A Rebirth of Femininity

Posted on Fri 11 Nov by AlexK / Lesbian, gender, Family, Artists Moving Image


by Serden Salih

This years Fringe! Queer Film & Arts Fest brings you a programme of experimental shorts discussing gender, sexuality and familial anxiety. The first part of the programme goes on a harrowing and revelatory trip around femininity and family politics.  

In Deborah Kelly’s Lying Women (2016), a montage of reclining nude females cut out of magazines are brought together into a collective mass. The 15th century Renaissance saw an artistic innovation in the way the female was presented in Western European art. The Sleeping Venus (c. 1510) by Giorgione is believed to be the first painting to depict the female as the principal figure and only subject of the painting. Often facing the viewer, the nude female is poised in an elegant position across a couch and the body is brought to the forefront of the viewer’s gaze. Lying Women presents an escape from heteropatriarchy and the confines of the medium itself. Cut-outs swarm in waves and join in a celebratory orgy of their newly found freedom.  

The remediation of the female body has shifted over time; it can be said that femininity has largely been, a male construct. The female continues to be constructed and deconstructed within a particular cultural framework. Social theorist, Simone de Beauvoir described this construct as “eternal feminine”, a psychological archetype that idealizes an immutable concept of “woman” and is one component of gender essentialism. She states that,

“The “feminine world” is sometimes contrasted with the masculine universe, but it must be reiterated that women have never formed an autonomous and closed society; they are integrated into the group governed by males, where they occupy a subordinate position; they are united by a mechanical solidarity” (Beauvoir, pg. 724).  

We see something similar in Stan Vanderbeek’s 1959 short film ‘A La Mode’ (not part of the programme). The film is a satirical montage of collaged women (taken from glamour magazine cut outs) commenting on the ways in which female beauty was idolized in pop culture during this period and a foretelling of contemporary mass media. The female is locked in position as male cut-out figures move across her body in playful action. Penetrated on all fronts, her movements become restricted, the choice of escape is not possible.  

These six experimental shorts question the position of femininity in a sociocultural context; the female directors are re-representing female identity through the use of collage and digital mechanisms in a way that is challenging the notion of fixed femininity. Kelly states that the females in her short are an “escape from centuries of servitude to a worldview in which decorative passivity is their whole purpose”. Each film illustrates a kind of escapist approach from “the other”, displaying a physical rebirthing of femininity.  

In the Iranian film, Painkiller (2016) directed by Mashid Mahboubifar, we see a female paint her face with the blood from a used tampon. She then applies a coat of red varnish onto her nails, pushing away at an angle, the nails remain unstained. In this moment, “the feminine” collapses and we are faced with a manifestation of female angst. During this process, the poem Reborn by Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad is being recited, 

“There is an alleyway where the boys that adored me with their tousled hair and slender necks, and skinny legs, still think of a young girl’s innocent smile. That smile which the wind one night, bore away.”  

This verse speaks of a moment in which the female is made equal to her counterpart through the admiration of her innocence and the transgressive shift away from woman as the “object of desire”. However, reality sinks in and her smile, the last ounce of feminine is taken away one night. Farrokhzad also writes, “Life is perhaps that enclosed moment when my gaze destroys itself in the pupil of your eyes”. She describes the female gaze here as merely a reversal of what the male gaze is seeing and as a result, her gaze is subject to being destroyed in comparison. John Berger describes this as,  

“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object -- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight” (Berger, pg.47).   

Farrokhzad’s Another Birth series of poems speaks of a rebirth of the Iranian woman, herself being reborn as a new poet and female voice against the harsh criticisms of the position of women in Iranian society. In Painkiller we get a social commentary on the shame and pain put on women living in Iran. The rawness of the performance and application of the colour red is exhibited in full assertion of her own selfhood.  

When I’m a Woman (2016) directed by Andreea Sticlea, uses archival footage (early cinema) and animation to explore the psychological and social aspects of being transgender in today’s society. The first shot opens with a black and white clip of a female applying makeup in a mirror. There is a quick cut to a shot of glamour magazines on how to apply makeup and we then switch back to the female. In the next shot, an animated mask of a clown is layered over the female’s face, obscuring her “femininity” through a masquerade. The voice of a transgender individual speaks during this process: “When I’m a woman, I get changed and I get ready, and I make myself look like a woman, and then I look in the mirror and I see now what I want…there is a sense of dysphoria”. The voiceover in conjunction with the image illustrates a visual representation of how a transgendered person is positioned against societal expectations. The individual looks in the mirror for affirmation of “the other” yet is being questioned through the transgender gaze, the cisgender gaze and the male gaze, all permitting fixed codes of what it means to be “female”. Mary Ann Doane explains that,  

“With the specifically feminine masquerade, the “victim” takes on with a vengeance all of the myriad surfaces of femininity, which the gaze wants to corral into “woman.” She reiterates femininity with a twist, opening the formerly sutured gap between its conventional codes and the bodies those codes are designed to fix as “female” (Doane, pg.38).  

Women can wear superficial attributes of femininity as a mask, as a disguise to be taken-on or rejected. The feminine masquerade can also be seen in Petra Brnardic’s Fever (2015), a digital collage of psychedelic images of nude females and glamour stars transforming in a symmetrical collision of overtness. The female psyche is put on display as overlays of reds break away from the delicacy of the nude female. Her body is being masked by images of death, as skulls morph their features and serpents protrude from their genitalia. It is “the collision of eros and thanatos” as Brnardic states. Various female archetypes are present throughout, the sex symbol, the glamour star, the performer and so on.  

Past traditions of femininity are being destroyed by that of macabre imagery and the females begin to blur into one, fading in an out as if existing for a moment in time and then vanishing the next. Brnardic states that “It is a visual stream of consciousness which depicts dreams, visions and fantasies of a female person”. Fever is similar to that of Kelly’s work, we get a montage of women joining in a ritualistic mass, breaking away from their former femininity and entering a new world.  

What these shorts display is a brave approach at re-defining contemporary social structures of femininity and dismantling the attributes of gender essentialism. Giving voice to females that have been subjected to the confines of the gaze and trapped in an endless remediation of female angst. We are taken on a historical and digital journey through time to witness a new rebirthing of femininity.  

You can catch the full programme for free, including the shorts Spermwhore by Anna Linder and Technicolour Angst by Ketchup Freeland at Hackney Showroom on November 19th at 3:00pm. 



Beauvoir, de Simone, The Second Sex (Vintage Classics, 1997). 
Berger, John, Ways of Seeing (Penguin Classics, 2008).
Doane, Ann, Mary, Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 1991).
Vanderbeek, Stan, A La Mode, (Video, 6 mins, USA, 1959).