PRINT Summer 2016


Sophie Mayer’s Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema

Hana Makhmalbaf, Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame, 2007, 35 mm, color, sound, 81 minutes.

Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema, by Sophie Mayer. London: I. B. Tauris, 2016. 272 pages.

THESE DAYS, feminism doesn’t always look or sound the way you think it will. In British film scholar and activist Sophie Mayer’s new book, Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema, fourth-wave feminism is digital, transnational, transsexual, anticolonialist, and multiplatform. It is also occasionally “cisgender,” “Two-Spirit,” and—perhaps most regrettably—“merqueer.” As the aforementioned list suggests, getting with the program might require not only recognizing some unexpected political allegiances but also acquiring some new vocabulary.

Situating her study of feminist cinema in an explicitly post-9/11 context, Mayer addresses changes at the turn of the millennium that have brought about a resurgence of overt structural sexism and violent misogyny worldwide. Indeed, one of the strengths of her book is its international scope and intergenerational reach. Covering nearly five hundred films from sixty countries, Mayer’s wide-ranging study thankfully does not prioritize Western, commercial, or even feature-length fiction films. Balancing her discussion of established white American and European directors such as Claire Denis, Sally Potter, Kathryn Bigelow, and Catherine Breillat with non-Western and indigenous directors from around the globe, Mayer expands our understanding of not only what a new feminist cinemas might look like but where it might come from.

Discussing films from Iran, Palestine, Kenya, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia with the same ease with which she investigates contemporary British cinema, Mayer flexes her muscles as journalist, blogger, activist, and lecturer. While it is unfortunate that feminist films from such conflicted regions may have an especially difficult time finding distribution—hence the unfamiliarity of many of the titles—these films offer powerful antidotes to those that Mayer (unfairly) slams for documenting the malaise of white, well-educated, middle-class housewives. Set in Afghanistan, Hana Makhmalbaf’s Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame (2007) is, for Mayer, the “precise and perfect example of global feminist cinema’s riposte to US international politics under George W. Bush, including his appropriation of white liberal feminism.” Made by one of the daughters of acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf when she was only eighteen—her sister Samira is also a filmmaker—Buddha Collapsed reminds us that war is not an exception “but the rule for the 99 percent,” and also that girlhood itself exists in a “frame of war” and must be interrogated as such.

The wisest lesson to be gleaned from Political Animals is that feminism is inextricable from a larger project of public activism that is not limited to the struggle for gender equity. The necessary relationship between feminist and environmental activism is, however, only one part of Mayer’s political alignment of feminism with the vulnerable. Her insight that solitary “Strong Female Characters” might be part of the problem rather than the solution recognizes the ways in which such sexy avengers are often mere tools of box-office success rather than authentic or sustainable models of solidarity. The girl with the dragon tattoo is simply irrelevant to the conditions of “bare life” that many people on this planet are compelled to endure.

Why, then, does Mayer begin her study with a discussion of Frozen (2013), a Disney film cowritten and codirected by a female filmmaker that went on to become the highest-grossing animated film of all time? In spite of the fact that Mayer makes good on her promise to look beyond the mainstream, by opening her book with an extended discussion of this film, she creates an infantilizing frame for the important topics she raises. This frame is deliberate, for as her celebration of Buddha Collapsed attests, Mayer regards the reclamation of girlhood as one of the central concerns of contemporary feminist cinema. Yet one can’t help but be suspicious of Mayer’s assertion that feminist cinema ought to help viewers reclaim and redefine the “growing up experience.” As queer theorist Lee Edelman has polemically argued, the rhetorical elevation of “the Child whose innocence solicits our defense” often serves as a way of imposing ideological limits on political discourse.1 Such rhetoric not only conscripts heteronormative “family values” as the absolute thinkable limit of progressive politics but also tends to fetishize the fiction of childhood innocence.

Mayer’s survey, it must be said, is anything but heteronormative. Yet, well intended though they may be, cinematic attempts to reclaim lost innocence tend to be nostalgic and regressive. The most powerful feminist films of the first wave—such as Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1971), Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), and Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA (1976)—rejected the infantilization of viewer and subject alike in their focus on difficult subjects such as the psychic nullification of women or political resistance to corporate exploitation. While juvenile filmmakers like the sisters Makhmalbaf and Sadie Benning were uniquely positioned to provide searing accounts of the bare life of childhood, most films about childhood—including Potter’s Cuban Missile Crisis–set drama Ginger & Rosa (2012), a too-precious publicity still for which graces the cover of Mayer’s book—get it completely wrong. The most interesting films about childhood do not set out to redeem it from its delimitation or deformation by patriarchy, as Mayer hopes, but to render it as queerly and incomprehensibly as it is experienced. The fact that Ginger & Rosa transparently narrates the journey from girlhood to political awakening that Mayer celebrates doesn’t make it a good film. One of the weaknesses of her study, at least from this cranky avant-gardist’s point of view, is that it doesn’t distinguish between films that are aesthetically and politically innovative, and films that merely address topical issues.

While one may empathize with Mayer’s approach to films as acts of “representational justice,” in focusing on such transparently good-for-you texts, she misses an opportunity to engage more deeply with difficult films. The best parts of the book emerge when Mayer creeps out from what she describes as the “girl ’hood” into the more adult sections of the video store, where mature subjectivities may reflect, or more obliquely refract, the overlapping political catastrophes in which we are all enmeshed.

The environmental disasters, political turmoil, and austerity measures of the new millennium have generated a cinematic focus on precarity that extends beyond the no-longer-useful designation “Third World.” The best-known American exemplar of this trend might be filmmaker Kelly Reichardt. In her insightful account of Reichardt’s 2008 Wendy and Lucy as a retelling of The Wizard of Oz that substitutes the “grinding reality of capitalism” for the more flamboyant evils of the Wicked Witch, Mayer demonstrates the ways in which animals and girls analogize each other in their shared vulnerability and limited agency. Mayer uses Reichardt’s film to demonstrate two salient points: that the precariat is feminized, and that affective relationships between differently disenfranchised subjects must serve as the basis for political solidarity—even as they may fail to liberate cinema’s on-screen subjects. While these are not novel points—theorist Kathryn Bond Stockton makes a far more brilliant argument about the relationship between girls and their dogs in her book The Queer Child2—Mayer’s approach opens up her study to a consideration of the vital importance of nonhuman forms of life to any truly engaged cinema practice.

As Mayer demonstrates, the dire global conditions in which we find ourselves have also recatalyzed the cinematic penchant for allegory and fantasy. While revolutionary filmmakers working under the repressive conditions of censorship have historically favored allegory, Mayer investigates popular genres that we might not immediately think of as feminist-friendly. Analyzing war films, “water films,” and police thrillers alongside her more expected investigation of social realist films, costume dramas, and fairy tales, Mayer demonstrates the multiple modes through which contemporary feminist filmmakers confront the interlinking of personal and global crises.

Rejecting the notion of a straightforwardly “female gaze,” which was a frequent note of debate for critics and practitioners of “women’s cinema” in the 1970s, Mayer proposes that feminist cinema is not primarily about aesthetics, but about politics. This sounds like an easier distinction to make than it actually is: As Mayer well knows, aesthetic choices are always political, and politics always have an aesthetic. The longue durée of Akerman’s film about the mundane life of a housewife made as strong a political statement in its aversion to conventional narrative form as it did in its surprising denouement. Likewise, it can and has been argued by writers such as Susan Sontag that Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s supposedly apolitical documentary of the 1936 Olympic Games no less than her early-’70s photographs of the Nuba betray a fascist aesthetics commensurate with the official propaganda films she made for the Third Reich.3

As Mayer’s discussions of Bigelow’s war films The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) reveal, female directors do not always have radical politics. Whether we like it or not, women can be hawks behind the camera or the podium. While critics continue to debate whether Bigelow’s films are genuine disavowals of American imperialism or paramilitarist forms of entertainment, Mayer borrows literary theorist Linda Hutcheon’s useful term “complicitous critique”4 to explain how they are both. Yet as Mayer suggests in her attention to “unwar” films that look away from the main event (such as Jane Campion’s 2003 thriller In the Cut), the most explicit war films do not always provide the most incisive accounts of the sometimes imperceptible relationships between power, pleasure, and violence.5 Comparing Denis’s 1999 film Beau travail with The Hurt Locker, Mayer argues, “Denis makes far more clear-cut the emergence of that [masculine and colonial] violence from the repression of homoeroticism, particularly from the dehumanizing eroticization of the non-white Other.” Although Beau travail is an adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd that focuses almost exclusively on male characters in the French Foreign Legion, its acute examination of the relationship between race, sexuality, and imperialism aligns it with Mayer’s expansive conception of feminist cinema.

Mayer’s encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary feminist film is one of the most impressive aspects of her study: Even the best-informed cinephile could add a dozen titles to their must-see list from perusing her pages. However, the downside to her wide-ranging approach is the lack of close readings. The exceptions to this pattern—such as Mayer’s astute analysis of Wendy and Lucy—are welcome interruptions of what often feels more like an annotated filmography than a substantial work of criticism.

While Mayer repeatedly cites literary critic Jacqueline Rose’s insistence that feminists must pay as much attention to the unconscious and its taboo desires as they do to issues of social justice, nothing feels quite taboo here. Although Mayer makes explicit that she doesn’t want a sanitized feminism, you wouldn’t know it from the insistently upstanding tone of the book. Nevertheless, Political Animals is an illuminating study—all the more so for being one that complicates the links between identity and politics in thoroughly surprising ways.

An associate professor of cultural studies at McGill University in Montreal, Ara Osterweil is the author of Flesh Cinema: The Corporeal Turn in American Avant-Garde Film (Manchester University Press, 2014).


1. Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 2.

2. Kathryn Bond Stockton, The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 89–116.

3. See Susan Sontag, “Fascinating Fascism” (1974), in Under the Sign of Saturn (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980), 73–105.

4. Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 2002), 22–25.

5. Mayer borrows the concept of the “unwar” film from Alisa Lebow’s “The Unwar Film,” in A Companion to Contemporary Documentary Film, ed. Alexandra Juhasz and Alisa Lebow (Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), 454–74.