Contributor Sean Duffy profiles Filmme Fatales, a feminist film zine, it’s creator Brodie Lancaster, and the publication’s place in relation to mainstreamed online feminism, hot-takes, and the new nature of online criticism.
Upon its release this spring, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road was hailed by many writers online as a “feminist masterpiece”; an action film that not only represented women but empowered them too. While other pieces would go on to debate this title, Fury Road’s critical reception and box-office draw surely proved that at the very least it was a movie worth watching.
For such a thematically rich film, Fury Road deserves more than the overly simplified yes or no question of “is it feminist?” Besides its showcasing of the evils of patriarchy, Fury Road is also very much a film about environmental destruction, obedience to tyranny, and our species’ programming to do anything to survive (what Spinoza would call our “conatus”). It begs for intense deconstruction and analysis.
That level of cultural criticism can get clicks, but often only if they’re published while whatever topic is still deemed relevant. But deadlines end up overriding deep thinking, and instead of getting writing that breeds discussion and self-questioning, we get the “hot takes”: think pieces that boil issues down to right and wrong. Is it feminist or is it problematic?
More and more often the answer to the feminist question is becoming make or break, a test of sorts for all media consumed. Feminism is becoming more and more mainstream, but feminism, and art for that matter, is a complex beast, with many different variations, approaches, and implications. But because of little time and a large audience, it’s made singular.
So instead of films like Fury Road getting the deeper and more critical readings they deserve, both as cinema and reflections of culture and society, we get “this film is a feminist so it’s okay to like it” or “no, it’s not, it’s problematic, and you can’t like this and possibly label yourself a feminist”.
“We’re so desperate for the things that we love to not be guilty pleasures, to be okay and align with our politics and values that sometimes we will impose those values on things that don’t outwardly have them.”
That’s Brodie Lancaster. Lancaster is the creator and editor of Filmme Fatales, a zine that looks at cinema through a feminist lens. Published on an irregular basis, the zine forgoes reviews and news for in-depth discussions of women and film, regardless of whether or not they’re currently #trending.
“The internet is so specific to what’s happening right now, and if you come in two days later, it’s already in the past. I wanted to do something that was a little more timeless about movies from whenever so people could then read it whenever.”
It’s the lack of timely relevance that makes Filmme Fatales so timelessly relevant. The pure quality and insightfulness of the writing and graphics are what keeps the reader interested and coming back, not just the fact that it’s currently blowing up on Twitter.
“People are still coming to the webstore and buying issues one and two, which came out in early 2013, and I like that they’re going to have the same experience reading it now as they did then. It’s something that you can hold on and keep.”
Its physicality is also one of Filmme Fatales’ strongest features. Not only is it actually material and not just a combination of pixels, the zine is carefully crafted issue to issue, with each one offering a new approach to its design, and supplementing the writing with eye-catching photography and illustration.
The tragedy of Filmme Fatales is that it feels so one of a kind because so little of what we see online is even comparable. It’s not just that so much of online content is being simplified for the sake of timeliness, it’s becoming simplified for the sake of increased web traffic, and even more so, advertising.
Advertising is how websites exist. Even more so than print, which at least has income from subscriptions and purchases, websites need ads, and more importantly, they need you to click on them. This is where the buzziest of buzzwords, click-bait, comes into play.
These aren’t new tactics by any means, but the Internet, fully embracing its ability to be instant, no longer worries of when a story is published; it becomes a matter of how many stories can be published. You don’t have to write a story that still has girth tomorrow, this whole week, month, quarter — it’s just got to have it right now, sorta.
This isn’t to say there aren’t many great online publications that do give readers quality. But with the recent shut downs of The Dissolve, Grantland, and many more, it certainly feels like these sites are becoming the exception to the rule, and are increasingly in danger of quick, one day and its gone termination.
Speaking to Philippa Hawaker of the Sydney Morning Herald, Lancaster made an interesting insight about Filmme Fatales, saying, “it’s a print publication, but it wouldn’t exist without the Internet.” The internet is how she has connected to most of the zine’s contributors, giving it a true global perspective, rather than just a local one. Much of the zine’s buzz can be traced back to the press it’s been given online. And yet its actual content is still print-only.
It’s not just Filmme Fatales either. More and more the Internet is becoming both a place to find the material and to talk about it. Everything from Etsy’s user-generated, handmade items; online do-it-yourself communities, which range from helping you make your own furniture to recording your own music; to the nostalgic trendiness of film photography. They’re all reliant on the internet, yet at the core very separated from it. Even though so much of the world has become digital, people are still infatuated with what engages all their senses. What they can hold, what they create, and what they can share. And with the internet, they can share with audiences larger than they ever thought possible.
Users have figured out what the heart of the internet is, but creators are still struggling. At its best, the internet is a place to find your niche, to share, and to hang out. This is what makes sites like Reddit and Tumblr thrive.
But content creators are being pressured to go in the other direction. Sites are trying to reach the largest audience possible rather than embracing the loyal one they already have. Instead of making content that their readership loves, they’re trying to make content that a non-reader might see on Facebook or Twitter, click on, and be interested enough by to read and even share. Vox culture critic Todd VanDerWerff explained this in his article “2015 is the year the old internet died”:
“Social media has, essentially, turned every content provider into a syndicator… and the best syndicators were always those who could take the most crowd-pleasing stuff and get it before as many eyeballs as possible…fun to read and ultimately disposable.”
This approach is not limited to just writing about pop-culture and news. It’s increasingly become the default for writing about politics, science, and yes, feminism, which has become less of a movement and more of a trend. It’s often not even the ideas that are getting attention; it’s the icons supporting them that are.
This isn’t to say that this is inherently hurting feminism. The fact that the term has begun to shift in the public lexicon from “women who hate men” to “people who believe in equality between the sexes” in just a few years is quite incredible. Women are given more and more space to talk about the things that they’ve been told to hush about for so long, from everyday sexism to everyday feminity.
Feminist theory is continually evolving and expanding, but mainstreaming has the possibility of condensing all of that work into obscurity. Lancaster explains her take:
“As with anything that is kind of popularized, it’s simplified along the way, and that’s when the danger of things like White feminism and the idea that your femaleness overrules any other kinds of oppression. I think when people are learning about feminism from Beyonce or Amy Schumer, I think… those aren’t educational resources… they can’t be the end point for your education. “
But for many new feminists it is, and for the many whose oppression includes much more than their femaleness, feminism seems as exclusionary as any other movement or philosophy throughout history. And when work comes out that does break the mold of this kind of simplified feminism, it gets backlash where it should be getting praise.
Sean Baker’s Tangerine, one of my favorites of 2015 and possibly the most important film of last year, tells the story of two sexworkers, both black transgender women, trying to find one of their cheating pimp boyfriends on Christmas Eve. That’s a gross simplification of a film that has so much more to it, but hey, how much more of this article are you going to be willing to read? Stream it on Netflix and/or read more about here, here, and here.
Tangerine has been a celebrated film, not just for the fact that it’s a great movie, filled with moments ranging from on-the-floor-laughing hysterical to profoundly heartbreaking, or because it presents transgender people of color, but because it feels very authentic too, most likely due to the two actors’ heavy involvement in the film’s conception and creation.
However, the film did face some backlash. During the film’s London premiere last November, the film was protested by the woman’s group Lesbian Nation. The group attacked the film for being misogynistic on the grounds that it “colludes with the pretence that men can be women, promotes violence against women as entertainment, promotes misogyny as comedy, and trivializes and normalizes prostitution”.
Not only is it a shocking misread of the film, it’s horrifically transmisogynistic. Anyone who has received a strong intersectional feminist education would see right through to the troubling nature of the group’s protest, but it’s hard to wonder if many young readers online have had the chance to get even a minor one. Like with Fury Road, Tangerine gets dumbed-down to the question of “is it feminist, or is it problematic?”
Lancaster isn’t interested in that question though, at least not for Filmme Fatales. In the editor’s letter that opens issue six, she lays down the mission she had instead:
“I never wanted Filmme Fatales to be a place where writers would argue ‘is it feminist?’ about movies or directors or actors… it was always intended to instead encapsulate conversations around women who make movies, women who are in movies, and women who love movies and have something to say about them.”
Upon asking her if the “is it feminist” question was important at all, Lancaster elaborated:
“I don’t think the question is unimportant, but I think as feminism has become trendier and more celebratized I think it’s become short-hand for ‘are you with this woman or against this woman based on what she said,’ rather than based on the work she’s made… I mean, some movies don’t pass the Bechdel test and are great and still provide interesting characters for women.”
“The Bechdel Test”, coined from a strip of Allison Bechdel’s comic series Dykes To Watch Out For, is a seemingly simple test of whether or not a movie has substantial voice for its female characters. Does the film have one or two named females characters, who talk to each other, about something other than men?
The Bechdel test, sadly, is failed astoundingly, especially by bigger Hollywood fair. The test ends up being a great tool at looking at female voices in cinema on a grand scale, but is too often mischaracterized as being used on a microlevel, to judge whether or not a specific film has “strong female characters”, is feminist, or if the film is even good or not.
But as Lancaster suggests, the test decides none of these things. A female character has just as much right to talk about the men in her life as she does everything else. At certain point, it becomes respectability politics. The real problem is when the only insight audiences have into the lives of women on screen stems from a male-centered view that women only exist in relation to men.
“Last week I was watching Sleeping with Other People, which I loved, and thought was so funny, so clever—it’s basically a romcom where Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis are trying to deal with their weird, complicated sexual feelings for one another. Sleeping with Other People doesn’t pass the Bechdel test because all Alison Brie does is talk about the men in her life. It’s a romcom about her relationships to the men in her life, and how that’s complicated her entire view of the world. That felt really honest and real for that character, so I felt like it was okay that it didn’t pass the Bechdel test.”
The Bechdel test is not really a way to judge whether or not a movie is anything. It’s a way to judge a system. As nice as it would be to have a simple way of judging a movie’s female characters, it’s most always much more complicated, and much more subjective, than that.
But along with so much of feminist theory, the Bechdel test becomes simplified by mainstream feminism. And instead of engaging with art, many new feminist are taught to judge it first. If it doesn’t openly support your politics, it’s not worth the trouble. Lancaster comments on this:
“I’m not that dogmatic in my feminism to say that. Sometimes I think it’s an excuse because they didn’t like something to begin with, and then they find out the person who made it said or did something anti-feminist, then they’re like ‘I knew it’ and never engage with it again.”
Filmme Fatales isn’t heavy-handed academia though, and isn’t necessary focused on being heavily grounded in theory. Yet Lancaster’s careful curation provides ideas that bridge the gap, looking at women and feminist issues in film creatively rather than in a way that’s highly-academic or highly-simplified. A piece in the zine like “What if Frances Ha were Black” reads poetically, refusing to turn its important question neither into just personal venting nor into dry, emotionally removed analysis. It’s feminist literature that neither poses to be exclusive nor inclusive to the point of degradation of visibility or theory.
Feminism, cinema, and culture are complicated, subjective, and ever evolving. They’re subjects that demand more than information, they demand ideas. They demand that you look critically at both yourself and the world around you. They demand openness and honesty. Filmme Fatales follows this kind of philosophy, but being that so many of new feminists are getting their values from the internet, from the Tumblr outrage machine to sites like Jezebel, places where feminism becomes sloppy and blurred, I worry that whatever wave of feminism we’re riding on now will ever reach the heights it needs for major social shifting to occur.
Author: Sean Duffy is a writer and filmmaker. He is an award-winning screenwriter and poet, and his films have screened at The College Town Film Festival, Driftless Film Festival, and Chicago Filmmakers. He has one of those website things. This spring he is the Editorial Intern at Facets.