The British Film Institute (BFI) is facing accusations of misogyny over the title of a forthcoming season dedicated to “fierce females”.
The programme includes films featuring “some of the most wickedly compelling female characters on screen”.
But a letter signed by more than 300 academics and critics argued that the title “uncritically parrots” misogyny.
The Playing the Bitch season was programmed by Anna Bogutskaya, who said she hoped to “start a conversation”.
In a blog explaining the project, Ms Bogutskaya said she realised the word had “powerful connotations” that made it “offensive to many”.
She wrote: “My intention is not to provoke but to pose a question I can’t answer by myself: what makes a screen ‘bitch’?”
The protest letter, led by Dr Erika Balsom and Dr Elena Gorfinkel, senior lecturers in film studies at King’s College London, said the women in question “do not subvert gender norms, they inhabit stereotypes”.
In this context, they said the word was “insulting, not empowering”.
The season also reinforced a “woeful status quo” by featuring “male representations of crazy, damaged, spiteful women”, they said.
Portrayals on the bill include
- Bette Davis as a malevolent Southern aristocrat in The Little Foxes
- Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn as sworn enemies in Death Becomes Her
- Nicole Kidman as an ambitious weather presenter in To Die For
- Rosamund Pike as the anti-heroine in Gone Girl
The season is advertised as a “thought provoking analysis” of “tough, difficult women” that aims to celebrate “self-determining, independent, defiant, but always charismatic anti-heroines”.
All the films featured were made by male directors, but, in a statement to The Telegraph, the BFI said more than half of the work was taken from source material written by women.
The spokesman said: “We thought very hard about using the word ‘bitch’ for the programme and appreciate that it is a provocative term, infused with different meaning by people from different genders, generations, backgrounds and cultures.
“This is a really interesting and important conversation, and we are going to directly address the word and its meaning in this season through our events programme.”