What Film Studies Taught Me About Feminism

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I am always the first person to joke that I have not used my Film & TV Studies degree at all since graduating. I ran into the arms of East European studies and seemingly never looked back. Because in the world of film bros and passionate potential directors, I never quite fit in.

Last night I began reading a textbook on gender in media studies that I found in Oxfam, and I was reminded of just how much the years I spent studying film and television shaped my feminism and laid the groundwork for a love of academia that refuses to free me from its grasp.

I was a feminist before I came to university. I don’t know what marked the beginning of it – common sense, perhaps? Or lived experience? I remember reading blogs by Young Adult authors when I was 14 and 15, and finding feminism within the fandoms of my favourite novels. Through Media Studies A Level I was educated on the importance of representation of women on screen, and the ripple effects of this within the cultural zeitgeist.

But it was in undergraduate film studies classes that my feminist politics was shaped into the driving force that it is today. As I consumed my lecturers’ work, and read countless articles on gender representation, I began to see the world through a distinctly feminist lens.

Like many students, citation was an annoyance to me, a hoop to jump through, a rushed hour at the end of an essay-writing marathon, trying to get each reference right before the looming deadline. It was only after leaving academia that I read the case for citation as a feminist act, citation as an honouring of our roots, a love letter to the scholars who came before us. When I one-day write academic work again, I’m sure I will still find the act of referencing annoying, but I no longer view it as simply attributing the quotes we use and the ideas we’ve borrowed. Citation is a conversation, and as a student it’s easy to feel that your work doesn’t contribute to the wider conversation. But citation exists outside the essays we write, it’s present in our thought processes, it shapes us.

The other day I saw my student email address was set to expire soon, and I found myself reading through emails I sent to a lecturer during my master’s degree. I was looking for an email I wrote about the idea I want to use for a PhD proposal. Instead, I found an email from months earlier, a pivotal moment in the evolution of my feminist thought. I was surprised by how articulate and assured I was. I feel I’ve lost some of that eloquence in the year since. I’ve become so used to keeping my thoughts to myself, tucking my opinions away neatly in the private corridors of my mind.

What stuck out to me most wasn’t my clarity of thought, it was how many of those thoughts I could directly trace back to my undergrad degree, to a particular course, a particular lecturer. I’ve had a handful of teachers in my life who’ve shaped my view of the world. Most of them have been 40-something-year-old men, which is an interesting thing to note in discussions on feminism, but I digress. I look back at those teachers, and I feel their presence in my work and studies, but I forget sometimes just how much they changed my world.

I didn’t feel like I belonged during the first year of my undergrad degree. The more I listened to film bros talk about XYZ director, or how amazing a piece of cinematography was, I felt like I hadn’t quite earned my seat at the table. Because I cared about the story, the politics, the cultural impact. I viewed film as a conduit rather than the art itself. I became a little more invested at the start of second year, when I got to write about fan culture and could engage with research I was actually interested in.

In the second semester of second year, a film history course changed my life. I went in with low expectations, because older students had told me the course was unbearably dull. But fate would have it that there was a new lecturer that year, and she changed the game.
If you have ever taken a film studies class, you will know that it’s an established norm for most films screened to have been directed by men, written by men, starring men. If 30 percent of the films on a 10 week course are directed by women, you’re lucky. Women are cast to the side as special features, elective classes. When this lecturer taught a core course and changed it to feminist film history, where 9/10 films were directed by women, it was revolutionary.

During the first lecture, she talked about the #metoo movement, about abuses of power, women’s voices finally being heard. It was the first time in my academic life where women’s stories were placed front and centre, and in the four years since then, I can clearly see how this rewired my brain. I finally felt like I belonged, that I didn’t have to change myself or my interests to occupy the space I had earned my right to be in.

I was 19 years old, so I became an insufferable fangirl and could only articulate the effect this woman had on me by placing her on a pedestal and viewing her through rose-coloured glasses. I’m sure I was annoying as hell, and if I could go back in time with the knowledge I have now, I would be infinitely less cringe. But in spite of how embarrassing I was, I regularly think back to those months, because it was the most impactful experience of my academic journey. I hope that she could see beyond my puppy-like enthusiasm and know that she changed my life. Her existence gave me the permission I needed to grow into the strong, articulate and self-aware feminist that I have become in the years since.

When I think about citation, and the way our teachers help us grow, she is the first person I think of. The lessons she taught me had ripple effects beyond academia. She helped nourish my fighting spirit, my belief in my own voice, and my penchant for wearing a tonne of eyeliner. If I hadn’t had the joy of being taught by her when I was 19-20, I wouldn’t have grown into the woman I am now, and I wouldn’t have experienced academia in the same way.

Film Studies wasn’t the place I belonged, but I owe it a lot. For one thing, it has given me a level of media literacy that is integral to surviving in such a heavily digital society. After 4 years of having critical thinking skills drilled into me, there is little that I take at face value. Beyond that, I think there is an importance to the things we can see. Gender inequality is much more noticeable when you’re watching a film that has no female characters than when you see a course reading list that only features two women. The feminist fight starts with noticing the conspicuous absences, but it must go beyond this.

The questions that stuck with me from that first film history lecture were “whose stories aren’t being told? Whose voices are allowed to be heard, and why?” These questions have shaped my approach to academia ever since.

To be honest, I didn’t think much about feminist scholarship during the first semester of my master’s degree. It didn’t have an obvious place within the things I was studying. But the feminist lessons I had learned were there with me. Each time I wrote an essay, the question “whose stories aren’t being told?” lurked in the back of my mind, a yardstick for the value of my writing.

In second semester, my favourite lecturer apologised for having fewer women than men on the course reading list, and a lightning bulb flashed in my brain. In years past, I had been particularly sensitive to gender-imbalanced reading lists. When I was in 3rd year, my screenwriting lecturer had put zero female scholars on the course reading list and I was on the warpath for weeks because of it. But this time the (relatively balanced) reading list caught my attention not because of an absence of women on it, but because the mention of this imbalance reminded me to look for the absence of women elsewhere, and to question what it means. See, if you’re taking a course in Russian foreign policy, you’re going to take the absence of women for granted, as I did at first. Because, you know, it’s Russian foreign policy; women are hardly the key players. But that question once again wormed its way into the back of my head: whose voices aren’t being heard?

That same week, one of the assigned readings was written by a woman, and I was in a zoom breakout room with three of my male classmates. Of the four of us, they all disagreed with the premise of the article, whereas I was fascinated by it. I hadn’t looked at the author when I started reading it, but there was something distinctly female about the nuanced way the author looked at the world. It critiqued the rationalism of realist IR, and even though critical geopolitics isn’t ostensibly feminist scholarship, it screamed feminism to me. The lightbulb above my heard burst into a wildfire. Instead of focusing on the absence of women, I became aware of their presence in the most beautiful way. Because feminist scholarship goes beyond noting the absence of women, or studying women on the periphery. Feminist scholarship is also what women contribute to the conversation, and oftentimes we do have different perspectives, because we have been socialised to experience the world in a different way.

The idea of a “feminine sensibility” is contentious, and there are many arguments for it being un-feminist, or that it views gender as essentialist, etc, etc. But when I read scholarship by women that opens my eyes to new ways of seeing the world, that diverge so greatly from realist, patriarchal forms, I do believe there is a uniquely female way of seeing the world, and I believe that it’s important, particularly in a field as male-centric as International Relations.

At that point in my master’s degree, the way I interacted with academia changed. I was no longer just parroting the things I’d learned, I was interrogating them and developing my own ideas. I was the most engaged I had been since that film history course in second year. Perhaps more so, in a way, because now I wasn’t a wide-eyed, passive learner. I had moved on to a new stage.

I began reading about feminist approaches to IR, and finally fused my passion for feminist research with my love of Russian and East European Studies. I read V Spike Peterson’s work, and found the place within feminist research where my interests belonged. Feminism that goes beyond embodied men and women, and looks at gender as an analytical category that can be used to understand power dynamics at play between countries and peoples. Feminist scholarship that allows for the study of places where women are largely absent from politics.

Everything I love learning about comes back to women and feminist work in some way. It was the heartbeat running through the 5 years I spent at university. It’s personal – of course it is. I came here looking for my place in the world, and I searched for it in every book and article I read. But it goes beyond me. Women are amazing and inspiring, and our contributions are often overlooked and undervalued.

One of the many valuable lessons I learned from film studies is how women’s voices are viewed when we do take up space. How if women take up a small slice of the room, men perceive us as dominating it. The more women are seen, the more we are drowned out.

I love learning about real women and the work they do, yet the direction my interests went in was largely theoretical. Which was all good and well last year, but since February, the world has changed.

It’s hard to take a theoretical feminist approach to Russian politics when Russian soldiers are torturing and raping Ukrainian women. When real women’s lives are on the line, the theoretical must be put on the backburner.

Perhaps it’s a blessing that I am not in academia right now, because I don’t know how I would balance the things I want to research with the horrifying realities of the world. The field of Russian studies has been turned upside down by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It faces a reckoning, for the wilful ignorance and trivialisation by Western scholars of Russia’s colonial behaviour.

Each time I look at the process of starting a PhD application, I don’t know where to start. I wonder if I should change the topic I want to research. If I’m such a good feminist, why do I want to research a colonial country that has been (and is currently) responsible for so much cruelty to women and marginalised people?

I have been grappling with these questions for the past few months, and I haven’t come up with an answer. I do believe that studying something doesn’t mean justifying it. We study things to understand them, not to condone them. But isn’t the attempt to understand also a form of condoning? And where we invest our attention is a statement in and of itself.

Would I be a better feminist if I chose to research Ukraine, or other countries that were occupied by the Soviet Union? Would I be a better feminist if I shut up and stopped making the invasion of a country about me and my silly academic problems?

Feminist work is important, the practical and the theoretical. I have spent the past four months reading every day about the horrors in Ukraine, and I have questioned over and over where academic study fits into this, and how trivial it must seem in the face of war. But academia isn’t separate from the world. It is a response to it. At times, it even shapes it.

What I want to research hasn’t changed, as much as I try to find a new idea. It hasn’t changed, but it has evolved and mutated. I read up on post-colonial approaches to the former Soviet Union. I considered the intersection between this and feminist approaches. The question of whose voices aren’t being heard is a complicated one. When the world is turned upside down, so many people are screaming that there will always be voices who are drowned out.

It’s easy to hide away in an academic ivory tower, to cling to the safety of theoretical research and decide it’s something profound. Theory is profound, but only when it is in conversation with praxis. Ideas inform actions, and these change as the world does.

As I bide my time, trying to figure out how to write a PhD application, I juggle a series of decisions. What do I want to research? Who does it benefit? Why is my voice valuable or necessary? What do I do about my lack of relevant work experience? What are the ethical implications of the choices I make?

I circle the hamster wheel and never move forward. I want to reach out to people who can give me advice, but I don’t want to approach them until I have something concrete, until I can prove I’m a good investment. I watch the weeks and months fly by, and tell myself that if I wait long enough, I’ll find the clarity I need.

It’s been 7 months since my graduation, and there are many things I miss about university. Even now that I work here, and the university has become the centre of my universe once again. I miss the feeling of belonging. But most of all, I miss talking to my lecturers. I miss having someone older and wiser who can make the world feel a little clearer.

That is the other feminist lesson my film lecturer taught me: that we’re not meant to do it alone. Feminism is community, it is shared experience, it is learning from the women who came before us and allowing their knowledge to nourish us. The pivotal feminist experiences I had were those of unity. Sitting in a lecture theatre and knowing the women around me shared the experience of feeling seen for perhaps the first time; looking up at the woman teaching me and seeing my own potential staring back; volunteering at my lecturer’s feminist arts festival and being surrounded by so many manifestations of womanhood; reading academic articles and feeling the lifeforce, the passion and power, of women I’d never met.

Not just women. Many men have been integral to my feminist journey. Teachers, lecturers, friends, my boyfriend. There are times when talking to men about feminism feels like teaching someone a second language. It does not always flow easily, yet it helps me see the words of my native tongue in a new light. Feminism is a conversation. A conversation with others, with ourselves. Ultimately what feminism has given me is a lighthouse burning within me, guiding me through the darkness, and drawing others to me.

I find myself rudderless now, without the mentors I crave. I’m at a point in my life where I don’t have much community around me. I don’t have people to look up to. I’m getting older, I can’t play the role of obnoxious ingenue that I used to slide into easily. I think of the women I used to hold on pedestals, and I see myself growing into them, the strength of their voices empowering my own. And I’m not meant to do it alone. I’m not meant to struggle to find meaning in a sea of information. I have always been a person that longed for a mentor, and without one, I can see how it was never just one voice that shaped me.

I have become a bibliography, a list of citations that never had the opportunity to meet until I brought their ideas together within me. When we recognise the uniqueness in our own voices, it’s easy to forget that those voices were also born in conversation with others. We are shaped by each person who taught us, and we amalgamate their ideas and wisdom, mixing it with new ingredients, and create something to call our own.

I am young and idealistic and painfully optimistic. I see beauty everywhere and have yet to become sufficiently jaded. I know that academia is a shitshow right now. I’ve seen how academic institutions have screwed over some of my most influential teachers, and I don’t know how to reconcile that with my own positive experiences of those same institutions. I can look at academia and see everything that’s wrong with it, but the idealist in me still finds space for beauty and wonder. Because the thing I love most in the world is ideas, exchanging knowledge with people, seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. I was a feminist before I came to university, but I have learnt my greatest feminist lessons here, met my most influential mentors. I love university because this is where I built the best of me. Feminism in practice is the notion of “it takes a village”, and for 5 years of my life, this was my village. In the months since I left, I have become painfully homesick.

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