Women’s films What exactly are they?

Is “Women’s films” a legitimate genre or a political statement?
Is “Women’s films” a legitimate genre or a political statement? | Photo (detail): Justin Hershey © iStockphoto

“Women’s films” – legitimate genre or political statement? Why do some directors shy away from them? Behind terms like “chick flick” and “weepies” is a history of contradictions and a plethora of unanswered questions.

Women have been drawn to the cinema since the very beginning. Back in 1914, sociologist Emilie Altenloh even conjectured that this new form of mass entertainment offered women a way of breaking out of a male-dominated everyday routine. Stars like Asta Nielsen poked fun at the traditional female image and celebrated petulant, adventurous women.

Film to cry at

“Weepies” – films that inspire a good cry – were what women's films were called in the so-called golden age of Hollywood, and scriptwriters were hired specifically for the genre. The film industry made sure its female viewing public was given fantastically styled stars and glamorous femme fatales, and yet the traditional images of women (virgins, mothers and prostitutes) endured despite a sworn shift in the 1930s to clever, witty and even professional, working wives. Actresses began investing in production companies in order to get better roles, but the powerful industry remained a male-dominated world. Female directors were suppressed and even artists such as Maya Deren were marginalized despite having developed her own avant-garde film style using semi-professional 16mm cameras.

It was not until the women's movement in the late 1960s that real international change took place. Emancipation from a paternalistic society became an important element in the overall critique of our social fabric. In many areas, feminists began demanding self-determination for women and brought to light the many examples of lifestyle concepts, role models and employment conditions that put women at a disadvantage. Lesbians and transsexuals began challenging the legitimacy of heterosexually-dominated societies as a whole.

A spirit of revolution

As part of this emancipation, films directed by women also experienced a unique boom in Germany. Women worked their way into the newly established film academies and demanded their fair share of film production funding as well as public attention. Helke Sander, Helma Sanders-Brahms, Ulrike Ottinger, Margarethe von Trotta, Elfi Mikesch, Jeanine Meerapfel and many others were among the first whose films garnered recognition at international festivals, at independent cinemas and on television. They worked in differing formats but still managed to provide the feminine experience with a fresh image and a new voice. Women even began forming new production and distribution structures while a blossoming art-house cinema scene offered female directors a new forum for their work. The magazine Frauen und Film (lit. Women and Film), founded in 1974 by Helke Sander, became a lively platform for discussions. The realistic and socially critical writing styles of Sander and von Trotta, the essayistic film formats of Elfi Mikesch and Jutta Brückner, the phantasmagorical images of Ulrike Ottinger and the documentary films of Helga Reidemeister represented a diversity of works which, as a uniquely feminine film language, had been previously inconceivable.

Today, a level of equality has been reached at the film academy level. The profession of camerawoman has been established. Women work as producers and are in decision-making positions in committees and broadcasting organizations. At first glance, one would think the foundation had been laid for parity in the industry, yet female directors still tend to end up in the low-budget and documentary films segment. It is a rarity that a woman can build a career in this field based purely on creative endeavors. The challenge of balancing family and career is a trap for many that ultimately results in rather precarious positions in film and television production. Still, men are also suffering the consequences of an increased number of film academies combined with a simultaneous and continuous decrease in career opportunities and paid work in the business.

Women filmmakers today

It is perhaps the complex crisis of our culture that women directors don't see their films today as an element of a more defined feminist discourse. Yet films from women like Doris Dörrie, Caroline Link and Hermine Huntgeburth focus for the most part on the traditional archetypes, namely, the intimate interpersonal relationships that seem to be the accepted milieu of women filmmakers. Maren Ade, Valeska Grisebach, Sandra Nettelbeck, Conny Walther and many other television show directors are among the ambassadors of a generation who see the micro-perspective of their narrative as a personal chance rather than a deficit or a limitation.

These days, the daughters and granddaughters of the 1968 generation automatically presume gender equality. “Women's film” festivals or even the term “chick flick” are seen as more of a stigma at this point. The desire not be pigeonholed is what drives decisions regarding festivals, distribution and promotions for films made by women. The leading characters of the first German “women's films” are only very rarely role models these days (many of them taught film); the educational, financial and commercial structures have changed radically under the influence of neoliberal thinking, as has the overall concept of film culture. On top of all that, women directors, like their male counterparts, are faced with the profound crisis afflicting all cinemas in the digital age. Nevertheless, there seems to be renewed interest in the feminine view, along with its conspicuous exclusion in the industry, a fact that was expressed most recently at an international protest against the marginalization of women directors at this year's film festival in Cannes.