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Challenging the patriarchal order

Mai Zetterling’s film Flickorna (Mai Zetterling, 1968) was released to a dismissive audience. With its feminist subject and almost satire portrayal of men, it was seen by many as too provocative. It centres on a group of actors putting up the antique play Lysistrate, during which three of the women (Liz, Gunilla and Marianne) undergo a feminist awakening. The play is used as a kind of frame story in the film, and tells the story of a group of women refusing to sleep with their husbands in order to force them to make peace. This is intertwined with subjective and sometimes dreamlike sequences where the three main characters process their thoughts, feelings and memories of their relationships with men.

Seven years after the release of Flickorna Laura Mulvey published her ground breaking, feminist text “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, examining how women are portrayed in film. Using psychodynamics as her theoretical framework, she criticises the way that women often are portrayed as passive and men as active in film: while the man becomes the bearer of the look the woman becomes the image, implying who we as spectators are supposed to identify with. Through her lack of a penis the woman represents men’s fear of castration and men therefore need to find ways to undermine her – where one way is to turn the woman into an object of desire. Often times she becomes the victim of voyeurism, that is, she is being watched in secret in a sexual way by a man on screen, and in addition, the viewer.

Applying Mulvey’s theory on Zetterling’s film is interesting since the film is not a traditional Hollywood narrative. While it is fairly clear that the film aims at challenging the patriarchal order, the approach it not clear cut. The three women constitute the biggest part of the film, and are portrayed as complex characters, something we understand through their flashbacks and thoughts, and their discussions with each other. The men, on the other hand, are portrayed as rather one-dimensional; powerful, rational and cold. We never get their perspective. It is easy to dismiss their arrogant style within the frame of the story, which legitimises the women’s battle.

There is a scene where Liz, Marianne and Gunilla are dancing. In this scene, the camera doesn’t primarily focus on the women’s bodies, but on their faces, revealing how they feel rather than how they look. I would not say that this scene can be blamed for voyeurism. The film portrays men ridiculing and patronizing women, but the film itself rather ridicules men, in their one dimensional portrayal. In that sense the men are objectified; they are simplified, almost caricatures. At the same time, neither they are portrayed in a voyeuristic manner – they are not portrayed in such a way that we are supposed to feel sexual pleasure in watching them.

In Lysistrate, the frame story of the film, the women use their sexual desirability to overthrow the patriarchal order. One could argue that by using this story as the key to the women’s feminist awakening, Zetterling reinforces Mulvey’s theory of the woman as the object of desire and the man as driven by desire. At the same time as the film criticises the patriarchal order, it also criticises women’s inability to organise, their incapacity to leave their comfort zone that is a product of the patriarchal order, and according to Larsson, the Swedish welfare system. In the film, Liz tries to start a discussion with the audience after one performance, but none reply. This critique can also be read into the title of the film. Why is it named Flickorna, rather than Kvinnorna (the women)? It implies that the main characters are minors, not completely grown up. It can be read, however, as an expression of the way men see women in the film, rather than it being self-critical. The film can therefore be seen as a settlement with that idea, transforming the main characters from girls to women, from unaware of the injustices in society to strong and independent. Maybe the use of the play could be read in a similar way. Rather than an indication that men are driven by desire and women are not, it can be read as a critique of the men’s patriarchal understanding of women.

Laura Mulvey, ”Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, in Critical Vision in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White and Meta Mazaj, (Boston and New York: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2011). Mariah Larsson, ”Modernity, Masculinity and the Swedish Welfare State. Mai Zetterling’s Flickorna”, in Swedish Film: An Introduction and Reader, ed. Mariah Larsson and Anders Marklund (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2010).


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