Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Why I Teared Up Watching The Avengers, or: Women in Mainstream Movies (& the lack thereof)

Who's excited to see Brave? In just a few short weeks, this Pixar movie about a girl with epic red hair who'd rather practice her archery than get married will arrive in theatres. I for one would like to see it.
I first heard about Brave in April, at my local Script Frenzy TGIO dinner. People were looking forward to it, but some of them (men) criticized it by pointing out that this sort of storyline (girl rejects patriarchy's expectations) has been done many times before. Their implication was that this wasn't a story we needed to see anymore.

But here's the thing: today, women still face the same challenges of living in a patriarchy. The oppression via gender norms and the messages about being "nice" and "pretty" and getting married are just wrapped up in prettier packaging. It drives me nuts that so many people don't see it.

But that's not exactly what I'm going to talk about today. (If you're interested in people talking about this sort of thing, check out this: Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is, and MissRepresentation, a documentary about women's portrayal in media & the messages it sends.)
Instead, today I want to talk about women in movies - I'm on a hunt for the elusive creature known as a strong female character. Preferably a non-solitary one. It's going to be tough.
After the TGIO party, in thinking about Brave, I remembered the Bechdel test and recalled what a shocking number of major movies have a single female character (other than bit parts - although sometimes even including bit parts!).

Example #1: The A Team
  • On the whole an enjoyable, if shallow, movie.
  • ONE named female character - an FBI agent and the love interest of a main character
  • Two bit female characters (caveat: that I remember having any lines)
    • a married women who was seduced by a main character offscreen and spends her entire time onscreen crying
    • a nurse
Analysis: On the bright side, the love interest was a capable career woman. An FBI agent, she pursued the main characters before eventually teaming up with them. But here's the thing: she was THE ONLY ONE. Yes, it's awesome that love interests don't have to be weepy & boring damsels in distress, but given how many men there were in the movie, in major, middling and minor roles, it's embarrassing to have only a single female character. The movie being a "macho, blow things up" movie, is NO EXCUSE. At some point someone made a conscious decision to make all sorts of goons and cops and support staff etc... ALL MALE. As a woman who tries to be conscious of gender, race and other representation, this was incredibly distracting - AND it has become the one things I ALWAYS mention when I mention the movie. Producers & writers, take note!
Example #2: Ocean's Eleven
  • One of my favourite movies of all time 
  • Eleven main protagonists, one female love interest, one male antagonist
  • Very few bit characters - basically a thirteen person movie
Analysis: I adore this movie, but in some ways it is an even worse offender than The A Team. Only one female character, and she is mainly a prize to be won back, not a person in her own right. The eleven titular protagonists? ALL MEN. In their defense, there were few bit parts for women or men, but once again, someone CHOSE to make the main eleven ALL MEN.

Example #3: The Hunt for Red October
  • Another one of my favourite movies EVER
  • The main character's wife & daughter are shown at the beginning - those are the only female characters I can remember!
    • checking the Tom Clancy wiki reminds me that there is also a female flight attendant who speaks early on, and a female engineer speaking briefly in the background at one point
  • Other than that, ALL MEN
Analysis: This movie has one of the better justifications for it's lack of women. It takes place on Navy ships and submarines, some/all of which women were not allowed to serve on when this movie is set, AND it is supposed to be historically accurate. (saying sexism is okay cause a work is medieval fantasy disregards all the other changes we make because it's fantasy!). I still wish women lasted past the opening credits. 

Example #4: Thor
  • A movie I expected to be terribly women-free
  • Male protagonist and antagonist
  • Female love interest (independent scientist), and her assistant, and Thor's mother, and one of his band of close friends & warriors (four!!)
Analysis: This movie defied my expectations - in a good way! The biggest female character is a love interest, yes, but she is a strong character, a scientist, who is motivated by her career & research, not a stereotypical desire for marriage. Her mentor is a man, a friend of her father's, but her assistant (grad student?) is female. As a future engineer, I love seeing women in STEM fields in popular media. On top of the scientists, we have Thor's mother, who has a fair number of lines, and one of his warrior friends is a girl. She's the token girl (to match the token asian) and her presence is milked for all it's worth, but she was there, and she didn't turn into anyone's love interest (which I was waiting for the whole time). All in all, a neat and unusual movie. 

All kinds of reasons are thrown about for why women are an endangered species in Hollywood movies. Sure, you can say that no women served on subs or in combat and that it was two men who put together an all male team of thieves and you can go on justifying and rationalizing until you're blue in the face. The fact remains that casting a woman means something. Woman is other, not normal. And the implications of that are ugly. 

Despite being set in "the olden days," Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet used "colourblind casting," at least for non-central family characters. It makes me wonder, could we ever have gender blind casting? I understand that today, a main character's race and gender determine and are affected by plot to a certain extent. But for a lot of movies, peripheral characters could be whatever - why is the typical movie version of an "average person" a straight white male? 

Of course, getting all of this right is a lot harder than ranting about other people getting it wrong. So:

Example #5: My own writing
  • Predominantly female leads (or co-protagonists, male and female)
  • Often a male dominated cast of characters
  • Often set in pseudo-medieval worlds 
Analysis: I do create strong female characters, in everything I write, because I simply try to write strong characters, but I tend to have more men than women in my fiction. Sometimes this is sort of plot justified (stories about a woman making her way in a man's world) and sometimes it's only slightly out of balance. But other times it's just me internalizing and spitting out the messages I have read, seen and heard over and over again. I'm glad to have realized it - now I can change it!

Gender issues are so complicated that I can see why many writers take the easy road and go with an all male cast (except for the love interest!). But that's not the road I want for my writing, for myself or for my future, and I want to be a part of the change.

The Avengers renewed my hope that I will see this change. For one thing, there was a female superhero, but more than that, I loved seeing women represented in the SHIELD staff, unlike your typical action flick. Plus Agent Hill, the Director's second in command, is a women, and does not at any point become a love interest, need rescuing or cry. She also doesn't converse with another women as near as I can tell, but then again, baby steps, right? If we can just get to the point where every movie casts women in general roles, that will come.

The Avengers wasn't a deep movie. It wasn't trying to be, and so it got to be amazing on it's own level. Still, there were emotionally moving moments for me - just not your typical action movie "drama" moments. They occurred when I saw "myself" onscreen. When I looked at the crew of the SHIELD HQ boat/helicopter and I saw women, it brought tears to my eyes. Thank you, whoever made that decision. You are part of the change that is coming, that I have to believe is coming so I don't go crazy. 

I can still enjoy watching modern & "gender-problematic" movies, the same way I can enjoy older movies which are "problematic" in other ways - because they have tons of good things about them. But that doesn't mean pretending nothing's wrong. In fact, it's crucial that the under-representation of so many groups be acknowledge and discussed, because without awareness there can be no action towards change. The Social Justice League has more great advice on How to be a fan of problematic things. 

What do you think? What movies do you love but wish weren't sexist/racist/missing LGBT people etc...? What movies give you hope? 

A few notes: this post focuses on missing women since I spot & identify with that most easily. Tons of even worse problems exist with regards to representing people who aren't white, straight, able-bodied etc... Also, I've discussed only mainstream movies here, since that's mainly what I watch, plus this is far from a scientific sample - a few movies I've seen recently, and a few old favourites selected because I thought of them first. Thanks for your understanding (& for reading this far!).


  1. I think Black Widow's character was really well done in Avengers. In Iron Man 2 she was pretty much eye-candy. Kick-ass eye candy no doubt, but still eye-candy. But in Avengers she has a refreshingly well-developed character -- expert skills, a dark past, an interesting relationship with Hawkeye -- Joss Whedon did a good job. In particular the relationship with Hawkeye was interesting -- they certainly have a past and there's definitely some romantic tension but it doesn't devolve into a run-of-the-mill love story. Instead it stays professional and friendly which I loved.

    I think the newer Star Trek series do a decent job with strong women characters. Doctor Who also has good women characters in the form of the Doctor's companions.

  2. *steps on soapbox*
    While I totally agree with everything you pointed out, as a WOMAN filmmaker (the only female crew member on my team to boot) I want to point out a major reason I believe women are so underplayed and gender stereotyped in cinema. On the production side (including actresses) women are ALWAYS in minority. There are only 3 fields in which woman hold a stronger market share, acting the highest with 40% of actors being women, costuming and make-up, and editing. Most other departments, women make up less than %10 percent of the workforce. This including WRITING and DIRECTING. AND THESE NUMBERS ARE SHRINKING!

    Filmmaking is a man's world, and I think that some of gender stereotypes comes from that. I do believe that a lot of it is unconcious. That being said, like sciences, most girls aren't encourage to do anything in the film biz besides act and do costumes/make-up. THERE IS SOMETHING REALLY WRONG WITH THAT. I do believe it's the lack of women behind the camera that are keeping gender stereotypes on screen. I've encountered lots of men on set that are misusing gender norms, and not even realizing it. They're also constantly surrounded by men, and therefore, tend to write and think in male characters. For examples, I directed an small local award winning film. While women are not the central character, there are two strong women in the film. I can't tell you the arguements I got into with the MALE writers about how these women were portrayed. I DO believe that if I hadn't been in the position I'd been in, the female characters would have come across as BAD stereotypes of feminists instead of comcial strong women. For example, instead of the "activist" character being a "femma-naza," I treated her just as an activist! I think treating the role gender neutral kept the bad stereotypes away (oh my, there were some bad stereotypes), made the joke funnier without demeaning women. Instead of it poking at feminists, it pokes at activists.

    While I do think that women in cinema affects the social image of women, I also believe that the lack of women working IN cinema is a major part of the problem. So, it's a catch 22. We need more ladies in movies makign movies about ladies in general. And to do that, we have to step outside the images that tell us that women don't really do this. Ok, done with the rant.
    *steps off soapbox*

    1. Please, stay on your soapbox. In fact, come back and set up shop on your soapbox here anytime :)

      In all seriousness, I think you make some great points about not waiting for the media/societal norms to tell us something's "okay for women" before doing it, because then nothing ever really changes.

      Even though women in the film industry continue to be outnumbered, it gives me hope that I know quite a few women planning on going into film - and not girls saying "I want to be an actress" but people who know how sexist it can be and what they're getting themselves into and are determined to do what they can to change things.

      P.S. You glossed over it, but congrats on your award-winning film. (& making a difference in the portrayal of women and feminists!)

  3. Also, since writing this article I have discovered a great website "devoted to reviewing films through a feminist lens [and] interested in conversation about movies—good and bad—and the roles that women play in them."

    Check it out: