Film and Feminist Criticism in the High School Classroom

By Nancy Barile on August 23, 2010
  • Grades: 9–12


Millions of teenagers view movies at the theater, on DVDs, or on cable television each day. Teenagers need to be aware of the rhetoric specifically targeting them as a demographic group.

They should be able to recognize manipulation by the entertainment industry, and they should also be able to detect when the media is blatantly sending them a political, spiritual, or moral message. In particular, students need the critical thinking skills necessary to distinguish messages, whether positive or negative, about gender.

The status and image of girls and women and the nature of gender-based representations are compelling topics for today's high school students. Providing students with the skills necessary to recognize and analyze the messages the entertainment industry and the media bombard them with on a daily basis is extremely important.

Many students today have an attitude about politics, religion, and education that questions authority, but they seldom realize how the media is designed to manipulate their emotions (and thus their understanding of social roles), especially as it relates to gender. Film powerfully influences and manipulates teenagers' views of gender roles. That power can be used to further perpetuate gender stereotypes or to provide new roles and concepts with regard to gender.

Conduct a Feminist Criticism

An exercise I use with high school students in the classroom provides them with the tools of analysis that can help them readily spot gender stereotypes and negative or positive representations of gender. It also encourages them to reject or accept these gender messages and urges them to work for change. I have found this particular assignment actually causes an "awakening" to gender issues that carries over to the students' critical analyses of other forms of literature and media.

Initially, there are some general groans about the assignment, usually from the boys in the class who misunderstand the meaning of feminism. They are quite taken aback when I tell them that men indeed can be feminists. Because of this confusion, the lesson begins with the definition of feminism:

"Feminism is, at its core, very simple: the belief that men and women should have equal opportunity for self-expression" (Foss 151).

Once students understand this term, they are then able to begin their exploration through a feminist criticism. My method of writing a feminist criticism begins deliberately with a "fill-in-the-blank" type feminist criticism assignment. My experience has been that students use this approach initially to overcome some of their reticence regarding the complicated concepts of feminism and rhetoric. They are unfamiliar with the language and ideas of each, and I find it necessary initially to simplify the process as much as possible. When students find out that they will be critiquing a film, they become more enthusiastic about the assignment. Since most students are avid moviegoers with many opinions about the films they view, the assignment becomes a wonderful and relevant exercise in critical thinking.

Feminist criticism involves three steps: (1) Analysis of the conception of gender presented in the rhetorical artifact (in this case, the film); (2) discovery of the effects of the film's conception of gender on the audience; and (3) discussion of how the film may be used to improve women's lives (adapted from Foss 155).

The first step, analysis, involves answering such questions as: does the film describe how the world looks at or feels about women, men, or both? Does it embody the perceptions and experiences of women or men or both? How are femininity and masculinity depicted in the film? Do the images conform to or violate society's representation of the ideal woman or man? (155156).

As an example, I show a sanitized version of the movie Fatal Attraction to the class. Most of the students have never seen this movie, and when I tell you they love it, THEY LOVE IT. They RUSH to class to find out what happens. Then I provide students with a simplified copy of a feminist criticism of Fatal Attraction that I wrote in college. The model provides an example of society's representation of gender. The movie, Fatal Attraction, which was one of the most successful movies of the 1980s, examines the issue of "stalking," a predominantly male behavior, as done by a female. My feminist criticism points out how the film attempts to vilify the single, childless career woman, while sanctifying the stay-at-home, sexualized mother/wife. It is easy for students to see how such messages deprecate the role of women in our society and how they could have a negative impact on women's lives.

In the discussion of the use of the artifact to improve women's lives, "the critic attempts to discover how the analysis of the artifact can be used to alter the denigrating gender role assigned to women and help them live in a new way" (157). This provides both genders with the tools necessary to recognize the manipulative and influential tactics used by rhetoricians, allowing students to either accept or reject the message presented. Indeed, the exercise also serves to point out inequalities or parities with regard to gender. Through their analysis, students are called upon to use their investigative skills and develop insight in order to analyze the numerous messages they come in contact with every day and to challenge stereotypes when they find them unacceptable.

Students frequently tell me that this assignment was one of the most enjoyable of the year because of its long-lasting effect on how they view the world. I have had students do remarkable feminist criticisms of everything from Star Wars to Superbad. The assignment proves enlightening for students not only as they investigate how gender is portrayed in the entertainment industry, but also as they examine how gender roles are continually perpetuated in society.

As a result of exploring gender issues through their feminist criticisms, students are quick to point out gender stereotypes and the positive or negative portrayal of gender in novels, poetry, music lyrics, and TV throughout the rest of the year. The lesson has opened their eyes to the reality of gender representation and power around them and has awakened them to the status and image of females and the necessity for equity in gender-based representation. While my students sometimes tell me I've ruined their movie viewing forever, I know that I've made them stronger critical thinkers who will not be easily manipulated by the media.

Additional Resources

For great resources on the subject of film, check out American Film: An A-Z Guide. For more on feminism, Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens explores feminism from a black woman's standpoint, and Gloria Steinem: Feminist Extraordinaire tells the story of one of the most influential feminists of all time.

~ Nancy

Work Cited

Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism, Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1989.



Hi Heather - I taped the movie onto a VHS when it was on TBS in a PG13 type format - it does frequently show up on TBS or Lifetime. But you could use another movie just as easily.

I love your idea and how to make literary criticism more interesting!

I would really like to incorporate this unit into my classroom, but I'm having problems finding a school-appropriate version of this movie. Where did you find yours or where would be some good places to look?

Thanks, Heather

Thank you, Jenny & Nancy! I can tell you the kids really learn a great deal from this exercise!

This is outstanding! I am going to pass this article along to MANY people! It's a blessing to see this published!!!!!!

I wish I had you as my English teacher! You really hit the mark on critical thinking and making it connect to your kids.

Nancy Jang

Thanks for commenting, Ellisha. It is not necessary for students to be feminists to do this assignment - although in over fifteen years of teaching, I can happily say I never had a student who said that s/he did NOT believe that women should have equal opportunity for self-expression. Feminist criticism is a tool of analysis. It is not political, unless the student chooses to relate the knowledge gained from doing a feminist criticism to government or governmental policies, which would be perfectly acceptable. MY own political opinions are not factored into the assignment in any way, and, in fact, the beauty of the assignment is that the student must decide for him or herself how gender is portrayed in the film and the effects of that portrayal. Students are not graded on their personal opinions about feminism or the opinions of others - they are graded on how well they analyze the film based on the criteria. Feminist criticism requires that students arrive at their own conclusions - and it hopefully does, as you say, challenge "our assumptions and prejudices, rather than reinforcing them." That is one of the basic goals of the assignment.

What do you do if students are not feminists? Do you require them to write their papers from that point of view anyway? Aren't you worried that this sort of assignment could be used to condition students socially? What subject do you teach?

In some ways, I think very highly of this sort of assignment - thinking more deeply and critically about the things we watch and read and the authors' aims. However, this seems to border on teaching kids your political opinions. This is the sort of thing that always frustrated me in school. We HAD to write essays against book-banning or chopping down trees in the Amazon. Yes, I agreed with most of the opinions, no, I didn't want my teacher telling me what to think and failing me if I disagreed. I also think this sort of assignment would be more worthwhile if you questioned things in a way that challenged our assumptions and prejudices, rather than reinforcing them. It is a rare student in our place and time who has seriously considered the idea that men and women are different in any meaningful, non-physical way. They have simply learned that men and women are equals. This may be a correct prejudice, but it is a prejudice nonetheless. Their education should challenge the beliefs that they have be raised in. This is always difficult, because they are the ideals most highly cherished by our society, but it is vital. Students should understand why it was once possible for people to support monarchy and aristocracy, restricted speech, and different gender roles. They will often conclude that their own culture is right, but having seen other options will give them a firmer foundation for their own beliefs and a better understanding of others'.

Thanks, Clay and Kathy. I think the kids look at the entertainment industry in a new way after completing this assignment!

It is good to be able to retrain our minds to be open to the possibility that things may not always be as we might think that they are when it comes to our sexuality and how we tend to view the opposite sex.

Never thought about the media that way, thank you, Nancy.

Thanks, Brent!

Enjoyed your post. Critical thinking at its finest.

Mary, I think you could easily tailor this lesson for middle school - maybe not use Fatal Attraction as an exemplar, but any Disney movie would work. And, Samantha, feminist criticism of Greek plays would be awesome! I might give that a shot myself!

I would love to modify this lesson plan slightly and use it with some of the plays I want to teach - especially those from ancient Greece. I think it would really help students grasp some of the character viewpoints and open up room for some great discussion topics. Thanks for sharing Nancy!

I love this assignment. Anchoring the assignment in a movie will really help the students to transition to literature. This is especially important when students struggle with reading grade level literature. When you start with a movie they can develop a higher level of thinking.

Ooh, tough one, Charles. I guess my hope would be that by doing exercises such as this one, students would become more aware of misogynistic attitudes no matter WHERE they appeared. I'd hope the skills would cross-over to any type of media that they come in contact with!

I want to know how you counter act porn industry's treatment of women as objects, since it is so easy to access even if you are a kid.

Thank you, Kelly! I hope it does help them when they go out into the real world - especially the workplace!

Thank you, Ava! Let me know how you make out!

And Orbelina, I remember your Feminist Criticism on Snow White, and it was first rate!

Excellent post, Nancy! It's so great that you're enlightening your students about these issues now, because I think most students don't start thinking about these types of things until college or beyond! If they're cognizant of the subtleties of gender discrimination early, they're bound to be more sensitive to those types of issues later on, especially when they can have serious implications (like in the workplace, etc).

I remember this assigment! I did mine on "Snow White." After doing this assigment I starting looking at movies differently, and now I disagree with so many movies. Its an awsome topic.

This is such a great resource! I agree that it is so important to make students aware of these movies that are targeting them and creating gender roles. I cannot wait to use this technique in my own classroom!

Thanks, Hannah! I can tell you that your kids will love this - write back and let me know how it goes!

This is a GREAT idea that has real-world application. I'm going to use it as soon as possible with my jaded 11th graders. It's great having one lesson ready to go when we get back!

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