A Little Goes a Long Way: Using Short Films in the Classroom

by Audrey Lundahl

As instructors in feminist-minded classrooms, our goals are lofty. Robbin D. Crabtree, David Alan Sapp, and Adela C. Licona write in their introduction to Feminist Pedagogy that “feminist classrooms create environments where students and teachers examine relationships of power in culture, where dichotomies of either-or can be rejected and replaced with the ability to problematize common-sense viewpoints, discover similarities within difference, and learn to understand phenomena through multiple lenses.” And, furthermore, “feminist pedagogy seeks not only to enhance students’ conceptual learning but also to promote consciousness-raising, personal growth, and social responsibility.”1 For Crabtree, Sapp, and Licona, feminist classrooms serve as spaces for students to examine power structures and dominant norms while also examining their own ways of thinking. My own teaching goals as an instructor in English and women’s studies often include exposing students to new ideas and asking them to think critically about their own assumptions and ways of knowing, to consider global perspectives, and to develop a sense of social justice. And all of this in fewer than three hours a week of class time!

To accomplish these pedagogical objectives I often rely on documentary films to help introduce students to complex issues and perspectives. Visual media allows us to view other or multiple perspectives—sometimes intimately—and find ways to connect across difference with different subjects. Cheryl Radeloff and Barbara Bergman write, “visual media have the ability to illuminate lived experiences in a way that lecture cannot.”2 Through use of such media in the classroom, students can relate to voices from around the world while also asking critical questions about how media are produced and what may be left out. However, with such little time it is difficult to include many feature-length films, and I find myself looking for shorter media resources that are rich in content to spark discussion and nurture transformative learning.

In my introductory women’s and gender studies course, for example, I use the TED Talk given by Cameron Russell, a successful model, to spark discussions about gender, race, the politics of representation, and privilege.3 Russell uses her personal experience as a working model to argue that beauty standards in the media are perpetuated through carefully constructed images of thin, white women. Further emphasizing race privilege, she starkly contrasts the way men of color have been stopped and frisked more than white men in New York City under the stop-and-frisk law. This short speech, which is rich in visual imagery, encourages students to question beauty standards from someone whom they see as having authority to talk about this topic and provides a way for them to confront their own privilege.

This video allows me, as an instructor, to bring new perspectives into the classroom because when I show visual media, I feel as if I’m team-teaching with the speakers, subjects, and filmmakers. Together, my team and I can offer new ways of seeing the world and show students how to question dominant thinking. When films explore transnational perspectives, for example, students can embrace difference and find commonalities with communities or people they may otherwise see as other. Additionally, because visual media tends to keep students interested, they may be more likely to do this work toward inner growth that Crabtree, Sapp, and Licona write about.

When I conceived of this special feature for Films for the Feminist Classroom, I prompted authors to think about the value of short films and media by asking some questions: What is the value of using videos, and specifically short videos, in the classroom? What specific media have you used to foster conversations in the classroom? How can short videos bring new voices and perspectives into classroom dialogue? How do you create context around media for students?

The essays in this feature provide not just resources but ideas about how to use these resources for a variety of topics and discussions, including global feminist perspectives, women in sports, gender roles, media literacy, and transnational identities. Some of the essays work at the intersections of several of these issues, using rich media texts to ask students to think about several topics at once. Erika Behrmann’s essay, for example, explores how novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s two TED Talks open up classroom conversations about transnationalism, feminism, and the assumptions students may make from a Western perspective. Both Aisha K. Nasser and Mehra Shirazi examine topics related to Muslim women. Nasser gives suggestions and ideas for using Madeeha Anwar’s interview for the series Words of Women from the Egyptian Revolution, and Shirazi situates Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s TED Talk in the context of women in world cinema. Marie Westhaver discusses women in literature through the lens of princess tropes using clips from classic Disney movies—rather than entire films—to ask students to look at broader themes among these films. Missy Skurzewski-Servant addresses gender in sport, including issues like Title IX, inequalities, sexualities, and masculinity and femininity through ESPN’s Nine for IX Shorts, a series of nine short films that examine different women athletes.

I hope these essays will spark productive classroom interactions in multiple ways for instructors at all levels and disciplines. In addition to the aforementioned media, I have provided a list of resources that include specific videos and websites below.

Additional Resources

Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy has created a database of video interviews of feminist theorists.

Films for Action has catalogued more than 3000 films that can be streamed online.

The Journal of Short Film, curated by The Ohio State University Film Studies Program, has published more than 30 volumes of short film DVD compilations. Issues may be available through university or college libraries.

Global Action Project has a video library of short films that explore various issues related to social justice.

Al Jazeera Media curates the website AJ+, a collection of short films about social justice topics. Featured on the website is Four Women Share Their Abortion Stories.

PACT5 is a national organization made up of university students who have created short documentaries and other media resources about sexual assault on college campuses.

Signe Baumane is an independent animator who has shared links to two resources:

  1. Birth (12 min.) – a film about a 17-year-old women who is pregnant and afraid to give birth.
  2. Teat Beat of Sex, a compilation of fifteen short presentations by women about sex and sexuality.

Our Land, Our Life (25 min.) – A short film that tells the story of two Shoshone elders who address the threat of their land being taken for mining development.

Break Free (5 min.) – Ruby Rose, from the series Orange Is the New Black, wrote and starred in a short film about gender roles.

Oppressed Majority (11 min.) – A short film by actress and director Éléonore Pourriat imagines a world where gender roles are reversed.

A Conversation about Growing up Black (5 min.) and A Conversation with White People on Race (5 min.) – The New York Times produced two short documentaries about race.

 Silent T (3 min.) – a film about the struggles and injustices many trans people face.

1 Robbin D. Crabtree, David Alan Sapp, and Adela C. Licona, “Introduction: The Passion and the Praxis of Feminist Pedagogy,” in their Feminist Pedagogy: Looking Back to Move Forward (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 6.

2 Cheryl L. Radeloff and Barbara J. Bergman, “Global Perspectives: Developing Media Literacy Skills to Advance Critical Thinking,” Feminist Teacher 19, no. 2 (2009): 168.

3 Cameron Russell, “Looks Aren’t Everything. Believe me, I’m a Model,” TEDxMidAtlantic video, 9:30, October 2012.

Audrey Lundahl is a doctoral candidate at Texas Woman’s University in women’s studies where she teaches women’s studies courses. She also teaches composition and literature courses at North Central Texas College. She holds an MA in English from Colorado State University, where her research focused on Gloria Anzaldúa’s theories and the television show Bewitched. Her current transdisciplinary research analyzes food, nonhuman animal, environmental, and food justice. Her other research interests include media, 1960s television, womanist/feminist pedagogy, and womanist theories.