Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page

AboutFilmsFor StudentsFor TeachersBibliographyResources

Films >> Yo, La Peor De Todas (I, The Worst of All) (1990) >> Issue Essay >>

Herstory in the Making: I, the Worst of All and Feminism

By Irina Negrea

[1] "Women were denied knowledge of their history, and thus each woman had to argue as though no woman before her had ever thought or written. Women had to use their energy to reinvent the wheel, over and over again, generation after generation. ... thinking women of each generation had to waste their time, energy and talent on constructing their argument anew. Generation after generation, in the face of recurrent discontinuities, women thought their way around and out from under patriarchal thought." (Lerner qtd in Merrim Modern Women xxiii)

[2] Lerner's words hold true for two women involved in the film I, the Worst of All. Both of them had to "reinvent the wheel" and show their male contemporaries that women can and will find their way out from under the control of patriarchy. Juana Ines de la Cruz and Maria Luisa Bemberg are separated by three centuries of continuous strife for feminists to affirm feminine subjectivity and feminine values. The struggle was/is doubly difficult because of what they have to face. At the time of making the film, Bemberg faced a mainstream cinema in which women were presented as a "function of male ambition" and as objects of possession, display, or currency (Bemberg in Pick 78). I, the Worst of All appeared in the 1990s, a time that we like to think is so different from the convent of 17th-centuryMexico. Bemberg shows us that it is not. Mainstream cinema never looks at women as "beings with ideas," as she says in an interview, but as empty shells, foils for the male characters, so that they can act and think (Pick 78). She had to fight a whole tradition of male filmmaking with her movie, and (re)assert her own feminist values in a film that challenges all the stereotypical filmic representations of women.

[3] I, the Worst of All represents a fascinating attempt to make feminist history and film history at the same time. The connection between the struggles of the two women involved in the film--Maria Luisa Bemberg and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz--is impossible to miss, since the director has used Juana's character to voice her opinions on feminism and--indirectly--on mainstream filmmaking. Feminist film critics have largely agreed on the function of mainstream cinema in the control and objectification of women. One of the most famous essays on this issue was written by Laura Mulvey. In Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Mulvey argues that the mainstream film manipulates visual pleasure in a skillful way and it "code[s] the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order" (30). What is more important, Mulvey claims that mainstream cinema allows women only one spectatorial position--the passive, masochistic one--while the men enjoy the active--sadistic--spectator position. While this has been debated by other feminist critics, as the monolithic structure of mainstream movie (and patriarchy) is being slowly deconstructed at its fissures, Mulvey's essay is enough to show what Bemberg is trying to do with her film.

[4] Further, Mulvey claims--and the majority of feminist film critics agree with her--that in mainstream films the woman is the image to be looked at and fetishized, while the man is the "bearer of the look" and the fetishizer (33). This is what allows the male spectator to have an active pleasure in the movie, since he can (and is invited by the director to) objectify the woman on the screen. Hence, the main task of feminist filmmmakers was (and still is) to find new modes of expression, different from the mainstream cinema, that destroy this type of male pleasure and prevent the objectification of women. It is the task of directors such as Bemberg to transform the discourse of mainstream cinema and make movies that not only expose patriarchy but also allow female spectators an active, pleasurable gaze. It is the task she undertakes, as she states in her interview, "to change the very uninteresting image of women that film generally conveyed" (Pick 78).

[5] One of the most risque representations for women filmmakers who want to avoid the objectification of women is the filming of erotic scenes, particularly in this case, with lesbian undertones. Bemberg undertakes a major task in I, the Worst of All when she includes two of such scenes in her movie. Historians and literary critics have discussed whether Juana Ines de la Cruz and the Vicereine had a relationship that crossed the boundaries of female friendship, and this issue is still debated by some. (Click here for an audio clip of Audrey Gibbs reading a poem of Sor Juana and discussing the lesbian issue and also see the use of lesbianism as a marketing strategy and a video by Audrey Gibbs and Nicole Robertson about that.) The only historical evidence are Juana's passionate love poems that she wrote for the Vicereine. Bemberg undertakes the representation of this relationship, and she manages to let the viewer make up her own mind as to whether the two women had more than friendly feelings for each other. One of the two scenes in particular is worth analyzing in order to emphasize how the director manages to avoid the objectification of women.

[6] The beginning of the scene "The Kiss" (54:49) has been interpreted by Emilie Bergman as "staging the attempt to fix an identity for this elusive figure [Juana] as object of desire" (229). The Vicereine's words ("Never have I known a woman like you: more poet than nun, more nun than woman") represent, indeed, the attempt to identify Juana, but they also try to circumscribe her to known (patriarchal) categories, especially the one of "woman," by which the Countess de Paredes means "a woman who defines herself by having children." Bergman claims further that "Bemberg's condesa problematizes Sor Juana's gender: as nun, her sexuality is [supposed to be] neutralized; as poet, she engages in a masculine activity" (230). The gazes that converge in this scene are the Vicereine's (always passionate), Juana's (changing from direct to shy, to affectionate after the kiss), Bemberg's gaze through the camera, and the viewer's. Bemberg prefers a fixed camera in this scene, with shot-reverse shots that are not subjective (i.e. the characters do not look into the camera when they talk to each other, so the camera is not fixed in either place of the characters, which would indicate an invitation to identify with the two women). On the contrary, Bemberg invites the viewer to watch it from a distance--a critical distance--in order to make up his/her own mind about the scene.

[7] Before the kiss, the two women are seen in the same frame, with a dark background. The only warm colors are their faces, and Bemberg manages to avoid fetishization when Juana uncovers her head for the Vicereine, by showing her with an "unattractive" sheared head. The desire is apparently only in the eyes of the Vicereine, who caresses Juana's head and kisses her. Juana's face is turned from the screen, so the viewer does not see the expression on her face. Although the Vicereine is the one who initiates the kiss, Juana does not shy away from it, and after the kiss, she remains alone in the frame, turned toward the camera, with one of the most enigmatic expressions on her face. It is the beginning of a smile that lights her eyes and indicates that the kiss was as pleasurable for her as it was for the Countess. The next scene is edificatory in this respect, since Juana goes to retrieve the Vicereine's miniature from her bookshelf and looks at it affectionately. Bemberg has successfully managed to avoid the objectification of the two women involved in the scene and to find a mode of representation that gives active, visual pleasure to the female spectators. She is making feminist film history, not only in this scene, but throughout the whole movie.

[8] The personality of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz is probably one of the most fitting for such an endeavor, since Juana herself had to make women's history in order to make herself heard by patriarchy. Her attitudes toward men and women are skillfully represented by Bemberg in her film, and the director shows Juana and her attitudes, and also what she was up against. The film is accurately following Octavio Paz's book about Juana's life, with the exception of the end, where Bemberg omits a few details. The first time Bemberg has Juana express her opinions on men is through her redondilla "Hombres Necios" ("Foolish Men"), in which Juana lashes out at the double standard that allows men to accuse women of the wrongs that they themselves make women commit. Juana turns the table on men and attributes to them all the negative characteristics that misogyny attributes to women. She defends women from the construction of women that the patriarchy accomplished (Merrim Modern Women 66):

[9] Silly, you men--so very adept/at wrongly faulting womankind,/not seeing you're alone to blame/for faults you plant in woman's mind (Trueblood 111). Having Juana recite these lines right at the beginning of the film allows Bemberg to state her (and Juana's) opinion on men.(Click here to hear Audrey Gibbs read this poem.) Frame by frame, Sor Juana develops as a woman who has seen through the machinery that patriarchy employs in the control of women. She knows that being educated allows a woman to fight back, as she tells her students that intelligence and knowledge do not belong to men only: "Intelligence has no sex. Keep your eyes open and your ears also, so you can perceive everything" (01:01:40).

[10] In obvious juxtaposition to Juana's world, Bemberg attempts to make the viewer understand what Juana is up against. The film opens with a "power meeting," where the two men--the Viceroy and the Archbishop--discuss about the best way of ruling over Mexico. Later, they will clash in a power struggle, in the middle of which Juana is unwillingly caught. The Archbishop's misogyny is constructed during the movie: when he receives the delegation of two nuns to discuss the "free" elections for the post of Abbess, he does not want to look at them because they do not have their veils covering their faces (0:09:19). After the nuns leave, the room is fumigated with incense, in order to erase any trace of their visit. If the viewer is still doubtful about how the Archbishop feels about women, the scene in which Juana confronts him speaks quite plainly: "God didn't create women to philosophize," says the Archbishop, and no doubt he gets memories to last a lifetime when Juana grabs him from behind the bars and forces her touch on him, telling him that he is wrong when he says that women are the devil for men: "You are the one who carries the devil in his heart!"

[11] The scene is the only direct confrontation that Juana has with her nemesis during the entire film, and there is no historical evidence to prove that it really happened. However, Bemberg needs this direct confrontation to show how Juana manages to shake the monolithic foundation of patriarchy, even from behind the convent bars. All she looked for was a "room of her own," a space where she could be left alone in order to study and write. However, in her times, women were not expected to be educated, much less to write poems and plays of the caliber of Juana's writings. She realizes that her main fault is to have been born a woman in a society where the singularly male construct of womanhood was used to control women and box them in narrow categories. Bemberg uses flashbacks in order to show how this extraordinary woman made (feminist) history on her own: how she wanted to dress up as a boy to go to the university, how she went to Court and dazzled the entire (male) intelligentsia in the city of Mexico with her mind and knowledge, and finally how she chose the convent because she did not want to be subjected to any man who would control her and prevent her from pursuing her studies. The film has very few quotes from Juana's work. I think that the "Respuesta" should have been quoted more extensively, but, even so, Bemberg manages to portray an amazing woman who shook the edifice of the Church from within and signed (some) of her writings as "I, the Worst of All" in order to avoid being looked at as an accident, or as a freak of nature. She wants to prove that any woman can become what she became, if allowed to study and expand her mind.

[12] In conclusion, how does I, the Worst of All make history? It makes feminist history, film history, and personal history. Bruce Williams talks about Maria Luisa Bemberg as challenging "a complex institution which has long relegated her as an object of contemplation rather than an active agent of authorship" (171). In other words, Bemberg does what Juana did three centuries ago: claims her own voice in history, going against an apparently monolithic patriarchy. In the same way in which Juana makes literary and feminist history through her works, Bemberg makes women's film history and also personal history. Caleb Bach writes about Bemberg's life: growing up as a member of a wealthy family, she always had to fight "the curse of wealth and the curse of an inquiring mind" (20). Being continuously subjected to a double standard applied to her brothers and to her, Bemberg declared that "I entered the film for ideological motives" (20). The motives are plain in I, the Worst of All and her other films, as Bemberg sets to change the image of women in cinema and to use it as a weapon against the establishment. Her efforts to found and form feminist groups in Argentina failed due to the mid-1950 military regime that came into power (Bach 21). One woman going against the establishment and trying to make her voice heard is a personal topic that Bemberg codes into I, the Worst of All. Williams sees the autobiographical overtones in I, the Worst of All, which open themselves to the universal situation of women who try to assert themselves as creators: the isolation, loneliness, and fear that a woman has to confront when she wants to go against the mainstream, against the machinery devised for her control, as well as the isolation in which patriarchy knowingly keeps these women, in order to make them "reinvent the wheel" every time they express themselves artistically (172).

[13] It seems that the end of the movie gives us a defeated Juana, contained by the tenacity of the Church. A close analysis of the key scene of the movie ("Abjuration" 1:41:50) points out how Bemberg uses mainstream movie language to subvert the mainstream meaning (see Scene Analysis) and how the last words--the director's words--tell us, the viewers, that Juana is still alive through her work, while all the little men who persecuted her are known today only because they lived in her time. The movie answers what Bemberg considered one of her life's missions: "I decided to empower others," having to fight the severe censorship (not too remote from Father Miranda's censorship in the movie) that functioned as a result of the political situation in Argentina in the 1970s (qtd in Williams 175). By choosing a "real woman," a historical personality, who managed, against all odds, to assert herself as a creator in a man's world, and making a movie about her, Bemberg shows us that it is possible to make history outside of the history textbooks that seem to worship only the male accomplishments across centuries.

Bach, Caleb. "Maria Luis Bemberg Tells the Untold." Americas 46 (Mar/Apr 1994): 20.

Bergmann, Emilie. "Abjection and Ambiguity: Lesbian Desire in Bemberg's "Yo, la peor de todas." Hispanisms and Homosexualities. Ed. Sylvia Molloy and Robert McKee Irwin. Durham: Duke UP, 1998.

de la Cruz, Juana Ines. "Hombres Necios." A Sor Juana Anthology. Ed.Alan S. Trueblood. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.

Merrim, Stephanie. Early Modern Writing and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 1999.

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Ed. Patricia Erens. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. 28-41.

Pick, Zuzana M. "An Interview with Maria Luisa Bemberg." Journal of Film and Video 44. 3-4 (Fall-Winter 1992-93): 76.

Williams, Bruce. "The Reflection of a Blind Gaze: Maria Luisa Bemberg, Filmmaker." A Woman's Gaze: Latin American Women Artists. Ed. Marjorie Agosin. New York; White Pine Press, 1998. 171-90.