The Female Gaze: Essential Movies Made by Women, Alicia Malone. Mango Books, 2018
Earlier this year, while unveiling a list of Golden Globe nominees, actress Natalie Portman called out the exclusion of female directors from the honors by announcing, “And here are the all-male nominees.” Some reacted with negativity, saying Portman had ruined a celebratory moment for those nominated. Others, though, pointed out that she hadn’t stated none of the nominees were unworthy of being nominated–just that, yet again, no female directors had managed to break that award’s glass ceiling.
Excluding female directors from awards is really nothing new and as film columnist and historian Alicia Malone–who also did double-duty as a host on both the now-deceased FilmStruck operation and its entertainingly informative podcast and is now a regular face on the long-may-it-live Turner Classic Movies–makes clear, female directors have, essentially, been written out of film history.
As Malone did with an earlier book (Backwards and in Heels: The Past Present and Future of Women Working in Film, Mango Books, 2017), she reveals this shamefully lost history. Ask many people who directed the first film and, if their film knowledge goes back beyond Harry Potter, they may guess at C.C. DeMille, Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffith. They may not know, as Malone so perfectly recounted in her 2017 book, that the first film director was Alice Guy Blache.
Try to find Blache’s name on a film retrospective. Like her fellow female visionaries, her name has been lost to a history in which male names tend to dominate.
In this year’s The Female Gaze, Malone both shows more of this hidden history but turns her focus to specific films created by the female pioneers of filmdom. Covering 52 specific films–and with commentary at the end of each film’s chapter by a guest writer who tackles a related female-driven film–Malone brings us the backstory on both film and director, insight into plot and person, for films ranging from 1906’s gender-bending The Consequences of Feminism by Alice Guy (a seven-minute comedic commentary one can easily find on YouTube) all the way up to Chloe Zhao’s 2017 feature, The Rider. Lest you fear all the films covered are obscure, non-mainstream affairs, the big female-driven hits are covered as well–A League of Their Own, Big, A Wrinkle in Time, and so on. But what is so important here is that there’s more than just those hits, just those female directors. Often when people mention today’s female directors, they stop after Penny Marshall and Kathryn Bigelow, and Ava DuVernay. This trio of artists, though, are not the Three Horsewomen of the Artform and, as Malone makes clear, women writers and directors have made countless films worth checking out. Countless because, unfortunately, so many of those films have been lost.
Among the writers Malone generously invites onto her pages for commentary on female-shaped films which moved them, are film makers, film students, scholars, writers, critics, and good old cinephiles, ranging from former TCM host, Tiffany Vasquez, to widely-published critic Monica Castillo. Encompassing films with both mainstream and indie interest, if nothing else, Malone’s book serves as a must-see (or at least, must-consider as some films–as with male filmmakers–may not appeal to all tastes) list of films. More importantly, and where it truly shines, is bringing into focus the visionary artists who, due to their gender, have seen their contributions either lost or–as Natalie Portman may have been saying–criminally overlooked.
Alicia Malone photograph by Glenn Nutley