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Film Studies

This guide is an introduction to the resources for Film Studies at Dartmouth. If you are interested in Television, see the separate research guide for Television.

Introduction to feminist film theory

Feminist film theory (feminist film criticism)

A major area of film theory since the 1970s, focusing on gender as central to the critical and theoretical analysis of films and cinema. Taking inspiration from the burgeoning of ‘second-wave’ feminism, critical commentary on women and cinema began in earnest in the early 1970s with descriptive surveys of images and stereotypes of women in classical and contemporary Hollywood films, alongside calls for more positive representations of women in popular cinema and for more women in key positions in the film industry. Over the following decade, this body of work grew and developed alongside the establishment of film studies as a discipline, drawing on, elaborating, and even inventing, a number of conceptual and methodological approaches. During these years, several film studies journals devoted to feminist film criticism and theory were founded, the most influential being Women and Film (US, 1972–5), Camera Obscura (US, 1976– ), and Frauen und Film (Germany, 1974– ).   ...

Kuhn, A., & Westwell, G. (2020). Feminist film theory. In A Dictionary of Film Studies. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 21 Apr. 2023

Feminist cinema (Women's cinema)

A highly diverse body of non-commercial, low-budget amateur and/or independent films and videos (with associated organizational arrangements for their distribution and exhibition) launched in Europe and North America in the late 1960s in tandem with the rise of ‘second-wave’ feminism in the West, and subsequently hybridizing with other areas of non-mainstream cinema (see amateur film; independent cinema). With political or cultural-political intent, early feminist films were concerned with, and addressed themselves to, feminists and feminism and adopted overtly feminist standpoints, campaigning on women’s issues such as abortion (Whose Choice? (London Women’s Film Group, UK, 1976)); documenting ‘ordinary’ women’s lives (Janie’s Janie (Geri Ashur, UK, 1971)); or putting forward positive images of women with a view to combating sexist stereotypes in mainstream films and media. Such campaigning and documentary feminist films were soon supplemented by experiments in a feminist countercinema aimed at challenging mainstream film language and/or producing an alternative ‘feminine’ film aesthetic: an influential example of this trend is Thriller (Sally Potter, UK, 1979), an artist’s experimental film that offers an entertaining feminist spin on the classic opera theme of the beautiful, doomed heroine.   ...

Kuhn, A., & Westwell, G. (2020). Feminist cinema. In A Dictionary of Film Studies. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 6 Dec. 2022


The social construction of male and female identity--as distinct from sex, the biologically-based distinction between men and women. Gender issues have been prominent in film studies since the 1970s, when roles, images, and stereotypes of women and men in films began to be seriously addressed: since most of this work was conducted under the banner of ‘second-wave’ feminism, however, it concerned itself predominantly with women. Feminist work on images of women and female stereotypes quickly morphed into theorizations of woman as spectacle, with the argument that in classical Hollywood cinema the female figure on the screen is constructed pre-eminently as an object ‘to-be-looked-at’. Pursuing the link between gender and looking, feminist film theory borrowed ideas about vision and sexual difference from psychoanalysis, with a view to shedding light on the part played by gender in spectatorship in cinema (see psychoanalytic film theory). When inquiries into men, masculinity, and cinema began in earnest in the 1980s, these often drew on the concepts and methods of cultural studies—which in turn began to reshape thinking on women, femininity, and cinema—and also brought pressure to address, alongside gender, other types of culturally-constructed identity, such as race and social class. At the same time, such approaches to gender and cinema have been significantly revised under the influence of the poststructuralist view that besides being a mental and/or a cultural construct, gender is not something fixed but is always in process, a matter of unceasing performance; and the 21st century has seen the rise of a body of film studies work centred around gender variance and non-binary and non-conforming gender identities (see masquerade; poststructuralism; transgender).    ...

Kuhn, A., & Westwell, G. (2020). Gender. In A Dictionary of Film Studies. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 6 Dec. 2022

Woman's picture

A subgenre of melodrama emerging from Hollywood in the heyday of the studio system that was deliberately targeted at female audiences: in the typical woman’s picture, the plot features ‘feminine’ themes and is organized around the point of view of a female character. While the woman’s picture is essentially a 1940s phenomenon, the genre had predecessors in the early and silent cinema melodramas, many of which featured female-centered plots or dealt in some way with ‘women’s issues’: motherhood (The Eternal Mother (D.W. Griffith, 1912)), for example; or doomed romance (Seventh Heaven (Frank Borzage, 1927)). However, the viewpoints and identifications in these films are diffuse by comparison with those of the 1940s woman’s picture, and their attitudes towards female transgression more punitive. The woman’s picture had its own subgenres, including the medical melodrama (Possessed (Curtis Bernhardt, 1947)), the maternal melodrama (Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942)), the love story (Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls, 1948)), and the paranoid gothic (Secret Beyond the Door (Fritz Lang, 1947)). After the 1940s, though, the intensely female-centred plots that distinguish the woman’s picture gave way in the Hollywood melodrama to stories focused on troubled family relationships, with plots centered on male characters; while themes associated with the woman’s picture largely migrated to television, in particular to social problem dramas and soap operas. However, the 1970s saw a cycle of new women’s films, New Hollywood films about women’s lives and relationships, including Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese, 1975), An Unmarried Woman (Paul Mazursky, 1977), and Starting Over (Allan Pakula, 1979); and by placing black women at the centre of both plot and narration, Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1985) could revive the impact of the classic woman’s picture, which rests to a considerable extent on the believability of fictional situations in which women face limited, or difficult, life choices. Where woman’s picture themes continued to figure on cinema screens in the 1980s and beyond, they have tended more often to surface in genre hybrids like Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991), whose woman-centred narrative viewpoint operates within the conventions of the road movie and the buddy film. This kind of mix of genres is characteristic of the contemporary chick flick, which is widely regarded as the key successor to the woman’s picture. However, the genre in something like its classic form can still make waves in parts of the world where women continue to face issues of patriarchal control, freedom, and choice, as for example in the case of Iranian filmmaker Tahmineh Milani’s controversial Fereshteh Trilogy (Do zan/Two Women (1999), Nimeh-ye penhan/The Hidden Half (2001), and Vakonesh-e panjom/The Fifth Reaction (2003)).   ...

Kuhn, A., & Westwell, G. (2020). Woman’s picture. In A Dictionary of Film Studies. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 6 Dec. 2022

In the library's collections/Searching the online catalog

Introductory reading(s)

Selected book title(s)

Other library resource(s)