To teach ‘the global’ within the film studies classroom we must commit to a more thorough acknowledgement of, and engagement with, transnational feminist theories and practices. When I introduce the concept of transnational feminism to my students, I explain that it combines theories and goals of postcolonial studies and intersectional feminism.[1] A core method of transnational feminism is to examine interrelations among (anti-)racist, (anti-)colonial, and (anti-)feminist discourses and actions. Precisely because of its postcolonial theoretical inheritance, transnational feminism warns against using ‘women’s rights’ or ‘gay rights’ discourses for racist ends.[2] It maintains that sexism is prevalent in all cultures yet manifests in different ways.[3] It acknowledges that the meanings and experiences of intersectional identities and oppressions shift according to context.[4] And it maintains that women of different cultures may indeed hold different values and desire to live in different ways.[5] We cannot do justice to the project of analyzing and critiquing the power asymmetries inherent to (neo)colonial situations and their representations in media without attending to the unique oppressions faced by women, transgender, and gender-nonconforming postcolonial subjects as well as Black, Arab, indigenous, and other women of color.

In this essay, I explain why educators who want to commit to a critical transnationalism in the film studies classroom should also commit to a feminist-inclusive interdisciplinary pedagogy.[6] I then turn to the ways in which I have successfully attended to transnational feminist issues from various points of entry when teaching the ‘global as local’ by explaining how I pair specific films, readings, and lectures when teaching banlieue cinema—films set in the neocolonial suburbs of big urban centers in France.[7]

In the first issue of the Transnational Cinemas journal, Will Higbee and Song Hwee Lim maintain that a “critical transnationalism” in film studies should attend to questions of (post)coloniality, power dynamics, and neocolonialist practices.[8] Likewise, Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan define the transnational paradigm as emerging largely from postcolonial theories. Giving an illuminating account of their theoretical genealogy, Grewal and Kaplan explain that

the relationship between postcolonial and transnational studies is one of a specific feminist trajectory that has always focused on the inequalities generated by capitalist patriarchies in various eras of globalization. The theories and methodologies of the so-called ‘post-colonial’ critics have enabled us to study transnationality. [...] Emphasis on the history of modern imperialism has helped feminists look at race, sexuality, and class not only as bounded categories but as concepts that ‘travel’—that is, circulate and work in different and linked ways in different places and times. [9] (my emphasis)

Here, Grewal and Kaplan make plain the link between postcolonial studies and transnational studies. This kind of genealogical linkage must be extended to transnational feminist theorists, both in our scholarship and in our teaching.

If the aim of transnational feminist and critical transnational film theories is to attend to asymmetrical power relations, we must consistently remember the importance of gender as a useful category of analysis that interlocks with other social categories.[10] In their introduction to Transnational Feminism in Film and Media, editors Katarzyna Marciniak, Anikó Imre, and Áine O’Healy state, “Feminism, in our understanding, is not a decorative addition or an optional perspective that can be applied to studies of transnational media but an acknowledgement that transnational processes are inherently gendered, sexualized, and racialized. The borders they erase and erect affect different groups differently.”[11] These ideas resonate with the foundational writings of anti-racist feminist pioneers Angela Davis, Cherríe Moraga, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde.[12]

I urge film and media educators who want to contribute to critical transnationalism to commit to interdisciplinarity, dialogue, and engagement with feminist theorists who have produced critical transnational theories before them and who are working alongside them in time—if not (disciplinary) space. This inclusive interdisciplinarity should also feature feminist scholars who theorized transnationality while not calling it such (because they published before the “transnational” turn in the humanities, because their work does not stem from Anglo genealogies, or due to disciplinary terminology), including scholars such as Gloria Anzaldúa, who worked on postcolonial issues and borderland theory in the U.S.-Mexican context.[13]

To demonstrate how a transnational feminist approach works in the classroom, I turn to my experiences teaching banlieue cinema in a variety of courses. I have taught a section on banlieue cinema in many of my classes both because of my background on the genre and its contexts and due to its clear representation of the “global as local.” Many banlieues are transcultural spaces where the U.S. culture industry melds with the African and Muslim cultures of its post-colonial inhabitants. Banlieue films lend themselves to courses in film and media studies, cultural and literary studies, women’s and gender studies, and postcolonial and critical race studies. When teaching the films and their contexts within these various disciplines, I consistently center transnational feminist scholarship.

Thanks to its stunning black and white cinematography and clear anti-racist message, the most critically acclaimed and—I suspect—most commonly taught banlieue film is Mathieu Kassovitz’ La haine (Hate, 1995), which chronicles a day in the life of an inter-ethnic trio of young men after a banlieue “riot” and police violence that leads to the death of a young Arab-French man. When I teach this film, I do so alongside Ginette Vincendeau’s wonderful analysis of the film and its spatial context.[14] More often, I teach it as a precursor to subsequent banlieue films that include teen girl or young women protagonists and that examine the category of gender in their critique of systemic oppression in marginalized neighborhoods.

For example, in my European Cinema course, I end with a two-week module on “Multiculturalism.” La haine and Vincendeau’s article offer students the generic and cultural context for our discussion of Céline Sciamma’s Bande de filles (Girlhood, 2014), which follows an introspective Black French teenage girl in the Parisian banlieue who joins a “girl gang.” I use this as an opportunity to lecture on Kimberlé Crenshaw’s method of intersectionality, which offers a prism through which we can better understand film characters and the social categories they represent in terms of experiences, agency (or lack thereof), and institutionalized systems of oppression (this 3-minute video explaining intersectionality is incredibly helpful for students).[15] We compare characters’ intersectional identities (a.k.a. social locations or subject positions) by beginning with Crenshaw’s original overlapping categories—class, race, and gender—then add Grewal and Kaplan’s categories of ethnicity, religion, nationality, and sexuality, as well as what we might call “post-colonial status” of both films’ main characters. Depending on the primary texts, we might also add age, dis/ability, and other relevant social categories. Together, we discuss how the characters’ intersectional identities impact the situations they are dealt and the choices they make. I then ask students to compare the two banlieue films in terms of form, content, and context, as well as compare their representation of systemic racism to a context more familiar to many of them—the U.S. See this writing assignment, which one can use as an at-home assignment or an in-class exercise that can lead to fruitful small and large group discussions.

Another excellent—and more popular—follow-up to La haine is Houda Benyamina’s Divines (2016), an important film in the genealogy of banlieue cinema because it was directed by a Moroccan-French woman whose sister, Oulaya Amrama, plays the film’s protagonist. I pair this film with Benyamina’s acceptance speech for the Camera d’Or award at Cannes (and translate it for students who don’t speak French) because the director implicitly critiques Cannes as a racist and sexist institution, as well as reveals how passionate she is about women of color being included in Cannes juries. For upper-level classes, I ask students to read Michela Ardizzoni’s useful article on the film, “Feminist Citizenship in the Banlieue.”[16]

Although not a traditional banlieue film, I often assign La journée de la jupe (Skirt Day, Jean-Paul Lilienfeld, 2007) because of its ability to entertain students via its crime genre and polemical message. The film centers on anxiety-ridden Sonia Bergerac (Isabelle Adjani), who teaches middle school students classic French literature in a banlieue school. During an unsuccessful class rehearsal of a Molière play, Bergerac finds a gun in a student’s possession. Retrieving the gun, Bergerac holds her students hostage to call for a national “skirt day,” when all girls and women would be invited to wear skirts to public school without being called a pute (slut). The film makes clear her intention is to silence “religious” students, i.e. Muslim students. Ultimately, Bergerac wishes to teach her students the value of laïcité—a particularly French version of secularism that stems from French Republican universalism, and which was instrumentalized to ban the Islamic headscarf from public schools in France in 2004.[17]

We look at La journée as a metaphor for the headscarf affair, as it never explicitly references the Islamic headscarf, but rather allegorizes the decades-long French media obsession with the gendered piece of cloth via another gendered piece of cloth: the skirt. The “headscarf affair” has shaped society’s vision of neocolonial French banlieues and their inhabitants, which is why is it so important to encourage students to apply a transnational feminist reading to banlieue films. In my Transnational Feminism and Film course, I paired La journée with the “Racism” chapter from Joan W. Scott’s The Politics of the Veil. The book explains that outlawing the headscarf in public schools was an “attempt to enact a particular version of reality, one which insisted on assimilation as the only way for Muslims to become French.”[18] Offering this historical background on the gendered politics of dress in French society helps inform how students engage with and make sense of the film.

In the same class, I also taught La journée alongside excerpts from French materialist feminist Christine Delphy’s book, Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror. Delphy is one of the rare (white) French feminists of the second wave to come out against the anti-headscarf law. In her book, she argues that the most oppressed autres (others) in France—those who do not fit into the mold of the French “abstract universal citizen”—are women, queer people, Arab people, Black people, and Muslims.[19] Her book works to dismantle the interconnected issues of misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, and racism in the French neocolonial context. She explains that, due to French republican universalism’s refusal to acknowledge difference, there is an unspoken racial caste system in France. I supplemented the viewing and readings with a lecture on Nacira Guénif-Souilamas’s untranslated work, in which she explains various Muslim stereotypes in France. These figures include the jolie beurette (pretty little Arab woman), who is perceived as the docile and well-assimilated French Muslim worth “saving” from the “Arab boy,” who is socially constructed by the French media, government, and elites as aggressive, necessarily sexist, and ever-homophobic—as if dominant French culture and government has never been any of these things.[20] In La journée, Bergerac is the “jolie beurette” to her racialized “Arab boy” students—also becoming a “white savior” despite her Muslim roots.[21] French film scholar Geneviève Sellier shows how the film puts “feminism at the service of Islamophobia” by foregrounding the issue of “women’s rights” around questions of perceived Muslim cultural difference.[22] Sellier’s translated article is another well-contextualized and rather accessible reading assignment for students of most levels.

While La journée merely alludes to the headscarf ban—which was again catapulted into public awareness with the infamous burqini (burqa bikini) ban of 2016 in the South of France—Faiza Ambah’s film Mariam (France/Saudia Arabia/U.S./United Arab Emirates, 2016) explicitly narrates a teenage Muslim-French girl’s personal struggle with the anti-headscarf law when it was passed in 2004. The film ends with Mariam—played by Amamra, the star of Divines—unveiling her shaven head to the principal so she can pass through his hallway check point and go to her classroom. Since the Islamic headscarf is often viewed in the West as a way of masking a woman’s sexuality, femininity, and freedom, the true rebellion of Mariam’s final act is not that she has figured out a way to go to school and maintain her religious principles (we are not sure the latter is the case), but that she negates one of the underlying (if unsaid) purposes of the headscarf ban: to uncover the “natural” femininity of the girl/woman so that she may offer it to the public sphere as object of the Orientalist male gaze. Here again, Scott’s chapter on French-specific racism and her “Sexuality” chapter from The Politics of the Veil add accessible context for students of any level, and I supplement the reading with a lecture on French colonialism in North Africa and transnational feminist approaches to the headscarf affair. My upper-level students in courses such as Contemporary African Literature and Film have also benefitted from reading complex cultural-formal analyses of Mariam that take a transnational feminist approach.[23] Because Mariam is only 45 minutes long, it works well as an in-class screening (you and your students may be able to find it via your university or local library’s Kanopy site); and it works just as well in upper-level topics courses as it does in my Introduction to Film Studies course at the end of a section on “the (male/Orientalist) gaze”—I screen it after Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, Agnès Varda, 1961), and Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2016).

To conclude, I reiterate my call for an acknowledgement of transnational feminist scholarship within the global film studies classroom, including transnational feminists who write from disciplinary spaces that do not center media or representation. The insights of transnational feminist scholars of all disciplines are important to make sense of the intersectional, post-colonial dynamics of the “global within the local,” as represented so acutely in banlieue films.[24]

Joy C. Schaefer is senior lecturer of critical media studies at Lawrence Technological University, where she designs and teaches the media communication program’s theory, history, criticism, and writing curriculum. Previously, she was visiting assistant professor of world literature at Grand Valley State University and adjunct instructor of media studies at Fordham University, where she designed and taught the university’s inaugural Queer Studies in Film & TV course. She also taught in the Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Department at Stony Brook University, where she received the Vivien Hartog Best Graduate Instructor Award. Her experience in the master’s program at NYU’s Institute of French Studies informs her work on banlieue cinema.

    1. Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw first theorized the term “intersectionality,” a prism through we can acknowledge and analyze a marginalized person’s multiple, overlapping oppressions (e.g. race, gender, class). See Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1, no. 8 (1989):139–167; and Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1241–1299.

    2. See, for example, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988): 271-313; Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007); Sara R. Farris, In the Name of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017); and Mehammed Amadeus Mack, Sexagon: Muslims, France, and the Sexualization of National Culture (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017).

    3. See, for example, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003); and Lila Abu-Lughod. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

    4. See, for example, Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, “Postcolonial Studies and Transnational Feminist Practices.” Jouvert: A Journal of Postcolonial Studies 5, no. 1 (2000). Accessed Aug. 14, 2021.

    5. See, for example, Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

    6. For a helpful reflection on teaching transnational cinema in feminist studies classes, see Neda Atanasoski, “A Feminist Politics and Ethics of Refusal: Teaching Transnational Cinema in the Feminist Studies Classroom.” In Teaching Transnational Cinema: Politics and Pedagogy, eds. Katarzyna Marciniak and Bruce Bennet (New York: Routledge, 2016): 219-235.

    7. For a pioneering work of contextualized banlieue film analysis, see Carrie Tarr, Reframing Difference: Beur and Banlieue Filmmaking in France (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2005).

    8. Will Higbee and Song Hwee Lim, “Concepts of Transnational Cinema: Towards a Critical Transnationalism in Film Studies.” Transnational Cinemas 1, no. 1 (2010): 7-21.

    9. Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, “Introduction: Transnational Feminist Practices and Questions of Postmodernity.” Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices, eds. Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press 1994), 9. See also Grewal and Kaplan, “Postcolonial Studies and Transnational Feminist Practices.”

    10. Joan Wallach Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.” American Historical Review 91, no. 5 (1986): 1053-1075.

    11. Katarzyna Marciniak, Anikó Imre, and Áine O’Healy. “Introduction.” Transnational Feminism in Film and Media, eds. Katarzyna Marciniak, Anikó Imre, and Áine O’Healy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 1-18.

    12. See, for example, Cherríe Moraga, “La Guëra.” This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2015 [1981]), 22-29; Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race, and Class (New York: Vintage, 2011 [1981]); Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (Berkeley, CA: Crossing, 2007 [1984]); and bell hooks, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (Boston: Southend Press, 1989).

    13. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books, 2012 [1987]).

    14. Ginette Vincendeau, “Designs on the Banlieue.” French Film: Texts and Contexts, eds. Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau (New York: Routledge, 2000), 310-327.

    15. Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins.”

    16. Michela Ardizzoni, “Feminist Citizenship in the Banlieue: Houda Benyamina’s Divines (2016).” Citizenship and Belonging in France and North America, eds. Ramona Mielusel and Simona Emilia Pruteanu (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 135-149.

    17. Joan Wallach Scott, The Politics of the Veil (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).

    18. Scott, The Politics of the Veil, 8; see also Joan Wallach Scott, “Sexularism.” Ursula Hirschmann Annual Lecture on Gender and Europe, European University Institute, Florence, Italy, 23 April 2009. Accessed Aug. 14, 2021.

    19. Christine Delphy, Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror, translated by David Broder (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2015).

    20. Nacira Guénif-Souilamas, Desbeurettesaux descendantes d’immigrants nord-africains (Paris: Grasset, 2000); Nacira Guénif-Souilamas, “La française voilée, la beurette, le garçon arabe et le musulman laïc: Les figures assignées du racisme vertueux” In La République mise à nu par son immigration, ed. Nacira Guénif-Souilamas (Paris: Fabrique, 2006), 109-132; Nacira Guénif-Souilamas and Eric Macé, Les Féministes et le garçon arabe (Paris: L’aube, 2006); see also Mack, Sexagon.

    21. For a book-length study of the white savior film genre in the U.S. context, see Matthew Hughey, The White Savior Film: Content, Critics, and Consumption (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2014).

    22. Geneviève Sellier, “Don’t Touch the White Woman: La Journèe de la jupe or Feminism at the Service of Islamophobia,” translated by Joel Strom. Screening Integration: Recasting Maghrebi Immigration in Contemporary France, eds. Sylvie Durmelat and Vinay Swamy (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), 144-160.

    23. See Kaya Davies Hayon, “Faiza Ambah’s Mariam and the Embodied Politics of Veiling in France.” Paragraph 42, no. 3 (2019): 333-350; and Nadine Sinno, “Caught in the Crosshairs: Confronting Compulsory Unveiling in Faiza Ambah’s Mariam.” Journal of Middle East Women's Studies 16, no. 1 (2020): 1-18.

    24. This essay’s scope cannot begin to do justice to the wealth of past or current transnational feminist thinkers and activists. I look forward to reading other scholars’ work on this in-progress genealogy of critical transnationalism for the film studies classroom.