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Column: Citizen Jane Film Festival addresses complexities of ‘female empowerment’

As women continue to be underrepresented in film, movements like Citizen Jane help share the entirety of the female experience.

Daniela Sirtori Cortina

Oct. 9, 2013

The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.

Listen up, Columbia, for Citizen Jane has something to say: We may not be that many, but we deserve to be heard.

Women directed only 9 percent of the top 250 grossing films in 2012. Proud, intimate and creative, Citizen Jane Film Festival seeks to make up for underrepresentation in the film industry by showcasing the work of female filmmakers.

This year’s edition of Citizen Jane comes at a time where discussion about the true meaning of female empowerment is taking place in our nation, centered on whether Miley Cyrus is, in singer Sinead O’Connor’s words, being “pimped” by males in the music industry. Miley’s clothes — or, rather, her lack of them — on her music video “Wrecking Ball” have elicited all sorts of responses, with some, such as O’Connor, saying she is being “pimped,” while others, such as singer Amanda Palmer, saying Miley has the right to wear whatever she wants.

Citizen Jane raises its powerful voice to remind us that female empowerment deals only partially with how society views women’s nudity and appearance. It calls us to change our focus and expend our energy in discussing constructive strategies, such as the one provided by the film festival, to give women a platform to showcase their abilities and discuss the wide range of issues that affect females today.

It would be natural to expect that all films made by women portray all females as leaders, or as strong figures who are fighting against an oppressive world that limits women’s possibilities and hinders their development. As a feminist, and thus a strong supporter of equality and the advancement of women, I believe such stories need to be told in order to challenge stereotypes that women are weaker and less capable than men. Women are underrepresented in the film industry not only in their role as directors but also in their roles as positive figures who do not conform to clichés and arbitrary social expectations.

But not all films in CJFF, at least at first glance, seemed to encourage women to break molds and be agents of change. For example, the film “A Teacher” explores the transformation of Diana, a high school teacher, after she begins an affair with one of her students — featuring various instances of sexting and furtive backseat encounters. As the affair becomes increasingly complicated, Diana loses control of herself and engages in embarrassing, self-destructive behavior.

“A Teacher” comes to a conclusion with an image of Diana, helpless and immobile, curled up in bed crying about her problems. The end was quite dull, and overall the film was most certainly not the best depiction of a strong, empowered woman in charge of her emotions.

During the Q&A following the film, a woman noted that she felt empowered by many of the films she had seen so far at the festival, but not but this one — and she made it clear that she had a problem with that.

But despite the film’s flaws and its less-than-favorable picture of Diana, stories of the type told in “A Teacher” are also necessary if we want to depict the complexity of the issues women routinely encounter. Facing reality, while often depressing, can also be incredibly empowering.

“A Teacher” forces us into to the realization that there are women going through emotionally overwhelming situations that can drain their self-esteem and lead them to make harmful decisions. It is that acknowledgment of reality that empowers us, for it prevents us from deceiving ourselves into thinking that if we want to be strong women, we are not allowed to feel pain. But we are. Addressing those issues openly gives us the tools to keep self-love alive, even when dealing with potentially dangerous or abusive relationships. This makes us stronger, not weaker.

Citizen Jane Film Festival does a great job at capturing the scope of the female experience, with all its victories and its defeats, strengths and vulnerabilities. At the end of the day, each and every one of those aspects is needed for women to understand themselves and become empowered in the true sense of the word.

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