This year for Women’s History Month, we are highlighting feminist media studies. Feminist media studies is a discipline that applies feminist approaches to the fields of media and communication studies. This guide will provide you with resources for researching in this field—we have curated journals, academic books, and textbooks in the area. We have also created overviews of some common, related media studies terms that you might use in your everyday life including the Bechdel Test, the Male Gaze, and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Explore this guide to lean about the origins of these concepts alongside criticism of these terms.
We have also included non-academic sources such as blogs, substacks, films, and television. These sources, along with scholarly selections, often incorporate intersectional approaches to the field of Feminist Media Studies including queer theory and critical race theory.
See below for a list of events/ways to experience (feminist) media at IU and in Bloomington:
Images: Filmmakers/directors (from left to right), Jessie Maple, Greta Gerwig, Ava DuVernay, Chloé Zhao, and Jane Campion.
Featuring shows written by and starring women.
Below you will find resources for exploring feminist media studies through film reviews, substacks, and non-peer-reviewed channels.
Another Gaze publishes reviews on a wide variety of films from scholars, staff writers, freelances, and film critics. Follow them on Twitter, Instagram, and/or Facebook to keep up with publications. Another Gaze also runs Another Screen, an "irregular streaming platform, bringing you week-long programmes of films by women across modes of production and geographies, with new writing and translations about these works."
Maddy Court writes about television and queer relationships. You might know her as the author of the book and zine series titled "The Ex-Girlfriend of My Ex-Girlfriend Is My Girlfriend." Check out her recaps and commentary of The L Word: Gen Q, Tampa Baes, A League of Their Own, And Just Like That, and more.
Reappropriate by Jenn Fang
Jenn Fang is a proud Asian American feminist, scientist and nerd who currently blogs at Reappropriate.co, one of the web’s oldest AAPI feminist and race activist blogs. Reappropriate focuses on Asian American feminism, politics, and pop culture.
"Here you will find articles and essays primarily about lesbian or sapphic pop culture, but anything else that strikes my fancy is fair game. This newsletter will cover anything I deem of sapphic importance that occurs in the realm of pop culture. It could be something obvious, like why there are so many lesbian period pieces, or something less so, like the eternal star power of Patrick Swayze or my obsession with the exceptional heterosexual angst of TV procedurals. My fascination with pop culture can generally be boiled down to a single question – what moves people, and why? Whatever unexpected directions this question takes me, I’ll hope you’ll join me along the way."
"The Crunk Feminist Collective will create a space of support and camaraderie for hip hop generation feminists of color, queer and straight, in the academy and without, by building a rhetorical community, in which we can discuss our ideas, express our crunk feminist selves, fellowship with one another, debate and challenge one another, and support each other, as we struggle together to articulate our feminist goals, ideas, visions, and dreams in ways that are both personally and professionally beneficial."
Borrow The Crunk Feminist Collection from IU Libraries!
Advancements in the field of Feminist Media Studies have not come only from academic journals and scholars. In fact, one of the most popular and widely-known concepts in contemporary media studies comes from a 1985 comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel.
Image: Dykes to Watch Out For (Alison Bechdel).
The Bechdel Test, also known as the Bechdel-Wallace Test or Mo Movie Measure, is a measure of the representation of women in film. The test asks whether a film features at least two named women talking to each other about something other than a man. The test first appeared in Alison Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For, a weekly comic strip which ran from 1983 to 2008 and was one of the earliest ongoing representations of lesbians in popular culture. Bechdel credited the idea to her friend Liz Wallace and the writings of Virginia Woolf.
Passing or failing the Bechdel Test is not necessarily indicative of how well women are represented in any specific work. Rather, the test is used as an indicator for the active presence of women in the field of film and other fiction and calls attention to gender inequality in media. Additionally, the test is not a way to evaluate whether or not a movie or good or feminist, rather, it allows us to consider who movies are made by and for. Through the use of the Bechdel Test, and other tests that have been inspired by it, we can reflect on how women and other marginalized groups are portrayed, how much depth-of-character they are afforded, and what kinds of plot lines they are allowed.
Check out the Dykes to Watch Out For strip archive online and continue exploring below for more details about the Bechdel Test, its variants, and online resources.
Adapted from: Bechdel Test (Wikipedia).
Video: The Bechdel Test—Everything You Need to Know. No Film School (2018).
As previously mentioned, the Bechdel Test doesn't provide information on the quality or feminist nature of a film or work of fiction. The test also does not take into account the presence of characters of color or LGBTQ+ characters in a film, nor does it look at the number of women working behind the scenes. This test does allow us to think critically about media representation and the construction of characters with marginalized identities. There have been many variations of the test that aim to consider other identities that have historically been left under-portrayed by mainstream media. Explore some of these variations below:
The Reverse Bechdel Test: Asks the same three questions, but about male characters to examine the prevalence of men who talk to men about something other than a woman as a point of comparison to the Bechdel Test.
Chart: The Bechdel Academy: How Recent Best Film Oscar Nominees (1994-2013) do on the Bechdel Test. Matt Isherwood (2013).
The Mako Mori Test: pertains to the representation of female characters within a film or other work of fiction. This test is named after the character Mako Mori from the 2013 film Pacific Rim and its 2018 sequel Pacific Rim Uprising. The requirements are that at least one female character has an independent plot arc and that the character or her arc do not simply exist to support a male character's plot arc.
The DuVernay Test: Asks whether or not African-Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories. This test comes from film critic Manohla Dargis. Nadia Latif and Leila Latif of The Guardian also suggested this series of five questions:
Are there two named characters of color?
Do they have dialogue?
Are they not romantically involved with one another?
Do they have any dialogue that isn't comforting or supporting a white character?
Is one of them definitely not a magical negro?
The Vito Russo Test: Created by GLAAD and named after celebrated film historian Vito Russo, this set of criteria analyzes how LGBTQ+ characters are represented in a fictional work. Criteria are listed below:
The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.
That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity (i.e. the character is made up of the same sort of unique character traits commonly used to differentiate straight characters from one another).
The LGBTQ+ character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect. Meaning they are not there to simply provide colorful commentary, paint urban authenticity, or (perhaps most commonly) set up a punchline; the character should matter.
FiveThirtyEight: 12 New Ways of Measuring Hollywood's Gender Imbalance: FiveThirtyEight asked 12 filmmakers for tests that go beyond the Bechdel Test. Some tests mentioned in the article include:
The May Test: Evaluates transgender representation in film and TV. This test looks at whether or not a transgender character is/has:
Additional commentary on this test can be found here: “Trans Bechdel Test” is Assimilationist.
Citations: Lauren Le Vine, Refinery29, The Bechdel Test, The DuVernay Test, & More: What You Need To Know (2018); Bechdel test,
The male gaze refers to the act of depicting women in visual arts and literature from a masculine, heterosexual perspective which presents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of heterosexual men. The male gaze contains three perspectives which originate from:
The term "male gaze" was first used by the art critic John Berger as part of his analysis of the treatment of women as objects in advertising and nudes in European painting. The British film critic Laura Mulvey coined the term as we know it when she used it to critique traditional media representations of female characters in cinema in her article "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (pp. 58-69 in Thornham, Sue; Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. New York, NY ; New York University Press; 1999.):
Image: Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema
The male gaze establishes a dominant male and dominated female by representing the female as a passive object upon which the active male viewer can gaze. This gaze has implications not only in film and television but in art, literature, marketing, journalism, communication, and everyday life.
Images (from left to right): Elvis and Judy Tyler in Jailhouse Rock (1957) from TikTokers Won't Stop Calling Out The Male Gaze And It's Quality Content; Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Grande Odalisque, oil on canvas, 1814, 88.9 x 162.6cm, Louvre, Paris; Katy Flanagan, Representation of Women Research—Advertising Images (2015); Die Another Day (2022) starring Halle Berry and Pierce Brosnan; Cosmopolitan Magazine.
Adapted from: Wikipedia, Male gaze.
Video: In Conversation With Laura Mulvey (Interview). Another Gaze Journal (2017).
The male gaze is most often discussed in the realm of cinema. There are innumerable examples of the male gaze in film, from the trophy-like nature of the "Bond Girls" to Megan Fox leaning over the hood of a car in Transformers, images created of women by men and for men are all around us. Mulvey's development of the male gaze are grounded in the theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, both of which provide a lens through which Mulvey interpreted the "primordial wish for pleasurable looking" satisfied through the cinematic experience. Typical examples of the male gaze include close-up shots of women from over a man’s shoulder, shots that pan and fixate on a woman’s body, slow-motion shots of women, and scenes that frequently occur which show a man actively observing a passive woman, often from afar and without her knowledge.
Illustration: Mikaela Banes, portrayed by Megan Fox from Transformers. Bijou Allard (2007).
In Ways of Seeing, where the term male gaze was first used, John Berger addressed the sexual objectification of women in the arts and advertising by emphasizing that men look and women are looked at as the subjects of images. For art-as-spectacle, men act, and women are acted-upon according to the social conditions of spectatorship. An example of this can be seen below (left) in Édouard Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass), a large oil on canvas painting that depicts a nude woman on a picnic with two fully dressed men and a scantily-dressed bather behind them. Mickalene Thomas' Le déjeuner sur l'herbe: les trois femmes noires (right) is painting that both critiques and references Manet's painting. Thomas' piece portrays three Black women whose positioning and posing is reminiscent of the subjects of Manet's piece, but the gazes of all three women are fixed on the viewer.
Images: (Left) Déjeuner sur l'herbe, Édouard Manet (1863). Oil on canvas, 208x264.5cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.; (Right) Le déjeuner sur l'herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires, Mickalene Thomas (2010). Rhinestone, Acrylic, and Enamel on Panel, 120×288×2in, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle.
The female gaze describes the gaze of the female spectator, character or director of an artistic work, generating a representation of women as subjects that have agency. All genders can create films with a female gaze if it is defined as a gaze that opposes the male gaze. It is similar to the Matrixial gaze, coined in 1985 by Bracha L. Ettinger. In contemporary usage, the female gaze has been used to refer to the perspective that a female filmmaker (or screenwriter/director/producer) brings to a film which might differ from a male view of the subject.
Additionally, much theorization of the male gaze has remained inside the heteronormative paradigm concerning relationships between men and women. Scholars like Karen Hollinger and Patrick Shuckmann have extended gaze theory to include queer cinematic representation, including a lesbian gaze (a mutual gaze extended between two women) and the homoerotic gaze.
A Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a stock character type in films. Coined by the film critic Nathan Rabin, who coined the term in his 2007 review "The Bataan Death March of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown" which was published in a volume titled My Year of Flops. Of Kirsten Dunst's character in Elizabethtown (2005), Rabin said:
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl, like some other stock characters such as the Magical Negro, Damsel in Distress, Gay Best Friend, or Girl/Boy Next Door seems to exist only to help the protagonist. The MPDG has no discernible inner life, instead, her central purpose is to provide the protagonist with important life lessons.
Image: Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom as Claire Colburn and Drew Baylor in Elizabethtown (2007).
There has been much criticism of the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl, even coming from Nathan Rabin himself (see our section on the Bechdel Test for a similar phenomenon with another massively popular media term). In 2014, Rabin published a piece titled: I'm sorry for coining the phrase "Manic Pixie Dream Girl." In the piece, Rabin notes that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is useful when discussing how writers treat the interior lives of women, and notes, like the Bechdel Test, when women are being used only to further a man's narrative. Rabin echoes the sentiments of other media critics when he discussed the misuse of the term, for example, when it is being used to describe a real person (for example, Zooey Deschanel) or the actors who play these characters. Ultimately, Rabin called for the term to be retired:
I would welcome its erasure from public discourse. I’d applaud an end to articles about its countless different permutations. Let’s all try to write better, more nuanced and multidimensional female characters: women with rich inner lives and complicated emotions and total autonomy, who might strum ukuleles or dance in the rain even when there are no men around to marvel at their free-spiritedness. But in the meantime, Manic Pixies, it’s time to put you to rest.
Video: The Misuse of the Term—Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Trope Anatomy (2017).
A similar trope to the MPDG, the Algorithm-defined Fantasy Girl is a robot or artificial intelligence, with the same function as the MPDG: to fulfill the desires of the male character and to help him in his journey without having any desires or journey of her own.
Image: Ana de Armas as Joi in Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Adapted from: Rafael Abreu, What is a Stock Character — Definition, Examples & Tropes (2022). Wikipedia, Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
In recognition of Earth Day, for the month of April the Media Studies department presents a collection of media highlighting issues surrounding environmental justice. Included here are documentaries on issues surrounding environmental justice and climate change in the United States and around the globe. Also featured here are films and books in the genre of climate fiction, showcasing the ways authors and directors are exploring issues surrounding environmental justice and climate change through various genres in the world of film and fiction. Accompanying these highlights from the collection is a collection of songs, showcasing the ways artists across genres are exploring climate change and environmental justice in song.
If you'd like to engage further with the themes and ideas explored in the resources we've highlighted here, navigate over to the highlight on Environmental Ethics & Aesthetics at the Philosophy Research Guide.
In conjunction with National Poetry Month, we are exploring the the connections between the tradition of poetry and the study of poetics within media studies and across media forms.
The relationship between cinema and the written word go back to the origins of film as an artistic medium. Before the advent of sound, dialogue was purveyed through the use of intertitles that could often retain a poetic quality. Beyond this initial connection, there is a constellation of films dating back from the beginning of the film industry that capture the lives of poets and the experience of poetry. Below is just a small sampling of this intimate and synergistic connection between the two art forms.
As an introduction to this feature, we have also created a playlist of music by artists who are renowned as skilled lyricists, sometimes even lauded poets in their own right, as well as songs with lyrics that evoke the rhythm and aesthetics of the poetic tradition. A few of these musicians have also published books of poetry, which you can find in the "Relevant Texts" tab.
To learn more about this music, as well as the history and stakes of positioning of musical lyrics as poetry, check out some of the resources we were inspired by.
If you'd like to engage more deeply with National Poetry Month, the IU Libraries Arts & Humanities department has put together a number of features and guides to showcase our holdings relevant to this month-long celebration of poetry. You'll find those, below:
Feature films centering around the lives of poets.
Features films about poets and poetry
Documentaries about the lives of poets and the impact of poetry in the world
Titles from our collections relevant to poetry and poetics in cinema and media studies.
Selections of titles from our collections exploring the intersections between music and poetry.
Selected poetry collections by writers best-known as musicians, from our holdings
A selection of scholarly articles from a variety of journals, highlighting the intersections between media studies and poetry:
A selection of scholarly articles considering the relationship between poetry and music:
A selection of resources for further exploration around the topics featured in this highlight: