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B. Ruby Rich, Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement

By Linda Mizejewski, Women's Review of Books

Writing about women as spectators of Hollywood cinema, B. Ruby Rich once protested that the choices have been "to identify either with Marilyn Monroe or with the man behind me hitting the back of my seat with his knees." I love that description not just for its immediacy and visceral thump, but because it originally appeared in the New German Critique, a formidable academic journal. Since B. Ruby Rich is neither a Ph.D. nor a full-time academic, her appearance in this journal and her respectability in film scholarship are reasons for optimism about the inclusion of multiple voices in and about feminist film criticism.

Rich introduces her book Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement with a heartening invitation for such inclusion. "I sincerely believe," she says, "that the people who read GLO: A Journalof Lesbian and Gay Studies (the academic journal where I have edited filmand video reviews) and the people who mob the Sundance Film Festival (where I serve on the selection committee) have something to say to each other." This statement reveals Rich's facilitating voice and her remarkable comfort in very different cultural locations. Rich has earned the right to reminisce about the feminist film movement because she has "been there," from Sundance to academic editorial boards, but has not camped permanently in any chic or safe spot.

Rich's reviews and essays have appeared in widely-used film theory anthologies and in popular media, including public radio, the Village Voice, Sight and Sound, the Advocate, and Elle. For nearly three decades, she has worked with both filmmakers and theorists, with arts-council bureaucrats and radical culture workers, at consciousness-raising women's film "happenings" and at prestigious academic conferences--that is, not solely with film or film theory, but with the larger feminist movement she names in her title.

Chick Flicks is a selection of her essays from 1974 to 1991, each introduced with a prologue situating it in several histories: the independent women's film movement, feminist film criticism, American politics, and the author's own personal history of changes in scenes, careers, lovers, and friends. The latter strategy affiliates this book with recent autobiographical feminist criticism which, at its best, illuminates the continuum of life and scholarship, intellectual and emotional passion; Patricia J.Williams' The Alchemy of Race and Rights (1991) comes to mind, as well as Patricia Mellencamp's A Fine Romance: Five Ages of Film Feminism (1995) and Jane Tompkins' A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned (1996).

The urgency and appeal of such work is captured by Rich's own assertion of her need to "try to pull together the different strands of [her] life into coherent critical positions." For Rich, women's cinema has provided the means and momentum for such alignments of "theories and memories," as her book title puts it. Describing the excitement ofseeing film studies and lesbian history emerge and intersect in the late 1970s, she speaks of pursuing film scholarship as she was pursuing her own sexuality and joyfully finding "synchronicity between one's own sexual/political identity and one's professional work, between an individual life and a collective cultural moment."

For all of us struggling to read our lives as part of larger histories, a narrative like Rich's reveals the hard work, collaborations, advocacies, and hours-of-falling-apart behind such moments of pulling together. Little wonder we are hungry for these autobiographical models of connection,with their intriguing layers of theory, confession, and gritty detail.

Rich provides demystifying explanations of how key anthologies, films, conferences, and festivals came about, made waves, and created lovers and enemies--that is, how academic disciplines and fields of study are never formed on paper or in theory, but are always embodied by real people, circumstances, quarrels and desires.

Rich's best known essay, "In the Name of Feminist Film Criticism," characterizes her as an accessible voice and map maker, simultaneously insider and outsider to the academy. First published in 1979, this essay offered early definitions, problems, and ideals of feminist filmmaking and film theory.

It also describes the conflict between the emerging school of psychoanalytic-semiotic theory, which located meanings embedded inthe film's production, and a more social-historical, even personal approach to spectatorship and theory. "As a woman sitting in the dark, watching that film made by and for men . . . what is my experience?" she asks in a key passage. "Don't I in fact interact with that text and that context, with a conspicuous absence of passivity?"

In the later essays and prologuesof Chick Flicks, Rich frankly assesses the homophobic subtexts of some of those debates, in which lesbian concerns were dismissed as naive or essentialist. Over the next two decades, the active role of the spectator became an important consideration in film theory, as the role of the reader did in literary theory, and the question of spectator identification, which Rich addressed with wry humor in the quote opening this review, has since then been complicated and analyzed in great depth.

In the 1990s, Rich says in a later essay, the "feminist-film cold wars have dissipated and we old warriors have become congenial veterans, not unlike the CIA and KGB spies who now meet to reminisce and do each other favors."

However, Chick Flicks has far more to offer than a backstage glimpse of feminist politics. First, Rich's essays provide a lively chronicle of independent women filmmakers as well as critical assessments of their work. I can imagine this collection as a useful textbook in a course on women and cinema, but also as a readable narrative for film lovers who would like to know about a marginalized but significant history.

Because she was involved in their premieres and struggles with distribution, Rich wrote some of the earliest reviews of Carolee Schneemann, Chantal Akerman, Yvonne Rainer, Michelle Citron, Marleen Gorris, and Sally Potter. Since mainstream audiences probably know the latter for Orlando (1992) and The Tango Lesson (1997), for example,this book should send readers to her earlier experimental films Thriller (1979) and The Gold Diggers (1983).

Rich's articles on an older generation of women filmmakers--Maya Deren, Leontine Sagan--are also included in this volume, along with her commentary on her own involvements with these topics. Her contextualization of her Leni Riefenstahl essay is especially significant in its long-term resonances. In 1974, Rich was part of a women's film festival group which included a Riefenstahl film and which also invited the director to Chicago for the event. In the resulting furor, an editorial debate between Adrienne Rich and Susan Sontag brought forth issues of censorship, politics, and representation which would later resurface in the 1980s debates on sexuality and pornography.

Rich's perspective on the latter debates is part of the second major strength of this collection. Although her topic is cinema, her larger concern is women as artists and subjects of visual media. Rich's comment on watching Marilyn Monroe with the seat-jiggler points to this wider question of how female experience in all its varieties ends up in popular culture--what it looks like, how we talk about it.

Like her 1979 essay capsulizing feminist film and its theories, Rich's 1986 article "Feminism and Sexuality in the Eighties" immediately went to the top of the charts, so to speak, as a powerful analysis of a complicated political, cultural, and theoretical scene. Rich originally called this article "From the Vagina to the Clitoris and Back," a title which editors replaced because it was supposedly too embarrassing to cite as a reference, even though this essay explores the many feminist contexts of such prudishness.

Through the previous decade, Rich points out, the discourses about sexuality within feminist scholarship tiptoed around "the act itself, sex itself, 'it' itself . . . with all the stealth of a narrative in melodrama."

Moreover, just at the moment when women began to speak frankly of desire and physical pleasure, the anti-pornography movement also began to name sex crimes and sex outlaws, politically verboten acts and roles, especially within lesbian culture. Rich's reflections on this debate usefully cite the role of fantasy, the discourse of romance, and theracial and ethnic constitutions of these arguments and representations.

More importantly, Rich continually questions, in this essay and others in this book, the status of the debates themselves, the question of why certain issues, from dildos to pornography to S/M--become the focus of public debate, feminist energy, and scholarly study. "Why have certain issues proven to be theorizable, and others have not?" she asks.

As this question suggests, Rich's observations about feminist scholarship go far beyond the topic of film studies. Making a powerful appeal to "the geopolitics of sexuality," her 1986 essay stresses the necessity of locating debates about sexuality in real-life economics and history. "The global context of contemporary life rarely enters into the theoretical debates," she points out, "as though to indicate that sexuality is not really as socially constructed as claimed, as though sexual issues were not so deeply affected, after all, by history, the economy, the cold war, disease, the new conservatism, or even fashion."

Rich's collection, with its multiple contexts and locations, Sundance to Cuba to Edinburgh, demonstrates how widely the spaces of theory can be imagined and how inclusive its visions can be. "Turn the spotlight onto that woman over there, please," she instructs in conclusion. "And her. And her. And you."


Copyright 1998. All rights reserved.