Monday, July 29, 2013

From the June Mazer Lesbian Archives: Diane F. Germaine Papers

By collecting and preserving the documentation and materials that are central to women’s lives, the June Mazer Lesbian Archives preserves details of American culture that have long been invisible in archival histories.  The Diane F. Germain papers exemplify this fact. 

Germain is a French-American lesbian-feminist psychiatric social worker. She conducts the Lesbian History Project and created and conducted a strength group for Women Survivors of Incest and/or childhood molestation for five years. She was one of the founding members of Dykes on Hikes, The Lesbian Referral Services, Beautiful Lesbian Thespians and California Women's Art Collective. She was an early principal member of the San Diego Lesbian Organization and a collective member of both Las Hermanas and Califia, a separatist lesbian community.

She worked at Lambda Archives throughout the 1990s, interviewing women in order to preserve lesbian history and gathering collections. She later returned to serve as their Student Volunteer Coordinator. She was the staff cartoonist for HotWire: The Journal of Women's Music, Culture of Chicago and Lesbian News.  Her writing and artwork was featured in various publications, including Les Talk: The Magazine for Empowering Lesbians/Womyn.  She is featured in both the anthology Tomboys!, edited by Lynne Yamaguchi and Karen Barber, and Lesbian Culture: An Anthology, edited by Julia Penelope and Susan J. Wolfe.

Germain was not only interested in documenting her own experiences, but also in documenting the representation of women in the media as well as preserving lesbian culture on the whole for posterity. Therefore, the content of this collection is varied. The collection contains materials from activist organizations in which Germain was herself involved, as well as information and resources for other like-minded organizations. She also collected magazine and newspaper clippings that included her art work (some of which include her commentary). Financial documents and other organizational records relating to the Las Hermanas coffee house and presentations meant for the Califia Community are included in the collection.

Materials also include video tapes of community events and speakers, extensive flyers, brochures, and other papers regarding lesbian and feminist political events, clippings documenting offensive depictions of LGBT people and women in media, photography, correspondence, and other ephemera and realia.

Because Germain has worn so many hats, from cartoonist to historian to leader of a strength group for abuse survivors, her collection offers documentation of many diverse facets of lesbian life and culture throughout the second half of the twentieth century. 

–Ben Raphael Sher

Ben Sher is a doctoral student in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies and a graduate student researcher at CSW.

The finding aid for this collection is available for viewing at the Online Archive of California ( Digitized materials from the collection and the finding aid will be available for viewing on the UCLA Library’s Digital Collections website. This research is part of an ongoing CSW research project, “Making Invisible Histories Visible: Preserving the Legacy of Lesbian Feminist Activism and Writing in Los Angeles,” with Principal Investigators Kathleen McHugh, CSW DIrector and Professor in the Departments of English and Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA and Gary Strong, University Librarian at UCLA. Funded in part by an NEH grant, the project is a three-year project to arrange, describe, digitize, and make physically and electronically accessible two major clusters of June Mazer Lesbian Archive collections related to West Coast lesbian/feminist activism and writing since the 1930s.

For more information on this project, visit For more information on the activities of the Mazer, visit

Friday, July 26, 2013

In the Company of Women: Lifting the Curtain on a Closed Society in Wadjda

A defiant pair of Converse sneakers with bright, purple shoelaces peeking out from beneath long, black abaya robes provide the audience with its first glimpse of the rebellious heroine at the center of Haifaa al-Mansour’s new film, Wadjda (2012). Making its North American premiere at Telluride last fall, this politically charged, coming-of-age drama screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June, followed by a Q & A with al-Mansour and jointly moderated by film critic, David Ansen, and actress and activist, Alfre Woodard. A groundbreaking moment in cinematic history, Wadjda marks not only the first feature film shot entirely within Saudi Arabia, but also the first directed by a Saudi woman.

The story follows Wadjda (newcomer Waad Mohammed), a young girl with an unwavering determination to buy a bicycle (despite Saudi law restricting girls from riding bikes) to race Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), her childhood friend and next-door neighbor. While at first he teases her, riding around her in circles and stealing her lunch, Abdullah soon becomes an unlikely ally who eventually agrees to give Wadjda secret lessons on the rooftop of her apartment, unbeknownst to her mother.

Viewers may, quite rightly, draw comparisons to the social critiques of Iranian auteur, Jafar Panahi, or Italian neorealism, particularly seeing Wadjda as a contemporary reworking of Bicycle Thieves (1948). Like Vittorio De Sica’s cinematic classic, al-Mansour’s film elevates and juxtaposes its social realist struggle (in this instance, gender inequity instead of economic despair and disparity) with a humanistic aesthetic. Recalling the self-preservationist necessity of the mystic to combat hopelessness and strife in Bicycle Thieves, al-Mansour incorporates an indispensable sense of magic, no more so than in the scene in which Wadjda first glimpses the object of her affections—a brand-new, bicycle. Although the treasured bike is strapped upright to the top of a moving car, Al-Mansour frames it behind a barrier so that it appears as if floating on air.

Entranced, Wadjda races after it and soon encounters its destination, a shop which she begins frequenting daily. With her precocious spunk and infectious charm, she befriends the storeowner, cajoling him into not selling the bicycle until she’s saved up the funds to buy it herself. Subsequently, she joins a religious contest at her school after learning that there’s a substantial cash prize for the winner. Her teachers, particularly the stern Ms. Hussa (Ahd), who generally consider the strong-willed Wadjda a disobedient troublemaker with little regard for sharia law, become convinced that she has suddenly turned over a new leaf. Determined to reach her goal, Wadjda also starts selling bracelets and displaying shocking entrepreneurial savvy in the schoolyard.

At home, life is even more complicated. Although her father (Sultan Al Assaf) clearly loves her mother (Reem Abdullah) and Wadjda, he seldom visits. It also remains a constant source of tension between her parents that he might take another wife to bear him a son. While her mother cooks elaborate dinners and tries to please him in every way, she still doesn’t hesitate or shy away from shouting matches, giving the audience insight into the origin of Wadjda’s uncompromising resolve and tenacity. Wadjda jokes and plays video games with her father, but soon she must reconcile the loving facets of his personality with the cruel and neglectful aspects which often leave her and her mother feeling abandoned. When Wadjda defiantly tapes her name to the family tree that, as her mother explains, only includes the male bloodline, she is crushed to discover the same piece of paper crumbled beside it the next day. Consequently, al-Mansour asks how are these women to make an imprint on society when they are effectively invisible? Ironically, the very act of telling this story and filming the lives of these women in Saudi Arabia, is doing just that; al-Mansour is making visible what has characteristically been kept carefully veiled behind a closed curtain of fear, stigma, and deeply rooted cultural traditions for centuries.

Although Wadja’s mother is strong-willed and resourceful, she still has to rely on a male driver to transport her to work. Later the driver quits following an argument, leaving her mother stranded and her livelihood in jeopardy. Consequently, al-Mansour’s interest in transportation as a symbol of female independence and liberation is applicable to her as well as Wadjda, who seems to implicitly understand this in her desire for a bike. While the idea of a bicycle seems playful and innocent, particularly from a western viewpoint, its progressive and even transgressive connotations raise important questions regarding control, resistance, and female empowerment within the context of a conservative society, as in Saudi.

While the women of Wadjda are reliant on men, they also lean on one another. A friend of Wadjda’s mother shocks her by revealing her job at a hospital working alongside men, offering an alternative to Wadjda’s mother cloistered existence in a segregated society. Though quite the outsider, Wadjda also assists older girls at school as a courier since she possesses a certain amount of mobility, a luxury that the audience can sense will be short-lived as she grows older. The most touching aspect of the film however is to watch the relationship between mother and child unfold. While her mother spends much of the film trying to reign in Wadjda’s unruly tendencies, she also encourages her and helps her practice her Koran recitation for the school competition. Moreover, with her husband continuing to disappoint her and remaining an inconsistent presence in her life, she comes to depend on Wadjda for emotional support more than she realizes.

It is heartening to witness Wadjda achieving international recognition winning prizes at festivals as varied as Dubai, Rotterdam, and Venice, especially since Saudi Arabia does not even have a national cinema. Furthermore, it’s a remarkable feat when you consider that, aside from filming inside, al-Mansour had to direct all exteriors from within a van, communicating with the crew over a walkie to observe Saudi Arabia’s strict segregationist culture. She insists that she did not set out to make an overtly political film, but, rather, a meditation on the integration of tradition and modernity. Although there are no plans to show the film in Saudi, it will be interesting to see the response throughout the rest of the Middle East. Although the Arab Spring protests in 2011 ignited discussions of shifting gender relations with women working alongside men, al-Mansour admits that the promise of change in the aftermath has been slow to come and often fallen short of expectations.

At one point in the film, a teacher, who catches Wadjda shouting in the streets, chides her that, “a woman’s voice reveals her nakedness.” With the apt opening scene of Wadjda singing in an all-girl’s choir and each shot thereafter, al-Mansour does not seek to embody every Saudi woman’s experience, but, instead, lays bare one spirited girl’s story, one girl’s irrepressible voice, offering a glimpse of hope for future generations.

—Laura Swanbeck

Laura Swanbeck is a graduate student in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA and a graduate student researcher at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women
Wadjda was written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

Monday, July 22, 2013

Dorothy Arzner, Female Pioneer in Hollywood

Dorothy Arzner directing Merle Oberon
in 'First Comes Courage' (1943)
Even though Women's History Month is past for this year, we believe women's accomplishments should be celebrated year-round. In that spirit, we present a short biography of Dorothy Arzner, the first major female director in Hollywood.

An important figure in Hollywood history, Dorothy Arzner was a script typist, screenwriter, editor, and director from the late 1920s to the early 1940s—and, by most accounts, the only female director during the first generation of sound films. Arzner had a connection to the movies early on through her father’s Hollywood restaurant, which was popular with some of the industry’s biggest names, including Charlie Chaplin and Mack Sennett. Her medical studies at the University of Southern California were interrupted by WWI, during which she worked as an ambulance driver, and then abandoned. Arzner used her contacts to get a meeting with William de Mille, a top director at Famous Players-Lasky (which later became Paramount), leading to her first job as a stenographer.

Intelligent and ambitious, Arzner rose quickly at the studio, becoming a respected editor in just a few years. She came to the notice of director James Cruze through her creative editing in the bullfighting scenes of his 1922 movie Blood and Sand, starring Rudolph Valentino. (Arzner later claimed she had even directed the second unit for some of the bullfighting scenes.) Cruze was so impressed with her work that he used her as an editor and scenario scripter for four additional films, coming to trust Arzner enough to refer to her as his “right arm.” Arzner’s body of work was so strong that on Cruze’s Old Ironsides (1926) she became the first person, man or woman, to receive screen credit as an editor. (She was also credited as a screenwriter on the film.)

Her sights now set even higher, Arzner leveraged an offer to direct films at Columbia, a much smaller studio she had been writing scripts for, to direct at Paramount. Arzner’s first few pictures—including Fashions for Women (1927), The Wild Party (1929), and Sarah and Son (1930)—were hits, and several remain notable: Party introduced the coded lesbian themes that would appear in Arzner’s later work, Sarah broke box-office records at New York’s Paramount Theater, and Manhattan Cocktail (1928) was Paramount’s first talkie picture. Her financial success ensured that Paramount gave her whatever she wanted for her next movies, which included Honor Among Lovers (1931, one of Ginger Rogers’s first movies), and Merrily We Go to Hell (1932). Arzner left Paramount after making Hell, angry that a change of executives saw the movie shelved until Arzner pleaded for its release; Hell, a story of an alcoholic reporter during the Prohibition, went on to become a financial success.

As a freelance director, Arzner worked with a number of studios and big-name producers, including Harry Cohn, David O. Selznick, and Samuel Goldwyn, and several top stars of the day, including Katherine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. Arzner directed her last movie in 1943, finding opportunities in Hollywood for women behind the camera more difficult to come by after World War II. She moved into teaching at the Pasadena Playhouse and UCLA, where one of her students was Francis Ford Coppola. She also directed over 50 television commercials for PepsiCo, work that she found through Crawford, whose husband was PepsiCo’s chairman. The Directors Guild of America honored Arzner in 1975, nearly 40 years after she became its first female member. She died in 1979.

In addition to her films, Arzner’s legacy is having been a strong and successful female presence in Hollywood at a time when the industry was heavily dominated by men. Female film historians have championed Arzner as a female point of view opposing the male-centric film aesthetic that makes up much of film history. Additionally, scholars have worked to add Arzner and other women to the established canon of film directors, exploring how their work challenges and disrupts the hegemonic ideology of Hollywood cinema.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Leaning by Doing: Critical Media Literacy and the Politics of Gender

In CSW Research Scholar Rhonda Hammer’s course, “Critical Media Literacy and the Politics of Gender,” undergraduate students make video essays, documentaries, and other multimedia texts that grapple with the ways in which media informs and is informed by social issues related to gender.  Hammer has recently posted works from Spring 2013 on the web for public consumption. 
The texts cover a wide variety of important topics, including media representations of women in medicine, popular culture’s exclusion of queer characters that don’t fit into a normative paradigm, the social implications of birth control marketing, and the rise of homeless students at UCLA.  The texts, injected with the great passion of the students who made them, demonstrate exciting ways in which academics can use current technology to expand beyond a pedagogical model based on research papers and exams.  Hammer’s course proves that one of the best ways for a student to become media literate is to create media herself.

To view the multimedia work produced in “Critical Media Literacy and the Politics of Gender,” visit