Film and Feminist Criticism in the High School Classroom
- Grades: 9–12
Millions of teenagers view movies at the theater, on DVDs, or on cable television each day. Teenagers need to be aware of the rhetoric specifically targeting them as a demographic group.
They should be able to recognize manipulation by the entertainment industry, and they should also be able to detect when the media is blatantly sending them a political, spiritual, or moral message. In particular, students need the critical thinking skills necessary to distinguish messages, whether positive or negative, about gender.
The status and image of girls and women and the nature of gender-based representations are compelling topics for today's high school students. Providing students with the skills necessary to recognize and analyze the messages the entertainment industry and the media bombard them with on a daily basis is extremely important.
Many students today have an attitude about politics, religion, and education that questions authority, but they seldom realize how the media is designed to manipulate their emotions (and thus their understanding of social roles), especially as it relates to gender. Film powerfully influences and manipulates teenagers' views of gender roles. That power can be used to further perpetuate gender stereotypes or to provide new roles and concepts with regard to gender.
Conduct a Feminist Criticism
An exercise I use with high school students in the classroom provides them with the tools of analysis that can help them readily spot gender stereotypes and negative or positive representations of gender. It also encourages them to reject or accept these gender messages and urges them to work for change. I have found this particular assignment actually causes an "awakening" to gender issues that carries over to the students' critical analyses of other forms of literature and media.
Initially, there are some general groans about the assignment, usually from the boys in the class who misunderstand the meaning of feminism. They are quite taken aback when I tell them that men indeed can be feminists. Because of this confusion, the lesson begins with the definition of feminism:
"Feminism is, at its core, very simple: the belief that men and women should have equal opportunity for self-expression" (Foss 151).
Once students understand this term, they are then able to begin their exploration through a feminist criticism. My method of writing a feminist criticism begins deliberately with a "fill-in-the-blank" type feminist criticism assignment. My experience has been that students use this approach initially to overcome some of their reticence regarding the complicated concepts of feminism and rhetoric. They are unfamiliar with the language and ideas of each, and I find it necessary initially to simplify the process as much as possible. When students find out that they will be critiquing a film, they become more enthusiastic about the assignment. Since most students are avid moviegoers with many opinions about the films they view, the assignment becomes a wonderful and relevant exercise in critical thinking.
Feminist criticism involves three steps: (1) Analysis of the conception of gender presented in the rhetorical artifact (in this case, the film); (2) discovery of the effects of the film's conception of gender on the audience; and (3) discussion of how the film may be used to improve women's lives (adapted from Foss 155).
The first step, analysis, involves answering such questions as: does the film describe how the world looks at or feels about women, men, or both? Does it embody the perceptions and experiences of women or men or both? How are femininity and masculinity depicted in the film? Do the images conform to or violate society's representation of the ideal woman or man? (155–156).
As an example, I show a sanitized version of the movie Fatal Attraction to the class. Most of the students have never seen this movie, and when I tell you they love it, THEY LOVE IT. They RUSH to class to find out what happens. Then I provide students with a simplified copy of a feminist criticism of Fatal Attraction that I wrote in college. The model provides an example of society's representation of gender. The movie, Fatal Attraction, which was one of the most successful movies of the 1980s, examines the issue of "stalking," a predominantly male behavior, as done by a female. My feminist criticism points out how the film attempts to vilify the single, childless career woman, while sanctifying the stay-at-home, sexualized mother/wife. It is easy for students to see how such messages deprecate the role of women in our society and how they could have a negative impact on women's lives.
In the discussion of the use of the artifact to improve women's lives, "the critic attempts to discover how the analysis of the artifact can be used to alter the denigrating gender role assigned to women and help them live in a new way" (157). This provides both genders with the tools necessary to recognize the manipulative and influential tactics used by rhetoricians, allowing students to either accept or reject the message presented. Indeed, the exercise also serves to point out inequalities or parities with regard to gender. Through their analysis, students are called upon to use their investigative skills and develop insight in order to analyze the numerous messages they come in contact with every day and to challenge stereotypes when they find them unacceptable.
Students frequently tell me that this assignment was one of the most enjoyable of the year because of its long-lasting effect on how they view the world. I have had students do remarkable feminist criticisms of everything from Star Wars to Superbad. The assignment proves enlightening for students not only as they investigate how gender is portrayed in the entertainment industry, but also as they examine how gender roles are continually perpetuated in society.
As a result of exploring gender issues through their feminist criticisms, students are quick to point out gender stereotypes and the positive or negative portrayal of gender in novels, poetry, music lyrics, and TV throughout the rest of the year. The lesson has opened their eyes to the reality of gender representation and power around them and has awakened them to the status and image of females and the necessity for equity in gender-based representation. While my students sometimes tell me I've ruined their movie viewing forever, I know that I've made them stronger critical thinkers who will not be easily manipulated by the media.
For great resources on the subject of film, check out American Film: An A-Z Guide. For more on feminism, Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens explores feminism from a black woman's standpoint, and Gloria Steinem: Feminist Extraordinaire tells the story of one of the most influential feminists of all time.
Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism, Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1989.