Cinema, Labor, and Feminism: Barbara Mennel’s Women at Work in Twenty-first-century European Cinema
by: Tessa Nunn , January 27, 2020
by: Tessa Nunn , January 27, 2020
Barbara Mennel’s 2019 monograph Women at Work in Twenty-first-century European Cinema analyses the increased attention given to women’s work in films of various genres. The female characters in these films evoke fantasies and realities surrounding social, political, and economic issues infiltrating the European labor market. In contrast to the myriad of publications on labor depicted in American cinema, this book explores a vast cannon of films, produced between 2000 and 2019, from Austria, Belgium, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Great Britain. Although the majority of the films studied are classified as independent cinema or art cinema, Mennel also looks into genre cinema claiming that the latter’s integration of political issues points to a growing public awareness about the intersections of gender and labor. In particular, popular films delve into the sticky web of faux feminisms as they tell stories depicting successful, self-destructive women. At first glance the book’s aim to investigate the aesthetic representations of domesticity, neoliberalism, precarity, migration, care work, reproductive biotechnology, and the European economic crisis seems overly ambitious. Yet, the author’s clear explanations and precise summaries of films, political contexts, and theoretical approaches make the book a pleasure to read. A student, scholar, or curious individual outside of academia will enjoy this enriching experience of delving into the crossroads of cinema and gendered labor issues.
Gleaning from multiple theories of materialist feminism, Mennel does not propose a single perspective for studying working women in films. Instead, she looks at how the female characters themselves ‘embody a new materialist and feminist cinema’. (2019: 23) In a similar vein, the films in her corpus, most of which remain relatively apolitical, do not portray women as categorically oppressed victims of patriarchy nor advance a utopian vision of unconventional economies; rather, offering alternative perspectives but rarely totalising views, these films expose diverse ways in which women participate in capitalist and neoliberal systems. Using Ernst Bloch’s concept of the simultaneity of non-synchronism, the monograph demonstrates how twenty-first-century cinema accounts for multiple forms of capitalism, neoliberalism, and feminism. Studying a multitude of cinematic genres, Mennel examines their different aesthetic and narrative strategies for addressing labor. Throughout the book, we see how films bear witness to and reflect on their social and economic contexts even if they do not take an ideological or political stand.
Whereas Western films have traditionally emphasised masculine collectivities in the work force, contemporary working women characters typically struggle alone as individual liberated women. In these films, adaptable women in power suits, Mennel argues, embody the ideology of neoliberal labor regimes, in which the economic market intrudes into all human activities and desires. This entrepreneurial mindset has transformed feminist notions of empowerment and choice into neoliberal paragons. As Mennel explores films representing women workers at various levels on the pay scale, she concludes that whereas upper-class women advancing professionally emblematise feminist-being or a certain androgyny, migrant characters from the Global South embody an outdated understanding of femininity based on maternal sacrifice. Although the book discusses only European films, it takes into account the global passages underlying the European economy. This study of working women in cinema emphasises workers’ diverse lived experiences influenced by reigning political regimes, race, class, and family situations.
The monograph’s introduction gives a succinct overview of how cinema has represented labor in addition to how cinema has been used in labor reforms. From there, Mennel explains feminist theories about women’s unpaid labor in order to demonstrate how domesticity haunts contemporary films portraying professional women as deficient mothers draped in the cold colours. In this way, working women simultaneously embody certain goals of second-wave feminism and aspects of anti-feminist arguments. For example, Barbara Albert’s explicitly feminist 2006 film Falling shows women using successful careers to mask what they consider personal failures. Mennel, however, gives minimal attention to representations of fatherhood in these films. It seems that, like other media, contemporary cinema is much more obsessed with absent mothers than with workaholic fathers devoting little time to their families. In select films, the middle-class housewife resurfaces as a romanticised relic of the past in which a choreography of domestic gestures aestheticises household labor. When Western women take up housework in films, such as in Ursula Meier’s 2008 Home, they appear as comical or absurd anachronisms while features about powerful professional women often reduce domestic chores to a leisure activity. Representations of ideal mothers working in or outside the home, Mennel claims, almost always fail because the real goal should be to make housework non-alienated labor founded on collaboration and care.
Providing the reader a sufficient history of twentieth-century cinematic dealings with labor, Mennel shines light on how twenty-first-century European cinema has responded to its evolving economic and aesthetic environment. With a focus on independent art films showing women’s participation in contingent work, the second chapter argues that feminist films negotiate neoliberal appropriation of putatively feminine qualities as female protagonists struggle with precarious working conditions. Instead of victimising and dramatising precarious collectives of masculine workers, as was common in twentieth-century films on the working class, recent films bear witness to heterogeneous situations of pervasive precarity among a diverse and dispersed workforce. With an aesthetic that exposes worker’s lived experiences without advancing a solution, films like Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night (2014) and Teona Strugar Mitevska’s I Am from Titov Veles (2017) propose alternative representations of financial insecurity. In the third chapter, Mennel investigates how heritage cinema, meaning films offering an ‘immersive experience’ of a nation’s history or cultural productions, represents working heroines. (2019: 79) In particular, this chapter exposes directors’ recourse to politically invested aesthetics to craft new artistic strategies and generic hybrids. Juxtaposing interpretations of vastly different film genres, Mennel succeeds in showing the extent to which contemporary film directors grapple with sticky questions regarding gender and labor.
Motherhood, care work, and migrant labor resurface again and again throughout Mennel’s film analyses. Chapters three and four demonstrate how soundscapes with ethnically encoded voices haunt scenes portraying only white characters as films erase the visible presence of a multicultural workforce or non-white characters’ agency. The voice-over becomes not only a strategy for emphasising repressed subjectivity but also a method for capturing the transcendent processes of migrant workers’ nostalgia for another space and time. In Sarah Gavron’s Brick Lane (2007) and David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007), the visual field represents migrant characters’ destinies whereas the soundscape recalls their origins. In Mennel’s study, many films racialise maternity as they bear witness to the neoliberal transfer of care work from the public to private sphere. Acting like a deus ex machina, migrant women show up to relieve European parents of their familial duties, yet once again paternal responsibilities are rarely questioned. In the sixth chapter, Mennel looks into dystopian films focused on biopolitics, in particular migrant women’s bodies used as birthing machines. Women’s biological role in reproduction continuously marks cinematic representations of female characters’ economic and social activities.
Overall, this monograph is an excellent example of comprehensible scholarly writing that guides the reader through difficult concepts so that she can fully appreciate the author’s analyses. Mennel structures her work in such a way that she is able to make ambitious arguments supported by a large corpus of films. Drawing from a myriad of theoretical frameworks, she elegantly uses other academics’ conclusions without losing her own voice as she constructs innovative methods of interpreting cinema. She creates a beautiful balance between plot analysis and aesthetic evaluation to show how cinematic forms and subjects work together to root women’s labor in gendered and economic contexts. For any student, researcher, or teacher searching for examples of delightfully understandable, well-organised, and daring scholarship, this book is a great illustration of what engaged, cross-disciplinary humanistic research can produce.
Mennel, Barbara (2019), Women at Work in Twenty-first-century European Cinema, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Brick Lane (2007), dir. Sarah Gavron.
Eastern Promises (2007), dir. David Cronenberg.
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