WILLA v9 - In the Classroom - Film and Feminist Criticism in the High School Classroom

Volume 9
Fall 2000

Film and Feminist Criticism in the High School Classroom

Nancy Barile,
Revere High School,
Revere MA

The issue of gender, the status and image of girls and women, and the equality of gender-based representation are compelling topics for today's high school student. Providing students with the skills necessary to be able to recognize and analyze the messages the entertainment industry and the media bombard them with on a daily basis and how they pertain to gender is of paramount importance.

Millions of teenagers view movies at the theater, on their VCRs, on cable television, or on network television each day. Teenagers need to be aware of the specific rhetoric targeting them as a demographic group. They should be able to recognize manipulation by the entertainment industry, and they should also be able to detect when a rhetorical artifact (Foss, 1989) is blatantly sending them a political, spiritual, or moral message. In particular, students need the critical thinking skills necessary to distinguish messages, whether positive or negative, relating to gender.

Many students today have an attitude about politics, religion, and education that questions authority, but they seldom realize how the media is designed to manipulate their emotions (and thus their understanding of social roles), especially as it relates to the portrayal of gender. "Mass-mediated communication generally, and film specifically, acts as a mirror, reflecting society's values and beliefs, hopes and aspirations" (Newman, 1993, x.) Film thus powerfully influences and manipulates teenagers' views of gender roles. That power can be used to further perpetuate gender stereotypes or to provide new roles and concepts with regard to gender.

An exercise I use with high school students in the classroom provides them with the tools of analysis that can help them readily spot gender stereotypes and the negative or positive portrayals of gender. It also encourages them to reject or accept these gender messages and urges them to work for change. I have found this particular assignment actually causes an "awakening" to gender issues that carries over to the student's critical analysis of other forms of literature, media, and rhetoric. In my Advanced Placement Literature and Composition class, seniors are required to do a rhetorical criticism as an introduction to the art of rhetoric and how it influences thought and action. One of the choices for this assignment is a feminist criticism of a film.

Initially, there are some general moans and groans about the assignment, usually from the boys in the class who misunderstand the meaning of feminism. They often associate feminism with images of combat boot-camp militant women and are quite taken aback when I tell them that men indeed can be feminists. Because of this confusion about the word feminism, the lesson begins with its definition: "Feminism is, at its core, very simple: the belief that men and woman should have equal opportunity for self-expression" (Foss, p. 151).

Once students understand the meaning of feminism, they are then able to begin their exploration through a feminist criticism. I use the following definition of feminist criticism from Foss:

Rhetorical criticism done from a feminist perspective, then, is designed to analyze and evaluate the use of rhetoric to construct and maintain particular gender definitions for women and men…. Two assumptions that connect gender with rhetoric under gird feminist criticism: (1) women's experiences are different from men ~ and (2) women's voices are not heard in language…. Its focus is on one primary research question: "How has gender been communicated through rhetorical artifacts?" (p.151 - 152)

When students have a full comprehension of these concepts, they can begin their analysis using a feminist approach.

My approach to the process of writing a feminist criticism begins deliberately with a "fill-in -the blank" type assignment. My experience has been that students use this template approach initially to overcome some of their reticence regarding the complicated concepts of feminism and rhetoric in general. They are unfamiliar with the language and ideas of each, and I find it necessary initially to simplify the process as much as possible. When students find out they will be using a film for their feminist criticism, they become more enthusiastic about the assignment. Since most students are avid moviegoers with many opinions about the films they view, the assignment becomes a wonderful and relevant exercise in critical thinking.

Feminist criticism involves three steps: (1) Analysis of the conception of gender presented in the rhetorical artifact; (2) discovery of the effects of the artifact's conception of gender on audience; and (3) discussion of how the artifact may be used to improve women's lives (Foss, p. 155). The class examines films using these steps.

The first step, analysis, involves answering questions such as: "does the artifact describe how the world looks or feels towards women, men or both? Does it embody the perceptions and experiences of women or men or both? How are femininity and masculinity depicted in the rhetorical artifact? Do the images conform to or violate society's representation of the ideal woman or man?" (Foss 155-156).

As an example, I provide students with a copy of a feminist criticism I did in college on the movie Fatal Attraction. Students delight in seeing the actual writing of their teacher (who happily received an A+ for her assignment), and the model provides an example of society's representation of gender. The movie, Fatal Attraction, which was one of the most successful movies of the 1980s, examines the issue of "stalking," a predominantly male behavior, as done by a female. My feminist criticism done on this film points out how it attempts to vilify the single, childless career woman while sanctifying the stay-at-home, sexualized mother/wife. It is easy for students to see how such messages deprecate the role of women in our society and could have a negative impact on women's lives.

In the discussion of the use of the artifact to improve women's lives, "the critic attempts to discover how the analysis of the artifact can be used to alter the denigrating gender role assigned to women and help them live in new way" (Foss, p.157).

Exploration and practice of rhetorical criticism, and in particular, feminist criticism, is a valuable tool for the classroom. The exercise further develops critical thinking skills and helps to produce students who are keen observers of their society, able to critique information in many forms. It is useful for both genders in providing the tools necessary for recognizing manipulation and influential tactics used by rhetors, allowing students to either accept or reject the message presented. Indeed, the exercise also serves to point out inequalities or parities with regard to gender in our society. Through their analysis, students are called upon to use their investigative skills and develop insight in order to analyze the numerous and varied messages they come in contact with every day and to challenge cultural stereotypes when they find them unacceptable. Assessment evidence is readily apparent, as you will see in Kristina Petrosino's feminist criticism of the James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies. Kristina is a student in my AP Literature class. She found this assignment enlightening, not only in terms of how gender is portrayed in the media, but also in how these roles are perpetuated in current society.

The male perspective … is dominant even before the plot begins. Once "the plot thickens," each character is seen as good or bad; there are no neutral characters… James is in competition with the major male characters throughout the movie. They are the "bad guys," and James is looking to defeat them--a classic plot. The female characters, however, are portrayed as sexual conquests to James, objects of his elusive affection … The main female characters wear clothes that emphasize their unquestionably attractive bodies, making them naturally attractive to the male viewer. The main role opposite James Bond is an older man. Though distinguished, he is far from physically appealing. In this way, the movie is presented from a male perspective….

As clearly seen, the male and female "equals" are not that at all. They are portrayed very differently, despite their similar positions. The "strong" characteristics are given to the male. Bond's aggressiveness, decision-making ability, composure, good judgment, tolerance for pain and perseverance embodies the typical male persona. Wai Lin, [the main female character] is given characteristics such as sexual submissiveness, ineptness in regards to decision-making, distraction, personifying the typical view of the female. It is only when she begins to demonstrate act-first, think-later aggressiveness that she is seen forging her way through enemy lines and completing her mission. Though Wai Lin is in a position of power and respect, it is secondary to that of her male counterpart and for no apparent reason.

As for the movie's effects on the audience, the student writes:

This movie exalts the male mindset of being the sexual predator, the aggressor, and the decision-maker, all the while being skillful and witty. In other words, the mentality displayed is stuck in the fifties when these movies were first being conceived. Male dominance and female inferiority are clearly displayed throughout each scene. It seems this movie also has the nineties' mindset. It may seem that the women are equal, but in reality, they are not. Femininity is classified as being weaker, vulnerable, and distracting.

What then will these movies be teaching the people that see them? It is enough that society is riddled with inequity when it comes to gender; do we need to be teaching so brazenly as well? In a society that idolizes its movie stars, this movie will only help to encourage stereotypical male and female views…, on the most basic level, teaching even young children their respective gender-defined roles. This type of movie, though it may seem like a harmless action flick, encourages patriarchal mentality, thereby defaming women's position in society.

Finally, how should the rhetorical artifact be used to improve the lives of women? According to the student:

This movie should be seen as a prompt for action on the part of women. These patriarchal views dominate society. This can only make the advancement of women much more difficult. Once a woman is able to see how she is being defined by a large school of thought, she is able to break free of those stereotypical views and advance herself, according to her own values. This is true for men also, however, as they are the dominant figure, advancement is not an issue for them. They are, however, able to break free of the stereotypical views held of them. The fact that Wai Lin was in a position of power should be encouraging. Only three decades ago, a woman would not even have been considered for such a role, and none were. Tomorrow Never Dies does reflect the changing attitudes of society. However, there is much more ground to be covered. Part of resolving any problem is defining the problem in the first place. Tomorrow Never Dies clearly defines the patriarchal approach to masculine and feminine roles. It is up to the audience, particularly the females, to act for their cause. Tomorrow Never Dies lends itself to feminist critique due to the very nature of the film. Instead of being merely an action flick, it can now be used as a stepping-stone for the advancement of women.

Another student, Kristen Rappa, examined the highly popular 1990s film Clueless for her criticism and found positive female gender attributes buried in the film's portrayal of negative teenage and female stereotypes:

A woman of any age who had seen the film Clueless could feel one of two possible emotions. She could possibly feel that she relates to Cher's views, concerns, and missions. The film could cause some teenage girls to re-assess themselves and improve their images and self-esteem. However, the film could also offend an adolescent female's view of what a woman should be. Without a doubt, the film makes some adolescent ideals and values seem foolish. Some of the actions by characters in the film make teenage females seem brainless and egotistical.

After viewing and analyzing the film Clueless, I feel that females can learn from the issues and characters in the plot. Self-improvement and self-esteem are great things for women to strive for. However, there are some negative things that a woman could pick up on after watching the film. Too much attention to the physical aspects of life can be wicked to a person's well being. Ignorance of true skill and intelligence-such as Cher's driving test and report card-can prove to be bad examples of how a female should behave. The male manipulation factor in the film could prove to be used by many adolescent girls who saw how it worked for Cher. It could also cause males to think that all females are like Cher and cause them to try to understand what their female counterparts really have in mind.

Finally, Joseph Colella decided to take a different approach when he chose Star Wars for his feminist criticism. Although he readily acknowledges that Star Wars is indeed a film that shows a man's world (with only two female speaking roles), Joseph is quick to point out the positive role model Princess Leia Organa provided for women, especially at the time the movie was created:

Leia has multiple layers to her character she is chosen as a female who is equal to men. She has incredible strength and devotion to the Rebellion … She is strong and self-reliant. Leia proves that in a male-dominated world, women can succeed…. Star Wars would not be complete without Leia's dedication to the Rebellion and her determination….

George Lucas writes Star Wars on the premise of a fairy tale, but makes it much, much more. Leia is a princess captured by evil villains. The (male) heroes must save her. Where Star Wars varies from the fairy tale is in Leia's own character. She is not just the object of desire of these heroes. She is her own individual with her own beliefs. She is shown taking a proactive stance. Instead of being helpless, Leia does everything in her power to save herself. Leia is the fairy princess who breaks the mold of what youngsters have been taught. She is completely original in this aspect.

Students frequently tell me that this assignment was one of the most enjoyable of the year because of its long lasting effects in how they view the world. The assignment proves enlightening for them not only as they investigate how gender is portrayed in the entertainment industry, but as they examine how gender roles are continually perpetuated in society.

As a result of exploring gender issues through their feminist criticisms, throughout the rest of the year students are quick to point out gender stereotypes and the positive or negative portrayal of gender in novels, poetry, music lyrics, and television. They are also keenly aware of gender presentation in the works they create themselves. The lesson has opened their eyes to the reality of gender, representation and power around them and has awakened them to the status and image of girls and woman and the necessity for equity in gender-based representation.


Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1989.

Newman, Marc T. A Rhetorical Analysis of Popular American Film. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt, 1993.

The Interview

She said when you turn fifty,
your poetry will dry to cracked leaves, moth's wings.
You won't fight with your husband anymore,
and all the rivers' movements,
the gnashing boats banging oarlocks,
bow of one to stern of the other,
making circles, will slow. Recede.
Leave a gravel bed
where night animals poke with hooves
troubled by a lack of water sounds.
It won't! I said like a screen door slammed.
She looked out towards the back yard.
Your husband will hear what you say.
Things that must get done.
I used to write poems on my stomach in the dark,
my body went ahead of them to tangles of love.
Lights went on in the middle of the night.
But I've compromised; the work goes on.
We've made our peace.

With what? I whispered across the table.
From her window I watched leaves, looking like empty paper,
whirl brown into corners where air could not lift them,
between stone walls, gutters,
the steps out back.

~Susan Clarke

Reference Citation: Barile, Nancy. (2000) "Film and Feminist Criticism in the High School Classroom." WILLA, Volume 9, p. 31-34.

by Radiya Rashid