Exploring Feminine Agency and Personal Freedom in Polish Cinema:
A Look at "The Lure" and "53 Wars"


The intersection between feminism and Marxism in the context of Poland. From the outset, Marxist groups have recognized the problem of discrimination against women and have promoted women's equality and rights, seeing women's oppression as a result of the capitalist system. Marxism argues that women's liberation is linked with the struggle against capitalism, as sexual oppression serves the material interests of the ruling class, and capitalism, as a source of inequality, is responsible for women's oppression. However, the feminist movement in Poland has primarily avoided the class struggle and Marxism, fearing being associated with communism. Instead, Polish feminism tends to focus on liberal and polite discussions of gender issues, which can lead to heated debates and infighting among feminists. For example, conversations about abortion and the slogan "abortion is OK" have caused division within the feminist community and have even been used by anti-choice groups to fuel their arguments.

In the 1830s and 1890s, Marxism and feminism share common goals in analyzing and challenging gender inequality. In Poland, the November 1830 and January 1863 Uprisings fueled a wave of feminism influenced by French "proto-feminist" ideas. Narcyza Żmichowska and Eleonora Ziemięcka were prominent feminists advocating for women's "emancipation" and education. The subsequent wave in the 1870s saw male advocates like Adam Wiślicki and Aleksander Świętochowski pushing for equality in education and professions. The University of Lwów and influential writers like Eliza Orzeszkowa and Gabriela Zapolska furthered the feminist cause. During the 1920s and 1930s, The interwar period saw feminists debating between full equality and protective legislation. The Act on the Change of Certain Provisions of the Civil Law About Women's Rights (1921) addressed some inequalities faced by married women. Feminist writers like Nałkowska explored women's freedom in traditional society. Marital rape became illegal in 1932, while World War II and the subsequent communist state limited feminist activities. Influenced by global feminist movements, Polish feminists emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, focusing on reproductive rights, sexual liberation, and gender equality. They faced opposition but persisted. The fall of communism in 1989 provided new opportunities for feminist activism, leading to diverse initiatives embracing LGBT rights, disability rights, and environmental justice. Polish feminists continue to fight for gender equality and social justice. During the communist period, women's rights were legally protected, including the right to work, education, and participation in social and political life. However, traditional gender roles persisted, with women facing lower pay and underrepresentation in leadership positions.

The end of History

The collapse of communism in 1989 brought new challenges and opportunities for Polish women. The transition to a market economy brought high unemployment and economic instability, disproportionately affecting women. However, it also brought new freedoms and political and social activism opportunities. In the decades since, feminist movements in Poland have continued to advocate for women's rights and gender equality, often facing significant opposition from conservative and patriarchal forces in society and the government The second wave of feminism in Poland differed from that of the United States and other Western countries due to the communist government's control over society and the media. The peak of this wave in Poland was in 1956, when abortion was legalised. However, feminist voices were silenced afterwards, and any open discussion about women's issues was forbidden. Only official feminist texts were allowed, mainly focused on taking off women the burden of traditional female domestic work. Western feminism was prohibited and practically absent in Polish social life until 1989. Poland has a complex history of feminism. The communist state established by the Soviets in Poland after World War II promoted women's emancipation in the family and at work, leading to the first female government minister in the world. However, after the legalisation of abortion in 1956, feminist voices were silenced until 1989, and Western feminism was prohibited. Post-communist Poland experienced the seventh wave of feminism but faced opposition from the Catholic Church in an ongoing "war on gender". Feminist texts initially used aggressive rhetoric related to feminist publications of the interwar period. Still, they adopted argumentative strategies borrowed from the American 'Pro-Choice' movement of the 1980s after the de facto legal ban on abortions in 1993. Poland still has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, and a proposed total ban on abortion in 2016 initiated a wave of demonstrations.

The landscape of Polish feminism today is characterized by its complexity and diversity, encompassing various perspectives and strategies employed by feminist activists and organizations. However, it faces formidable challenges facing a conservative political climate and a growing opposition to women's rights. The influence of conventional political forces poses a significant hurdle, seeking to reverse the progress of feminist movements in recent years. Their efforts include restricting access to abortion and contraception while promoting traditional gender roles and conservative family values.

Another pressing issue that Polish feminism confronts is the persistent prevalence of gender-based violence and discrimination, which remains a grave problem within the country. Women and girls often face high rates of such violence, and many struggle to access the necessary support and resources to address these critical issues. Despite these challenges, Poland is home to vibrant and active feminist movements and organizations, diligently working to raise awareness about women's rights, promote gender equality, and support those affected by gender-based violence and discrimination. These groups employ diverse strategies, including advocacy, public education, and direct action, fostering networks of support and solidarity.

It is crucial to acknowledge the diverse motivations and perspectives within the feminist movements in Poland. While some activities genuinely prioritize the well-being of women, others may be aligned with a left-wing agenda focused on a top-down revolution. This diversity underscores the complexity and varied approaches within the feminist landscape in Poland.

Marx, Feminism and Cinema

Freedom feminism, which centres on individual agency and personal freedom, has been a driving force in many artistic works, including films. "The Lure" (2015), directed by Agnieszka Smoczyńska, and "53 Wars" (2018), directed by Ewa Bukowska, are two such examples. These films explore different aspects of the female experience and offer a feminist perspective. "The Lure" delves into female desire and sexuality through the lens of two mermaids navigating the music scene in 1980s Warsaw. Meanwhile, "53 Wars" explores the challenges faced by women in male-dominated professions, as seen through the story of a lawyer and mother struggling to balance work and personal life. Both films strongly emphasise individual agency and freedom, which is a direct challenge to the collectivist philosophy of Marxism.

"Córki dancingu", directed by Agnieszka Smoczyńska, promotional materials

Marxism, cinema, and Polish feminism are interconnected through their shared goal of social justice and challenging the status quo. Marxism provides a theoretical framework for understanding how societal power structures create and perpetuate inequality. Cinema, as a form of art and entertainment, has the potential to challenge dominant narratives and create new ones that can promote social change. Polish feminism, rooted in Marxist ideology, aims to challenge patriarchal structures and empower women. In the Polish context, Marxist ideas have influenced feminist thought and activism. This is evident in the work of Polish feminist filmmakers, who often explore the experiences of women living in a society still heavily influenced by patriarchal values. By using cinema as a tool for social commentary, these filmmakers can challenge societal norms and expose how gender-based discrimination is perpetuated.

Polish Films For Freedom Feminism

One example of feminist cinema in Poland is the work of Agnieszka Holland, a filmmaker known for her socially engaged films exploring oppression and resistance themes. Her movie "Angry Harvest" (1985) depicts the experiences of a Polish farmer and a Jewish woman who hide in his barn during World War II. Through their interactions, the film explores themes of power, gender, and the dynamics of oppression. Another example is the film "Body/Ciało" (2015) by Małgorzata Szumowska, which challenges the notion of the female body as an object to be consumed and controlled by men. The film explores the experiences of three women dealing with various forms of oppression, including sexism and homophobia. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in Marxist and feminist thought in Poland, with a growing number of artists and activists using cinema to promote social justice. This includes the annual International Women's Film Festival in Warsaw, which features films made by women from around the world that address issues related to gender and social justice.

These films challenge traditional representations of women in cinema and provide a platform for women's voices to be heard. The relationship between Marxism, cinema, and Polish feminism is complex and multifaceted. Marxist ideas have influenced feminist thought and activism in Poland, and cinema has been used to challenge patriarchal structures and promote social justice. The work of feminist filmmakers in Poland provides a powerful example of the potential of cinema to create social change and challenge dominant narratives.

The ancient creature of the mermaid has long been a symbol of feminine power, freedom, and the mysteries of the deep

The ancient archetype of the mermaid is a fascinating and multifaceted concept that has evolved. In contrast to the popular post-Disney portrayal of mermaids as enchanting and benevolent creatures with fishtails, ancient mermaids were often depicted quite differently. In various mythologies and folklore from different cultures, mermaids were not the gentle and romantic figures we commonly associate with them today. Instead, they were often depicted as formidable and dangerous beings. In some legends, mermaids were half-woman and half-bird, combining a woman's alluring beauty with a bird's predatory instincts. These ancient mermaids were known for their brutal nature, luring sailors to their doom with their enchanting songs and then mercilessly attacking and devouring them.

John William Waterhouse, Ulysses and the Sirens (1891)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

This darker portrayal of mermaids can be found in tales from different cultures worldwide. For example, the Sirens of Greek mythology were depicted as bird-like creatures with beautiful voices that enticed sailors towards their rocky shores, leading to shipwrecks and death. The Scottish folklore tells of the Selkies, who appeared as seals in the water but shed their skin to take on a beautiful human form on land. However, crossing paths with a Selkie often had tragic consequences. This evolution of the mermaid archetype reflects changing cultural perspectives and the transformation of folklore through time. The ancient mermaids, combined with beauty and ferocity, remind us that mythological creatures often embody a complexity beyond the surface presentation of femaleness, inviting us to explore the depths of our imagination and the intricate nature of human storytelling.

In folklore, mermaids were often depicted as alluring, beautiful women who lived in the ocean and could control the sea and its creatures. They represented a form of feminine power that was both feared and revered. In recent years, mermaids have become a symbol of feminism and female empowerment. The mermaid's mythical qualities have been used to challenge gender roles and encourage women to embrace their power and beauty. Many feminist artists have used the mermaid image to explore themes of gender, sexuality, and identity. One example of this is the work of the artist Yvonne Domenge. Domenge creates large-scale sculptures of mermaids using materials such as bronze, steel, and stone. Her mermaids are often depicted in poses that suggest strength and power, challenging traditional ideas of femininity as weak and submissive. Another example is the film "The Lure," directed by Agnieszka Moczyńska. The film follows two mermaid sisters who come ashore in Poland and become involved with a rock band. Through their interactions with the humans around them, the mermaids challenge gender norms and expectations, exploring themes of sexuality, power, and identity. Overall, the relationship between feminism and mermaids is complex and multifaceted. The mythical creature represents both the power and the mystery of the feminine. It has been used by feminist artists and thinkers to explore a wide range of themes related to gender, sexuality, and identity.

As mythical creatures, mermaids have been depicted differently throughout history and across cultures. In some traditions, mermaids were portrayed as seductive and dangerous creatures who lured sailors to their deaths with their beauty and sexual allure. In other depictions, mermaids were seen as powerful and protective figures associated with healing and fertility. The idea of mermaids as empowered by their sexuality and desire can reflect how women's sexuality has been traditionally viewed as threatening to patriarchal structures. By embracing and harnessing their own sexual agency, mermaids can be seen as subverting these structures and reclaiming their power. Similarly, some advocates for sex worker rights argue that sex workers can be empowered by their sexuality and desire. By taking control of their bodies and work, sex workers can challenge societal norms and expectations around sexuality and gender roles. Of course, it's important to note that not all depictions of mermaids or sex workers are positive or empowering. Representing these figures in media and culture can often perpetuate harmful stereotypes and contribute to the oppression of women and marginalized groups. As with any depiction of sexuality, it's essential to consider the context and ensure that representations respect and affirm all individuals and communities involved.

Camille Paglia is a prominent cultural critic who has often advocated for "pro-sex" feminism that emphasizes women's sexual agency and the power of eroticism. In her work, she has explored the relationship between sexuality and power, arguing that women can use their sexuality as a form of energy and that sex work can empower some women. Paglia has also written extensively about the portrayal of women in art and literature, including the image of the mermaid. In her book "Sexual Personae," she discusses the mermaid as a symbol of female power, arguing that the mermaid's seductive allure and dangerous beauty represent the power of female sexuality. Similarly, Paglia has also argued that sex workers, like mermaids, can use their sexuality as a weapon and a source of energy. In her essay "No Law in the Arena: A Pagan Theory of Sexuality," she writes, "Prostitution is not just a service industry, mopping up the overflow of male demand for sex; it is also a service industry providing sex therapy for men. And it is the only sex therapy legislated, supervised, and covered by insurance." Paglia's pro-sex feminism emphasizes the importance of sexual agency and the right to express oneself sexually while also acknowledging the complex power dynamics that can be present in sexual relationships. She argues that women should not be defined solely by their victimization but by their capacity for eroticism and sexual power. Paglia sees mermaids as a powerful symbol of female sexuality, embodying the seductive allure and dangerous beauty that women can use to their advantage. Similarly, in the case of sex workers, Paglia sees them as individuals who have taken control of their sexuality and are using it as a source of power and financial independence. Paglia's pro-sex feminism offers a provocative and sometimes controversial perspective on the relationship between sexuality, energy, and feminism. While her ideas are not without critique, they continue to influence feminist discourse and challenge traditional notions of female sexuality and empowerment.

The idea that mermaids, like positive sex workers, can be empowered by their sexuality and desire goes against the collectivist nature of Marxism. Marxism emphasizes the collective struggle of the working class against the ruling class and tends to view individual agency and desire as a distraction from this struggle. In contrast, the empowerment of female agency and freedom through sexuality and desire is a core idea of pro-sex feminism, as Camille Paglia advocates. Pro-sex feminists view sexuality as a powerful force that can liberate women from the constraints of traditional gender roles and allow them to express their full range of desires and emotions. This view directly conflicts with Marxist ideology, which tends to view sexuality as a tool of oppression used by the ruling class to maintain its power over the working class. Marxism sees women's liberation as part of the collective struggle of the working class rather than as an individual or personal issue. In this way, the ideas of pro-sex feminism and the empowerment of female sexuality run counter to the collectivist philosophy of Marxism. However, it is essential to note that these two perspectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive and that there are many ways in which they can overlap and intersect.

"53 wojny", directed by Ewa Bukowska, promotional materials

"53 Wars" (original title: "53 Wojny") is a 2018 Polish drama film directed by Ewa Bukowska. The film tells the story of a young, ambitious journalist, Anna, who works for a leading newspaper in Poland. Anna is assigned to cover a high-profile murder trial of a woman accused of killing her child. However, digging deeper into the case, she uncovers a web of corruption and injustice within the Polish communist government and media. In terms of feminism, "53 Wars" portrays the challenges that women faced during the communist regime in Poland. The film depicts how women were often marginalized, and the government restricted their rights. As a female journalist, Hanna faces significant obstacles and discrimination in her profession, but she remains determined to expose the truth and fight for justice. The film also highlights the theme of motherhood and the pressures and expectations placed on women to fulfil traditional gender roles. The accused woman in the murder trial is a mother perceived as neglectful and incapable of fulfilling her maternal duties. This storyline highlights the societal expectations placed on women to be perfect mothers and the harsh judgments they face if they do not meet those expectations. Overall, "53 Wars" portrays the struggles of women in Poland during the communist regime and their fight for equality and justice. The film serves as a reminder of the importance of women's agency and societal empowerment.

The Polish film "53 Wars" is an excellent example of agency and personal freedom from a feminist perspective. Despite being a single mother, Anna is fiercely independent and dedicated to her career. She does not shy away from danger or difficult situations and is willing to take risks to get the story. Hanna's character represents a feminist take on the traditionally male-dominated world of war reporting. Her ambition and drive are not constrained by societal expectations or gender roles. She is not defined by her relationships with men or her role as a mother but rather by her own individual goals and aspirations. This portrayal of female agency and personal freedom directly attacks Marxism, prioritising collectivism over individualism. Marxism views individuals as part of a larger social group, with their actions and decisions determined by the needs and goals of the collective. In contrast, the feminist perspective in "53 Wars" values individualism and the pursuit of personal ambition and freedom. This may also be referred to as the Freedom feminism espoused by thinkers such as Germaine Greer and Christina Hoff Sommers, whose immeasurable contribution to Western feminism has inspired countless women across the globe to challenge political systems that restrict personal agency and freedom of expression. They. She believes women should be free to choose and pursue their goals rather than being limited by societal expectations or political ideology. 53 Wars" is a powerful example of feminist storytelling that celebrates female agency and personal freedom. It stands in opposition to Marxist ideology by championing individualism over collectivism.

In conclusion, creative expression plays a crucial role in advocating for personal freedom and agency, especially in the face of oppressive regimes that seek to limit such freedoms. "The Lure" and "53 Wars" are excellent examples of how films can challenge societal norms and stereotypes, highlighting important issues such as female desire, gender roles, and work-life balance. These films remind us that personal freedom and creative expression are essential for a society to thrive and that any attempt to limit them must be resisted. As we continue navigating an ever-changing global landscape, it is essential to remember the power of creative expression and its role in shaping our individual and collective identities.

The Female Gaze Vs. The Male Gaze

Laura Mulvey is a British feminist film theorist and filmmaker. She is best known for her essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," published in 1975, which introduced the concept of the "male gaze" in film. The male gaze refers to how the camera in a film, which is typically controlled by male directors, often objectifies women and presents them as objects of male desire. According to Mulvey, the male gaze in cinema positions the viewer as a heterosexual male who derives pleasure from looking at the female body. On the other hand, women are typically presented as passive and lacking agency, existing solely to be looked at and desired by men. Mulvey argues that this representation of women in film is problematic because it reinforces patriarchal power structures and gender inequality. She suggests that filmmakers can challenge the male gaze by presenting women as active and complex characters with their desires and motivations rather than objects of male desire.

In Blue Velvet, a film directed by David Lynch for example, that explores the themes of female identity and desire. The film's protagonist, played by Laura Dern, is haunted by repressed memories and trauma manifesting in a series of surreal and disturbing hallucinations. Lynch's use of dream-like imagery and symbolism creates a psychoanalytic landscape in which the female protagonist's desires and anxieties are explored in detail. The film is a perfect example of the female gaze, which is characterized by a focus on the inner life of the female protagonist. The film subverts the traditional male gaze. The film's female protagonist, played by Isabella Rossellini, is not merely a passive object of male desire but a complex character with her own desires and agency. The film's exploration of the themes of power, passion, and identity creates a psychoanalytic landscape that challenges the traditional patriarchal structures of society. Lastly, "Vertigo," directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is a classic film that explores the themes of female identity and desires through a psychoanalytic lens. The film's protagonist, played by Kim Novak, is a complex character with her own desires and motivations. Hitchcock's dream-like imagery and symbolism create a psychoanalytic landscape in which the protagonist's desires and anxieties are explored in detail. The film is a perfect example of the female gaze, which is characterized by a focus on the inner life of the female protagonist.

In "Beach Rats," directed by Eliza Hittman, delves into the complexities of masculinity and sexuality, touching upon themes that resonate with our discussions on mermaids and Poland. The film follows the journey of a teenage boy grappling with his sexual identity amidst a backdrop of toxic masculinity. In portraying the male body, "Beach Rats" diverges from the traditional male gaze, offering a perspective emphasizing vulnerability and sensitivity. The camera's focus on the characters' bodies creates a sensual and empathetic atmosphere rather than objectifying. The filmmaker paints a picture of the conventional male gaze that aligns with our exploration of the eye as it would be described by Mulvey's "male gaze", even though we are presented with an image of vitality male youth. By submitting the male body through a lens that prioritizes emotional depth and nuance, "Beach Rats" does not challenge societal expectations and stereotypes surrounding masculinity or internal struggles navigating their sexual identities. Indeed we are invited viewers to empathize and question the prevailing structure in the main character0's life; still, Hittman knows how to hit a few visual hotspots.

Similarly, inverting genders in the film's main character, "Sleeping Beauty," directed by Julia Leigh, offers a thought-provoking examination of the male gaze and the commodification of the female body. The film revolves around a young woman who works as a prostitute and becomes part of a particular experiment where she is drugged and made to sleep while men can indulge their desires without restraint. In contrast to a titillating or arousing portrayal, "Sleeping Beauty" critiques the objectification of women in the sex industry. The film can be considered a slow burner, an athletic masterpiece of toned greens and greys on a haunting score. "Sleeping Beauty" prompts viewers to contemplate the power dynamics and exploitation prevalent in society; however, the female protagonist cannot be described as a victim of her circumstances and is passively choosing when and how to trade her body. Her motive is unclear at points, and financial reasons may not be all that is pressuring her. This resonates with our discussions on the multifaceted nature of mermaids and the various interpretations of femininity. The film invites a critical examination of how women's bodies are often traded as objects for consumption and raise questions about agency, consent, and the broader social context in which such dynamics exist.

The concept of the male gaze has been a dominant topic in film theory and criticism for decades. The male gaze refers to the perspective in which films and other media are constructed, often through the objectification and sexualization of female characters. However, in recent years, there has been a growing discussion around the idea of the female gaze and whether it exists. When analysing films such as "Beach Rats" and "Sleeping Beauty", both directed by women, we can notice that the concept of the female gaze is a powerful and liberating perspective that has the potential to transform the way we see and represent women in media. It goes beyond simply reversing the male gaze and offers a fresh and empathetic approach to exploring women's inner lives and experiences. Rather than objectifying female characters as passive objects of male desire, the female gaze seeks to empower women and celebrate their agency. This lens depicts women as active subjects who control their lives and destinies.

Paglia emphasizes the importance of recognizing women's autonomy and ability to control their bodies and desires. She argues that women are not passive objects to be consumed by the male gaze but active participants in constructing their identities and narratives. This perspective challenges the notion that women are solely defined by their objectification or victimhood, encouraging a broader understanding of female agency and empowerment. Concerning film theory, Paglia suggests that an exclusive focus on the male gaze can overshadow other significant aspects of cinematic representation and storytelling. By disregarding women's active role in shaping their narratives, Mulvey's theory may inadvertently limit the scope of feminist analysis within film studies.

The female gaze is a valuable weapon for freedom, challenging the traditional patriarchal structures and creating a more inclusive and diverse world where women can be seen and heard. By focusing on the inner lives of women, the female gaze highlights the complex and nuanced experiences of women and celebrates their strengths and resilience. By embracing the female gaze, we can create a society that values and respects women and recognizes their contributions to the world. Furthermore, it is worth considering the implications of the female gaze theory proposed by Laura Mulvey, which has been utilized in various contexts, including left-wing politics. The theory's exploration of shifting the lens to examine female perspectives carries a potential risk. It is crucial to approach this perspective with conscious vigilance as observers, ensuring that it does not inadvertently introduce left-wing indoctrination into artistic currents. The danger lies in elevating specific works to the status of epochal achievements while implementing a clear ideological agenda, such as Marxism. Therefore, a critical and balanced approach is necessary, avoiding an uncritical defence of the female gaze at all costs. I advance the thesis that these two examples, combined with the aforementioned Polish films, reverse the concept of the male gaze, and spectators are presented as the female filmmaker's gaze. Both "Beach Rats" and "Sleeping Beauty" provide examples of films that challenge and subvert the traditional male gaze as they are the product of two distinctive female fantasies and visions. They tell stories of compelling examples of films that defy and overturn the traditional male gaze, reinforcing the importance of Camille Paglia's critique of Laura Mulvey's theory. Together, these films exemplify the reversal of the male gaze, presenting viewers with the female filmmaker's eye and disrupting established power dynamics. They contribute to the ongoing discourse on representation, emphasizing the importance of acknowledging agency, diverse experiences, and the complexities of human identity. These films push the boundaries of cinematic storytelling and prompt viewers to critically engage with the role of the gaze in shaping our understanding of ourselves and others and emphasizing the importance of acknowledging agency, diverse experiences, and the complexities of human identity when pursuing personal freedom.

Gabriele Sartoris

Gabriel jest kuratorem i pisarzem pochodzącym ze Szwajcarii. Mieszkając w Londynie, był zaangażowany w obronę Wolności Wypowiedzi (Free Speech activism). Obecnie jest prezesem Zurich Zalon - publicznego forum, na którym regularnie odbywają się prelekcje i panele poświęcone istotnym problemom współczesności. Jego teksty publikowane są w magazynie OBIEG, Bournbrook Magazine, The New Taboo i Athwart.
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