December 3, 2001
The feminist mystique
By Eric Rangus email@example.com
Not all film study dissects the work of Eisenstein, or Welles or even
Spielberg. Sometimes Sharon Stone does very nicely. Seeking entry into
Northwestern Universitys Ph.D program in film, Nina Martin wrote
a paper on the 1992 film Basic Instinct. It discussed the films
neo-noir qualities, and brought up the issue of controlthe 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
Its a classic setup for a discussion of one of feminisms
core issues: power. Who has it, and how is it used?
Martin earned her doctorate in radio/television/film from Northwestern
Facing Martins desk inside her slightly cramped office in the Rich
Building is a large poster featuring the piercing gaze of
Im 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 feminists eye.
I dont think that erotic thrillers are feminist by any means,
Martin said. But theyre interesting because they have female
protagonists. We look at their lives through their subjectivity; we experience
their desires. Oftentimes they are very formulaic. Theres usually
a woman who is sexually unsatisfied in her marriage or in her relationship.
Shes usually very career-oriented woman. This is the myth that women
who are strong and career-oriented and powerful cant 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 womens
fantasies. As in Basic Instinct, a woman was the force driving
the action. This construction led to what Martin saw as an interesting
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 guysall
this has got to be marketing it to women.
But this focus on flowery romance isnt 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 classesthat 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 onein a freshman film
class while an undergraduate at Ithaca (N.Y) Collegeshe responded
defiantly, No, Im not! Its 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, its hard to define: What exactly is feminism? Do we agree
on what it means? If we dont 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 cant believe that this is still being perpetuated.
I dont think its easy for anyone to claim that they are a
feminist, but I think its incredibly rewarding.
Simply defining feminism was one of the first tasks in Martins
seminar on feminism and popular culture, which she is teaching this fall.
Its 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 accessibilityand the effects they often have on peoples
lives and their thoughtsmakes 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 womens 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 showsall 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 believeincluding
womenthat they have achieved [everything] and that feminism is no
longer necessary. But I think theyre coming from very privileged
But dont make the mistake of painting Martins 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.
Its similar to watching a film laden with special effects. You
are hoping to see how well [the film] replicates the experience [of possibly
In the summer of 2002, Martin will be teaching a course at Oxford University
on British film and youth culture. Im 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 Britainis among her studied films), as well as work
she is doing on the film and book Bridget Joness Diary and
its relationship to feminism and female desire.