Women As People in Film (Part IV)

Part I, Part II, Part III, meet Part IV.

Jodie Foster

Behind the Market

So women go to bad woman movies.  But that is so counter to my (and I’d say “our”) intuition, right?  We’ve got woman empowerment, we laugh ironically or scoff outright at sexist language, and the male conspiracy has been outed and the battle is joined.  Demand for sexist material doesn’t make much sense–in fact makes least sense–after 1970 and before 2005, which I take to be the height of the Gender Wars.

Remember the Easy A (2010) quote?  I think that’s the answer to the puzzle.  A movie, especially in action and comedy, is fictional and often escapist.  So, along these lines, perhaps the female fantasy is the glittery-skinned, white knight sweeping her off her feet and riding into the sunset to make her a deer-eating vampire.  It’s a grammatically passive fantasy.

The male fantasy, on the other hand, is strapping a bunch of ammo around your well-bulked shoulder and jumping out an airplane into a war zone to kill some freakin’ Nazis/aliens/evil ninjas.  That’s a very active fantasy.  I came, I saw, I kicked its ass.

The more balanced fantasy is, I think, shared by both sexes.  That’s the underlying character/talent we have is eventually seen, acknowledged, and leads to personal fulfillment.  Easy A and Life as We Know It (2010) are like this for the female lead, while Funny People (2009) and Knocked Up (2007) play along these lines for Seth Rogen.  I’ll call this the Elizabeth Bennett fantasy.

Ellen Page

What hasn’t been there to any great degree is a female fantasy to be Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) from Aliens (1986) or even Tess (Melanie Griffith) from Working Girl (1988).  As I’ve been saying for some time, that may be on the way in (or the lack on the way out depending on how you read).

I got the fantasy idea while watching St Trinian’s II: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold (2009) (inferior to the first one, in my opinion) when these girl bands kept popping up.  Having once been a 13 year old boy, I am familiar with fantasy satisfaction of imagining that I’m the front man of a band.  I suspect that this same phenomenon just follows us through life and our memory of old fantasies explain nostalgia.  It’s not original to me, but it does have some power to it.

Diablo Cody

What I hope and expect is that the pretenders to the fantasy, like Angelina Jolie in Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) or Meg Ryan, generally, will become less and less acceptable to audiences.

What is accounting for this change?  It can’t just be Diablo Cody.  If for no other reason than we’ve had Nora Ephron and Elaine May as world-class talents for decades.  No, I don’t think it’s necessarily a female-led phenomenon.

I think I can sum it up with the movie Hitch (2005).  Hitch taps into a generational shift felt by namby-pamby commies like myself.  The chauvinist, frat-tastic pig is no friend of ours.  Alphas are irritating.  We want the girl/lady/woman we like to like us back.  That was okay in movies about children, like My Girl (1991), but now it’s the anthem of 20-somethings–the infantilizing of our youth writ male.  Again, look at Seth Rogen.

Hitch says that if only we could get some freakin’ help out here, the good guys can win the girl.  Not exactly John Wayne, is it?  But the movie takes as its premise that women are individuals of value that will make our lives whole.  It doesn’t get much more egalitarian than that.

The writers and directors of the films I’ve mentioned are almost exclusively male.  The best ones, though, are written by Diablo Cody (and directed by Jason Reitman).  But Cody has some oddity to her–she also wrote Jennifer’s Body (2009) and is co-writing The Evil Dead (2013) with Sam Raimi–so that’s frightening.  There’s also Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, who wrote Bridesmaid (2010) (fantastic).  And I haven’t even mentioned Jennifer Westfeldt or Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) (directed by Sharon Maguire). But that’s it thus far in mainstream stuff.  Four names and a franchise.

Though I would point out that the upcoming animated film Brave (2012) is written by Brenda Chapman (who also co-directs) and Irene Mecchi.

That’s on the supply side.  We’ve got more material, though written mainly by men, that contains well-developed female characters engaging in semi-active fantasies.  On the demand side, we’ve clearly got the fantasies of the audience.  I’d be interested to see what the demographics are for the movies I’ve mentioned (positively) thus far.  I suspect that they’d be somewhat balanced.  Certainly more balanced than Bride Wars (2009).

If that were the case, I’d say that this is because the fantasy is, in structure, shared by men and women.  To be seen and appreciated for what we are is, obviously, gender neutral.  Furthermore, the viewing public are less and less reliant upon superficial resonance–that is to say, a boy can watch a movie about a girl and not think anything of it.  Perhaps this has something to do with normalizing relations between heteros and non-heteros such that it’s more okay to like girl stuff than ever before, but that’s like a thesis for another day.

Meryl Streep

Perhaps this is why the development of strong female leads has lagged.  Women have watched movies about men and, when not found in clearly gendered sexual situations, been able to empathize with the character.  Thus, the fantasy is satisfied for both.  Now, perhaps in order to distinguish itself from other films on the marketing side, there are more strong female leads that satisfy all viewers.

But no, that’s nonsense.  These stories are not interchangeable.  Easy A could never be about a man.  As the story implies, men are never sluts, they’re “playboys or operators.”  Hardly a condemnation.

That’s another thing!  Why oh why is the word “pimp” used in any positive connotation?  They’re slave traders–worse, slave renters.  Parasites, dreck, the lowest of humanity.  They don’t get the girls, they capture them through nefarious means and then physically and mentally abuse them.  Man that gets to me.  Pimp my ride?  You mean steal it from someone’s drive way, knobble the engine so it never runs the same again, and lease it out to the dregs of society for joy riding?  No, they mean stick a waterfall in the back seat.

Sorry about that.  Anyway, women have their own challenges and barriers to being understood (or whatever).  This isn’t a Die Hard movie where you just make the main character Jane McClane and add an allusion to a failed marriage and everything will work.  No, I think it’s all a part of something more we want from our movies.  Find the humor in the other half of the population.  As Bridesmaids proved, men have nothing to fear, there’s diarrhea for women too.  Smelly, hilarious diarrhea.

Conclusion

These discussions tend to get into a morass of definitions–what is masculine or feminine–or an exception listing contest. I don’t care about any of that.  If I wrote out all the exceptions to the rule I’d be here all day–and I don’t know how to add footnotes on WordPress.  

I want to watch a good movie about some real human emotion.  That doesn’t mean that it has to be solemn.  Didn’t you see 50/50 (2011)?  It just has to get after something real.  Bride WarsValentine’s Day (2010), and He’s Just Not That Into You (2009) (the worst offender!) aren’t even trying.  They weren’t even funny.

I’ll close with this.  I think movies are getting better, not worse.  More characters that are deeper and more dimensional, in both action and comedy, is the reason why.  There are going to be some terrible movies, but what is important is to keep a sound perspective on the general trajectory and not get caught up in one movie or another.  At least 200 movies were released last year.  And there’s always television (to ruin everything).

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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