Women Filmmakers and Representations of Sexual Desire

by Kelly Hankin

In an essay on Jane Campion’s controversial feature film The Piano (1993), a narrative about a mute woman who falls in love with her sexual extortionist, Tania Modleski connects the storyline to the lineage of both Harlequin and Gothic romance novels and provocatively claims, “Let us be blunt and admit at the outset that the fantasy of being bought appeals to many women at a deep psychic level.”1 I appreciate the provocation of Modleski’s claim, particularly how it so confidently inserts itself in the middle of her feminist analysis of this stunning film, and I regularly pair her essay with The Piano when I teach the class “Women Filmmakers.” That being said, asking a group of students—traditional age or otherwise—to grapple with Modleski’s audacious statement and the complicated sexual desires depicted in The Piano presents a series of pedagogical challenges. It asks students to maturely address the topic of sexual fantasies and desire in the formal space of the classroom—for many, a space not necessarily conducive to such discussions. It also asks them to address sexuality in a way that runs counter to normative feminist principles—principles that, for many, are often also learned in the university classroom. It further requires students to deal with these challenges while also insisting they do the essential work of any film class, namely, separate representations in film from what we see in our reality.

Awkward as they may sometimes be, conversations about representations of sexual desires and fantasies are extremely important because they enable students to carefully think through, and even challenge, a popular truism that women filmmakers offer different visions of sexuality and sociality than male filmmakers. Rather than take this claim as fact, “Women Filmmakers” poses this statement in the form of a series of questions to the students at the beginning of the semester: Do women filmmakers present desire differently, in what ways, and why? These questions, along with other historical and theoretical concerns, serve as a central framework for the course that guides students in their analyses of the representations they are introduced to throughout the semester.

To begin this conversation, I introduce students to the voices of women filmmakers themselves. Not every film class does or should pay attention to authorial intention—certainly a loaded concept in the history of academic film studies. However, in a class that asks students to make claims about the categorical difference women filmmakers have on the films they make, learning about the perspectives of female artists is, I believe, essential. Fortunately, a number of documentaries on the subject of women filmmakers exists that the teacher of feminist and women’s cinema courses can use, including Sisters in Cinema (Yvonne Welbon, 2003), on African-American and black filmmakers; In the Company of Women (Lesli Klainberg and Virginia Reticker, 2004), on women in the commercial independent film industry; Zero Budget (Emma Hindley, 1996) and Lavender Limelight: Lesbians in Film (Marc Mauceri, 1997), on lesbian feature filmmakers; Women of Vision: 18 Histories of Feminist Film and Video (Alexandra Juhasz, 1998), on feminist alternative media practitioners; Sisters of the Screen: African Women in the Cinema (Beti Ellerson, 2002), on African filmmakers; and Filming Desire: A Journey through Women’s Cinema (Marie Mandy, 2000), on European and Canadian filmmakers, as well as a handful of documentaries about specific directors.2 At a basic level, these documentaries give credence to the specificity of the “female director.” Importantly, as I argue elsewhere, they do so not by making “essentialist or absolutist claims,” but rather, by showing “that women filmmakers bring intention to their filmmaking shaped by their roles and places as women within varying cultural contexts.”3

Two of these documentaries—Filming Desire and In the Company of Women—address representations of sexual desire in ways that are particularly pedagogically useful. In both documentaries, female directors share their viewpoints on male-directed sex scenes and images of women and how they, as female directors, seek to counter the status quo. In particular, they speak about their artistic choices with respect to how, why, and when to visualize sexual desire and romance, including male and female nudity. Highlighting that women filmmakers have an artistic and gendered viewpoint regarding the conception of their sex scenes and narratives of romance is necessary for helping students understand and think through the works they will see in “Women Filmmakers,” including The Piano. It also helps students appreciate filmmaking as intentional craft and to see the content of films as not just a world that simply unfolds before them. Exploring how women filmmakers seek to intentionally redefine sexual desire and romance through cinematic and narrative devices (e.g., set design, costuming, lighting, editing, use of color, screenwriting) sets the stage for students to talk about the design and meaning of scenes they might otherwise shy away from addressing. They can also make more sophisticated arguments about sexual desire and romance knowing that this is a real concern of filmmakers who make purposeful artistic choices.

Below, then, is a lesson plan I use featuring these documentaries. This lesson plan serves as a foundation for students to think through questions about representations of desire for the remainder of the semester, serving as a constant reminder that, for any filmmaker, and not least for women, ideology and craft often unite.

Lesson Plan

This lesson plan is designed for a class that meets two days a week for eighty minutes per session. To prepare for the week, students are expected to attend an evening screening or watch the documentaries in the library.

Class 1: Discuss In the Company of Women (Klainberg and Reticker, 2004) and Filming Desire: A Journey through Women’s Cinema (Marie Mandy, 2000).
Class 2: In-class group activity: Designing a Sex Scene.

Activity Description

As you discovered in the documentaries In the Company of Women and Filming Desire: A Journey through Women’s Cinema, female-directed/female-written sex scenes are often conceptualized differently than male-authored sex scenes. This exercise asks your group to put yourself in the position of a “woman director” and write the production notes for a sex scene. The parameters are wide open, with only the following guidelines: You and your team are producing a film in which two (or more) lead characters will have a sex scene—whatever you conceptualize this to mean. One lead character must be a private detective, while the other character should be a doctor, chef, or television reporter. You may include more characters if you would like.

With your team, write up the production notes that address the following:

  1. Who are the characters? What do they look like? Are they portrayed by a particular actor/actress? What race, gender, sexual orientation? Why did you come to this decision?
  2. Briefly, how do these characters come together in the story?
  3. When does the sex scene happen? Where? Why do these characters have sex?
  4. How is the sex scene cinematically shot and edited? What technical and artistic choices—lighting, editing, framing, and music—do you make with regard to representation of bodies and desire?
  5. After completing these notes, write down the issues that arose as you developed your scene. Please consider the following:

Return to the larger group and share one significant item from your production team discussion with the class. If we do not have enough time to hear from all groups, we will continue this assignment in the next class session.

1 The Piano, directed by Jane Campion (Santa Monica: Miramax, 1993), 117 min.; Tania Modleski, Old Wives Tales and Other Women’s Stories (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 34.

2 Sisters in Cinema, directed by Yvonne Welbon (Harriman, PA: Our Film Works, 2003), 62 min.; In the Company of Women, directed by Lesli Klainberg and Virginia Reticker (Jericho, NY: Independent Film Channel, 2004), 90 min.; Zero Budget, directed by Emma Hindley (San Francisco: Frameline Distributors, 1996), 25 min.; Lavender Limelight: Lesbians in Film, Directed by Marc Mauceri (New York: First Run Features, 1997), 57 min.; Women of Vision: 18 Histories in Feminist Film and Video, directed by Alexandra Juhasz (New York: Cinema Guild, 1998), 80 min.; Sisters of the Screen: African Women in the Cinema, directed by Beti Ellerson (New York: Women Make Movies, 2002), 73 min.; Filming Desire: A Journey Through Women’s Film, directed by Marie Mandy (New York: Women Make Movies, 2000), 60 min.

3 Kelly Hankin, “And Introducing … the Female Director: Documentaries about Women Filmmakers as Feminist Activism,” NWSA Journal 19, no. 1 (2007): 66

Kelly Hankin (kelly_hankin@redlands.edu) is professor of film studies in the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies at the University of Redlands. She is the author of The Girls in the Back Room: Looking at the Lesbian Bar (2002) and numerous articles on the intersections between gender, sexuality, and the moving image. She is also the screenwriter of A Woman Reported. . ., which premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and is available on The Ultimate Lesbian Short Film Festival (2006).