Sexism in the Films of Jean-Luc Godard
By Dan Morey
A conversation is needed. A freewheeling debate. So I give you M and F, two critics who will examine gender depiction in Godard’s films. Critic F will argue that a deep-rooted sexism underlies much of the director’s output, while critic M will attempt to prove that Godard is sympathetic to the feminist cause.
F: Well, here we are again.
M: Yes, here we are. Can I ask a question?
F: Of course.
M: I’d like to know why you always get to speak first.
F: Because you wouldn’t know how to begin.
M: I’m sure I could come up with something better than “Here we are again.”
F: Not likely.
F: Because I’m looking at you, and my gaze exacerbates your castration anxiety. In this state, it’s doubtful you could produce a suitable opening line of dialogue.
M: That’s very Freudian of you.
F: It’s sarcasm. I’m using your own phallocentric terminology to explain your dialogic inadequacy.
M: I wish you’d stop saying “dialogue.” We’re having a conversation here. You make it sound like we’re characters in a play. Like we’re waiting for Godot or something.
F: I’m not waiting for Godot. I’m waiting for Godard.
M: Fine. Let’s begin.
F: In 1963 Godard contributed a short film titled Montparnasse-Levallois to Six in Paris, a compilation of French New Wave shorts. In it we see his misogyny laid bare.
M: A young woman sends letters to two boyfriends, and then thinks she’s mixed them up.
F: Yes. So she rushes to each of the boyfriends and tries to convince them not to read the letters, revealing her double-dealing. She offers sex to both as a form of apology, but they browbeat her with epithets like “slut” and “tramp,” and throw her into the street. By cheating, she has emasculated them. The only way they can reassert their authority—and that of the patriarchy—is to punish her.
M: Isn’t that Godard’s point? Isn’t he exposing the subordinate position of the female in patriarchal society?
F: Godard never allows us to empathize with the woman. She’s self-involved and vain, primping in any available mirror. She’s also a double-crossing liar—a recurring type in Godard’s sexist oeuvre.
M: In one of Godard’s earliest short films, All Boys Are Named Patrick (1957), it’s the male who’s the two-timer, making dates with two girls, who are, unbeknownst to him, roommates. When the roommates see him entering a car with yet another girl, his game is up. But it’s only a temporary setback. Because of his sex, the boy is free to carouse as much as he likes. This is not an option for the girls, who are oblivious to the male privilege that oppresses them. By having the roommates walk away grinning and unaffected by their encounter with Patrick, Godard is tacitly affirming the correctness of this model.
F: I couldn’t agree more. It’s a very sexist film.
M: Yet you chafe at Montparnasse-Levallois, where the situation is reversed in the female’s favor. The way the woman repeats the same phony declarations of love to each of her boyfriends parallels Patrick’s pickup routine in All Boys Are Named Patrick. She’s liberated, and enjoys herself by pursuing multiple partners. This is progress on Godard’s part.
F: The girl in Montparnasse-Levallois is just as clueless as the roommates in Patrick. She offers her body in an attempt to retain male companionship, not out of her own desire. Ultimately, the male is still in control. Sexual liberation is just a smokescreen.
M: Don’t you think Godard evolves at all in his view of women?
F: Anna Karina, Godard’s wife and first regular leading lady, made her debut in 1960’s The Little Soldier. Early in the film, Karina is shown fussing with her hair in a mirror, one of Godard’s favorite methods of depicting vanity in women. Later, she’s fully objectified by the male protagonist, who uses her as a photographic model. One of his observations is that “Women should never get older than twenty-five.”
1963’s Contempt, with Brigitte Bardot in Karina’s usual role, is a thinly veiled portrait of Karina and Godard’s crumbling marriage. Michel Piccoli, playing the husband, wears Godard’s own hat, while Bardot dons a brunette Karina wig during a number of scenes.
Anne Wiazemsky became Godard’s next wife and leading lady. She was sixteen years younger than him and fit the mold of his fetishized physical ideal. Of course, he eventually discards Wiazemsky as well.
M: I don’t understand what you mean by “fetishized.” Women in Godard’s films have always seemed very natural to me. Unadorned. Something like figures of anti-fetish.
F: That’s because Godard’s ideal is the child-woman. Naturally a gamine wouldn’t be decked out in glamorous clothes or jewelry; she’d dress in the manner of a young girl. Remember Karina’s childish sailor suit in A Woman is a Woman (1961)? Or Jean Seberg and her teddy bear in Breathless?
Godard likes hair short and girlish; he prefers breasts to be pert rather than pendulous; he’s obsessed with eyes that are big and dark. These are prominent features of many of his leading ladies: Johanna Shimkus, Chantal Goya, Macha Meril, Marilu Tolo, Myriem Roussel, right up to Héloïse Godet in 2014’s Goodbye to Language. In Tout va bien (1972), Jane Fonda appears with the Karina coif, just as Bardot had in Contempt. Godard creates a constant stream of fetishized women in his art. What’s in that flask?
F: You’re drinking?
M: Of course.
F: Studies show that most alcoholics have their first sexual intercourse quite late and then only infrequently.
M: Very droll. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to get back to Godard. We haven’t discussed Masculine Feminine (1966) yet. The protagonist, Paul, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, is a masochist.
F: You could say that. He follows Chantal Goya’s character (Madeleine) around like a puppy for most of the movie, enduring her repeated rejections, her indifference, and her sexual teasing. He begins to ask her for a date soon after they meet, at first casually and then insistently. When she asks him why he wants to go out with her, he says, “I like your kind of breasts.” You can almost hear Godard speaking the line himself. Goya is, of course, another Karina type with matching fetish parts. There’s one scene in Masculine Feminine I’d like to look at in detail.
M: Please do.
F: It takes place in a washroom. Paul reminds Madeleine that she’s promised to go out on a date with him. Madeleine denies it. He calls her a liar and she smiles, telling him that she never lies. Except sometimes, to him. She continues to tease him in this manner, all the while performing her toilet. She combs her hair, powders her face and applies lipstick.
Godard, again, gives us a portrait of a woman as a vain narcissist. Madeleine is another image-conscious airhead, who only feigns interest in politics and intellectual matters. She sings yé-yé pop, and is trendy and shallow. She is, according to the film’s most famous line, a child of “Marx and Coca-Cola—” an Americanized consumerist occasionally striking a pseudo-revolutionary pose.
This is true of all the young women in Masculine Feminine. If they aren’t poseurs, they’re just plain ignorant. When Paul interviews a woman on behalf of the French Institute of Public Opinion, he asks, “Can you tell me at this moment where there’s a war going on in the world?” She answers, “No. I don’t know.” This is 1966, as American forces pour into Vietnam.
To return to the scene: Paul wants to know why Madeleine won’t go out with him. Their dialogue (Paul off-screen) follows:
PAUL: And if I take you out, are you afraid I might make a pass at you?
MADELEINE: (looking up, smiling) Yes maybe.
PAUL: Why are you afraid that I might make a pass at you?
(She smiles, about to speak)
PAUL: I think you’re very pretty.
(She looks up, tossing her hair)
MADELEINE: Mostly that embarrasses me. (She looks down)
PAUL: I like your breasts very much.
(She continues laughing)
PAUL: Listen, that matters.
(She looks down, smiling.)
PAUL: Look me in the eyes.
(She does so, smiling)
PAUL: What are you thinking about right now while you’re looking at me?
(She looks down)
PAUL: Look at me.
MADELEINE: Okay. (Looking at him) Nothing.
(She smiles and looks away again.)
PAUL: What, nothing? You always have to be thinking something. People are always
thinking of something: now, when you look at me.
MADELEINE: I am looking at you.
PAUL: But what are you thinking?
MADELEINE: Ah, well…
Madeleine changes the subject, asking Paul what he believes is the center of the world. Paul is surprised, and, after some prodding, answers, “Love.” Madeleine finds this funny and says that she would’ve answered, “Me.” So what is this scene telling us about Godard’s view of women? Are you listening?
F: Are you getting drunk?
M: No, just sublimating my sexual tension.
F: Sublimate away. As I was saying, there’s a lot going on in this scene. Right off, we have the objectifying talk about breasts. This shouldn’t be surprising considering what we already know about Godard’s fetishes.
Then there are the lines about Madeleine thinking nothing when she looks into Paul’s eyes—another of Godard’s vapid and soulless females. We see her primping in the mirror, an object to be seen and admired. This is why she has such trouble looking at Paul: her role is to be seen, not to see. When she does look at him, he’s met with blankness. Pauline Kael wrote in The New Republic: “There is nothing behind [Madeleine’s] eyes. Chantal Goya’s face is haunting just because it’s so empty: she doesn’t look back. Her face becomes alive only when she’s looking in the mirror, toying with her hair.”
Madeleine and Paul do finally become a couple, but the relationship is strained from the start. There are hints of a lesbian attraction between Madeleine and her anti-male friend Elisabeth. At the end of the film, the story of Paul’s demise is told in a series of police interviews with the bored women. They claim that Paul simply fell out of a window, but implications abound. Did he commit suicide because Madeleine never requited his love? Did Elisabeth, in a fit of jealously, shove him out the window? Did the other girls cover up the murder? We don’t know, but we are left with the feeling that poor Paul has been mistreated by these selfish, uncaring women.
It’s the same feeling we get at the end of Breathless when Jean Seberg betrays Jean-Paul Belmondo to the police, causing his death. Or in Pierrot le Fou (1965) when Anna Karina double-crosses Belmondo. There are many instances of women betraying men in Godard’s misogynist films.
I should also point out that Madeleine is pregnant at the time of Paul’s death in Masculine Feminine. When the police officer asks her what she intends to do, she answers that “Elisabeth talked to me about curtain rods.” Now that Paul is gone, she intends to do away with every remnant of him; the man is robbed even of his progeny.
M: What about Godard’s reversal of stereotypical gender roles? Madeleine plays the indifferent, casual lover, while Paul is emotional and clingy.
F: Again, this is sexual liberation as smokescreen. When given the freedom to casually select lovers, Madeleine behaves badly, exposing the selfishness and vanity at her core.
M: It’s still an advancement. Previously, only men were allowed to be self-centered. Could we go back to Brigitte Bardot in Contempt?
F: Be my guest.
M: There are moments in Contempt when Godard is obviously critical of the representation of women in film. Bardot’s nude scenes were included at the insistence of the producers; Godard showed his disapproval by only shooting her posterior. Later in the film, as Yosefa Loshitzky points out in The Radical Faces of Godard and Bertolucci (Wayne State University Press, 1995), he inserts a scene that subverts this exploitation of the woman’s body.
Michel Piccoli and Bardot are sitting on the deck of a ship where three young actresses are preparing for a film shoot. “They’re going to get undressed?” asks Piccoli. Bardot answers: “Naturally.” Piccoli says: “There’s nothing like the movies. Usually when you see women they’re dressed, but put them in a movie and you see their backsides.” Godard is criticizing the sexism of the film industry as well as the producers who financed him.
F: But there’s more to it. Godard does refuse to show us Bardot in full frontal, but by posing her rump-up he imbues her with a babyish quality. Again, the child-woman fetish. It also relates to the theme of anality that Godard uses in various ways.
M: Frequently as a metaphor for capitalism. Loshitzky writes about the scene in Contempt where the film producer, played by Jack Palance, signs a check on his female assistant’s ass: “As much as it is a total degradation of the image of woman, it…also…symbolize[s] the exchange value of women’s sexuality within the economic system of the cinema industry.”
F: But the image is still degrading. The pretense of social criticism disguises Godard’s misogyny, but does not excuse it. In Weekend (1967) we see a woman made to spread her legs on the road while hitchhiking, another forced to strip, and yet another, completely nude, painted like a canvas by her male captor.
In A Married Woman (1964) women are demeaned to illustrate the shortcomings of bourgeois culture. The wife is portrayed as useless, unfaithful and vain.
M: You’re not placing enough importance on Godard’s social critiques. The wife in A Married Woman is vain and image-obsessed because of the consumer culture that oppresses her. She’s surrounded by advertising.
F: It’s all very ambiguous, though. Too ambiguous from a feminist perspective. Loshitzky also says that “… the delicate line in these films, between criticism and humiliation…is unclear.”
M: Isn’t that the case with most art? We come to art to examine our beliefs, just as the artist questions his own.
F: Some things, by now, should be beyond questioning. The subjugation of women for one.
M: By depicting and studying this subjugation Godard is able to criticize it.
F: Or revel in it.
M: What about Number Two (1975)? I’m thinking particularly of his representation of female sexuality. The grandmother in Number Two is a sexual being. She’s even shot in the nude. This in itself is subversive to the traditions of cinema, where old women are rarely sexualized without the implication of abnormality.
F: Yes, but this grandmother is a marginalized figure. She doesn’t interact with the rest of the family, thus reinforcing her freakishness, which could be read as a condemnation of her sexuality. I’ll agree, though, that any depiction of a sexual older woman is a mark of progress.
M: And I’ll agree about the marginalization. The grandmother and the mother are shown most often either in the bedroom or the kitchen—the traditional realm of women in the patriarchy. Godard understands this and is objecting to it. Loshitzky says, “To represent this degradation Godard… juxtaposes images of women’s subordination [women doing kitchen work] with a progressive feminist text [Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch]. The sound of emancipation accompanies the image of oppression.” Godard shows us injustice and offers an alternative in the form of Greer’s feminism.
F: But at the same time he gives us his standard portrait of woman as narcissist. The grandmother describes woman sarcastically as the “masterpiece of this world,” and delivers an invective against female vanity, which suggests that women are to blame for their oppressed positions in society. They are naturally narcissistic and fetishistic and given to think of themselves as objects. It’s the same version of woman than crops up throughout Godard’s films—all those girls preening before mirrors, applying make-up and fixing their hair.
M: Godard makes it clear throughout his filmography that consumerism and advertising are the controlling forces behind this vanity. Think of all the scenes in which women are shown leafing through underwear ads, or standing in front of posters promoting beauty products.
F: There is no such visual criticism present during the grandmother’s diatribe in Number Two. And I would say Godard’s continuous representation of women as narcissists does more harm by reinforcing the gender stereotype than it does good in attacking the advertising establishment.
M: Let’s backtrack. What if Godard is saying in the grandmother’s monologue that women are responsible for their own oppression? Why couldn’t this be true? The relationship between masculine and feminine is complex. Kaja Silverman writes in Speaking About Godard (New York University Press, 1998): “It is part of the film’s deconstruction of binary opposition to remind us that women can be complicit in their oppression…Number Two works very hard in this scene to prevent the easy characterization of women as victims, and men as their victimizers.”
F: But there’s also a scene in which the husband punishes his wife’s infidelity by sodomizing her. There are countless examples of men physically abusing women in Godard’s work, often because the women have inflicted emotional damage on them. Godard’s latest film, Goodbye to Language, features a violent struggle between a man and a woman in a shower.
M: Godard is studying the problem of female oppression from every possible direction; he’s refusing to make one-sided propaganda. You seem to wish that he was less rigorous in his dissection of the issue, but I can’t imagine that someone as acute as yourself would want to watch propaganda, feminist or otherwise.
F: I’m not suggesting that Godard make propaganda. I’m merely trying to point out the sexist tendencies of a man who is sometimes mistakenly thought of as a feminist filmmaker.
M: Maybe it’s not a question of “either this or that,” but a question of “this and that.” The feminine doesn’t clash with the masculine, but simply coexists.
F: There’s definitely opposition in Godard’s work. He’s just not sure which side he’s on. Or, rather, he thinks he’s on the side of feminism, but his unconscious, as well as his sociological conditioning, put him quite plainly in the camp of the patriarchy.
It’s like those pornographic depictions of women he put in Every Man for Himself (1980). Are these images meant to expose the degrading use of women’s bodies in film, or are they just another instance of a male artist inserting nude, subordinate women into his art for the sake of his own (and his male spectator’s) gratification? A question like this could be debated endlessly, like a dog chasing its tail.
M: Perhaps we aren’t using the correct terminology. By putting the masculine and feminine into dialectic opposition aren’t we implying that one or the other must be overcome? That’s a very combative view.
F: Feminists struggle against the patriarchal order. Some, I’m sure, hope to achieve a successful revolution in the Marxist sense, while most, myself included, seek a Hegelian synthesis. After the clash, I want unity.
M: And I think there are glimpses of this unity in Godard’s films.
F: Unity? In Godard? I see plenty of warfare in Godard, but no unity.
M: What about New Wave (1990)? The film focuses on Elena (Domiziana Giordana), a wealthy corporation head. She’s mature and controlling, the opposite of a child-woman. The plot begins when Elena stops her car to aid a hitchhiker (Alain Delon) who’s fallen at the side of the road. As she helps him, Godard shoots a close-up of their joined hands.
The drifter, Roger Lennox, and Elena become unlikely companions. He moves into her estate on Lake Geneva, and assumes a subservient position. In one scene, he bends over so Elena can use him as a footrest. She manages the relationship the way she does her business, by keeping the upper hand. And hands are important in New Wave. Later, as they’re boating on the lake, Elena pulls Roger into the water knowing he can’t swim. As he goes under, she watches his hand waving for help, and does nothing.
After Roger’s assumed death, his brother shows up and blackmails his way into the position of CEO at Elena’s company. He looks exactly like Roger, but is aggressive and charismatic. Elena begins to fawn on him, and soon assumes the slave-like position Roger held earlier with her. Once again, they wind up in a boat on Lake Geneva, and now it seems as if the CEO isn’t Lennox’s brother, but Lennox himself. This time Elena is thrown flailing into the water. When her struggling hand is extended, Lennox takes it and saves her.
Harun Farocki writes in Speaking About Godard that “Lennox reaches out and grabs the hand that appeals for help. As in the accident scene…a pure gift is given.” And Kaja Silverman: “It even makes it possible for them to transcend the roles of master and slave, donor and recipient.”
With these two “pure gifts” (Elena helping Lennox after the road accident, and Lennox helping Elena on the lake) relations between man and woman finally rise above the economic context. They are on equal ground at last, and this is not achieved through warfare (by one defeating the other), but through the concept of mutual giving.
F: Yes, but in the final scene, just before they drive off together, Elena bends down and ties Lennox’s shoes. Isn’t this a return to the master/slave arrangement? Was Lennox’s rescue a “pure gift,” or just another way for him to gain power over Elena?
M: Her gesture is ironic. They’re playing. The tying marks the end of warfare and the beginning of reciprocal love. As they get into the car, Elena says she’ll drive. Yet, as Farocki points out, “After announcing that she will lead, Elena surprisingly gets into the passenger seat, leaving the driver’s seat for Lennox.” She could have taken charge, and Lennox would have let her, but she chooses not to.
F: The fact remains that the film ends with two images of a woman yielding to a man.
M: You’re being too literal. You don’t see the play. The war is over.
F: Yes, and women have lost.
Kael, Pauline. “Masculine Feminine.” The New Republic. November 19, 1966.
Godard, Jean-Luc. Masculine Feminine (a film). New York: Grove Press, 1969.
Loshitzky, Yosefa. The Radical Faces of Godard and Bertolucci. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995.
Silverman, Kaja and Farocki, Harun. Speaking About Godard. New York and London: New York University Press, 1998.