Screen Studies - Introduction
Feminist Film Theory and Cléo from 5 to 7
Feminist Film Theory and Cléo from 5 to 7

Hilary Neroni

Hilary Neroni is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Vermont, USA. She is the author of The Subject of Torture (2015) and The Violent Woman (2005), and has also published numerous essays on female directors. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2016


Content Type:

Book chapter

Genres, Movements and Styles:

French New Wave/Nouvelle Vague





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DOI: 10.5040/
Page Range: 1–16

In 2015, the Cannes Film Festival awarded French filmmaker Agnès Varda an honorary Palme d’Or, the highest honor at the festival. Cannes gives the honorary Palme d’Or as a lifetime achievement award, and Varda was the first female filmmaker to receive the honor, which is not surprising considering the low percentage of women nominated or receiving awards at Cannes. Cannes was aware of this disparity and staged several panels that discussed the plight of women in the film industry that year. Panelists elaborated on the difficulties women face in the industry, including the extremely detrimental effects of male colleagues treating women as sexual objects. Ironically, the Cannes film festival also made the news for another reason. The festival’s directors ordered all the ushers to permit only women wearing high heels to enter the site. Following these directions, the ushers barred entrance to female ticket holders wearing flats.

In the same year that the Cannes Film Festival finally awards an honorary Palme d’Or to a female director and sets up panels to address sexism in filmmaking, it also enforces an overtly sexist dress code. This may seem a shocking contradiction, and one might wonder how the festival’s directors managed to perform both actions simultaneously. It is a contradiction, but it is one that perfectly encapsulates the contradiction that women face within contemporary society. The festival organizers could perpetuate this contradiction because they live in a society that constantly enacts it. In this sense, the Cannes Film Festival is a symptom of the situation for women today.

Agnès Varda herself would appreciate this contradiction since her films start from the point of contradiction in society and develop a questioning stance from the experience of exploring this contradiction. Varda’s questioning stance provides a rich example of the very project of feminism itself, one that the second chapter’s analysis of her Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7, 1961) will elucidate. Feminism emerges out of the experience of contradictions like the one evident at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and it attempts to force society to confront rather than evade them.

I define feminism through the idea of contradiction. Feminism is the confrontation with the contradictions that surround women, contradictions that stem from the structure of patriarchal society. Though many believe that social progress—women as heads of state, women as corporate executives, woman as major intellectual figures—has obviated the need for feminism in the contemporary world, the fact is that the contradictions surrounding women have become even more pronounced. As equality has made inroads on patriarchy, the pressure on women to conform to an ideal of female beauty has become stronger. Women receive completely contradictory messages today: be powerful and independent on the one hand, but be sexy and perfectly attired on the other. Since feminism begins as a response to the contradictions of the feminine in society, the increasing evidence of these contradictions bespeaks our ever greater need for it. Rather than being the time of the obsolescence of feminism, we exist in a historical moment that calls for its full flowering.

Feminist film theory, which is the subject of this book, develops out of the feminist project and extends its exploration of the contradictions of the feminine to the filmic screen, where these contradictions have manifested themselves since the beginning of cinema. In 1895, the Edison Manufacturing Company’s early film Annabelle Serpentine Dance depicts the woman as an erotic object, establishing a paradigm that would prevail in cinema up to today. Meanwhile, just a year later, a woman directed what some consider the first fictional film—Alice Guy Blaché’s La Fée aux choux (1896). From its first moments, cinema turns women into the vehicle for male sexual pleasure, and it gives them an opportunity to communicate a specifically female perspective to a wide audience. This contradiction becomes a recurring concern for feminist film theory.

But because the history of cinema has been primarily doleful for women—because the success of Alice Guy Blaché as a director did not lead to future opportunities for other women—the preoccupation of feminist film theory has been critique. It has taken up the feminist struggle by showing how the structures of popular filmmaking work to enforce sexual inequality. It fights alongside feminist practice, and it often provides an avenue for theorizing what feminist practice leaves unremarked. In what follows, we will see how feminist film theory has made a major contribution to both feminism and to our ability to understand the cinema.

One of the ways feminism makes the contradiction surrounding women evident is to lobby for equality. Discussing the need for equality reshapes the conversation and exposes the inequality at work. Feminism advocates for equality between people in all areas, including economic, political, and social realms. As a movement, feminism arose in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century in the United States and the United Kingdom in reaction to the contradictions of femininity and the various inequalities women experienced. These included women not having the vote, not having wide spread access to higher education, not having access to many professions, and not having a right to property. By the mid-twentieth century, feminist movements were also pushing for cultural changes as well. People refer to the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century feminist movements as first wave feminism and to the mid-twentieth century movements as second wave feminism.

First wave feminism focused on gaining women’s suffrage—the right to vote. This wave of feminism was the longest wave thus far since it took seventy years of struggle to gain the right for women to vote. Women achieved the right to vote in the United States with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920. Most countries granted women the vote during the first half of the twentieth century: for example, France in 1944 and Argentina in 1947. But women in Switzerland did not gain the right to vote until 1971, and women still can’t vote in Saudi Arabia and Vatican City.

As in all movements, the suffragists were not unified in their beliefs about how to achieve the vote. Some believed in the power of protest and even hunger strikes, while other groups lobbied politicians and gathered signatures for petitions. Some suffragists infused their protest with theatrical critiques of other restrictive expectations of women. US suffragist Inez Milholland, for example, targeted the tradition of the sidesaddle as a way to protest the right for women to vote when she led a peaceful protest of tens of thousands through New York in 1912, riding astride her horse to the surprise of onlookers. Though first wave feminism focused on the right for women to vote, the impact of the movement was far reaching bringing awareness to issues of equality in all arenas.

It was journalist Marsha Lear who first employed the term “first wave feminism” as she was trying to define the emerging feminism of the late 1960s, which she referred to as a second wave. Her intention was to distinguish the renewed political activity of women in the 1960s from the earlier struggle to gain the vote. Previous to the moniker of “first wave feminism,” the struggle to gain the vote was simply referred to as the “suffragist movement.” Second wave feminism occurred within the context of the anti-Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movements. It arose during a time of civil protest and social unrest in the United States and around the world.

Second wave feminism addressed social, political, and economic inequalities that barred women from the same opportunities that men had. For example, in the late 1950s in the United States a woman working full time made 59–64 cents for every dollar that their male counterparts made, and it wasn’t until the 1963 Equal Pay Act that paying people a lower wage simply because of their sex became illegal.[1] In the United States, the 1968 feminist protests against the Miss America pageant became a marker for the beginning of the movement. Those protesting the pageant argued that it reduced women to objects of beauty and that this status kept them in the home or in low paying jobs. This mode of protest was decidedly more shocking than the methods of first wave feminism. For example, to protest the pageant, women crowned a sheep as Miss America and threw objects such as bras and high heels into garbage cans. Second wave feminism targeted both legal rights, such as the right to an abortion and cultural expectations. The second wave is famous for such slogans as “the personal is political,” which emphasized that the fight for equality had to happen within the home as much as outside the home. That is to say, the expectation that women would do all the cooking, cleaning, and caring for children is tied to the lack of opportunity for women in the public sphere. Second wave feminism worked to change both realms at once.

I will discuss third and fourth wave feminism in the following chapter, but for now I will point out that scholars contend that third wave feminism began in the 1990s as a response to the failures of second wave feminism (both its lack of racial and ethnic diversity and its more dogmatic expectations about how women should act once they have rebelled against patriarchy). Recently scholars have theorized that a fourth wave of feminism now exists, one addressing the failures of third wave feminism as well as defining itself through the internet.

A public discussion of the effects of ideology on women really began with second wave feminism, and feminist film theory arose out of this moment. While feminist film theorists have been involved in the debates over how we should define women, they have mostly been concerned with how women are represented in film and why. Film itself appeared in 1895, which means that feminism and the film industry have in part grown up together. Their relationship, however, has been somewhat fraught. Film as an art has reflected the biases of the social order and amplified the myths of woman as sexual object and woman as mother. Cinema has been an important vehicle for the dissemination of ideology surrounding women, and both feminism and feminist film theory have had recourse to the theory of ideology in order to critique society and film.

One might go so far as to contend that feminism and feminist film theory would be unthinkable without the theory of ideology. The theory of ideology helps feminists to theorize that the attributes associated with femininity emerge as a result of culture rather than nature. In what is probably the most famous feminist statement of all time, French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir argues: “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.”[2] Understanding how ideology works enables feminists to make sense of how half the population of the world could exist in a situation that oppresses them, just as it enables Marxism to comprehend how a majority of people on the planet would agree to work in order to enrich a small minority.

It is important then to begin with a discussion of ideology. Ideology as a concept was born out of the vibrant political debates of the French Revolution in the late 1700s. Specifically, French philosopher Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy coined the term to refer to a science of ideas.[3] He theorized that ideas arose from our bodily senses. For the time, this was a philosophy that flew in the face of religion and secular rule, causing Napoleon to ban the movement of philosophers interested in ideology in 1803.

Since then, the meaning of the term “ideology” has gone through several changes. Today, ideology refers to a system of beliefs. As much as political organizations and legal practices keep society functioning, no society can function without people believing in the ideas that support these practices. For example, the social order still very much relies on the family as the basic unit that structures daily life and produces new citizens to perpetuate it. As individuals, however, we believe in the idea of family as something essential to our own identity rather than just a structure that our social order needs and demands of us. Family itself is an idea that we invest ourselves in, whether we critique it or simply wholeheartedly celebrate it. Ideas about gender have been anchored in the belief in the family. In this sense, the idea of family is entwined with ideas about how women and men act. Family is ideological, and unpacking the ideology of the family has an important place in feminist theory.

One of the main aspects of ideology is that it hides itself. Even if ideology were to proclaim openly “this is ideology,” such a statement would actually function as a form of concealment, hiding some other idea besides what the authorities openly articulated. Codes of behavior designed by a system of beliefs come to be thought of as expressions of nature rather than of culture. We see women, for example, as naturally more fit for nurturing and caring for children. The fact that this seems natural rather than cultural attests to the power of ideology. Despite its natural feel, this is a cultural idea since men can be just as nurturing. This idea of the nurturing woman is not just an idea; it has practical effects, which is why the social order constantly invokes it. The idea of the nurturing woman provides the basis for the exclusion of women from the work force, from politics, and from many other areas of social life. For centuries, patriarchal society proffered the idea that women had a biological disposition to nurturing and thus should stay in the domestic sphere.

One of the first tasks of ideology critique is to make people aware that entrenched codes of behavior are in fact cultural not biological. Oftentimes, just posing questions about entrenched beliefs provides enough distance from the beliefs so that people can see them as beliefs rather than simply as facts about the world. At its most basic, feminism has developed this questioning stance in relation to gender. Asking questions about the roles women are assigned to helps to contextualize those roles. For example, why would birthing a baby necessarily make a person better at raising that child? Why is it more appropriate for the woman to stay home with the children than for the man? Why do men and women take up certain kinds of roles within a family? Why can’t there be different configurations of this? Why are men celebrated when they have many sexual partners while women are shunned? Why are female fashion trends so often restricting movement? This questioning begins to reveal that gender is an ideology, a system of beliefs in which we participate.

The term “ideology” prompts us to recognize that our individual beliefs are part of a larger system of beliefs. This does not mean that we don’t have our own individual ideas. The concept of ideology suggests that our individual ideas always form in relation to the system of beliefs of the social order within which we live, even if in contradistinction to this system. Individual ideas that run counter to ideology can certainly be eventually taken up by an entire society. In this sense, ideology is always changing based on individual participation. Although ideology is always changing, it can also be incredibly recalcitrant. Individuals may work all their lives to change the prevailing ideology without having any success. Nevertheless, ideology can also change more quickly than we would expect.

We can see how radical change can happen if we consider something that seems absurd to us today, such as the sidesaddle. From a practical point of view, the sidesaddle makes no sense at all. It seems impossible to conceive of someone even having the idea for a device that forces women to put both legs on one side of a horse while riding it rather that placing one leg on each side. But this shows the lengths to which patriarchal ideology drives people to think. Since the 1300s until the mid-twentieth century women rode sidesaddle because society considered it unladylike to ride astride. In 2015, not sixty years since the tradition completely died, it seems laughable that a woman would be denied riding astride a horse. But during the reign of the sidesaddle, society shunned women who defied the tradition.

Society considered women who didn’t ride sidesaddle to be unruly, unfeminine, and overly sexual. The sidesaddle restricted women’s movement, which is a common aspect of women’s fashion. It also prevented women from being in complete control of their horse, and many riders and their horses were injured due to this strange one-sided configuration. There had been individual women in history who eschewed the tradition, most famously Catherine the Great, but the force of their individual personalities was not enough to change the recalcitrant ideology that proclaimed riding astride to be unfeminine.[4] How did such an entrenched social expectation change so completely and quickly? The change did not happen in one instant, but once transcended, the past tradition seemed impossible. That is to say, we could not imagine going back to it. The sidesaddle is a good example because it is an item created specifically to embody an idea of femininity that then restricted and controlled women’s bodies. It’s easier to see in hindsight how the sidesaddle was an idea of femininity because it is a material object that human beings produced on the basis of a way of thinking. It reinforced society’s belief system that women needed to be protected, controlled, and restricted in order to be women. The sidesaddle is a material object that represented the ideology of femininity at that time. It’s less easy to see the way we ourselves participate in ideology, especially when it involves our own bodies. How we sit, groom ourselves, and dress—all reflect our relation to the prevailing ideology.

Ideology as a concept is somewhat simple, yet it can shed voluminous light on the complex workings of how individuals relate to their social orders. Belief systems govern our behavior and our social laws. Sometimes laws in place no longer reflect prevailing ideologies and must be changed, and sometimes the creation of new laws helps to create new ideologies. Ideology is not the law itself but a way of relating to the law. Law is constraining and uncomfortable, which is why all people become nervous when the police begin to follow them. Ideology, however, gives us a feeling of comfort in our relationship to the law. It provides us a position in which the force of the law seems muted and even friendly.

The concept of ideology allows us to understand the constructed, dynamic, powerful nature of ideas, of the very ideas within which we live and think. When we use the phrase “to think outside the box,” it usually means to try to think outside of the prevailing system of ideas. Ironically, this has now become a very ideological way of thinking—major corporations encourage their employees “to think outside the box” and advertisements call for consumers to do so—which shows that ideology has the ability to bring every oppositional position within its functioning. But in some sense, the challenge of thinking outside the box remains because this is the essence of ideology critique, and it becomes even more imperative when ideology itself seems to demand this.

For feminists, the concept of ideology allowed them to theorize why women were in certain roles and how we might change these ideas. Feminism analyzed the expectations of women that seemed natural in order to reveal their constructedness. Feminism developed as a questioning stance in relation to the ideologies of gender as they worked to defamiliarize seemingly natural assumptions. As long as feminism exists, the critique of ideology will be central to its project.

In some ways, Destutt de Tracy’s theory that ideas arose from our bodily senses, while now completely outdated, was a critique of ideology. His empiricism was a reaction against the dominance of ideas, a way of conceiving the genesis of ideas rather than just accepting their dominance. Much of the way we interact with our own belief system is not to think about it but to simply enact it. We assess people and situations in an instant based on our ideas but in such a way that feels more like a bodily reaction than a cerebral exercise.

After Destutt de Tracy’s initial theory of ideology, Karl Marx’s analysis of capital marks the next crucial point in the history of ideology critique. Cowritten in 1845 with Frederick Engels, The German Ideology argued that belief systems had the status of a camera obscura that inverts the image. Specifically, Marx and Engels argued that people were blind to the way economic systems shaped us. The German Ideology critiques ideology for disguising the material basis of society and convincing us that ideas rule the world. For Marx, ideology was a belief that ideas shaped the world not material influences. Once people saw, Marx theorized, the material causes of society, then they would no longer be duped by the notion that ideas shaped the world and would thus be free to break the chains of oppression.

Later, Louis Althusser’s essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” pushed the definition of ideology further. Like Marx, Althusser believed in the oppressive nature of ideology, but unlike Marx, he did not think that one could simply get out of it. He detailed all the ways in which institutions such as schools, churches, medical establishments, and the family propagated ideology. He believed ideology hailed the individual in order to force the individual to think of itself as a subject free to act as it wants in the world. Althusser called this process “interpellation,” and he saw it exemplified in the action of a police officer who yells “Hey you” at an individual. When the individual recognizes itself as the subject of this hail, ideology interpellates the individual.

The lasting impact of Althusser’s theory is the conviction, still widely held today, that there is no outside to ideology. We can’t just erase ideology and live in an ideology-free zone. This means that we have to work within ideology to change it rather than just concentrate on tearing it down or attempting to inhabit a utopian outside space.

Other theorists working in psychoanalytic traditions suggested that a theory of ideology should acknowledge that ideology is both conscious and unconscious. People can act on their beliefs without consciously thinking about ideology. We do this all the time: in the ways that we treat each other, in the things that we desire, in the goals that we strive for, and so on. In this sense, our unconscious reactions are especially embedded in ideology. The more we behave socially without thinking about it, the more invested we are in ideology. This is why theorists and activists alike work hard to defamiliarize everyday habits, hoping that if people can step outside their natural responses then they might see that these responses are in fact constructed and can be changed.

Ideology necessarily functions by hiding its own constructed nature. People don’t think, for example, that they are part of a family because it is the prevailing social structure and though constructed it is better than being alone and hungry. They believe that they love their parents, that they simply want to eventually have a family of their own, and that they believe in romantic love as the base of the family. In this way, one of the key aspects of ideology is that individuals assume that they believe in the family because it feels right, not because it is the prevailing system of ideas. This unthinking relation to these ideas is part of why ideology is so powerful. Seeing the contradictory nature of ideology can throw ideology into view and turn an individual’s relationship to it into a much more critical and conscious relationship. Women often have this experience when they know they are capable of working in an appealing job, but they are told that their place is in the home, or they must ride with a sidesaddle, or that they can’t direct a big budget Hollywood film. Feminism arose from women experiencing these contradictions that ideology could not fully obscure.

Ideology does, however, work to erase the appearance of these contradictions that throw the constructed nature of ideology into relief. As thinking individuals, we have the capacity to live with great contradiction, but when that contradiction is made fully evident, it is difficult to continue believing in the two contradictory ideas. For example, today we have an idea of equality on the one hand and yet some accept the idea that women have less natural aptitude for mathematics and science—and thus make up just a small percentage working in these fields. Even though feminists decry this inequality, it nonetheless is accepted as an active ideology. This position has enough traction that even the president of Harvard can feel free to espouse it in public.[5]

One of the main contradictions within ideology that feminism works to point out and tear down is the contradictory ideals of femininity. Feminism has long worked to combat the prevailing ideologies about women. But the ideologies about women are particularly tricky because of their contradictory nature and the multiple ways we work to ignore these contradictions. Throughout much of modern western society, the ideal of femininity has been completely split between the woman as sexual and the woman as nurturing, between the prostitute and the mother. Rather than imagining being sexual and being nurturing as just some possible aspects of women (among others, including smart, aggressive, violent, funny, innovative, mean, loving, and so on), these two qualities become definitive and exaggerated. They become the basis for fantasmatic dueling myths of femininity that have had a huge impact on the social expectations of women. The wager of feminism is that recognizing the ridiculous nature of this contradiction might have the effect of tearing down both sides of the contradiction so that they can be replaced with a recognition of the fundamental problem of subjectivity itself.

One of the conundrums of these contradictory expectations of femininity is that if one inhabits one of them, then one lacks in the other. Both of these myths of femininity have their social benefits: if a woman is sexual, then men desire her, and if a woman is a mother, then she has power over the domestic sphere. The two positions bar women from the public sphere and from opportunities in the workplace. That is to say, if a woman is overly sexual, no one in the workplace takes her seriously, and if a woman devotes herself to mothering, she will not have time to work or receive serious consideration from colleagues. This contradiction birthed feminism. It reacted to the impossible nature of these expectations and the real world limitations that these myths put on women’s lives.

Film as a nascent industry was wide open to women filmmakers, but by the 1930s, when the industry solidified in Los Angeles, it became completely closed to them. It remains relatively closed to women today. In 2015, in fact, the ACLU brought a case against Hollywood to address the blatant sexism of the industry’s hiring practices in relation to women. Film became the dominant medium of visual art and communication in the twentieth century, and it remains a significant presence in the twenty-first century. As a result, representations of gender in film, television, and other media, around the globe have a profound impact on cultural expectations of gender. From Hollywood film to independent film, from advertising to Internet pornography, from you tube videos to smart phone apps, the contradictory images of women are more present now than ever before.

Feminist film theory draws on both film theory and feminist theory to analyze the impact of these representations. It also often turns to female directed films for alternative possibilities. This book will focus on some of the main ways feminist film theorists have approached representations of women and their discoveries. I will focus specifically on three of the main ways that feminist film theorists have approached these issues: theories of identification, theories about how the camera frames the female body and why, and analyses of the female auteur. Theories of identification, and the plethora of critiques lodged against these theories, provided a way for feminist film theorists to analyze how the film form—the camera work, editing, and narrative structure—reinforced the contradictory myths of femininity. Eventually, feminist film theorists moved away from the concept of identification toward concepts such as engagement, which emphasizes desire and multiple ways of interacting with a film. Theories about how the camera frames the female body also considered how the film form produced ideas of femininity but specifically looked at how the camera presents the woman’s body. Along with this, feminist film theory investigated the impact of the way the camera framed only certain types of female bodies and character types that stemmed from the original contradiction between the prostitute and the mother, including the myriad types of working women that are still overly sexualized and the types of mothers that are represented. Feminist film theorists have also looked to the female filmmaker to see how alternatives to these images can be created. In the following chapter, I will go into these three approaches in depth, giving examples that will lead to the analysis of Agnés Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 as an exemplary text for the exploration of feminist film theory.

[1] Today there is still a pay gap, with a woman making 78 cents for each dollar that men make. This number is just a symbol, since race and class also play a large role in the pay gap, so that certain women earn more than others. In addition, some states and professions are better than others, but across the board, it is still true that women earn less than men. Hollywood is actually one of the industries in which the pay gap is very significant: the top paid actors make 2.5 times more than the top paid actresses.

[2] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 283.

[3] His first book on ideology came out in 1801. See Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy, Éléments D’idéologie (Paris: Vrin, 1970).

[4] There were cultures that never adapted the sidesaddle, such as Hawaii and Iceland.

[5] In January 2005, Lawrence Summers, then President of Harvard University, contended that fewer woman had jobs in science and engineering at universities because, in addition to social factors, they had less natural aptitude for the kind of thinking that these positions require.