Skip to Content

Members' Research Report Archive

Women and Work in Contemporary European Cinema

Barbara Mennel
, University of Florida
Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellow, June 17–August 15, 2013


Still from Jas Sum Od Titov Veles (I Am from Titov Veles), 2007, directed by Teona Strugar Mitevska. Author photograph

“‘Work as the object of art’: this is surely a topic worthy of the pen of a good Marxist, and one that would also constitute an important chapter of cultural history,” wrote Béla Balázs (1884–1949) in 1924. Only film, he continued, “the representative art of modern life,” has come to portray modern industry “with terrifying expressiveness,” showing “the machine’s fantastic nightmares.” What happens in our postindustrial times to such filmic depictions of work when the factory is no longer the site of labor and a growing service sector demands qualities previously considered feminine, such as flexibility, caring, and devotion to service? These questions led me to conceptualize a research project on the depiction of women and work in European cinema since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The book I am researching traces continuities in the representation of gendered labor and accounts for the ruptures created by the collapse of communism in the former Eastern Bloc, on the one hand, and the erosion of welfare states, on the other. Over the past two decades, films have told stories of women working in the context of migration both within and into Europe, unemployment and underemployment, and outsourcing. As a whole, current films about work depart from the traditional iconography of labor that depicted a collective of male industrial workers confronting the bourgeois capitalist in a strike. As feminine qualities increasingly define contemporary labor, women characters are better vehicles than men for addressing social concerns. Filmmakers in the former Eastern Bloc, in particular, reject the celebration of labor that defined socialist cinema in the past.

My fellowship came at a critical juncture in my research. During my stay at CASVA I gained an overview of the study of representation of women in mass media in the former Eastern Bloc, which contrasts radically with the earlier imposition of socialist ideals in the theoretical scholarship of political scientists and scholars in media and cultural studies. I also viewed films that show young women in a wide range of professions in Eastern European countries, noting similarities and differences in depictions of the function of work under the new capitalism. Finally, I immersed myself in feminist scholarship on contemporary media, which argues that dominant films and television in Europe and the United States advance a postfeminist world view, one that shows women retreating from work to a domestic existence.

Most important during my stay was scholarly exchange with other fellows at CASVA, which informed the planning of my book’s outline. Each of four chapters connects one aspect of film form—gesture, image, sound, genre—to a discussion of issues central to academic approaches to women and work. Chapter 1, “Gesture: Repetition and Reproduction,” analyzes actors’ gestures that highlight repetitive movement in industrial and domestic labor and the expression of intimacy in caregiving and childrearing. Chapter 2, “Image: Commodity and Consumption,” takes the feminist argument about the sexualization of the female image on screen as a point of departure for analyzing films that depict the commodification of femininity and sexuality in the beauty and sex industries. Chapter 3, “Sound: Migration and Music,” focuses on the ability of sound to transcend the space created on screen in the movie theater and thus to evoke places beyond the visible. The chapter analyzes sound in films about work-related migration, portraying female migrants from poorer countries outside Europe who increasingly sustain households and families in Europe. Film directors repeatedly separate sound from image, using sound to create a link to the past and the place of origin, with images representing the present in Europe. Voiceovers tell stories of the former home, or a soundtrack of music from a country left behind accompanies images of women working in a host country. Chapter 4, “Genre: Capitalisms and Crises,” traces the tension between melodrama, the traditional woman’s film genre, and documentary, closely associated with the filmic portrayal of work, and highlights the innovative ways in which contemporary films make use of melodramatic, documentary, and experimental cinematic conventions. In sum, the chapter organization reflects my methodology of integrating aesthetic and formal analysis with attention to social and political contexts.

The National Gallery of Art and CASVA provided an ideal setting for me to gain this insight and translate it into the organization of my book. It was also the perfect setting to respond to Béla Balázs’s call to write a history of the filmic representation of work, taking seriously his discussion of film as art, on the one hand, and the status of work as depicted in art, on the other.