(An Activist Classroom Book Review)
This blog is called “The Activist Classroom” because I believe that teaching, writing about teaching, and thinking about teaching and learning (especially in relation to performance) are all activating practices. They are things we do to inspire, stimulate, and charge others to engage in public debate, thoughtful reflection, and critically aware acts of citizenship.
I don’t talk overtly about activism a lot on the blog, largely because I see this as a space in which to explore what “activism” means: the different valences of the term, and what acts it can signify beyond its more obvious, old-school, and – it must be said – always courageous and essential roots out on the streets. So, when an exceptional example of non-traditional activism crosses my desk, I’m keen to investigate it, and usually to share my thoughts about it.
Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema, by Sophie Mayer, is one such example. It offers a comprehensive, enthusiastic, generous, elegant, smart and forceful look at nearly 500 films from 60 countries. It is written for the widest possible audience but pulls no intellectual punches along the way. It opens with a discussion of Frozen telescoped through the reflections of a young female viewer (Mayer’s god-daughter); those reflections become a model for its inclusive, girl-positive ethos. It ends with a formidable call to action for cinema lovers of all ages, backgrounds, sexes and genders – but with girls called first to the front line.
Before I go further, full disclosure: Mayer is an old friend of mine. We attended Massey College at the University of Toronto together, and we shared a PhD professor, though not a PhD program (hooray for interdisciplinarity!). She is the reason I own a Wheelock’s Latin primer, and the reason I believe that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the greatest television program ever made. (OBVIOUSLY.)
But our personal connection is beside the point in this review – truly. I requested a copy of Political Animals from Mayer’s publisher, I.B. Tauris*, because I knew when I saw the abstract online that it would be essential reading for me. I also knew, given my academic expertise in feminist performance, that I’d be able to provide a balanced and informed reading of it, whatever the weather. Moreover, knowing something of Sophie’s work as a film curator, popular culture critic, and voracious and eclectic film consumer, I strongly suspected it would seriously kick ass.
I was right.
In a nutshell, Political Animals is a book about what Mayer calls “representational justice” (after “reproductive justice” ): she looks at but also very far beyond mainstream cinema in order to locate the images, narratives, and techniques that allow the feminist filmmakers she tracks to paint for us a picture of our world that is critical of our patriarchal present but also full of hope, “love, vigour and courage” (8). What’s a feminist filmmaker, for Mayer? Her definition:
A stance of ongoing public activism, rooted in but not limited to gender equity, underlies my definition of a film, filmmaker, film theorist or film viewer as feminist. …Drawing on the modes of criticism laid out by Jill Dolan in The Feminist Spectator in Action – argument and advocacy, forming an activist criticism engaged with artistry – I suggest what lies beyond: activist viewers of an activist cinema. Where the active viewer makes connections to and within the film, the activist viewer connects the film and the world. (8, final emphasis added)
Mayer’s book has numerous strengths, but chief among them is this: it shows performance criticism at work, as activism. (Or, to put this another way: it does feminism as criticism, and it does feminist criticism as activism.) Mayer sees herself as an activist, to be sure, but her book positions us – ordinary audience members, film fans everywhere, you and me – as the ultimate activist agents in the public sphere, central players in the debates that shape the making, doing, sharing, and viewing of art in a moment of political precarity. (Or, indeed, in any political moment. I’m not sure we’ll be getting less precarious anytime soon.) This is probably the most inspiring thing about Political Animals, especially for student readers. It fills reading, watching, and thinking with a sense of true agency.
Beginning from this democratic premise – that VIEWERS become activists when they have (and use) the tools to “connect the film and the world” – Mayer surveys an absolutely staggering amount of cinema, grouped into themed chapters. The first offers an “alt” reading of feminist film history – one in which the typical story of scarcity (“not enough feminist work!”) is replaced with a sense of “plenty” (“look at all this feminist work we’ve not been talking about!” [14-18]). Following on, chapters two and three take on ecological issues, examining films that engage animals, earth, and other forms of “bare” life in political solidarity with women’s concerns. Chapters four (on women making movies about war) and five (on the many faces of modern British feminist cinema) are more traditionaly geopolitical, while chapters six (feminist costume drama! My favourite!**) and seven (on the political power of female fantasy) explore “trad” women’s art and craft practices for those practices’ radical possibilities, when they are coopted effectively for (and by) the feminist imagination.
The final three chapters look to topics at once “done” and not nearly done (well) enough: girls (taking up space), homes and family life, and love. Mayer concludes with a vibrant, inspiring “open letter” (modelled after the open letters of some of her filmmaking heroes) to viewers, artists, critics, and curators as she peers into a future that is in the shaping, right now. That future is being imagined, created, filmed and talked about by the girl(s) she and I once were (the Riot GRRRL generation); the young female-identified artists watching, thinking, and making today, at home and at school and on their smart phones; and the thoughtful pioneers still all around us, in no way done with their essential work. Mayer invites us every one into the tent of her activist writing and viewing practice: channeling Kathleen Hanna, she cries out: “Girls to the front: let’s go” (203).
There is so much material to admire in Political Animals, and if you are a cinema-hound or a film scholar (or aspiring to either, or both!), I urge you to grab a copy and dive in. What I want to emphasise in the rest of this review, though, isn’t content but form. I want to highlight the para-textual dimensions of Mayer’s work that make it a model for the kind of scholarship I know I want (and want more of us all) to write more often.
1. Political Animals risks accessibility, gorgeously.
Mayer’s writing is intellectually rigorous but also fluid and lucid and full of heart. It takes seriously the notion that writing about art is a creative thing, not less than (or better than) the art it discusses, but a parallel document that exists in an intellectual and social relationship to its subject and forms a crucial part of our public engagement with that subject and the potential it holds to “remak[e] the world” (8). Mayer is a proper scholar-artist in her working life (that is: she makes art, curates art, and writes about art, moving seamlessly between these labours every day); here, she turns her phrases with the talent of a sculptor, reminding us that scholarship cannot be dry because it is creative, and as creative material it needs to inspire. As she writes at the end of her galvanising introduction:
Political Animals is written in homage and gratitude to the feminist scholars, curators, critics and bloggers whose work opened, and opens, up a world of film to me, and preserves it for us all. Above all, B. Ruby Rich’s feminist film history Chick Flicks brought news of films I couldn’t yet see (and had never dreamed possible). Her search, delivered in effervescent style, for ‘the kind of riveting, soul-replenishing work that can give girls and women the confidence and spirit to change the world’, is the shoulder upon which my book stands. (11)
2. Political Animals is rigorously inclusive.
In its inclusivity, this book reminds us that we must make our futures together, respectful of our differences yet committed to solidarity across difference, or we have nothing at all. The quotation above is an apt example of how Mayer’s critical generosity extends outward to those who have inspired and supported her; she pays that generosity forward in the exposure she grants the hundreds of filmmakers whose work she discusses – in many cases exposure long overdue.
Mayer’s scope is broad, always international and intercultural, and her language choices carry with them her deep understanding of the responsibility writing across cultural difference brings. She consistently chooses the terminology used by minority communities (trans, LGBTQIA, Indigenous – for example) as she addresses work from those communities, and she pays constant attention to the ways in which labels carry unconscious privilege, the privilege to decide who is “us” and who “them”. This might seems like a small thing, but I assure you it’s not: the research required to ensure naming and pronoun preferences are correct on a subject-to-subject basis, and the additional care needed in writing and copyediting in order to make sure casual errors are not left in the manuscript, is painstaking. Taking these pains indicates a willingness not to settle for “normative” language as normal, a desire to use words literally to speak a different and more inclusive world, page by page, into being.
3. Political Animals is evidence that reviewing film, theatre, performance – art, period – is essential cultural labour, labour we need to support and maintain in these rough political times.
By choosing to go long rather than deep in her engagement with most of her cinematic subjects, Mayer models film scholarship’s relationship to popular-culture reviewing, helping to break down the barriers between “criticism” and “reviews” – artificial and unhelpful as they are. In a moment when I often despair of the quality of performance reviews in the media outlets I rely on for information about the cultural zeitgeist (500 words, maybe; maybe written within an hour or two of the show, on the hoof, maybe on the phone!), this book represents film reviewing at its highest calibre. It takes the measure of trends, makes political connections, and articulates a vision for what yet may come. This is reviewing that takes time. It is reviewing that recognises its responsibility to support, engage, critique, and also adore that which it speaks of. It is reviewing as political activism.
Mayer’s kind of sustained, cultivated, invested engagement is essential for artists, and through them for the societies they both reflect and shape. Work like this forms part of a conversation artists need to have, in public, in order to move their practices forward. It forms part of a conversation spectators need to have in order to learn what it means to go to the cinema or the theatre with a world-making eye. And it forms part of a conversation we need to promote, urgently, online, louder and stronger every day, so that one day we might drown out the trolls – or, even better, render them hopelessly irrelevant. Perhaps we might even teach a few of them something about art, feminism, and inclusivity along the way.
*If you’re concerned about where you send your money when you click to buy online, consider purchasing Political Animals direct from the publisher here.
**I have talked before about costume drama on the blog. I will again – very soon. Look forward to more from Mayer’s book in that upcoming post, as well as thoughts on season 2 of Outlander, Orange is the New Black, and the crazy-cool feminist western Strange Empire.