Interview with Laura Mulvey and Anna Backman Rogers, co-editors of 'Feminisms'

University of Groningen student Daniel O’Neill spoke with Laura Mulvey and Anna Backman Rogers on 24 April 2015 ahead of the London launch of Feminisms: Diversity, Difference and Multiplicity in Contemporary Film, Volume 5 in the international book series The Key Debates: Mutations and Appropriations in European Film Studies.


Laura Mulvey

O'Neill: What has changed within the field of feminist film theory since “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” was published, and how has this prompted you to construct Feminisms?

MULVEY: One absolutely crucial change is that feminist film theory is now an academic subject to be studied and taught. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” was a political intervention, primarily influenced by the Women’s Liberation Movement and, in my specific case, a Women’s Liberation study group, in which we read Freud and realised the usefulness of psychoanalytic theory for a feminist project. In addition to this feminist context, the essay could be seen as experimental, within the cultural context of the 1970s avant-garde: its writing, its films, and its ideas.

 In the forty years between then and now, both women’s studies and film studies have been established within universities and, perhaps even more significantly, other cultural and political perspectives, such as gay and lesbian or post-colonial, have inflected thinking within the humanities. By now, a younger generation of women participate in extremely lively debates in which questions of gender, sexuality and representation on screens and across media are approached from perspectives that had not yet been articulated in the 1970s.


O'Neill: How did these developments prompt you to construct Feminisms?

MULVEY: One very interesting aspect of the two contributions to Feminisms from “women and film” journals is that both, in their different ways, trace these shifting perspectives and note their impact on the journals’ politics, content and style. The idea of Feminisms was to bring the present into a sharp focus, using the new generation of young feminist scholars to reflect on the new questions and issues that preoccupy them today.      


O'Neill: Was there a particular event or phenomenon that sparked the idea of Feminisms?

MULVEY: The idea for Feminisms emerged out of discussions with The Key Debates series editors: Annie van der Oever, Ian Christie and Dominique Chateau. It was obvious that the series would ultimately need to address the question of “where is feminist film theory today” and I was fortunate enough to participate in the founding moments when the idea moved into realisation as the next project for the series.  


O'Neill: You suggest that there has been a lack of progress in feminism since its second wave in your preface to Feminisms. What do you attribute this to?

MULVEY: I am not sure that there has been a “lack of progress.” On the contrary, the concept of feminism is not only well established but is now also attracting interest from young women, including teenagers and pre-teens. But a new interest is also symptomatic of the failure of the feminist project and the need for its renewal. This, to my mind, is due to the fact that violence against women and the commodification of the female body are both prevalent and, indeed, on the rise today. They are, in a sense, two sides of the same coin: women are, on the one hand, subjects of an extremely real and abject (as Julia Kristeva put it) body and denigrated sexuality; on the other, the proliferation of images, and their digitalisation produces more and more abstract and air-brushed representations of impossible female bodies. Both indicate, certainly, a “lack of progress.”  But, one hopes, discussions and resistance are emerging in response. It seems to be generally acknowledged that sexism is far from defeated, flourishing through religions and other reactionary ideologies, which would definitely and gladly erase the concept of feminism.


O'Neill: Thank you very much for your time.


Laura Mulvey is a professor of film at Birkbeck College, University of London and the director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image. Her publications include Visual and Other Pleasures (1989, new edition 2009), Fetishism and Curiosity (1996, new edition 2013), Citizen Kane (1996, new edition 2012), and Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (2006). In the 1970s and early 1980s, she co- directed six films with Peter Wollen, including Riddles of the Sphinx (1978; DVD release 2013). With artist/filmmaker Mark Lewis, she has co-directed Dis- graced Monuments (Channel 4, 1994) and 23 August 2008 (2013).



Anna Backman Rogers

O'Neill: Can you remember when you first read Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”?

BACKMAN ROGERS: I came to the “Visual Pleasure” essay rather late. I had just completed my BA in philosophy and had read many seminal feminist texts such as “The Second Sex,” “The Beauty Myth,” The Female Eunuch,” “The Feminine Mystique,” and was just discovering the work of Andrea Dworkin and Shulamith Firestone.


O'Neill: Did this influence your approach to film theory?

BACKMAN ROGERS: I thought of myself as being relatively well informed about feminism, but looking back now I consider myself to have been a young twenty year old who was really just a garden-variety feminist, particularly influenced by existential feminism. Reading Laura’s essay as a 23 year old, during my MSc at Edinburgh, was something akin to what I can only describe as an explosion going off in my brain. I think it’s a testament to the accuracy and continued relevance of Laura’s essay that so much of it pertains to the world around us still. It changed my outlook on the world entirely. I would go so far as to say that it radicalized me and has informed my thinking ever since.


O'Neill: What prompted you to construct this collection of essays in Feminism?

BACKMAN ROGERS: Our initial discussions about the book were centred on the idea of what has gone wrong. I think the discrepancy between Laura’s hopes for the future when she was writing in the 1970s and the reality of young women’s lived and embodied experiences right now really guided our focus when drawing up the remit for the book. Of course, there have been important advancements for women, but this must not obscure the fact that we still live in a patriarchal society that functions in ever more insidious ways. As far as I am concerned, internalization is one of the biggest problems we face in Western society today. In essence, we wanted to argue for the relevance and importance of Feminism both as a philosophy and as a form of activism.


O'Neill: How does your approach to and experience of feminism differ to Laura Mulvey's?

BACKMAN ROGERS: I do not think we had, or do have, such differing views of what Feminism means as a philosophy. For me, it has always designated the end of patriarchy. If we speak of equality, we also need to take into consideration that there is a whole social group that needs to be willing to concede power in order for feminist thought to take root and function in society and this is not a simple task: it involves a complete shift in thought and social structure.


O'Neill: When you first spoke about the idea of Feminisms with Laura Mulvey, did you disagree over what exactly feminism signified and the role it played in society?

BACKMAN ROGERS: Feminism has always been a politics and I think Laura and I have this in common. I still very much believe that men and women have largely different lived experiences and, perhaps controversially, it is for this reason that I speak of feminist allies rather than male feminists. To be born, raised, or to identify with a female body and all that it means to be female provides the very basis of feminist thought. Likewise, not all women will identify as feminist because it is hard labour to recognise the pernicious and harmful ways in which patriarchy functions as ideology. Both Laura and I have discussed our alarm at the rise of post-feminism and the ways in which feminist thought has been recuperated as a lifestyle choice, which is really a form of de-politicization. The presence of certain aspirational models of selfhood, celebrity culture being just one example, has lead to the creation of a generation of young women who are alienated and are, essentially, in pain. I think it is those women for whom we are writing. I think we want this book to be hopeful because we need feminism now more than ever.


O'Neill: What do you hope readers will take away from Feminisms? A renewed feminist politics? If so, what would this look like?

BACKMAN ROGERS: We often discussed what happened to the ideals of solidarity and activism after the period in which Laura originally wrote her article. Today, it is unimaginable that anyone could speak for or on behalf of myriad social groups and the specificity of those experiences (but this has not stopped the media expecting certain women in the public eye to do so). I think our greatest hope is that people read and are able to relate to aspects of this book personally, but we also hope for a time in which activism becomes more vibrant and radical.


O'Neill: Thank you very much for your time.


Anna Backman Rogers is a senior lecturer in film studies at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. She received her PhD from the University of Edinburgh. She has written and published on the work of Sofia Coppola, Gus Van Sant, Jim Jarmusch, Miranda July, Nicolas Winding Refn, and The Maysles Brothers. Her books include American Independent Cinema: Rites of Passage and the Crisis-Image (Edinburgh University Press, 2015) and The Cinema of Sofia Coppola: The Politics of Visual Pleasure (Berghahn Books, forthcoming).


Feminisms will be launched in Birkbeck, London, on 25 April 2015, as well as in the University of Gothenburg on 12 and 13 May, the EYE Film Institute Netherlands in Amsterdam on 20 May, in the University of Groningen on 21 May, in the University of Utrecht on 22 May, and in Paris later this year. Feminisms is the fifth volume in the international book series, The Key Debates. 


The interviewer, Daniel O’Neill, is an American Studies student at the University of Groningen who has also studied Film under Annie van den Oever. He plans to pursue an Mst in Film Aesthetics after completing his BA this year.

24 april 2015