Said Thelma to Louise in a film that still stands as the seminal feminist big-screen journey. Because movies featuring or made by women still get far less investment than they should.
USC’s Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative released a study on more than 25,000 speaking characters in 600 of the highest-grossing films of the past seven years, and, unsurprisingly, the results for women are dismal. While women made some headway in comedies with a whopping third of characters, they represented less than a quarter of action-adventure roles. The number of women directors dropped, and women characters were sexualized three times as often as men. (There are even financial reasons why this should be otherwise.)
Add to that, the vast number of movies that perpetuate gender norms and contribute to rape culture, and we’ve got a pretty sorry picture.
But there are films out there that challenge traditional ideas of women, give women voices and agency, and explore women’s experiences. We can argue all day about what definition to use to categorize a movie as feminist and you’ll be disappointed if you’re favorites were left off of this list, but I’m really digging Flavorwire’s “50 Essential Feminist Films” and am ashamed to say that I’ve only seen fourteen of them. Now you know what’s on my Netflix queue.
To give you an idea of what’s on the list, here’s what I’ve seen: Meshes of the Afternoon, All About My Mother, Daisies (a feminist, anti-capitalist frolic; you too will long to stomp around in cake at a wealthy shindig), Orlando (my introduction to the incomparable Tilda Swinton), Alien, Wendy and Lucy, Female Trouble, Morvern Callar, I Shot Andy Warhol, Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains (a young, punk Diane Lane!), Nine to Five, Clueless (yes!), A View to a Kill (an unexpected pick, but Barbara Broccoli produced and Grace Jones kicked ass), and The Punk Singer (which I wrote about recently).
This is truly an excellent list: science fiction, transgender stories, female magistrates in Cameroon, women in Tehran, Cuban revolutionaries, Maggie Cheung, Catherine Deneuve, Pam Grier and bell hooks in the same film, Margarite Duras, Margarethe von Trotta, Jane Campion, Agnès Varda. Cassavetes, our best frenemy, makes an appearance. And Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, which I’ve wanted to watch ever since I read about it in college.
There are also great suggestions in the comment section. So is your favorite missing? What else would you recommend?
As for the future of film, and feminist film especially, check out these fine organizations and projects: Black Feminist Film School, Athena Film Festival, Women in Film, Women Make Movies, Reel Grrls, PODER!, and, of course, from Thelma herself, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
As I write this, I keep peeking at the #YesAllWomen Twitter conversation, where women are explaining what it’s like to live with the constant threat of male violence thanks to misogynistic attitudes that caused a young man to kill seven people and injure several others at UC Santa Barbara. He was angry that women wouldn’t sleep with him. See, we never know if this guy is lurking inside the dude who harasses us on the street or sidles up to us at the bar, so we say, “I have a boyfriend” and grip our keys between our knuckles.
Recently, on a late-night walk with my partner, I thought we’d walked enough and wanted to go home and sleep, but he wasn’t done. He said he could just meet me at home. I said, “Uh, it’s a forty minute walk back on dark streets where no one walks, and I don’t even have my phone or ID. You think I’m walking that by myself?” He does it all the time, so he didn’t think twice about it. Must be nice, I thought, to not live with the kind of fear women live with for good reason.
This isn’t what I want to talk about this week, but I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s constantly under the surface as I do other things. I’m so relieved that people are having this conversation instead of ignoring the reason this guy plainly gave for his actions and the reason women die at the hands of men every day around the world.
But what I want to talk about isn’t totally unrelated.
My subject today is “strong women.” Please, can we stop saying it? Screenwriters and directors who care about female characters just a little more than the average filmmaker use this term a lot. So do the people who interview them, stunned that someone might see women in complex ways. And so do people who want to see more of these women on screen. It’s become shorthand for fully drawn female characters or female-driven stories. I was going to give you a few examples, but there are just so many and if you haven’t come across this term a hundred times in the last year, then you probably don’t have a TV anyway.
It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the sentiment. I get what these people are saying and appreciate what they are doing.
The problem, however, is that the still fairly new idea of making movies with “strong women” implies that such women are a rarity. That there are loads of women out there who are little weaklings just floating around waiting for a big, strong man to reel them in and protect them from all the harsh difficulties of real life. That most women don’t know how to handle life on their own.
What is the male corollary of the strong woman? In film or fiction, it’s just…a man. No one says, “Gee, I love that this director focuses on strong male characters” because that wouldn’t make sense. Men get to be who they are and women, if they are lucky, get to be strong women. I asked my partner to tell me the first thought that came to him when I said “strong man.” He said, “A man in a striped, old-timey bathing suit with a waxed mustache and a heavy barbell.”
Need I say more?
Honestly, I don’t know any women who aren’t strong. Do you? Every woman I can think of–whether family, friend, colleague, or acquaintance–is strong in her own way. I used to work for a nonprofit that housed women who had faced intimate partner violence, sexual assault, addiction, prison and other problems that totally disrupted their lives. Some of them had worked or lived on the streets. Many had lost their children. Nearly all had faced sexual abuse when they were young. You might assume that these were weak women. That might be what you associate with drugs and domestic violence and prison and sex work. But they were the strongest people I’d ever met in my life. Each one was working to overcome a series of debilitating problems that all began when someone they trusted had hurt them in ways many of us couldn’t imagine. They had reached rock bottom and gotten back up. I’d say that’s as strong as it gets.
You don’t have to kick someone’s ass to be strong.
What we really mean when we say a film or TV show has strong women characters is that we’ve been shown a more comprehensive view of those characters’ lives. Someone has taken the girlfriend of the hero and shown us other parts of her life. We can see that every minute of her life does not revolve around the hero, that she has agency, her own concerns and interests and desires. By showing us other sides of the usual narrative, we can see her as the hero of her own life. This isn’t anything special. It’s every day for more than half the world.
We live with the threat of violence every day. And we go about our business anyway. You think we’re not all strong?
I was reading a rather yawn-inducing piece on Jezebel describing the concept of a “basic bitch” and my eyes wandered into the comment section, which is typically fine on that site because most readers are feminist, anti-racist, etc. But I saw something really bizarre happen. A commenter who introduced herself as a Native American woman said she was tired of all the anti-white articles and comments popping up all over the internet, and people responded by challenging her Nativeness, even going so far as to demand to know what tribe she belongs to, whose rolls she’s on, what rez she lives on.
They were doing this because they felt like she was complaining about reverse racism (which pretty much only happens at an individual level and not at a systemic level, so it’s not the same thing as actual racism, which is pervasive and affects every aspect of people’s lives), a reaction they thought was kind of racist in and of itself, so they responded with…their own racism.
Let’s just get this out of the way: it’s not really okay to question how Native someone is just because you don’t think they act or look like a Native person should. Because of the problem of blood quantum, people still think it’s perfectly acceptable to single out Native Americans as the one group that must prove their ethnicity. With blood.
Blood quantum is the measure of how much Native blood a person has. It’s like the one-drop rule, but instead of being used to classify as many people as possible as non-white so they could be segregated from white people and treated like second-class citizens, blood quantum was established by the US government (and back in the colonies) to actually limit the number of Native Americans. The smaller the tribe, the less the government had to offer in a treaty. Even now, government benefits to tribes are measly due to blood quantum. Lived all your life on the res, 100% Native, but descended from several different tribes? Too bad, you don’t have enough blood from this one tribe to be a full member, so the US government ignores you. Old tribal census rolls are incomplete because the US government forced your family off their land, sent their kids to boarding schools where their language was beaten out of them, and your grandfather was delivered in a shack with a dirt floor (by a drunk doctor who screwed up his birth certificate) to parents whose records don’t appear to exist? Sorry, friend, you’re out of luck.
Last week I saw this image of a white Cleveland baseball fan in red face haughtily explaining himself to a Native man. In the middle of the city. At a public event. In red face. Like it’s totally cool.
It’s an understatement to say that Native Americans are only visible in our society as mascots. And even then those mascot roles are often played by white people (see Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger and Rooney Mara’s recent casting as Tiger Lily in an upcoming Peter Pan movie). If you want to see Native people represented as real, multi-dimensional human beings, you have to dig around.
To help you get started, here are a few creative projects that challenge the stereotypes that even some “anti-racist” Jezebel readers perpetuate.
- The Cherokee Word for Water: This recently released film about Wilma Mankiller, the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation, focuses on her big impact on a tribal community without water.
- Reel Injun: Filmmaker Neil Diamond won a Peabody Award for his exploration of Hollywood’s portrayal of North American Natives.
- Project 562: Matika Wilbur has been photographing people from every federally recognized tribe in the US for this Kickstarter-funded project. She includes this anecdote on her Kickstarter page: “I had this incredible experience at the bottom of The Grand Canyon. The elders appointed a teenage boy to help me carry my equipment to photo shoots (since there aren’t cars down there, and I’m clumsy on a horse). He was kind of quiet at first, standoffish even. But after the first interview and photoshoot, he was excited for the next one. He started suggesting ideas. I could see him listening as we spoke to his elders. That evening, he revealed that he had walked a despairing path, having struggled with depression and his own sense of Tribal identity. As I was leaving, he shyly pulled me aside, and told me that this project gave him a new sense of hope. He said that he believed in me. He said that I was the first lady that he’d ever met that had went on to ‘do something’. He thanked me for giving him hope. He said that his experience with Project 562 had meant more to him than he could articulate.”
- The Artifact Piece: Clad in a loincloth, performance artist James Luna lies in a display case to underscore the problem of presenting Native people as artifacts of the past instead of living, evolving people of the present.
- The Round House: Louise Erdrich’s latest novel of an Ojibwe family won the 2012 National Book Award.
- Crazy Brave: Poet Joy Harjo’s new memoir chronicles her search for her voice and herself. What she’s learned about the debris of trauma: “You can use those materials to build a bridge over that which would destroy you.”
The latest on Pussy Riot: Formerly imprisoned members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina are coming to New York to talk about political prisoners for an Amnesty International event. Despite Putin’s attempts to silence them, Tolokonnikova and Alekhina remain unwavering in their commitment to social change. Journalist Masha Gessen’s recently published book Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot is at the top of my must-read list.
More riot grrrls: Dazed has an excellent A-Z guide to the women who stomped through the 90s, from Allison Wolfe to zines. Love it. (That’s an expression of my love and a demand for yours.)
Art I’m into right now: Lindsay Bottos offers a clever, artistic response to gendered online harassment. ONOMOllywood, an exhibition from photographers Antoine Tempé and Omar Victor Diop, features iconic film shots re-imagined in Dakar and Abidjan. (It’s sort of an ad campaign for a hotel chain.) The photographs Ibi Ibrahim will soon be showing in the Art14 London Art Fair are a sex-positive response to conservative Islam.
From 6 minutes to 24 hours: Tired of being expected to play a terrorist, Iranian-American actor Jemilah King made a short displaying Hollywood’s narrow view and her much broader abilities. If you’ve got more time, the Global Lives Project curates a collection of films that “faithfully capture 24 continuous hours in the life of individuals from around the world.” It’s a work in progress devoted to cultivating empathy, and there’s a two-week unit for educators to use.
Creativity in places you aren’t looking for it but should be: Women’s World Summit Foundation is seeking nominations for the 2014 Prize for Women’s Creativity in Rural Life, emphasizing sustainable development, household food security, and peace.
I was busy working on an international campaign to end gender-based violence when Catching Fire came out. My colleagues and I were in a rush to meet deadlines–chatting and emailing from Malaysia, Mexico, South Africa, Lebanon, and the US–and suddenly all we could talk about was Katniss.
Jennifer Lawrence, at only 23 years old, dominated the box office. Finally, studios are starting to understand that a woman can lead an action film and that audiences want female superheroes with their own stories. Catching Fire, like the rest of The Hunger Games trilogy, is all about Katniss. There are no subplots that are not part of her overall narrative, and she is a strong, independent, and dynamic protagonist. She is proving to the studio system that men and boys can care about the stories of women and girls. At the theatre I visited, the crowd was actually split pretty evenly.
I’m sure it’s been said many times that Katniss is the antidote to Bella, Twilight‘s insecure, moony lead whose vampire boyfriend won’t sleep with her because he’s afraid he’ll kill her. There may be a love triangle of sorts, but Katniss is no one’s girlfriend. In fact, as NPR pointed out recently, Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson, takes on the role of movie girlfriend.
I was thrilled that my colleagues around the world felt as inspired by Katniss as I did, so I appreciated Black Girl Dangerous‘s post about disidentification and how “character subtleties can be reinterpreted and radicalized” by readers and audiences. She describes her identification with Katniss and JK Rowling’s Hermione, especially as Hermione’s hair struggles are shared by many girls of color.
That girls of color have found ways to make iconic characters their own really speaks to how pervasive the straight white male narrative remains in our society. Women and girls are used to reading themselves into male narratives, to finding something in any story to identify with, because that’s always been the expectation. But women and girls of color are further out in the margins, forced to also read themselves into white narratives. Have you seen these “10 life-changing books” lists going around Facebook lately? Yeah, Nabokov’s prose was stunning, but, white friends, can you start reading books by people who aren’t white men? There’s a whole world out there.
I love Katniss. LOVE. And I love Hermione. But we still need to make heroes of black girls and brown girls. If they zero in on Katniss’s olive skin in the books and decide she looks kind of like them, that’s great. But they could use someone who really does look like them. They deserve to see themselves on the big screen.
Step 1: Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names. With one stroke you’ve created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women — and it’s not a big deal?
Step 2: When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, “A crowd gathers, which is half female.” That may seem weird, but I promise you, somehow or other on the set that day the crowd will turn out to be 17 percent female otherwise. Maybe first ADs think women don’t gather, I don’t know.
And there you have it. You have just quickly and easily boosted the female presence in your project without changing a line of dialogue.
The same could be done to include more people of color. It’s really that easy. If we start to see more women and girls of color onscreen, even in crowds, it will be seem natural when the next big trilogy premieres with a black girl as the hero. Studios just need to take some simple steps in that direction.
Men and boys should be expected to appreciate the narratives of women and girls, and they’ve proven they can by supporting movies like Catching Fire, The Heat, and Bridesmaids. But we also need to encourage white folks to support narratives of people of color. If we can all identify more with each other’s stories, more gender, racial, and economic equality will follow.
And that reminds me: I’ve been waiting for Dear White People to come out, and it’s on its way!
Today’s Take Back the Tech! action is about reshaping public space online. We want to recognize that much of this space is created and managed by women and there are many women who work hard to make digital spaces more welcoming for women. To that end, we’re asking people to highlight an inspiring woman in the tech or online realm.
I’ve chosen Anita Sarkeesian, a media critic whose blog Feminist Frequency deconstructs tropes associated with women in pop culture. I love how accessible her work is. There’s so much high-concept feminist analysis out there that’s valuable, but I really appreciate feminists who address what people are consuming daily and do so in a way that anyone can understand. Sarkeesian writes about movies, television, music, comics, and video games, with topics ranging from damsels in distress to non-violent iPhone games.
Sarkeesian faced serious harassment when she launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a Feminist Frequency video project. In addition to threats, insults and photoshopped images, someone created a video game that allowed players to beat her. But she was not deterred. She stood up for her right to exist and speak up in online spaces and is even more influential now. In fact, she ended up with nearly 7,000 Kickstarter backers and $158,917 to create her Tropes vs. Women web series.
Is there a woman in the tech/online world who inspires you? Spread the word. Mention her in the comments section and link to her work in your social media. Add or update her Wikipedia page (sorely needed since women are not equally represented on Wikipedia). Rewrite women into the digital story!