Sunday, 13 July 2014

Lights! Camera! Action!

Small monologue about movies, Bechdel test, portrayal of women in movies, female representation and feminist criticism.

*Moderate spoiler alert*
I love movies. Who doesn’t. They’re a great entertainment, showing us somebody’s interpretation of reality, including reinforcement of stereotypes, discrimination, inequality…
Wait… what?
Popular movie cultures has a great impact on people’s perception on current affairs and general hierarchy in a society. Have you ever thought about why there is so little positive heroes of other ethnic origins than white? How there is almost never a white person being a sidekick to a black person? How every war movie glorifies main hero soldiers and justifies their actions, while demonizing the enemy and his actions? How popular movies set in third world countries usually concentrates on modern day corruption, deterioration of societal ties and poverty instead of complicated mechanisms that put people in the poverty, caused corruption and destroyed societies? Have you ever wonder how those movies impact on your perception of reality?
Same thing applies to the women in the movies. For some time now I am really conscious about female representation in the popular culture and I check whether the movie passes Bechdel test. Sadly, most of them don’t.
Bechdel test was developed by Liz Wallace, but was named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who featured the test in her comic “Dykes to Watch Out For”. It tests the female portrayal in media, mainly in the movies. To pass Bechdel test, the movie need to fulfil these three wonderfully simple requirements:
  1. There has to be at least two women characters (with names).
  2. These two women need to talk to each other at some point of the movie.
  3. And the conversation need to be about something else than men (or one specific man).

Easy enough, isn’t it? Now think about the most recent movies that you’ve watched and think about these requirements. How many of them passed? How many of them failed?
If most of the movies are not able to fulfil those criteria than there is something wrong with the movie industry, don’t you think? And it’s even not about women being heroes, saving the day, kicking ass or whatever. It’s simple presence of women, when they are something more important to the plot instead of being an unimportant background.
It begs the question, what are those movie showing us? What are they teaching our children? What kind of reality do they create and how does it impact on our society?
Apart from Bechdel test, in those movies which are starring a female protagonists, the construction of strong female characters leaves a lot to be desired. Strength is usually portrayed as ruthlessness that most often is a result of some troubled past ergo women are never strong, they are just good at hiding their weaknesses and emotions. Moreover, many of the female heroes has some daddy issues. And each time, when she finds a man (or gets the man, or even better – has been won by a man) she abandons her strong personality in favour of being mishy mashy girl in love.
But let’s say that the main female protagonist is this strong, assertive and respected person. Did you noticed that most of them are always an exceptionally beautiful and sexualised characters? As if women were not full heroes if they do not show their cleavage. I just love when the female warrior fights entire armies with just few straps of metal covering sexual parts but exposing all of the vital parts.
And apparently most of the normal and all of the fuller women cannot be just that: strong, assertive, respected, successful. One of the few curvy female characters that was enjoyable and funny and desired, was Bridget Jones. But yet again, the whole movie was about her and a guys, so we couldn’t enjoy her iggly wiggly awesomeness independently from the men.
It seems that there is little hope in movies, but there are always animated movies and they are amazingly influential on our youngest population. And in this area I see the light and hope for feminist values. Although most of the animation feature boy heroes, the era for kickass, complicated and well-developed female and girl characters begun. 
First, there was Brave with unruly Merida who got her mom and herself into the trouble and at the end saved the kingdom, together with her mom. And together they deconstructed unfair and ancient marriage traditions.
Then, there is Frozen with Anna and Elsa – two absolutely different personalities and experiences. Elsa, powerful and wise, however always afraid of what she is capable of. Anna, sweet, naïve and hopelessly optimistic. What’s most surprising, is that the movie absolutely smashes the omnipresent “love at the first sight” depiction of relationships and “love conquers all”. Two sisters raise havoc, freeze kingdom, almost die and finally break the “curse” with sisterly love. Girl power all the way! And the "love at first sight" prince turned out to be a total asshat and absolute mistake. And the guy who got the girl is antisocial and has weird relationship with stones and reindeer.
Many feminists praise the emergence of strong female characters and herald the change in modern cinematography. However, what many of us are missing is that most of the animation has been secretly and in a sneaky way feminist in nature. Even with boy heroes and supporting female characters.
Animated movies all this time were slowly and indirectly deconstructing stereotypical gender roles and definitions of masculinity and femininity. After all the princess movies, we had a wide range of different protagonists and much richer female characters, even though they are not leading heroes.
Lion King – Nala regularly kicks Simba’s ass. And he doesn’t mind this much, because he doesn’t see a strong female as a threat to his masculinity.
Mulan – girl who saved China. China! That’s a huuuuge country! And she did that alone. With her wit, egocentric little dragon and unlucky cricket.
Lilo and Stitch – amazing story without the hero and “save the day” plot. Of course Stitch saved Lilo, but it’s hardly a strong man saving a weak princess scenario.
Atlantis – that’s a choice of personalities! We have masculine general, sexy army woman, female mechanic, man with explosives, again kickass princess from ancient land and brainy but hardly masculine scientist, who happens to save the day. And defeats the masculine and strong opponent. Gender equality and deconstruction of gender roles at its best!
Among others, there is favourite animation, How to Train Your Dragon. Again not a female hero movie, but I couldn’t have dreamt about more feminist movie with a boy hero, even if I try. It’s about the boy who is clumsy, non-masculine, quite antisocial and yet he happened to be the hero at the end. We also witness great array of characters and personalities. We have Stoick, the sturdy and hot-headed but otherwise great chief of the village; Astrid the girl who was the bravest, smartest and most-skilled student in the village. We have few other male and female characters who are more in a background, such as fatty dragon specialist kid or weird twins.
In the sequel, we meet Hiccup’s mother, a great woman, with conflicted past and very strong personality. She was brave, powerful and successful in her endeavours. This movie can be acclaimed another feminist animation of the year, however… not all feminists agree. Well, it’s fine, everybody has a right to their own opinion. But some neutral/negative opinions were quite… farfetched. Basically, the main reservation was that Valka (Hiccup’s mommy) didn’t had her moment in the movie. That even though her persona is well-constructed, but isn’t developed properly. And there’s the men that came and saved the day.
I think that’s quite unfair.
I didn’t see any woman in this animation whose character hasn’t been developed properly. I’ve watched with admiration the appearance of this conflicted women, who had a purpose in her life and didn’t know how to reconcile her passion and beliefs with a family who didn’t supported her views. But I also have seen a man, who after 20 years of being left alone to raise his son and thinking that his wife was dead, had no anger in his heart, no blame, no hatred. He could only think about how much he loves his wife and how happy he is to see his family reunited again. That’s all. I think that’s pretty amazing scene.
Article by Gina Luttrell lists 7 moment’s that make How to Train Your Dragon 2 a powerful feminist movie: when the men follow the woman; when the women had power of presence, not brute force; when Valka leads a dragon resistance; when Astrid takes control; when the parents had a healthy (if complicated) relationship;  when the father sacrificed for his son and when Astrid and Hiccup are established as equals.

I could list many more reasons how this movie follows feminists values. For instance, women are fighters; the elder and wise one is a woman; when we find out that Valka did not come back all these years because she was fighting for something she strongly believed in and was very important for her; and again there is no blaming her for abandoning her family.

Furthermore, this movie teaches us a lot about equal and healthy relationships: forgiveness, even if it’s difficult; compassion; need for compromises on both sides; the need for listening to each other; and most importantly that the strongest doesn’t always have to be dominating one. We see that in relationships: father – son; husband – wife; and girlfriend – boyfriend.

What I love most about the Hiccup’s and Astrid relationship is that even though she obviously is the physically stronger one, she acknowledges Hiccup’s weaknesses and allows them to exist. And probably if she wanted, she would save the day ten times over and be back home to do some pushups. But she allows her boyfriend to have his moments, develop his ideas, be the hero. Her support doesn’t rely on leading, but on supporting the independent thinking process of her boyfriend. And as such, she is invaluable part of the process of heroism and hero-making.

I think that’s the part of male – female (or any other) relationships that’s sometimes is missing. We forget that allowing for independence and supporting somebody else’s decisions is extremely important in healthy relationship. And woman supporting a man does not have to assume submissive role, but can offer support that come from strength and intellect, and result in cooperation and mutual appreciation.

Animated movies have a greatest potential for bringing down misogyny and sexism by deconstructing stereotypical gender roles and attributes. I love the idea of complex female characters, but we have to acknowledge that the presence of boy heroes as main roles can also work towards gender equality and propagating feminist values. Because sexism doesn’t only hurts women – it’s harmful to the entire society. And I believe that if we want to bring down misogyny, the process has to start from dismantling stereotypes and boy heroes are doing exactly that. 

Written by Vespertilio

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