The Personal is Political: The Importance of Female Filmmakers in 1970s US Cinema

Paper by Gabi Baltzell.

It feels as though for decades, women portrayed in the media have always been well-groomed, well-behaved, and well-made ideal women. Audiences have always been given the perfect woman to idealize. In particular, audiences always remember Marilyn Monroe with her bright bottle-blonde hair and her soft-spoken yet lethally sexy attitude. During her time of popularity, this is what women sought out and expected to be. This can similarly be seen in the 70s with Farrah Fawcett and her perfectly shagged hair, lean and athletic body, and happy and likable temperament. Again, this is how women wanted to be and were expected to be, even using Farrah Fawcett’s marketed hairspray. Despite this image being the expectation that women were so expected to enjoy and love, this was far from the truth for many women. During the 60s and 70s, women felt that their patriarchal state was oppressing them on how they wanted to be perceived socially. Women no longer wanted to be housewives that were celibate and cooked and cleaned for their husbands; yet at the same time, they didn’t want to be these ‘sexy in the right way’ women that the media portrayed.

With bra-burning and second-wave feminism, women of the 1970s pushed for their right to be perceived how they wanted to be perceived in society, and one of the significant areas where this needed to be changed was in film and television. Around this time, women started to take more control of how they were portrayed in film. Due to the feminist movement of the 1970s, these contributions to American Cinema changed the industry tremendously in lasting effects that we still feel today. Films made by women in the 1970s are crucial to film and US history due to their contribution to critical points of second-wave feminism, feminist film theory, and independent cinema. I aim to prove this by focusing on the films Wanda (Barbara Loden, 1970) and Girlfriends (Claudia Weill, 1978). Their depictions of women were striking with how they contributed to independent cinema for the time. Women-made films are vital to films today by helping us grow the second wave of feminism with feminist film theory and also helping us create the boundary-pushing independent cinema we know today. Films like these paved the way for cinema that allows for more space and freedom in cinema that we know today.

During the 1970s, second-wave feminism had taken hold of that generation’s women and media and became a huge topic for debate. To look at the women-oriented films made at this time, it is crucial to understand the particular goal of this wave of feminism and those that came before it. In the article “The Difference Problem: Art History and the Critical Legacy of the 1980s Theoretical Feminism,” author Kate Mondloch goes into detail about what the first two waves of feminism consisted of, explaining “… Feminism is typically periodized into three “waves” … a second wave established in the 1960s and broadly focused on social conditions…” (19). During this time, women were more aware of their places within society and how they were perceived, feeling as though the social image of women was out of place with how women felt. This representation is mainly seen within the media. In the chapter “Conditions of Activism: Feminist Film Activism and the Legacy of the Second Wave,” author Leshu Torchin discusses a film journal that observed women in film during this period. Torchin explains that this journal “… in 1972, saw women marginalized in industry, representation, and academe in lower-level jobs, objectified images, and absence from the concern of male critics who celebrated auteurs and denigrated “women’s pictures” (141). Women were rarely included in creating films that represented how they wanted to be portrayed, often being left as actresses portraying women with little personality and story. Women wanted more control over how they would be displayed, wanting more realistic levels and representations, and film was the perfect outlet for this.

Film during the 1970s coinciding with second-wave feminism allowed for women to work in film and make more significant contributions, bringing films that spoke to more women. Author of the book Liberating Hollywood, Maya Montañez Smukler, claims that second-wave feminism and movements allowed for barriers to come down in terms of female filmmakers (3). With women becoming more socially aware of their conditions, they found ways to make their voices be heard to keep the movement going, with film having a tremendous impact on the movement itself. When addressing the use of media in second-wave feminism, Torchin states, “…[media] has given rise to a robust and complex site where debates and discussions take place, and where the discoveries and concerns of feminists from the second wave find expression” (141). Female filmmakers and their new opportunities for artistic contribution opened many doors. They broke new ground to allow for more exposure and discourse to the problems women faced at the time and how women wanted to be perceived. The contribution of women in film also allowed for more new and better things in cinema. In the chapter “How the Personal Became (and Remains) Political in the Visual Arts,” authors Catriona Moore and Catherine Speck discuss second-wave feminism in the visual arts, stating that it made completely new subject matter and art forms that are now crucial to contemporary art practices (85). With these statements, it’s hard to deny the importance of women-made films and the contributions not only to second-wave feminism but also to film theory and study, even creating its margin of academics and study.

When looking at women-made films, one must look at the feminist film theory that revolves around “women’s films” and popular films with depictions of women amid the patriarchy. Feminist film theorists created these theories to understand the differences between industry-made films and women-made films and their depictions of women. In the article “Reflections on Feminist Film Studies, Early and Late,” writer Patrice Petro states, “Feminist film theory aimed to forge a critical understanding of texts, codes, and conventions of sexual difference and saw this project as central to film theory, not restricted in its consequences to a feminist subsection of film studies” (1273). When using film theory to perform analysis on film, many theorists use psychoanalytical theories. Many depictions of women are depicted as drastically different from men, often in ways that potentially harm women. The conventions of feminism contributing to film theory allow for a better understanding of how these depictions of women can be harmful and helpful, understanding where there is discrimination within film and where it can be improved upon. In the article “Feminism and Film,” Patricia White discusses the findings of feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey and the use of psychoanalysis to understand film. “Because psychoanalysis makes sexual difference its central category, feminist thinking can use it to understand women’s exclusion from the realms of language, law, and desire…” (White, 119). Using feminist film theory helps audiences understand where women are left out and deserted in film and in all aspects of life, which creates a more extensive social commentary on women’s lives and allows for the intersection of politics and film.

When looking at the intersection of politics and film, it’s essential to understand that involving feminist theories and feminist viewpoints creates a ground that political intersection is necessary and crucial to incorporate the key points of feminism. When incorporating feminism into film, “… longstanding feminist exercises in ‘personal-political’ consciousness-raising spearheaded the current use of art as a testing ground for various social interventions and participatory collaborations known as ‘social practice’ both in and outside of the art gallery” (Moore and Speck, 85). Political intersection in art allows for women to make their statements on how and why they want to be depicted in particular manners, and using political and social commentary allows for theorists and filmmakers to create a more impactful project and art form that could potentially change the way women were treated in society. When discussing the main goals of feminist film theory, White states, “A concern with representation, in both a political sense (of giving voice to or speaking on behalf of women) and an aesthetic sense, has also united the activist and theoretical projects of women’s film culture” (117). Feminist film theory and women filmmakers are just more than creating films for the masses, it contributes to the history of America and their attitude towards women, and by using politics in cinema, it allows for female filmmakers to create their voice within their society, which happens to be a very prominent element within independent film, then and now.

Independent cinema was the area of cinema where women made films and allowed for their socio-political commentary, no matter how unaccepted it was by the world around them. In the textbook “American Film: a History” by Jon Lewis, Lewis explains the prominence of these films within independent cinema. According to Lewis:
The few women directors working at the time did not benefit from the commercial Hollywood financing that their male counterparts accessed and instead were relegated to independent (“indie”) microfinancing and screenings at art houses, as well as in university film series and film showcases at art museums (353).

Women-made films were not accepted by mainstream society despite this significant second-wave feminist movement happening while these films were being made. These films were meager in budget and rarely screened to the general public due to their controversy and unacceptance. It seems as though this group of women filmmakers that were created by this wave of feminism was treated with even more hostility in Hollywood than they did in the real world (Smukler 4) despite the ever-growing theories and activism within feminism. With women filmmakers being cornered into the independent cinema market, it represents how Hollywood still functioned in a patriarchal imbalance. However, the confinement to independent cinema is not an inherently bad thing as this allowed women to make more significant statements within their films.

In the essay “Feminist Film Theory and Criticism” written by Judith Mayne, she discusses the contributions of women in independent cinema, stating that the goal of women filmmakers is to “… demystify the ‘negative’ images of Hollywood and praise the ‘positive’ images offered by feminist filmmakers” (84). With more freedom to speak politically and socially within independent cinema, women were allowed to make the types of films that they wanted to make and the depictions of women they wanted with the freedom that the auteur movement allowed in commercial Hollywood, but with profound impacts on the feminist movement and agenda. Mayne continues and states that because women so noticeably broke out into independent cinema in the 1970s, discourse suddenly arose, minding issues of realism, representation, and politics (97). Despite not being commercially successful, women filmmakers still succeeded in what they aimed to do and create awareness and expression. However, even though these films did not gain popularity amongst mainstream audiences, they helped create the standard of independent cinema.

One woman made film that gained a cult following and popularity was Wanda (Barbara Loden, 1970). In this film, Wanda, played by Loden herself, is a woman who lacks meaning in life, with her husband just divorcing her and taking her children, but she is perfectly okay with this as she feels she is an ill-fit mother herself. Wanda meets Norman Dennis (Michael Higgins Jr.), a criminal with a mean streak, while she wanders out to find her purpose and forms a connection in where she follows Dennis wherever he goes, even helping him with a failed bank heist. Loden’s depiction of Wanda is one of a woman wanting out; she is so discontent with her life, and even though Dennis does not treat her properly, she still feels as though it’s better than where she was. In the film’s opening sequence, we see Wanda’s home, very cluttered and messy, and while we see people moving through the house, we are constantly bombarded with the sound of a baby crying. We finally find where Wanda is; she’s passed out underneath a sheet on the couch, and we find out that her husband is divorcing her and taking away her children that very day, and the next shot is Wanda walking through a field in an extremely long shot. Wanda’s body is very small relative to the frame, and we see how small she truly feels in her socially accepted life with a husband and children.

Loden also depicts Wanda as an acceptable version of a woman, despite the bad things she gets involved with. When in the car with Dennis, the frame is confined to Wanda’s face and her reactions when Dennis tells her that she isn’t allowed to wear slacks and hair curlers when she’s around him. Despite involving herself with Dennis, she still has feelings of disappointment and sadness. Loden also points out that the way Wanda feels about things is the most crucial part of the film, with her depiction being the focal point of the film. When sexual situations are implied in the film, we do not see the act itself and only its aftermath. By choosing not to depict Wanda in this manner, it allows us to see that Loden wants us to understand that Wanda is an emotional depiction of women; a woman can also be a drinker, a lousy decision-maker, and a bad mom, but she can still have feelings. This is most notably seen in scenes after Dennis is shot and killed in the bank heist and Wanda mourns his death. Wanda is in a bar drinking through her mourning, and a man tries to pick her up in the moments after it happens. We see that she goes with him and is sitting in his car, and he tries to initiate intercourse between them, with the framing being behind them and his back and Wanda’s face being visible. He slowly puts his body over hers, and she gradually disappears, but when she starts to be “suffocated,” she fights back, and she comes back into the frame as she fights back for her power and runs away. Loden’s depiction of Wanda and a striking version of a woman at the time is an essential contribution to independent cinema and feminism. It allowed for the type of characters that commercial cinema and the rest of the world did not allow.

Another film contributing to feminism and independent film is the film Girlfriends (Claudia Weill, 1978). Girlfriends is a film about two friends, Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron) and Anne Munroe (Anita Skinner). The audience watches them as they try to weave their way through modern life, with Susan trying to become a photographer and Anne becoming a wife and mother. This film is an essential feminist film. It depicts the two women in drastically different ways; Susan is an independent and unconventional woman who gets involved with multiple people and focuses on her career. Anne is a woman who commits herself to being a wife and a mother while also trying to be her person outside of these roles. However, the commonality between these two characters is they both find unhappiness in both of these lifestyles, making a controversial statement that one lifestyle is not better than the other. Still, they are not worse than each other. One scene in particular where Anne is trying to write in the dining room becomes bothered by her husband and child. This is paralleled with Susan making dinner and spending time with her boyfriend Eric (Christopher Guest) and becoming increasingly unhappy. The editing of pushing these two scenes together makes a statement on how both women are unhappy despite making what they thought was the better choice.

This film also makes a statement on how women must support and be there for each other as those are the people that will understand you the most. In the first few scenes of the film, Susan and Anne interact with each other in very close proximity, walking around and speaking to each other in their apartment with very little personal space. When Anne states that she is getting married, we get a shot of Susan’s face, and we get the feeling that she is disappointed or feels betrayed. This is a common theme in the film where Susan feels as though Anne abandons her. When they do not have each other, we see them both go through ups and downs. In one scene, Susan tries to sit and talk with Eric, but there is a noticeable distance between them as they speak, and Eric watches a football game. There are cuts back and forth between their faces as they talk, symbolizing the isolation that they are both feeling. Once Eric starts to criticize Susan, we focus on her face the whole time, tying importance to her reaction to these criticisms from Eric. Towards the end of the film, Susan and Anne both realize the importance of having each other in their lives, and they finally talk to each other about their lives. They both get drunk, and Anne’s husband gets home, and Anne leaves Susan to greet her husband, and we linger on Susan’s face as she feels disappointed yet again. This film makes a big statement on women’s roles and how they both bring happiness and sadness. Still, the most crucial part is to be there for other women, and from the last scene, Weill makes a statement on how sometimes the societal roles of women make this difficult to be there for other women.

Women filmmakers are significant when it comes to American film history and society in general. They have significantly impacted second-wave feminism, allowing for more expression and representation of women in media and furthering the normalization of women in film and their social roles. Feminist film theory is a significant contribution to film studies and academics. It allows audiences to take in a social and politically conscious understanding of these art forms while also understanding the social context of the time. Women filmmakers drastically changed independent cinema. They were able to put their flair and contribution to the art form and allow their voices to be heard politically and artistically even if the world around them did not allow them to. Films like Girlfriends and Wanda made new ground for women as these directors made new representations for women. Such representations aligned with how women felt and wanted to be seen at the time and made statements on the importance of women and feminism during this time. Women in film are a crucial aspect that needs to be more understood and accepted. The US still lives in a time where women are underrepresented, despite the significant leaps and bounds that were made. By looking at what women have already done in the context of film, its helpful and impactful in understanding how women have molded film into what we know, and how they will continue mold it while still giving us our rising stars, even if they are now behind the camera.

Works Cited
Girlfriends. Directed by Claudia Weill, Warner Bros., 1978.
Lewis, Jon. American Film: A History. Seconded., New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2019, p. 353.
Mayne, Judith. “Feminist Film Theory and Criticism.” Signs, vol. 11, no. 1, Autumn 1985, pp. 81-100.
Mondloch, Kate. “The Difference Problem: Art History and the Critical Legacy of the 1980s Theatrical Feminism.” Art Journal, vol. 71, no. 2, Summer 2012, pp. 18-31.
Moore, Catriona, and Catherine Speck. Everyday Revolutions. ANU Press, pp. 85-102.
Petro, Patrice. “Reflections on Feminist Film Studies, Early and Late.” Signs, vol. 30, no. 1, 2004, pp. 1272-78.
Schindel, Dan. “How the 1970s Marked a Turning Point for Women Directors in Hollywood.” Hyperallergic, 23 Jan. 2019,
Torchin, Leshu. Feminisms. Amsterdam University Press, pp. 141-48.
Wanda. Directed by Barbara Loden, Bardene International, 1971.
White, Patricia. “Feminism and Film.” pp. 117-31.

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