Countering Established Conventions. Re-Inventions of Femininity in Maya Deren's Avant-Garde Cinema

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2019

15 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1.) Introduction

I.) Theoretical Part
2.1.) Simone de Beauvoir
2.2.) The Woman´s Film
2.3.) US-American Avant-Garde / Experimental Film in the 1940s

3.) Maya Deren
3.1.) Femininity in Maya Deren’s Life and Works

II.) Practical Part
3.2.) In Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
3.2.1.) The Protagonist The “Mirror-Faced Woman” Femininity / Masculinity
3.2.2.) In Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) Femininities / Masculinity

4.) Conclusion



“One is not born, but rather becomes woman.” (Beauvoir, Simone de, The Second Sex, New York: Vintage Books, 1973, p. 301.), Simone de Beauvoir claims in her book The Second Sex. Therein, essentially, she assumes that there is a difference between sex as a biological condition and gender as a purely social construction. Her theory has been followed up on and extended throughout the second half of the 20th century and taking off in recent years. Moving into the center of scientific scrutiny, gender, in general, has been explored conducted by questions about its construction and usage, with researchers, such as Judith Butler and Roland Barthes directly or indirectly contributing to the discourse. These theories have found their way into and built an important basis for social movements all around the world and played a significant part in political decision- making. However, even before it was theorized, artists and movie makers had constructed and re-constructed gender and, particularly, femininity in portraits, performances and motion pictures. One of the pioneering artists to do so was the Ukrainian-American avant- garde video artist Maya Deren, whose work is going to be in the object of study in the main body of this paper, conducted by the question what, in particular, makes her representations of femininity outstanding and contrary to the ones in the contemporary woman’s film. As to the structure of the paper at hand, the first part will briefly outline Simone de Beauvoir’s academic theory of femininity, the key aspects of representation of women in woman’s cinema and give information on avant-garde cinema. In the second part, then, Maya Deren’s approach to gender will be introduced. Following and based on the first part, the third part will then closely analyze, how femininity is treated in her works and, thus, how it differs from the woman’s film’s approach. Finally, the results will be summarized into a conclusion and an outlook will be offered.

I.) Theoretical Part

2.1.) Simone de Beauvoir

In her proto-feminist treatise “The Second Sex”, de Beauvoir discusses the question “what is a woman?”. She explains that it can only be answered, thus a definition only be found when looking at women in relation to men. The most important reason for this is that society is dominated by male(-made) structures and values, positioning men as universal subjects. Following, when applying Hegel’s theory of the Other, women are stuck in a constant process of othering, making them the object, in turn. In this, Beauvoir sees the root and core of the inequality of sexes. Strongly denying and rejecting the claim that biological and psychological differences condition and facilitate inequality, she considers socialization to be the main and most damaging factor to a woman´s identity. In arguing so, she strongly disagrees with the misunderstanding of the woman´s subordination as a natural condition. For the reason that from childhood on, inequality and the need to subordinate are instilled in them, it seems natural that, eventually, they internalize it. What is more, as she believes, women have always been defined by men mainly by their biological difference, deprived of the voice to speak for themselves. This, as it were, results in the assumption that women are but objects expected to give men sexual pleasure, whereas, at the same time, he can exist without her. Beauvoir believes that the objectification of women serves the affirmation of men´s manhood, which she understands as an important step in evolution. An example of this is marriage. Dependent on their husbands, who are conceived of as “givers” of meaning and existence, wives tend to slide to passivity, for they feel freed of responsibilities, but, in turn, only inside of marriage is she socially accepted and respected. Though, Beauvoir is quick to elaborate on the fallacy, because, as she puts forward, men can only confirm their status and identity as subjects through, or rather when women remain objects. However, in the case that women come to understand that their otherness is created by men and by no means, they get to the very core of their oppression and could start striving for their emancipation and liberation and according to Beauvoir, the two are what men fear the most. As a solution, she suggests an androgyne upbringing and humanism as the ultimate answer. (Beauvoir, Simone de, The Second Sex, New York: Vintage Books, 1973)

2.2.) The Woman´s Film

One of two important new genres, the woman’s film emerged in the 1940s. Yet, while, mostly, the story was narrated from the female character’s point of view for women, they were written by men. Set in the domestic sphere, the lives of the female protagonists evolve and unfold around various social events, such as weddings or births. (Basinger, Jeanine. A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930–1960. London: Chatto & Windus, 1994, p. 9) Accordingly, the topics at the center are emotions, love affairs and mother-daughter relationships, female-male relationships and emotional and sexual experiences. (Hollinger, Karen. In the Company of Women: Contemporary Female Friendship Films. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988, p. 36-40; McKee, Alison L. The Woman's Film of the 1940s: Gender, Narrative, and History. New York: Routledge, 2014, p.24f.; Hollinger, Karen. Women's Film and Female Experience, 1940– 1950. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, p. 24; Basinger, Jeanine (2010). "The Woman's Film. When Women Wept". In Mintz, Steven; Roberts, Randy (eds.). Hollywood's America: Twentieth-Century America Through Film. Chichester; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, p. 163, 166) As will be shown, contrary to Deren’s approach mental conditions such as female madness, hysteria, depression and amnesia are represented as being intertwined with and dependent on outer appearance. In turn, consequently, mental health could be restored through a groomed outward. (Doane, Mary Ann. The Desire to Desire: The Woman's Film of the 1940s. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987, p. 153) As to the representation of women, they could be either good or bad, whereas the good ones were assigned passivity, sweetness, emotionality and asexuality and the bad ones assertiveness, intelligence and erotism, which again contradicts Deren’s complex characters. When it came to conflicts, the good woman nearly always defeated the bad one. (Fischer, Lucy. "Two-Faced Women: The 'Double' in Women's Melodrama of the 1940s". Cinema Journal 23 (1) (1983): 24–43.) Besides good or bad, female characters could be extraordinary, presuming independence and emancipation as opposed to those ordinary, who were bound to societal rules and ordinary-turned-extraordinary. Based on the female character, the movie can be classified as either conservative or progressive, respectively. (Hollinger, Karen. In the Company of Women: Contemporary Female Friendship Films. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998, p. 28) Most importantly, some critics argue that women characters were created and perceived as mere objects of the voyeuristic and fetishizing male gaze, as a result of which they were represented unilaterally.

2.3.) US-American Avant-Garde / Experimental Film in the 1940s

Towards the end of the 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s, the center of the avant- garde movement shifted from Paris to New York. Heralded through personalities, such as Orson Welles, Sidney Person, Kenneth Anger or Maya Deren herself, this second wave became known as the American Avant-Garde and lasted until the 1960s . Rejecting European traditions, thus, looking for new styles and forms, American avant-gardists were not afraid to experiment. It is for this reason, that, topically and stylistically, the avant-garde film was a space allowing experiments and freedom of personal expression, involving ambitions, wishes, desires and, perhaps most importantly, dreams. Generally, the artists were free to play out their imagination. Nevertheless, the dream became an important vehicle of all these feelings, employed either metaphorically or actually, for it would offer the opportunity to explore one´s inner state and subconscious thoughts, however, mostly ending with the protagonist redeemed or dead. What is more, experimental film artists worked with perspectives, their shifting and spatial and temporal transitions as an expression of fluidity and spontaneity. Turning old traditions upside down, the camera, too, underwent a development, in that it turned into an active participant in the events, as opposed to its previously passive, as it were, voyeuristic position. Although intending to move away from European avant-garde traditions and techniques, the “new” avant-gardists often included elements already employed by the former. Amongst others, contemporary dance moves were a popular way of expression. Apart from that, surrealism, abstraction and montage played a significant part in the creation, the design and the processing of comprehensive mental states in films.

United-yet-decentralized, the American avant-garde did not have a consistent plan. Besides, most films were produced on a low budget, outside of studios and were not intended for mainstream audiences. (Verone, William E.B. The Avant-Garde Feature Film: A Critical History. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012, p. 39-49.)

3.) Maya Deren

3.1.) Femininity in Maya Deren’s Life and Works

“It always comes as a little bit of a shock when a woman is doing something in a field that has to do with machinery and with creating in terms of inventing with a machine.” (Clark, Veve A. The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works, Volume I, Part 2, Chambers (1942-47), 1988, p. 354.), Maya Deren asserts, when talking about pushing the limits of contemporary gender roles in her works. Therein, as well as in her life, Deren enjoyed playing with the duality that female authorship implies. On the one hand, she fully understood her own potential and actual function as an object of the “male gaze” (Mulvey, Laura (1975). "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema". Screen. 16 (3): 6–18.). On the other hand, in her films, she tried to make turn women into the subject of the discourse in exploring not only the outer, but also the inner state of women and to earn respect in a vastly male-dominated film industry. The representation of women as complex characters stands out as the perhaps most important feature distinguishing Deren’s from the woman’s films. She created her own reality, simultaneously countering what was considered normal and normative. Yet while, for this reason, Deren is often included in the group resisting norms, she managed to create her very own avant-garde experience, leading to the formation of a new kind of female expression, as it were, a “woman´s story”. (Plessis, Maria Judith. Femininity and Authorship: Deren, Duras and von Trotta. Vancouver: The University of British Columbia Press, 1995, p.78) This is not least because she subverts the woman’s position as the Other in cinema and arranges her personal cinema into a shared cultural experience. However, when trying to label and or classify her as a feminist filmmaker, Deren is quick to object, for she firmly believed that, in art, feminist issues played a secondary role. In her opinion, cinema was not to be understood or used as a space of recreation and exploration of the marginality of women in a patriarchal society. In this aspect, her assistant Hella Heyman supports Deren’s approach and even goes as far as stressing that, in their entirety, Deren’s works have overcome gender distinctions. She asserts that: “I don’t think we were aware of being women during this. I think if we had models, it couldn’t be men or women, but rather just models of a certain ethnic, or a certain achievement in whatever field.” (Clark, L ife, p. 200) For all that, some scholars believe that it was her very resistance against the feminist label that led to a feminist reading of her works. (Plessis, Turim, Maureen. “The Ethics of Form”. In Bill Nichols (eds.). Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde. London: University of California Press, 2001, p. 82)


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Countering Established Conventions. Re-Inventions of Femininity in Maya Deren's Avant-Garde Cinema
University of Regensburg
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avant-garde, cinema, conventions, countering, deren, established, femininity, maya, re-inventions
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Victoria Schatara (Author), 2019, Countering Established Conventions. Re-Inventions of Femininity in Maya Deren's Avant-Garde Cinema, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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