ABSTRACT

The claim that feminism has now achieved its aims and there is no more work left for it to do has historical echoes. Look at what Simone de Beauvoir wrote in the preface to The Second Sex, published in 1949: ‘Enough ink has been spilled in the quarrelling over feminism, now practically over, and perhaps we should say no more about it’ (de Beauvoir 1993: xxxvi). Ironically, The Second Sex is the book that heralded Second Wave feminism – the era in which, as many people would acknowledge, the feminist movement made enormous advances; de Beauvoir made such a statement then because she herself was writing in the midst of an earlier anti-feminist backlash, which grew in the aftermath of the Second World War. The Second Sex helped feminism to counter that backlash by giving the Second Wave its intellectual ballast. This chapter elaborates its impact and other diverse ideas that influenced feminist film theory at its beginnings: the theoretical trends that it marshalled for its ends and the problems posed by psychoanalysis. It will look at how feminist film theory and criticism developed the insights of Second Wave feminism, in particular how British feminist film theorists radically reformulated the ‘Images of Women’ criticism prevalent in the US in the early 1970s. By using theoretical discourses, feminist film theory was able to demonstrate its intellectual rigour, which helped it to establish its position within academia but also allowed

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In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir famously wrote that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ (de Beauvoir 1993: 281). This offered Second Wave feminists the insight that gender is a matter of culture, acquired through social conditioning, rather than being ‘natural’ or innate. It led them to distinguish, for example, between the word ‘female’, which specifies biological sex, and the word ‘feminine’, which describes a social gender role. De Beauvoir herself was determined to shatter the myth of ‘the eternal feminine’ that, she claimed, human civilization has produced. An essence that women are meant to embody, the ‘eternal feminine’ sometimes refers to a biological essence, at others to a spiritual one. It attributes qualities such as inferiority, gentleness, and emotionality to women, and assumes them to be innate and fixed. For de Beauvoir, on the other hand, no essential characteristic should determine how one becomes a woman.