Doing Women’s Film History and Practicing What We Preach in the Post-#MeToo Era.

I love the Doing Women’s Film History conference.  This year’s, held at Southampton and organised by Shelley Cobb, Linda Ruth Williams and Natalie Wreyford, is the fourth. I’ve been to the last three.

I love the conference’s atmosphere and whilst male scholars are great, to be frank, I like the fact that 98% of attendees are women. It makes for a very unique conference experience.

At This year’s DWFTH though, that atmosphere, which has always been special, was all the more so.

The first morning of the conference, in readiness for the CATHI Women In Hollywood symposium which was happening the following week, I sat in a panel on ‘Post-Weinstein Film culture.’ Margaret Tally and Betty Kaklamandiou considered female representation in Trump-era television, Marie-Alix Thouaille discussed the occasionally coercive and disempowering nature of male author on female author mentorship and Becca Harrison closed with a brave, barnstorming call-to-arms for female and male learning facilitators, to consider the impact of what they teach and how they teach it, on female and male students.

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the atmosphere in the room was electric. I guess it might well have been what those early feminist consciousness-raising sessions felt like. I found it to be genuinely moving (I had to have a quick, quiet cry in a toilet cubicle afterwards) as well as being provocative and and hugely motivating. I felt hugely inspired.

Panellists and audience members talked about issues with convening film studies modules and how we needed to continuously work to fight against marginalisation in terms both of the focus of our studies and the scholarship we used to examine those case studies. As speakers rightly observed, feminist scholars, such as myself, need to be pro-active in our research, and to think beyond the male-dominated canon. We need to practice what we preach.

Perhaps more worryingly another key theme that emerged in the post-presentation discussion was not only the depressing regularity of inappropriate and misogynistic behaviour not only in the film and media industries but in film and media academia, where surely as educated individuals, you’d think people would know better. We talked about how it was our responsibility as progressive educators not just to identify these toxic behaviours and support those who are being/have been subject to them but to counter them.

I am heartened to see various, much-needed discourse channels and networks emerging within institutions and in broader scholarship, whereby women advise, support, warn their fellow female scholars. Along with events such as this year’s Doing Women’s Film History event, the solidarity and kindness shown in these conversations, buoys participants up, empowers them to speak out, to advance themselves and their careers, to reach out to and engage students and the broader public and try and make a change.

This isn’t without its risks. As my colleague Prof Heather Savigny has observed in recent research, due to be published shortly, female scholars are disproportionately affected by negative responses to their research, particularly when it calls out disparity. [1]

Engagement is never the less needed. Students need to see scholars being brave, pushing the boundaries of ideas, participating in discourse, making sure they give voice and credit to other women, or else why would our students bother taking the risk and speaking out in our seminars?

I’m very proud of the two BA modules I currently deliver at De Montfort, particularly my Film and Material Cultures module. I designed this module hoping to prompt, in at least a couple of students, a genuine love of primary resources and archival research of the kind that I experience as part of my work. I wanted to nurture and encourage students in the kind of way that I had been by scholars such as Tracy Dunlop, Margaret Montgomery, Yvonne Tasker, Melanie Williams and Mark Jancovich. These engagements were formative in making me the scholar I am now and whilst it is hard being a researcher, my research makes me joyful. It is the part of me of which I am proudest. Why would I not want students to experience this?

The module has been deliberately designed and structured to develop students’ critical skills and encourage them to see the potential, both personally and more broadly, in writing histories. The module has been very much intended to empower, to provide a platform for those who want it and to nurture the confidence that comes with knowledge and authority.

I aim to encourage students on this module to take a chance with the resources they use to formulate an argument rather than just trotting out the same old case studies. For me it goes without saying then, that this module is an ideal opportunity to encourage learners to consider film history through the lens of feminism,and as a feminist film historian, who uses the material culture around Hollywood to write on the representation of gender and sexuality, pedagogically, I am passionate about highlighting such matters repeatedly in my lectures and seminars.

This seems very much to be where feminist film criticism is at the moment. As Dr DWFTH organiser Shelley Cobb and Prof Yvonne Tasker highlight in a brief article for Film Criticism, whether its been prompted by #MeToo and #TimesUp, there has been a groundswell of much-needed research which seeks to tell the histories of the range of seemingly invisible women working in the film industry. [2]

returning to that fateful panel at DWFTH, I consider myself a intersectional feminist, but listening to Harrison’s presentation, I realised my readings do not adequately reflect this. I am guilty of overlooking too.  The spread of voices I ask my students to engage with is still too narrow. I have no essential readings written by a person of colour, for example. Time is tight working in academia. There are many demands placed upon us, but some things cant be put off. I need to broader the scholarship and my students engage with. I need to continue to be part of the change.

*Post script:*

It is now January 2019 and I have been invited by the University of Lincoln to deliver two Feminist Film Criticism lectures, with accompanying readings and screenings, to their undergraduates in February.

This is clearly another ideal opportunity to put what I have preached in this blog into practice. 

Reading back over the above, it has struck me how the public debate around #MeToo has dropped off the radar. But reading back, revisiting recent developments and summarising some key feminist scholarship in the field, ready to engage the students at Lincoln, I am fired up all over again. This is going to be fun.

[1] Forthcoming Savigny, H. 2019 Special issue: ‘The ethics and politics of public engagement’  Political Studies Review

[2] Cobb, S. & Tasker, Y. 2016;2015;, “Feminist Film Criticism in the 21st Century”, Film Criticism, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 1.

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