- ‘Cult cinema is aimed at men, and cult fandom is inherently masculine’. Is this true? Discuss the relationship between cult cinema and gender.
In Ernest Mathijs and Jamie Sexton’s Cult Cinema, they discuss the theories of Joanne Hollows, who argues that distinctions between subcultures and popular culture are “drenched with gendered language (and the values such language imposes), whereby subculture is given a masculine identity of adventurousness, resistance and heroism, and the mainstream is regarded as passive, homely and feminine.”  One can see this notion reflected even in discussions of the few widely praised female filmmakers; the way Katherine Bigelow’s work has been dismissed as “too masculine”  to be “true” feminist cult film, or Jeremy Scahill’s perfectly innocent description of Laura Poitras as “the baddest-ass female director” at the premiere of her documentary Citizenfour (2014) – the unfortunate implication being that the fearless social conscience of her films marks her out from the pack.
Whilst it is a strong one, where I think Hollows’ argument for cult cinema as “a masculine construct” loses its way is that opposition to mainstream culture, like any kind of subversive behaviour or ideology, is motivated by a distaste for ingrained elites, facile norms and cultural hegemonies that is not distinct to any gender and that, in fact, a rejection of the mainstream in all its monoculturalism is the first step to allowing more distinct female voices to be heard. If equality is your desiderata, it involves giving an equal chance to filmmakers from across the budgetary spectrum; and, as evidenced by the fact it took Marvel Studios almost a decade to feel confident enough in the strength of their business model to make a female-centric superhero movie, 2018’s Captain Marvel, most of the films conveying a truly female perspective tend to be smaller productions – for instance Lake Bell’s indie comedy In This World (2013), on the hardships experienced by a woman attempting to break into the male-dominated world of voice-over work. One can wait for mainstream film to catch up with social progress, or make the extra effort to look for the genuinely progressive films that are slipping under the radar, as a true cultist would. Hence, a certain amount of disavowal of the mainstream is not just compatible with but essential to the furthering of the gender equality cause.
Comedian and filmmaker Chris Rock, in a Hollywood Reporter article on the inequalities of the film industry (in particular, racism), wrote that “everyone likes to see themselves onscreen,” suggesting that a black audience might find some films funnier than a white one for that reason and that “the same thing happened with those Sex and the City movies. You don’t really see that level of female movie that much, so women were like, “We’re only going to get this every whatever, so f— you, f— the reviews, we’re going, we like it.” Rock has hit on a salient point here, in that the interests of both black people and women are grossly underrepresented in the cinema, but it is dispiriting that the consumerist orgy of Sex and the City is seen to represent the female psyche, as its values are, if anything, extremely conservative. Such films portray women in the retrograde terms of a patriarchal society; as being preoccupied with glamour, comfort and gratification of the self, when a film like Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, 2014) shows that some women have enough of a grasp on the – by this skewed logic – masculine subjects of ecological activism and Dostoyevskyan moral quandaries to write and direct a film about them, and, with Citizenfour documenting her close involvement in the Edward Snowden saga, Poitras currently has a claim to being one of the most important filmmakers in the world.
Hollows says that it is perceived connotations of femininity that lead film scholars to exclude Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) from their lists of the Cult Canon – although it certainly has enjoyed a significant and, yes, largely female following. I would exclude Titanic from such a list for the same reason I would films in the Harry Potter (2001-2011), Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) and Star Wars (1977-) franchises; because this is the ubiquitous mainstream cinema of my generation’s upbringing, and their following less resembles a cult than one of the five major religions of the world. I would propose that, rather than a cult following, these cultural touchstones produce only varying levels of fandom; from the casual to the devout.
It is curious Cameron made a film typified as so feminine when, during their marriage, he was noted as having a masculinising influence on the films of Bigelow, such as Point Break (1991) or Strange Days (1995). As Mathijs and Sexton put it, “it is absurd to assume that either ‘feminity’ or ‘masculinity’ are homogenous concepts”. But a distinctly masculine sensibility that pervades most types of film is the male gaze, which “holds that the female body is constructed for the pleasure of male viewership as a tool for reproducing a patriarchic system of society” and can mean “female viewers will have difficulty finding anything in a film that allows positive, empowering identification.” Some feminist filmmakers have attempted to redress this balance, such as Doris Wishman, who coined the axiom “all movies are exploitation movies” and directed Double Agent 73 (1974), in which cameras are placed inside the 73-inch breasts of Chesty Morgan, “collapsing the gaze with its object” and ensuring that, whilst you may stare at the breasts, the breasts are staring back at you; a true reversal of the gaze.
As a result of such efforts, Mark Kermode points out, “many soft-core exploitation videos with titles such as Carnal Crimes (1991) and Night Rhythms (1992) were actually less politically problematic than their more ‘acceptable’ Hollywood counterparts such as Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992).” Yet, is understandable how women might be dissuaded from seeking out areas of cult film such as the “incredible broads” of the Russ Meyer catalogue or the cynical titillation of Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1996), however much “postmodern irony” it may possess to certain “middle-class white male intellectuals”. Indeed, as Mathijs and Sexton put it, “cult cinema has a worrying reputation when it comes to gender equality.” Some of the greatest acquisitors of female cults – such as Heathers (1989) and Hairspray (1988), two satires about the pressures placed on teenage girls and their (vastly divergent) ways of overcoming the situation – were directed by men; respectively Michael Lehman and John Waters. Clearly, cult film has fallen prey to many of the same gender imbalances as Hollywood, although, at its essence, it exists to subvert the iniquities of the mainstream.
Buder, E. (2014). Why Laura Poitras is the ‘Most Badass Female Filmmaker’ and More from ‘CITIZENFOUR’ NYFF Premiere. [online] Indiewire. Available at: http://www.indiewire.com/article/why-laura-poitras-is-the-most-badass-female-filmmaker-and-more-from-citizenfour-premiere-20141011 [Accessed 6 Dec. 2014].
Hoberman, J. and Rosenbaum, J. (1983). Midnight Movies. New York: Harper & Row.
Jancovich, M. (2003). Defining Cult Movies. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Marvel.com, (2014). Captain Marvel Soars Into the Marvel Cinematic Universe | News | Marvel.com. [online] Available at: http://marvel.com/news/movies/23549/captain_marvel_soars_into_the_marvel_cinematic_universe [Accessed 6 Dec. 2014].
Mathijs, E. and Mendik, X. (2008). The Cult Film Reader. Maidenhead, Berkshire, England: Open University Press/McGraw-Hill Education.
Mathijs, E. and Sexton, J. (2011). Cult Cinema. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.
Mendik, X. and Harper, G. (2000). Unruly Pleasures. Guildford: FAB Press.
Rizov, V. (2014). Why Don’t We All Go Blow Stuff Up Kelly Reichardt on Night Moves | Filmmaker Magazine. [online] Filmmaker Magazine. Available at: http://filmmakermagazine.com/86114-why-dont-we-all-go-blow-stuff-up-kelly-reichardt-on-night-moves/ [Accessed 6 Dec. 2014].
Rock, C. (2014). Chris Rock Pens Blistering Essay on Hollywood’s Race Problem: “It’s a White Industry”. [online] The Hollywood Reporter. Available at: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/top-five-filmmaker-chris-rock-753223 [Accessed 6 Dec. 2014].
YouTube, (n.d.). Russ Meyer’s Super Vixens Trailer. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YnfMORSBobk [Accessed 5 Dec. 2014].
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (Russ Meyer, 1965)
Daisies (Věra Chytilová, 1966)
Deadly Weapons (Doris Wishman, 1973)
Double Agent 73 (Doris Wishman, 1974)
Supervixens (Russ Meyer, 1973)
The Loveless (Kathryn Bigelow, 1982)
Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987)
Hairspray (John Waters, 1988)
Heathers (Michael Lehman, 1989)
Blue Steel (Kathryn Bigelow, 1989)
Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)
Carnal Crimes (Gregory Dark, 1991)
Night Rhythms (Gregory Dark, 1992)
Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992)
Serial Mom (John Waters, 1994)
Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995)
Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven, 1996)
Titanic (James Cameron, 1997)
Hairspray (Adam Shankman, 2006)
Sex and the City (Michael Patrick King, 2008)
The Oath (Laura Poitras, 2010)
Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)
Sex and the City 2 (Michael Patrick King, 2010)
In a World (Lake Bell, 2013)
Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, 2014)
Citizenfour (Laura Poitras, 2014)
Top Five (Chris Rock, 2014)
Captain Marvel (TBA, 2018)
 (Mathjis & Sexton, 2011, p. 109)
 (Mathjis & Sexton, 2011, p.115)
 (Mathijs & Sexton, 2011, p. 74)
 (Buder, 2014)
 (Marvel.com, 2014)
 (Rock, 2014)
 (2004-2008 on TV, 2008-2010 on film – it might be worth noting that the HBO series is purportedly more satirical and less ethically reprehensible than the films, and helped establish the careers of directors like Nicole Holofcener.)
 (Rizov, 2014)
 (Mathijs & Sexton, 2011, p.109)
 (Mathijs & Sexton, 2011, p.74)
 (Mathijs & Sexton, 2011, p.111)
 (Mathijs & Sexton, 2011, p.108)
 (Mendik & Harper, 2000, p.156)
 (Mendik & Harper, 2000, p.161)
 (Mendik & Harper, 2000, p.159-60)
 (Kermode, 2010, p.76)
 (YouTube, n.d.)
 (Mendik & Harper, 2000, p.197)
 (Mathijs & Sexton, 2011, p.108)
 See also: Waters’ Serial Mom (1994), in which a suburban mother becomes a serial killer of those who offend her middle class sensibilities.