Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture
By Adrienne Shaw
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2015, 317 pp., $25.00, paperback
Reviewed by Carmen Maria Machado
The video game industry is both in its prime and at a crossroads. It is a growing market filled with artistically ambitious, envelope-pushing projects in both the corporate and indie arenas, an increasing number of available gaming platforms, and an ever-expanding audience. This fact, combined with its relative newness compared to other media (younger than cinema, television, and literature), you might reason that diversity is, at the least, an active goal.
But Adrienne Shaw’s Gaming at the Edge opens with a grim anecdote that seems to condemn gaming culture as salted earth as far as diversity is concerned: Anita Sarkeensian, a feminist media critic, ran a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 to fund a project titled Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. She aimed to explore the limited roles for female characters in video games, a hardly unheard-of critique of the industry. The result was a horrifying avalanche of digital harassment, from the release of a free game in which the player could beat Sarkeensian “to a bloody pulp,” to threats of rape and murder. This reaction, “troubling yet, perhaps, expected,” says Shaw, drew public attention to the overwhelmingly white, male, heterosexual nature of the gaming world. Heavily occupied by a “militarized [masculine]” demographic, gaming culture has resulted in aggressive harassment campaigns like that against Sarkeensian and the more recent #GamerGate, in which personal information about women critics of gamer culture was posted on social media, and they were threatened with violence and driven from their homes.
In Gaming at the Edge, Shaw offers an astute critique of some of the common wisdom about video games, their players, and representation. Through a series of ethnographic interviews with gamers across the diversity spectrum, Shaw arrives at some of the same conclusions as other scholars about the importance of presenting diverse images in games, but she rejects oft-cited reasons why. People assume video games are different from other types of media, Shaw says, and this is often tied to the issue of representation; however these assumptions—of gaming’s uniqueness and why representation in it matters—are false. Scholars have made the mistake of looking at video games as discrete texts to be analyzed in a vacuum and at identity as immutable. But both identity and games are changeable and context dependent. She writes,
The responsibility for creating diverse images has been foisted upon the marginalized players themselves, for example, in the case of games in which players choose their own avatars and storylines. Shaw calls for “a rejection of that burden,” writing that “[t]he industry, as well as scholars, must treat diversity as a goal in its own right, rather than an exception to the rule or the sole domain of those who are marginalized.” She is deeply critical of what she calls “market logic”: the mantra that if consumers want more diversity in games, they’ll “vote” for it with their dollars. This is both difficult, as diversity is by definition fragmented, and short-sighted: why is diversity the responsibility of marginalized groups and no one else?
Shaw examines the history of representation in certain games, from the infamously offensive Custer’s Revenge, in which the prize for dodging arrows is being able to rape a Native American woman, to the Mario franchise, whose Italian-American plumber protagonist is almost entirely the result of design limitation and happenstance. She tracks sexual and gender identity through the three iterations of the Fablegames, the ever-changing state of Lara Croft and her infamous chest, and the problematic racial content of Resident Evil 5 and a handful of other games. But the book is not meant to be an assessment of bad (or good) representation in video games. Rather, Shaw uses these games to illustrate her points regarding problems with representation.
When games include racially and ethnically diverse characters, she says, they are “selective even when … not necessarily distortive.” As an example, she discusses Madden NFL, a football game. While the game’s adherence to reality cannot be argued—after all, its characters are actual players from the National Football League, which is heavily African American—only games about sports, or urban violence and war, include a significant number of characters of color (and those are almost always men). “Being represented can pose problems as well,” Shaw points out. “Invisibility is usually replaced by a ‘a kind of carefully regulated, segregated visibility.’ Who gets to ‘count’ as a member of a particular group is limited, even as popular representation is made more diverse.” This is true, too, of queer characters, among others: when they do appear, they’re often male, white, and upperclass.
Shaw draws a careful distinction between identifying as and identifying with. Most of her interview subjects did not identify as their avatars, even when the avatars superficially resembled them. They did identify with certain characters—but their identification went beyond simple demographic matching. Furthermore, whereas much gaming scholarship has focused on the idea that games with customizable avatars do more for diversity than set, diverse characters, Shaw believes the opposite. She points out that the customizable games make diversity optional: players who do not choose characters or avatars who are of color, queer (which in gameplay usually manifests simply as having same-sex relationships), female, etc., will rarely encounter them. In contrast, games with set characters could manifest diversity no matter who is playing. However, in reality, these kinds of games, Shaw says, have “less diversity and thus are rich sites for interrogation and intervention.”
One of the most fascinating subtopics of Gaming on the Edge—which is potentially an entire line of inquiry and academic study in its own right—is the way that reality (the idea that the game reflects “how things are/were”) and fantasy (the idea that the game is “just a game”) are wielded as weapons against marginalized players. One the one hand, Shaw cites the example of Fable II, a fantasy role-playing game in which a player can use a magical potion to permanently change gender. However, if he or she does this, the other players inevitably ask about it: “Didn’t you used to be a man?” Shaw dryly notes,
On the other hand, the character design in the hockey game NHL 2K5 is exasperatingly specific—players even choose the width of characters’ muscles—yet it does not permit women or dark-skinned characters, even though “both women and racial minorities have historically been players in the National Hockey League,” writes Shaw. In Fable II, transphobia intrudes even in a fantasy world, where the rules of reality could easily be thrown out; while in NHL 2K5, reality is no match for the notion that it’s “just a game.” “The trouble is,” writes Shaw,
that even in representing worlds that might be, games and much of mainstream media represent very homogenous worlds. Players/audiences are not always given or forced into a space that allows them to escape into, aspire to, or imagine worlds where marginalized groups are not defined by their marginalization.
Shaw concludes that previous scholarship has failed to interrogate the market logic that assumes marginalized people “want to see people ‘like them’ in the media they consume,” and that consumers can use their purchasing power to influence media images. This logic has resulted in a plethora of niche games, including the singularly awful girl games of the 1990s, which were usually pink and involved Barbie, fashion, shopping, and other deeply gendered gimmicks. Shaw points out that “those targeted as a ‘different kind’ of player often see themselves as excluded from both the primary game market and the targeted niche market.” Mainstream players are never confronted with new, different images, and marginalized players are forced into painfully narrow understandings of their demographic and presented with inferior, niche games supposedly designed for them. There’s a difference, Shaw says, between pluralism and true diversity: “[W]hile pluralism further differentiates between norm and other, diversity promotes difference without fetishizing it.”
Shaw’s research does not support the theory that gamers are searching for characters “like them.” Rather, the “understanding of representation as broadly important, without assuming it defines consumption practices, is much more in line with the complex relationship interviewees had with identities, texts, and how they understood representation to matter.” Marginalized people don’t necessarily need to see themselves on the screen, although it may be “nice when it happens”; they want “others to see diverse experiences and identities on-screen.” Representation is important, Shaw says, because “it provides evidence of what could be and who can be possible.”
One of the most satisfying elements of Shaw’s argument is that although she rejects the notion that marginalized people want games to include images “like them,” she then shows why diversity can and should be encouraged anyway. “If marginalized players learned to enjoy games that did not represent them, it is likely heterosexual, white, cisgendered men could, too,” she points out. Experiences such as Gamergate warn that this process may be painful for some of those in the majority—and their resistance could result in harassment as ugly as any we’ve yet seen—but Shaw argues that the change would ultimately be beneficial. “It is not game play that stands to benefit from, or even be dramatically transformed by, more diverse representations but rather culture more broadly.” Considering the youth of the medium and the current state of its diversity disrepair, this is an ambitious goal—but if Shaw is correct, it’s an achievable one.
Carmen Maria Machado is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist, whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, Granta, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other publications. She lives in Philadelphia with her partner.
Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs
By Sally Mann
New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015, 481 pp., $32.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Trish Crapo
Photographer Sally Mann may be best known for the images she created of her children between 1985 and 1991. For the photos in her show Immediate Family, which opened at Houk Friedman Gallery in New York in the spring of 1992, Mann used her three children as models. But hers were not romantic depictions of childhood. Mann photographed her daughter Jessie, her face swollen with hives from insect bites; her son Emmett, waist deep in a river, his expression a dark glower; her daughter Virginia nude, hands on her hips, another little girl in a white dress in soft focus behind her.
The photographs caused a stir. That the children appeared nude was part of the problem, but that wasn’t the only thing the critics found unnerving. These kids were not smiling. They didn’t seem innocent or particularly tender. In one photo, all three children, naked from the waist up, look at the camera with level gazes that one critic read as “mean.” In a nutshell, these were not kids in the way people felt comfortable thinking about kids.
Critics accused Mann of exposing her children to pedophiles or of taking advantage of them. In a New York Times article entitled, “The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann” (September 27, 1992), Richard B. Woodward asked, “Can young children freely give their consent for controversial portraits, even if—especially if—the artist is their parent?”
The controversy spurred by these photos is the primary way I had known of Mann before reading her new book, Hold Still.
Here, Mann relates that she began as a writer, filling stacks of diaries and notebooks from early childhood until her early twenties, when photography took over as her means of expression. Her father gave her his “travel-scarred Leica” in January of 1969, when she was seventeen, and Mann developed her first roll of film while at the Putney School in Putney, Vermont, that spring. Like many photographers, she describes as life-changing the experience of holding those first negatives up to the light, and she began to throw herself earnestly into what she describes as her “True Calling(s), writing and photography.”
Going to boarding school in the North removed Mann from her home in Lexington, Virginia, and the separation kindled what would become a life-long love affair with the southern landscape. Over the years, Mann, born Sally Munger in 1951, took many photographs at the farm along the Maury River where she had spent time as a child, and that she and her husband, Larry Mann, later bought from her family.
The pull of place, memory, and the sense of rootedness in the region’s history are currents that Mann returned to again and again in her work. Often working with large-format cameras and older techniques such as the wet plate collodion process, in which the photographer exposes the image directly onto glass plates, she created black-and-white photographs that ended up seeming both haunting and direct. It was as if staring at something through her camera produced not clarity, in the sense of unveiling her subject, but rather a deeper sensation of its mystery.
In Hold Still, Mann presents small reproductions of many of her photographs, along with thoughts about her creative process and stories of how they were made. And though the book is already a hefty $32.00 in hardback, I longed for a larger format to do justice to these photographs, as well as to the old letters, childhood drawings, snapshots, and other memorabilia that Mann includes as she recounts the history of her parents’ families.
In her writing, as in her photography, Mann is unafraid to expose her own vulnerabilities. In addition to presenting the finished versions of some of the images that were exhibited in Immediate Family, Mann provides unusual insight into her process by including some of the “duds” and “losers” that she made along the way. One example is a photograph taken in 1987 of her son Emmett, waist deep in a river, the flow of the water smoothed to a dark gloss by a slow shutter speed. Tracing her progress toward the final image, Mann shows seven attempts and points out what’s wrong with them: a mask and snorkel calling too much attention to themselves; Emmett standing too far out of the water; an out-of-focus light meter strap falling into the foreground; a strip of reflected clouds that she doesn’t like; and various exposure problems or compositional awkwardness.
In the final photo, the boy seems to have been captured midstride, stepping forward into the current. His fingers are splayed, his hands resting lightly but confidently on the water’s surface. His chin is tilted slightly down, his mouth set in a firm line, and his eyes cut up at the camera with a ferocity that Mann admits may have resulted from having been submitted to repeated takes in a cold river in October, over the course of seven or eight days. Mann insists that her children participated in the photographs of their own accord. She writes,
Mann attributes the misinterpretation of the motives behind her project to a profound divergence between southern and mainstream culture. To illustrate, she recounts the story of a “leather-elbowed, goatee-sporting PhD candidate” who once asked Mississippi writer Eudora Welty about a marble cake that appeared in one of her short stories. How had she come up with that “powerful symbol of the marble cake, with the feminine and masculine, the yin and the yang, the Freudian and the Jungian all mixed together like that?”
Welty paused, then replied in what I love to imagine as a quiet southern drawl, “Well, you see, it’s a recipe that’s been in my family for some time.”
Late in the book, in a chapter entitled, “The Sublime End,” Mann tells of the photographs she made at the University of Tennessee Anthropology Research Facility, popularly called the Body Farm, where human bodies are left to decompose so that scientists may study the stages of decay and the factors that affect it. Sent there on assignment for the New York Times Magazine, Mann hauled her cameras and wet plate collodion darkroom to Knoxville and set about photographing bodies in various stages of decay. The photographs are difficult to look at. They are gruesome, even sickening, such as the one that shows “wasps and yellow jackets … drowning in the spreading brown pond of goo beneath what used to be a face.” For the first time in 400 pages, I found the images in the book to be quite large enough!
But I mean “gruesome” and “sickening” as description, not judgment. I admire Mann’s ability to push past her first squeamishness and keep on looking. And I am moved by her compulsion to understand the mystery of death—which haunts me, too. Her photographs answer questions that, when push comes to shove, I don’t seem to really want answered. I turned away from the marbleized patina of dead flesh, bones laid out in skeletal outline on the earth, corpses lying clothed or nude upon the ground as if rolled from the back of a pick-up and abandoned. But though I found the images unsettling, I knew from everything that came before this chapter, that Mann’s close attention to the decaying physical body is not gratuitous. She is chasing a larger truth. She writes,
Whether she is photographing the effects of her husband Larry’s advancing muscular dystrophy on his body, Civil War battlefields, or African American men, Mann is always focused both on the specifics of her subject and on a larger question that resonates beyond it. In a chapter entitled, “Who Wants to Talk About Slavery?” she writes,
I appreciated these moments when I got a glimpse beneath the black cloth Mann drapes over herself and her large format camera, and into her mind. Not all good photographers are also good writers. Mann is both. For example, this description of what it is like for her to “really see”:
Hold Still is a book not just for lovers of photography but for anyone who has struggled to create, or felt a deep love for a landscape—whether it is the one she was born to or one chosen later—or for anyone who has tried to untangle the knots of family lineage in order to understand herself.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer. She has completed two volumes of The Leyden Portrait Project, a series that, through photographs and interviews, documents the lives of residents in her small town of Leyden, Massachusetts. She also covers writers and the visual arts for The Recorder, an award-winning newspaper in Greenfield, Massachusetts. She recently completed a book, Dune Shack, a compilation of photographs and written musings about her artist’s residency in a dune shack in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Photographs from Dune Shack were exhibited at Trident Booksellers and Café in Boston from mid-May to mid-August. Trish has been awarded a second residency in the dunes in September.
South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration
By Marcia Chatelain
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015, 264 pp., $23.95, paperback.
Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans
By LaKisha Michelle Simmons
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015, 282 pp., $29.95, paperback.
Crescent City Girls and South Side Girls are impressive historical examinations of black girlhood during the early twentieth-century period of de jure and de facto racial segregation in the United States. What makes these critical contributions to girls’, migration, and youth studies, as well as to black and women’s studies, is the authors’ twofold claim: one, that black girlhood holds epistemological importance to these fields; and two, that historians can recover and reconstitute the lives of black girls, despite the silences and absences imposed on youth without gender, race, or class privilege.
The two studies share many commonalities in terms of focus, point of departure, and method. South Side Girls explores the experiences of black girl migrants to Chicago between 1910 and 1940. Crescent City Girls centers on the ways black girls in New Orleans came of age during the latter decades of Jim Crow, from 1930 to 1954. Of interest to both investigations are the actual lived experiences of black girls, not just constructions of their girlhood. The authors push against what the historian Darlene Clark Hine termed the “culture of dissemblance” that has long constituted black womanhood—enveloping within layers of silence much of black women’s lives as migrants and clubwomen in the first half of the twentieth century. In order to provide themselves some psychological protection from emotional and physical exploitation at the hands of whites and black men, black women engaged in elaborate forms of masking, guardedness, and impression management. Recent work in the social sciences—such as Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden’s Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America (2003); Kamesha Spates’s What Don’t Kill Us Makes Us Stronger: African Americans and Suicide (2014); and my own Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman: Voice and the Embodiment of a Costly Performance (2009)—demonstrate the continued relevance of dissemblance. It is the foundation of black women’s demonstration of invulnerability and independence—that is, their strength and respectability—within both the black community and American society at large.
Both authors seek to examine black girls in terms of their subjective experiences of struggle and pleasure. However, if dissemblance defines respectability among generations of black women, if archives are largely indifferent to existence of what Simmons calls “marginalized and sometimes invisible citizens,” and if, as Chatelain writes, “many girls’ footprints are subsumed within the giant steps of adults,” then how is one to access their voices? Doing so requires the utilization and deployment of a “disciplined imagination,” a tool of cultural studies and social history that fosters “new ways of looking at and using sources and scraps that might otherwise be discarded by historians” lacking a focus on black girls and girlhood, explains Simmons. The disciplined imagination constitutes not only a guide for searching for black girls but a challenge to represent them as full human beings. By locating girls’ voices in their responses to social science interviewers, educational and religious institutions that inadvertently recorded their existence, their short stories and essays about romance, and photographs taken of their leisure in safe spaces, both authors refuse to present the black girls of their investigations as flat or simply reactive historical figures.
Migration from the South to Chicago was an intentional effort to give black girls access to the privileged space of childhood. Black families hoped that daughters would “escape domestic service, feel safe at work, and for the first time enjoy being a child,” writes Chatelain. Black northbound girls encountered a childhood constructed through protective work legislation, compulsory education laws, and new choices in consumer and religious “markets.”
Despite relative improvements in their material status, black girls often struggled against powerful constructions of their girlhood. Reviewing the institutional records of the first African American orphanage in Chicago and the black nationalist Moorish Science Temple of America, a precursor to the Nation of Islam, Chatelain reveals how maternalist, racial-uplift rhetoric sharply circumscribed black girls’ experiences of childhood. By insisting that they accept “their eventual roles” as dutiful wives and mothers, the claims of racial respectability denied the existence and independent needs of black girls as children and indeed “accorded with the prevailing notion that black girls were not necessarily children,” Chatelain writes.
Despite the predominance of maternalist rhetoric, however, black girls and women, often working together, did challenge its premises. Chatelain captures a particularly poignant example in the vocational philanthropy undertaken by the black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA). During the 1920s, members of AKA—who were often educated at area majority white institutions—made “scientific” rather than simply moralistic arguments about social progress. They utilized their outreach to urban black girls to introduce them to “such esoteric fields as ‘bacteriology, creative writing and forestry,’” declaring that “all girls had the potential to use professions [rather than motherhood] to uplift the race.” Although advocating young urban girls’ pursuit of these careers might have been idealistic in already deeply segmented, racialized, and gendered employment markets, these professional ambitions significantly refuted the prevailing discourse of racial uplift that permitted black women’s efforts as long as they did not threaten the larger racial project of “restorative patriarchy,” in Chatelain’s words, operating in communities and households.
In their embrace of girlhood as a space of possibility and freedom, black women community leaders mobilized to make the leisure activity of camping accessible to black girls. Established in the early twentieth century as “an unquestionable pleasure of childhood,” camp culture was originally founded to foster the racial superiority and fitness of white children, Chatelain explains. However, with regard to the Girl Scouts, the Camp Fire Girls, and the YWCA Girls Reserves, “black women leaders adapted their instructions and ideas to make them relevant and accessible to black girls,” she says. By financially supporting the operation of camps and pressuring integrated settlement houses to honor their commitments to inclusivity, these black women insisted that black girls be provided with access to recreational activities, contact with nature, and exposure to the “rehabilitative impact” of the outdoors.
Like the politics of respectability, however, the politics of play required good and bad race representatives. Virtuous girls involved in outdoor activity and public events were counterposed against those who were excluded from this image of the “representative girl citizen: teenage mothers, juvenile delinquents, and poor girls.” Summarizes Chatelain, “When civic-minded girls arrived at children’s hospitals to distribute toys during the holidays, wore carefully stitched badges on their uniform sashes, or posed for pictures for the [African American newspaper] Defender, they symbolized the best of African American parents and communities.” In such venues, black girls demonstrated to both white and black audiences that “they too embodied the highest of American ideals and values.”
After exploring both problematic and supportive constructions of black girlhood within the black community, Chatelain exhibits a particularly deft reading for the girls’ voices. She utilizes a disciplined imagination to reread the interview transcripts with girls and their families that led to the black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier’s The Negro Family in Chicago (1932), which argued for the existence of a regressive black matriarchy among migrants, which threatened the patriarchal rights of black men and boys. Moving past the narrative of pathological black femininity, Chatelain interprets the girls’ openings, hesitations, themes, and allusions to argue that their early sexual activity was often the consequence of “naiveté, curiosity, loneliness, and ignorance.” She reveals their lack of knowledge about sex, the peer pressure they experienced to engage in sex, and their revelations of “coercive sex and sexual abuse,” often within their homes. Thus, what Frazier viewed as parents’ inability to control their daughters, Chatelain reads as evidence of adults’ failure to protect them from harm. She concludes that these girls were not bad citizens or negative examples of the race but rather victims of the “gender dynamics, social barriers, and inequalities” that fell especially harshly on the poor.
Simmons calls Crescent City Girls a “cohort biography.” Because it covers a more recent period than South Side Girls, it has an immediacy, much of which emerges through the life-history interviews with New Orleans women that supplement Simmons’s archival evidence. Focused on “the gendered violence of segregation,” she conceptualizes black girlhood within the “double bind of white supremacy and respectability.” The brutality of the first combined with the learned constraints of the second “were the two lenses through which girls came to understand themselves and their place in the world,” writes Simmons. With her explicit attention to sexualized violation and its impact on the psyches of black girls, Simmons reminds us of a point that Ida B. Wells made forcefully in her antilynching treatise, Southern Horrors (1892): black girls were key, yet often overlooked, witnesses to southern violence. Because a major aspect of their subjectivity was constituted through “unwanted sexual contact,” many came to womanhood by internalizing the “peculiar silences” of Jim Crow, writes Simmons.
The still-underappreciated parallel to the “public spectacle” of black boys’ and men’s experiences of lynching were girls’ and women’s ongoing exposure to “meddling,” their term for a range of unwanted sexual advances. As one oral interviewee recollected, “You got hardened to it,” given its ubiquity and the lack of redress, within the white legal system and the male dominant norms of black culture. Although Simmons places most of her focus on girls’ experiences of white-male sexualized violence, she also attends to the lack of bodily safety black girls experienced within their own neighborhoods and homes. Catcalls, touching, and insults were regular threats and encroachments that they were expected to tolerate and accept in the course of growing up. Attending to the “geographies of exclusion and harassment” that included commercial centers, play areas, and residential streets and their affective impact on girls, Simmons captures many of the “small violences of the spirit” that constituted black girlhood.
Despite the magnitude of exclusion and violation in these girls’ lives, Simmons instructively asserts that “without making an effort to recover pleasure, black girls’ lives are narrated only by the trauma of Jim Crow. To consider black girls as full human beings, we need to understand their pleasures just as much as their pains.” She pushes her disciplined imagination most dramatically and importantly in the service of finding, documenting, and reconstituting what she calls black girls’ “pleasure centers.” In these spaces, typically in protective segregated environments, black girls were able to voice their aspirations, forge friendships, and represent themselves in their own words. Simmons examines three examples of such “critical black respatialization” in the lives of New Orleans girls: popular romance reading and writing cultures, YWCA productions, and black Mardi Gras. Each of these pleasure cultures foregrounded “life behind the masks” where, even temporarily, black girls “fought geographic dispossession …. [and] “oppos[ed] traditional geographies of domination.” As they “constructed[ed] alternative subjectivities around enjoyment, intimacy, and fantasy,” they afforded themselves freedom and asserted dignity in a city literally mapped on making those elusive if not impossible for them.
Crescent City Girls and South Side Girls are significant scholarly contributions. Not only do they attend to the role of black girls—both as real persons and imagined figures—in the larger processes of migration and segregation, they also boldly and instructively reject silence and invisibility as the final words on black girls and girlhood. In writing that is accessible and conceptually generative, both books demonstrate not only that black girls existed, but that they mattered—an important challenge to the implicit and ongoing view that girlhood is a whites-only space.
Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant is professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at DePauw University and author of Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman: Race and the Embodiment of a Costly Performance (2009). Her current research project examines the rise of new womanhood as an alternative femininity and its impact on the visions of key feminist Progressive Era social reformers.
Women’s Cinema, World Cinema: Projecting Contemporary Feminisms
By Patricia White
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015, 280 pp., $24.95, paperback
Reviewed by Erin Trahan
I’ll confess to an easy rapport with Patricia White, who quips that Netflix has pegged her as a lover of “dark dramas with female leads.” There’s the fact (me too!), and then there’s the politics of including this information in what is also an ambitious and compelling assessment of global women’s cinema. Women’s Cinema, World Cinema would be a worthy nucleus to a course syllabus, or as I took it, an expertly curated film festival with exclusive bonus material.
White’s previous book, Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability (1999), is treasured by lesbian and queer advocates and considered a must read within media studies. She has also collaborated with Timothy Corrigan on foundational texts such as The Film Experience (2014) and edited essays and lectures by the film scholar Teresa de Lauretis in Figures of Resistance: Essays in Feminist Theory (2007). Just as significant are White’s many decades of on-the-ground advocacy for the distribution and exhibition of women’s cinema.
Because of this, her latest is peppered with the personal (she cites the marquee of her favorite Philadelphia art house to make a point) and grounded in both the practical (how women’s films are made and circulated) and the theoretical (how they are perceived). White has assembled a book that has applicability beyond the academy and could be read, in part or whole, by an array of people working in independent film production and exhibition. Certainly it’s relevant to, if not vitally needed by, feminist cinema-goers in North America.
Nonacademics like me may get lost in some of White’s rhetoric—films’ “enunciation and address” and “accented style” could receive pages of discourse—but her larger effort triumphs: her book expands and shifts how cineastes consider both women’s and world cinema, separately and together. Even more to the point: the films she studies are brilliant. Add them to your queues.
White’s book arrives at a time, she argues, when “women’s cinema as a concept seems to have fallen off the map, even as the field of film studies has taken on the world.” The flourish of support earmarked for women filmmakers by government and nonprofit sectors in the United States, Australia, and Europe in the 1970s has all but disappeared. The great women’s film festivals in North America have folded or morphed beyond recognition.
Even with the fortification of those prior decades, along with the simultaneous expansion of film studies toward what the film scholar Lúcia Nagib calls “a positive definition of world cinema” (in contrast to uses of the term that sanctioned “the American way of looking at the world, according to which Hollywood is the center and all other cinemas the periphery”), White observes that the “political and epistemological motivations of women filmmakers…seem to have been absorbed by market categories.” Consumer labels like “foreign film” or “chick flick,” used wittingly or not on the circuit of North America film exhibition, can unnecessarily abridge film content and limit films’ range of public debate. This process has imprinted, too narrowly, how women’s films from “there” are situated “here.” The dismal, flat-lined statistics of women-made films and their lack of awards across the international board, for example, tell us that troubles remain.
White points out that, like feminism itself, such troubles are neither simple nor singular. Nor is trouble the entire story. Globally, women are making films in greater and greater numbers, and new forms of distribution are opening up more channels of circulation. Likewise, the need for more women media makers has garnered increasing coverage in mainstream North American media, in Oscar speeches, and in social awareness campaigns such as #AskHerMore or #DirectedByWomen. With all of this in mind, White embarks on an ambitious global journey to create a canon of emerging women directors within a few key parameters. She focuses on feature-length, fiction films made in the 2000s—what she also calls “entertainment films”—and she by and large looks at films that have been vetted by esteemed European film festivals and US art house theaters. Still, I’d neither seen nor heard of way too few of these gems.
In her findings, which refreshingly reference not just theorists but also large- and small-scale critics, trade publication interviews, box office sales, and film ephemera such as press kits, posters, and DVD extras, White urges fellow academics (and presumably the rest of us too) to move beyond lenses of our own, monocultural nation states when considering women’s cinema. The category is dear to her (she published an elegiac essay, “The Last Days of Women’s Cinema,” in 2006) and she wants it redeployed. “New critical practices are needed,” she says. Her strategy is to expose the limitations and possibilities of the “terms of visibility” women directors from all nations face today.
For White, those terms include auteurism, cultural authenticity, women’s genres, regional networks, and human rights. She devotes a chapter to each. The terms do not represent White’s ideals; rather she is naming the current points where women’s and world cinema intersect. (To illustrate: imagine an Oscar-nominated foreign language film in which bridesmaids suffer war crimes, and in which the director, who is telling her life story, also stars.) Given that the dim stats about women filmmakers also apply to women film programmers, critics, and jurors who bestow prizes and prestige here, there, and everywhere, it’s worth noting that only one of White’s fields of critique, human rights, has a likelihood of having women in leadership roles and in that way influencing public dialogue.
In keeping with world cinema scholarship, White does not let geography alone dictate the organization of her case studies; she nimbly crosses borders to compare and contrast films based on her own criteria. Thus, the book hops from Australia to Argentina to Iran to India to Lebanon, and moves on to South Korea and China. Filmmakers from continental Africa are missing, as is an accounting for their absence. The few references to African films focus on North Africa; the one comment on sub-Saharan cinema, in the introduction, leaves me curious and wanting more. White writes,
As White is keen to remind readers, women directors set their own terms and, in her case studies, act as “harbingers of new film culture.” That is, women are shifting and innovating the form itself. At least a dozen of the films I watched in preparation for reading the book include images, locations, or storylines that were wholly new to me—and unforgettable. And I watch a lot of movies. (Netflix has me pegged as someone who should read more!)
Indelible are two films by Peruvian-born Claudia Llosa: Madeinusa (2006) and The Milk of Sorrow (2009). Both feature the stunning Magaly Solier as protagonist, in one case as the town virgin for a religious celebration in which sin does not exist, and in the other as an enigmatic young woman who keeps a potato in her vagina to protect herself from sexual violence. In both films the actress’s Andean background is part of the storyline; the films trade on convincing indigenous folklore that Llosa—with Solier as what White reads as “coauthor”—concocts from scratch. With Llosa as part of Peru’s cultural elite and with her family’s involvement in Peruvian politics (an uncle ran for president in 1990), it’s not surprising to learn that critics outside of Peru have failed to fully grasp the class and race debates stirred by the films.
Further complicating matters, in White’s view, Llosa grasps that North American audiences have a propensity for “foreign” films with female characters who overcome unimaginable hardship. Yet her main characters veer off scripts that typically garner sympathy. This transnational self-consciousness “turns the internationally circulating art film’s anticipated display of the signifiers of the exotic national identity and trauma into a performance,” says White. Not only do The Milk of Sorrow’s two women leads become entangled in an exchange of art and commerce (a professional singer promises pearls to Solier, her maid, for songs), but Solier now has an off-screen singing career because of her roles in Llosa’s films. White spells out what happens when a European-identified cultural producer uses indigenous talent for personal gain: “the two women’s power-saturated alliance at the very least indicates a scenario of collaborative female creativity.” She is shading the nuances between The Milk of Sorrow’s leads, but the point, that there’s something generative about women joining forces, is also made for the give and take between Llosa and Solier. White’s discussion of this film is one of few into which she incorporates crew beyond the director or principle actor.
White is at her best, and seems especially comfortable, when closely reading Llosa’s films and those by Argentina-born Lucrecia Martel (La Ciénaga , The Holy Girl , and vThe Headless Woman ); Korea-born Jeong Jae-eun (Take Care of My Cat ); and Taiwan-born Zero Chou (Spider Lilies  and Drifting Flowers ). In these sections she factors in the filmmakers’ biographies and their nations’ filmmaking milieus, all the while offering deep analysis of the films themselves. You could take a weekend, binge-watch all the films by one of these filmmakers (if you can find them: I recommend interlibrary loan and a lot of patience), and then sit down and read what White has to say.
Which filmmaker to choose? There is no wrong turn. White unleashes her full arsenal of examination, including a reading of lesbianism that most critics have failed to acknowledge, on Jeong Jae-eun’s foresighted Take Care of My Cat. The discussion occurs as part of White’s chapter on women’s genres, which includes another recommended section on Lebanese-born Nadine Labaki (Caramel  and Where Do We Go Now? ); Labaki’s well-deserved homeland celebrity has curiously not crossed into North America.
Take Care of My Cat is about five female friends who try to stay connected as they transition from school age to adulthood. (Think Sex and the City meets Girls, but with class consciousness and set in South Korea.) White’s analysis disrupts two chick-flick tropes by defending “girlhood as a subjective social position” and “the strength of affective bonds between women, including erotic ones.” Girls and their modes of communication are too often dismissed; yet when this film was made in 2001, girls in South Korea were on the cutting edge of cell phone use and texting. White shows how Jeong celebrates their innovation as well as their “tender yet skeptical perspective” at this unsettled time in their lives. She makes particularly effective use of frame captures (which differ from the still photographs offered in press kits by film distributors). In one, Jeong splits the screen into four panels, showing all five friends talking on their phones; two others show text messages being composed and received as title overlays. “With its mobile style,” White sums up, “the film intimately signifies the effects of globalization on girls, even as its narrative shows how, as girls, they are likely to get stuck.”
This section is important for several reasons: South Korea is a “full service” cinema hotspot; the region has integrated academic and political communities into its film culture—and that goes for feminists, too; and Take Care of My Cat is one of the few films discussed that depicts girl culture. The overall creative environment is a source of hope for women’s cinema, and even better, as White points out, this film “is not an isolated example of feminist feature filmmaking in South Korea.” Still, it was disheartening yet not surprising to learn that despite strong critical reception, Jeong has struggled to earn a living as a filmmaker. It’s as if White anticipated my cautious optimism with a reminder that feminists need to celebrate the small victories while always pushing for the big ones.
Women’s Cinema, World Cinema is a substantial victory in terms of scholarship and the ripple effect it could have on the far-flung communities of people who care about women’s cinema. In my research I found companion books such as Krista Lynes’s Prismatic Media, Transnational Circuits: Feminism in a Globalized Present (2013), but no single volume completely echoes White’s endeavor. Reading it reminded me why I considered pursuing an academic career and then, weighed down by I thought would be too narrow a scope, I ventured in a different (possibly also too-narrow) direction. My work in independent film journalism and exhibition has been held back by the very terms White describes. After several conversations about the films in this book with like-minded colleagues—the people I count on to be familiar with world and women’s cinema—I realize I’m not alone.
Erin Trahan has worked in film exhibition, production, and journalism for more than 10 years. She currently edits The Independent (www.independent-magazine.org) and writes regularly about movies for radio station WBUR in Boston. Before that she worked as a program officer for a private women’s foundation and as a staff member at the Girls’ Coalition of Greater Boston.