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Feminist Critique of the Self-Other in Anthropology and Documentary Film

kwheeler's picture

I love when the readings for my courses overlap, especially when it’s reading from different disciplines. Though I foresaw that material for my Anthropology of Reproduction class might coincide with readings for this one, I was nevertheless surprised when on the same day that I had to read Barbara Johnson’s “Apostrophe, Animation and Abortion” we discussed Faye D. Ginsburg’s Contested Lives: the Abortion Debate in an American Community in Anthropology. More readings that I have found relevant include the introduction to “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, a fundamental text in feminist film theory by Laura Mulvey, and readings by feminists such as Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict for History of Anthropological Theory. A newbie to feminist theory, I have greatly appreciated the way in which my other courses have augmented the material discussed in this class and shown me how feminist theory can be applied to other disciplines.


For example, the field of anthropology, constantly criticized for its colonialist roots and for being too androcentric, has benefited immensely from the feminist movement. The post-modernist movement in particular is influenced by the feminist theory in that it critiques the hegemony of Western-situated knowledge and the structures of power that have and continue to engender ethnographic anthropology. Feminist ethnography is, however, an approach in its own right that is distinct from post-modernism despite the broad convergences in ethnographic theory. This distinction is mostly characterized by the emphasis on feminist ethnography of everyday experience and everyday language which postmodernists say engenders a more “simplified” analysis than their own which is characterized as more professional and theoretical. The result is that many would-be-feminist anthropologists try and disassociate themselves from the more “unprofessional” feminist anthropology in an effort to gain credibility. [i]


I am also very interested in the way in which feminist theory intersects with film studies, but more specifically documentary film. The course which dabbled in feminist film theory for a bit is called “Seeing Class”, co-taught by an English professor at Haverford and an award-winning documentary film producer, Louis Massiah. Over the course of the semester we have been writing and producing our own short documentary films about social class in America. Throughout the process I have begun to think that I might like to pursue documentary film as a career. As I think increasingly about documentary filmmaking and how it “fits” with my major in anthropology I am also being forced to render with the critiques of these disciplines, particularly those coming from a feminist perspective.


Documentary film was also a very male-dominated field until recently. In their introduction to Feminism and Documentary, Diane Waldman and Janet Walker say that many feminist writers neglected and rejected documentary film in favour of “modernist, feminist counter-cinema” because of the proclaimed objectivity that was central to modes of documentary such as cinema verite that were popular in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They quote Claire Johnston’s essay “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema” in saying that no form of film can ever capture truth because it is a construct; she says, “Non-intervention is pure mystification”. However, she does go on to say that though there are problems with documentary there is hope in the form of feminist documentary; for this to exist there must be concurrence between the content and the ideology of the film.[ii]


There are many parallels that can be drawn between feminist critique of the disciplines of anthropology and documentary film. Besides the somewhat ethically murky history in ethnography and documentary of proclaimed objectivity there is also a strong analogy between the filmmaker/subject and self/other dichotomies. Endemic in many documentaries and ethnographies are ethical issues such as power imbalance, for example in such situations the filmmaker or anthropologist can retreat from the field at the end of the day; what is simply material to work with for them is reality for the subject in question. Waldman and Walker discuss how any such dialogue only reiterates the power imbalance it is trying to remedy and say that the solution lies in the literature surrounding new ethnography in anthropology.


Central to new ethnography is the idea that any assumptions that power-imbalances are present in the self-other duo are guided by the history of colonial imperialism (which we know is closely associated with the origins of anthropology). Therefore anthropologists must seek to remedy this power imbalance through methods such as research that is not exploitative; it should be mutually beneficial for the subject and the researcher. Despite the in depth discussion of ethics, new ethnography is still subject to much feminist critique, particularly as it speaks from the perspective of a Westerner. Waldman and Walker believe that because feminist theory has had to grapple with issues of identity and power sharing as well, documentary film theory has a lot to gain from examining the ways feminist theory have dealt with the same problems.[iii]


For my research project I would like to further examine feminist critique of the self-other dichotomy present in ethnography and documentary film. I would read texts critiquing power imbalance in film, image ethics and new ethnography. Some relevant texts I have come across are Calvin Pryluck’s “Ultimately We Are All Outsiders: The Ethics of Documentary Filming” and Brian Winston’s “The Tradition of the Victim in Griersonian Documentary”, however I hope to find more feminist critiques. An example might be “The Postmodernist Turn in Anthropology: Cautions from a Feminist Perspective” by Frances Mascia-Lees, Patricia Sharpe, and Colleen Ballerino Cohen. Other texts I am interested in reading are Abu-Lughod’s “Writing Against Culture” and Faye Ginsburg’s “Mediating Culture: Indigenous Media, Ethnographic Film and the Production of Identity”. Central to new ethnographic theory is the idea that research is always conducted by an outsider, a falsity that feminist theorists have brought into the limelight. I therefore hope to read ethnographic works or documentary films and theory by these perceived racial, cultural and gender “others”. Finally, I will continue to use Waldman and Walker’s book Feminism and Documentary as a guide.

[i] Luke Eric Lassiter. The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography. 2005: University of Chicago Press (57-60).

[ii] Diane Waldman and Janet Walker. Feminism and Documentary. 1999: University of Minnesota Press (7).

[iii] Ibid (14-117). 


Anne Dalke's picture

the inevitability of othering

You have a two-headed project going here, both aspects fascinating but—perhaps too much to take on? Can I encourage you to chose one dimension or the other?

What I’m hearing, so far, is a fascinating discussion of the male-dominated history of documentary, due to the proclamation and presumption of objectivity, now being challenged by feminist filmmakers; and an equally fascinating review of the power dynamics of historical ethnography, now challenged by an awareness of the outsidedness of feminist anthropologists (see our texts for this week for another range of views on the inevitability of “othering”:  Simone de Beavoir says, for instance, that "the category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself."

Both of your topics have to do, as you acknowledge, with a feminist critique of the self-other dichotomy, but you’re going to have to settle into one or the other—feminist critiques of either documentaries or of ethnography—for this project to be coherent. What I’m also not hearing (yet) is a sense of where you are locating yourself here.

What can you give me beyond a book report, or account of what others have said? Where is kwheeler08 in this project? What are her experiences? How is she located, and what does she think?