In Review: “Who Does She Think She Is?”

Thursday, May 14, 2009

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism

Written by Andrea Ferber (Art History)

Pamela T. Boll’s most recent film Who Does She Think She Is?(2008) was screened Thursday May 7th as part of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory’s Feminist Futures conference. The documentary focuses on women balancing motherhood and creative drives. Although well-intended and insightful at points, the film left many in the audience wanting—for a more weighted concentration on motherhood or creativity (with less conflation between the two), and for examples of female artists who have achieved prominence in their field rather than women who manage to subsist on their artistic work but will not make it into the history books.

Boll follows five women—two sculptors, a painter, an actress, and a printmaker/ “goddess” teacher as they describe their decision to pursue art while being the best mom they can be. While some in the post-film discussion commented on the “diversity” of the women, I saw racial and ethnic diversity trumped by the structural homogeneity of these women’s lives in which mothering either was the primary function or was regarded as a forsaken primary task because of the pull of art. All five women had children (resulting in an unquestioned alignment between women, femininity, motherhood and artistic expression). All were in a roughly comparable socioeconomic class (financially stable enough to choose to pursue art even if it did not provide sufficient material needs for themselves and their children, often because of the ambiguous assistance of male husbands or ex-husbands). All were heterosexual and either were or had been married. Moreover, the highly conventional parenting relations depicted in the film reinforce parenting primarily as a woman’s responsibility. Additionally, art seemed in all of these cases to have been fueled by self-expression. Indeed, most of the artwork derived its forms and content from an essentialized “womanness” and/or reproductive femininity; none was focused on politics or some other “non-women’s” issues. As Patricia J. Williams described it in her input from the audience, the documentary reduces art to an expression of or escape from domestic life. Three of the five women were divorced, presenting the idea that a woman might manage success in her art and as a mother, but probably at the expense of a romantic relationship. Some of the most significant artist-moms were never mentioned: Mary Kelly, Mary Beth Edelson, or Nancy Spero, to name a few.

The success of Born Into Brothels is a big act to follow. Boll proved that she is capable of excellence, but audiences will have to wait to see if she can fill those shoes with her next project.


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Sharon Irish said...

Thanks for this thoughtful response. It would be useful to produce a meta-film about why and how Boll chose these women, the relationships between the filmmaker and her subjects (since she obviously followed them for quite a while) and the connections of religious faith to these artists' roles as artists and mothers. There was a Mormon, a Christian, a Buddhist, and two of perhaps uncertain faith.

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