So, a confession: I've never really liked biographical movies about women I otherwise admire. I'm not entirely sure why - there's something about the cliches they indulge in, the Hollywood-isation. (She lapses into total vagueness revealing, yet again, that she actually don't know much about movies or how to analyse them.) Not long ago, I read a book by a woman I know, Te Whanganui-a-tara/Wellington-based scholar, Bronwyn Polaschek, about bio-pics of women. The book was based on Bronwyn's doctoral thesis and I was thinking of reviewing it. But because of above-mentioned inadequacies, I didn't think I could do it justice. Instead, I decided to do a Q&A by email with Bronwyn to post here for anyone who might be interested in some seriously serious film criticism, analysis, discussion. So, here goes:
The Postfeminist Biopic: Narrating the Lives of Plath, Kahlo, Woolf and Austen
By Bronwyn Polaschek. Palgrave/Macmillan 2013.
Q: In your book, you argue there’s a specific category of biopic that should be considered “postfeminist”. But you acknowledge that the word “postfeminist” itself is one people disagree on. The way you prefer to understand it is as an “epistemological shift”. By that I take you to mean, among other things, that postfeminism isn’t just a backlash against feminism or somehow “after” feminism, but is its own thing. As you put it in the intro to your book, it is an “intersection of feminism with postmodernism, poststructuralism and post-colonialism”. (Let’s not try to define all those contested words for now!) Or, to put it yet another way, postfeminism doesn’t just challenge the things the so-called “second wave” feminists were challenging, it also challenges the “second wave” itself, which I think everyone agrees needed to happen. In terms of movies, then, these are biopics that clearly contain feminist elements, but also much more than that including some critique of those elements, and as such they really do demand their own category, a category you’re calling the “postfeminist biopic”. What made you begin to think that calling or categorising these movies – and the ones you look at primarily are Sylvia, Frida, The Hours and Becoming Jane – as postfeminist (rather than, say, just “feminist”) was necessary?
A: I started with the films. They seemed interesting to me, but I wasn’t sure what I had to say about them, or whether they were linked in any particular way. As I worked through the scholarly literature, I found certain theoretical tools were useful to me in thinking about the films (like, Laura Mulvey’s idea of the male gaze or ideas from feminist film critics about the symbolism of windows, or the effect of the voiceover etc) but I also found the pessimism in much of this material didn’t accord with the vibrancy and intensity of the films themselves. I also felt that many aspects of the films were not captured by applying a feminist lens, including elements that were internally contradictory. Coming across the less well known definition of postfeminism that I use was exciting because it provided a way to make sense of the films, and to see the links between them and with other films being released around the same time. I found I was able to articulate the distinctive features of these films, what separates them from earlier biopics about women. So, to answer your question, it was a long process before I realised the category was ‘necessary’, but when I found it my disparate arguments seemed to fall in line. I started with the material, but had to look to find the right theoretical tools to make sense of it.