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Much ado about something

How undervaluing women’s creative work affects us all
March 20, 2018
By Desirée de Jesus

Book series: Choose your own adventure

“The fact is,” writes Lili Loofbourow in the Virginia Quarterly Review, “we are unbelievably stupid at reading—or watching—women, and women-authored stories in particular. And we are suffering for it.” This provocative excerpt comes from “The Male Glance,” Loofbourow’s viral essay about how implicit biases against stories created by and about women affect our ability to recognize great art.

Unlike the lingering male gaze that fetishizes on-screen female characters, Loofbourow’s male glance is a “lazy reading” of female texts that makes quick assumptions about their cultural value and meaning. Her analysis begins by comparing two HBO “buddy dramas” that aired consecutively—True Detective (2014-) and Doll and Em (2013-2015)—and their critical reception. Where critics analyzed (and overanalyzed) the first program “to the point of parody,” the second program was dismissed as satire, despite similarities between their themes, narrative structures and star casts.

According to Loofbourow, their dissimilar reception was indicative of a certain tendency in literary and pop culture criticism, to assume that texts authored by men are inherently more insightful than works created by women. This approach presumes that when a woman-authored story appears complex, this is accidental, not the result of the artist’s skill and intentionality. Conversely, this glance expects depth from male-authored texts, even when it isn’t there. Loofbourow’s analysis continues by tracing correspondences through film and television, as well as through classic and contemporary literature.

The Male Glance in Academia

What troubled me most about Loofbourow’s essay wasn’t her demonstration of how much this approach to women’s creative work is embedded in Western culture, or even the ways that so many of us unconsciously participate in this pernicious practice. Instead, I was struck by the ways that this phenomenon can also surface within academic circles. Sometimes, research that addresses issues affecting girls and women is regarded as less serious or rigorous than other intellectual projects.

Another of Loofbourow’s critiques is that the male glance assumes women-authored texts don’t have universality. They’re for a niche audience. I’ve witnessed similar dismissals of feminist methodologies because of misperceptions about their benefit for people of all genders or their ability to address a range of societal issues.

Reclaiming Our Time

Last year, U.S. Representative Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) famously redirected Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s efforts to avoid answering her questions by repeating the phrase “reclaiming my time.” While the phrase was used to prevent Mnuchin from running out the clock, its relevance to many people’s growing dissatisfaction with the status quo has resulted in a much more expansive application. For example, in the past few months, we’ve seen the emergence of initiatives—like #MeToo and TimesUp! —that are dedicated to reclaiming women’s agency and dignity in the workplace.

Addressing the male glance’s effects on our knowledge of women’s achievements throughout history is also a part of this reclaiming of time. The New York Times recently began “Overlooked,” a series of obituaries documenting the lives of women whose accomplishments weren’t published at the time of their deaths. These life-affirming entries are far from morbid; rather, they give readers an opportunity to reflect on the contributions of trailblazing individuals like Indian film star Madhubala, the Chinese revolutionary and poet Qiu Jin, and the activist Marsha P. Johnson.

Feminist Frequency’s “Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History” video series is another excellent resource featuring a diverse range of compelling women, from civil rights activists and writers to pirates and the first computer programmer. These videos explore “the lives and accomplishments of fascinating women who defied gender stereotypes, but often found themselves pushed to the sidelines or erased from history books that weren’t ready to acknowledge them.” As I watched the videos, I couldn’t help but wonder about the amount of labor and energy expended in order to erase and minimize women’s intellectual contributions.

Doing Our Part

As a researcher of films and moving images about girls and women, I’m quite familiar with how the male glance (and gaze!) works and the ways that discussions about expert filmmaking tend to overlook the contributions and talent of female filmmakers. So, this year, in addition to the usual routes of research dissemination, I have been producing video essays, posting them, and submitting them to online, peer-reviewed journals.

Where most video essays focus on male auteurs like Bergman, Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Scorsese, my audiovisual work looks at female filmmakers and representations of girls and women in popular culture. The hope is that my film analyses will reveal the depth and intentionality within texts about female experiences. This project will also help the ongoing task of “reclaiming the time” of women-authored work that has been dismissed and forgotten. I anticipate sharing them in a more fulsome manner in my next blog post.

Well, if you’ve read this far, I hope that the next time you’re looking for a film or television program to watch, you’ll think critically about your own approach to work that centers women’s stories or that is women-authored. Your viewing experience will be all the better for it.

About the author

Desirée de Jesus is a PhD candidate in Film and Moving Images at Concordia. Her research has received various scholarships, namely the Bourse d’études Hydro-Québec de l’Université Concordia and a SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship. She is currently producing a series of video essays about girls in popular culture and video walkthroughs of games featuring playable female characters.

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