The Future was Then: Re-investing in Feminist Media Practice and Politics

Developmental Editing, Copy Editing, and Posting by Alexandra Hidalgo

Women walking down Venice Beach The future of feminist media scholarship begins with a return: a homecoming to the feminist media community and movement from whence it was born. Sure, we can stay as we are, mourning the exuberant, organized, mass feminist movement and media community last seen in the US in the 1970s at women’s centers and film festivals, all the while creating an increasingly self-sufficient intellectual culture. And yeah, I (like you?) missed that glorious moment, and have spent a significant part of my academic energies documenting and theorizing its memory (see my documentary and book Women of Vision: Histories in Feminist Film and Video1. But such nostalgia obscures the feminist organizing and media work that is happening now. Back in the day, there were scores of women’s film festivals and an active feminist community supporting them, one that included feminist film scholars who created context, theory, and analysis for the films and their feminist audiences. Currently, feminists make mainstream narrative films and HBO documentaries, they run distribution companies and film festivals (granted, usually gay and lesbian or experimental, the American women’s film festival is largely a thing of the past), they teach media production skills to younger feminists, and show their media work at festivals, college campuses and on the internet. Yet, this substantial activity occurs beyond the sightlines of dominant feminist media scholarship. Outside of feminist television studies, there is decidedly too little feminist scholarly attention paid to, or in solidarity with, the makers, viewers, programmers, distributors and institutions that support a thriving contemporary feminist media community.

I have written elsewhere how this is an outcome of three understandable moves made by the field as it matured and as a result of the increasing requirements of professionalization: a marked turn to and embrace of “theory” in isolation from “practice,” a preoccupation with mainstream forms, and a detachment from feminist politics2. However, if we scholars are to reclaim a place in the feminist media future, we’ll have to re-think our responsibilities and re-link to media practice and politics with the following quick and incendiary thoughts in mind:

1)    Practice. While the turn to theory granted academic and intellectual legitimacy that in turn allowed for tenure and programs, and while it did irrevocably alter film, cultural, and visual studies towards the feminist, it also had the effect of separating us from others who matter: those women who practice and engage with mediamaking outside academe. There once was an accessible feminist critical writing about current films and festivals; there once were informative and intelligent interviews with contemporary makers. Such writing is easy enough to do, but harder to publish. The vagaries and “standards” of academic publishing and careers force feminist scholars to attempt to publish theory-bound writing in prestige-periodicals with long lag-times in production. Thus, a kind of analytical, even theoretical writing that engages in a timely manner with contemporary feminist media and its makers has become increasingly difficult to publish. And that is, of course, if critics can get to the films: a task made more onerous by the dearth of women’s film festivals in the US.

Outside these questions of access and publishing, there is the matter of commitment.   Feminist film theory was initially conceived to help feminists make sense of how visual culture is structured by things patriarchal. Its use and form has steadily transformed into an expert’s language that speaks almost solely to its own and other academic disciplines. While we should continue to engage in scholarly dialogue with the varied intellectual traditions that best allow us to understand feminist media concerns, we must also engage more broadly in scholarly writing, teaching, and publishing practices that make these rarified, though enabling, traditions available to other audiences, including our (undergraduate) students and the feminist media community (makers, curators, distributors, funders, etc.) who are most eager to learn from, and engage with, our ideas. Like many of you, I teach courses in women’s cinema and feminist film theory to undergraduates. Here, I learn that many of the foundational debates in feminist film theory are woefully out of step with both contemporary cinema and young feminists even as they remain provocative and productive for us lady scholars. For example, it is no longer the case that only a handful of women direct films or that most directors (or viewers for that matter) are unaware of feminist theoretical traditions and concepts. In our scholarly work, we must dare to interact with present-day films and real-world feminists, not just the field.

2)    Mainstream Media. The significant influence and value of feminist media analysis of Hollywood films and dominant television need not be debated. However, feminist media scholarship has been stunted by not asking similar questions of work that starts from a feminist position, and circulates where it may (largely in alternative venues) due to these politics. So, while we may have successfully drawn a useful guide to how dominant visual systems and institutions picture women, gender and sexuality, we have missed answering such questions about a small, if no less significant, and certainly quite vital, component of media culture: the independent, alternative films, videos, digital work, and media culture of feminists. Currently, and in the future this will hold even truer, as feminist media culture hits against, speaks to, resists, and alters dominant media. Yet, feminist media scholarship rarely considers how this feminist work impacts mainstream media, or, in turn, how the conditions of alternative visual practices, structured by progressive histories, economics, and aesthetics, differ from dominant forms. Outside the fact that our feminist “sisters in cinema” always need our support (to better understand their work, to contribute to its circulation and archiving), our myopia has meant we are not accurately describing or theorizing feminist media culture in its real complexity.

3)    Politics. Sure, they’re in decline, they’re post, they’ve become something else. But, that’s a cop out. There’s plenty of organizing—in the name of AIDS, the prison industrial complex, gay marriage, anti-globalization and pro-peace—where feminist media analysis can be a key component of the project. Scholars’ voices need to be heard here, where people—where we—are contributing to social justice with and through the creation and analysis of media. A significant majority of contemporary activist media is and has been motivated by the ideas of feminist media scholarship—our reach has been impressively deep—but feminist scholars are largely unaware of the practices and politics to which our work contributes3. I am not suggesting that teaching, learning and thinking are not political in their own right. Of course they are. But such political work is even more effective when holistically linked to real struggles and actions, through praxis4: the integration of theory and practice. Join a group; speak your specialist knowledge about feminism and media there, in a language your comrades can understand; use this experience to re-think theory and re-link it to concerns on the ground; use these political goals to locate or even produce new and relevant texts.

In point of fact, what I have called the past and hoped for the future—an integrated feminist media community committed to alternative media and its practitioners and political applications—is alive in the present, albeit in Korea. I have been lucky enough to attend, as invited artist and scholar, the Women’s Film Festival in Seoul. For the past ten years, run by feminist film scholars, community activists, and a devoted horde of young feminist volunteers (many of them graduate and undergraduate students in film production and in film studies) this yearly social/political event uses national and international contemporary feminist film to create both community and the possibility for intellectual/political education and conversation.  Throughout the festival, women use feminist films to better understand their lives, history, and the role of cinema in these matters. Feminist scholars participate throughout, through curating, translating, explicating, and distributing. Furthermore, the festival is the only one I know that has a yearly section devoted to activist video. Therefore, discussion about media form, access, process, and politics—not just the increasingly conventionalized images by and of women—is kept central to the event.

Back at home, I imagine a future where an increasing number of feminists will make, consume, and support feminist media culture. Feminist media scholars could return to a relevant and even prominent position in this lively field if we dare to re-connect our thriving but stand-alone culture with the world and work of non-academic women and alternative feminist media. I will mourn the past I never lived only if we continue on our current path, one that is increasingly isolated, professionalized, and obsolete.


  1. Alexandra Juhasz, Women of Vision: Histories in Feminist Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001); Women of Vision: 18 Histories in Feminist Media (90 mins, 2000), distributed by the Cinema Guild. return
  2. See AIDS TV: Identity, Community and Alternative Video (Duke University Press, 1995) and Women of Vision.
  3. See “No Woman is an Object: Realizing the Feminist Collaborative Video,” Camera Obscura 54 (2003): 71-98 and “WAVE in the Media Environment: Camcorder Activism and the Making of HIV TV,” Camera Obscura, 28, Imaging Technologies/Inscribing Science I (fall 1992): 135-152. I list two of my own articles on the subject of activist video published in this journal to indicate that while the field, and this publication, have supported scholarship on alternative feminist media, this body of scholarship is a decidedly minor one in the field. return
  4. My most recent work, Media Praxis: A Radical Anthology Integrating Theory, Production and Practice, considers the hundred year history of the theorizing of media by those who make it themselves as part of a struggle for social change. return

NOTE: This article was originally printed in Camera Obscura and we thank them for granting us permission to reprint it here.

Alex Juhasz, “The Future Was Then: Re-investing in Feminist Media Practice and Politics,” in Camera Obscura, Volume 61,  pp. 52-57. Copyright, 2006, Camera Obscura. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Duke University Press.

Click here to visit Alex’s profile