By Emilie Kathol-Voilleque
On Monday, March 25th, the BMW Center for German and European Studies welcomed a panel of guests to discuss a new book by Professor Barbara Mennel, of the University of Florida, Women and Work in 21st Century European Cinema. Mennel began by explaining her motivations and methodology, saying that she sought to fill a gap in scholarship on women and labor in modern films. A driving question in her book is, if work is becoming increasingly immaterial in modern times, how can film capture it? Mennel uses theories from second-wave feminism in her scholarship, but acknowledges that second-wave feminism is limited by the context from which it emerged – middle-class, nuclear families with women in the role of housewife. This theory nonetheless provides a useful lens for analyzing modern issues of work, and Mennel applies this framework to other issues, such as the exploitation of the migrant labor force in Europe.
Professor Monika Shafi, of the University of Delaware, praised the book’s broad survey of films and extensive scholarship. In her words, it “identifies gendered work in all its manifestations as one of the key challenges the modern world faces.” Highlighting recent articles on “workism” and burnout in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and Buzzfeed News, Shafi pointed to a slow displacement of work as the core of a person’s identity.
Professor Peter Pfeiffer, of Georgetown University, questioned whether the films Mennel analyzes is her book depict work itself, or merely suggest a line of work, which then has political and social implications for a character. Although the earliest films were about labor movements, it is rare that a film will explicitly show work. Rather, most often, “a slim sliver of work can be used to build a plot arc,” giving the viewer sociological context on a character’s relationship to the outside world.
Professor Hester Baer, of the University of Maryland, College Park, who served as a reviewer for the book before publication, appreciates the book’s “kaleidoscopic overview of European cinema.” She also values Mennel’s approach, which respects the cultural specificity of films and concepts. Like Mennel, Baer believes that gender no longer suffices as a framework for analysis of contemporary European cinema.