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December 3, 2001

The feminist mystique

By Eric Rangus


Not all film study dissects the work of Eisenstein, or Welles or even Spielberg. Sometimes Sharon Stone does very nicely. Seeking entry into Northwestern University’s Ph.D program in film, Nina Martin wrote a paper on the 1992 film Basic Instinct. It discussed the film’s neo-noir qualities, and brought up the issue of control—the narrative is constructed so that the viewer identifies with the male character, police detective Nick Curran (played by Michael Douglas), but all the action is instigated by the “femme fatale,” Catherine Trammell (Stone).

It’s a classic setup for a discussion of one of feminism’s core issues: power. Who has it, and how is it used?

Martin earned her doctorate in radio/television/film from Northwestern in 1999.

Facing Martin’s desk inside her slightly cramped office in the Rich Building is a large poster featuring the piercing gaze of … Sharon Stone.

“I’m especially indebted to her and that film in some way,” said Martin, assistant professor of film studies. She joined the Emory faculty in 2000.

Basic Instinct is the most recognizable and commercially successful film of a genre that has few supporters among critics: the erotic thriller. Its the sort of movie that premieres at 11 p.m. on Cinemax. They feature bargain-bin (albeit often very attractive) casts and titles that resemble makes of cheap perfume, like Animal Instinct or Night Eyes.

Martin has researched these films extensively. Most interestingly, she does so using a feminist’s eye.

“I don’t think that erotic thrillers are feminist by any means,” Martin said. “But they’re interesting because they have female protagonists. We look at their lives through their subjectivity; we experience their desires. Oftentimes they are very formulaic. There’s usually a woman who is sexually unsatisfied in her marriage or in her relationship. She’s usually very career-oriented woman. This is the myth that women who are strong and career-oriented and powerful can’t find love.”

One of the first articles she wrote explored the construction of the heterosexual woman within the context of a soft-core cable anthology series called Red Shoe Diaries, which featured a recurring role for a pre-X-Files David Duchovny.

Each episode featured Duchovny reading diary entries containing women’s fantasies. As in Basic Instinct, a woman was the force driving the action. This construction led to what Martin saw as an interesting audience target.

“There is a lot that is very romantic and accessibly melodramatic and relationship-oriented,” Martin said. “Then I thought, ‘My god, all this lingerie and bubble baths and strawberries and naked guys—all this has got to be marketing it to women.’”

But this focus on flowery romance isn’t necessarily a good thing, Martin said. In fact, she continued, it could be read as a backlash against career-oriented single women of all races and classes—that they should be focusing on relationships rather than their careers.

Being designated a feminist often carries with it all sorts of baggage. In fact, the first time Martin was called one—in a freshman film class while an undergraduate at Ithaca (N.Y) College—she responded defiantly, “No, I’m not!” It’s not something she shrinks from now, but she understands when others do.

“It has a terrible connotation,” Martin said of the word “feminist.”

“We really have a problem with that word,” she continued. “In some ways, it’s hard to define: What exactly is feminism? Do we agree on what it means? If we don’t agree, can we [still] be feminists?”

But why is there such a bad connotation? Martin touched on one of the main reasons very quickly.

“The biggest myth is the man-hating thing,” she said. “That is such a joke. I can’t believe that this is still being perpetuated. I don’t think it’s easy for anyone to claim that they are a feminist, but I think it’s incredibly rewarding.”

Simply defining feminism was one of the first tasks in Martin’s seminar on feminism and popular culture, which she is teaching this fall. It’s a small class, numbering just eight students, one of them male. (Asked whether a man could be a feminist, Martin responded, “Undeniably.”)

Seminar subjects fly all over the map and stretch far beyond film. One week it was Barbie, another it was TV talk shows, yet another was popular music. A future subject will be Monica Lewinsky.

While these subjects might not appear to be academic on the surface, their accessibility—and the effects they often have on people’s lives and their thoughts—makes them ideal texts for investigation.

But what does this all mean in the big picture, the so-called “Third Wave” of feminism (the first two being the suffragette movement and the women’s movement in the 1970s, respectively)? Does feminism have a place in popular culture?

“Any kind of changed representation in popular culture is a sign that it has affected things,” Martin said. “I think that any female director, [any] woman in the business, even female rap stars or songwriters who have their own record label, women who are stars of their own television shows—all those things definitely show signs that feminism has been at work.”

“I think the unfortunate thing is that since there are these signs that women have progressed in media fields some people seem to believe—including women—that they have achieved [everything] and that feminism is no longer necessary. But I think they’re coming from very privileged positions.”

But don’t make the mistake of painting Martin’s interests too narrowly. One of the prime reasons Emory hired her was because of her research in experimental and avant-garde film and animation, which is where much of her current work is focused.

For instance, she is currently studying audience experience when viewing animated films, specifically puppet and object animation. Martin said the experience of viewing an animated film (which by definition is wholly unreal), is one in which the viewer is trying to get the feeling of something that is impossible to replicate in the real world.

It’s similar to watching a film laden with special effects. “You are hoping to see how well [the film] replicates the experience [of possibly being there].”

In the summer of 2002, Martin will be teaching a course at Oxford University on British film and youth culture. “I’m very excited about it,” said Martin, who has never been to the British Isles. The course also is a way to further explore her animation research (the work of the brothers Quay, Stephen and Timothy,—filmmakers born in the United States but now living in Britain—is among her studied films), as well as work she is doing on the film and book Bridget Jones’s Diary and its relationship to feminism and female desire.


Back to Emory Report December 3, 2001