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Why is Sofia Coppola the Only "Feminist" Filmmaker Who Counts?

What is with all this hooplah surrounding Sofia Coppola?  Now she's on the cover of Bust, interviewed by Kim Gordon as if she's some sort of feminist film-making icon.  Clearly Gordon is a feminist icon (and if you don't agree with me on this I will never be your friend), but I am annoyed that we must accept Sofia Coppola, by virtue that she is a woman who makes films, as suddenly a feminist film-maker.  Granted, Bust's feminism is rather limited and often tends to be about look-at-these-cool-women-doing-cool-things.  Not that this approach is without merit, but it does allow them to promote people as "feminist" who are really not that feminist.

The fact that Sofia Coppola can make decent films does not automatically make her a feminist just by virtue of her gender.  Nor is the fact that she is making decent films all that surprising, considering the fact that she is Hollywood royalty and that her dad's production company will bankroll anything she wants to produce.  With those resources you would have to be particularly talentless to make a bad film and so, considering that she has Hollywood production privilege, we should not be impressed that she can make a-little-better-than-average films and realize that, if she was some brilliant feminist film-maker, she would be using those resources to create critical masterworks.  Sofia Coppola is not a Lizzie Borden, a Chantal Akerman, a Catherine Breillat, a Sally Potter, a Julie Dash, a Maya Deren, a Mira Nair, a Lina Wertmuller, a Margarethe von Trotta, etc.  She is not a feminist film-maker labouring under the same patriarchal funding constraints and trying to carve out a radical womens cinema.  In fact, she is most often anti-feminist.

Take The Virgin Suicides for example.  I suppose someone could try to make an argument that there was something critically feminist about this film's supposed critique of suburban life and femininity, but this movie is a bloody male elegy to a house full of Ophelias.  It's about some guy narrating a tale of desireable and otherworldly women whose only recourse from the harsh reality of the world is to commit suicide.  This trope was sexist when Shakespeare used it and it's still sexist today.

Then there is Lost In Translation, that beloved and quirky art-house-lite film about an aging white man in an exotic and non-white location who entertains a quasi-romance with a young and quirky white woman also visiting the exotic location.  Not only is the female protagonist a "manic pixie dream girl" but this film scores very poorly on the Bechdel Test.  Maybe the Bechdel Test is not a scientific standard for whether or not a movie is feminist, but it is a good start––and Lost In Translation's orientalism and precocious-white-women-in-like/love-with-older-white-man obsession does not really provide the movie with anything else that would prove Coppola is a critical and daring feminist film-maker.

And what do we make of Marie Antoinette?  Unless I have to accept that there is such a thing as "feudal feminism" I refuse to recognize that this pro-royalist biopic is in any way about the self-determination of women as a group.  I don't care about the "plight" of an aristocratic brat whose entire existence is premised on the brutal enslavement of the masses.  Nor do I appreciate being made to feel story for some aristocrat getting targetted by the French Revolution: the Terrors were justified, I side with the masses on this one.  If Sofia Coppola wanted to make an edgy and daring period film about a historical French women then she should have made a film about Louise Michel.

I doubt her new film, Somewhere, is going to be any better than her previous creations.  There are thousands of women with brilliant ideas out there who will never even get a chance to direct a film, let alone the sort of funding enjoyed by a privileged film aristocrat like Coppola.  And there are those avant garde female film-makers who are labouring in obscurity, grappling with the historical questions and problems of their chosen aesthetic, who will never be put on the cover of Bust.


  1. Thanks for this, JMP. I haven't read this interview in Bust, but will certainly be interested to do so soon.

    I completely agree -- Coppola's films follow the tradition/formula of the male-dominated film industry. Some of her female characters may be a little more interesting - or quirky as you put it. But I think that they are still limited to the roles reserved for women in film: love interest, guiding moral compass for male protagonist, beautiful object to be looked at, etc.

    I also think it can be difficult to identify feminist films/film makers because - as you stated - Coppola has the privilege of being film making royalty, and because of this already comes to the table with a name and reputation, and so people pay attention. I don't think the same can be said for feminist film makers, which is truly unfortunate. Because of this, I think it's so important to promote and support films that fall within the normal framework.

    Incidentally, I was thinking about a conversation we had before about the Cohen Brothers and their potentially "misogynist" films (though maybe I'm not being fair with that label). Anyways, I think it would be interesting if you wrote something along those lines.

  2. Yes I do plan to write something on the Coen brothers in the future - maybe the next time I write something filmy. The main reason for this entry was because of Coppola's appearance on the cover of Bust, and how celebratory they were of her, and that she was interviewed by Kim Gordon, who I love. It just made me grumpy for some reason.

  3. Ha! I love this post. Sofia Coppola is film royalty. And would have to be 'particularly talentless' to make a bad film with those resources- as you so well state. Thank you for mentioning the many other actual feminist filmmakers out there. Here are a few more: Claire Denis, Julie Taymor, and Angela Robinson.

  4. Thanks for the additional names.... I have problems with Claire Denis (there is a troubling colonial narrative that is not properly critical in a lot of her work), but she's definitely a film pioneer. And Julie Taymor has a crazy aesthetic (looking forward to seeing how she revises the Tempest).

    But Angela Robinson? Aside from DEBS, didn't she direct the more recent Herbie movie? She's definitely not a film pioneer, and I don't know if DEBS and Herbie qualify someone as feminist... But then again, I haven't seen the new Herbie.


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