Class Note for LIT. 418: FEMINISM, POSTMODERNISM AND THE CHANGING CINEMATIQUES IN CONTEMPORARY FILMS

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FEMINISM, POSTMODERNISM AND THE CHANGING CINEMATIQUES IN CONTEMPORARY FILMS

When modernism gave way to postmodernism, it was to allow for a free reign of expression and a heterogenous perception of issues; what Frederic James describes as “the restructure of certain elements of modernist traditions”. It has been argued by other scholars that postmodernism is a contradictory phenomenon, which , according to Hutcheon, ‘uses and abuses, installs and then subverts the very concepts it challenges’, either in architecture, literature, painting, film, sculpture and so on. Therefore, rather than building on what once was, the aesthetics, forms and the social formations are problematized by critical reflection.

One of the major proponents of postmodernism, Jean Francois Lyotard explains that the works of art in postmodernism

_ _ _ are not in principle governed by pre-established rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgement, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work. _ _ _

This lack of rules provides the opportunity for a free reign of expression and a heterogenous perception of issues. This brings together several ideas that are highlighted and ‘re-presented’ in a different way to look like new. This is what Jameson refers to as ‘pastiche’. It has been described as a significant feature of postmodernism, which suggests a ‘mimicking and/or a re-presenting of an original style or norm, such that today the old compact and homogenous lifestyles and cultures have evolved into a new diverse and heterogenous system. In such a case, no longer can an individual insist on a single argument to win a debate, the position of the ‘other’ must always be acknowledged. This is the idea behind pastiche, which has been compared to parody but which is described as a neutral practice of the mimicry in parody, but without its ulterior motive, its satiric impulse and devoid of laughter and any other borrowed ideas. It is referred to as blank parody.

This is the kind of framework we will employ to analyse the film, For Coloured Girls, which has been described as a postmodernist and a feminist work. In both its form and content, the film follows a postmodernist style, employing pastiche in its treatment of feminist issues that touch the core of the woman’s film.

First, in its cast, the producer, the notable American figure, Tyler Perry, features an ensemble cast that includes famous American actresses including Janet Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, Kerry Washington, Loretta Devine, Thandie Newton, Phylicia Rashid, Anika Noni Rose and Kimberly Elise. Each of them plays a character each of the 9 African-American women on whom the play is based. Each character deals with a different personal conflict such as love, rape, abandonment, infidelity and abortion. Such broad range of ideas that define the postmodernist

_ _ _ are highlighted in the story. Thus, we observe in the work, postmodern thought that is broadly characterized by tendencies to epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, irreverence and self-preferentiality.

For Coloured Girls by Tyler Perry is a cheoreopoem, a dramatic form which features dance, music and poetry, based on a 1975 work by Ntozake Shange with a title For Coloured Girls who have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is enuf.

Each of the dances is symbolic of the lived experiences of the women. The language of the film is expressed in poetic form, and this best depicts the emotional feelings and painful experiences of the 9 women. The lives of the women are interconnected somehow and this interconnectivity brings them all together as a united front to face the pain of their existence together as one. This is a major focus of the postmodern feature, the death of the subject; rather than focus on one heroine whose life mirrors the experiences of the others, we have the highlights of the individual experiences of each of the nine women. This is a departure from the bourgeois hegemonic structure of the social class in the modern era. Therefore, through dancing, singing, and coming together, the women developed rites that begin to repair the damages in their lives, caused by domestic and sexual violence they experience. And at the end, they all dissolve into a community of women who come together after their individual horrific experience in the hands of a man to espouse the postmodernist age of cooperative capitalism.

 

The Feminist Angle

No doubt, the movie, For Coloured Girls has its roots in the literary writing of a foremost female American writer, Ntozake Shange, who is a feminist with a mission. Shange’s work is part of the category in Hollywood films described as ‘Woman’s Film’; referring to a genre which deals with female protagonists who are given significant access to camera views. They treat problems defined as “female: problems revolving around domestic life, family, children self-sacrifice etc. Such issues as rape, domestic violence/battery, HIV, parenting, heartbreaks etc. are treated. For such films, even the technical aspects of the film, like the mice-en-scene, are deployed in the service of the production of the female fantasy, made to appeal to the female instinct. For example, at the beginning of the film, Yasmine dances in an almost empty large room, with lighting coming from the windows. The large, empty space suggests ‘a scene of loss’ and a ‘sense of power and freedom _ _ _ energy and free spiritedness’. This is a feeling that females can relate to, this ‘sense of loss’ and the ‘desire for freedom’. The same thing is the explanation of the windows which is taxonomised as ‘looking on’; this clearly linked women with waiting. These techniques and highlighted metaphors are the projections of the feminist concepts in women’s films. These expose the mechanisms of patriarchy, opening up the cultural mindset in men and women which perpetuates sexual inequality.

The language deployed in the film exposes the patriarchal mechanisms and revolts against them in practical ways. Helene Cixous’ idea in her famous work, L’ecriture Feminine, seems to come alive in the film as we are confronted with a platform where ‘women must write through their bodies _ _ _ must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions _ _ _ sweeping away syntax, breaking that famous thread _ _ _  which acts for men as a surrogate umbilical cord”(88). As noted in the film, the poetic renditions by the women were presented in their dialogue, providing them opportunity to make gestures and facial expressions to express their feelings towards men. A very good example is the dance movements by Yasmine during the rendition of Dark Phrases and Sechita. There is no doubt that the film truly projects female body and identity as depicted in the final conclusion reached by all the women, in the end: ‘my love is ‘too beautiful_ _ _magic_ _ _ complicated_ _ _music_ _ _Saturday night ….’ to have it thrown back in my face.

This powerful feminist projection, however, seems to clash with the postmodernist perspective and the religious conservatism of the famous producer that projects the feminist message of equality that is the focus of Shange’s work. Tyler Perry is one of Hollywood’s most conservative evangelical voices; thus his projection of the feminist message is not as liberal and unleashed especially in the area of sexual freedom, For example, Shange’s character, lady in yellow, delivers a lush monologue detailing her past experience of cruising, dancing and losing her virginity on graduation night. Perry in his film decides to put those words in the mouth of Nyla, the teenage girl whose bold act of sexual passion is eventually condemned by her mother (a new character played by Whoopi Goldberg newly introduced by Perry).

Perry’s disappointing directorial eye will be more noticeable when Nyla is punished for her sexual curiosity. Her interesting story of sexual awakening becomes merged with the original Lady in blue’s tale of a back-alley abortion in Shange’s work. In the end, Perry presented a moralizing sermon against black women’s promiscuity and sexual agency, and more subtly, against choice itself.

The clash with postmodernism is also highlighted as reaction to modern established norms as clearly showcased. Frank, Juanita’s boyfriend is a character with no permanent home. He is also not fixed to a particular woman, he moves between sleeping in Juanita’s place and the home of another woman. Another example is that of Tangie who chats up a man at a bar and brings him home; the man is perplexed at her boldness and wonders aloud, “what kind of woman picks a man at a bar, and brings him back to her place, and she is not a hooker”.

Tangie’s act of rebellion against the established order is both a feminist act and a postmodernist symbol. Thus, we can conclude conveniently that Perry’s film mimics the literary work of Shange without satirical motifs. It recreates and reproduces the feminist literary characteristics of Shange’s feminist text without re-establishing any new order.

It showcases a self-awareness of history and fiction as human construct and it sets out rethinking and reworking of the forms and contents of the past. It is self-reflexive; it speaks to us about real historical realities.

 

The Technical Pattern

It is impossible to ignore the various cinematic techniques employed in the movie, for they help to foreground the postmodernist idea. The major components of the screen, what we refer to as the Mise-en-Scene of the movie is powerfully deployed to bring home the point or message. Thus, the costume, the setting, the action and the lighting are all central to the development of the story. One of the most powerful of such elements is the colour palette which is deployed to map out colours associated with particular mood or location and more importantly a particular character. The colour palette is deployed to express the unique ‘personality’ of the production, the changing moods associated with different scenes and the traits of each of the characters.

  • For example, Yasmine’s Yellow is associated with sunshine; is representative of joy, happiness and cheerfulness, yet presupposes a strong complexity and impulsiveness that leads to her being raped by a stranger she thought would be, but was not’.
  • Juanita’s green depicts her fresh renewal; even after every disappointment from Frank, she comes out fresh. She forms a shelter for fellow women and, like the green sign on the traffic light, she gets renewed to move on.
  • White depicts ‘new beginnings, wiping the slate clean’; this is evident in Alice’s desire for a fresh start. Her past is bedeviled by rape and male hegemonic oppression, but her attempts are foiled by her presentation as a disorganized person as depicted through her cardboard house and the fact that she sees more of her youth in Tangie who tells her, ‘you are just like me’.
  • Tangie herself is presented in bright orange but shows she cannot handle the bright arrays of the orange conflict that beset her. She complains, ‘being coloured is a metaphysical dilemma I have not conquered yet’.
  • Jo, is all red, red clothes, red lipstick, red shoes, red coffee mugs, even her magazine firm is Robe Rouge meaning Red Robe. Roses litter her office and home. Yet, neither the fragrance of the rose nor the beauty reflects in her life, only thorns. In the early part of the movie, she stands as a bourgeois individual symbolizing the high modernism looking down on women like Juanita and Crystal; but in the end, when her own life crumbles, as if pierced by the thorns in her rose, discovering her husband’s homosexual preference and her own HIV status, she is forced to condescend to a command sorority. This reminds one of Frederic Jameson’s stand that in postmodernism, ‘the bourgeois individual subject is_ _ _a myth_ _ _ a philosophical and cultural mystification’(17).

The varied uses of other technical properties coalesce to give the film a unique standard. The use of camera panning is deployed to effectively highlight the melancholic mood of the movie and to depict the characters’ pain. The setting, as stated earlier, suggests loneliness, the props are bare and unattractive as in the rooms of some of the characters. The lighting is creatively used to show the mood of the characters or the pain they feel. For example, when Crystal’s children were dropped from the window by her boyfriend, the lighting is focused on her face and it dimmed and blackout on her face, depicting the horrors she feels inside.

The cross-cutting of the camera when Yasmine is being raped juxtaposing her pain with the joy Jo is feeling when she is watching the opera alongside her husband. The camera is also used to significantly depict the fragmentation of the characters’ body, when body parts are shown rather than full body in some of the scenes. There are other aspects of the camera use like the positioning, the shots, the framing and composition. All these contribute to the outcome of the scene.

On the whole, in any film, Mise-en-Scene, the art of making a scene, using costume, performance, lighting and setting to construct and describe the narrative world is very important in the act of filming. All these have been taken into consideration in producing the film, For Coloured Girls. In conclusion, both in content and in form, the film showcases a self-awareness of history and fiction as human construct and it sets out a rethinking and reworking of the forms and contents of the past. It is self-reflexive; it speaks to us about real historical realities. Near the end of the film, the women mimic the way men apologize to women, even as Gilda says, ‘I do what I do cause I thought you could take it, I am sorry’. As these mimicries relate to broken emotions, it has lost its sense of humour and satirical impulse. The women in the film feel a sense of safety then; the spirit of oneness among black women through reflective discourse as it relates to their experiences, psychological trauma, pangs and challenges and how to forge ahead with a view to conquering by seeking solidarity at the end of the film.

 

In all, For Coloured Girls stands out as a postmodern feminist film.

About author

Kemi Wale-Olaitan

Kemi is a retired broadcaster from the service of Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria; while in service, she had her interest in women issues and had interviews with several notable women in the course of her duty as a producer in the service of the Federal government. Her interest in broadcasting was informed by her creative writing prowess; she has been very active in creative writing since her undergraduate days, and she has written a few fictional works in form of short stories and novel. Some of her short stories have appeared in anthologies of Short stories. Kemi was also very active in the establishment of the Women Writers Association of Nigeria (WRITA) and she served on its first Executive Council.

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