‘Political Animals’ Is a Rich and Wide-ranging Study of Contemporary Feminist Film

“Girls to the front!” Sophie Mayer’s superb study of contemporary feminist filmmaking is provocative, critically insightful and addictively readable.

Political Animals, the latest book by Sophie Mayer, comes out swinging: a loving, challenging, critically insightful and addictively readable study of contemporary feminist film. The book’s arrival could hardly be more timely. From the high-profile work of the Geena Davis Institute, through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s inquiry into Hollywood’s discriminatory hiring practices, to London Film Festival AD Clare Stewart’s labelling of the 2015 Festival as “the year of the strong woman” (a categorisation that I address in my article, Suffragette), debate about the status of women in film has come firmly (back) into focus.

The greatness of Political Animals lies, in part, in the lucid and provocative way in which it reflects upon these debates while also taking off in richly rewarding and productive directions all its own. Sophisticated (but accessible) in its employment of theory, beautifully illustrated, and gorgeously written (Mayer is an acclaimed poet as well as an academic and activist, and it shows), this is a vibrant work that sets the mind racing and the heart soaring as it explores familiar (and not so familiar) films in fresh ways.

“Representational justice” is a key concept throughout. For Mayer, “[a] stance of ongoing public activism, rooted in but not limited to gender equality, underlies my definition of a film, filmmaker, film theorist or film viewer as feminist” (p.8). Although she begins by modestly acknowledging the text’s limitations, and noting that the book “isn’t meant to inaugurate an alternative canon, or even prescribe a film festival programme” (p.11), Mayer in fact assesses a dazzlingly wide array of work across Political Animals’s ten absorbing chapters. She examines features, docs and shorts from around 60 countries: showing women working worldwide “across every mode of filmmaking, every budgetary scale, every medium and every genre” (p.4).

The book’s insistence upon expansiveness and “plenitude” adds up to a powerful “refutation of scarcity” (p.15), as Mayer critiques the mainstream media’s obsession with “stats and firsts”, which often merely tokenise women’s involvement in film, thereby ”obscuring rather than illuminating the coherent and continuous history of innovation and activism by female-identified filmmakers” (p.14-15).

Illuminating that history, and exploring its present-day manifestations is what Political Animals is all about. Deeply concerned with legacy, community and collaboration, Mayer acknowledges her gratitude to the work of other feminist film critics and curators (filmmaking and criticism and/as curation are intimately linked here), especially B. Ruby Rich’s Chick Flicks, a text whose highlighting of “soul-replenishing” work remains foundational (p. 11). The book also develops Mayer’s own previous criticism, including her excellent The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love (2009); indeed, the choice of cover image for the new book, a still from Potter’s 2012 film Ginger and Rosa, immediately reinforces that connection. Here, though, Potter is but one part of a wide and ever-widening constellation of female filmmakers, as Mayer ranges over work by Reichardt and Reeves, Denis and DuVernay, Martel and the Makhmalbafs, Mehta and Varda to name but a few.

Like A Politics of Love, which opened with Mayer’s memory of the deeply formative experience of seeing Orlando for the first time, Political Animals also begins in a personal place. Mayer writes of watching Frozen with her five-year-old goddaughter Asta, noting both her own and Asta’s pleasure in the film’s “placing [of] active female characters centre-screen” (p.1), notwithstanding its problematic aspects in relation to race, body image, and class hierarchy.

This personal note is an important one to sound since, as Mayer recognises, she herself was “indelibly shaped by coming of age in the early ’90s, an era in which it seemed that women [in film] definitively called the shots” (p.4). Political Animals laments the fact that this “diverse, playful and confident cinema”, linked to Riot Grrrl and the New Queer movements, didn’t sustain throughout the ’00s. Yet the book doesn’t get bogged down in a nostalgic mode. Rather, Mayer is interested in exploring what has happened in between and in celebrating what’s happening right now.

Thus Frozen is figured here as “a primer, rather than a closing statement, on the potential of feminist cinema” (p.3). For, while Mayer certainly doesn’t ignore Hollywood product, her true affiliations lie outside the mainstream. (She quotes bell hooks on the importance of “embrac[ing] the avant garde… Here is where we’ll find radical possibility” [p. 3].) As such, one of the primary achievements of Political Animals is its passionate highlighting of work that’s been under-celebrated, under-distributed, under-seen. Looking beyond the dominant (and inadequate) North American mainstream, Mayer uncovers a vibrant global feminist cinema, and her attention to the intersections of class and race within diverse national contexts is superbly astute throughout.

In terms of the book’s organisation, Mayer opts for a thematic, associative structure that allows for the tracing of trends, the establishment of patterns, in striking and unusual ways. In the space of a couple of pages, a chapter on ecologically-engaged films, moves from Point Break to Tank Girl to Night Moves to Avatar in a way that illuminates each movie in turn.

Each chapter, including ones on recent feminist interventions into historical drama and the war film, boasts its abundance of riches, and readers will enjoy making their own discoveries and connections. I would single out just two chapters here. A wonderfully subversive study of “the feminist animal film” focuses on “companion species” relationships, arguing for human/animal kinship “[as] a way to stand aslant, outside, and/or against, capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy” (p.35). (I can only assume that Mayer didn’t get the chance to see Laura Citarella’s La Mujer de los Perros before the book went to publication, since it fits perfectly with this chapter’s thesis.) In “British Cinema as a Runaway Girl“, meanwhile, Mayer brilliantly groups together a selection of works by filmmakers including Andrea Arnold, Carol Morley and Amma Asante to demonstrate how British feminists are drawing on and challenging established traditions of social realism through a focus on “lost girl” protagonists.

There are, perhaps inevitably, some niggling omissions in Political Animals and a few sections in which breadth appears to have replaced depth. Some filmmakers (such as Joanna Hogg and Julie Taymor) receive disappointingly short shrift, and there are moments when you may long for Mayer to linger for longer over a particular work (Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl is but one example) instead of moving on to the next connection. Just occasionally, those connections are a bit strained: I wasn’t too convinced by the contrasting of Frances Ha and 35 Shots of Rum as “Cinderella” stories (p.127-8), and a couple of the character details referenced in the Denis film are not quite correct.

Occasionally, too, it looks like certain films are getting preferential treatment for reasons other than their individual merits. Mayer’s enthusiastic reading of Morley’s The Falling (featured in an otherwise wonderful chapter on the space of “girl ‘hood”) presents the film as a far more cogent and transgressive work than it actually plays. The brisk dismissals of Blue is the Warmest Colour and The Duke of Burgundy are another case in point, as Mayer notes generalised criticisms of the films’ alleged “male-gaze oriented depiction of lesbian sex”, and their erasing of space for lesbian filmmakers (p.78), rather than truly engaging with the (diametrically opposed) formal qualities and narrative strategies of either film.

But enough quibbling. Political Animals is a fantastic and inspiring piece of work from one of the best critics currently writing. Not the least of its achievements is to send readers scurrying in search of films they’ve yet to see, fuelling further what Mayer terms “the spark that leads us to rise up and represent” (p. 37). “Our choice of what ticket to buy or link to click on (re)shapes the media,” Mayer reminds us in the radiant final chapter, “not simply as an economic tick that flickers on an executive’s spreadsheet, but because it changes us, psychically and affectively, and thus changes our community” (p. 201).

The vivid demonstration of cinema as an agent for and of change is part of what makes Political Animals such a vital work, one that’s infused with the liberating spirit of the “soul-replenishing” films that it so insightfully illuminates.

RATING 9 / 10