Film, Power Structures and #transformDH

In What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities Miriam Posner outlines some of the ideas on how digital humanities might investigate structures of power, focusing on race and gender. While there is evidence that there is being work done in this direction, she argues that “a dismantling …and rebuilding of the organizing logic is necessary.” It is Posner’s view that we must start recognizing that traditional boundaries such as gender and race are constructions, they have a history and were actively created. They are thus fluid, and may be subject to deconstruction.

#transformdh is about a process of change. It brings into question the framework of digital humanities, and asks: Who is considered in its boundaries of work and how are they represented? Race, gender, sexuality and structures of power are all subject to examination.

Moya Z. Bailey, in All the Digital Humanists are…., broaches the manner in which “identities (that) inform theory and practice in digital humanities have been largely overlooked” and says that by “centering the lives of women, people of colour and disabled folks, the types of possible conversations in digital humanities shift…In re-imagining what counts as digital humanities, we can draw on the wisdom of scholars who have addressed related issues in their own fields of study.” Bailey asserts that there is still a need to challenge the “add and stir” model of diversity and assume that this is sufficient to change “current paradigms.” She rightfully acknowledges that this model does not address the overall structure or encourage any foundational change.

In the afore mentioned article, Posner introduces the work of feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, whose cinematic work Riddles of the Sphinx serves to demonstrate how the entire structure of film is a construct, and how inequality is written into this structure so inherently that we do not have cause to question it. And as we see how Mulvey dismantled this film and in doing so demonstrated the flaws inherent in the cinematic structure overall, we can see how our social construct may also be subject to the same examination.

Posner asserts “We can do what we know how to do: visualize datasets that we inherit from governments, corporations, and cultural institutions, using tools that we have borrowed from corporations. Or we can scrutinize data, rip it apart, rebuild it, reimagine it, and perhaps build something entirely different and weirder and more ambitious.” (“What’s Next”)

Upon revisiting director Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank this year, I saw many of Mulvey’s theories from Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema reflected in its construct and feel it expounds upon particular calls towards the upheaval of traditional values I have read in my encounters with #transformdh and the views of Miriam Posner.

Fish Tank upends traditional filmic theory and confronts the notion of the male gaze and traditional power structures as elaborated by Mulvey.  Mulvey argues that film is bound to a patriarchal structure where women are tied to desire. According to Mulvey, traditional cinema offers voyeuristic, visual pleasure for the cinema goer, subjugating the female. Fish Tank integrates Mulvey’s theories into her work in several ways.

Firstly, it is shot in an almost documentary style. The editing is simple, the timeline is strictly chronological, and there is no interference on behalf of the camera in the action on the screen. The construct of cinema is removed and the audience is placed immediately at edge. This mode places the viewer as co-conspirator, an active role is adopted. The audience traditionally derives pleasure in their guise as ‘invisible guest’ in cinema and Arnold harshly whips away this comfort.

Mia, the female protagonist, is not an image to be ‘looked at,’ she is in control. At one point, she quite literally gazes at a recording of her mother’s partner through the lens of a camcorder. There are several more scenes throughout where this manner of framing is evident.

 The characters’ interactions throughout the screening are also worth remark. From the moment the object of Mia’s attention appears onscreen, he is framed through her eyes. There is no doubt in who controls their personal narrative. There are many shots throughout where he is broken into a tableau of body parts, breaking with the traditional portrayal of entire body of the male in film. In a shot where he puts a ‘sleeping’ Mia to bed, we see her eyes open, aware of his every movement and action. Her perspective is ever dominant.

Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (2006) builds further on this depiction of a strong female viewpoint, where the female protagonist is placed in the role of surveillance agent in her small town. She is literally and figuratively in control of proceedings from her watch room.

Also worth mentioning is Andrea Arnold’s more general casting brief, which draws largely from non-actors from the area specific to that which she is depicting. Out of the fifteen main actors in her 2016 film American Honey, eleven are non-actors. Posner emphasizes “…we cannot capture these experiences without the contributions of the people whose lives we are claiming to represent. So it is incumbent on all of us (but particularly those of us who have platforms) to push for the inclusion of underrepresented communities in digital humanities work, because it will make all of our work stronger and sounder.” (What’s Next”)

Arnold’s works display the manner in which it is possible to break down structure and specific power arrangements and re-present an alternative way of viewing what we have taken to assume as norm. Posner is of the opinion that digital humanities is “the use of digital technologies to investigate humanities questions.” (“Digital Humanities”) In “What’s Next” she adds “we seem happy to flatten the world into known data structures and visualizations that might easily be reshuffled into a corporate PowerPoint deck…and so what could be more ambitious, more interesting and challenging, than understanding the nature of that power?”

Posner draws attention to the fact that it is so difficult to imagine other modes of representation, should this not ring a warning bell? That these structures seem so indisputable, they must represent great power indeed. It is evident that Posner is calling for a restructuring of these categories that surround us. If we view film as working in the same manner as data does, by taking threads and information and pieces of what we know and reassembling them, then we can see how films such as these serve as optimistic blueprints for change.



Bailey, M. Z. “All the Digital Humanists Are White, All the Nerds are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave.” Journal of Digital Humanities, Vol 1, No 1, Winter 2011. Web. 1 Dec. 2017.

Johnson, Sala.”#DirectedbyWomen Mulvey and Scopophilia in Arnolds ‘Fish Tank'”. Screen queens. 14 Sept. 2016. Web. 1 Dec. 2017.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP,1999: 833-44.

Posner, Miriam. “Digital Humanities and Media Studies: staging an encounter.” Miriam Posner. 8 Mar. 2013. Web. 1 Dec. 2017.

Posner, Miriam. “What’s Next: The Radical Unrealised Potential of Digital Humanities.” dhdebates. (n.d.) Web. 2 Dec. 2017.

Whitehouse, Matthew. “Andrea Arnold: How We Cast ‘American Honey’“. i-D, 17 Oct. 2016. Web. 1 Dec. 2017.