Pamela Tanner Boll’s Who Does She Think She Is?

Boll’s Who Does She Think She Is? showcases five successful women artists who devote as much attention to their art as to the other demanding circumstances of their lives.

In the United States, women and men study art in approximately equal numbers, but when it comes to the professional level the art world remains largely a boys club. About two percent of the artists in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. are female, as are about five percent in the Hirschhorn, home of the modern and contemporary art collection of the Smithsonian Institution. Similar levels of female representation may be observed in many major museums, art history textbooks and contemporary gallery shows.

There are many reasons for this discrepancy, but the one which is immediately obvious to most women is the difficulty of combining motherhood with an artistic career. Women are often told, either explicitly or implicitly, that they must choose: will they be a wife and mother, or an artist? Of course men don’t have to make that choice, and the history of art is full of men who managed to have their cake and eat it too—Gauguin abandoned his wife and five children to pursue painting, Louis Kahn had children with three different women while married to one of them, Picasso had four children by three women, only one of which was his wife—but knowing this doesn’t help a woman who wants a family and also an artistic career.

The documentary Who Does She Think She Is? will be particularly welcome to women facing these choices or who are already performing the daily balancing act required of mothers who pursuing artistic careers. It profiles five successful women artists who are also mothers and devote as much attention to their art as to the other demanding circumstances of their lives. A wider perspective on the issues is provided by interviews with activists including the Guerilla Girls (a group of radical feminist artists who were among the first to point out the under-representation of women in the American art world) and the authors Leonard Shlain (The Alphabet versus the Goddess), Riane Eisler (The Chalice and the Blade) and Courtney E. Martin (Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters).

Who Does She Think She Is? is an inspiring film, although it doesn’t gloss over the difficulties faced by these artists. Besides the practical issues such as the physical demands of childbearing and the lack of financial support for mothers with careers (the United States lags behind other industrialized countries in providing maternity leave and affordable day care, for instance) there looms a more intractable issue: the cultural expectation that a woman’s first priority should be her children and husband while a man’s first priority is his work. It’s hard enough to have an artistic career if you can devote your best efforts to it, so if you have to be able to drop your art at any time to tend to the kids or mollify a husband who is threatened by your success, then your chances are greatly diminished.

The facts are grim but this is not an angry film: while some of the women express regrets about individual aspects of their lives (for instance, having to go to court to retain child custody) none are sorry that they chose to pursue both motherhood and art. The five profiled are a varied lot: Janis Wunderlich is a Mormon and the mother of five children who is also a full-time sculptor, Angela Williams founded a church with her husband and had two children before discovering her talents as a singer and actress, Camille Musser rediscovered her roots in St. Vincent and the Grenadines through painting and founded a children’s art camp in St. Vincent, Maye Torres supports her children in rural New Mexico through her art, and Mayumi Oda survived a grim childhood in postwar Japan to became a renowned printmaker before retiring to a rural ranch in Hawaii where she teaches young women to care for the earth.

Extras on the DVD include an interview with director Pamela Tanner Boll, further scenes with Janis Wunderlich and Mayumi Oda, and the theatrical trailer. Who Does She Think She Is? is currently available on DVD in two formats: the Gift Box House Party edition (reviewed here) and an educational edition which includes a public performance license and curriculum guide. The film will be released as a standard commercial DVD in 2010. Further information about the different editions is available from the film’s website.

The Gift Box Party Edition is a unique style of packaging in my experience but makes total sense because this is exactly the type of film which may not draw crowds to the multiplex but would be great for home screening among a group of friends. The idea is to facilitate an experience similar to that of a book club in which the DVD is used as a springboard for further discussion. This edition includes a companion guide with more information about the issues presented in the film, suggestions for hosting a house party, 16 invitations to a home screening, 26 cards with questions and quotations intended to spark discussion, and a movie poster.

RATING 7 / 10