The ever-enterprising Kat Kramer, known for her Films that Change the World series, hosted a small soiree the other evening to promote a fascinating work-in-progress, Feminists: What Were They Thinking? This documentary, produced and directed by veteran filmmaker Johanna Demetrakas, takes as its starting point the photos published in 1977 by Cynthia MacAdams as part of a collection called Emergence. MacAdams had approached a number of strong women, some but not all of them rising stars in the arts world. She captured them in black and white to suggest the evolving role of feminism in American life. It’s been said that in Emergence “the women look back at you.” As you flip through the pages, it’s clear they are far more than objects posed to attract the male gaze.
Demetrakas and her team (made up of both women and men) had the bright idea of looking in on MacAdams’ subjects, to see how they’d fared over the past forty years. Most are emphatic in stressing why they embraced feminism in the Seventies, and why they continue to value it now. Musician and performance artist Meredith Monk remembers back to her girlhood, when she was denied a train set. When, back in grade school, she had a young male visitor, her mother instructed her to make sure to let him win any games they played. Psychotherapist Phyllis Chesler recalls that “I was the smartest ‘boy’ in Hebrew School class.” Unable to have a Bar Mitzvah, she rebelled by turning against her parents’ religious Orthodoxy, to the point of eventually marrying a Muslim and accompanying him to his father’s polygamous home in Afghanistan. (The experience resulted in a book, An American Bride in Kabul, as well as a lifelong commitment to women’s issues.)
The film juxtaposes such interviews with film clips and TV commercials that make clear Hollywood’s longtime objectification of the female of the species. There’s Marilyn Monroe, cooing and jiggling in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and an ad for a Suzy Homemaker toy kitchen that, remarkably, was still being sold as recently as 2007. My personal favorite is the winsome lass in the tight dress who breathlessly explains to the camera that “I can’t type, I don’t take dictation. My boss calls me indispensable. I push the button on the Xerox 914!” But there’s also a happy housewife, circa 1950, who joyfully twirls on her way to fill the tea kettle, played off against journalist Susan Brownmiller’s wry questions, “Why do we smile so much? Why do we try to be so appealing? . . . Why is anger considered not feminine?”
One of the film’s most articulate speakers is, not surprisingly, Jane Fonda, who poignantly remembers her adolescent fear that “if I wasn’t perfect I wouldn’t be loved.” Still, she notes, little girls are feisty before puberty sets in. Now “as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come back to where I’ve started, as that feisty girl who would climb to the top of the oak tree, and lead armies up the hill, and knew who she was, and would stand up to anything, and never told a lie.”
Everyone interviewed thus far continues to be a staunch supporter of the feminist cause. But Johanna Demetrakas, committed to exploring cultural change in all its manifestations, will not exclude any point of view that presents itself: Says she, “I don’t know where the film’s going. I go with the film.” What she wants above all is for her audience to feel that they’ve joined the conversation.
Of course she also wants (and needs) financial support. To get involved, check out http://www.feministswhatweretheythinking.com