The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Gender perspective on movies – are we tired yet?

with 33 comments

I have a conflicted relationship to gender perspective on film. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you might have noticed.

There are some days when my feminist bear growl can be heard miles away. During those days I have very little tolerance for stereotyping and imprisonment of women in set roles and I watch everything through a Bechdel test filter.

You will hear me barking at basically everything, even at a classic such as It Happened One Night.

It doesn’t matter if the film reflects society as it was in 1934; it’s still not enjoyable to se a movie presenting women as always depending on men since they’re too stupid and lost to possibly be able to take care of themselves. It deserves to be called out for what it is.

But then there are other days when I’m sick and tired of anything gender related. On those days I just want to tell the feminists to shut up and just enjoy the film. Do they really have to make an issue about everything? Can’t they at least leave the cult movies alone? Don’t they have ANY humour at all? (Please notice that on those occasions I suddenly exclude myself from the the group. It’s “them”, not “me”).

Ray Bradbury
In the beginning of June I was close to swear an oath to stop nagging about the lack of strong, capable women in movies altogether, never to mention the issue again.

It happened after I had read a text by Ray Badbury, reprinted in New York Post shortly after his death. Previously published in the 1979 Del Ray edition of Farenheit 451, this is a reply to all people who over the years have complained about the lack of different perspectives in his books. He’s as well formulated as he’s furious. I’ll give you a couple of long quotes to enjoy (but I urge you to read the entire article – it’s worth it.)

There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/Four Square Gospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.”

[…]

“For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conversationist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics. The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws. But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule.

If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent type-writers. If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture. If the Chicano intellectuals wish to recut my “Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” so it shapes “Zoot,” may the belt unravel and the pants fall.

For, let’s face it, digression is the soul of wit. Take philosophic asides away from Dante, Milton or Hamlet’s father’s ghost and what stays is dry bones. Laurence Sterne said it once: Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine, the life, the soul of reading! Take them out and one cold eternal winter would reign in every page. Restore them to the writer — he steps forth like a bridegroom, bids them all-hail, brings in variety and forbids the appetite to fail.

In sum, do not insult me with the beheadings, finger-choppings or the lung-deflations you plan for my works. I need my head to shake or nod, my hand to wave or make into a fist, my lungs to shout or whisper with. I will not go gently onto a shelf, degutted, to become a non-book.”

I suspect Bradbury’s sentiments are the same as what many filmmakers feel and experience today. The agenda for what is politically correct is endless and you can’t win. There are so many urgent matters to consider and if you remember to include a few you can bet that you’ve forgotten a couple of others and will be bashed for that. And the first victim will be the story.

The Avengers poster
I gave Bradbury completely right and I stayed in my “I’m never going to nag filmmakers about gender perspectives again” for a couple of weeks after reading his coda.

But the other week the tide turned again and went in the other direction. It was when the new Swedish film blog Flickorna pulled my attention to Kevin Bolk’s wonderful parody of a promo poster for the The Avengers. In the original poster all members of the crew were facing the audience showing their front, apart from Black Widow, who was showing her bottom. All Bolk did was to reverse this, which was a real eye-opener to see the absurdity in the original.

What astonished me was that I hadn’t noticed how weird that poster was in the first place – not until it was pointed out to me like this. And this blindness bugged me. Have I become so infiltrated by the predominant view on women in film as sex objects and very little else, that I’ve stopped to see those things, stopped to question it? If not even women notice, that doesn’t give much hope for a change, does it? At the time I watched The Avengers I thought it was pretty fair from a gender perspective. After all Black Widow did things on her own and was an accomplished member of the team, not just there for decoration. But maybe I’ve lowered the bar. Would it be wrong to expect a little bit more?

Swinging back and forward
You see how I’m swinging. Back and forward.

Some days I just want to leave it alone, hoping that it will work out in the end anyway. Just give it some time.  There’s no need to get hysterical. So what if the director and protagonist and cinematographer all are male? As long as the movie is good it doesn’t matter. Leave the artists alone and let them do their thing! Don’t grind the future Bradburys into silence will unreasonable demands!

Other days I’m on fire and want to tear down every wall there is and accept no excuses why the film industry still is a man’s world.

I want things to change, not as much for me as for my daughters and my future granddaughters. I want them to grow up in a world where it’s as natural and possible for a woman to become a successful film director as it is for a man. I want them to grow up in a world where Black Widow doesn’t need to show her ass to get accepted as a part of the crew. Isn’t it a bit lazy and cowardish to expect other people to do all the fighting for me?

My views and perspectives change over time, not only in this area.

I grew up reading Carl Barks’ series about Donald Duck and his friends and in one episod the evil witch Magica de Spell used a spray on people that made they take the appearance of the last person they’d met.

That’s me in a nutshell.  I read something and nod to myself: “yes, that’s how it is”, and the next day I read somone arguing in the opposite direction and think they’re completely right.  Go ahead and spray your views on me and they’ll stick, provided that they’re reasonably well argued. No wonder I suffer from internal conflicts!

Life seems to be so much simpler if you’re a devoted follower of an “-ism”, doesn’t it?

My defense and comfort is I think there are worse things in the world you can do than arguing with yourself.  Contradiction brings us further than silence. I’d rather talk to someone who is inconsistent than indifferent.

To all you opinionated people out there – the toast of the week goes to you. Cheers!

Written by Jessica

July 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm

33 Responses

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  1. Well, I think everyone feels slightly different from moment to moment. As for the depiction of women in movies it’s something you kind of get used to. I recently watched the documentary Miss Representation (my review here – http://myfilmviews.com/2012/07/02/miss-representation-2011/) which deals with that subject which you probably will find interesting as well.

    Nostra

    July 6, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    • I read your review on it and it sounds like something I should watch. Even if I get tired of the topic from time to time I keep returning to it.

      Jessica

      July 8, 2012 at 9:31 am

  2. I used to be indecisive but I’m not so sure now. 😉

    Some great points there though Jessica.

    Mark Walker

    July 6, 2012 at 5:59 pm

  3. This is a great read and your comments about the Avengers parody- and how easy it was to be blind about it BEFORE the parody and impossible to ignore AFTER seeing the parody- are spot on.

    The female director thing is shocking. It’s so institutionalized that nobody really noticed for decades that there aren’t many female directors, and even less that are recognizable by name. Obviously, Nora Ephron’s untimely death brought a lot of attention to that fact.

    I don’t know what it’s like to work in movies, but it definitely seems to be a boy’s club. I have worked in professional baseball and I can tell you that, in that industry, the sexism isn’t even subtle. If the movie industry is anything at all like professional baseball, then women are going to have to overcome a lot of bullshit to make inroads.

    Whatever the case, it’s ridiculous and embarrassing that it’s 2012 and this is still an issue.

    John

    July 6, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    • Thanks John!

      Everytime I see the numbers, particularly the Hollywood-only numbers, I get a little shock. I think the amount of female directors there is about 7 percent or so. I think there is a change in the air, but it’s going SO slowly. We know what it looked like in Cannes this year. Not a single female director in the competition.
      I don’t say that the festival is sexist because of this; they probably made a fair choice, picking the best and most interesting movies there were. It’s rather the result of an industry that has a long tradition of being a boys club. As long as it looks this way I think it IS an issue. Even if I get tired of it from time to time.

      Jessica

      July 8, 2012 at 9:36 am

  4. I’m not sure if I waver on caring about gender so much as I have my limits that others sometimes push well past, like when someone attacks an individual film based on industry-wide issues rather than issues that are self-contained within that film. That women are not well represented among directors doesn’t mean that it is a flaw every time a male directs a film. That portraying no-drama abortions would probably be good (though I’d say probably dramatically unfulfilling) doesn’t make Juno a terrible film just because she happens to choose something different (after casually considering abortion in the first place, showing that in her world it isn’t that big a deal).

    Anyway, I do like Bradbury’s point, though films, unlike books, are so difficult to get made that it’s a bit too trite to just say “make your own.” A lot of responsibility does lie with the studios to support projects that diversify.

    Bondo

    July 6, 2012 at 6:23 pm

    • “That women are not well represented among directors doesn’t mean that it is a flaw every time a male directs a film. “. Exactly. I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for some male directors we have in Sweden now that are less likely to get public financal support for their film just because they’re men and the system wants to buff women now. Tough luck for the individual. And yet I can understand the reasons for this bias if you want to get a change and break the circle.

      I’m not sure about the role of the studios. After all they’re running a business and their responsibility is to make profit, isn’t it? Perhaps the biggest responsibility lies within the audience? Not to support crappy stereotyping films with their ticket fees?

      Jessica

      July 8, 2012 at 9:48 am

  5. Somewhat related: Was just e-mailin’ with me sister ’bout the Avengers, an’ our opinionifications of the pre-Avengers movies. “Wish they’d make a Black Widow movie.” I sez. Minute later I specifies “A good Black Widow movie.”

    “Really??” she sez. “You wouldn’t prefer a _sh#tty_ Black Widow movie? Hmm…”
    Couple minutes later: “Movie snob”

    Many decades ago, when I were jus’ growin’ up outta bein’ an orcling, I started readin’ the Uncanny X-Men. I remembers what caught me eye were Shadowcat, who the artists was fairly respectful about drawin’ as a capable athletic young woman, ‘stead of a cantaloupe-stuffed contortionist showin’ boobs ‘n’ arse in every frame. Would be nice fer ta see more of that in the industry.

    Ratshag

    July 6, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    • Definitely. I actually thought that Black Widow got a pretty okish role in the movie. After all she was capable of looking after herself. But then I hadn’t reflected over the promo poster…

      Jessica

      July 8, 2012 at 9:50 am

  6. Like you, I tend to swing back and forth on whether I’m offended by gender stereotypes — and stereotypes in general — in movies and other media. Sometimes it’s hard to put my finger on why I find one stereotype bothers and me and I’m happy to give another a pass. And yes, people really do need to learn to pick their battles. Excellent quote from Fahrenheit 451!

    http://eclecticbooksandmovies.blogspot.com/

    momto3feistykids

    July 7, 2012 at 12:11 am

    • I’m just like you. I’m not consistent. On the other hand if I was, watching movies would be quite unbarable for me as well as my surroundings. I would be constantly annoyed. And who wants to be that?

      Jessica

      July 8, 2012 at 10:10 am

  7. Especially in the subject of gender, we are all learning. We are dedicated to the principles of equality, but we still aren’t really sure what that looks like. Clearly, the Avengers’ poster isn’t what equality looks like, but we couldn’t actually see the inequality until it was pointed out. And sometimes “fighting the good fight” is just too tiring. Instead of telling some feminists that they should “just let us have fun”, be glad that they are fighting the fight today, so you don’t have to

    As for Bradbury’s quote, I think Bondo makes an important point. Just because there is inequality doesn’t mean that we should dismiss good work. We should enjoy good work in the present world and encourage there to be more equality in future work. Which is kind of what Bradbury was saying.

    Steve Kimes

    July 7, 2012 at 2:28 am

    • Yes, I think it’s a bit of the “don’t curse the darkness, lit a candle” philosophy. I think MAKING a movie like The Hurt Locker makes a whole lot more difference than complaining about movie X Y Z by various male directors.

      Jessica

      July 8, 2012 at 10:13 am

  8. Like Bondo said, Bradbury is right, but books are not films. It is far more difficult to make a film than to write a book, and even harder to get your film seen as opposed to a book. I guess that’s another reason why I prefer European films, which while still male dominated in most countries, there doesn’t seem to be as much of a barrier for women, or any other minority group, to get the chance to be heard.

    Bonjour Tristesse

    July 7, 2012 at 3:25 am

    • I still think there is something in Bradbury’s quote that is relevant for the way we discuss films. Things can turn pretty ridiculous if we put the demands on individual films to be perfect from every little minority perspective you can think of. The worst movie I watched last year was a Swedish one, which tried to do exactly that: have urgent important messages about women, immigrants, homosexuals, disabled and whatnot – all at the SAME TIME. The result was blend to say the least. The multitude needs to be on the total. Not in one single film.

      Jessica

      July 8, 2012 at 10:16 am

      • I totally agree with that point. No author or director should ever be expected or coerced into telling all inclusive stories. But I think that’s an ideal that isn’t always possible to adhere to when the biggest factor is money.

        Bonjour Tristesse

        July 10, 2012 at 10:50 am

        • The funny thing is that money now – at least in Sweden – are pushing movies in an inclusive direction. I’m pretty certain that the check list of political correctness in the dreadful film of last year had something to do with the public financial support.

          Jessica

          July 10, 2012 at 11:03 am

  9. Great article. I really enjoyed the way in which you walked around the subject before you hit it square on the nose. Excellent points.

    At the end of every school year I teach Fahrenheit 451. I teach Bradbury throughout the year so that by the end of 10th grade these almost 11th graders can grasp some of the meaning lying within the novel. When we look at gender and character, strong and weak, male and female, Bradbury had a variety of things to say. In Fahrenheit 451 he gave us both strong and weak female characters. He also gave us indecisive, weak, strong, and decisive male characters. As all good writers do, characters are symply ideas or points to be made about the subject or theme of the entire story. It is only in allowing the artist (writer, director, cinematographer, et cet.) free reign to make their point in whatever way they see fit that an open dialog by real people can happen. In that open dialog we discuss gender roles and how we might be able to change the minds of thousands so that future thousands can live without the prejudices that hamper our world today.

    I wrote an article about gender roles and Marvel Comics characters at xsmarkthespot. You may be interested in reading it: http://xsmarkthespot.squarespace.com/blog/week/2012-01-22-to-2012-01-28
    Its a little more tongue-in-cheek, but I think some of the same ideas are expressed. Also I believe I hit on a couple of the same in the Prometheus Unbound article. I have to say again… I love the way you think!

    Vicki Love

    July 7, 2012 at 4:25 am

    • Thanks for sharing all this about the way you teach Farenheit 451. I read it as a young girl and it’s one of those books that has shaped me into who I am, making me into a firm believer of freedom of speech and thought as well as a lover of books. Regardless of whatever I’ll face in life, they can never take away the books and ideas from me. They live inside me.

      That piece you worte was funny, though I must say that I actually don’t watch films in that way for my own part. I think I get my film crushes more from the personality point of view than from the body types.

      Jessica

      July 8, 2012 at 10:24 am

      • I am with you Jessica, I am attracted to personality, not so much body type. I just find it interesting that in the Comics industry the “body” is so much a part of the character, be it male or female. I live with someone who thinks handsome is everything, and we find ourselves debating this all the time. I guess the phrase, to each his/her own, is appropriate. 🙂

        Vicki Love

        July 8, 2012 at 7:49 pm

  10. Some really good points there, and I’m with you all the way with the back-and-forth. Sometimes Nina Björks femenist shard of glass is just too heavy to carry around in your eye. But looking thorugh it once in a while must stillbe better than not having one at all.

    Sofia

    July 7, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    • Yeah. When I was a bit younger I think I was more firmly indifferent to feminism, saying that it didn’t concern me since I never had allowed anyone to discriminate me anyway. I’m a bit more concerned nowadays. Even if I find myself in a pretty good spot, many other women in other parts of the world don’t, and who am I to just turn away and ignore this?

      I don’t have the passion and energy to go on and on about it though. But like you I throw a glance through the glass once in a while.

      Jessica

      July 8, 2012 at 10:28 am

  11. Like you, I don’t always “see” the gender disparities right away, but once I notice them or someone points them out, I try to do my best to not allow myself to buy into the defenses of Bradbury or others. I mean, does he (and others) really believe that his (and their) artistic integrity depends upon stereotypes? Are we to take his defenses to their logical extreme and declare that in the future, long after discrimination ends in every other legal, moral and economic realm that we need to somehow preserve it in the arts, so that they may become the last refuge of bigoted scoundrels?

    And his claims that people simply “write their own” are problematic for me. Commenters have noted the particular difficulties in the film industry, but let’s not forget that literature has had, and continues to have, its own roadblocks. Surely Bradbury knows that it is not merely a matter of writing, but also of publishing. Not merely a matter of starting your own publishing company, but of having the wealth to do so. Not to mention all those periods in human history (and places still today) where women aren’t allowed to learn to read & write, much less publish or greenlight.

    nevertooearlymp

    July 7, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    • “I mean, does he (and others) really believe that his (and their) artistic integrity depends upon stereotypes? ” You have a point.

      About “write your own”, I think it’s actually way easier these days than it was at the point Bradbury wrote this. The possibilties of self-publishing, books as well as films, are infinite nowadays thanks to new cheap technology and internet. Reaching a huge audience and actually have an influence is trickier of course. But I think the change of the media landscape might work in favor of multitude. There are so many voices speaking out there nowadays. The question is how to make people listen to them. I reckon bloggers like you and me have a role in this, helping people to find their way even to small, unknown but yet good movies (and books).

      Jessica

      July 8, 2012 at 10:34 am

  12. I admit that had you talked to me about this 15 years ago, I wouldn’t have cared as much. Now? I’m the father of two daughters, and the depiction of women in film is very important to me. The last thing I want is for my kids to view themselves or their own value as people by the way women are routinely depicted in film.

    At the same time, though, there is a place for the stereotype, isn’t there? I want authors and filmmakers to give me strong female characters, but I want weak ones, too. In short, I want real characters. Some women are strong–I know plenty. Some are weak. Some still try to pull off that “Southern belle” thing and feign helplessness. Some women tie their personal value to whether or not there’s a man in their life. What I don’t want is all women portrayed that way–I want a mix, because reality is a mix. The problem isn’t that the stereotypes exist or that the stereotypical characters exist. The problem is that the majority of characters is still that way.

    The Bechdel Test is a good start, but there are times when it’s not a valuable judge of a film’s worth. Is 12 Angry Men less a film because all of the perspectives are male? Of course not.

    SJHoneywell

    July 7, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    • Yes, so much this. When the stereotypes are so dominant on the screen I think we get into a vicious cirlce when they feed the stereotypes in reality, which in turn feed the stereotypes on the screen. I so wish we could get passed those tired clichés. And that counts for the way men are related on screen as well as women btw. Wouldn’t that make for better, more interesting films?

      You’re right about the text. It’s a start, and sometimes reveals a pattern that you don’t think of immediately (since we’re so used to it) and I think it’s valuable in this way, as an eye-opener. But it definitely doesn’t cover everything and 12 Angry Men is no less of a good movie because there only are men in it.

      Jessica

      July 8, 2012 at 10:50 am

  13. Great post, Jess! Very insightful and honest. I identified with many of your points, and I loved the Bradbury
    quotes.

    fernandorafael

    July 10, 2012 at 5:24 am

    • Thank you Fernando! I would love to hear you sharing your thoughts on this as well. You’re man of half my age who lives on the other side of the world. How does the film scene look in Mexico from a gender point of view?

      Jessica

      July 10, 2012 at 9:04 am

      • It’s dominated by men. Even more so than in the US. There are almost no movies with women as leads or films with interesting, developed characters. They’re basically eye candy or plot devices. The last flattering portrayal of a woman in Mexican film I saw was in the suspense/horror film Somos Lo Que Hay. It’s about a family of cannibals so the character is not exactly a “good” woman but she’s very smart, strong and, even though she’s the youngest, she’s the head of the family when it comes to decisions.

        Keep in mind that Mexico is a country where machismo is pretty much the norm. We recently had presidential elections and one of the candidates was a woman. I am not kidding you, her main “proposition” if she were to be elected President (she wasn’t) was that she was a woman. She didn’t really promise better schools or more jobs, she just kept saying “I’m a woman, I’m a woman” at every opportunity. As if being a woman was enough to deserve our votes. Still, there were a LOT of people who voted for her just because of that fact.

        fernandorafael

        July 11, 2012 at 3:22 am

        • Oh, it sounds as if it’s as bad as I had imagined. It’s sad that the presidential candidate didn’t have something more substantial to market than her gender. But I guess it’s just a sign of immaturity, that it’s a long way to go to equality. If nothing else you could hope that she has helped clearing the way so the next female presidential candidate also will have a political viewpoint to market.

          Jessica

          July 11, 2012 at 7:49 am

  14. […] på The Velvet Café skrev en riktig mitt-i-prick-text om detta och jag känner igen mig i allt. Jag, precis som Jessica, är mycket kluven till hela […]


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