Archives for posts with tag: women in hollywood

In which Lindsay reveals that her muscles are made of CGI.

Hollywood hates women” is the line going around this week, thanks to Tad Friend’s New Yorker piece (sorry dudes, behind a paywall) about comedienne Anna Faris and the commentary (which I like to call “Internet dust”) it’s kicked up. Though it’s nice to see this conversation taking place in the mainstream media — and Friend’s article is thoughtful and refreshingly plaintive (“Studio executive believe that male moviegoers would rather prep for a colonoscopy than experience a woman’s point of view, particularly if that woman drinks or swears or has a great job or an orgasm.”), it all just prompts me to say, “Well yeah, duh.” Those of us who follow the Women and Hollywood beat know the drill: every year or so, we are treated to one of these State of the Lady in Hollywood exposes, replete with all sorts of quotes and statistics that make us feel totally helpless, and then up from the comments sections spring all sorts of well-intentioned but maddeningly vague rally cries about how we can make it better. “We just need more strong female characters!”, goes one of these refrains. And Hollywood, on the rare occasion that it acknowledges the sound of tiny people shouting, replies with a wave of its hand, “Strong female characters? We’ve got those! Have y’all seen Tomb Raider? And…like…Tomb Raider 2: The Cradle of Life?” Which makes obvious something that we’ve always known: Hollywood has no idea what a strong female character actually looks like.

Blockbuster Hollywood’s idea of a Strong Female Character involves some kind of hybrid between brute, male strength and hyperfeminized sexuality: an Uzi-toting Rosie the Riveter with a 16-inch waist and CGI boobs. In recent years, Hollywood has inundated us with representations of this particular vision of strength, from the aforementioned Tomb Raider (and, for that matter, the entire cult of personality surrounding Angelina Jolie) to Charlie’s Angels to Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle right up to Sucker Punch (the latter of which Sady Doyle terrifically skewered in an Atlantic piece last week).

The problem with this definition of “strength” is that it’s rooted in the patriarchal notion that bigger is better, might is right, and that “weakness,” its opposite, is inherently feminine. For these characters, strength is one’s ability to step in line with a paradigm that is already tainted with misogyny; feminine strength is one’s ability to, in the elegant words of pop phenom Jessie J, “do it like a dude.” (Interestingly enough, this is also the problem that Anna Faris and others experience in the realm of comedy; in Friend’s article, a director praises her for not being “light and sweet…she’s funny like a guy would be funny.”) Once those muscles have been sufficiently flexed, the only “feminine” traits that these Strong Female Characters are allowed to exhibit are those which have been pre-approved by the patriarchy; so, namely, CGI boobs.The Strong Female Character is not one who’s able to provide a personal revision as to what strength is and what it looks like, but one who’s able to successfully navigate the narrow channels in which she’s allowed to be visible in the mainstream Hollywood film.

So if we can’t look to Hollywood for unproblematic views of female strength, can we find them instead in the margins? Not really, says Elizabeth Greenwood, who recently proposed that indie cinema kind of hates women too. In an article entitled “Why So Many Boring Women in Indie Film?” she implicates a number of supposedly more enlightened films for portraying female characters as “meek,” “mild” and “utterly forgettable”  and accuses both male and female filmmakers of “hav[ing] shown little regard for their young female protagonists as people.”

It’s a brave and noble piece, one that articulates something I’ve felt but haven’t quite been able to name — but I only agree with her to a point. First of all, I’ll acknowledge the false dichotomy I’m setting up between “Hollywood films” and “indie films” here; in film as in music, “indie” is no longer synonymous with a  counterculture or a space in which the greater forces of sexism and other forms of oppression are challenged (plus, most of the films she mentions have relatively huge budgets and big names behind them). Greenwood calls out some female characters whose one-dimensional emptiness I find worthy of critique, from the title character in (500) Days of Summer to Michelle Williams’s Cindy in Blue Valentine. But I think she’s too quick to lump a large and varied group of films together — and in some cases her definition of “boring” relies on yet another preexisting paradigm.

“Some of the women Greenwood calls out as boring are deeply sympathetic, brave characters, even if the people around them on-screen don’t always see them for who they are,” Alyssa Rosenberg writes in a response to the original piece. She goes on to defend some of the characters Greenwood initially criticizes. Margot Tenenbaum, for one, she sees as a character who hides her inferiority from those who seek to externally define her. (And of course she’s successful. “What do you know?” her husband is asked right before seeing a dossier recounting the secrets about her love life. “Very little, I’m afraid.”) I’ll extend the defense along to Greta Gerwig’s Florence in Greenberg, a film that Greenwood also faults. Having seen the film twice now, I find Florence’s inarticulateness hugely sympathetic and relatable — even though she’s not a “strong female character” in the sense that she’s ambitious, has a “good job” or could kick your teeth out. Her tangential anecdotes and eccentric sense of humor don’t serve to fetishize her into the film’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but rather convey a disconnect between her and the rest of the people populating her world.  And in contrast with the film’s titular male protagonist, something about her has stuck with me. As my friend Kristen said upon rewatching the film last week, “That movie really should have been called Florence.”

So then, if it’s not the machine gun or the combat boots or a well-articulated interiority, what exactly makes a strong female character? Is it the character’s ability to evade a simple answer to that very question? Maybe. I’m not even sure. But, paradoxically, I have always felt a weird strength in not feeling sure, so maybe there is potential in that: characters who appear before us in the process of working things out. Or maybe, better yet, the word “strong” is too entangled in false, rotted-out visions of masculinity to ever do us any good. To end Hollywood’s hatred of women, I don’t think we don’t need more strong female characters — we need a complete reimagining of what strength is.

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In which, yet again, Lindsay blogs about blogging.

Last Friday afternoon, I was sitting in a silent, near-empty office, overcome by the undeniable physical sensation of stage fright. It was like that proverbial dream in which you’re on stage in your underwear, but if the seats were filled with Gawker commenters tapping furiously at their iPhones.

What had happened was that something I’d written for this blog had been reposted on Jezebel. I was at my “real job” when the post went up, and as I sat mute at my desk for the next hour, I went through a whole cycle of strange sensations. I was happy when friends g-chatted me about it or when someone posted an encouraging comment about it on Facebook; I was anxious as I debated whether or not I should even read the comments that began piling up instantaneously, picturing the always-shrewd Jezzies ripping me apart for a factual or grammatical error unchecked; and I was, finally, relieved when I saw that the comments on the piece were generating thoughtful discussion. And yet, all of this was happening solely online. Very few people in my office know about my blog, and there was certainly no one around who would understand how surreal a moment this was. Never before had the gulf separating my “real life” and my “Internet life” felt so wide, and yet, beginning in this moment and developing even further as the week went on, I felt that they were suddenly conflating into a more singular identity.

I’ve written here before about my mild sheepishness when it comes to calling myself a blogger. It’s a term that’s come to take on a dubious connotation, especially in the professional realm: every organization wants to employ one to show that they’re keeping up with the times, and then the organization will hire that blogger with a sigh meant to insinuate that blogging is indeed the opiate of the masses and we’re all going to hell in an SEO-friendly handbasket. I certainly value the work that my colleagues and I do on this blog, but I’m also haunted by the sentiment of that Debra Dickerson quote I wrote about a few months ago — “Today’s feminists need to blog less and work more” — and the familiar, chastising tone in which it’s phrased. Given the ubiquity of statements like that, I’d imagine that I’m not the only one with a blogger’s identity crisis.

But something clicked in me this week. Part of it had to do with the Jezebel post, and the way the comments it generated acted like a 360-degree mirror, allowing me to see the weaknesses and strengths of my own argument in ways I never had before. I was left pondering the feminist statement of Kathryn Bigelow’s decision not to make, as I put it, “a film that gave a refreshingly truthful representation of women” and with a renewed respect for female filmmakers who seek a place outside of what’s traditionally seen as “women’s cinema.” I thought more about the unique situation of female editors and the historical reasons why their place in the industry isn’t quite as dire (though still by no means equal to men’s) as that of female directors. And of course, I’ve had time to reflect on this statistical nugget from a Jezebel commenter: “More women have been married to James Cameron than have been nominated for Best Director.” Guerilla Girls, can we get that on a billboard in LA like, now?

For me, the dialogue generated by my Oscar piece strengthened many of the convictions I initially expressed, and it also gave me the opportunity to reconsider a few of them too. I’ve come to see that as one of blogging’s biggest strengths. A blog is a living document. It can be a space to work out questions that don’t have simple answers. I’ve been thinking back to Sara Marcus’s book Girls to the Front and a particular quote I loved about a reader’s response to riot grrrl zines: “One of his favorite things about the zines was that the writers weren’t pretending to have all the answers; they were making visible a process of figuring things out.” I want Canonball to be like that too.

Perhaps the most profound shift I’ve had recently concerning social media and Internet culture, though, is linked to the protests in Egypt and Tunisia. Much has been written about the role that social media played in the organization of these events — which, of course, has been answered with Debra Dickerson-style skepticism and requisite mockery. But my connection to Annie, Kelsy and all our Cairo contributors has helped me to see the ways that this dynamic can also play out on a smaller — and no less meaningful — scale. Reading Annie’s mom’s comments on our post last week made me feel so happy to be able to provide a space where our community of readers could share such important information. Combine that with the news that Annie is “missing Canonball,” Max’s thoughtful post from yesterday, potential new readers, Melissa Silverstein’s terrific Women and Hollywood blog, the great information that Annie’s mom is providing on her own blog, a letter about Canonball I received yesterday from a friend in India (Kara, I’m working on my reply!), plus overwhelmingly awesome support from entire Canonball community — and yeah, I’ll say it: never been prouder to be a blogger.

The only thing James Worsdale has more Oscar reservations about than the lack of diversity in the directorial category is the potential disaster of Anne Hathaway and James Franco’s hosting chops. Oh well, at least Franco’s easy on the eyes.

On Tuesday morning Academy-Award winner Mo’nique and an old man with a New Jersey accent, who doesn’t know how to say Helena Bonham Carter’s first name, announced the 2011 Oscar nominees. There were few surprises for people who follow this sort of thing (and for people who don’t, well I guess they’re all surprises). For cynics and feminist cinephiles, like you all I’m sure, the omission of any female representation in the category of Best Director came as no surprise either.

Let’s get this out of the way: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ bestowing the honor of an Oscar nomination upon a film is a practice obviously fraught with problematic complications and is too burdened with outside interests to honestly be considered as a metric for artistic achievement. The people who make films and who act in films do it to make films, not necessarily to gain accolades (aside from, of course, the self-indulgent pop stars turned film stars).

That being said, an Oscar is a reassuring recognition that your work is appreciated by your peers and it can serve as insurance both for an individual’s career and for cultural longevity. Though the institution of the Oscars could be viewed as the culmination of capitalism, patriarchy, racism and heteronormativity’s complete consumption of, and then dictation of, artistic standards in film, this view should not lead to a complete disregard for the institution’s relevance. Rather, it should lead to a deconstruction of the institution, as it exists, to see what it indicates about the film industry as a whole and to see what we as a culture value and praise.

The issue of women in Hollywood, particularly as directors, is a dialogue that people were paying more attention to last year, with what seemed to be the phenomenon of a woman directing an apolitical war film, and a dialogue in which some people’s positions were quite brazenly (though certainly appropriately) expressed. But with only 9 percent of Hollywood directors being women, this is an issue that the industry is hardly past.

This year’s award circuit, most recently the Oscar nominations, missed out on several opportunities to award great female-centric work in film. The five titles I’m highlighting were all directed by women as well.

Fish Tank directed by Andrea Arnold

A coming of age story that centers around the aggressively brooding but clandestinely sensitive Mia in a lower class British community, director Andrea Arnold repeatedly alludes to animals and their imprisonment and adopts kitchen-sink realist themes and styles in this beautiful and sad tale. Even literary celebrity and sideshow misogynist Bret Easton Ellis liked it. Though it did win the BAFTA for best film in 2010, leading me to believe oversight from the American awards circuit had more to do with timing. But nonetheless, it was inadequately appreciated this side of the pond.

Please Give directed by Nicole Holofcener

Probably the funniest and most insightful comedy — not to sacrifice subtlety and nuance in the process — that I’ve seen this year, or, maybe ever. Nicole Holofcener’s characters are funny and flawed, LIKE REAL PEOPLE! IMAGINE! Kate’s cluelessly bourgeois good intentions, Mary’s cringe-worthy falling into a Ralph and Alice Kramden pairing affair: all of the characters are so memorable and relatable that it pains and angers me this movie did not garner more attention! Plus, Holofcener is the only director to make Jennifer Aniston palatable since, well ever. I think that warrants her a Noble Prize. She knows as well as any though, that “the world is getting less sexist, but it’s still really sexist.”

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg

Undoubtedly a feminist manifesto and undoubtedly acclaimed, this comedienne-centered documentary illustrates the raw drive behind this overcooked face, which has become so ingrained in our collective consciousness. Joan Rivers, a force and master of resilience, shows how much harder it is to maintain that force is when you’re in such a boys’ club of an industry such as comedy. The film makes the point that in show business no matter how hard you may work, no reward is greater than the opportunity to keep working. Because like all good feminists, Joan Rivers’s work is never done!

Somewhere directed by Sofia Coppola

Because I live in North Carolina, and limited releases trickle down the coast quite slowly, I have not had the opportunity to see Coppola’s most recent endeavor. But the underwhelming awards response to it is discouraging nonetheless. Hopefully her Marie Antoinette misstep will not plague her with permanent critical disregard.

Night Catches Us directed by Tanya Hamilton

This is another film that hasn’t yet gotten distribution to theaters around here, so I’m working from hearsay. This is Tanya Hamilton’s first film and it debuted at Sundance garnering great reviews. Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington’s performances both are apparently perfect. And The Roots’ score is supposed to be exceptional. In addition to this film’s oversight potentially embodying the problems of being a new female director, it also could serve as an example of oversight of the work of people of color in film. Perhaps it serves as an indicator of how we’re comfortable seeing black people in America portrayed on the big screen in some films that receive wide distribution, while others, such as Hamilton’s, are often disregarded, even by the elite.

The 83rd Annual Oscar nominations were announced yesterday, and in spite of Kathryn Bigelow’s momentous win last year, no women were recognized in the Best Director category. Today, Lindsay wonders whether or not we should even get worked up about this.

When the Oscars pulled the ham-handed, weirdly-self-congratulatory-about-its-own-reluctant-progressivism move of bringing Barbara Streisand out to present last year’s award for Best Director, I knew it was all over. Streisand (the first and only woman to win a Best Director Golden Globe, but whom the Academy failed to nominate) was there to rip open the envelope that would propel Kathryn Bigelow into history and make her the first woman to win a Best Director Academy Award. And somehow, in that moment, I felt indifferent. As Bigelow ascended the stairs to the Oscar House Orchestra’s rendition of (yes, really) “I Am Woman,” the small pang of joy I felt was just the sudden realization that I’d won my Oscar pool.

Mostly, I was exhausted. I’d spent the better part of 2009 immersed a long term research project about female filmmakers and the problems they continue to face in Hollywood. My interest in this topic had initially been spurred by reading the rather shocking statistic that only 3 women had ever been nominated for the Best Director Oscar, and none had ever won. In my reading, I uncovered plenty of other discouraging statistics and anecdotes. Dr. Martha Lauzen’s annual Celluloid Ceiling report shows that women directed only 9% of the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2008. For me, each new bit of research was simultaneously dismaying and invigorating. I was slowly realizing that pursuing my dreams of filmmaking would involve coming up against one of the strongest glass ceilings left in American culture.

I’ve wanted to be a director since I was 17. At that time I worked on a student-run public access show, and in my spare time I schooled myself on all the budding film geek’s Great American Directors (Scorsese, Kubrick, Coppola) and the next generation of greats (PT Anderson, the Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson). As a teenager, it never once occurred to me that all of these directors were men – they were just, to me, great filmmakers. It wasn’t until I got to college that I started getting more into avant-garde film and found a few female directors to idolize as well. Agnes Varda, Maya Deren, Jane Campion and Chantal Akerman all helped me realize not only my own vision, but they also helped me to see the startling absence of female role models in my ventures as a filmmaker thus far. These were women who did not have a place in mainstream film culture (and especially not American film culture), and I admired their uncompromising drive to make films outside of that hegemonic system.

So by the end of my project, I was left questioning whether that long delayed Oscar win even mattered. If Hollywood and the Academy had excluded women’s visions for so long, why should we tailor the films we make to please them? Aren’t we better off creating smaller but more accepting spaces outside the mainstream?

That’s what was going through my head as Bigelow ascended those stairs last year. I loved The Hurt Locker and was happy about her nomination, but I couldn’t help but feel it was something of a compromise. After all, it wasn’t a film that gave a refreshingly truthful representation of women – in fact, there was only one woman in the entire film, and she was on screen for a grand total of about three minutes. Plus, the media narrative that made Bigelow the plucky underdog going up against her big, bad ex-husband James Cameron was simplistic, annoying and hard to parse from a feminist perspective: we were being fed a line that he was the bad guy, when in reality Bigelow had sought his advice on the Hurt Locker script before agreeing to direct it. By that night in February, I was sick of hearing about it all, and left with the queasy feeling that the win I’d waited so long for felt more like a necessary compromise than an groundbreaking triumph for all women.

And then she got up on that stage. A rush of tears came to my eyes, and I could hardly breathe.

I think what had hit me on such a gut level was the simple impact of seeing something – a break in a pattern that makes you realize for the first time just how prevalent the pattern had been. Up until now, I’d only seen men in tuxedos accepting an award that I – in my wildest and most self-centered flights of fancy – would have loved to win; now here was a strong, articulate, gorgeous woman in a dress. I thought of what this would have meant to me when I was 17. I thought of what this meant to the girls even younger than that, the great filmmakers of a future generation. Up until that moment, the problem of women in film was also the defining problem of feminism in the 21st century: young women are told they can do anything, but the limited images of achievement presented before them silently contradict that. The simple reality of seeing Bigelow up there was huge.

Still, though Bigelow’s win was momentous, I suspect that it will change very little about the realities of female directors in Hollywood. Yesterday’s Academy Award nominations were a harsh reminder of this: for the 79th time in history, they were all men. True, two of the ten Best Picture nominees are women (Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone and Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right), but I agree with Dana Stevens’s assessment:

This is only the second year of the expanded best picture Category, with 10 spaces to fill instead of five, and it’s easy to pick out at a glance which are the “filler” pictures—movies that, worthy as they may be, don’t stand a chance of winning. They’re the ones that didn’t also get best director nominations: 127 Hours, Winter’s Bone, Toy Story 3, Inception, and The Kids Are All Right. The expansion of this category was meant to be a way to open the field to more offbeat or crowd-pleasing choices, but I wonder if the extra spots aren’t destined to become a holding pen for second-class citizens. After Kathryn Bigelow’s supremely satisfying double win for best director and best picture last year, it’s particularly disheartening to see Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right, both made by women, relegated to “great film—who directed it again?” status.

And once again, I keep coming back to the eternal question: why should we care? The Oscars are ultimate pageant of Hollywood hegemony. They’re all bound up in greater issues about distribution, marketing and campaigning that rarely favor female-centric films that challenge the status quo. So really, should any of this bother us?

But during Bigelow’s acceptance speech last year, I think I finally realized that we should care. About all of it. The dream of women achieving equality in the industry means that they should infiltrate every genre of filmmaking – from mainstream blockbusters to experimental films, rom-coms to war epics – and that women will be not only the directors but the cinematographers, editors, writers and producers on these films too. A year later it’s easy to see that Bigelow’s win wasn’t the instant panacea that the media portrayed it as. But perhaps there’s a little glimmer of hope in this year’s Best Director nominees: Bigelow’s pattern-breaking female presence on that stage last year makes it that much easier to feel its absence in this year’s list. If nothing else, I hope it continues to resonate in a heightened awareness of the work that’s still left to be done before women and men in Hollywood are on equal footing.