BA Art History and English Literature

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
Crossing Over with Tilda Swinton: Feminist and Queer Readings of Cinema, Politics and Culture

Unit code ENGL31241
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by English and American Studies
Available as a free choice unit? No


This course is for students interested in developing their knowledge and understanding of feminist and queer theory through a detailed focus on one particular figure: Tilda Swinton. We shall explore dimensions of Swinton’s pre-queer androgyny, her uncanny pale whiteness and her otherworldliness through current debates about ‘whitewashing’, ‘trans’ and the ‘non-human’.  The course looks as Swinton’s collaborations with Derek Jarman and David Bowie, as well as with Sally Potter, Isaac Julien and Lynn Hershman-Leeson.

Through an interdisciplinary cultural studies framework which combines textual, theoretical and historical approaches, this course will look at how Swinton’s work has crossed the borders between art, live performance and film, and at the ways in which her style and image have crossed the boundaries of ascribed gender and sexual categories. Close readings of critical writing on Swinton across these fields will enable students to examine how her work has moved between the art film and more mainstream cinema (as the Oscar-nominated protagonist in We Need to Talk About Kevin), and between this screen acting, live performances (The Maybe at the Serpentine and MOMA) and her community arts activism (such as ‘The Pilgrimage’ with Mark Cousins). Throughout the course, readings of key feminist and queer analysis of Swinton will be tested against an in-depth knowledge of her work.


  • to introduce students to the interdisciplinary study of culture through an engagement with the work of Tilda Swinton as an actor, performer and activist since the 1980s.
  • to introduce students to aspect of feminist and queer theory as they relate to this field.
  • to debate a range of critical readings that analyse how Swinton’s work has crossed cultural borders between cinema, art and politics.
  • to enable students to interrogate the idea of contextualization in relation to the Swinton’s work.


Block 1 (3 weeks): From Androgyny to Transgender: Orlando, Female Perversions, The Stars (Are Out Tonight) and other collaborations with David Bowie

This first section of the course will examine Swinton’s performance of gender and sexuality through an analysis of feminist and queer theories of subversion, masquerade and transformation. Engaging with critical texts in feminist and queer theory (B. Ruby Rich, Judith Butler, Judith Halberstam, Teresa de Lauretis, Mary Ann Doane, Amelia Jones and Lizbeth Goodman) this section of the course will introduce students to debates about gendered narratives, sexual performativities and constructions of femininity and masculinity as genre and myth.

Block 2 (3 weeks): Affect and Interiority: The Deep End, Thumbsucker, I am Love, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Maybe

This second block of the course will approach Swinton’s work in relation to myths and fantasies about the woman’s body as the site of sensation and emotionality. In dialogue with the debates about the history of women’s genres (such as the maternal melodrama) in mainstream cinema, we shall examine the place of affect and interiority in Swinton’s work. Read through current queer debates about affect (Ann Cvetkovich, Robyn Wiegman) and about paranoid and reparative reading practices (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick), this block of the course will examine Swinton’s performance style in relation to the expression of affect and the implication of feminine interiority that has been long debated in feminist film theory.

Block 3 (3 weeks): Collaborations and Contexts: (with directors, Derek Jarman, Sally Potter and Lynne Hershman-Leeson, and with film critic and festival curator, Mark Cousins)

This part of the course pushes students to consider a less individualised reading of Swinton, by emphasising her collaborations and shared interventions. Taking case studies of those named above, these sessions will explore the lack of literature on colloborative cultural practices and test new models for reading Swinton beyond conventional star studies. 1980s Thatcherism will provide a context for the work with Jarman in order to approach the methodological limits of academic practices of ‘contextualisation’; the disappearance of venues for screening art films will provide the ‘context’ for studying Swinton’s collaborations with Cousins, such as ‘The Pilgrimage’ and Ballerina Ballroom, Cinema of Dreams’).

Block 4 (2 weeks): Non-human/other worldly: Teknolust, The Narnia Chronicles, Constantine

This final section of the course will examine Swinton’s capacity to embody the non-human, the technological and the animal. It examines critical readings that emphasise the ‘other worldliness’ of her performances and relates these to debates about imitation, impersonation and masquerade with which the course will begin. Embedding these readings of Swinton’s ‘deviant’ embodiments in changing modes of technological mediation, the course will conclude by contrasting claims about liveness and authenticity with Swinton’s performance of new digital genetic transformations of the biological body.

Student Presentations of proposals for their extended essays will conclude the course in the final week.

Teaching and learning methods

Seminars; lectures and screenings; independent research; preparation of oral presentations and essays; individual tutorials and consultations.

Knowledge and understanding

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Demonstrate a knowledge of the specific contribution of Swinton’s work across the fields of cinema, art and cultural politics.
  • Situate this work within the various national and transnational context of its production and consumption.
  • Engage with critical writing about Swinton’s work in the fields of gender and sexuality studies.
  • Use interdisciplinary cultural tools to analyse Swinton’s contributions across different media.
  • Show an understanding of how Swinton’s work forms part of a critical cultural politics from the 1980s onwards.
  • Engage with debates about Swinton’s collaborations in the context of individualised star/celebrity studies.

Intellectual skills

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • analyse critically the changing meanings of cultural politics from the 1980s to the present day.
  • offer an account of critical theories of live and recorded film performances.
  • develop close readings of film texts and of their intertextuality.
  • build arguments about how to read the cultural practices of a particular figure through their critical and political contexts.

Practical skills

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • formulate and articulate arguments, both orally and in writing.
  • conduct research through suitable library and internet sources.
  • evaluate competing interpretations of texts and contexts.
  • present research findings in a scholarly manner.
  • build arguments using appropriate evidence and sources.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • critical visual and textual analysis.
  • clear written expression.
  • fluent oral presentation.
  • research/library skills.
  • speaking and listening skills.
  • understanding conceptual and theoretical terms and their histories.
  • evaluating competing interpretations of arguments.

Employability skills

Analytical skills
Students taking this unit will be able to analyse and evaluate arguments and texts. Above all, committed students will emerge from this course unit with an advanced capacity to think critically, i.e. knowledgeably, rigorously, confidently and independently.
Group/team working
Students taking this unit will be able to work courteously and constructively as part of a larger group.
On this unit students are encouraged to respond imaginatively and independently to the questions and ideas raised by texts and other media.
Students on this unit must take responsibility for their learning and are encouraged not only to participate in group discussions but to do so actively and even to lead those discussions.
Project management
Students taking this unit will be able to work towards deadlines and to manage their time effectively.
Oral communication
Students taking this unit will be able to show fluency, clarity and persuasiveness in spoken communication.
Students on this unit will be required to digest, summarise and present large amounts of information. They are encouraged to enrich their responses and arguments with a wide range of further reading.
Written communication
Students on this unit will develop their ability to write in a way that is lucid, precise and compelling.

Assessment methods

4000-word essay (50%)

15-20 minute presentation (20%)

1000-word written summary of participation (20%)

seminar participation (10%)

Feedback methods

  • oral feedback on individual presentations
  • written feedback on research presentation
  • written feedback on extended essay
  • additional one-to-one feedback (during the consultation hour or by making an appointment)

Recommended reading

Recommended reading

Over the summer, I’d recommend you watch as many of Swinton’s films as possible. Also, try and watch as many interviews as you can find with her online.

Films, videos and live performances that will be studied in depth include:

Orlando (Sally Potter, 1992)

Female Perversions (Susan Streitfeld, 1996)

The Stars (are out tonight) (Floria Sigismondi, 2013, music video)

Dr Strange (Scott Derrickson 2016) (1hour 55 mins)

The Deep End (Scott McGehee & David Siegel, 2001))

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)

Teknolust (Lynn Hershman-Leeson, 2002)

The Maybe (Cornelia Parker & Tilda Swinton 1995, Serpentine Gallery, live performance)

The Impossible Wardrobe and The Eternity Dress (2013 live performances)

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)

Derek (Isaac Julien, 2008)


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 33
Seminars 16.5
Independent study hours
Independent study 150.5

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Jacqueline Stacey Unit coordinator

Additional notes

Timetable for 2019/20:

Seminar 1: Tue 9am - 11am

Seminar 2: Tue 2pm - 4pm

Screening: Mon 3pm - 6pm

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