This is what a feminist (film) looks like

August 12, 2010 § 6 Comments

by SARAH

The film industry has a lady problem.

Genuinely challenging and original leading roles for women are scarce, roles get smaller as women grow older, and many, many serious films that get serious nominations do so because serious men are at the center, experiencing serious, manly situations. No matter how progressive and lefty Hollywood likes to think it is, it is still slave to the power and influence of strict gender roles.

But film is an art form, and no matter how commercialized and consumerist this particular art form may have become, there are still those films that will challenge gender roles, challenge assumptions, and challenge the audience. But what does a feminist film look like?

Is a film that deals explicitly with the struggles of women in a patriarchal society instantly feminist? The Piano, a movie by Jane Campion, is often hailed as a feminist filmmaking feat, and although it’s a picture that I adore, I hesitate to agree (spoiler/vast oversimplification of plot ahead!). A mute woman leaving one repressive relationship by leaping into the arms of a man who essentially forces her to pay for her beloved piano with her sexuality hardly registers as a feminist statement for me. Nor does having a woman behind the camera guarantee a feminist success. Hollywood gave itself a good pat on the back this past March for giving a best directing and a best picture Oscar to Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman ever to win either award. While such a feat is undeniably something to get excited about, her winning would have been much more of a true feminist victory if her film, The Hurt Locker, weren’t a prime example of one of the aforementioned serious manly man movies (a pretty overrated and unoriginal serious manly man movie at that).

In popular culture, women aren’t treated like people, but rather like women. Someone is a man until proven otherwise. Women, despite being pretty much half of the population, are viewed as the “other.” As a result, there are limited roles that they are allowed to occupy, and unjust stereotypes that they are expected to fulfill. Therefore, the films I consider to be truly feminist are the films that do treat women like people, that allow their female characters to take on roles filled with tension and anger and adventure and excitement that female characters are so often denied.

Take Wendy and Lucy, the beautiful 2008 film directed by Kelly Reichardt. The story follows a woman named Wendy (Michelle Williams) as she travels to Alaska in a run down car with no other company than her beloved dog, Lucy, who seems to be her only friend in the world. Wendy is down on her luck, with a cold demeanor and a butch presentation – not the type of character Hollywood usually likes for its delicate lady-flowers. She’s constantly faced with the brutality and indifference of those around her, and experiences incredible sadness and incredible courage as she teeters on the edge of despair. Wendy is a feminist character in that she’s allowed to be distraught. Ugly. Imperfect. Strong. Impatient. There is none of the naiveté that young women are automatically presumed to have, no distracting boyfriend story, nothing that shouts “THIS CHARACTER IS A WOMAN, IN CASE YOU DIDN’T KNOW IT, AND WE WILL DO THIS AND THIS TO HER JUST SO YOU REMEMBER THAT SHE’S A LADY.” She’s a person, with as many flaws as merits, and is treated and examined as such.

In most action movies, women are hot and kind-of-smart-but-not-too-scary-smart babes who come second to the big macho male action star. Not so in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies. The central character, The Bride (Uma Thurman), wakes from a coma, then embarks on a violent killing spree, mowing down those who so brutally betrayed her and put her there. The Bride is driven by unabashed, unrelenting ruthlessness – a quality that is hardly traditionally “feminine.” It’s not the bride’s violence and need for revenge that makes her feminist (violence is never, ever the key to true empowerment), but rather the fact that she’s allowed to be so filled to the brim with drama and tension and genuine rage. Women are told to be complacent and submissive, things that The Bride is absolutely not. The morality of her actions is questionable, to say the least, but she sure does rip apart many traditional and annoying notions of femininity during her bloody quest for vengeance.

Movies made for little girls are often about princesses, and tend to equate being rich and married with being beautiful and worthy (I’m lookin’ at you, Disney). Hiyao Miyazaki is, essentially, the anti-Disney – the protagonists of his anime films are little girls, but instead of falling in love or finding happiness through material possessions, they go on adventures. They explore. Satsuki and Chihiro, of the films My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, are curious and bold. They exemplify genuine compassion and bravery, but without submissiveness or naiveté. The word that you could best use to describe all of Miyazaki’s heroines is “independent” – a feminist word if I ever saw one (hell, he even manages to give the Little Mermaid story a feminist edge in Ponyo).

Women are conditioned and told to strive for “perfection,” to be beautiful, gentle, submissive, and not to cause trouble. But women are human beings, and human beings do cause trouble. When a character breaks the unfair rules of the patriarchy, when she allows the audience to see her during her ugly, human moments, when she can be “unlady-like” and still be a protagonist worthy of our compassion and our sympathy, she’s a badass, gender-role-fucking feminist.

§ 6 Responses to This is what a feminist (film) looks like

  • thefremen says:

    Thanks so much for this! Although I was well aware of Miyazaki’s films (Totoro and Ponyo are my daughter’s favorites) and Kill Bill I hadn’t heard of Wendy and Lucy so I’ll check that out.

  • You should see the movie Girls Town. Basically, it’s about four girls who have all, in one way or another, been maltreated by men. And they fight back. They’re not incredibly perfect people–or even marginally so–and their actions are certainly illegal and morally questionable. But still…a great watch if you’re looking for a movie that treats girls like people.

    Television tends to have more multi-dimensional, gender-barrier-breaking women than movies do. Kara Thrace, Buffy Summers, Daria Morgendorfer, Kate Austen, Catherine Willows. Those are just a few of the interesting, dynamic, demanding roles that women are given in TV series. And unlike some series with so-called “strong women,” none of these girls’ primary emotional conflicts come from a “will-they-won’t-they” scenario with some guy. Even in Buffy, only a single season is devoted entirely to their relationship, and that season’s purpose was an allegory for a bad relationship. She often has love interests, but deals with many other things in her life at the same time.

  • srosengarten1641 says:

    I’ve been meaning to get into Buffy for some time now – I haven’t seen much but I do like what I HAVE seen. Also, I don’t care if Daria Morgendorffer is fictional, she’s one of my absolute heroes. Will definitely check out Girls Town, thanks for the rec!

  • Anonymous says:

    This is a very good post! :D

  • Victoria says:

    Chichiro is a feminist role model? She’s a whiny brat who cries until someone tells her what to do next. Curious and bold would not describe her. I’d much rather watch Alice in the latest Alice in Wonderland, Mia in the Princess Diaries, or Belle in Beauty and the Beast.

    Personally I adore Rachel Getting Married, partially because it treats its women characters like people.

  • Anne says:

    I love love love Wendy and Lucy. I cried so hard. In a lot of ways it was the female-centric version of the standard boy trope of men and their dog companions.

    Also gotta say I wrote an over 80 page thesis paper last year on how Miyazaki is the anti Disney–my thesis was that his female characters are better role models for young girls than Disney, for a great many many reasons, not the least of which is because they are all very clearly people in a way Disney creations are very clearly GIRLS. Which is also telling, because it’s not even that Miyazaki has a lot of princesses. The princesses are actually very politically involved, and drive the story forward themselves (as opposed to, say, Jasmine, who has no power except to get married–and she’s oh-so-graciously at least given a choice in who–and she has no power politically.) And Miyazaki’s love stories tend towards equity between male and female–they both frequently save each other, they are on equal ground…as opposed to Belle of Beauty and the Beast, who is pretty much Stockholmed into loving a (literal) animal.

    Great post. Agree 100%. Though I do wish Jane Campion had gotten best picture with The Piano over ten years ago…it’s just a great movie, despite my agreeing that it’s not necessarily feminist.

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