Feminists: What Were They Thinking?

Movie review by
Renee Schonfeld, Common Sense Media
Feminists: What Were They Thinking? Movie Poster Image
Affecting docu about 1970s feminism; nude photos, language.
  • NR
  • 2018
  • 86 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Encourages active participation in cultural change. Promotes: persistence, risk-taking, teamwork, open communication, nonviolent protest, standing up for oneself. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Multigenerational women are shown standing up for basic human rights, taking responsibility for themselves, asserting their social, economic, and political equality. Ethnic, gender, and age diversity.

Violence

Archival photographs show hospitalized burn victims following atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

Sex

Photographs from 1970s include female nudity (breasts and full-frontal). Discussions of lesbianism, gay rights, abortion.

Language

Occasional profanity and descriptions include: "p---y," "t-ts," "hell," "clitoris," "c--k." A humorous skit finds an exaggerated penis talking to an exaggerated vagina.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Feminists: What Were They Thinking? is a documentary that takes an appreciative look back at the wave of feminism that produced significant social change in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition, filmmaker Johanna Demetrakas focuses her camera on younger women who are currently demonstrating that for women, the struggle to achieve social, economic, and political equality is an ongoing movement. Cynthia MacAdams' book Feminist Portraits 1974-1977 provides both content and structure for the movie. Groundbreaking when it was published in 1977, the book is filled with photographs of women (including some showing female breasts and full-frontal nudity) on the brink of self-discovery and finding their power. Demetrakas finds and interviews a number of these women as they are now, decades later, attesting to how they moved forward and what they did (or didn't) accomplish. Occasional profanity is heard, including "p---y," "t-ts," "hell," and "c--k." Candid discussions about reproductive rights, gay rights, and female sexuality are part of the fabric of the movie. One humorous skit shows an exaggerated penis talking to an exaggerated vagina. A few disturbing archival photographs show Japanese victims of the atomic bomb in a hospital setting. Created with grace, humor, and integrity, the film is fine for mature teens.

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What's the story?

FEMINISTS: WHAT WERE THEY THINKING? takes its viewers back to a dynamic moment in the history of American women. Along with the continuing civil rights movement, the turbulent anti-war demonstrations, and Watergate, women were changing in the 1960s and 1970s. Traditional female roles were being questioned. Women began entering the workplace in vast numbers. Girls were being encouraged to pursue careers. They were asserting their rights as individuals, not as accessories to the men they married. Cynthia MacAdams' iconic 1977 book of photographs -- Feminist Portraits 1974-1977 -- is the impetus for Johanna Demetrakas' movie. Demetrakas uses pictures from the book, film clips, and archival news footage to augment her interviews with some of the women who were featured in the book. Among them are: Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, cutting-edge artist Judy Chicago, writer-professor Phyllis Chesler, and an intriguing collection of women who are still with us and can share their stories. Demetrakas also enlists younger women to provide an updated look at ongoing struggles: new ones, battles that they thought ended decades ago, and some that seem never to be won. 

Is it any good?

Although "feminist" is a loaded tag -- shunned by many (even women), claimed joyfully by others -- this absorbing film delights in the term as it centers on women who were there in the 1970s. Johanna Demetrakas uses every frame of this 86-minute film to bring this "second wave of feminism" (the first being the early fight for the right to vote) to life. It's not nearly long enough; the issues are legion and the viewpoints infinite, but what it lacks in depth, it makes up for with spirit, insight, and humor. Even the most objectified of women, the most victimized among them, manage to find the bright side of those years. Because in spite of the scars they carry, they won.

Surprising to some may be the struggles of women of color, whose specific challenges at the time seem to have been sacrificed for what the leaders of the movement thought was "the greater good." Demetrakas' portraits of young women and the probable "third wave" of the movement along with #MeToo and #TimesUp add considerable heft to the relevance of Feminists: What Were They Thinking? Recommended both for those who lived during the period and for those who will be enlightened by it.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the various purposes of documentaries: to entertain, inform, inspire, and persuade. Which category(ies) best describes Feminists: What Were They Thinking? Why?

  • How far do you believe women have come since 1977, when Cynthia MacAdams' portrait book was published? Give some examples of ways that our culture has changed. In light of current events (e.g., #MeToo and #TimesUp movements), do you believe there's still more progress to be made? Give some examples of ways in which our culture still needs to improve for women and girls.

  • What does Jane Fonda mean when she says, "I've only known for 10 years that 'No' is a complete sentence?" Why is it important for women and girls to understand this statement? 

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