GIRLS: The language of the archive
It’s impossible to watch the films we’ve selected from the Digital Film Archive and not see them through the lens of gender representation. Some are explicitly about gender, such as Life After School: It’s a Man’s World (1986) in which women in traditionally male roles are asked about their experiences, or Counterpoint: A Woman’s Worth (1988), about the fight for equal pay, that presents a panel discussion between one woman and four men. But others aren’t so deliberate, such as the ad for Kennedy’s bread, in which the woman is shown offering a plate of sandwiches while the man and children are shown eating them and smiling at this implied ‘mother’, a model of domestic servitude. But in all cases the films are loaded with a certain feeling towards women that, whether deliberate or unconscious, gives the strong sense of women as ‘other’. And although the formal aspects of the programmes use visual language to frame women in this way, what is literally spoken throughout the clips we’ve chosen to highlight is striking in and of itself.
For example, Counterpoint: Women Talking (1995) is a one-off, special edition of UTV’s current affairs programme which has been dedicated to the female perspective. This is achieved in the unimaginative way of filling a studio audience with women and adding a male presenter, Mike Nesbitt. The programme acknowledges this format is highly unusual. Nesbitt opens the programme by saying, ‘They’ve asked for a platform tonight and Counterpoint is providing it. Women who feel they rarely get a chance to speak in what is perceived to be a man’s world are here to voice their opinions.’ The programme is suggesting it has generously answered a request from women to appear in an edition specifically about them, while admitting the lack of female perspectives from their regular content by highlighting the unusual format in this way. But it also attempts to qualify this by saying ‘women who feel…’ as though they are a stand-alone group that differs from other, off-screen women who are perfectly happy with their place on the sidelines of broadcasting history.
Even the mere fact that a man is centered as presenter shows that a male voice is not only needed to balance or counter these perspectives, to literally question them, but he acts as the subjective focal point of the programme, the universal protagonist to whom viewers at home can all identify. This further delegitimises the women’s perspectives before they’ve even spoken.
There’s a moment while watching one clip entitled, Nobel Peace Prize: Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan (1977), on the Digital Film Archive when you realise two things: the significance of two Northern Irish women receiving the Nobel Peace Prize during the Troubles in 1976, and the absurd way they are repeatedly called ‘girls’. It brings to mind the crusty, alcoholic Father Jack from 1990s sitcom Father Ted, with his interchangeable monosyllabic catchphrases, ‘Drink! Feck! Arse! Girls!’, as simple as his pinhole worldview. Of course it’s possible to laugh at the use of ‘girls’ in this context as an awkward relic of television history, but it’s also a reminder of how sexist language works, and how it distracts from the achievement of Williams and Corrigan by reducing them to a lesser stature in the eyes of the viewing audience.
Another video from the archive, Counterpoint: Abortion (1979), about pregnant people accessing abortion by travelling to Britain, uses ‘girls’ frequently, and of course both women and girls need access to abortion. But again it’s the repetition of the word that comes across strongly, the use of this language primarily by men, as well as other remarks such as one doctor’s description of a hypothetical unborn baby as ‘he’, that brings home that there’s a particularly damaging patriarchal perspective at play.
Because of these examples we chose to put together the short video Girls, a playful look at how sexist language can dominate through casual, repetitive use. The video starts with Counterpoint: Abortion, and the first spoken line is ‘One November Friday last year an 18 year old Belfast girl took a taxi into town.’ The legal age for adults was reduced from 21 to 18 in 1970, so the presenter had a full nine years to adapt to the change. This is followed by a series of moments within that clip, showing the interchangeable nature of the term. ‘The deft fingers of girls’ are mentioned next, part of a film about factory workers during the second world war, and then the Nobel Prize is awarded with ‘each girl receives a gold medal’ spoken by the presenter. The video ends with what could be perceived as a cynical view of the occasion, ‘Has it simply been a moment of acclaim for two young Belfast girls, or is it really related to the opening chapter in a new beginning?’
Through making this video we found that extracting the language from its original context creates a hyper-awareness and focused amusement that (hopefully) subverts the original. But the whole archive is available to view and we hope this selection leads to further exploration, engagement and analysis, starting with the films included in this project.
Thanks for reading and watching!