This essay examines the work of British “cinefeminist” Claire Johnston, whose activism, writings, and filmmaking during the 1970s and 1980s merged innovative feminist media production practices with new modes of theoretical inquiry. Johnston's 1973 essay “Women's Cinema as Counter-Cinema” was crucial to feminist film theory's development, yet the essay's canonization has reduced her thinking to a handful of theoretical concerns. To grasp the full political promise of Johnston's work, this article reconsiders the essay in three related contexts, examining: the historical circumstances in which it was published and the feminist debates it participated in; its ties to Johnston's less noted writings; and its relation to Johnston's filmmaking while she was a member of the London Women's Film Group, a feminist filmmaking collective committed to building coalitions among women media workers. This article won the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Graduate Student Writing Prize in 2016.
At first glance, I was surprised at how unassuming the groundbreaking essay collection Notes on Women's Cinema (1973) appeared when I discovered it on a library bookshelf. At forty pages, the eight-by-six-inch pamphlet edited by British film theorist and filmmaker Claire Johnston was almost lost in the stacks. The title frames the pamphlet's contents as “notes,” reflecting its spartan quality and suggesting that the volume is primarily an informal tool for discussion. The title, however, belies its content, which features the dynamic voices of feminist film critics and women filmmakers committed to developing theoretical models and production strategies to advance the political goals of the women's liberation movement.
Johnston's famous essay “Women's Cinema as Counter-Cinema” was first published in this pamphlet, yet it is rarely discussed in context—as part of the collection of essays, or as only one dimension of Johnston's much larger body of work. I begin this essay with my initial encounter with Notes on Women's Cinema as a kind of allegory for the material limitations of engaging with archives of 1970s feminist theory, filmmaking, and activism. The portability of Notes on Women's Cinema was key to its dissemination during the 1970s, but today the pamphlet's larger significance as an artifact of key developments in 1970s feminist film theory and practice—and of Johnston's extensive involvement in such developments—risks being overlooked. Though the “Counter-Cinema” essay has been reprinted in numerous anthologies and has become a crucial text in teaching feminist media studies today, its canonization has reduced Johnston's work to a handful of theoretical concerns when, in fact, she wrote as a theorist and a filmmaker on a variety of topics during the 1970s.1
The films Johnston produced as a member of the London Women's Film Group (LWFG), an independent feminist filmmaking collective that operated from 1972 to 1977 whose members included Midge Mackenzie, Linda Dove, Barbara Evans, Fran Maclean, Sue Shapiro, Esther Ronay, and Francine Windham, drew on theoretical debates regarding feminist documentary aesthetics to create moving accounts of working-class women's political organizing.2 In addition to producing feminist films, Johnston and her fellow LWFG members worked to redress the media industry's rampant exclusion of women by organizing filmmaking workshops and lobbying the union heads of the Association of Cinematograph and Television Technicians (ACTT) to prioritize women media workers’ demands. In this article, I argue that contextualizing Johnston's “Counter-Cinema” essay in terms of her broader cultural activism and filmmaking activities offers a more complex understanding of 1970s “cinefeminism's” investments in feminist film history and the politics of women's cinema as both theory and practice.3 As I discuss, Johnston's theorization of “women's counter-cinema” holds in tension seemingly contradictory aims: to isolate the roots of women's universal oppression and to respond to particular lived experiences of women in more localized and historically contingent terms. Whereas Johnston addressed the former by adopting psychoanalytic and post-structuralist theoretical models, her approach to the latter drew on her efforts to devise histories of women's filmmaking for the women's film events she planned during the decade, as well as her filmmaking and activist collaborations with women media workers in the UK.
To grasp the full feminist political promise of Johnston's work that exceeds the theoreticism that is often attributed to her, this article offers a rereading of the “Counter-Cinema” essay in three related contexts: in terms of the historical circumstances in which the essay was published and the feminist film events and critical debates in which it participated; in relation to Johnston's less noted writings and the other essays in the Notes on Women's Cinema pamphlet; and in relation to the film productions and activism initiated by Johnston and the members of the LWFG, in particular the 1974 film The Amazing Equal Pay Show and the 1975 ACTT campaign advocating for women media workers. Tracing Johnston's more expansive engagements with women's counter-cinematic practices challenges assumptions that 1970s feminist film theory was strictly concerned with destroying identificatory pleasure via avant-garde filmmaking strategies, and offers an index of the diverse filmmaking activities and cultural activism that Johnston and her peers were involved in during this period.
Following the examples of Meaghan Morris and Mandy Merck, my approach to Johnston's oeuvre reconstructs the “conjunctural terms” in which Johnston framed her polemical statements in the “Counter-Cinema” essay.4 Specifically I am interested in the ways in which examining these “conjunctural terms” can create new dialogues between feminist media studies’ past and present political engagement with women media workers. With the recent fortieth anniversary of the ACTT report Patterns of Discrimination against Women in the Film and Television Industries, a 1975 study by researcher Sarah Benton that was initiated by Johnston and the LWFG members’ protests against gender discrimination in UK media industries, there has been renewed interest in examining relations between 1970s feminist film theorizing and women's organizing around media labor disputes.5 Furthermore, Johnston's early interrogation of the value of “lost-and-found” histories of women film directors serves as a precursor to current debates regarding how to “do women's film history” while attending to gender's discursive and historical constructed-ness. As I discuss, Johnston was acutely aware of the political stakes of publicizing women's roles in the histories of commercial and noncommercial filmmaking, as reflected in her writings on directors Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino. Her work consistently cautioned feminist film critics against dismissing the possibility for feminist filmmaking within the patriarchal hierarchies of the Hollywood industry, but she also remained wary of instituting Arzner and Lupino as part of “a pantheon of women directors” to be simply emulated.6 Johnston's work thus addressed some of the pitfalls of defining women's film history as the excavation of feminist “role models,” gesturing to more recent efforts by feminist film historians to acknowledge fractures “between feminist perspectives now and the perspectives within which historical subjects worked” and distinguish the differing political stakes of women's filmmaking activities.7
My engagement with Johnston's archive is concerned as much with uncovering the range of activities she participated in as a historical figure as it is with uncovering the modulations and contradictions that condition the feminist authorial voice of her work and its critical reception. I too face limits in my engagement with Johnston's work, relying as I must on secondhand accounts of her activities, her published materials and completed films, and related archival materials held at the British Film Institute and the Women's Library at the London School of Economics. Little information is available about Johnston's life prior to the 1970s, and her career was cut short by a battle with mental illness that resulted in her suicide at the age of forty-seven in 1987. The dearth of biographical information about Johnston is perhaps surprising given that not much time has elapsed since her death. Whereas Johnston's peers have had opportunities to refine and qualify their theoretical investments and polemical writings from the 1970s, Johnston's passing has forestalled scholarly reconsiderations of her expansive career, which poses important questions regarding the politics of remembrance for feminist radicals who have passed away, or who have been otherwise left behind, in feminism's own progressive narrative of first, second, and third “waves.”8 Recent research initiatives, such as the online Women and Film Project and the Pembroke Center's Feminist Theory Archive, have begun the work-intensive process of amassing materials and ephemera to establish new archives of 1970s cinefeminism for future scholars, enabling possibilities for more dialogue among contemporary scholars and earlier generations of feminist filmmakers and critics. The desire for boundary crossing and cross-temporal collaborations that motivate these recent projects in a way echoes Johnston's aspirations for her writing and activism during the 1970s and 1980s, which simultaneously affirmed the value of theoretical abstraction and worked to foreground past and present experiences of women activists and filmmakers. Looking to Johnston's work now in the context of her diverse intellectual and activist commitments, thus, reveals resonant political strategies and aspirations that until this point have been muted by the field's singular focus on her “Counter-Cinema” essay.
NOTES ON WOMEN'S CINEMA
Though unevenly documented, Johnston's activities during the 1970s put her at the center of a rapidly changing independent film culture in the UK. She was involved with the British Film Institute (BFI); the Society for Education in Film and Television (SEFT), a BFI-funded organization providing resources for film instructors teaching new courses on film in schools, colleges, and adult education programs; and the Independent Filmmakers Association (IFA), an organization that brought together film critics and independent filmmakers to lobby the BFI and the union heads of the ACTT. As historians of UK film culture during this period note, the grassroots political and cultural movements that took place across Europe in 1968 galvanized many young filmmakers, educators, and activists in the UK to become involved in both film education and independent, politicized filmmaking.9 The journal Screen (published by SEFT) became a key publication for forging connections between activist filmmaking and film theorizing in the UK and in France, publishing original film scholarship alongside English translations of and commentaries on the vanguard works of the Cahiers du cinéma collective. The degree to which Screen's remit included the development of radical filmmaking was subject to debate among the journal's editors, SEFT educators, and BFI governors. Though debates regarding Screen's purpose were fractious during the early 1970s, the journal's development reflected broader efforts by politically committed individuals to exert pressure on the BFI and other cultural organizations post-1968.
Johnston positioned her work as part of this wave of cultural activism and became a regular contributor to Screen, and as the decade continued, her work became more explicitly concerned with the feminist political goals articulated by the international women's liberation movements. She worked as a freelance cultural critic and activist in London prior to joining the BFI Members’ Action Committee in the summer of 1970. This group of young, London-based independent filmmakers, writers, and university lecturers protested, among other things, the BFI Board of Governors’ disinterest in developing new research and distribution initiatives that would sustain mainstream film production in the UK as well as political and avant-garde filmmaking.10 In addition to challenging the BFI's policies, Johnston was involved in a women's cinema study group during this time, which was initiated by Screen editors and contributors to promote film screenings and discussions related to women's movement activities. The group was informally organized and attracted key feminist figures, including the labor activist Jean McCrindle as well as Laura Mulvey.11 With Mulvey and Lynda Myles, Johnston co-organized the first women's cinema program at the Edinburgh Film Festival (EFF) in 1972. This festival became the subject of the LWFG's first collective project, a film featuring interviews with Johnston and Mulvey produced for broadcast on BBC Two's Film Night. In April of 1973, Johnston also oversaw the first season devoted to women's films at the National Film Theater in London, an extension of the EFF's women's cinema program.
Notes on Women's Cinema was published in the UK by SEFT later that same year in response to these women's film events. The pamphlet's eclectic mix of interviews, original articles, and reprinted essays from authors spanning North America and Europe illustrates Johnston's view that the questions posed by feminists at the EFF's women's program and the National Film Theater women's season extended beyond the immediate developments in British film culture. The pamphlet includes a reprinted essay by Naome Gilbert analyzing films screened at the First International Festival of Women's Films in New York in June 1972 (originally published in the US feminist film publication Women and Film), an interview with the Argentinian-born French filmmaker Nelly Kaplan conducted in 1972 by Toronto-based scholar and critic (and, later, documentarian) Sarah Halprin (formerly Barbara Halpern Martineau), an original essay by Halprin on Agnès Varda's films, and Johnston's “Women's Cinema as Counter-Cinema.”12 Notes on Women's Cinema was one of several pamphlets published in the 1970s under the auspices of the BFI and the EFF that Johnston either edited or contributed to, but these pamphlets mostly focused on individual auteurs, as with, for example, Johnston's pamphlet on Frank Tashlin published the same year as Notes on Women's Cinema and her later pamphlets on Arzner and Lupino.
In addition to being one of the few women contributors to Screen, Johnston also wrote for a variety of specialist, scholarly, and popular publications, including the film journals Framework, Sight and Sound, and Jump Cut and the feminist magazine Spare Rib. These publications featured Johnston's essays on the Berwick Street Collective's experimental documentary The Nightcleaners (1975), her interview with US filmmaker Cinda Firestone about the 1974 documentary Attica, and a review of the recent works of Malcolm Le Grice and the members of the London Filmmakers’ Co-op.13 Johnston also collaborated with her fellow LWFG members to publish the instructional booklet Film Notes in 1974 as well as other filmmaker statements and film program guides. As LWFG member and documentary scholar Barbara Evans explains, the group's publications were directed at women with little to no filmmaking experience and directly reflected the group's “commitment to sharing skills and understanding the technical aspects of filmmaking not only among [group members], but also with other women, and as widely as possible.”14
This survey of Johnston's publications suggests why, as the editor of Notes on Women's Cinema, she felt it was important to bring together a diverse set of feminist perspectives in the pamphlet. In the introduction, which has never been republished, Johnston explicitly discusses the social and historical context the pamphlet's authors are responding to—namely, the emerging women's filmmaking co-ops and collectives in the United States and the UK, the growth of feminist publications and writings on women and film, and the EFF women's film event and first season of women's cinema held at London's National Film Theater in 1973. Johnston frequently reminds readers that the pamphlet's contents, including her “Counter-Cinema” essay, are only one means through which to establish a “dialogue about the nature of women's cinema.” This provisional framing of the pamphlet's contents is belied by its bold red cover, which polemically states in bold lettering: “The image of women in the cinema has been an image created by men. The emergent women's cinema has begun the transformation of that image. These notes explore ideas and strategies developed in women's films” (fig. 1). The cover positions the pamphlet as a tract-like publication—a notable departure from the catalog style of the other BFI and EFF pamphlets—that seeks to delimit and make legible an “emergent women's cinema.” Interestingly, in her introduction Johnston almost immediately disabuses readers of the view that “women's cinema” exists as an uncontested category, calling attention to the limits of its polemic value:
The Women's Movement has brought about a reevaluation of the role of women in the arts in general. A greater emphasis has been placed on women's creativity than ever before. Quite clearly, there is a need for such polemics—indeed, polemics are vital to our strategy—but without any analysis or theory to back them up, they could become narcissistic and ultimately self-defeating.15
One of the primary goals of the pamphlet, according to Johnston, is to rework feminist polemical writing on film so that it can address larger complexities of women's sociopolitical struggles. To achieve this goal, the pamphlet does not set out to present a unified manifesto about what constitutes women's counter-cinema, but rather offers heterogeneous reflections and provocations from women directors and feminist film critics regarding the state of women's filmmaking and on-screen representation. Johnston's involvement in multiple spheres of women's cinema as a critic, filmmaker, activist, and programmer informed her decision to assemble the pamphlet in this manner. The pamphlet's introduction channels her experiences, in turn providing several points of entry for readers to engage the multiplicity of voices that comprised “women's cinema” and refigure feminist polemical claims.
BEYOND CINEFEMINIST POLEMICS AND TOWARD HISTORICAL CONJUNCTURES
As Johnston acknowledges in the introduction to Notes on Women's Cinema, the polemical form had specific value for feminist film theoretical writing of the 1970s. In her contemporary analysis of Laura Mulvey's iconic essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), Mandy Merck situates Mulvey's and her feminist peers’ polemical writing style in relation to their interstitial position in British academia and film culture: “In Britain, the feminist movement of the early 1970s was mostly composed of educated middle-class women, but relatively few were employed as academics in a male-dominated profession. … The film studies of the early 1970s were not undertaken in the country's universities, but in the British Film Institute, the film societies, journals ranging from Movie to New Left Review, exhibition sites such as the National Film Theatre and the Film-Makers’ Co-Op, events like the EFF, and—importantly—secondary schools.”16 During this period, there were limited opportunities for Johnston and her cohort to pursue film studies and feminist thought in the academy, but by 1973 key developments in women's movement activism in the United States and the UK helped foster a community of feminist activists, scholars, and filmmakers that Johnston channeled in Notes on Women's Cinema. Johnston's specific involvement in organizing women's cinema programs while compiling the pamphlet challenged her to devise a critical framework for addressing women's historical involvement in filmmaking that employed the insights of auteurist and post-structural film analysis, without neglecting women's past and present social realities. Her “Counter-Cinema” essay in particular marks her early attempt to articulate this framework and to evaluate women's film criticism's relation to the women's movement's activist strategies.
From the beginning, attracting media coverage was a central component of the women's movement's political activism. Feminist art historian Siona Wilson points to the 1970 protests of the Miss World Beauty Contest at London's Albert Hall as marking “Britain's first public action in the name of second-wave feminism.”17 The demonstration was inspired by the US women's protest of the 1968 Miss America Beauty Pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, one of the more visible “beginnings” of the women's liberation movement in North America. At the second protest of the Miss World Beauty Contest in 1971, the London Women's Liberation Theatre Group, accompanied by the all-male Gay Street Theatre Group, performed The Flashing Nipple Show, in which the performers wore black bodysuits decorated with blinking lightbulb bikinis.18 These well-publicized actions provided the women's movement with radical forms of visibility, and pointed to the larger possibilities of employing media spectacle for feminist activism. Michelene Wandor describes the protesting performers’ unique use of spectacle as follows:
The form the interruption took echoed the pattern of many similar events initiated by post-1968 student protest: a spectacular interruption of a public “spectacle,” disrupting an occasion in order to express anger at it and arouse its audience from their passive consumer roles. But the objective and the protesters were different: feminists were registering anger at the commercializing of women's sexuality as it was imagined and packaged for profit by men.19
This commentary emphasizes the increased investment among feminist activists in developing critical understandings of women's representation in mainstream commercial media. Such critiques became crucial not only for spurring feminist consciousness and arousing “anger,” but also for creating new kinds of “spectacular” media events that could counter sexist representations of women.
Feminist activism of the early 1970s contributed to the growth in women's film criticism during this period. Two works published by US critics Molly Haskell and Marjorie Rosen gained popularity for developing the “images of women” approach to analyzing the representational histories of women in film. Haskell's From Reverence to Rape (1974) and Rosen's Popcorn Venus (1973) offered a chronological survey of the stereotypical roles women had been confined to in Hollywood cinema throughout the twentieth century.20 Their arguments that Hollywood cinema had failed to provide politically progressive images of women was a central foil for Johnston in “Counter-Cinema.” She wrote in the essay's first paragraph:
Much writing on the stereotyping of women in the cinema takes as its starting point a monolithic view of the media as repressive and manipulative. … The idea of the intentionality of art which this view implies is extremely misleading and retrograde, and short-circuits the possibility of a critique which could prove useful for developing a strategy for women's cinema. If we accept that the developing of female stereotypes was not a conscious strategy of the Hollywood dream machine, what are we left with?21
The introduction goes on to explain that “dream machine” critiques of Hollywood cinema risk being interpreted in “retrograde” and anti-populist terms and, more significantly, reduce feminist film criticism to listing positive and negative qualities of a given film's depiction of women. Responding to the reductive aspects of this mode of criticism, Johnston employs Roland Barthes's Mythologies (1957) to elaborate how stereotypes of women in film might be considered as something other than “a distorted mirror image of real women.” While Johnston's use of Barthes's and post-structural theory has been thoroughly discussed by scholars and thus will not be rehearsed again here, I wish to call attention to her fleeting mentions of these theories in “Counter-Cinema” to highlight the issues they posed for her readers.22 In contrast to the programmatic chronologies provided in Haskell's and Rosen's monographs, the introductory section of “Counter-Cinema” seems irreverent in its passing references to Erwin Panofsky's writings, the fetishistic elements of Mae West's star persona, and Andrew Sarris's “derogatory treatment of women” in The American Cinema (1968).23
Johnston's quick transition from her critique of “reflectionist” approaches to women in cinema to her advocacy of Barthes's, Peter Wollen's, and the Cahiers du cinéma collective's development of auteur theory attracted criticism from feminist film critics at the time.24 Specifically, E. Ann Kaplan wrote in 1974 that Johnston's privileging of auteur theory in “Counter-Cinema” “loses sight of individual films and of the experience of watching a single film.”25 In addition to critiquing auteur theory's neglect of the experiential aspects of film viewing, Kaplan also pointed to certain flaws in the essay's tone and structure:
Johnston tries to do too much in a very short space, so that while many new ideas are introduced, none is fully developed. … While Johnston's essay importantly asserts the need for a complex, self-conscious theory of feminist film criticism, her objection to what she derogatorily calls “simplistic” sociological criticism is misleading. … Since Johnston cites no particular authors, books or articles, one suspects her of setting up an imaginary opposition.26
Kaplan's critique of the ambitious nature of Johnston's essay highlights the contradictions that the “Counter-Cinema” essay poses when read on its own as an academic article. Yet, as was the case with Mulvey's “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Johnston's essay was not strictly intended for an academic audience, but rather was written from the perspective of a feminist activist and filmmaker invested in hypothesizing the forms of a potential feminist counter-cinema. Johnston's brisk rhetorical maneuvering is emblematic of what Mulvey has more recently described as early feminist film criticism's sense of urgency, in which “things had to be said not from choice but from political necessity.”27 As Merck notes of Mulvey's early essay, the “polemical and unequivocal” tone of her writing was tempered by its framing as a theoretical treatise—not an academic article—authored by a feminist activist and independent filmmaker writing for Screen.28 Johnston's unwavering dismissal of “sociological” feminist film criticism was similarly tempered and nuanced by the divergent viewpoints presented in other essays in Notes on Women's Cinema and in her other writings, which many critics like Kaplan did not take into account in their responses to “Counter-Cinema.”
For example, in “Feminist Politics and Film History,” published in the same 1975 issue of Screen as Mulvey's “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Johnston, as if in response to Kaplan's earlier criticism, provides a critical analysis of Haskell's and Rosen's books as well as Joan Mellen's 1974 book Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film. She acknowledges that these histories marked important advances in feminist film criticism by cataloging the overarching development of women's roles on-screen. However, for Johnston, these monographs also illustrated the significant limits that feminist film critics faced in developing approaches that could be enabling for women filmmakers, since Haskell's and Rosen's chronologies ultimately devolve into accounts of Hollywood's failures and offer no real possibilities for women working in commercial cinema. Echoing the sentiments she expressed in her introduction to Notes on Women's Cinema, Johnston observes that the authors’ sweeping denunciation of Hollywood relies on a bourgeois artistic ideal that cinema can represent real-life women in a kind of mirror image. Her frustration with this form of criticism is that it neglects cinema's mediation of meaning through specific signifying processes and thus fails to acknowledge that cinema does more than simply reflect reality. In this review of Haskell's, Rosen's, and Mellen's studies, Johnston advocates the use of recent models of textual analysis that draw on psychoanalytic perspectives, as advanced by the Cahiers du cinéma collective, to trace the production of cinematic meaning, recalling the points she made more succinctly in “Counter-Cinema.” In the conclusion of her review, though, Johnston offers an important auto-critical disclaimer for adapting these theoretical models, warning that they could “lead to a kind of a-historical voluntarism, in which the particular historical conjuncture in which the films function is considered irrelevant.”29
Johnston's concern regarding of the hermetic tendency of textual analysis is not stated in such pointed terms in “Counter-Cinema,” but her framing of Notes on Women's Cinema demonstrates her openness to multiple theoretical models and feminist approaches to film criticism. For Johnston, the priorities of feminist film criticism should remain flexible in order to better speak to the specific circumstances shaping women's political struggle. Such flexibility might mean that feminist film critics and filmmakers will likely have conflicting views, and Johnston foregrounds this potential for such conflict in the pamphlet's introduction. In her preview of Sarah Halprin's and Naome Gilburt's essays, she points out that both authors employ the same sociological approaches to studying women's cinema that she directly critiques in “Counter-Cinema”:
Quite clearly, the views expressed in this pamphlet share a great deal of common ground; they also constitute very different and ultimately irreconcilable positions on the cinema. If film criticism … is to have any use, it is that it should provide a greater understanding of how film operates, which will ultimately feed back into filmmaking itself.30
The word “irreconcilable” at first suggests a certain failing on behalf of the contributors to formulate complementary views of women's counter-cinema. However, Johnston's editorial decision to assemble these diverse works reflects her broader commitment to feminist film criticism's intellectual diversity. For Johnston, sustaining diversity would help safeguard feminist film criticism's “use value” for feminist filmmaking efforts and, importantly, prevent feminist film criticism from becoming a noncontradictory and insular discourse.
The pamphlet's investment in combining works that both shared “common ground” and featured “irreconcilable” positions speaks to Johnston's experience programming the 1973 National Film Theater season of women's cinema and the 1972 EFF women's event. In her comments to a London Times reporter covering these events, Johnston explained the goal of the programs primarily was “to build up a women's cinema by showing that it has a history and giving it some kind of historical perspective.”31 Specifically, the EFF women's event and the National Film Theater season of women's cinema included films spanning three “categories”: “Hollywood” films directed by Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, and Lois Weber; “1960s” art films directed by Agnés Varda, Nelly Kaplan, and Nadine Trintignant; and the “liberation movement films” Three Lives (1971) by the American director Kate Millett, and Women Talking (1970) by the British director (and Johnston's fellow LWFG member) Midge Mackenzie.32 In the publicity for these events, Johnston clarified that the programs did not offer an exhaustive historical survey, but rather were organized to encourage attendees to draw new connections among films spanning distinct production conditions, historical periods, and national contexts.33 Johnston's interest in creating festival programs that foregrounded different genealogies of women's cinema—as well as the connections among them—sheds light on her editorial framing of Notes on Women's Cinema's diverse interventions. Furthermore, her explicit aim to provide a “historical” perspective on women's involvement in filmmaking through these programs further troubled Haskell's and Rosen's accounts that viewed commercial cinema as inherently patriarchal and denigrating toward women, as clearly Arzner's, Lupino's, and Weber's filmmaking indicated otherwise. In Johnston's approaches to women's cinema history, then, there is the recognition that gender operates as a socio-discursive category that can in certain historical moments be mobilized for potentially feminist ends. However, the fact that Arzner and other women directors eschewed the “feminist” label also alerted Johnston to the ways in which the concept of “women's cinema” could flatten out key distinctions among different historical experiences of “womanhood.”34
In addition to highlighting historical perspectives, Johnston's programming activities were overtly committed to fostering women's contemporary filmmaking. For example, a Spare Rib report by the LWFG on the National Film Theater season pointed out that Johnston's program featured an “open screening for women only, at which any woman could show her work in the context of a sympathetic audience.”35 This commitment is similarly evident in the Notes on Women's Cinema pamphlet, which features an interview with filmmaker Nelly Kaplan. Kaplan's inclusion in the pamphlet reflects a significant trend in Johnston's written work, which consistently featured filmmaker statements and/or incorporated interviews with directors. In part this reflects a trend in film criticism during this period, but it also points to Johnston's effort to engage directors’ perspectives, providing readers with access to accounts in which directors detailed in their own words challenges they faced in producing and distributing their work. Indeed, Kaplan's interview gave Johnston the opportunity to juxtapose her theory of counter-cinema with a filmmaker's own perspective on how women filmmakers conceptualize their work as marginalized members of the filmmaking community. Including these interviews further allowed Johnston to directly insert questions about women filmmakers’ production practices as part of the work of theorizing women's counter-cinema.
Perhaps in an effort to establish a critical distance between herself and the filmmakers she interviewed, Johnston never acknowledged her own involvement with the LWFG in her individual writings, and so she was never granted the benefit of having her theoretical work considered alongside her filmmaking activities in the same way that Mulvey did. This omission was aligned with the LWFG's avowed commitment to working collectively and placing the feminist goals of the group above individual claims of artistry. Though Johnston herself did not disclose her filmmaking experience in her writing, in the “Counter-Cinema” essay she analyzes the contradictions that undergird any feminist claim of authorial intention, whether the author in question is a Hollywood director or an activist filmmaking collective. In so doing, she confronted the utopian impulses of the women's liberation movement with which the LWFG was directly involved. Yet this confrontation did not result in Johnston's dismissal of such utopian ideals for a feminist counter-cinema, but rather refigured them as emerging out of the dialectic encounter of film theory and practice.
POLITICIZING WOMEN'S MEDIA WORK: JOHNSTON AND THE LONDON WOMEN'S FILM GROUP
Johnston's involvement with the LWFG served a testing ground for the “Counter-Cinema” essay's trenchant critiques of “sociological” approaches to examining women's media representation, and provided her with a practice-oriented perspective for considering the degree to which “idealist and utopian” claims regarding “women's creativity” were necessary for sustaining feminist cultural activism. Johnston and her fellow LWFG members described the group's origins in a 1976 statement, noting that it formed in direct response to women's liberation political organizing. One significant event that informed many of the group's members was the 1970 Women's Conference at Ruskin College at Oxford University, which brought together five hundred women, including feminist thinkers like Sheila Rowbotham and Juliet Mitchell, and launched the four political demands of the movement: equal pay, equal education and job opportunities, free access to contraceptives and abortion, and free twenty-four-hour nurseries.36 This conference attracted mainly white educated middle-class women, yet participants made a conscious effort to align their demands with those that had already been voiced by working-class women involved in recent industrial disputes, namely the 1968 Ford Dagenham Strike. The strike was a key event that galvanized solidarity actions among women workers throughout the UK and contributed to the passing of the Equal Pay Act by British Parliament in 1970.
The rise of cooperative, worker-controlled factories helmed by women, such as Fakenham Enterprises, a co-operative shoe factory founded in Fakenham, Norfolk, by women workers who protested the factory's closure in spring 1972, provided further inspiration to movement organizers who wished to support the political agency of working-class women who were challenging hierarchical, corporatized, exploitative labor practices. These examples of working women's political activism fostered a broader feminist interest in radical working-class histories and labor organizing strategies that focused on women's unique oppression under capitalist society.37 The wave of student protests in Europe in 1968 and the New Left political organizing also galvanized women students and workers in the UK to participate in public protests, but, as has been well documented, women's political demands were overwhelmingly marginalized within the New Left. The women-only political events and protests mentioned above, thus, were not only crucial for UK women to make demands at a policy level, but were also important for countering the suppression of women's voices in union organizing and leftist politics.38
The political meetings and labor activism described above were the focus of many feminist films of the period, and movement filmmakers were inspired by these events to form women-only skill-sharing workshops and film collectives. In 1970, the first meeting of what would become the LWFG was advertised in the Women's Liberation Newsletter and Time Out by Midge Mackenzie, a London native and trained filmmaker. Mackenzie was involved in a number of women's movement activities during the late 1960s in the United States and the UK, and directed the documentary Women Talking in 1970, featuring Kate Millett and Betty Friedan in conversation with other feminists, as well as the 1974 BBC television series about early suffragists, Shoulder to Shoulder.39 The first meeting attendees included women with differing levels of involvement in women's movement activities and filmmaking. Establishing film training sessions became a primary goal of the early meetings, with the more experienced filmmakers teaching other members how to make a film in a hands-on manner, and ultimately inspired the group to self-publish an instructional filmmaking booklet for women, Film Notes, in 1974.
The success of these training activities revealed the potential for coalition building among women in the media industries, and one of LWFG's key initiatives became campaigning around discrimination against women workers in the UK media industries. Soon after its formation, the LWFG lobbied ACTT union leaders to hire Sarah Benton, an independent researcher, to conduct a report detailing the current job conditions of women media workers across labor grades. The final report, titled Patterns of Discrimination against Women in the Film and Television Industries, thoroughly documented the structural barriers faced by women seeking work in higher labor grades. These barriers included insufficient training programs for women, lack of on-site day-nursery facilities, frequent union gatherings and sponsored “Stag Nights” that were exclusive to male members, and rampant job segregation that feminized lower labor grades, such as television production assistants, who were “typecast as ‘glorified secretaries’ and regularly passed over for promotion” (fig. 2).40 The report directly challenged ACTT union heads to acknowledge the endemic gender inequality within both independent and mainstream film and television sectors, and, importantly, the union's own sexist attitudes toward women workers. The report was also significant in that it served as an actionable document for women union members struggling for better employment conditions. Furthermore, the report motivated the union to establish training schemes for women working in lower pay grades, and LWFG members took on an active role in running these union-sponsored training workshops.41
Benton's report relied in part on the support of Johnston and her fellow LWFG members, who all appeared on BBC Two's Open Door program to discuss the significance of Benton's findings as well as their experiences “working in the context of a male-dominated film industry.”42 Johnston also utilized her connection with Screen to publicize the LWFG's campaign against gender discrimination and Benton's report in her 1975 article “Women in the Media Industries.” In this article published in Screen, Johnston applauds the report's “distinctly feminist” and egalitarian perspective, explaining that it provides an important step for helping “women in the communications industries see the need to struggle as workers to change the sexist nature of the media in which they are employed. … The feminist critique of the media must of necessity make these connections.”43 This quote serves as a rare instance in which the concerns of women media workers were brought to bear on Screen's film theoretical projects, which at that point had been largely concerned with the ideological underpinnings of film texts, not media industry disputes. Moreover, the article demonstrates Johnston's broader conviction that it was possible for women media workers to advance feminist political goals and transform the mainstream media industries from within, something that Rosen and Haskell did not see as a possibility.
At first glance, Johnston's critique of polemic claims regarding “women's creativity” in the “Counter-Cinema” essay seems to discount women filmmakers’ critical agency and their creative approaches to film work. Johnston's use of auteur theory offers a significant intervention for rethinking the polemic claims, yet as critics have pointed out, it also obscures the actual struggles media workers face in trying to transform mainstream media production. Johnston's involvement with the LWFG's ACTT campaign, though, indicates that she acknowledged some of the critical blind spots of her theoretical writing. Her commitment to the group's collective approach to film production also complicated her view regarding the limits of feminist utopian ideals for women's filmmaking. Early in “Counter-Cinema” Johnston critiques the utopianism of collective filmmaking efforts, yet in her conclusion she points out that “the development of collective work is obviously a major step forward; as a means of acquiring and sharing skills it constitutes a formidable challenge to male privilege in the film industry; as an expression of sisterhood, it suggests a viable alternative to the rigid hierarchical structures of male-dominated cinema and offers real opportunities for dialogue about the nature of women's cinema within it.”44 Here Johnston admits that her own skepticism of feminist ideals is incapable of overruling her desire to see women gain better access to media production training and develop alternative modes of media work. These concluding remarks also position the “Counter-Cinema” essay not only as a film theoretical tract, but as only one among many forums in which a “dialogue about the nature of women's cinema” might be staged. Johnston's filmmaking with the LWFG affords another opportunity to track the contours of this dialogue, specifically in terms of the debates around feminist documentary strategies, and her film work in many ways situates her perceived theoretical investments in more nuanced terms.
COUNTERING COUNTER-CINEMA: REALIST AESTHETICS, REAL AUDIENCES
In “Counter-Cinema,” Johnston's critique of the “sociological” approach in feminist film criticism focuses primarily on its flawed assumption that films can simply mirror the “reality” of the social circumstances in which they are produced. This logic informed much early feminist filmmaking, which employed realist aesthetics to produce films about the struggles of “real women” (that is, non-actors whose commentary was not scripted). In “Counter-Cinema,” Johnston singles out the work of Varda, Millett, Mackenzie, and Shirley Clarke, challenging their noninterventionist approach to making films about the lives of women. According to Johnston, these directors do not truly challenge cinema's role in reproducing patriarchal ideology because they assume a “bourgeois and idealistic notion that the cinema can represent the struggles of real women.”45
Johnston's views galvanized debates among feminist filmmakers and critics regarding the place of documentary portrayals of women's lived experience in her model of women's counter-cinema. Christine Gledhill and Julia Lesage offered two compelling counterarguments to Johnston's critique of realism, calling attention to the significance of documentary for the spread of the women's movement in the United States and the UK. Writing in 1978, Gledhill pointed out that while Johnston's intervention importantly spurred feminist filmmakers to reflect on and interrogate realist filmmaking strategies, Johnston's monolithic categorization of “realist filmmaking” obscured the different uses of this aesthetic mode among various oppressed groups. Gledhill also took issue with the ways in which critiques of realism advanced psychoanalytically defined notions of spectatorship, in the process overlooking “the audience as it is constituted outside the text in different sets of social relations such as class, gender, race, etc.”46 That same year Lesage chronicled the development of feminist documentary filmmaking in the United States, explaining that feminist documentary was informed by women's testimonial exchanges that took place in consciousness-raising groups. Furthermore, Lesage elaborated that, as opposed to naively believing in “the camera's innocence,” feminist filmmakers saw documentary film as an invaluable tool for ensuring that feminist films would be distributed to wider audiences: “If feminist filmmakers deliberately used a traditional ‘realist’ documentary structure, it is because they saw making these films as an urgent public act and wished to enter the 16mm circuit of educational films especially through libraries, schools, churches, unions, and YWCAs to bring Feminist analysis to many women it might otherwise never reach.”47
Johnston's “Counter-Cinema” essay did not anticipate Lesage's and Gledhill's critiques of her theoretical dismissal of “realist” filmmaking, but it is important to note that Johnston's critique of realism was informed by and revised through her involvement with the LWFG, whose early films were very much invested in the feminist documentary ethos Lesage described. As LWFG member Barbara Evans notes, the group's early documentaries, such as Betteshanger ’72 (1972), a film documenting a Kentish woman's efforts to organize miners’ wives during the 1972 miners’ strike, were explicitly committed to working-class women's struggles. Betteshanger ’72 was the first film that LWFG produced collectively, and its focus on the political activities of working-class women drew on the documentary techniques of films made by individual members before they became involved in LWFG. For example, earlier in 1972 LWFG member Sue Shapiro filmed Fakenham Occupation, a documentary featuring interviews with women shoe factory workers who had attracted national attention for organizing a work-in to protest the factory's closure. As mentioned, the Fakenham work-in was a key event for the growing women's movement in the UK, and Shapiro's film influenced the LWFG members’ approach to making documentaries that foregrounded the women's movement's commitment to working-class struggle.
Barbara Evans also explains that the 1973 documentary Women of the Rhondda, filmed by Shapiro, Mary Kelly, Mary Capps, Margaret Dickinson, Esther Ronay, and Brigid Segrave, was one of the more popular works produced by the group.48 The documentary focuses on oral histories of Welsh women's experiences organizing activities during the miners’ strikes of the 1920s and 1930s. The film was shot in black and white with the assistance of Humphry Trevelyan of the Berwick Street Collective, since LWFG members had not yet been fully trained to use cameras. Like many feminist documentaries of the period, Women of the Rhondda does not employ voice-over narration, but rather gives full documentary authority to the accounts of the older generation of women activists. Each woman is shown in a close-up as she recalls her experiences, but the close-ups are intercut with archival images of men striking and contemporary footage of the women doing housework. This image sequence points out the absence of women in visual records of these early labor disputes, and by juxtaposing footage of women engaged in the invisible labor of housework with the hypervisible and celebrated images of striking miners, it offers a feminist critique of the gendered biases of union organizing.
The 1974 LWFG film The Amazing Equal Pay Show marked a distinct shift in the collective's filmmaking, which resulted from their concerns about the political effectiveness of their documentaries. In a 1976 statement, Johnston and fellow LWFG members discussed their frustrations with trying to communicate specific messages regarding women's struggles in their documentaries, writing, “Women of the Rhondda and Betteshanger ’72 worked within a realist naturalistic tradition; the material was intended to speak for itself. Both films ask the audience to make their own deductions, and we hoped or assumed their deductions would be the same as ours. But we learned that audiences weren't necessarily in accord with our views unless they were already previously committed to feminism.”49 This perceived failure to engage with women audiences spurred the collective to adapt different formal techniques in their films. The collective goes on to explain in their 1976 statement how The Amazing Equal Pay Show was inspired by their desire to “make a political film which was entertaining,” yet still overtly didactic.50 The hour-long film, which combines documentary filmmaking techniques alongside elements of the Hollywood musical genre with Brechtian agitprop performance styles, was the first narrative film project the collective undertook, taking two years to produce.
The film is based on a play—a burlesque depicting recent struggles faced by working-class women fighting for equal pay and union recognition—collectively written by the theater group that performed The Flashing Nipple Show at the 1971 Miss World protests in London. The Amazing Equal Pay Show adopted the source play's Brechtian use of the theatrical tableau format, such that the central villain, Mr. Marvo, serves as the ringleader for an oppressive capitalist circus (fig. 3). Throughout the film, we see different groups of women struggling against Marvo and various government officials in an effort to pass the 1970 Equal Pay Act. The film stages comic yet acerbically critical reenactments of recent clashes between the British working class and heads of state and industry, such as the strike at the Ford Dagenham plant, with the women performers in the seven tableaux performing caricatures of the social types embroiled in the conflicts (the misogynist union head, the steadfast leader of the protesting women, the biased BBC news reporter, and so on).
Importantly, the LWFG incorporated another dynamic of the original play by filming a documentary-style sequence featuring the daily life of a working mother, Ina. This scene deploys realist filmmaking conventions, using a mostly fixed, fly-on-the wall perspective with an accompanying voice-over of Ina describing her frustrations with being overworked and undervalued by her husband and her employer. This scene breaks from the bawdy tableau scenes, and at first it is not immediately clear whether the woman depicted is an actress or if we are being shown documentary footage of someone going about her day-to-day activities. We are first introduced to Ina as she enters her small apartment with her children. The audio alternates between diegetic sounds of Ina doing banal household chores and what we presume to be her voice-over narration. As Ina recounts her struggles as a working mother, we see her preparing the evening meal, tidying up the apartment, and ironing in front of the television set. Her voice-over concludes with the aspirational statement, “Sometimes I lie in bed and think, ‘I'm not getting up today,’ then I lie in bed and think of all the things I might do if I had a day to myself.” Whereas the other tableau scenes in The Amazing Equal Pay Show foreground the sheer spectacle of the on-screen performance and largely take place in public, outdoor settings in front of a diegetic audience, the scene depicting Ina meditating on her experience as a working mother as she completes household chores calls on the documentary conventions used in earlier LWFG productions like Women of the Rhondda.
Johnston's writing in the “Counter-Cinema” essay has been critiqued for its reductive claims about feminist documentary, but her work with the LWFG illustrates that she viewed realist aesthetics as having a continued strategic value for feminist filmmaking projects. The LWFG's experimental approach to foregrounding spectacle in The Amazing Equal Pay Show speaks to Johnston's own theoretical investments in merging political and entertainment filmmaking strategies. Yet the LWFG's collaboration with the women's movement–associated London Women's Theatre Group and its inclusion of the documentary-style footage of Ina illustrate the members’ commitment to feminist filmmaking's grassroots orientation and documentary modes of address. The film in many ways anticipates Gledhill's 1978 call to revise feminist film theoretical interests in semiotics and psychoanalysis to more fully encourage further dialogue with the political goals of the women's liberation movement. Johnston's involvement in the LWFG's filmmaking effort demonstrates that she experimented with the possibilities of documentary conventions in her model of counter-cinema and, importantly, was willing to challenge her own theoretical investments in response to the concerns of actual women audiences who attended screenings of LWFG's films.
In adapting a collective structure, the LWFG deliberately drew on forms of activism that emerged from the women's movement's political organizing and community building activities (namely, consciousness-raising groups and feminist study groups). The LWFG was not the only women's film collective working at the time, although Johnston, writing in Spare Rib about the group's attendance at the 1973 International Women's Film Seminar in Berlin organized by Claudia von Alemann and Helke Sander, observed: “A surprising fact was that in spite of the emphasis on collective work in the Women's Movement, we from the London Women's Film Group seemed to be among the very few who have attempted to put our ideals into practice and actually work together in a group, exchanging skills. … But what have we really achieved in our own terms in the last two years?”51 The challenge posed here by Johnston, to “attempt” to put the women's movement's “ideals into practice” and to ask, “What have we really achieved in our own terms?” reflects the sense of urgency that grounded the theoretical interventions of the “Counter-Cinema” essay and Johnston's writing and film work throughout the decade.
In 1977, the LWFG dissolved as its members either moved away or left the group to pursue other projects that were less demanding than the collective's mostly unpaid work.52 Two years later, Johnston co-organized a Feminism and Cinema event at the EFF with Mulvey, Lynda Myles, and Angela Martin, which included panel discussions with leading feminist film critics and filmmakers reflecting on “the relationship of theory to practice in representations of and for women” almost a decade after EFF's first women's cinema event in 1972.53 In addition to the panel discussions, the 1979 event featured premiere screenings of now-canonical feminist films, including Michelle Citron's Daughter Rite (1979), Sally Potter's Thriller (1979), Sue Clayton and Jonathan Curling's The Song of the Shirt (1979), and Jan Worth's Taking a Part (1979). As B. Ruby Rich states, these premiere screenings served as “points of unification” in contrast to the panel participants’ “theoretical antagonisms.”54 In 1980, Johnston published an essay in Screen titled “The Subject of Feminist Film Theory/Practice,” which reflected on the debates voiced during the event by critics like Pam Cook, Gledhill, Rich, Mulvey, and others. In the essay, Johnston considers how these debates attempted to “locate feminist politics within a conception of film as a social practice, on the dialectic of making and viewing and on film as a process rather than object.” After noting and responding to Gledhill's critiques of the totalizing aspects of psychoanalytically informed theories of cinematic identification, Johnston firmly states her view that feminist film criticism is foremost “a dialectical discursive activity, embedded in the real, and always exceeded and transformed by practice—a constant dialectic with the aim of breaking of exchange for use.” Specifically she explains that while the focus on textual analysis was crucial for framing cinema as a site of ideological struggle for the burgeoning women's movement, “theoretical work on the relationship between text and subject and the historical subject is now more important.”55
This statement suggests a radical change in Johnston's thinking, given the prominence of her work in advancing the theoretical models that Gledhill critiqued. However, Johnston's view that theory should be continually tested and informed by filmmaking practice reflects her earlier efforts in the Notes on Women's Cinema pamphlet to establish a dialogic relation between critics and filmmakers. Johnston's endeavors to relate theories of the cinematic apparatus to cinema's capacity to engage political struggle marked a productive tension in her work throughout the decade, one that reflected the diverse components of the emerging feminist film culture of the period. Johnston's activism with LWFG moreover illustrates feminist film theory's early intersections with feminist labor organizing activities, and her involvement in the ACTT antidiscrimination campaign in particular expanded the scope of feminist film criticism to address the struggles of women media workers. And while Johnston mobilized a rhetoric of urgency along with her fellow LWFG members in their lobbying efforts, her activism was also acutely informed by the historical perspectives of earlier generations of women filmmakers whose perspectives she included in her programming and editorial work.
By the end of the 1970s, women's studies and film studies became established in universities, providing feminist film critics and filmmakers with new institutional support and professional identities. At the grassroots level, women activists in the UK were facing public attacks strengthened by the rise of Thatcherism, which dealt a blow to women's movement organizers and other activist groups that continues to reverberate today. The ideals of egalitarianism and collectivity that motivated feminist activists as well as movement filmmakers suffered under such attacks and became crippled by the withdrawal of state funding from feminist cultural organizations.56
In 1982 Johnston stopped publishing altogether, and she worked as a lecturer in film studies at Middlesex University until 1987 (fig. 4). Reflecting on the timing of Johnston's passing, Meaghan Morris notes that while it is tempting to ask “why Johnston's activism could not endure the 1980s, what ‘went wrong’?” it is even more important to “wonder how it survived the 1970s—in other words, what went right.”57 Indeed, as I have argued, reading Johnston's “Counter-Cinema” essay in light of her broader involvement in feminist media activism in the 1970s, and in some cases against the unequivocal tone of essay itself, it is clear that the foundation of a feminist counter-cinema does not rely on the dictates of any one theorist, but rather on a continued productive tension between feminist theoretical projects and the cultural practices and historical phenomena they seek to address. Acknowledging this tension seems particularly vital in an arguably “postfeminist moment,” in which scholars and activists increasingly look to archives of feminist activism to devise political strategies for the present. This effort is echoed in Alexandra Juhasz's recent invitation to engage “the future of feminist media scholarship” by beginning “with a return [to the 1970s]: a homecoming to the feminist media community and movement from whence it was born,” in which feminist media critics affirmed their “solidarity with the makers, viewers, programmers, distributors, and institutions,” to foster a feminist media culture that reverberates with the political aspirations of those who have passed but are not forgotten.58