Film

Published on December 16th, 2014 | by Lauren McPhee

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Women in Film 2014: A round-up

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This is my round-up of the films of 2014 but it comes with a catch: it stems from a lack of enjoyment – not that all of these films were bad, in fact, the opposite in many cases – but due to a realisation. I just can’t ignore the lack of diverse representation anymore. It makes me sad. It spoils perfectly good movies for me. I’m just done. And despite some great token films, there just hasn’t been enough diversity to satisfy me. And this is where I lament the fact.

From some of the biggest films released this year, I’m going to reflect on a couple of examples and how they fared to me in terms of representation, particularly female representation. I can only talk from my experience of what I’ve seen and just because I regret a lack of diverse representation does not mean that a film was bad. Many of these films are incredible, just in other ways. Just not in ways that I’ve been hoping for, in 2014.

Let’s start with Interstellar. It was a fantastic film, and I’m not denying the presence of incredible female characters, as played by Ellen Burstyn and Anne Hathaway. But despite Burstyn’s first billing on the IMDB page, she was not the lead character of this film: the story of a father/daughter relationship that exceeded space and time. Hey, I’m a daddy’s girl. Gotta love it. And Matthew McConaughey played the perfect father near impeccably from what I could see. Except, well, there’s nothing unique there.

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Since Armageddon we’ve had how many films about a father’s sacrificial love for his daughter? Apart from in science fiction, were rarely get to see women as mothers kicking world destroying threats in the ass, and even then it’s not given equal measure. Like, this is an amazing fucking film but who’s to say it wouldn’t have been just as awesome with a mother/daughter relationship at the heart of it? This is a shout out to all the older lady actresses: don’t you wish you could have rocked that role? Because I sure would have loved to see you do that.

Okay, so then there’s Nightcrawler which bares the same criticism. Again, this is not criticism of the film. Nightcrawler was an amazing film! It was dark and disturbing in an all new and up-close kind of way, from it’s on the nose representation of the media industry to Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of a manipulative, creepy-ass motherfucker. His character, Louis Bloom’s exploitative and threatening attitude towards Rene Russo’s character, Nina, is hauntingly familiar in society and to see it portrayed so candidly was both shocking and necessary. The film perfectly highlighted the way that women are treated by the media, particularly older women, and how damaging that is in society. And yet, I watched that film with this niggling feeling the whole time.

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It’s important to depict and draw attention to these issues in society, but isn’t that also what society should be responding to. It doesn’t really do us much good to present the problems without suggesting or attempting anything in the way of bettering things. I appreciate Nightcrawler for its perspective. I resent it for failing to look any further. While watching I wondered why we needed another film with a male character behind the camera, directing the action, only this time in a literal sense. Why can’t I have a movie about a badass woman getting behind the camera to seek out stories, action and events?

Instead of pointing out the media’s failings, why don’t we spend more time rectifying them? It seems like with films like these that the main character is male by default. Why is that? No story ultimately dictates the gender of its protagonist. Society does that. Society is limiting us. And the argument that men can’t identify with a female protagonist is bullshit – that attitude is the product of the situation, whereby men and boys are taught not to identify with woman and girls as individuals rather than merely as the opposite sex. The main character representing the aspirations and ideals of the audience does so as a human, and our shared humanity allows us to relate. Film should reflect that.

In order to avoid repeating myself, I’m going to stretch into new territory. Guardians of the Galaxy is one of my favourite films of the year, and while it bears the same responsibility when it comes to Peter Quill (I love Chris Pratt beyond words – he makes me wish I was Peter Quill), I want to talk instead about Gamora, portrayed by Zoe Saldana. In a cast of incredible actors, some only providing voices on top of CGI, she is the weak link. And to be the weakest in a chain of badassery is nothing to be ashamed of; nevertheless, she deserved better.

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The only other significant female character, Nebula, is supposed to be her sister and yet they barely get anything more than a few expositional sentences together. There is nothing to demonstrate their relationship, no time spent together, no words shared that don’t relate to the story. The fight scenes are amazing but they don’t tell me anything about the girls’ love for each other, or their struggle at becoming adversaries, or their conflicting relationships with their “father”, Thanos. Nor does Gamora benefit from being a replacement for Quill’s dead mother, a female surrogate for his poor little boy feelings. Gamora is capable of being so much more than that, and fair enough, they only had enough time to tell Quills story and get a few quips in, I understand. But that’s no excuse for just giving up and going, oh, but this has to be the way.

Tropes sustain us, they complete us, they surround us. They don’t have to define us. I understand that there is a formula for making a super-hero movie and BAM, Guardians nailed it. But these conventions are not rule of law, they are not above being re-written, challenged, or reworked. In fact, sometimes going off book and doing something different wealds better results than sticking to the pre-prescribed script. Sure, there are money-making, proven ways of doing things, but there’s no reason why you can’t take the best parts and mix them with new concepts and inverted tropes and create some kind of awesome hybrid brilliance.

And lastly, that brings me to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. Female led, dystopian, trauma world of pain and disaster featuring Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen. She is the new hero of the returning soldier narrative, the exemplary strong young woman, the saviour of herself whose romances are forged through equality and shared sacrifice. She is the best known of a slew of heroines from YA fiction making their way into film on the surges of post-apocalyptic, dystopian narratives and there is nothing wrong with this. Except in its limited conception.

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We will be making real progress when characters like Katniss start entering into and starring in different narratives, not just as young revolutionaries, but as agents of everyday life. When young women come as standard, as fully conceived human beings and not as the love interest, as the girl in the refrigerator, as the victim spurned to action as the result of a sexual assault. When young women take on roles traditionally reserved for male (default) characters, either as protagonists or as supporting cast. When the female cast member is no longer token, relegated to emotional support and mothering, when she can play any role, be anyone, represent the entirety of humanity, then everything’s good, it’s done, media has achieved the next level of awesome. Not that the development of film or representation should end there, but we will at least be at a new stage from which new possibilities are thinkable and workable.

So, while I think it has been a good year for film, where new heights have been hit and successes achieved, the progress of reaching that new level of storytelling wherein all subject positions are available to all regardless of gender has plateaued. Repeating the same old tropes, conventions and gendered roles isn’t getting us anywhere, and we’ll just end up watching the same movies slightly reworked for the foreseeable future. Another Interstellar, another The Hunger Games, another cultural commentary, another formulaic blockbuster knocking down all the pins.  Hey, fair play but come on! Don’t you get tired of winning all the time? Take a risk – your proven road to success has other paths leading to it that you haven’t discovered yet, there’s no need to put up fences. That being said, letting other people have a shot at playing is a sure fire way to see the rules get broken in new and interesting ways! Let’s bring more ladies into the creative industries and let’s give side eyes to the status quo, ‘cause we don’t need it, we are better than that. And we can do so much better.

Lauren McPhee

Lauren McPhee

Writer. Reader of comics. Martial artist. From Republic City.
Lauren McPhee

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