Shirin Neshat Women Without Men
Stephanie Snyder Hard Edge/Hard Work: Women and Abstraction
Films at the NW Film Center
Posted by: Ariana Jacob
I’ve found that it is generally a bad idea to bring up feminism in public because most people just instinctively stop listening and mentally or physically walk away. I can feel that impulse in myself at times, but something about how potentially annoying and difficult it is to think about gender makes me want to do it more.
During this TBA season the NW Film Festival’s Whitsell Auditorium has hosted several films made by women about the condition of being women. Shirin Neshat’s
Women Without Men is a visually gorgeous, deeply saturated film about women in Iran during the 1950′s. Stephanie Snyder’s curated series, Hard Edge/Hard Work: Women and Abstraction, is a satisfyingly tight collection of historic films by Maya Deren brought into direct contact with video work by Kate Gilmore made in the last couple of years – one of which was shown at this year’s Whitney Biennial.
I appreciate these films as experiential tools for thinking about the legacy of feminism and what it means that we are gendered people in gendered cultures. Both viewings present women wrestling for and holding power and agency, yet they represent that strength as existing within unresolved, confining and confusing horizons.

This is most obvious in Kate Gilmore’s videos where you see her sturdy body dressed in heels, gloves and a skirt kicking and punching her way out of small sheet-rock rooms, which then open into other confined places. In the last of her videos she breaks through gray wall after gray wall and arrives, after much noisy bashing, at a yellow wall onto which she places her hands to acknowledge it as a barrier but then removes her gloves as if she had at least momentarily completed her task by arriving at somewhere different. I am more satisfied by her ability to acknowledge the continuing confines of her situation than by the implied sense of accomplishment. Self empowerment within confined parameters without much room for perspective feels like an accurate assessment of a contemporary feminist stance.
The scene that leaves the loudest echo for me from Women Without Men was fairly insignificant to the plot. In it one of the leading ladies is introduced to a circle of Iranian bohemian intellectuals, both men and women, and listens to them discuss how there needs to be cultural change to build the groundwork for political change. To me this is the meta moment in the film where the characters’ voices articulate the overall project of the film in which they exist. The film tells us it’s goal to be part of the subtle shifts in cultural beliefs and practices that allow political conditions to change.
I spent two days of this TBA festival in the hospital with my best friend as she labored with the birth of her first child. Her and the baby’s poppa had asked that they be able to discover their baby’s gender themselves instead of having it announced to them by hospital staff. In part I think they wanted this as a way of resisting, at least for a moment, the fact that we divide people so immediately and definitively into men and women. But the strong pull to make and reinforce that division went into effect regardless of their wishes. The first words from most friends and family were “boy or girl?” and the new child and parents were given wrist bands prominently labeled with the child’s gender as if it was the main identifying characteristic of this new person.
In my day to day life gender seems so unthinkably ordinary and matter of fact, or even sort of irrelevant and old fashioned. I often just think of myself as a person and forget that the way I stand, listen and speak is profoundly carved by being female. For me it is worth giving attention to the situations in art and in life that make me consider, or reconsider for a moment, my less-than-conscious understandings about gender and culture. These films in different ways made openings for my own unsettled, unresolved thinking on these matters.