Tag Archives: films

Perpetuating Weak Women

I was thinking about writing this blog post a while ago, but never got round to it as I was living for the next essay deadline at the time. This morning, whilst revising for my Hollywood module, inspiration struck again. This is rather long and rambly- I do apologise.

A few weeks ago, Randall Monroe of xkcd fame blogged about the lack of top-billed female stars. It’s a very interesting post that highlights one of the main problems Hollywood has with female representation. But that’s not really what I want to write about, though it is related. What I want to talk about is how critics and film theorists (whether professional or no) actually seem to be perpetuating some of the views Hollywood has about women and their representation in film.

There is an unfortunate dichotomy in lots of film criticism, and it goes like this: male= powerful, a rescuer against female= weak, the rescued. It’s easy to see where this came from, as the majority of Hollywood (and non-Hollywood, but let’s stick with Hollywood just to make it easier) does actually conform to these gendered roles. However, many supposedly feminist critics buy into this; when a male character shows some ‘weakness’ or needs to be rescued, he is described as ‘feminised’, which is synonymous with perceived negative character traits. When a female character is dominant and rescues either herself or others, she is ‘masculinised’, which is perceived as a negative in relation to a female character. These critics argue that these women are never strong as a woman, but instead just have masculine traits mapped onto a female body. Yet when these women then portray anything gendered as feminine (falling for a man, motherhood, etc.), she is once again characterised as weak. So there is seemingly no room for a female action hero even in the realms of supposedly feminist criticms; she is strong and powerful? She’s really male. She’s fallen in love, or has a child? She’s weak.

This is my problem. Now, I’m not going to deny that there are still serious issues with representation of strong women in Hollywood, just as there are still issues with representation of racial minorities, homosexuality, people of different cultures. Hollywood is white, middle-class, straight, and male. We know this, we don’t need to hear it anymore. But there are strong female characters, and yet critics who cry out against Hollywood for not giving us these characters then turn around and define them as male, which is bad, and yet anything remotely feminine about them is also bad. How are we going to get autonomous heroines if this is the critical attitude towards them?

Let’s take a few of the most iconic female heroines, shall we?

Ripley (Alien, Aliens, etc.): Now, Ripley was originally written as a male character in Alien, and it was only casting Sigourney Weaver that changed that. Some critics have actually written Ripley off as being essentially male and therefore not worthy of discussion. Others have praised the character as coming from an egalatarian model of feminism. For me, Ripley is reminiscent of the Final Girl of slasher movies, and she saves herself. She is tough, she is pragmatic, she can use a weapon. The one problem I have with her representation in Alien  is the rather gratuitous stripping to her underwear in the shuttle. Aliens is a lot more problematic for many critics, because Ripley displays a protective, maternal instinct towards Newt. This feminises Ripley and therefore weakens her character. Never mind that she subverts the protector/protected paradigm in relation to the army, and the mass of male characters fail on an enormous scale where she succeeds. Any inclination of motherhood means Ripley is no longer a strong female character. I call bullshit. This is a serious problem in criticism: fatherhood and paternity are, and always have been, ‘good’ attributes. In Terminator 2, the terminator becoming a father figure was a positive character trait; his fatherly instinct turned his strength to protection rather than destruction. Yet when this same story model uses a woman in the position of parent, this is perceived as destroying her strength. Why?

Trinity (The Matrix trilogy): Trinity is the quintessential butch-femme. She is presented as attractive and as the hero’s love interest, but her short hair and tough demeanour problematise this. A friend of mine recently wrote a very interesting essay on the subversion of gender roles in The Matrix; if we are to take typical Hollywood gender roles, Neo is actually the more feminine. A key example of this is when he is first kissed by Trinity; Neo is the passive role in this, and Trinity sits over him, and she kisses him. Of course, this is problematised further by the fact that Neo is ‘actually’ fighting Agent Smith, but that’s a whole other argument about the status of reality in The Matrix that we won’t go into. Trinity has been criticised as being subjugated to the hero’s narrative trajectory, and to a great extent this is true; the Oracle tells Trinity that she will fall in love with The One, and so her falling for Neo is key to both the audience and the character’s realisation of his destiny. Yet Trinity is a powerful woman in her own right; our first view of her is of overpowering a group of armed men and then outrunning an Agent. Her representation as Neo’s love interest may conform to the typical role of a woman, but she is still one of the key benchmarks of the action heroine.

Last one: Beatrix Kiddo (Kill Bill): I’ll keep this one short, because I wrote a 3000 word essay on gender and violence in Kill Bill, and if I’m not careful I’ll reproduce it here. Instead I just want to make one point: I think Tarantino often emphasises Beatrix’s femininity to make the point that she is not a female character acting as a male action hero, but she is violent and powerful within her femininity. I think Beatrix Kiddo is possibly the best example of a strong female character we have (though that may have a lot to do with my undying love for Quentin Tarantino). Tarantino positions her in many typically female roles– female roles typically seen to weaken a woman, moreover– and makes her powerful within them. Her pseudonym of ‘The Bride’ is the best example; becoming a wife is often seen (at least in film) as the moment a woman gives herself up to a man, and yet here The Bride is an iconic, almost super-hero figure. I could go on about this, but this entry ahs gone on long enough.

My main point, then, is that whilst we should not simply be satisfied with Hollywood’s representation of women- it is still not great and the autonomous and powerful woman is still a minority figure. However, I think critics and theorists need to take note: female does not equal weak, and feminine is not a negative trait. The female characters I listed above, along with others (Sarah Connor and River Tam, for example), are feminine whilst being strong. They have their problems, but they are a positive step towards women who are powerfully female. They are not men in female bodies, and we need to stop characterising them as such.

For my next entry: women aren’t the only ones with representation problems. Hollywood screws with men too.

Hollywood and War

Yesterday I went to see Paul Haggis’ new film, In the Valley of Elah. I didn’t know much about it when I went in, beyond the fact that it starred Tommy Lee Jones. I thoroughly enjoyed the film; it was well-paced, quiet and yet hard-hitting. A lot of this is down to Tommy Lee Jones, who has perfected a minimalist style of acting which won him Best Actor at Cannes in 2005 when he starred in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

The mise-en-scene is grey and sparse, with the plot moving us from the bunkrooms at the army base, to a police office, to an equally bare motel room. The streets are empty, the little open country we see is a place of death and concealment. Paul Haggis paints a bleak picture of life in small-town America.

What I am interested in, though, is how the war in Iraq is approached in this film. It is important to note that Hollywood is a crucial engineer in American culture; it does not so much perpetuate cultural memory and feeling so much as create it in the first place. As such, Hollywood has never been keen on war films which do not show America as the hero.

Many Hollywood World War Two films, for instance, would have us believe that America won the war single-handed. Vietnam-based films are the most interesting– for a long time the only films that so much as touched on the Vietnam war were ones like Rambo, which had the all-American hero and which engineered history in their favour. It was a decade after Vietnam that critical films started to appear, simply because it took that long for the zeitgeist to shift and make it acceptable. Simply put, it took America a long time to admit that they hadn’t ‘won’ in Vietnam, and that it was a total disaster, and it took a similarly long time for this to be reflected in their cultural industry.

Hollywood seems to be taking a different path in regards to the Iraq war; there is more acceptance of problems in and concerning the Iraq war, but these concerns have been mostly mapped onto World War Two films (Flags of our Fathers ; Letters from Iwo Jima) or onto narratives from the first Gulf War. However, this is a habit of the film industry as a whole, not just Hollywood– current problems are transposed onto another situation, another time, another place; they are still addressed, but we see this from a spatial or historical distance.

What is interesting about In the Valley of Elah is its focus on the aftermath of the war. It is less concerned with the war itself than it is with how war effects people. Late in the film, an explanation for the torture of a wounded civilian is given as, “It was just a way to cope.” The film is not interested in pointing fingers, in excusing or condemning. Instead it just documents the problems faced by those who come back from war. Tommy Lee Jones’ character is a Vietnam veteran, and he shows an understanding for the young soldiers that does not seem to be shared by Charlize Theron’s detective. He understands the inability to move between the two worlds of war and civilisation; if you acclimatise to one, you struggle in the other. The breakdown of morality, of human compassion, is presented as a quiet desperation; the young man who laughs to himself about the running over of a child is as much a victim as the child.

In the Valley of Elah does not point the finger, but it does point towards culpability. It doesn’t condemn the war, but it gives a stark insight into how it ruins people. The final image, of the American flag flying upside-down, is a subversion of that trope of American movies, the patriarchal flag. It is not being flown as a declaration of pride, of independence, but is instead a quiet cry for help. As Jones’ character says, “It means we’re in a whole bunch of trouble, so come save our asses cos we ain’t got a prayer in hell of saving it ourselves.” This film isn’t about America saving, it’s about America needing to be saved from itself.