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against a trans narrative (Dir: Jules Rosskam, 2008)

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Running Time: 61 min

Still featuring Jules Rosskam (filmmaker) and his girlfriend in a confessional-style scene

Synopsis:

Through reenactments, interviews, and both informal and structured conversations, filmmaker and subject Jules Rosskam deconstructs the idea of a singular trans narrative. His reflexive film acts more as an intersectional conversation and discussion instigator than as a traditional story-telling documentary. The scenes in the film, which vary in type from confessionals to individual/group interviews to reenactments to dinner table conversations to “behind the scenes” footage, not only respectively contain challenging and controversial conversation, but also engage in conversation with each other, working cohesively to deconstruct the idea of one cohesive trans experience.

Rosskam, often using his own experiences, aptly addresses some of the most pressing, yet coded and hidden topics of FTM trans experiences both through reenactments and his own narrative. These topics include navigating the healthcare system as a transperson, transitioning while in a relationship, evolution from one part of the queer community to another, personal physical comfort in contrast with social perceptions, and constructions of both feminism and masculinity. While representing several experiences of FTM folks and those who surround them, the film also seeks express the importance of individual experiences and the multifaceted and varying aspects of physical and social gender transition.

The film also captures sociopolitical stances of a time around 2008 through its subject’s statements. This was timestamp was particularly noticeable in a conversation about feminism; a group of men are prompted to discuss feminism, and one states, “I wouldn’t go out and say I’m a feminist… I identify as a feminist but I don’t know if that’s a thing I should say.” Rosskam, who certainly engages with more current ideas about feminism and gender, introduces ideas that are just now (in 2015) starting to enter more mainstream vocabulary. Most prevalently are the concepts of passing and an idealized narrative; “the idealized narrative of what it means to be trans has become so pervasive that ultimately we’re all in process to get to a certain endpoint, and that endpoint is to be passable and read as a man or a woman in a world. And then if you’re not passable and read as a man or woman in this world, then clearly you haven’t finished yet.” Rosskam further challenges the binary that sits at the core of the idealized narrative, using footage of himself talking to his girlfriend about his social transition: “I’m afraid you’re going to lump me in with men – and I don’t see myself that way, I don’t identify myself that way.” Furthermore, Rosskam directly confronts the intersectionality that is too often ignored when discussing trans issues and narratives by asking his subjects “how do you think that your race and class impact your transition?” and related questions.

While Rosskam’s film is not a comprehensive view of trans lives, it offers a glance at many pivotal (and often silenced) issues. His involvement in the film (which ranges from confessional footage of himself, to vlogs with his girlfriend, to him appearing on screen to sync sound with audio) gives a humble tone of reflexivity and determination for self growth within an ever-expanding, intersectional, and complicated community that exists within a world designed to work against exactly the identities fostered in his community.

Related Subjects: Gender Studies, Feminist Studies, Queer Studies, Health Studies, Identity Politics

Critic Responses:

“Employing roundtable discussions, confessional on-camera monologues, acted-out skits, rehearsals of the acted-out skits, and rather fine rap poetry, the film can be applauded as an important tool for classroom use, but as a finished product for mass appreciation, Against is too haphazard, too unstructured, too insular. It’s a slightly amateurish paean to academic solipsism broken up by numerous episodes of power.”

Brandon Judell, CultureCatch

“It is inarguable that documentary is meant to create a motion, but “Against a Trans Narrative” does more than this. It creates a conversation, which is the first step towards understanding. Watching films such as these will encourage people to push for an open dialogue about how to make not only Colgate, but society more accepting.”

Reyna LaRiccia, Colgate Maroon-News

Bibliographic items:

Raun, Tobias. “Out Online: Trans Representation and community building on YouTube.” Roskilde University. http://rucforsk.ruc.dk/site/files/40335798/Tobias_final_with_front_page_pfd.pdf

Rosskam, Jules. “The ties that bind are fragile and often imaginary: Community, identity politics, and the limits of representation.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0740770X.2010.529256

William, Gabe. “How I knew I was Trans: My Story and the Trans Narrative.” Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jo3Qav6cLtY

 

Vessel (2014)

Vessel (2014), directed by Diana Whitten, follows Dutch physician and former Greenpeace ship’s doctor Rebecca Gomperts and her organization Women on Waves as they sail from country to country with the hope of providing access to and information about safe medical abortions for women. The film unfolds in chronological order with after-the-fact interviews from Women on Waves volunteers interspersed throughout. The camera centers on Gomperts for the duration of the film but also captures conversations amongst the other volunteers. Whitten includes real-time interviews with the volunteers, as well as supplementary footage filmed by other documentarians and news outlets which gives an account of how citizens on land saw the ship. Whitten is careful to protect the identities of the women who board the ship to get an abortion, as the camera only ever shows their hands or blurs their faces.

The film, which premiered at South by Southwest Film Festival in 2014, consists of almost a decade’s worth of footage and begins with Women on Waves’ first voyage to Ireland. Gomperts’ original plan involved travelling to countries like Ireland where abortion is illegal, helping pregnant women to board the ship, and administering medical (pill-based) abortions in medical in international waters where they would be legally allowed to perform abortions under Dutch jurisdiction. Their approach evolves, however, as they are met with opposition from aggressive anti-abortion activists and national governments. Gomperts eventually decides to change their strategy, knowing that if they cannot get women to board the ship then they will have to help women gain access to the necessary pills on land. She begins by going on a talk show in Portugal and on live television she gives instructions for women to buy and use Misoprostol, a drug which induces abortion about eighty percent of the time. Emily Bazelon describes the shift in Gomperts’ technique in a companion piece written in the New York Times, “The Dawn of the Post-Clinic Abortion”:

As word of Gomperts’ TV appearance spread, activists in other countries saw it as a breakthrough. Gomperts had communicated directly to women what was still, in many places, a well-kept secret: There were pills on the market with the power to end a pregnancy. Emails from women all over the world poured into Women on Waves, asking about the medication and how to get it. Gomperts wanted to help women “give themselves permission” to take the pills, as she puts it, with as little involvement by the government, or the medical profession, as possible. She realized that there was an easier way to do this than showing up in a port. She didn’t need a ship. She just needed the Internet. (Bazelon)

The film captures Women on Waves’ transition to an internet base, Women on Web, as they try to increase their global reach. Text of women’s emails overlays footage of the volunteers responding while still aboard the ship. Women from on Ireland, Philippines, and the U.S. military email Women on Web desperate for information about abortion, and the volunteers reply with explanations of how to access and use Misoprostol. Women can also fill out a consultation on the website and the organization package sends a package with the pills by mail.

There are also several animations throughout the film that contain statistics and information about abortions. One animation shows a map of the world with descriptions about international abortion laws. Accompanying the text are white figures representing women from around the world; they fall and turn black under a statistic claiming that every ten minutes a woman dies due to unsafe abortion is on-screen. Another animation includes directions for how to use Misoprostol. This segment is highly informative, explaining the side effects of the pills, when it becomes necessary to see a doctor, what to say to a doctor, and even recommends having a friend close by or reaching out to Women on Web for emotional support.

Vessel is as much an instructive film as it is an arresting close-up look at the evolution of Gomperts’ grassroots organization. The film does an excellent job of capturing the challenges that confront both Women on Waves and women across the world in regards to choosing to terminate a pregnancy. Through depictions of Gomperts’ and Women on Waves’ creative solutions, Vessel also captures the resilience of women and their collective power that transcends racial, cultural, class, and religious divides.

 

 

Thin (Dir: Lauren Greenfield, 2006)

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Running Time: 102 min

Thin (2006), directed by Lauren Greenfield and released by HBO, follows four women through treatment for disordered eating at the Renfrew Center in Florida, and serves as both an exploration of the struggles these women face in this institution as they try to live their lives and improve their health, as well as a presentation, if not a dramatic exposé, of the politics and running of the treatment center itself. The film follows three women in their twenties and thirties—Shelly, Polly, Alisa—and a girl named Brittany, who has been admitted to Renfrew at just fifteen years old, as they meet with therapists, deal with nurses and staff, and interact with one another and the rest of the patients.

The film crew of Thin is fairly passive in their filming and telling of these women’s stories, forgoing traditional interviews in favor of a cinema verité style that allows the viewer to judge the situations on screen for themselves. Renfrew is presented as a seemingly-endless set of rules that, for Polly and Shelly, are begging to be broken. Thin mainly follows the arc of these two women’s stories, as Shelly deals with her body image and the effect her sickness and her mercurial attitude has on her family, while Polly carves out a niche for herself, both in our eyes and in those of the Renfrew staff, as a sort of troublemaker and leader. She smokes cigarettes where she’s not supposed to; on one of her days off she goes to a tattoo parlor and gets inked; however, Polly is eventually kicked out of Renfrew because Shelly admits that Polly gave her mood stabilizers. While Alisa’s story of being a single mother struggling with an eating disorder and Brittany’s youth and fragile composure also make for compelling side stories, Polly is clearly the “Randall McMurphy” sort of character that the audience finds—and is meant to find—alternately dangerous, charming, and frustrating; indeed, the New York Times wrote in its review of Thin:

““Thin” could have been “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” for women, a rousing parable about the extinction of individual souls by American institutions. But the HBO production, which appears tonight, is a documentary by a compassionate and detached photographer, and not a novel by an inflamed polemicist, and thus its point of view is more passive-aggressive than Ken Kesey’s. That’s O.K. The upthrown hands of the filmmaker, Lauren Greenfield, come through anyway: clearly the treatment for anorexia, even at the Renfrew Center in Florida, one of the plushest eating-disorders clinics in the country, is exasperating. Infuriating, even.”

The film closes after Polly’s and Brittany’s forced exits from Renfrew (the latter having to leave due to her insurance running out, a theme that could be the subject of an entire new documentary), and the filmmakers inform us, in text displayed under photographs of the four protagonist, about their lives post-Renfrew: Brittany relapses and moves back in with her mother, Alisa attempts suicide and returns to Renfrew, Polly goes back to school, still struggling with her weight, and Shelly undergoes electric shock treatment for depression after losing an unhealthy amount of weight. However, visiting the Wikipedia page for Thin reveals a far more grim reality post-2006: that while Shelly, Alisa, and Brittany (after struggling with drugs) managed to get some help after the events of the film, Polly ended up possibly committing suicide in 2008; knowing that she dies after the events of the film, where, despite her recalcitrance and rebellious nature, she is infantilized, condescended to, and thrown out of Renfrew, makes the implications of her death that much sadder. Had she been allowed another chance to stay at Renfrew, she might still be alive today.

What I found interesting while watching the film is that no attention is paid to aspects of aspects of society, especially in the United States, that could very well have played a part in these women and girl developing such severe eating disorders. The focus of the film is very much about the process of the treatment of these sicknesses rather than an exploration of the imagery and visual cues that, especially for a girl as young as Brittany, could have caused these four protagonists to develop unhealthy body images. Additionally, the film is rather narrow in its demographic scope as it focuses on four white women rather than including a more diverse set of protagonists. I would also have been interested to see a reference to a male protagonist, since most of the dialogue around eating disorders follows the stories of women and girls.

Thin aims to demonstrate the experience of being at Renfrew as lived by these three women and one young girl. The juxtapositions of patient experiences and Renfrew staff responses, created just by what Greenfield chooses to cut or leave in, casts Renfrew and its processes in a negative light. Rather than having the patients’ best interests at heart, Thin seems to show, Renfrew’s nurses and staff engage in often cruel gossip about the patients, make jokes about losing and gaining weight while in private, and engage in tone/language policing as a means of exerting power.

Ultimately, Thin is a saddening, sobering depiction of trying to heal in an institution that, on paper, might seem to be a safe, positive place for treatment, but in reality is just as flawed and bureaucratic as any other institution. There are undercurrents of issues that the film easily could have followed, had it decided to go that direction, and thus made a more political statement, but instead Thin presents the evidence, both inside and outside Renfrew, and leaves it up for the viewer to decide who is right and who is wrong—or rather, if there are even any true villains in this piece.

Watch the film online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AL3FeQU4HjU

Live Nude Girls Unite!

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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.

 

Jesus Camp

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Running Time: 87 min

jesustitleIn their film, directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady offer their audiences a glimpse into the experiences of some of the people who form the radical Christian Evangelical subculture. Jesus Camp follows a group of children as they participate in a summer camp called “Kids on Fire,” run by Pastor Becky Fischer. The footage documenting events, and interviews of the participants and their parents at the summer camp, are framed by excerpts of a radio talk show hosted by Mike Papantonio. Papantonio represents the voice of dissent in a film whose subjects purport a very singular religious-political ideology.

The film begins with images of the road and towns in Missouri, while the sound track switches between radio stations reporting the news of Sandra Day O’Connor’s resignation from the Supreme Court and those on which talk show hosts say things like, “We are engaged today in what they call a Culture War. We didn’t start it, but by His grace we’re going to end it. Say, ‘Yes, we want to reclaim America for Christ.’” From here the film goes into Papantonio’s studio where we see him critiquing the religious-right’s role in the political arena. The directors use the first four minutes of the film to establish a political framework through which interpret the events that will unfold.

Most of the remainder of the documentary consists of shots of camp activities and interviews with camp participants Levi (age 12), Tory (age 10), and Rachael (age 9), their parents, and Fischer. Through these interviews we learn that many of the children are homeschooled by their Evangelical Christian parents and are taught things like creationism and that science is untrustworthy. The camp activities range from the more common Christian camp activities like group prayers in which participants beg forgiveness for their sins to seemingly very political activities like praying over a life-size cardboard cutout of George W. Bush.

Given the controversial nature of many of the things shown and said (at one point Fischer compares her summer camp to Palestinian militant training camps for child soldiers), the directors tried to keep their presentation as objective as possible. They expressly desired to keep their own bias out of the film and accomplished this through some interesting documentary techniques. For example, the directors are never seen in the film; the audience only ever hears the answers and the questions posed during interviews. Following the first screening of their film in New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, the directors changed the musical score because they “felt that it was too judgmental-sounding and [they] were painfully trying to come to the film with a neutral eye.”

Despite their efforts to be objective documentarians, Ewing and Grady expressed not being able to resist placing the story of “Kids on Fire” into a national context by putting it in conversation with liberal-Christian Papantonio’s radio talk show. This occurs very literally when, at one point, Fischer calls in to the show and the two hold a debate on the matter of indoctrinating children. Even with the political framework that the directors explicitly create for the story of the camp, the film does manage to present all opinions expressed with respect and in such a way that leaves the audience to come to their own conclusions and question their beliefs.

Nw York TImes review: http://movies.nytimes.com/2006/09/22/movies/22camp.html?_r=0

Interviews with filmmakers: http://www.nycmovieguru.com/rachelgradyheidiewing.html

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWFBfh7gmZc

 

Kinda Sutra, The

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Running Time: 8 min
The Kinda Sutra (2009)

An unnamed girl speaks to the camera
© The Kinda Sutra 2009

Jessica Yu (In the Realms of the UnrealPing Pong Playa) turns her attentions to explore a universal yet simple question of childhood: Where do babies come from? Produced by Nonfiction Unlimited, The Kinda Sutra became an official selection of both the 2010 LunaFestival as well as 2009 Sundance Film Festival. And while the premise may be simple, Yu’s documentary touches on the complex social structures that continue to shape the social discourse on this scientific phenomenon. Through a series of interviews with people of various ages and races, Yu set out to document the countless stories that misrepresent the process of reproduction. Yu makes clear that regardless of social background, adults have created intricate stories, albeit age-appropriate, on this process. Ranging from the story of the stork to a simplified model of preformism, many stories have little to do with the actual event. In some cases, an explanation is not given at all, leaving kids and their endless imagination to piece it together. Coupled with all of this, Yu uses vibrant animations (by Stardust Studios) to illustrate the tales of misguided youths.

Most interestingly, the film ends with a handful of interviews with various children all that have been told the scientific explanation of the sperm and the egg. While surely more accurate, the grammar used across the board reproduces the underlying cultural assumptions about the event of the reproduction. It remains clear that the medical culture has pervaded the popular culture, in seeing the metaphor of the female reproductive system as a machine designed to produce. Quite literally, one interview relates the womb as a mechanized oven. Moreover, extending the metaphor of birthing as labor, such interpretation maintains unnecessary rhetoric of positivity in discussing the maturation and role of the sperm. One interview says that after the “connection” is made, the man “makes the baby.” Undoubtedly, through Yu’s various interviews, we are able to hear the consequences of the current lexicon. As a whole, The Kinda Sutra can act as a vehicle to highlight how people often do not notice the obviousness of everything that is said around them.

Further Readings:

Martin, Emily. “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles.” Signs 16.3 (1991): 485-501. JSTOR. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3174586>.

Martin, Emily. The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction. Boston: Beacon, 1992. Print.

 

Martin Mathay ’15

Healthcaring: From Our End of the Speculum (1976)

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Running Time: 32 min

Lolly Hirsch and her daughter Jean discuss self-examinations
Lolly Hirsch and her daughter Jean discuss self-examinations.

Healthcaring is a short documentary that focuses on the historical and contemporary abuses women have suffered at the hands of mostly male practitioners, and depicts solutions women find to lack of access to comprehensive health care in the 1970s.

The film includes many talking heads of women relating their stories of mishaps with mainstream gynecologists and obstetricians, including victim-blaming following a rape, mistreatment during labor, and general misinformation and disrespect. The women’s anecdotes are often short and intense with no interference from an interviewer. This gives the viewer a sense of the popular attitude of women towards mainstream healthcare, especially because there is a wide range of women speaking to the issue in terms of race and age. Interestingly, there is no discussion of abortion rights in the film at all, which may be due to the politics or morals of the filmmakers, or the fact that the Roe v. Wade decision had recently been made by the Supreme Court and there was uncertainty about the effects of the decision in favor of the child-bearer’s right to terminate their pregnancy.

There is also historical context for the systemic mistreatment of women by practitioners that is shown through archival images and acted narration. There is distinct romanticization of eras past when women would care for each other and there was little interference from men in natural female processes such as menstruation and birth. There is little mention of the benefits that modern medicine provided many patients will including antibiotics and effective birth control. But this ties into the main critique of the film that women have been denied genuine access to knowledge about how their bodies work and how to take care of themselves.

The crux of the film’s message rests in the spaces that women have created to nurture self-knowledge concerning preventative care. Though the women who speak about the clinics that they have created with fondness, they directly express their belief that the health care they had to seek out ought to be provided free of charge to every woman in the United States. There is a great sense of the value in maintaining a space for women that includes lively discussion about relevant health issues, promotion of preventative care procedures, and outreach to the communities that the clinics exist.

Ultimately, this film is very frustrating to watch in the beginning of the 21st century because so many of the problems discussed are still endemic in society today. There is still ineffective education about sexual health throughout the United States and shame surrounding feminine sexuality and the bodies of those with vaginas. There are still political attacks on organizations such as Planned Parenthood that provide much needed educational resources, as well as prenatal and STI medical care. It brings to mind the fact that there needs to be more visibility for women’s health clinics, staffed by community members or medical practitioners, as well as the continuing struggle for comprehensively available healthcare overall, with special attention to the needs of women.

 “Women and Mental Health: A Feminist Review”

“Rejecting the Center: Radical Grassroots Politics in the 1970s — Second-Wave Feminism as a Case Study”

 

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

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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!

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Doing It Ourselves: The Trans Woman Porn Project

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Running Time: 99 min

Doing It Ourselves: The Trans Woman Porn Project is a self-reflexive documentary that explicitly responds to the lack of non-fetishistic media and pornography by allowing trans women to represent their own sexualities with partners of their choosing.

DVD Cover of Doing It Ourselves

Doing It Ourselves DVD Cover

The first scene features Tobi Hill-Meyer, the filmmaker, coming home to the newest film by Trannywood, a studio that produces pornography exclusively featuring gay trans men. She sits down on her couch and begins watching the film and masturbating with a Hitachi. After she orgasms, two of her friends, also trans women, come in, and they discuss the lack of “trans dyke” porn. They decide that with Hill-Meyer’s filmmaking skills, they could make their own porn and she begins filming her friends kissing and then moving into a bedroom. There are three more scenes, each beginning with a brief discussion of performers’ experiences with pornography and what they are expecting from their scene. The film features trans women in scenes with each other, with trans men, and with cis women, often in pre-existing relationships. The performers vary widely in gender presentation and consent is clearly verbally negotiated during sexual encounters, with participants laughing and admitting when things are uncomfortable.

Rather than fetishizing the bodies and especially genitalia of trans women as anomalous, the film emphasizes whole people and interpersonal dynamics. This is done with self-reflexive cinematography. The performers actively discuss filming themselves and there are frequent shots of the performers in the LCD display of the camera. In contrast to mainstream pornography, which shows genitals in intrusive, sensationalized close-ups, Doing It Ourselves features more medium shots, which focus on skin and body movement, frustrating habitual audience attempts to scrutinize physical differences. The performers’ identities also normalize gender and sex variation; surgical status is not emphasized in any way. The DVD extras feature interviews with all the performers, humanizing them and allowing them to speak for themselves about other parts of their lives aside from sex. Hill-Meyer also uses her work to build community, interacting online via tumblr and giving interviews in small queer publications.

Hill-Meyer is planning a sequel, Doing it Again: In Depth, which will be about how trans women navigate relationships and hooking up, both with trans and cis partners. It will explore how intersections such as race, class, ability and survivor status influence how trans women connect and flirt with sexual and romantic partners. It will be released as a two volume DVD, with a volume each on trans women with trans partners and trans women with cis partners. The Kickstarter campaign for the film raised enough funds that a third volume will be made about genderqueer and gender non-conforming trans women, as well as trans women with genderqueer and gender non-conforming partners. The open casting call again encourages people in mid and long term relationships to apply to represent intimate interpersonal dynamics, as well as identities that are underrepresented in pornography, such as people of color, people over forty, and trans men.

Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter

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Running Time: 44 min
Deborah Hoffmann with her mother, Doris Hoffmann, an Alzheimer's disease patient.

Deborah Hoffmann with her mother, Doris Hoffmann, an Alzheimer’s disease patient.

In her film Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter, Deborah Hoffmann details  her mother’s memory loss before and after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.  The film is shocking in its unexpected portrayal of everyday tragedy. Hoffmann explains her experiences with her mother (Doris Hoffmann) directly into the camera, as if to indicate that she herself is emotionally ready to tell the story to a third party. The struggle and sadness she felt as her mother gradually began to forget aspects of daily life seems to be conquered through this film.  Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter “was really done out of necessity,” Hoffmann states, because “it was an all-consuming situation that I needed to deal with in a film.”

Deborah Hoffmann with her mother's suitcase (from "the Suitcase Period"), packed with Lorna Doone cookies.

Filmmaker with her mother’s suitcase, packed with Lorna Doone cookies.

With a moving original soundtrack by Mary Watkins playing in the background, Hoffmann chronicles various stages of her mother’s descent into the illness.  Hoffmann titles each stage:  the Dentist Period is one in which Doris sees notes around her house saying that she has a dentist appointment, so she arrives at her dentist’s office every morning.  Or the Suitcase Period, in which Doris would pack suitcase after suitcase full of anything she thought she could bring on a trip, which often left Hoffmann with full suitcases of Lorna Doone cookie boxes to unpack.  Some of the stages seemed to indicate to Hoffman that her mother was trying to say something. The filmmaker interprets the suitcases as stating that Doris had lived alone in her home for long enough and that it was time for change.  Eventually, as Doris could no longer even remember who her daughter was, Hoffmann moves her mother to a home in which she is separated from her past – separated from all of her possessions that could only cause frustration with the inability to remember any of their origins.  Once settled in her new, more freeing environment (a location specializing exclusively in the care of Alzheimer’s patients), Doris “was used to it instantaneously.”

Hoffmann’s partner and the film’s cinematographer Frances Reid plays a fascinating role in the exploration of a person with Alzheimer’s disease.  Hoffmann explains that throughout her life, her mother did not comfortably support her in her queerness.  However as Doris ages, Hoffmann describes the way in which her life is more about the basics of love.  A scene in the film reveals Doris declaring that Frances is “very nice to me and to [Deborah] – we all love her dearly.”  Hoffmann’s work illuminates the beauty of the fact that discrimination and prejudice no longer exist in this elderly mind.

Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter received a nomination for an Academy Award® for Best Documentary Feature and in 1995 Hoffmann received the Peabody Award “for a remarkable and profound story of a mother and daughter’s courage in facing a debilitating disease.”  The film aired on the 1995 season of POV, PBS’s showcase of acclaimed point-of-view documentary films, which created a partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association and the American Association of Retired Persons to “establish regional activities to raise awareness of resources available to Alzheimer’s care-givers and support groups.”  The film also won both the Teddy and Caligari awards at the Berlin Film Festival.  Before Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter, Hoffmann was already an accomplished film editor with credits including The Times of Harvey Milk and Color Adjustment.

“Hoffmann has made a loving, optimistic and authentic film about her mother, and the struggles to adjust to the changes wrought by Alzheimer’s disease.”  ~William Fisher, Alzheimer’s Association, Greater San Francisco Bay Area Chapter