Professor Melinda Barlow talks boobs in film history and Jayne Mansfield's genius IQ
Since Feminism & Co.'s inception, Melinda Barlow has a been a favored speaker at the MCA Denver's engaging spring series. An associate professor of film studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Barlow is also a well-versed film and video historian and curator who focuses on contemporary women filmmakers. And for tonight's edition, which has the theme of boobs, she'll discuss Hollywood's portrayal of breasts in film and the connections between Playboy's first issue and the release of the Kinsey Report's Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, among other things.
In advance of this evening's proceedings, we talked with Barlow about Marilyn Monroe's subtly smart performances and Jayne Mansfield's voluptuous IQ.
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Westword: You'll be speaking at Feminism & Co. on the role of breasts and cleavage in film. Can you tell me a little about yourself in relation to this evening's topic?
Melinda Barlow: I am one of Feminism & Co.'s biggest fans; the pre-history is that Elissa (Auther) and Gillian (Sliverman, co-curators) have invited me to be a part of the program for many years. I've spoken on the topic of women and work, I did a talk called "Bitch," I did one on witches in film, and then I did one on polyamory.
I teach women and film, and I've taught it since I've been at the University of Colorado [at Boulder] since 1996. I never taught it as a Ph.D. student, but I always wanted to teach it because I work on independent, experimental contemporary women film- and videomakers and installation artists. I've done a lot of research on Mary Lucier, who is a video pioneer; I've edited a book on her work, and my dissertation was on her. I've also done a lot of work on experimental filmmaker Janie Geiser, who is a puppeteer and works in miniature theater and teaches at CalArts. So this is an interest of mine.
There is a show I curated at CU with the just-having-departed director Lisa Becker, Primal Seen: Selections From the CU Art Museum's Collection of Photograpy From the 19th century to the Present. It's on women and photography, and it's up until June 22. This is a wide-ranging interest for me, and because I've taught the course -- which is on the core requirements for CU -- it means I have one-third film majors and a lot of people who are math and science majors who are surprised by what they learn.
So I think a lot about the representation of women in film and work by women; what happens when Hollywood represents the female body one way and what the history of that is. What happens when the director is a woman -- does that make any difference? The old feminist question: Should we even ask that question anymore? That whole kind of thing.
Sometimes it does make a difference. In, say, experimental works by women who are directly concerned with the representation of the female body or the intersexed body or the otherwise gendered body. I'm showing Paris Is Burning with some of Sadie Benning's early videos and the photographs of Cindy Sherman; I'm thinking about identity as drag and all of its aspects.
This is something I think about because, quite honestly, I have to deal with reactions to large breasts on screen all the time. How do you have a conversation when that's in the room on 35mm in the dark and larger than life? And there are young women and people of all sexual orientations who also want to engage in a conversation that is not limited to what people will, even in a classroom, shriek out about?
That's a great point: How do you get past that initial reaction of breasts on a screen and into an intelligent conversation about it?
Let me tell you -- I'm rifling through these images and thinking, how many images of big tits can I show? And what am I going to say about them? What's the point? It's an interesting question. I think I had about 200 slides on that PowerPoint, and I'm now down to fifty.