the Rio’s basement. We saw pictures of selected ephemera on the screen and Selina, in collaboration with the Rio, also curated two exciting ephemera collages that were on display outside the screening room.

Elaine Burrows writes:

Selina Robertson, co-founder of Club des Femmes, “a queer feminist film curating collective”, described in her presentation “Desperately Seeking: Mapping the History of International Feminist Film Curatorial Collectives at the Rio”, material that she had found in the Rio Cinema’s attic – unsorted, uncatalogued, it contains flyers, posters, programmes, from years of Rio programming – which relate to her own PhD research into feminist film curation in the 1980s and 1990s.  I was there (as it were): it’s very strange to see one’s own history being uncovered in this way.  I lived (and still live) locally, and went to the screenings, and knew (and still know) several of the women who were part of that programming team. I suppose it’s the shock of hearing names of people you know, realising that, like them, you are in some way “part of history”, and recognising that history began a minute ago, not just fifty years back.

Questions Going Forward – The Politics of Preservation

Ania and Selina write:

The discussion afterwards started from the shared features of presented archives, as in the words of the chair Althea Greenan they all drew our attention to seeing archives as ‘rhetorical spaces’, spaces for people who consult them to be heard as they debate the past and its relevance to the present and future.  The complexities of archival politics were fully on view:  Selina mentioned the joy and excitement at opening of the Rio’s treasure trove of lesbian and feminist collectives of the past while Samia of Women of Colour Index reading group (see also last week’s blog) talked about the feeling that a ‘can of worms’ is opened in the process of making visible women of colour in a predominantly white archive.

‘Please people, keep archiving!’ Terry Wragg of Leeds Animation Workshop made this important plea from the audience, reporting the difficulties of small independent collectives and organisations to find funding for that purpose. Other questions included how to further feminist thinking about the archive and how to produce new feminist knowledge about and within the archive in terms of activism, art-making and resistance. Questions, of course, which we took away from a stimulating discussion back into our own research.

Elaine Burrows worked for many years at what is now the BFI National Archive.  She has been a member of WFTHN since it was founded, and is also a longstanding member of the boards of both Cinenova and the British Entertainment History Project.

Ania Ostrowska is a PhD candidate at the University of Southampton (UK), researching authorial agency of contemporary British women documentarians as part of AHRC-funded project Calling the Shots: Women and Contemporary UK Film Culture. Since 2011 she has been a film editor of popular British feminist blog The F-Word.

Selina Robertson is a film MPhil/PhD candidate at Birkbeck. Her research is a curatorial investigation into the hidden histories and strategies of curating queer and feminist moving image as activism and advocacy in London 1979-1995.  In 2007 she co-founded, with Sarah Wood, Club des Femmes, a queer feminist film curating collective.

LFFF 2017 programme available here

Feminism and the Archive session’s page available here

[i] See, also, BFI article: ‘Women of the avant-garde: remembering a key debate’: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/women-avant-garde-vital-discussion

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‘Hauntings in the Archive’: London Feminist Film Festival 2017

 

In this two-part blog, we have three viewpoints on the recent London Feminist Film Festival. For the WFTHN network, Selina Robertson and Ania Ostrowska and, separately, Elaine Burrows share their impressions of a session which raised key questions about politics in the feminist archive.

This week, Ania and Elaine respond to the European premiere of Hauntings in the Archive! (2017).  Next week, we will feature an exclusive, extended extract from Selina’s presentation on the Rio Cinema archive specialising in queer and feminist films. Finally, our writers will reflect on the concluding discussion, which featured crucial questions of archives and intersectionality.

Performing ‘Hauntings in the Archive!’ (Spukem im Archiv!’) (2017) © SKGAL

Ania Ostrowska writes:

This August, the London Feminist Film Festival returned for the sixth time with great success and sold out screenings, including that of Iranian director Marva Nabili’s 1977 feature The Sealed Soil, which took place at BFI Southbank’s largest screening room NFT 1. All other events happened at the East London’s beloved independent, the Rio Cinema. On Saturday 19 August 2017, in the early afternoon, we participated in the session ‘Feminism and the Archive’:  Selina presented her doctoral research on stage (details next week) whilst Ania engaged less stressfully from the audience. The event showcased the European premiere of a feature-length Austrian documentary Hauntings in the Archive! (2017) and a panel discussion with Julia Wieger (the film’s co-director), Althea Greenan (curator of Women’s Art Library held at Goldsmiths University, London) and Samia Malik (of Women of Colour Index reading group which explores Women’s Art Library catalogue to make visible the work of Women of Colour artists). Following from the detailed focus on three feminist archives from the UK and Austria, the closing discussion included audience members and asked broader questions around feminist archives and feminist approaches to an archive.[i]

Hauntings in the Archive!

Hauntings in the Archive!, co-directed by Julia Wieger and Nina Hoechtl, dives into the rich Vienna-based archive of VBKÖ, the Austrian Association of Women Artists. Wieger and Hoechtl, both the association’s members, established the internal Secretariat for Ghosts, Archive Politics and Gaps (SKGAL) to revisit the organisation’s history and conjure up the spectres of the past that some of their contemporaries would, even now, rather see left in peace.

VBKÖ was established in 1910 and it became obvious for us in the audience that, after its rather progressive early history of collaborating with Austrian women’s rights movement of the time, the 1930s saw it reflect the spectre of National Socialism. The filmmakers discussed in the Q&A a disturbing resistance to a wider acknowledgment of this history. Equally disturbing to them was a cultural appropriation of Native American culture in the 1960s and 1970s through VBKÖ-exhibited, romanticised portraits of Native Americans, painted by its members. It was an artistic style which the film’s directors situated in the broader context, relating Nazi cultural fascination with ‘tribal ancestors’ to the interest in both North America and India.

Recovering complicated his/her-story: ‘Hauntings in the Archive!’ (2017) © SKGAL

The project has strong theoretical underpinnings, made manifest in the film by voiceover recorded in three languages (we watched the English version). Foucault and Derrida are referenced, the latter via Specters of Marx (1993) rather than Archive Fever. Ann Cvetkovich is never mentioned by name but her work on trauma and affect in the archive from An Archive of Feelings (2003) resonates here as well. After conventional documentary opening shots, detailing the types of items held in the archive and acid-free folders, the documentary comes into its own as a powerful two-hander, with the two director-authors often present in the frame, self-reflexively performing their investigation/exorcism. The film brought to life key questions of time and history in its presentation of archival material on screen, with sequences showing old photos and documents being laid out on the table by a pair of hands with brightly painted nails sometimes disturbed by another, ‘aggressively’ black leather-gloved pair of hands.

Archival material is thus made contemporary and shown to be important now to the current young generation of Austrian feminist artists.

Elaine Burrows writes:

Coincidentally, the London Feminist Film Festival screening of Spuken in Archie! (Hauntings in the Archive!)  took place in the middle of the furore surrounding the pulling down of statues of figures of the American Civil War.  An interesting question: what do you do with a past that you or anyone else finds unsavoury?  It is your history, after all; it is also part of your country’s history.  At the very least, denying that that past exists is to falsify that history.

Hauntings in the Archive! is an attempt to pose the question, without necessarily expecting to formulate definitive answers.  As its programme note says, it:

“reflects on and exposes the his/herstory/ies of the Austrian Association of Women Artists ([Vereinigung bildender Künstlerinnen Österreichs] VBKÖ) through its century-old archive of letters, photos, catalogues and thousands of other documents. The Secretariat for Ghosts, Archive Politics and Gaps [Sekretariat für Geister, Archivpolitiken und Lucken, SKGAL] curates the material to conjure up the spectres of the multiple lives of the VBKÖ that meet and share the scene in the film: ghosts of national socialism encounter colonial fantasies and old and new feminist agencies.”

The VBKÖ website explains that, in 2013:

“The new Secretariat shall enable a critical analysis and examination of the association’s history. In particular, the role of the VBKOE during the course of Austrofaschism and Nationalsozialism will be discussed, alongside the association’s class-specific and colonial entanglements.

“The Secretariat establishes connections between projects, investigations and discussions by different authors and in various formats setting up a continual, multi-perspective and collective historical work. The structures and methods of the Secretariat will enable the continual analysis of historical narratives anew and create a space in which historical works can be learnt and unlearnt. Thereby, feminist and decolonizing perspectives will be integrated and debates will be made public.”

The VBKÖ was established in 1910 by a group of mainly middle-class women artists to support women and their art by lobbying for “improvements in artistic, economic and educational conditions, and to increase their representation, organising international collaborations”, and by providing exhibition spaces.   Several of its members became, to say the least, sympathetic to National Socialist policies.  Those who were Jewish were forced out.

The film shows documents and images from the VBKÖ archive, as well looking at a group of women on a tour of the premises, of rooms in the archive, and projections of a photograph of the (almost all as yet unidentified) members in the 1930s.  The documents – laid out individually, one on top of the other – consist of Minute books, letters, application forms, reproductions of paintings by members, and so on.  Commentary is occasionally direct to camera, but often consists of voice-over whispered questions about how to deal with the history represented.  Elsewhere, the soundtrack consists largely of quotations, many from women – Julie M Johnson’s book The Memory Factory (2012) looms large, but includes Derrida and Foucault’s musings on the nature of archives.  A question remained for me about when the decision to look archive critically was made, and when someone began to seriously examine what its contents represents, to explore those questions of the country’s past.

The trailer is available here and further information about the project can be found at http://www.ninahoechtl.org/works/hauntings-in-the-archive/

Ania Ostrowska is a PhD candidate at the University of Southampton (UK), researching authorial agency of contemporary British women documentarians as part of AHRC-funded project Calling the Shots: Women and Contemporary UK Film Culture. Since 2011 she has been a film editor of popular British feminist blog: The F-Word.
https://www.southampton.ac.uk/cswf
https://www.thefword.org.uk/

Elaine Burrows worked for many years at what is now the BFI National Archive. She has been a member of WFTHN since it was founded, and is also a longstanding member of the boards of both Cinenova and the British Entertainment History Project.
http://www.cinenova.org/
https://historyproject.org.uk/

[i] Please see our 2015 blog entry on Feminist Archives, Feminist Futures at Leeds University|: https://womensfilmandtelevisionhistory.wordpress.com/2015/10/11/feminist-archives-feminist-futures/

Image Credit: Nina Hoechtl and Julia Wieger / Secretariat for Ghosts, Archival Politics and Gaps, SPUKEN IM ARCHIV! (Hauntings in the Archive!), 2017, film still. Camera: Liesa Kovacs, Nick Prokesch

Symposium Report: Missing Women Study Day

Symposium Report: Missing Women Study Day

24th May 2017, University of Southampton

by Sarah Smyth

In this blog, Sarah Smyth reflects back on a truly interdisciplinary conversation and examines how it captured forms of ‘missing women’ across institutions and cultures.

When two of my PhD colleagues, Mariana Thomas and Sophie Cavey, and I sent out our call for papers for a study day titled ‘Missing Women’, we had no idea of the overwhelming response we would receive. From a broad range of disciplines, from universities beyond the UK, and from academics either beginning their career or well-established, the idea of the “missing woman” resonated. We had over sixty abstracts for what was supposed to be a half-day conference, with people keen to tell us about the exciting, provocative, and diverse work they are doing to uncover, or recover, the missing women in their field. Our anger at women’s continued marginalisation was legitimised. With this number of academics raging with us, we knew our study day would prove a timely, important and necessary intervention into conventional discourses that continue to position women as “missing”.

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Our poster for the Missing Women study day

The idea for our study day was to provide an interdisciplinary conference at the University of Southampton, which facilitated the discussion of women whose creative or historical contributions have been unjustly forgotten or overlooked. Exclusion, neglect, or omission from analysis has been the undue fate for many women throughout history. Their contributions and representations have all too often been dismissed or forgotten, resulting in the absence of female voices.

Our half-day conference grew to a full day. We successfully secured more money from funding bodies including the Graduate School for Humanities and the Centre for Modern and Contemporary Writing both at the University of Southampton. We built a programme of nine speakers, ending with a special roundtable to celebrate the work of Professor Clare Hanson from the English department at the University of Southampton. Disciplinary diversity was immediately evident, with speakers from the departments of Philosophy, Film, History, Middle Eastern Studies, and English across a range of academic institutions. Thisensured a variety of methodologies – archival work, data collection, close-textual analysis, theory – and a wide time-period, from early writing on ʿĀ’isha, wife of the Prophet Muhammad, to contemporary cinema. We had intended our programme also be inclusive and diverse in a much wider sense. In our call for papers, we explicitly encouraged contributions on women of colour, transwomen, queer women, and disabled women, and targeted specific institutions and groups where this research is being done. However, the abstracts we received were overwhelming about white, cis-gender, straight, able-bodied women. During our introduction to the day, then, we acknowledged the missing women from ‘Missing Women’: the women whose work is still marginalised or neglected, or whose work is more difficult to find in the academy.

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Jennifer Scott delivering her paper, ‘The Princess and the Press: The Embodied and Disembodied Personalities of Marie Corelli’

The day proved to be a huge success. We had a large number of people attend the conference, and this generated an ongoing and dynamic conversation throughout the day. People particularly noted how warm and inclusive the atmosphere was, something we were heartened to hear since we wanted everyone to feel welcome and valued in the space. The first panel on the theme ‘performing women’ led to discussions over how womanhood is “performed” inside and outside texts. Sofia Rehman’s paper on ʿĀ’isha and Jennifer Scott’s paper on Victorian novelist Marie Corelli revealed contrasting ways in which women have control or autonomy over the performative aspects of their womanhood or femininity. While Sofia demonstrated how ʿĀ’isha’s voice becomes muted as she took positions in opposition to other, invariably male, companions of the Prophet, while Jennifer examined studio photographs of Corelli to argue that these formed spectral sequels to her own works, which countered the press’ tendency to control women’s bodies. Panel Two considered the different ways women can be subversive. Islam El-Naggar drew out how Radwa Ashour’s Granada contained a complicated and nuanced portrayal of the feminist traces in Andalusian Muslim culture. Jenni Råback considered the ways in which we “frame” Vanessa Bell who so often gets eclipsed by her more famous sister, Virginia Woolf. A clear pattern emerged, by which “subversive” elements were theorised through form and abstraction. Panel Three, titled ‘Excavating Women’, most explicitly engaged in the finding, recovery and repositioning of women in various institutional, cultural and historical contexts.

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A key discovery by Hollie Price in the archives of the Ministry of Information’s Film Division is this letter that reads: “To maintain the required differentiation between men’s and women’s salaries is one of the Treasuries most cherished principles.”

Hollie Price considered the position of women in the wartime propaganda work in the Ministry of Information Films Division. Shelley Cobb, meanwhile, discussed her project Calling the Shots: Women and Contemporary Film Culture in the UK. Both papers led to a productive discussion about women’s complicated relationship with the institutions and material when engaged in archival research. Panel Four focused on the more broader term, ‘Representing Women’. Jade French considered the way in which the older woman was marginalised in the early twentieth century due to the emergence of the figures such as ‘The Flapper’. George Mind suggested that Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition signals a new dialectic between discourses of feminism, realism and subjectivity. Finally, Sarah Osmond Smith looked at research into time in the eighteenth century, arguing   that a focus on technological, cultural, artistic, social and material advances fails to take account of gendered experiences of time. Throughout the day, the idea of how necessarily repetitive and slow, even tedious, this research can be, otherwise women will continue to be “missing” within many academic fields.

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Sarah Osmond Smith delivering her paper, ‘Beyond the Huygens Clock-Face: Missing “Spare” Female Hours in the Eighteenth Century’

Our day finished with a roundtable dedicated to Clare Hanson and a wine reception. Here, Clare reflected on the day, noting the exciting and important work being done, and linked it to her own work, particularly her work to recover Katherine Mansfield as a key literary figure. Turning to the future of feminist academic work, perhaps most profoundly, Clare told us the key way to continue to produce feminist research and to ride the waves of feminism as it goes in and out of fashion in wider culture was through intergenerational connections. By explicitly connecting to our feminist foremothers and our feminist daughters, we can safeguard against women going “missing”, ensuring their/our contributions are fully recognised, guaranteeing their/our voices are always heard, and making certain that their/our work will have a lasting impact for many generations to come.

Sarah Smyth is a PhD candidate at the University of Southampton. Her PhD is part of the project, Calling the Shots: Women and Contemporary Film Culture in the UK (funded by the AHRC), and examines the ways in which a number of women filmmakers in contemporary Britain conceptualise and represent space. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahsmyth91.

Feminist Musings: How to Like Ripper Street

In another of our republications from CST Online, Elke Weissmann considers Ripper Street.  Whilst that series is no longer on our screens, despite a brief revival on Amazon Prime, Elke offers us a layered reading which identifies a particular kind of ‘contradiction’ experienced by modern spectatorship in the face of politically-dissonant material: ‘…by engaging with the exact opposite, all that happens is that our deep-seated beliefs find further ammunition, which is highly pleasurable precisely because it stirs our emotion.’

Elke Weissmann’s contribution was first published with CST Online 20th December 2013. Many thanks to Kim Akass, editor, and the individual contributors, for giving permission for their articles to appear here. These and other articles can be accessed in CST’s archive on their current website: here.

Feminist Musings: How to Like Ripper Street

By Elke Weissmann

There is something bizarrely compelling about watching something that you’ve been told you will disagree with. This is how I encountered Ripper Street which ended this week, apparently axed as a result of disappointing viewing figures when scheduled against the dependable I’m a Celebrity… Get Me out of Here. From the very beginning, everything about Ripper Street signalled that feminists should dislike it: there is the name, of course. Drawing on the long mythology of the ‘Ripper’, the series reminds us of popular culture’s tendency to sexualise the murder of women. And then there is the opening scene: a group of Victorian Ripper tourists are led through the grimy streets of East London, only to encounter their own female body, displayed, as so often, in death for the inquisitive gaze of the viewer and detective. And obviously there is the whole pre-publicity which drew attention to the fact that this was a series about blokes fighting crime in a lawless London full of prostitutes… again.

Ripper-Street

Again. That’s perhaps the word that best describes my initial reaction to the series. Another series full of sexualised violence against women. Another series that casts women primarily in the roles of prostitutes and housewives. And another series that returns men into their ‘rightful’ place as patriarchal law makers.

So considering all of this, how come I mourn its end (on the BBC for now, there might be another series commissioned by Love Film)? This question has become quite an obsession and returns me to the beginning: there is something compelling about encountering that which superficially at least goes against all your deep-seated beliefs. Hence why there are regular Tory posters on The Guardian webpages, and left-leaning audiences reading The Daily Mail. At first sight this seems to go against ideas of the ‘echo chambers’  that supposedly structure our online consumption. However, by engaging with the exact opposite, all that happens is that our deep-seated beliefs find further ammunition, which is highly pleasurable precisely because it stirs our emotion. It is this moment of emotional charge that the TV industries are increasingly exploiting in order to attract attention in this media-cluttered world.

This is of course in no way a new trend. HBO has developed its brand identity around offering material that differentiates it from network material, as Cathy Johnson argues. Much of this material deliberately draws on the controversial that would get the American Right up into arms. As a result, I nearly missed Deadwood (HBO, 2004-2006), thinking it was just another TV drama that played on controversy in order to attract a particular clientele. Deadwood might use swearwords rather liberally, but underneath it is a deeply caring drama that returns me to difficult questions of ethics and morals. Much of these questions are proposed with rather conservative answers, but some are left more open and ambiguous. Such a strange mixture of offensive veneer, morally problematic and politically ambiguous deep structure also underlies Ripper Street.

As John Ellis points outRipper Street re-imagines our Victorian past through the lens of steampunk. It celebrates and is fascinated by Victorian ideas of progress as offered by science and at the same time unsure about the cultural and social implications of it. In the first ever episode, the series celebrates the invention of film whilst at the same time condemning the snuff genre that comes with its invention. As so often in audiovisual media, whilst condemning ‘snuff’ it shows the making of it in all its gruesome detail, and by doing so contributes to the continued sexualisation of women’s suffering.

rippper street
But, as already indicated, Ripper Street is more complex than that. The sexualisation of violence against women is part of its offensive veneer. That doesn’t make it better, but it does complicate my relationship to it. Underneath this veneer, it actually critiques this – to quote Ellis again – not entirely Victorian culture in which women’s lives remain regulated by men, where women increasingly understand that they remain ‘men’s property’. A particularly insightful episode is ‘Become Man’ (season 2, episode 3) in which Susan, Jackson’s brothel-owning wife, is abducted by a group of radical Match Girls who try to get compensation for the horrible exploitation and suffering they had encountered. Susan soon starts to sympathise with them, and in particular their leader, and ends up realising that, rather than engaging in any form of power by being her own business woman, she colludes with and extends the power of men.

In a scene, shot beautifully as a love scene between the two women, Susan sows up one of the woman’s scars, while they talk about what it means to be a woman. The relationship is tender, and the camera frames the two women in constant relationship, close-up, registering every expression of emotion. It is an incredibly intimate scene in which both women confess to their vulnerabilities and their ultimate powerlessness. It invites the viewer in, not as the traditional voyeur who watches from the distance, unobserved, while fetishising the women’s bodies, but as someone close to these women, sharing in their experience. The closeness between the women is here clearly matched with a viewing position that similarly places the spectator in a position of sharing and confession. Rather than this being a maternal position, it is a one closer to that of a friend or indeed closer to that of the sympathetic witnesses of a second-wave consciousness raising group. Such a position clearly undermines the more traditional representations of women in the role of prostitute and feeds into the moral and political ambiguity of the series.

It is scenes like this that manage to transcend the blokey veneer and remind us of the other side; the experience of women. Such a scene also manages to critique the post-feminist discourses that claim women can gain empowerment through sex, and hence speak to feminist concerns. And yet, Ripper Street also displays the women’s bodies as sexually pleasurable. But it does so at the same time as reminding us of the conditions that make these images possible. And so, the pleasure of watching something that we are told is supposed to go against our deep-seated beliefs becomes the pleasure of hearing our echo yet again.

Elke Weissmann is Reader in Film and Television at Edge Hill University. Her books includeTransnational Television Drama (Palgrave) and the edited collection Renewing Feminisms (I.B.Tauris) with Helen Thornham. She is vice-chair of the ECREA TV Studies Section and sits on the board of editors for Critical Studies in Television. She migrated to the UK in 2002 after realising that German television was as bad as she remembered

Television: Where Patriarchy and Grown-Up Cinema Go To Die

In the following article, Julia Havas offers us a nuanced analysis of the apparent underlying assumptions informing critical debates over modern long-form television versus cinema.  She examines how gender and feminism are mobilised in these discussions in a way which conflates all kinds of women-centric texts into one homogenous form; their multiplicity has been streamlined by one critic into an idea of a ‘new cultural feminism.’  In Havas’ view, critics’ anxieties reveal less about “the changing nature of popular entertainment” and more about “the fixedness of the ideologies behind their value judgements.”  With Big Little Lies currently on our screens, Julia Havas’ article demonstrates that the discursive frameworks for our study of television and film need constant recall and revision.

Julia Havas’ contribution was first published with CST Online 6th March 2015. Many thanks to Kim Akass, editor, and the individual contributors, for giving permission for their articles to appear here. These and other articles can be accessed in CST’s archive on their current website: here.

Television: Where Patriarchy and Grown-Up Cinema Go To Die

Julia Havas

Last September, an interesting debate played out in the landscape of American media criticism. It was catalysed by film critic A.O. Scott’s article in the New York Times entitled ‘The Death of Adulthood in American Culture’. The piece is a meandering contemplation about the changing nature of American popular media, and its core argument revolves around what Scott sees as the demise of grown-up culture at the expense of, and simultaneous replacement with, juvenile entertainment; a phenomenon permeating both film and TV. Importantly, Scott attempts to support this observation by threading into it another, similar polarity in popular culture between the apparent slow ‘death’ of patriarchy on the one hand – a process dramatized by a certain strand of television, specifically by cable TV’s Holy Trinity of Mad Men (2007-), Breaking Bad (2008-2013), and The Sopranos (1999-2007) –, and the rise of a newly invigorated ‘feminist’ sensibility on the other. While this think piece has been thoroughly analysedcelebrated, and refuted on prominent online media sites like Vulture.com, Salon.com or the Huffington Post, I want to consider its significance for the ongoing debates in television studies about the cultural hierarchies between film and TV, and particularly the underlying gendered connotations of this discourse.

big-little-lies1

Big Little Lies (Blossom Films, 2017)

This seems all the more timely to me since, although the article’s impact might have run its course online, it was picked up once more in the January 2015 issue of Sight and Sound, a turn which in itself shows the increasing importance of the ‘cinema versus TV’ debate for prestige film criticism. To wit, not only did the issue’s end-of-year poll of best UK releases now enable critics to vote for their favourite TV series beside films; but the articles accompanying the poll emphasise that it is acceptable (for critics and for viewers) to consider some television as worth discussing in terms of aesthetic significance, or for the way it signifies the changes taking place in both industries. The short think piece in which Scott’s article is cited as an influence laments the ‘eclipse of what we think of as adult themes’ and a growing ‘attachment to childhood’ in Hollywood cinema (comic book franchises, YA and fantasy fiction adaptations, animations etc.) and in some independent films (Romney 2015). Moreover, Nick James’ introduction to the poll claims that ‘TV is where the adult viewing experience and much of the best writing and directorial talent now lie’, and thus ‘you get the sense that the reciprocal prejudices and snobberies between cinema and television drama are beginning to fall away’ (James 2015).

The themes that are being picked up here by the elite of Anglo-American film criticism are surely nothing new for media scholars: with the emergence of the phenomenon of American ‘quality’ television (but to an extent even before that), the scrutiny of the symbiotic relationship between the two media and their problematic hierarchical evaluation has become a small but important strand in media research. There is a range of scholarship unpacking the ways in which the notion of cultural value for fictional TV is discursively defined as emulating the cinematic, while also tacitly continuing to utilise the TV format’s own traditional methods of storytelling and aesthetics. (Brett Mills’ recent blog post here on CST tackles the same issue from the perspective of film broadcasting on British TV.)

What I have found most curious about Scott’s piece and the Sight and Sound poll was how the writers use this apparent dualism of TV and cinema to extend it with further meanings in an effort to help them get a grasp of the popularity of the adolescent entertainment that gives them such palpable anxiety. The now explicitly gendered framing of that discussion is clear:

Transparent-transparent-tv-series-37656300-618-340

Transparent – part of television’s transformation?

Scott claims that the archetypal patriarch’s ‘gradual slide toward obsolescence’ is being carved into cultural consciousness exclusively on television – in a tiny, but all the more important, corner of it –, which is also the primary platform where a ‘new cultural feminism’ (in his term) is becoming dominant through female-centred programmes that evade straightforward generic classifications (with Sex and the City [1998-2004] being the flag bearer of that trend). Thus, he explains this presumed phenomenon as a kind of cultural revolution whereby the old-fashioned, angsty, highbrow dramas about ageing antiheroes are being pushed off the scene by an ideal of perpetually young or at least immature subjectivity, manifested in the hybridised forms of female-dominated half-hour comedy and dramedy. The increasing dominance of adolescent culture that Scott and Sight and Sound’s film critics lament is then meshed together with a supposed feminisation of this culture, an observation that also articulates specific boundaries of the forms and genres in which this takes place. Consider James’ assertion (quoted above) that in the slow melting away of ‘reciprocal snobberies’ between film and TV (a phrasing that some TV scholars might have a bone to pick with, at least with the ‘reciprocal’ part), the last resort of mature, i.e. analysis-worthy cultural entertainment, is television drama, a form where, as Scott asserts, the fall of old-fashioned masculinity is being gloomily captured. While not engaging with Scott’s central argument about gender politics, Romney’s piece puts the relevance of youth culture for a grown-up viewing experience firmly in its place: ‘recent US cinema (…) tends to treat childish matters as if they were of quasi-adult importance, and to make adult matters seem trivial, even while ostensibly taking them seriously’ (ibid.). What these accounts implicitly betray in their critical diagnosis is the unquestioning acceptance of equating certain forms of entertainment with a lack of seriousness, immaturity, feminisation, and, following from all this, an inconsequential triviality.

 

The discourses and associations expressed here are far from new, but rarely have they been articulated so explicitly in one breath. For instance, into the whole ‘No Country for Old Men’ versus ‘Young Feminists’ dualism, we find inscribed the discourse of generational conflict as a staple of feminist debate; or it would be more precise to say that it is a staple of the media discourse about feminism which associates women’s empowerment with the cultivation of youth and beauty (as argued by analysts of postfeminism). The difference is that the opponents here are not out-of-touch second wavers versus young third wavers/postfeminists/etc.; for Scott, all these parties are rhetorically united in their eternal youthfulness or rather, immaturity – pushing the old patriarch off his throne. The generational conflict of feminism is thus turned into one between the genders (and looming behind this image is the trope of the man-hating feminist).

Because this dualism is also entangled with a binary between mature versus immature culture, it can also be considered from the perspective of the values ascribed to these notions. Considerations of genre theory about the hierarchies between ‘serious’ (i.e. grown-up) and ‘non-serious’ (i.e. immature) modes of fiction are useful here. As Mills argues, because Western culture cultivates seriousness as the primary mode of communication, it also normalizes it as inherently more valuable than all others (Mills 2005). Hence, these film critics are dismayed about the pervasiveness of adolescent culture which for them entails the destruction of ‘serious’ communication. When Scott notes that the ‘new cultural feminism’ takes place in TV’s hybridised forms of half-hour dramedy and comedy, he draws on such associations to make his claim that these genres valorise insincerity; and this thinking helps him make the leap of logic in which the female-centred dramedies do the same cultural work as, say, the comic book film or the fantasy franchise. All of these forms provide ‘infantile’ pleasures for their viewers, out to destroy the grown-up seriousness of pure tragedy and drama.

While such elitist hierarchies are fairly fixed staples of cultural criticism, what is new in these laments is the role that TV plays for the critics on this imaginary cultural battlefield. In the post-network era, popular TV criticism has operated in a tacit or overt agreement that the medium is making efforts to ‘grow up’ to the more sincere and aesthetically superior cinema, while TV scholarship preserved its foundational interest in studying the medium for its political significance (which at its beginnings entailed a gesture of active resistance to the cultural disdain levelled at TV). But Scott’s and Sight and Sound’s critical texts now signal a changing of these tides in that leading voices in the field of film criticism declare a small pocket of fictional TV as one of the last bastions where ‘grown-up’ cinematic aestheticism still dominates – outperforming not just its own medium, i.e. ‘regular’ TV, but cinema itself. As such, the shift in the apparent cultural status of the two media is connected to the ways in which the modes of communication ascribed to them are being slowly ‘swapped’. This reveals that these modes – and their associated values – retain their existing positions in cultural consciousness. A closer look at the Sight and Sound poll’s TV votes provides an example for this. The series most frequently mentioned as critics’ favourite is Bruno Dumont’s P’tit Quinquin (2014), a French four-part miniseries that was also distributed in cinemas as one 200-minute feature film last year and in critical reception discussed for its merits as auteur cinema (Cahiers Du Cinema chose it for its best film of 2014 – a definite first for a TV programme). As for its position in the landscape of quality television, a voter sums it up thus: ‘There’s no question that this work for television will endure as one of [Dumont’s] greatest films’ (Sight and Sound: 45). For these critics, it is no longer the case that television emulates cinema. Rather, television replaces cinema in producing ‘cinematic’ content.  Runners-up in the poll are True Detective (2014-) and The Knick (2014-), both similarly praised by critics in terms of cinematic aesthetics and authorship discourse. It is perhaps also worth noting that Transparent (2014-) and Orange Is the New Black (2013-) are both mentioned once in the poll (by Sophie Mayer and Catherine Wheatley respectively), and here the voters justify their choice not for the programmes’ artistic achievements but for what they see as their political progression. Further, Wheatley’s evaluation is formulated as a defiant stand against the assumed popularity of True Detective among critics, to which she prefers the ‘diverse portfolio of women’s experiences’ (Sight and Sound: 48). Here it becomes quite clear that the boundaries that these film critics’ evaluations of television draw – between formats, genres, and programmes – are implicitly or explicitly gendered. Considered together with Scott’s article, feeding into this gendering is the critical concern over the threat of popular culture’s infantilisation. Those ‘reciprocal prejudices’ that James sees as ‘beginning to fall away’ between TV and film continue to exist on different platforms in newly expressed hierarchies.

The cultural anxieties that these critics express about the changing nature of popular entertainment, then, reveal the fixedness of the ideologies behind their value judgements. In these assessments, such ideologies remain unexamined; hence, for instance, the unquestioning equation of the dramatic form and authorship discourse with high(er) artistic quality, superior ‘meaning’, and a maturity which can only be articulated in contrast with lesser forms of entertainment. The signification by which adolescent culture becomes associated with infantile pleasures also infantilizes the viewer whose consumption and fan practices bring all culture down to its own childish level (Scott speaks of how the ‘unassailable ascendancy of the fan has made children of us all’). The ways these new binaries are constructed bring to mind Lynn Joyrich’s study of the critical struggles over network era television’s cultural role (Joyrich 1996). She argues that leading cultural critics’ anxiety about postmodern society was expressed in terms that tacitly understood the consumer culture of late capitalism as emasculating, a process in which ‘new anxieties are created which are then often projected onto television’ (ibid. 74). Investigating the logic of these accounts, she finds that the binary categories which postmodernity has for its analysts eradicated have only shifted places, and still regulate cultural hierarchies. In the mid-1990s when this was written, television obviously occupied the ‘inferior’ position, and it did so on profoundly gendered terms: ‘(…) constructing a duality in which television is placed in opposition to some other, more “respected” medium, these critics and theorists articulate cultural and textual differences in terms that are reminiscent of what is still posed as the dominant binary of our culture – sexual difference’ (ibid. 72). Crucially, Joyrich also links this gendered motif to discourses about the immaturity of feminised consumerist culture: ‘(…) the forms that have been cited by both defenders and detractors as particularly illustrative of U.S. television also exhibit a consumerism tied to an address to an audience deemed infantile or feminine, a spectator not fully a man’ (ibid. 78). Joyrich’s analysis remains eerily relevant for understanding the contemporary anxieties of leading film critics like Scott and Sight and Sound’s contributors; lurking behind the struggles to denote ‘quality’ TV drama as the Land of Lost Art is the tiny hope that by watching it we can just a little longer remain fully a man.

Julia Havas is currently in the final year of her funded PhD research in the School of Arts, Media and American Studies at the University of East Anglia. Her project investigates the ways in which feminism is represented on contemporary American ‘quality’ television by analysing four female-centred programmes. A specific concern of her work is the relationship between discourses of cultural value, aesthetics, and the politics of representation.