Category Archives: Feminist Debates

No Girls Allowed (dir. Darlene Craviotto, 2011)

Filmmaker: Darlene Craviotto
Year: 2011
Country of origin: United States
Running Time: 52 min.
Original Format: Digital Video, DVD
Tripod
Website

No Girls Allowed 

Up until 1983, Philadelphia’s Central High School enjoyed a longstanding and prestigious reputation as America’s last all-male public school. Darlene Craviotto’s 2011 documentary No Girls Allowed traces the steps taken by seven girls who changed its legacy forever.

The film begins with the court case between Central High and Susan Vorchheimer, who wanted to attend the school because of its superior academic opportunities. Despite a court-ordered mandate to let her in, the school was obstinate in its unisex tradition, and she was not allowed to attend Central. Vorchheimer remained at Girls High, the standard choice for girls in the area. A few years later, a group of six students from Girls High pushed even harder for admittance to the boys’ school and won what Vorchheimer couldn’t; it was not, however, won easily.

In interviews with the women who achieved desegregation at Central, they coolly recount the relentless name-calling, pranks, and the overall sense of heavy isolation inflicted upon them not only by their male classmates but by their male teachers as well. These stories, however, do not infuse the film with the gloominess that may be expected. They discuss the sadness they felt because of these events but seem more excited to recall inspiring moments of resistance: the press conference in which they boldly declared their right to equal education to the media, the astute sense that they were involved in a defining moment for women’s liberation, and the striking image of flowers planted in the urinals of the newly-instated girls’ bathroom (the building had no urinal-free bathrooms, for obvious reasons).

Craviotto’s clear narratorial voice and rigorous incorporation of local newspaper articles and news segments makes No Girls Allowed a valuable resource for anyone seeking a personalized collective account of what happened at Central High. The events that transpired when the Central Six refused to be shut out by the “traditions” so dearly clung to by an ivy-clad institution illuminate feminism’s intersections with educational policy and the patriarchal history of American public schooling.

“The story of the struggle to open Central High School to female students is vividly reconstructed by filmmaker Darlene Craviotto in her engaging documentary No Girls Allowed.”
–  Juliet A. Williams
The Separate Solution? Single-Sex Education and the New Politics of Gender Equality, pp. 167.

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry

Filmmaker:
Year:
Country of Origin:
Running Time: 92 min

broadsheet.com.au

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014), Dir. Mary Dore

Synopsis: Dore’s film covers a huge range of issues in the rise of the women’s movement, mostly between 1966 (beginning a few years back with the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique) and 1971. The documentary covers a range of issues the women’s liberation movement focused on, from abortion to birth control to equal pay to employment opportunities to self-defense and rape, and locates the beginning of the movement in the political energy of the Civil Rights, antiwar, and Black Power movements of the 1960s. The film also emphasizes the huge number of everyday, ordinary women who worked together to begin the movement, underscoring the role of consciousness-raising groups and collective organization rather than focusing on just a few women.

Formally, the film cuts often between interviews — always brief, interesting and relevant — and footage of past protests, speeches, and events, usually featuring the women interviewed. This effort to weave together interviews and past footage makes the film much more engaging than lengthy interviews or tape might be. SBWSA‘s interviews also lend a pleasing affective texture to the film, emphasizing the sense of women involved in the movement that it was long overdue as well as the catharsis and necessary support of consciousness-raising groups and a new (for white women, at least) understanding of the personal as political.

The film touches briefly on certain schisms within the women’s movement and towards the end focuses on the rollback of certain feminist gains such as abortion rights, but overall emphasizes the movement’s unity and triumphs — at the cost, perhaps, of truly delving into the painful and bitter exclusion of and alienation felt by Black women, for instance, from the feminist movement (the issue of lesbianism is given more time, but the Combahee River Collective’s statement and movement, though it emerges a few years past the film’s purview, would be an invaluable addition to the film — along with a few more minutes’ analysis of lesbian separatism, rather than what the documentary does, which is conclude that lesbianism was added and treated as important almost immediately by feminism after the Lavender Menace raised the issue). An unfortunate perpetuation of the universalism of the term “women” pervades the documentary, which, with a few notable exceptions in Fran Beal and Linda Burnham, focuses its interviews mostly on white women (a striking contrast with the footage and images from the past, which clearly show many Black women and other women of color involved in the organizing and activism taking place). The film could have made interesting connections between the ways in which certain spaces within the women’s movement would not permit the entrance of male infant children and modern day trans exclusion, or touched upon any number of issues which are brought up in the film but remain salient for the women’s movement (antifeminism from women, rape culture, etc.) but instead strikes a joyful and positive tone throughout. This is certainly in service of a noble goal of emphasizing the power of collective organizing, but misses the force which acknowledging difference and difficulty can generate.

Suggested uses: There is nothing new here — in fact, there is a lot missing — for those who have taken even an introductory Gender & Sexuality Studies class or studied the rise of feminism. Its most appropriate use might therefore be in high-school US history or possibly health classrooms, or as an engaging way in which to begin to study feminism’s development, though obviously much more research should still be done.

Bibliographic items: “The Woman-Identified Woman.” Written by the group of lesbian radical feminists calling themselves the Lavender Menace and responding to the exclusion of lesbians and lesbian issues from the feminist movement. The manifesto was passed out as part of a demonstration at the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City in 1970 (which did not feature any openly lesbian women). Often cited as a major moment and text in second-wave feminism, perhaps the foundational document for lesbian feminism. The next year, delegates at the 1971 National Organization of Women’s national conference declared lesbian rights a key concern for feminism.

The Combahee River Collective Statement and the anthology Words of Fire, ed. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, both of which provide more nuanced looks than the documentary at Black women’s role in women’s liberation.

The Kickstarter campaign for the film contains interesting information about the filmmaking process and creators’ purposes.

Miss Representation

Year:
Country of Origin:
Format:
Running Time: 85 min

Miss Representation, directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, is a documentary that focuses on the media representation of women and the effect this has on women in society. The main points of the documentary comment on the lack of authentic representation of women in films, TV shows, political offices, news outlets, and other aspects of popular culture mass media consumption that lead to harmful psychological issues for young girls, sustaining this system of oppression. The documentary looks at historical events as well as current events of the disenfranchisement of women in America. It uses interviews with various women of power or those who have been affected by the media misrepresentation, statistic facts about the skewed society we live in, and direct examples from various media sources of harmful and misogynistic portrayals of women or men talking about women. The documentary ends with ways in which we as a society can deny the influences of huge media conglomerates, such as through the political power of  voting and purchasing power that we as consumers have.

Goddag, mit navn er Lesbisk (Hello, my name is Lesbian) (2009)

Directed by Iben Haahr Andersen and Mina Grooss. Denmark, 2009. 52 mins.

This 52-minute documentary discusses the experiences of lesbian women and couples in Denmark. The film contains interviews with each of its subjects wherein they discuss everything from social perceptions of lesbianism in the 1950’s to the sexual liberation of Denmark as a whole to sex toys. The documentary is narrowly focused on lesbians–it does not discuss bisexuals or other queer women. Goddag, mit navn er Lesbisk contains a considerable amount of nudity and sexual content. Almost all of the couples interviewed in the film neatly fit into the stereotypical butch/femme dichotomy that codes lesbianism as heteronormative, though some of the couples acknowledge this stringent categorization as problematic in queer communities and society as a whole. The documentary spends a long time discussing misandrist radical feminist movements and phallophobic lesbian collectives without necessarily addressing that both of these groups make up very small, if at times loud, extremist sectors of the lesbian community. Stylistically, the film includes surrealist animated segments that function as transitions between interviews and subject matter and metaphorical representations of what the voiceover is saying. Thirty-seven minutes into the film, the matter of public perception of lesbian couples is discussed. This issue is key in queer female communities; many female/female relationships are perceived through hetero-lens as strong female friendships when in reality these are romantic and/or sexual relationships.

Related article: http://www.kinseyinstitute.org/ccies/dk.php#homoerot
Especially sections 6 & 7 on hetero-, homo-, and bisexuality, gender and transgenderism.

Screenshot from the film, including an animation to represent gender roles: goddagmitnavnerlesbisk
(source: http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cvideo_work%7C2374360/hello-my-name-lesbian, screenshot by Kemmer Cope)

Live Nude Girls Unite!

Year:
Country of Origin:
Format:
Running Time: 80 min

live-nude-girls-unite

Live Nude Girls Unite! is a documentary about the efforts that went into creating a union for sex workers at the Seattle strip club The Lusty Lady. Taking place from 1996-1997, it was released in 2000. This documentary argues that sex work is legitimate labor and that sex workers are insufficiently protected by current labor laws. It also posits that sex work isn’t an inherently antifeminist practice. The structural practices that encompass sex work are just, in most cases, anti-woman (as well as racist and classist.) The abuses that they protest include: discriminatory hiring based on race, not doing enough to protect the dancers’ privacy, and under paying them. It’s also about the relationship one of the directors – Julia Query – has with her mother. Query’s mother, Joyce Wallace, is a prominent doctor and activist for sex workers in New York. For decades, she drove around in a van handing out condoms and performing STD tests on NYC streetwalkers. She raised her daughter a feminist. Still, Query has trouble telling her that she’s a stripper. When Wallace does learn, she reacts badly. Despite her activism, she believes that sex work is demeaning to women. This reveals the stigma that sex workers have to combat even amongst their most natural-seeming allies. After intense negotiation, they reach a compromise with The Lusty Lady, turning it into the only unionized strip club in the United States at that time.

Whether sex work can be feminist has been a contentious issue within the movement since the 1970s. Known as the Feminist Sex Wars, the discussion is divided into two camps – the anti-pornography feminists and pro-sex feminists. The point of contention is whether sex work is inherently based on the exploitation of women. Anti-pornography activists point to the structural abuse and misogyny inherent in most sex industries, while pro-sex feminists argue that this blanket condemnation overlooks the agency of individual women in the sex industry. In this film, Wallace is anti-pornography while Query is pro-sex. The film itself is pro-sex. Live Nude Girls Unite! contains testimonials from dancers who identify with feminists and describe their sex work as empowering. While the film criticizes the exploitative institutions that house sex work, the dancers/protestors are framed as admirable in seeking their own worker- and performer-centric establishment. The film’s perspective on anti-pornography feminists (via its depiction of Wallace) is disappointment that they can’t overcome their prejudices regarding sex work to engage with a younger generation of activists.

Live Nude Girls Unite! also depicts an intersection between feminism and the labor movement. According to Wikipedia, the labor movement is, “the collective organization of working people developed to represent and campaign for better working conditions and treatment from their employers and, by the implementation of labour and employment laws, their governments.” In the documentary, dancers at the Lusty Lady unionize in order to combat low wages, discriminatory hiring practices, and insufficient protection from abusive clients. Feminist labor movements face the added challenge that women’s labor is often undervalued. For example, mainstream economics has historically ignored unpaid labor performed by women, such as domestic or caregiving work. Sex work, while paying, is deeply stigmatized. Live Nude Girls Unite! documents the ways in which employers try to downplay sex work as labor. The Lusty Lady’s owners were particularly adamant about retaining a description of the performance as “fun.” Alongside downplaying the job’s physical and emotional toil, this would have helped them frame dancing as lower-paying and less regulated “part time” work in court.

At the end of the film, the workers win many of their proposed gains and unionize. In 2003, the Lusty Lady become a worker’s cooperative. It was an important experiment in a sex work establishment owned by the workers themselves. The Lusty Lady closed its doors in 2013 due to declining profits and failed rent negotiations. Julia Query went on to become an author and public speaker. Vicky Funari continues to make documentaries about women’s labor, such as Maquilopolis. (2006)

Links

Interview with Joyce Wallace about her work combatting AIDS in sex workers during the 1980s.

Vicky Funari’s filmography.

Retrospective on the Lusty Lady as of its closing in 2013.

Overview of the Feminist Sex Wars.

Books on The Lusty Lady.

Eaves, Elisabeth. Bare on Women, Dancing, Sex, and Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. Print.

Langley, Erika. The Lusty Lady. Zürich: Scalo, 1997. Print.

Other films by Vicky Funari on tripod. 

Paulina. Dir. Vicky Funari. First Run/Icarus Films, 1997. Videocassette.

Maquilapolis (city of Factories). Dir. Vicky Funari. California Newsreel, 2006. DVD.

 

Sermons of Sister Jane: Believing the Unbelievable, The (2007)

Filmmakers: Allie Light, Irving Saraf, and Carol Monpere
Year: 2007
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 53 min
View in Tripod
Visit the Official Site

Sister Jane receiving the Eucharist
Sister Jane receiving the Eucharist
© Women Make Movies 2007

The Sermons of Sister Jane: Believing the Unbelievable presents the story of one nun’s struggle against the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Her activism begins with her attempts to stop sexual abuse and corruption within her local diocese. The film chronicles her quest in battling the abuses rampant in her church, as she first contacts the bishop, who ignores the evidence she presents, and later a representative of the Vatican, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). When her attempts to deal with Church officials fail, she contacts the press, stirring controversy. Her struggle with the Church hierarchy is not limited to the lack of recognition of the sexual abuse occurring in her parish, but it also includes disagreement with the Church’s teachings on issues such as birth control, homosexuality, the ordination of women, and even the Virgin Birth.

Through its presentation of the story of a single woman, The Sermons of Sister Jane demonstrates the conflicts of faith the wider Catholic Church is experiencing. The documentary juxtaposes images of lay Catholics practicing their faith with interviews with Sister Jane, connecting her discontent with the Catholic leadership and the unmet needs of the people of the Church. With a membership that is more supportive of same-sex marriage than the general population and whose women overwhelmingly utilize contraception, the Church suffers from a large disconnect between the beliefs and practices of the laity of the Church and the official teachings of the Church. Sister Jane is part of a larger movement of Catholics hoping to move away from condemning sexuality and to shift focus to helping the most marginalized populations in society. The Sermons of Sister Jane shows her courage to speak against the Church hierarchy and support social justice through her work with the community dining room at Plowshares, presenting a narrative of Catholic faith that is a much-needed break from the usual coverage of conservative Catholic leaders spouting words of condemnation.

Sister Jane states that “Jesus walked among the poor, the outcasts, the lepers, not the high priests,” spurring her audience to reject the Church hierarchy and instead pay attention to those in need. The format of structuring the documentary around interviews with Sister Jane gives her authority and shifts from the patriarchal Church’s exclusion of women to an alternative model in which women are leading and given a voice. The Sermons of Sister Jane is a powerful documentary exploring the potential for progressive activism in faith communities, women in the Catholic Church, feminist theology, and gender studies in religion.

Ashley Vogel 2013.

Further Reading:

[1] Feminism and Theology, Ed. Janet Soskice & Diana Lipton, 2003

[2] “Pope Francis and the American Sisters,” Mary E. Hunt, Religion Dispatches

[3] “What Should The Vatican Say to the (Last Generation of) Nuns?” Peter Manseau, Religion Dispatches

[4] Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement, Mary J. Henold, 2008

Girl Power: All Dolled Up (Dir: Sarah Blout Rosenberg)

Year:
Country of Origin:
Format: ,
Running Time: 24 min

Girl Power: All Dolled Up traces the inception and development of the phenomenon that birthed the songs of Riot Grrl and the Spice Girls and fueled the writers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: What is “girl power” and who defines it? Setting the candid responses of multiple young girls (aged 4-16) against the responses of women in academia, Sarah Blout Rosenberg makes visible the crushing effects of popular media and entertainment on the development of a female identity.

We are first introduced to the girls sharing what they believe “girl power” is. For Jasmine, 16, “girl power” is about equality: “Females can be powerful and they can do everything males can do.” Karen, 14, takes this a step further, asserting, “girls can do anything guys can do, sometimes they can do it better. And girls can do it differently.” The younger girls also chime in, seeing “girl power” as standing up for those being bullied or as Taina, 12 sees it “feeling good about themselves.” Sharon Lamb, EdD, Professor at the University of Massachusetts, then situates the phrase in a historical context, describing it as emerging in the 70s, a product of second wave feminism that sought to establish that girls could do whatever boys could do. For Carrie Preston, Assistant Professor at Boston University, the continued relevance of “girl power” is reflective of “the desire not to identify as the victim.”

Rosenberg is skeptical, however, of whether this modern-day politics of girl power is even empowering. We see Uma Thurman in a battle scene in Kill Bill, Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, Ke$ha on a red carpet, Miley Cyrus gyrating in a music video, Katara waterbending in Avatar: The Last Airbender the series, Beyonce shakin it in “Single Ladies,” Superwoman, and finally Lady Gaga scantily clad in “Bad Romance.” Interweaving images of women that seem contradictory- Lara Croft and Ke$ha?- the film scrutinizes the very notion of what female empowerment is in popular media and the extent to which this new meaning of “girl power” has been co-opted.

Refreshingly, the voices of the young girls, speaking unabashedly about how they interact with media images of themselves, create the narrative. The younger girls giggle and share their desire to look beautiful all the time, how they relish shopping, and how they want to be princesses. The older girls, however, offer the most poignant critique: while they understand the “business” of it all, they admit they are still attracted to these products and stereotypes. As the level-headed Karen, 14, lamented: “Every girl wants to find Prince Charming. Every girl wants to have pretty stuff. Every girl wants everyone to love them.” Granted, this response is, as many others in the film are, a bit hetero-normative and generalizing. This is Rosenberg’s intention. By layering the voices of an ethnically diverse and wide-ranging group of young girls in terms of age, Rosenberg shows that no girl is exempt from these images and that each girl internalizes them.

While Rosenberg touches on the most widely critiqued and established offenders, Mattel (manufacturer of Barbie) and Disney (creator and disseminator of fairy tale stories of Princesses and Prince Charmings), Rosenberg contexualizes her analysis in the current moment, considering the impact MGA Entertainment (the manufacturer of Bratz), television programs, entertainment magazines, interactive online games, and musical lyrics have on young girl’s self-perception. In the business of making money, even Dora the Explorer falls prey to gendered commodification. When first aired, Dora was the best role model in toys and television for young girls, as she wore “shorts and not skirts” and was adventurous, inquisitive and determined. She has since then been co-opted; girls can buy Dora in the “kitchen, Princess Dora, Dora shopping kits, Dora makeup kits,” all items that “undermine” what she originally symbolized, Professor Lamb laments.

Arguably, it is Rosenberg’s cutting and fusing of seemingly endless multi-media examples that makes her critique powerful: visually, the viewer is so bombarded by commercials and magazine covers showing lip gloss, flowing hair and high heels, that he/she undeniably feels the omnipresence and power of these images. In these moments, the viewer departs from being a spectator to inhabiting the gaze of a young girl consuming the glitter and glam.

It becomes clear that these brands, only concerned with selling their products, teach girls a very problematic sense of “girl power”, one based on beauty, popularity, and approval by men. Girls seeking this sort of disabling empowerment learn another irreversible message: consumption of the right products can grant them happiness. As a scholar in the film puts it, this new sense of “girl power,” namely equating “girl power” with beauty, is oxymoronic. Having nothing to do with “behavior,” “action,” or “enacting change,” this new conceptualization sadly only offers girls a very hollow and temporary means of empowerment.

The documentary ends as it began: revisiting the notion of “girl power” and reinvigorating it. Highlighting female politicians like Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, Rosenberg offers an alternative role model to sex vixens like Kim Kardashian and Nicki Minaj. On a somewhat clichéd note, the girls then share their aspirations, and how they will use their best asset, their intellect, to become: a lawyer, veterinarian, engineer, graphic designer, midwife, teacher, and an artist. Rosenberg gives the last word to a scholar, who, resisting a polarizing classification of what it means to be an empowered woman, provocatively claims–, “the issue is not that you wear pink or are a cheerleader but that the world acknowledge you are more complex than just that.

The faults of Girl Power: All Dolled Up are undeniable– its subject matter is too overdone, the use of heart wrenching and candid responses of young girls is so cliché, its message is very one-sided, and it doesn’t delve very deeply into any of the themes it brings up. Where are the Spice Girls and their role in the resurgence of “girl power”? Where are the representatives from Mattel or MGA Entertainment to offer their side of the story? Why does she not incorporate more historical footage, counter-narratives, really any additional material that would make her argument more complex? In a review for the Buffalo Library, Kathleen Spring, a Librarian at Linfield College in Oregon,  recommends the film but acknowledges it:

“is not significantly distinct from Susan Macmillan’s Girls: Moving Beyond Myth (2004), and the short documentary What a Girl Wants (2001) is a more compelling film of comparable length. Maria Finitzo’s 5 Girls (2001) and Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s Miss Representation (2011) provide fuller, feature-length treatment of the same subject matter; as such, libraries with these films in their collections may opt to pass on Girl Power.”

Paradoxically, while all of these arguments are leveled at the film’s relative simplicity, the film arguably addresses a mature audience. Making interviews with professors and multi-layered media the central devices of criticism, Rosenberg inadvertently ostracizes the young girls who inspired her work. Very young female spectators would maybe understand and identify with the young girls’ stories, but would lose the narration of the scholars and not be able to interpret the connection among the images Rosenberg fuses.

While all that may be valid, I cried throughout the entire short film. The young girl participants answer so candidly that it is impossible to not think back on one’s own childhood;  wanting to be Princesses, loving shopping, going through puberty, and crushing on boys, their story was my story in undeniable ways. Rosenberg’s montage of blatantly sexist commercials really made the targeted nature of them visible and forced me to question whether I internalize and even find pleasure in the images of “femininity” the commercials espouse. Despite being about young girls, this short film should be watched by all girls older than 16 because in its limited and yet vivid exploration of the relationship girls have to popular media, it inspires internal retrospection and the mending and cultivation of one’s own, real girl power!

For more information please visit:

Jasad & The Queen of Contradictions

Filmmaker: Amanda Homsi-Ottosson
Year: 2011
Country of Origin: UK, Lebanon
Format: Color, DVD
Running Time: 40 minutes
Languages: English, Arabic (subtitled)

This documentary from Lebanese director Amanda Homsi-Ottosson explores the controversy surrounding Jumanah Sallum Haddad’s magazine Jasad. Published quarterly, Jasad is an erotic cultural magazine that aims to educate and provide and outlet for Arab sexuality.  Haddad, a writer herself, decided to create an outlet for other Arab men and women to read, write, and discuss arts and literature surrounding ideas of the body.

Contradiction mostly focuses on the debate that has sprung up around Jasad, both between those who view the magazine as beneficial and those who find it to be inappropriate and shameful and between those who believe that it is not serving women in the way it should be. The documentary focuses mainly on interviews with Haddad herself, those who read (or wish to ban) her magazine, and various professionals whose lives are touched by the issues in covered in Jasad, such as a sexual health counselor.

Contradictions paints an interesting portrait of Haddad and her magazine.  The documentary begins with Haddad explaining why she was motivated to create Jasad and continues with street interviews about perceptions of the magazine. Reactions are predictably polarized, ranging from religious denunciations of the magazine to endorsements of the work by young men and women hoping to spread awareness and acceptance of sexuality.

The most interesting part of Contradiction comes when various Jasad readers explain the importance of having such a publication in the Arab world.  It is explained that it is common for Arab men and women to use French or English words for genitalia and sex acts, because the most common equivalent words in Arabic are either offensive or nonexistent. Jasad is portrayed as bringing back ownership of not only the body but the language surrounding the body to Arabic speakers.  The narrative of Jasad can be written as one of decolonization and reclamation.

Contradictions, although unconditionally supportive of Haddad and Jasad, does allow alternative opinions to be expressed through interviews. One in particular offered a valid and interesting critique of the magazine. Two Muslim feminists – one veiled and one not – argue that Jasad is pushing a certain kind of liberation on society. The women explain that there should be no shame in wearing a veil, and that they are “not represented in this ‘revolutionary magazine'”.

Related readings:
I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman, by Jumanah Sallum Haddad, creator of Jasad

The Sermons of Sister Jane: Believing the Unbelievable (2007)

Filmmakers: Allie Light, Irving Saraf, and Carol Monpere
Year: 2007
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 53 min
View in Tripod
Visit the Official Site

Sister Jane receiving the Eucharist

Sister Jane receiving the Eucharist
© Women Make Movies 2007

The Sermons of Sister Jane: Believing the Unbelievable presents the story of one nun’s struggle against the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Her activism begins with her attempts to stop sexual abuse and corruption within her local diocese. The film chronicles her quest in battling the abuses rampant in her church, as she first contacts the bishop, who ignores the evidence she presents, and later a representative of the Vatican, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). When her attempts to deal with Church officials fail, she contacts the press, stirring controversy. Her struggle with the Church hierarchy is not limited to the lack of recognition of the sexual abuse occurring in her parish, but it also includes disagreement with the Church’s teachings on issues such as birth control, homosexuality, the ordination of women, and even the Virgin Birth.

Through its presentation of the story of a single woman, The Sermons of Sister Jane demonstrates the conflicts of faith the wider Catholic Church is experiencing. The documentary juxtaposes images of lay Catholics practicing their faith with interviews with Sister Jane, connecting her discontent with the Catholic leadership and the unmet needs of the people of the Church. With a membership that is more supportive of same-sex marriage than the general population and whose women overwhelmingly utilize contraception, the Church suffers from a large disconnect between the beliefs and practices of the laity of the Church and the official teachings of the Church. Sister Jane is part of a larger movement of Catholics hoping to move away from condemning sexuality and to shift focus to helping the most marginalized populations in society. The Sermons of Sister Jane shows her courage to speak against the Church hierarchy and support social justice through her work with the community dining room at Plowshares, presenting a narrative of Catholic faith that is a much-needed break from the usual coverage of conservative Catholic leaders spouting words of condemnation.

Sister Jane states that “Jesus walked among the poor, the outcasts, the lepers, not the high priests,” spurring her audience to reject the Church hierarchy and instead pay attention to those in need. The format of structuring the documentary around interviews with Sister Jane gives her authority and shifts from the patriarchal Church’s exclusion of women to an alternative model in which women are leading and given a voice. The Sermons of Sister Jane is a powerful documentary exploring the potential for progressive activism in faith communities, women in the Catholic Church, feminist theology, and gender studies in religion.

Ashley Vogel 2013.

Further Reading:

[1] Feminism and Theology, Ed. Janet Soskice & Diana Lipton, 2003

[2] “Pope Francis and the American Sisters,” Mary E. Hunt, Religion Dispatches

[3] “What Should The Vatican Say to the (Last Generation of) Nuns?” Peter Manseau, Religion Dispatches

[4] Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement, Mary J. Henold, 2008

The Business of Being Born (Abby Epstein, 2008)

Filmmaker:
Year:
Country of Origin:
Running Time: 87 min
Producer Riki Lake and Filmmaker Abby Epstein

Producer Riki Lake and Filmmaker Abby Epstein

Format: Color, DVD

The Business of Being Born acts as a long-form argument for the expanding and liberalizing of the American birthing experience. The film follows Maya, one midwife, through a series of home births and private interviews. Meanwhile, we learn from spliced-in interviews with dozens of talking heads about the logistics of hospital births, startling statistics surrounding the probability of c-section, and the harrowing history of the birth experience in America. From the opening, Epstein makes it clear to us that we should question the hospital sterility of certain experts and return to a trust and knowledge of the woman’s body and intuition in birth. In this way, the film is somewhat necessarily gender essentializing, arguing for a natural, wise, and exceptionally gendered experience.

Epstein sets up a constant juxtapositional tug: the audience is swept back and forth from sterile, brightly lit, clearly suspect hospital interviews to graphic but ultimately victorious scenes of women’s home birth experiences. The sheer number of home births prominently featured in the film is impressive, most often including multiple cuts of interviews with the featured mother-to-be. More memorable than the home birth scenes, however, are the shots of hospital births presented. As various radical birth activists within the medical community narrate the seemingly impossible degree to which the typical hospital birth is unnatural, emotionally and literally scarring scenes of women in violent labor or graphic depictions of c-section procedures flash across the screen. Contrasting these scenes with Maya’s incredibly soothing, calm, and wise demeanor, it is clear whose side the audience is supposed to take.

Most interestingly, both Epstein and her producer, actress and talk show host Riki Lake, unexpectedly become pregnant over the course of shooting. The film features both women on screen prominently and often, tracing their own friendship and their prenatal planning. Garnering a lot of press was the scene in which Riki Lake appears totally nude in her own home giving birth, without makeup and shot on a home camcorder. The surprising normalcy of the scene, especially given the number of naked, graphic home-births featured earlier seems much more the point than does the shock value of a naked Riki Lake in labor. Epstein, too, decides on a home birth, but a rather surprising take-away message arises from her birthing experience. Her baby is in danger and premature, causing her, Lake(also present) and Maya to make the swift decision to transfer to the hospital where she delivers via emergency c-section, a procedure repeatedly demonized up until this point. We learn that Epstein’s baby was struggling with prenatal complications and that the c-section likely saved the baby. Only at this moment is the audience sure that the film acts not as a lengthy commercial for midwifery but as an engagement in a fraught argument, as Epstein struggles to reconcile her semi-traumatic birthing experience with the ultimately ideal outcome.

Watch the film on Netflix.

Further Reading:

Film Website: http://www.thebusinessofbeingborn.com/index.php

Davis-Floyd, Robbie E.. Birth as an Americal Right of Passage. Berkely: University of California Press, 1992. Print.

Fox, Bonnie, and Diana Worts. “Revisiting the Critique of Medicalized Childbirth: A Contribution to the Sociology of Birth.” Gender and Society 13.3 (1999): 326-346. Print.

Holden, Stephen . “American Motherhood and the Question of Home Birth.” The New York Times 8 Jan. 2009, sec. Movies: The New York Times Online. Web. 24 Apr. 2011.

“International: Is there no place like home?; Home births. ” The Economist 2 Apr. 2011: Research Library, ProQuest. Web.  26 Apr. 2011.

King,  Kathleen J.. “Interview with Abby Epstein, Director of The Business of Being Born – Page 2 – DivineCaroline .” DivineCaroline: Relationships, Health, Home, Style, Parenting, and Community for Women – DivineCaroline . N.p., 1 July 2007. Web. 24 Apr. 2011.

Macdonald, Margaret. “Gender Expectations: Natural Bodies and Natural Births in the New Midwifery in Canada.” Medical Anthology Quarterly 20.2 (2006): 235-256. Print.

Martin, Karin A.. “Giving Birth like a Girl.” Gender and Society 17.1 (2003): 54-72. JStor. Web. 24 Apr. 2011.

Chloe Browne 2011