The United Nations General Assembly declared 1975 as International Women’s Year. That was considered a milestone back then, as it not only acknowledged women’s issues but also made them a central part of the Organization’s agenda. This decision implied accepting inequalities between men and women, as well as a need to solve them. Agnès Varda portrays the historical journey of French women in this short film.
Agnès Varda and “what does it mean to be a woman?”
That same year, the channel Antenne 2 asked seven women filmmakers to answer the question “What does it mean to be a woman?” in seven minutes. The answer was the key, in the way each one of them would find expressing a shower of diverse and contradictory emotions arising from a question that can be described as unfair as well as complex. Why should women explain what it means to be a woman while men aren’t asked to do so? Agnès Varda finds a way of answering that in her very short documentary, a kind of film brochure: Women Reply: Our bodies, our sex (Réponse de femmes: Notre corps, notre sexe).
The short film is set, ideologically, during the second-wave feminist movement, which began in the 1960s and ended at the end of the 1980s. This feminism addressed issues such as sexuality, the family structure and women’s mandates; free access to education and the different professions, and abortion rights. Agnès Varda’s short film follows the abortion legalization campaign in France, as well as the publication of the Manifesto of the 343 (Manifeste des 343, 1971), written by Simone de Beauvoir.
In this declaration, the 343 signatories affirmed they had an abortion and that they were exposed to criminal procedures that could put them behind bars as a consequence. Some of these women even demanded a free and available abortion. This declaration contributed to the adoption of the Veil Law in 1974, which decriminalized the voluntary termination of a pregnancy.
Agnès Varda’s short film arises in a context where women were fighting for being heard and feminism was thriving. Women turned to protests, marches and strikes to fight for their rights; and for those who were artists, art was just another way of expressing their discontent.
Agnès Varda, film as feminism’s defense mechanism
Agnès Varda was the central female figure—and maybe the only remembered one up until now—of the Nouvelle Vague. She also was important in the feminist films, the ones made by women. Those days, she forged a name for herself in the “canon” dominated by men directors and filmmakers, who were very well recognized by critics and in the filmmaking industry back then. Therefore, women filmmakers were neglected, hidden in the folds of a canon that didn’t accept women.
In Varda’s short film, the first woman who answers this question is naked. She stares into the camera while saying, “I’m more than men’s desires. I’m more than sex and breasts”.
Women aren’t only bodies shaped to men’s desires. Being a woman is also, as it’s said later in the short film—having a woman’s mind, “a mind that thinks differently than that of a man.” The camera goes on and does a close-up on each of the actresses in the film, highlighting that idea. Being a woman is, simply, thinking differently than men, having other ideas and using different expressions.
Then, the short film becomes a bit more sarcastic: the women repeat each one of the attributes and features that men expect of them, and how they see and describe them. Exotic, desirable, and mysterious, they have to be ready to satisfy fantasies and desires. Besides, they have to stand out, because they’re all supposedly the same: “annoying, shallow, nosy, whores, bitches”. By repeating those ideas out loud, those women wink at each other and laugh at how absurd this proposition is.
Another issue that women are still fighting for, even today, also appears in the short film: motherhood. Do all women want to be mothers? One says yes, another, no. Then, you can hear a man’s voice-over repeating all the discourses that make up society’s mandates and rules, the family demands that we women know so well:
Give us sons, soldiers, workers, scientists. Give us daughters, cooks, hard workers, and mothers. Women are made to have children! A woman that’s not a mother isn’t a true woman.
The man complains and rejects the group of women that’s on camera. They respond by referring to the double standard, paternity’s unchangeable statute and their (inexistent) relationship to what’s like “being a man”.
The ruthless mandate of motherhood was questioned even at that time, a mandate that overlooks individual identities underestimates the body and just treats it as a mere tool for a definite end: reproduction.
You can’t make a feminist short film, one that’s about women and their experience in a man’s world, without emphasizing an issue such as motherhood. A must, an unchangeable obligation. Age, one’s own desires, and personality don’t matter. What that man says in the short film is exactly what society demands from us. A woman that’s not a mother isn’t a true woman; without that experience, in the eyes of the community, a woman is deemed incomplete.
“How can they dare to decide if we’re women or not? How are we outside the male opinion?”, they wonder in the short film. That opinion is deemed universal, totalitarian, and accurate. It finds support in macho patriarchal stereotypes and mandates that try to put a woman in her place, in which she must remain silent, give in to men’s desires and be the object of their fantasies, a mere commodity.
Women have always been required to be and have a certain surreal weight and body shape, and they also aren’t allowed to age. However, their requirements often contradict each other: on the one hand, women have to hide their bodies, they can’t show too much of it if they want to be perceived as pure and respectable. On the other hand, women have to show their bodies too much, they have to exploit it so that it can be sold in a cruel, brutal and inhuman market. We can see several ads from back then in the short film, one of them is a furniture ad, and next to it, a naked woman.
At the same time, the “beautiful” curves of both the piece of furniture and the woman are advertised: “I don’t like that I have to exploit my body just for sales. I’m just a piece of meat offered for men’s desire”, state the actresses in the short film.
At another point, they also state that they don’t pose naked for free in the movie.
No, it’s not for free, and it’s also not to satisfy men’s desires. It’s a decision that’s directly linked to the question posed at the beginning: What does it mean to be a woman? Well, being a woman means everything that’s said in the short film and much more.
It means possessing our own bodies, with a head full of different ideas and thoughts, separate from those of men. It’s being conscious of the social and cultural burden that we must carry and, ideally, eradicate, remove from the public imagination, and deconstruct it. If women are living in constant deterritorialization, it is because they aren’t allowed to be comfortable in their bodies. They must keep them in shape as if they were objects and not a central part of their being.
Being a woman means living in a body pierced by stereotypes, mandates and desires, yet, still being able to call it our own. Reaffirm it, so that we can progress from there. No, they’re not naked for free: their nakedness suggests another point of view, one that’s not male-dominated. “I can’t bear to be loved by misogynists anymore”, says one of them. The women in the short film—and so many others—can’t take it anymore. They don’t need to be the focus of men’s desires to feel complete, and they’re not ashamed of being a woman.
The short film addresses all these issues, and, as it progresses, it does so in several tones: anger, irony, sarcasm, and indignation. Each of these forms of expression is supported by dialogue, by the answers given to those questions. Watching it today, many years later, the ideas formulated in the short film are still relevant, which tells us two things: maybe it was something revolutionary back then, but the fact that it still seems current means that we haven’t progressed much, there’s still a long way to go.
Men have to change their habits and—in connection to that change—love and emotional and sexual relationships also must mutate into something more inclusive and less male-dominated. It’s a long process, and the journey has been patchy and has fluctuated back and forth, but being in the centre of the transformation spectrum is the key. Being conscious of how crucial acting as a driving force for change for women is. One of the final sentences in Women Reply: Our bodies, our sex, sums up this idea in a fantastic way: “We are in charge of our own evolution”.