Welcome to Auteuse Theory

Welcome to Auteuse Theory. The purpose of this blog is to allow us to think about and write about a range of films made by women, from silent re-discoveries to the latest releases, from activist documentaries to mainstream Hollywood features, taking in examples from across the globe, whether famous or obscure. We have no desire to force ham-fisted links between very different films and very different filmmakers, to insist that they fit some pre-designated template of women’s cinema. Quite the opposite; we want to explore the diversity of forms taken by women’s filmmaking across different nations and eras. So why focus on women as a separate category at all? Why isolate their films from those of their male peers and think about them as some kind of exceptional or special case? Well, there’s still the matter of persistent inequality of opportunity within certain key authorial roles in the film industries. We all know the stats: even now, post-Bigelow Oscar win, women only constitute 10% of directors globally, and 15% of screenwriters. This is an improvement on previous years but it’s still (obviously!) a very minor proportion of the whole. As the British director Lynne Ramsay has commented, it’s ‘a bit like a country not being filmed – and that country not having a voice. It really does matter.’ And although we are very reluctant to make simple equations between the fact of there being a woman being at the helm of a film and that film offering a more complex picture of femininity (there have always been battalions of male directors who are very good at telling female-focussed stories), there is nonetheless plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is often true.

Our main subject is film but we will inevitably make forays into television and other media from time to time. We will be focussing predominantly on films directed by women, but we’re also interested in including films which demonstrate female authorship in other ways (writing, producing or performance). And we won’t be thinking about those films solely as women’s films. We don’t want to ghettoise them, so we’ll be connecting them to the time and place of their production, or their place within a genre or a movement, as much as we connect them to each other. There will be no rhyme or reason to the films that we discuss or the order in which they appear, instead we’ll be hoping for serendipitous connections, unexpected correspondences, sharp contrasts, strange juxtapositions; in other words, a blog that aims to be perpetually different and surprising. Most of the writing will be undertaken by the two main authors but interspersed with guest reviews from others who will each bring a fresh perspective.

And, finally, why the title Auteuse Theory? We were scouting around for a name that indicated a response to the old-fashioned auteur theory, and its insistence on ‘virility’ as a marker of directorial quality (all that Hawks and Ford worship). Women hadn’t only been marginalised in the making of films but the select few who had managed to break through were often given short shrift in the founding critical histories of film (with the exception of the highly problematic case of Leni Riefenstahl), until feminist scholars put Arzner, Weber, Guy-Blache, Lupino and Varda back into the picture. And this work of excavation and rediscovery continues – see the Women Film Pioneers and Women and Silent British Cinema websites for ongoing examples. We are aware of the problems of using the French feminised form of a professional name, drawing a gendered distinction between male and female practitioners (just as some publications reject the word actress in favour of actor for both men and women), but in the spirit of subversion, we wanted to occupy and feminise a word - auteur - which still sits at the heart of so much film scholarship and film appreciation. And although the blog is called Auteuse Theory, it might be more appropriate to think in terms of 'theories', the more intellectually generous plural form. These are some theories and thoughts and ideas arising from watching these films made by women. We hope you enjoy reading them…

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Whip It! (Drew Barrymore, 2009)

Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It! has been described as an ‘emo chick coming of age drama’. The film follows Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), a conflicted 17 year old girl from the fictional town of Bodeen, Texas who attempts to negotiate the expectations of her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), a beauty pageant enthusiast, and her own desires. On a shopping trip to Austin with her mother and younger sister, Bliss encounters some roller derby players and her fascination with the sport leads her to sneak off to a game. After lying about her age and trying out in secret, Bliss – now Babe Ruthless (her derby name) - earns a spot on the Hurl Scouts; a underachieving group of misfit women headed by team captain, Maggie Mayhem (Kristin Wiig). The film, then details her experiences of love, friendship and family, as she pursues her passion.
 Barrymore has, of course, enjoyed a lengthy career in front of the camera (which is somewhat exceptional given the oft-discussed short lifespan of female actresses/celebrities) before adopting a role behind the scenes. In 1995 Barrymore began the production company, Flower Films and in 2004 she directed a television documentary on youth voting in the US election process. When asked about her career as a filmmaker, she replied: ‘I try to make movies that I would want to go see rather than ones I would just want to do as an actor. I want people to have movies full of romance and hope and empowerment, something they can escape into and feel good about. I love happy endings’.
Whip It! certainly falls into this category and can be situated within a tradition of female sports films (A League of their Own; Girlfight; Bend it Like Beckham)  which use sport as a lens through which to examine those themes of the melodrama  often coded as ‘feminine’ (namely romance and familial obligation). Whip It! is no exception. The main narrative focus is Bliss and her turbulent relationship with her mother. In many ways, Whip It! taps into the cultural fascination with mothers and daughters as exemplified in Kathleen Rowe Karyln’s Unruly Girls and Unrepentant Mothers, which valorises ‘unruly femininities’. Following her first sexual encounter with Oliver (Landon Pigg), Bliss is confronted by her mother who has since learned of her participation in roller derby. During the heated exchange, it becomes clear that her mother’s real displeasure originates from a concern that derby puts Bliss’ femininity at risk (‘What do you think the world thinks about those girls with all their tattoos? Do you think they have an easy time finding a job or getting a loan application or going to college, or finding a husband’). In response, Bliss simply replies; ‘I’m in love with this’ and in so doing reminds the audience that, despite her obvious attraction to Oliver, Bliss remains committed to an activity which fulfils her in ways that romance cannot. The film ends with Bliss and her mother learning a mutual respect for one another without fully understanding each other’s life choices.
There are some weaknesses in execution, for example, the heavy handed revelation that Maggie Mayhem, (despite her tattoos and passion for derby) is a mother. However, for the most part Whip It! offers a sentimental, but not ‘schmaltzy’ examination of contemporary girlhood which manages to avoid problematic stereotypes of ‘bitchy’, ‘irrational’ and/or ‘passive’ women. Since popular culture fosters an ambiguous relationship with feminist politics, it is often futile to claim that a film is either progressive or regressive in its representation of women. However, refreshingly Barrymore has made no secret of her feminist agenda, which underpins Whip It!. She claims: ‘I love women who have fought to the change the world and made a difference. I want to be one of them myself.’

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