I wrote this essay a few days ago and posted it to my wordpress blog, but it occurred to me that i should post it here too - women, film, and the ways that storytelling can create inequality in the real world.
Cate Blanchett is a double-dealing politician who is secretly running a drug ring through the maritime trade of her homestate, Louisiana. Lupita Nyong’o is the crack investigative reporter who busts her, setting off a scandal throughout Washington and uncovering layer upon layer of corruption, up to the highest levels. Federal policy on no-bid contracts is rocked, as are American notions of truth, justice, and blondes. Best Picture Oscar, and shared wins for both Blanchett & Nyong’o in the Best Actor category. (Yes: Best Actor.)
Cate Blanchett & Lupita Nyong’o photographed by Cliff Watts for Entertainment Weekly, Feb 2014
Recently, I got into a rip-roaring feminist mood, which is not unusual. I am, after all, a woman, and a writer, and I spend a lot of my time looking at heinously genderskewed media, whether it’s film, theater, TV, or books. Most typically, particularly in the Award-Winning Categories, the ones that designate things Serious Stories For The Ages, there are piles of narratives about men changing the world. Check them. Oscars, Emmys, Pulitzers. We’re utterly used to seeing awards ceremonies during which, for example, ten (usually white, naturally) men stand up, and thank an audience for giving awards to their great art, art which almost always features a bunch of male movers and shakers. We’re used to seeing movies and plays about serious topics which have almost entirely male casts. We don’t even blink. Why would we? These are the kinds of stories that mean something. The equivalent movies (or media) with all female casts would almost certainly be marketed as chick flicks, be vigorously less serious, and would contain discussions of weddings and menopause. (How often, in a serious male-cast film have we heard a character say to another guy “I’m really having trouble with my prostate, man. It’s why I can’t focus on shooting that villain.” Things like this, regarding hot flashes, morning sickness and cramps come out of female character’s mouths all the time.)
This is how we’ve been taught to see the world.
These Award Winning films, plays, TV series, etc, are set in the science world, the financial world, the social justice world, the crime world. Sometimes they’re set in the near future, or in critical moments in the past. There are usually a couple of female characters in each of them. They’re always beautiful and young, and also they’re usually secretaries, interns, or cheated-on wives. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, they might be dead daughters, which means they’ve got a narrative arc with which to push their grieving fathers into the action that ultimately…changes the world.
Their only means for changing the world are getting injured or killed (to drive male characters toward revelation and revenge), getting married (to achieve “Important Because of the People In This Conversation” status), or getting the right piece of paper just in time to the guy who is ACTUALLY going to change the world, but who probably also has time to take a long look at her ass as she walks out the door, having delivered the missile codes.
This isn’t unusual to see, of course: this is Hollywood, and it is also mass media popular storytelling, which is why I regularly hit critical mass on it. These are the stories young girls are consuming. These are the stories that tell women what they can be. These stories, folks, are fucked up. They break us. Stories are how we learn to live.
Stories which calculatedly and carefully do not include active women tell us that women are not useful parts of society.
Do storytellers not realize that women are impactful parts of the world?
Do audiences not realize that women are impactful parts of the world? That women change the world? That women are, indeed, as interesting as men are? Why are all the women offstage in the important stories?
Those last are rhetorical questions. The charitable interpretation is that we don’t realize, and that oops, we just need to have it pointed out. (It’s been pointed out. A lot.) The less charitable interpretation is that the system has been fucked for centuries, and that narratives featuring women as impactful characters have always been in short supply.
Oh, are you about to remind me about, say, Lady Macbeth? Okay. Point taken. Lady Macbeth is a complicated female character in a sea of male characters (who are busy changing the world), yes. She’s also a villainess who controls men with her vagina and ambition. She’s powerful. But she’s the dark side of Opinionated Broad. In tons of the kind of story-telling I’m talking about – mass market, mainstream, award winning, there’s a Lady M character, for whom no one really deserves a cookie. Lady M is easy to achieve. I’m going to remind you now that Lady M, opinionated broad that she is, also loses her mind and commits suicide offstage for her sins, late in Act 5.
Impactful female characters should not just be villains and secretaries, and - category unto themselves - Beautiful Girls. They should also be complicated heroines, changers of policy, battlers against civil wars. But we’re used to putting one woman for every ten men into a story and feeling that we’ve done enough to show that there are women in the world, and that we know it.
Every time I see a story with no impactful female characters, I wonder if the writer notices that indeed, they ARE changing the world. Badly. I suspect many story-creators do not in fact realize this. Because they think of the world in terms of men changing it.
First century AD, and the world is in turmoil. The Roman Empire seeks to violently colonize the domain of Boadicea (Angelina Jolie), Queen of the Iceni tribe, in Wales. The warrior queen, painted with blue battlepaint, leads a revolt against colonialism, leading 100,000 troops against Rome, and defying the Emperor Nero. She nearly prevails, though in the end she dies heroically on the battlefield defending her country, and raising her fist in the air. She doesn’t have a husband. She leads male troops. In the end, her troops mourn her, and burn her body. The final shot is smoke.
Angelina Jolie, Date & Photographer unknown, but looking like she could tear Rome with her teeth nonetheless. We’ll just pretend those lips are indigo blue.
Films about Boadicea have been in development for years, and regularly seem to collapse. They’re expensive. Conventional wisdom – based on the prevailing myth about what important stories consist of – tells us that audiences will not come to a giant historical action epic focusing on a female hero. Why not? Would you go to see the movie I just described? I would. At this point in human history, we should have Oscar Contender movies about people like Ada Lovelace, Boadicea and many, many others. We need them. The last time there was a major Hollywood movie about Marie Curie, it was 1943. 1943!!!!! Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), often described as the world’s first computer programmer, has never been the subject of a major Hollywood film, though I’m quite sure people have tried. There’s never been a biopic about Josephine Baker, though it’s been mooted and collapsed repeatedly, with stars ranging from Diana Ross to Rihanna. The civil rights leader Diane Nash has never been the subject of a biopic, and indeed, is often edited from the action in larger depictions, despite her radical bravery, ferocious commitment to social change, and clear influence on the action. There are countless other examples of things that should exist…and don’t. Yet the male equivalents do.
Let me be clear here: What. The. Fuck?
Not only does this not make good sense in a There Are Amazing Women in the World context, it does not make sense in a storytelling context.
Perhaps I should point out now that intriguingly, given the many centuries of wrongs done to women, that the stakes are actually HIGHER for heroic female characters than they are for equivalent male characters.
High stakes = better stories, right?
A female character going up against a world of men to fight for justice is more likely to have her life threatened than a male character is. Female characters often are put into stories to disappear. In the real world, women who fight for justice (or walk down the street), in any medium, are likely to be casually threatened with rape and murder. I am. Pretty much daily. Centuries of stories have taught men that it is okay to treat a female character like a walk on, that it is okay to reduce her lines to zero, to reduce her power to pretty, and to reduce her impact to whether or not she is hot enough to walk down the street in front of them. The same is radically not true for most men.
Thus: female characters fighting for justice, doing impactful things? Are actually working harder than than their male equivalents, because the deck is stacked hard against them. Why would we not wish to increase the stakes in our stories by featuring female characters risking EVERYTHING, as opposed to male characters risking their careers, or reputations? Men typically get threatened with humiliation and loss of material possessions. Women get threatened with violence and loss of life.
The women who have changed the world have done it against significant, intense, life-threatening odds.
If that’s not Great Story, I don’t know what is.
I was having a conversation yesterday afternoon with a friend of mine who teaches theater to teenagers. She’d been in a classroom watching group-created performances, seeing them for the first time, and was startled to discover that the teenage girls in the classes had cast themselves in improv roles in which they were nearly all dead or dying, women suffering injuries, raped, murdered, hit by cars, and otherwise destroyed. The only women who spoke tended to talk about men. The other role the teenagers had given themselves was the role of Hot Walk On.
This was, needless to say, not the case with the boys in the class, who all had lines and actions. But everyone had tacitly agreed that the women in the room were more important for their bodies than their brains, and for their capacity to motivate male characters into action, specifically by being sacrificed.
Why? Because these are the kinds of stories we recognize as a society. Because these are our current big stories. Because this is the fucked world we’re living in.
My friend taught her students about the Bechdel Test, and then talked about why female characters should be doing things other than dying. She gave them, it sounds like, the serious gift of revelation: you have a voice. You are impactful. You can play a character who is a whole person, not just a tool to help male characters achieve their goals.
You can change the world.
A team of the world’s best scientists (Kerry Washington, Michelle Yeoh, Helen Mirren, Salma Hayek) are recruited to intervene when a meteorite is headed toward Earth. They must find a way to minimize impact – and their skills are put to the test when they discover that the meteorite is not celestial, but engineered material, and that someone on Earth has actually rigged the fall as an act of war. (Note: This is not a world in which all the men are dead. This is simply a world in which the most qualified scientists in this room happen to be women.) Their intern (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) occasionally distracts them with sex appeal, but is largely mute, though in a key moment, he does provide a single, startling line of insight.
There is no random shot of all these women together, so this is the lineup. Imagine them saving the world.
All these movie scenarios I’m describing are essentially gender-reversed plots of films we’ve felt totally comfortable watching. We’ve become so used to Opinionated, Strategic Woman = Villain, and Beautiful Women = Piece of Ass With Perhaps Secondarily A Surprisingly Good Brain, that it’s hard to imagine an Oscar-style movie in which women like these are heroes, and in which their interactions have nothing at all to do with men. It’s totally rational that in the real world they could be. Women in the real world regularly kick ass in the sciences. They risk their lives photographing warzones. They spend a great deal of their time having nothing to say about men, weddings, menopause, periods, or their vaginas, and often can be found, you know, analyzing medieval marginalia, drafting policy arguments for politicians, and running through the park thinking about string theory.
Yet the movie versions of us – the mainstream Award Winning versions of us – are more typically found offscreen, coming on to serve the male world changers coffee, tie their neckties, support their ambitions, and look beautiful. We can be found bending over backwards in heels to show men how well we can shake it, while still maintaining the ability to raise small children, which startling capacity will, of course, help the male main character realize that he should be more emotionally available, and that he should also perhaps take some vengeful action against the things that have hurt the woman he loves.
This is pretty crazy.
This is pretty sad.
This leads to female characters whose main event is offstage suicide. This leads to girls who do not realize that their main event can be anything they want, that it does not have to be pretty, nor does it have to be sexy. That it can, in fact, be about nothing but brain.
Lest you think I am trying to create a non-entertaining universe of media, something that is all about politics and nothing to do with fun, I present you in conclusion with the following scenario, which will be familiar to you from years of movies we’ve accepted unblinkingly as popcorn and soda classics, as fun bubblegum, as the stories we want to see when we want our brains to be empty and then filled again with a bunch of pretty things.
Sleek, impeccable and brutally charming, international con-artist Miranda Plaza (Tilda Swinton) violates parole to organize the perfect heist. Together with former partner Rene Lamar (Penelope Cruz) the duo employs 8 of their former heistwoman colleagues to pull off a gigantic multi-national bank robbery. The heistwomen are contortionists, lock picks, munitions experts. None of them use sex appeal to achieve their goals, but they’re smart and skilled, and the dialogue is rapid-fire, stylish, and fun as hell. Plaza’s ex-husband (an unknown) plays a minor role, the only male role in the film. But damn, he’s fine.
So fine that this film – much as Thelma & Louise made Brad Pitt’s career – makes him famous.
See? I’m fair.
Tilda Swinton & Penelope Cruz at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party, 2012 – Do these two women not look like they’d pull off any heists they wanted to?
Here’s a storified link to the series of Tweets that inspired this essay:#FeministBecause