Su Friedrich's filmmaking aesthetic arose out of the confluence of feminism and American avant-garde film in the 1970s. Deeply influenced by both traditions, her work nevertheless reflects an ambivalence towards the more rigid ideas of each movement. Early short films like Cool Hands, Warm Heart and Scar Tissue showed the influence of a then-dominant strain of feminist film theory which linked traditional notions of cinematic pleasure with the oppression of women and sought to deny that pleasure through a systematic, polemical critique of it. Friedrich became increasingly uncomfortable with denying pleasure to her audience and broke away decisively with Damned If You Don't, an unabashedly humorous and erotic tale about a woman seducing a nun.
A brilliant editor, Friedrich weaves elaborate juxtapositions between text (usually scratched directly onto the film), sound, images, and found footage. She first used scratched texts in the dream diary film Gently Down the Stream and also employs them to great effect in the moving portrait of her German-born mother The Ties That Bind. Friedrich's films often tackle traditional feminist subject matter -- the conflict between politics, religion, and sexuality in Damned If You Don't, Gently Down the Stream, and First Comes Love; her difficult relationship with her father in Sink or Swim -- but her artistry, wit, and circumspect attitude toward avant-garde orthodoxy make her films deeply humanistic works that connect with diverse audiences even as they remain rooted in her own life.