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  • Film History and the Two Presents of Feminist Film Theory
  • Jane M. Gaines (bio)

Feminist cinema scholars are faced with a double historical question that requires both judicious explanation and inventive methodology. The first would seem to ask for traditional historical interpretation; the second, for a theory of the way in which theories come to power. The first question arises because an astonishing number of so-called lost women have recently been "discovered." Recent research in the archives of the Federation of International Film Archives (FIAF) and in key library special collections has turned up film prints and documents pointing to the existence of figures who eluded earlier generations of film historians. The evidence confirms the significant participation of women in nearly all aspects of the motion picture industry in the silent era, from distribution and exhibition to directing and producing. In the United States, enough women were visible as producers in 1917, for example, for Photoplay to remark on what it described as a "her own company epidemic."1

Early research on international cases indicates that women were crucially involved in the creative development of other emerging national film industries as well. In fact, women working in what we would now understand as directing, producing, and screenwriting have been identified in twenty-two countries.2 Inevitably, the question raised by these discoveries is "why"? Why did they succeed then? And why, in the later stages of industrial development, did these women no longer exercise the influence that they exerted at the outset? I will return to this question as one of the pressure to write "the history of" these women and their struggles.

The second question, although it would not appear to require the exhaustive primary research of the first, may be the more difficult of the two to answer in a way that is satisfying to the field. And this is my point. For a historical explanation, really an interpretation, to be received as adequate to its moment, it must demonstrate comprehensive explanatory power. It must be received as a better version of an earlier explanation or fill a void that, for whatever reason, no version has yet filled. Such is the case with the question of why the field, which both fostered and developed such a widely influential feminist theory of film, beginning in the mid-1970s, did not acknowledge this historical phenomenon, particular to the silent era. To ask why these women were forgotten is also to ask why we forgot them. For they were both overlooked by the first generation of traditional historians and not "recognized" by the second generation of scholars.

"Recognized" here implies both cognizance and acknowledgment. In an attempt to answer the second question, perhaps more unanswerable than the first, we would want to ask why a theory recognizes some research findings but not [End Page 113] others at a particular historical juncture. We would want to know why 1970s feminist film theory explained symbolic subjugation to men but not the power some women in the early industry exercised over others.

The existence of so many women attempting to form companies in the international film industry requires us to revisit "production," just as the emphasis on female spectators, beginning in the 1980s, reformulated "reception." The evidence indicates that women exercised power over both male and female coworkers. We still do not know, however, whether this influence was temporary and compromised or real and sustaining, whether it was corrupt or benevolent. Nor do we know how women shared creative power with men. We also face the problem of how to move from agencyless real historical agents to the powerful artistic-industrial product—in this case, the silent film text. What has the paradigm allowed?

This is not to suggest that paradigms are obstructions. The problem is also us. In retrospect, we may now be able to see how a theory that held that woman was "bearer, not maker of meaning," might eventually lead to a stage when we would be interested in the industrial conditions of women's meaning making.3 Why 1970s feminist film theory did not recognize the historical phenomenon of fifty years earlier is also a question of what it...


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pp. 113-119
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