BFI launches new collection Female Desire on Screen

A collection of films and events are being held that spotlight the female gaze in cinema.

Words by Millen Brown-Ewens

On April 24, the British Film Institute announced it would be hosting a new collection of films which address the customarily taboo topic of female desire on screen.

Born out of a season originally scheduled to run at the BFI Southbank this April, the compilation of classics and indies from world cinema were relocated to BFI player, where eight titles are now available to rent or view with subscription indefinitely.

Endeavouring to ‘flip the switch on a century of male gaze’, films featured in the collection demonstrate the breadth of desire and provide a space where female lust and sexual expression can be explored for its uniqueness and in its entirety. Queer love stories such as the Wachowski Sisters’ Bound (1996) and Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996) represent a somewhat slighted position within this dialogue, whilst revered favourite Dirty Dancing (1987) opens up discussion around matinée idols and lust through the female lens.

The Watermelon Woman (1996) Image courtesy of BFI

"The perspective of female writers and directors is key to showing young women especially that they can and should feel understood by cinema," says Programmer, Christina Newland. "[To show] that there is room for our passion and sexual preference, our lust, without the historical baggage of being either victimised or villainised for being sexual."

Female Desire on Screen coincides with the publishing of a new book of essays She found it at the Movies- Women Writers on Sex, Desire and Cinema edited by Newland herself. Its pages raise questions such as 'have the formative experiences of movie watching been damaging or empowering to young women in regard to how they see their bodies, sexuality, and sex? Can they be both? And what does it mean to know a film may be in some way uncomfortable in its feminist politics but still be turned on by it?'

Dirty Dancing (1987) Image courtesy of BFI

A series of events in the form of virtual screenings and discussions will also be held alongside the BFI collection on its YouTube channel. On the 5th May, podcast Girls On Film, hosted by Anna Smith, will dedicate an entire episode to Female Desire on Screen in conversation with Newland and other contributors.

Smith reflects on the importance of this collection and platforms such as hers, which give prominence to this specific component of female voice.

“It's hugely important to address the gender imbalance in film criticism,” she tells us. “The response we've had to Girls On Film shows that film fans are crying out for this, whether they identify as feminists or are just starting to think about the importance of what we see on screen.”

She continues: "Female desire has often been side-lined in films. Sex scenes are so often about the man's pleasure, and female pleasure is often portrayed purely to titillate and flatter the male hero, rather than to demonstrate a response women would identify with. Female desire has also often been seen as dangerous and 'other' - just look at femmes fatales and 90s erotica."

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) Image courtesy of BFI

In the upcoming episode, Smith and Newland will discuss formative responses to sensual depictions in cinema with celebrity guests also sharing their honest, funny and often painful stories about sex and gender on screen.

Discussions such as these, occurring throughout May will seek to encourage female and female-identifying audiences to adopt and experience sex-positive mediations of desire in film by tapping into themes such as fantasy, repression, awakening and love.

Looking to the future, Newland comments: "I’d like to see more open-mindedness that horniness or desire does not immediately equate to something anti-intellectual or throwaway, especially not where films are concerned. There’s a lot to be gleaned from examining cinema through that lens and how it effects the psychology of moviegoers."

Smith similarly hopes these conversations will negate negative connotations between women and sex and inspire more honest and representative depictions of female desire in cinema. "I want to see real women depicted on screen and sex scenes that educate young people in a way that helps their sex lives rather than giving them unrealistic expectations or damaging misinformation," she says.

Click here to listen to the podcast available on May 5 and here to catch up on previous discussions about the films in this program.

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