5 Exploiting Feminism in Stephanie Rothman's Terminal Island
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Exploiting Feminism in Stephanie Rothman’s Terminal Island I think films are a compromised and corrupted art form, a combination of business and art. And I think filmmakers who treat it completely as a business fail. A business-oriented film is too blatant. It must have something more. To me, films that succeed are those that are slightly corrupted, that attempt to be both business and art, knowing they can never be a full work of art and should never be a full work of business.1 —Roger Corman Two women—one white and blonde, the other black and sporting an Afro—are harnessed to a plow, struggling to move forward through thick muck. Glistening sweat slides through their exposed cleavage and down their taunt, muscular thighs. Their expressions are at once determined and humbled. They are dressed in tight cut-off jeans, halter tops tied off at the midriff, no bras and no shoes. Behind them, a man snarls, driving his human “cows.” This disturbing image is the core icon in the advertisements for Terminal Island. In the same ad, we see a stereotypical image of the black “buck,” his broad chest bare, crushing a black woman’s head into the dirt with his foot, “Welcome to Terminal Island, Baby!” The promotional campaign for an exploitation film characteristically reduces the movie to its most sensationalistic images, images that make its desired audience want to see more. Terminal Island is being “exploited” as a film in which one can see beautiful women “put in their place” by powerful men. Another image circulates around Terminal Island—the only photograph I have been able to find of its director, Stephanie Rothman. Rothman , an attractive young woman with flowing black hair, is directing an early scene set in a television studio control-room. Her look is passionate, 5 102 her expressive hands stretch wide, as she delivers instructions to the actress who plays a documentary filmmaker in the movie. The actress bears more than a passing resemblance to Rothman herself.2 As a result, the image takes on a reflexive quality—the woman director as artist producing an image of the woman director. Omni magazine captions the photograph : “Terminal Island is consistent with her other films in that it is about several men and women who unite, then live together as friends and lovers without sexual distinctions being made, or infighting and petty jealousies developing. Her ideal world is one of equality and harmony.”3 Omni identifies the elements in Terminal Island and the other Rothman films, such as The Velvet Vampire (1971), Group Marriage (1972), and The Working Girls (1973), that attracted feminist interest. Omni’s juxtaposition of the exploitation poster and the photograph of Rothman leaves unreconciled two contradictory accounts of the film’s politics and its audience appeals. Images of women as chattel compete with images of women as artists. Appeals to fantasies of male control compete with appeals to fantasies of “equality and harmony.” Any film that negotiates between these two competing discourses warrants closer consideration. Such films may help us to better understand the ideological fault-lines within the popular cinema. As Christine Gledhill suggests, the political commitments of filmmakers often have to get “negotiated” through generic traditions for constructing stories, as well as marketing appeals that sell those stories to demographicallydesirableaudiences .Suchnegotiationsproduceideologicalcontradictions within the texts being sold, contradictions that in turn get negotiated by viewers seeking certain kinds of pleasures from going to the movies. In Rothman’s case, a further series of negotiations occurred among feminist critics: after an initial flurry of articles advancing her case as a feminist filmmaker , references to Rothman all but disappeared. A generation of critics schooledinLauraMulvey’sassaulton“visualpleasure”founditdifficultto resolve the ideological contradictions surrounding a feminist exploitation filmmaker. They stopped looking for signs of feminist resistance in such an unlikely place and recoiled with puritanical discomfort from her eroticized images. Rothman’s Terminal Island suggests the complexity of the negotiationsthatoccurbetweenfeministpoliticsandpopularentertainmentwithin the marginal commercial space of the exploitation cinema. As more recent feminist critics have sought a more complex account of the pleasures of popular culture, a reconsideration of Rothman seems in order. Re-examining Rothman is of critical importance, since the issues Exploiting Feminism in Stephanie Rothman’s Terminal Island | 103 she poses are closely related to those raised by a whole range of Hollywood films released in the 1990s—Aliens, Blue Steel, Silence of the Lambs, Thelma and Louise, and A League of Their Own—that similarly seek to insert...



Subject Headings

  • United States -- Social conditions -- 1945-.
  • Mass media -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • Aesthetics -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • United States -- Social conditions -- 1933-1945.
  • Mass media -- United States -- Psychological aspects.
  • Popular culture -- United States.
  • Popular culture -- United States -- Psychological aspects.
  • Emotions -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • Affect (Psychology) -- United States.
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