Women have been making movies since the dawn of cinema in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but are still not sufficiently represented in front of or behind the camera. Males dominate the screen industries. In The Female Gaze: Essential Movies Made by Women, now available in paperback, Alicia Malone celebrates the accomplishments of past and present female directors and amplifies the discussion — very much in the zeitgeist — about the lack of gender parity in filmmaking.
Malone is a film reporter, host on Turner Classic Movies, and advocate for women in film. In both 2015 and 2017 she gave TEDx Talks on the subject. She is also the author of two previous books: Backwards and in Heels: The Past, Present and Future of Women Working in Film and Girls on Film: Lessons from a Life of Watching Women in Movies.
The Female Gaze is referred to as a “collection of essays” or a “guide” to films made by and about women. In my view, the essays more closely approximate encyclopedia entries — though they are organized chronologically, not alphabetically. Each entry includes the film title, a logline or simple premise statement, production details, a section entitled “The Female Gaze” highlighting the film’s unique feminine perspective, and a bullet list of “Fast Facts.” After a brief introduction, Malone jumps right into her subject matter.
And that subject matter comprises 52 films — 52 so that readers can view one film a week for an entire year if they choose. The films featured in the book were made by women about women and are perceived to have a “female gaze”; represent a “diversity of era, country, race, and sexual orientation”; and are available to stream or watch on DVD. I would’ve liked to have known exactly what selection criteria Malone used, why some films made the cut and others didn’t, but this isn’t a scientific study and, given her expertise, I was content to review her curated sampling.
It’s not necessary to read the book front-to-back. Readers may dive in at any point and read about films such as 1940’s Dance, Girl, Dance, 1993’s The Piano, or 2017’s Lady Bird — in whatever order chosen. Interspersed between the entries are brief odes to films written by female film critics other than Malone.
Each entry contains interesting commentary about the film, its female perspective, its backstory, and its female director. First-wave feminist and director Alice Guy, for example, was the first person to direct a movie with synchronized sound. Kathryn Bigelow, one of only three women to win a best director Oscar, had to fight hard to cast the more sensitive, less traditionally macho Keanu Reeves as FBI agent Johnny Utah in 1991’s Point Break. For 2017’s The Rider, Chloé Zhao made several fascinating directorial choices: she filmed using natural lighting during the “magic hour,” and she had her cast rewrite their own lines in a way they would naturally say them, thereby increasing the film’s naturalness and authenticity.
Malone spends a few passages of her introduction talking about the meaning of the female gaze, but this is not a scholarly work. Wanting more, I located and read the essay she references, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” by British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey. In that essay she coined the term “male gaze.” It made me think deeply about a male versus a female gaze, and I doubt I will ever watch films in the same way again. For readers who want more background on the female gaze, and the tradition to which it responds, I recommend it.
The #MeToo movement has punctuated the fact that women have a long way to go to achieve inclusion and equity in entertainment. Women continue to be outnumbered in the director’s chair by a ratio of 20 to 1, according to an analysis by the Annenberg Foundation and the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. The Female Gaze and books like it are important. They point out how we can portray women and explore their experiences without objectification, without sexualizing and diminishing them. These books champion women, both past and present, engaged in the art of filmmaking, and they serve as inspiration to aspiring female filmmakers. As we trudge forward, toward a point (I hope) where we can just say “filmmaker” as opposed to “female filmmaker,” we can still celebrate.
The Female Gaze: Essential Movies Made by Women
By Alicia Malone
Mango Publishing Group
Published November 15, 2018
Paperback May 17, 2022