Category Archives: feminism

Are TV Crime Series Becoming Less Sexist?

I wouldn’t call myself a fan of crime fiction. I have a grim fascination for true crime, so long as it’s done well, and if you curate your true crime well, you can achieve a fascinating insight into the human psyche, even if it doesn’t do much for your generalised misanthropy.

Related: Why Do We Love Grimdark TV? from Bitch Magazine

Since so much horribleness goes on in the real world, I’ve reached the age where I have no time for stories about men whose motivations are spurred by the torture and murder of women. I can enjoy a good crime series, but if the crime is going to be against women, I want to see a certain amount of female agency. Sometimes this agency comes from the victim/survivor herself; at other times the focus is on the women who work to solve the crimes.

If, like me, you would like to see some more feminist crime, here are three series for your consideration:

THE FALL (belfast)

The Fall Gillian Anderson

A lot has been said about The Fall, which is what made me watch it in the first place.

See: You Should Be Watching The Fall, a Serial-Killer Show Like No Other from Wired

The Fall: The Most Feminist Show on Television from The Atlantic

This is a story comprising two short series, both available now on American Netflix. Gillian Anderson plays the SIO (Senior Investigation Officer) looking for a serial killer of women. From the start, the audience knows who the serial killer is. He is not the serial killer of the popular imagination. Gillian Anderson’s character has some great lines, which show she isn’t wearing the rose-tinted glasses; she knows sexism when she sees it and she calls it out. This is immensely satisfying. Needless to say, I really enjoyed it.

TOP OF THE LAKE (new zealand)

Top Of The Lake

Are you a Jane Campion fan? This is like watching a mash-up of The Piano (scenery-wise), Once Were Warriors (plot-wise) and Twin Peaks (creepiness-wise).

I predicted the outcome by episode three, but I think you’re supposed to. You’re certainly given enough clues. As I said, I’m not a crime fan, so a lot of viewers will probably work it out before I did.

Unfortunately I’m from New Zealand and Australia and Elisabeth Moss doesn’t do a fantastic job of the accent. You’d think they could find some decent local actresses, wouldn’t you? Then again, Elisabeth Moss would introduce this series to an American audience, thereby expanding it many times over. I guess this is how it works.

What makes it feminist? The drama is focused on Elisabeth Moss’s character, oftentimes on her relationship with her mother. There is also a community of battered women — a sort of cult, lead by an aged Holly Hunter — so it definitely passes the Bechdel Test. There are times, though, when I feel the scenes at the commune are unnecessarily comic. (Monkey? Did it have to be a monkey?) But that seems to be the nature of TV that’s made in my home country. Even the darkest stories inject these comic scenes which, to me, often feel out of sync with the vibe.

This show features more diversity than seems usual, too.

Double X presenters (in particular June Thomas) wondered what on earth an Australian police officer was doing, seconded into the New Zealand police force to fight a New Zealand crime. I wonder the same thing, but I’m willing to put it aside for the sake of a story.

Looks like there might be a series two coming? Season one certainly doesn’t feel entirely wrapped up.

HAPPY VALLEY (YORKSHIRE VALLEYS)

Happy Valley

The thing that makes this a standout for a feminist audience is:

1. The drama focuses around the female police officer just as much as it focuses on the life of the male criminals.

2. Whereas in The Fall, everyone rushes around Gillian Anderson’s character because she is senior and because she needs to be listened to (also refreshing) this show very accurately depicts some of the problems with being a female working in a mostly male environment. Part of this police officer’s problems stem from the fact that she used to be a detective, but took a demotion for family reasons (also relatable to many women), and is struggling to work under people who have vocational deficiencies.

3. The main confidante of Lancashire’s character is her sister. (Cue: Bechdel.)

4. The main character is far from perfect. (Watching a martyr would be unrelatable.)

I absolutely loved Season One of Happy Valley and can’t wait for Season Two.

No, you are not entitled to your opinion

Huffington Post publishes some crap, sure, but recently published a list of Books Women Think Men Should Read and I happen to have read a lot of them and it’s a pretty good list. It includes Delusions of Gender, which I regularly bring up if I can’t be assed, and I can never be assed. Because after all, there’s this thing called the Internet. I’m fed up justifying my position on this issue.

Conversation with middle-aged man at tennis just two days ago:

Him: “Teenage boys and girls do everything together these days,” he says. (I can’t remember the prior context.)

Me: “Not like the 90s, then.” (Inside, feeling rather glad that sex segregation is going the way of the dodo.)

Him: (I think misreading my tone) “Boys and girls aren’t allowed to be different these days, of course.”

Me: (After a suspicious pause) “Oh, I don’t know. I see neurosexism everywhere.”

Him: (After a pause and a side-eye) “Are you one of these people who think we shouldn’t recognise differences between males and females?”

Me: “No, I think we should recognise the differences, with the aim of moving past them.” (Secretly thinking I’d rather be discussing politics or religion.)

Him: “Hmm. So you’re telling me you think men and women are exactly the same?”

Me: (Fed up, wanting to play tennis) “There’s a book called Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. I agree with pretty much everything in that book.”

Him: “I don’t think I’d like that book.”

Me: “But you haven’t read it.”

Him: “I haven’t got time to read that.”

It amazes me how many people form strong opinions without actually doing the heavy lifting of reading, processing and reflecting.

Feminist Film Review: Liberal Arts (2012)

Liberal_Arts_Film_Poster

WILL THIS FILM ANNOY A FEMINIST?

If this film annoys, it’s probably because the audience needs a certain tolerance for liberal arts majors falling in love over books. I started off thinking I’d be annoyed for the usual reason: 35-year-old man falls in love with a 19-year-old young woman. In modern romantic dramas, the writer needs to come up with something, often contrived, to keep two romantic leads apart, for at least the length of a movie. So I thought that the obstacle, in this story, was going to be the 35 year old’s reservations about the 19 year old being too young for him. Then, of course, they’d realise they have a lot in common, cue Big Theme: Age Doesn’t Matter, kissy kiss, the end. Elizabeth Olsen’s character looked in serious danger of being a manic pixie dream girl for the leading man for a while there. She even has the name ‘Zibby’ which would fit the profile.

The great news is, this film doesn’t go like that.

DOES IT PASS THE BECHDEL TEST?

Well, no. This is a romantic drama from the close third person of the male lead (to use a novelistic analogy) and the audience follows the inner thoughts and life of a 35 year old man. This is about his journey from man-child into early middle age. Following on from that, the various female characters talk to him, not to each other about anything at all, let alone about something other than a man, so it definitely doesn’t pass the Bechdel test.

Asking myself if this film would work if the genders were flipped, I immediately thought of Young Adult, written by Diablo Cody. And now I’m trying to work out if that even passes the Bechdel test, because the confidant of the female lead in Young Adult was a man. If you watched Young Adult and were put off by the sociopathic personality of Mavis (Cameron Diaz), the male lead (Josh Radnor) in Liberal Arts is more likeable, but that’s mainly because the surrounding characters seem to love him inexplicably so. Maybe related: The guy who stars in it also directed it. Josh Radnor also seems to have written it, and I got to admit, I wondered if maybe this one had been written by a woman, so that’s a good sign. According to imdb, it’s a mainly male creation.

AND IS IT ANY GOOD?

I liked Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene, and that’s what prompted me to watch another of her films. I was pleasantly surprised by this one. I generally don’t enjoy films with posters like this, because saturated colours and full-body shots of a white couple (almost) holding hands so often means cheese. But actually, I would recommend this one if you’re okay with romantic dramas in general. A hearty thumbs up, as long as you can ignore a few annoying stock characters like the guru stoner guy and the disillusioned old academic. (And after that last sentence I realise, this film could have so easily passed the Bechdel test, for something truly groundbreaking genderwise.)

Feminist Film Review: Mud (2012)

Mud Movie Poster

WILL THIS FILM ANNOY A FEMINIST?

I really don’t know what to make of this film. I can’t even guess at the politics of its creators. This is one of those stories which will be interpreted quite differently depending on the existing politics of the audience. Sexist viewers will have their opinions unchallenged, if not confirmed.

On the other hand, for viewers who have their eyes open to the way adolescent boys can be inducted into a world of violence and some pretty darn dodgy ideas about women, and the ways in which real men protect them, this film offers insight without redemption.

The end of the movie suggests that nothing about this macho riverside subculture is about to change. The final scene definitely left me with an icky feeling, which is nevertheless probably true to life.

DOES IT PASS THE BECHDEL TEST?

Nowhere even close.

This is a film specifically about male adolescence, and about a boy (Ellis) trying to find an adult role model. He has two to choose from: The first is his father, disillusioned about love and woman after being left by his wife. The second is Mud, the religious nutter vagabond who is the opposite, unconditionally loving a woman who doesn’t feel the same way about him, and losing his freedom because of it.

AND IS IT ANY GOOD?

Despite everything, my husband liked this less than I did. His main problem is that this film is plotted in a particularly lazy way, relying far too much on coincidence. I tried to ignore the coincidental run-ins by telling myself that in a small town, everyone really does bump into each other all the time, and that in real life you are (not unreasonably) likely to happen to live across the river from a key character.

We both agreed that this film was far too long.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with the performances, and there’s something intriguing about the setting. At first I thought this was set in the 1980s or early 1990s, but we are eventually given enough information to realise this is set in modern times, yet there is a real retro feel about it, almost Huck Finn in nature.

Did women used to cry more?

Terms Of Endearment Movie Poster

A while back I wrote a couple of blog posts which included thoughts on the gendered nature of crying. It’s commonly accepted that women cry more than men. Then I happened upon a summary of a scientific study which put the gender difference down to both hormones and social conditioning.

Speaking of the power of social conditioning…

Last night I read the preface to a reprint of a lesser-known Larry McMurtry novel. (I have turned into a bone fide McMurtry fan, and now want to read ALL the books.) If you’ve ever seen the classic film Terms of Endearment you may, like me, have been unaware that this was based on a book, and that Terms of Endearment is only the third instalment of a much bigger, wonderfully capacious ‘Houston series’.

This is from the first in the series, Moving On*, written by McMurtry 18 years after the novel’s initial release:

The knottiest aesthetic problem I fumbled with in Moving On is whether its heroine, Patsy Carpenter, cries too much.

McMurtry explains that 1970s feminists hated Patsy Carpenter, which shocked him greatly because he loved writing her. He also explains:

I might say that I had not even the haziest consciousness of this problem while I was writing the book. Then it was published and I immediately started finding myself locked into arguments with women, all of whom resented Patsy’s tears.

Though the women I was arguing with were often on the verge of tears themselves, and occasionally brimmed over with them, they one and all contended that no woman worthy of respect would cry so much.

… The book was written in the late 60s and set less than a decade earlier. As arguments over Patsy’s tears persisted, I gradually came to regard it as essentially a historical novel…In that simpler era–as I explained to many sceptics–virtually all women had cried virtually all the time. The ones I knew were rarely dry-eyed, so it seemed to me that I was only obeying the severer tenets of realism in having Patsy sob through chapter after chapter.

My editor, Michael Korda, was evidently one of the few people alive in the late sixties whose memory for social and domestic history was as precise as mine. He too remembered a time not so long ago when virtually all women cried all the time. I believe he was as shocked as I was when half the human beings in the Western world treated the book with scorn. And it cannot have helped that the other half of the human beings–i.e., the males–ignored it completely.

So here are some questions i have about mcmurtry’s preface:

1. Is Larry McMurtry’s memory of the 50s accurate? When I watch the odd classic film from the 50s, sure enough the women cry easily, but I always thought this was a theatrical trend rather than a reflection of reality. It’s possible Larry grew up around unusually expressive women. I need to ask some really old people.

2. If women indeed cried all the time all over the place (in 1950s America, at least), is this because women were more unhappy back then? Tears can also be about anger and frustration. Perhaps 1950s women were less able to express these latter emotions in any other way. Tears may have been all they had?

3. Wouldn’t it have been safer if Larry McMurtry, when writing a novel about a woman, had worked with a female editor rather than one named Michael? I have yet to  make it past chapter one of this huge novel (and for the record, Patsy has already cried) and I get the feeling this one will be just as good as any of his others, but from a marketing perspective alone, perhaps an effort should be made to mix different genders when working as a team on a book — or on anything, really — simply because a feminist female editor may have forewarned Larry about the crying thing in regards to marketing, even if Larry didn’t have his finger on the political pulse.

4. If women cry far less now, is this a good development? Or should men really be crying a bit more? Might angry-crying be the preferable alternative to violence?

5. If women cry far less now, that means we may cry even less in future. It’s also possible that in some hypothetical future culture, men start to cry more than women. Can we apply this fluidity to other things which are ‘inherent’ to males and females, imagining a vastly different life experience for all genders?

Moving On Novel Larry McMurtry

*Also interesting: McMurtry wanted to call the book Patsy Carpenter after the woman it’s about, but the publisher said no. Despite a few classics being named after their female characters, is it still unwise–sales wise–for publishers to release a book named after a woman? In films we see numerous examples of titles changed to avoid being named after a woman, and sometimes against all narrative logic. (Off the top of my head: Saving Mr Banks and Tangled.)

Feminist Film Review: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Based on the novel by Ira Levin (who also wrote other big-name works such as The Stepford Wives), this is a psychological thriller made in 1968 and set in 1966, New York. A young recently married couple move into an apartment where the actor husband will be close to the theatre where he hopes to make it as a big star. His wife, Rosemary, will occupy herself with having babies, just as soon as his career takes off. But this apartment has some very strange neighbours.

Rosemary's Baby Movie Poster

WILL THIS FILM ANNOY A FEMINIST?

There is a scene which is difficult to watch for anyone who is up to speed with rape culture. To say anything more would be a plot spoiler. Rosemary’s reaction after the event is so mild-mannered that there is no catharsis for the viewer. I wanted to see her yell, or say something threatening. Rosemary never yells. Feminists will understand that in some real life cases, yelling is not an option. Threatening is not an option either, when you live in a society where you’re totally reliant upon your husband, and largely responsibile for your marriage working or not.

The young Mia Farrow looks very young indeed, with a childlike body and voice and a way of wishing to please her husband, as many young women would have been in 1966. The good news is that she does undergo a character arc. She realises that she has been trapped in a situation and does her best to escape from it. Whether she does or not is beside the point: Modern viewers who have ever been through the maternity system will probably identify with Rosemary as everyone around her becomes obsessed with the shape of her body, what she’s eating and drinking, and the paternalistic nature of the medical system, in which women are entirely at the mercy of medical professionals, some of whom are still condescendingly reassuring. Rosemary knows something is wrong and no one believes her. The bigger picture is that women have been considered neurotic and emotional for centuries. This film holds a candle to all of those issues, but in the guise of a supernatural thriller.

DOES IT PASS THE BECHDEL TEST?

Yes, because the Bechdel test only requires two women to talk about something other than a man. But apart from one brief conversation in the basement laundry, Rosemary’s talk with other women is all about her impending birth. So if you add the addendum that two women can’t be discussing babies or romance or shoes in order to pass, this doesn’t.

That said, I don’t believe every feminist movie needs to pass the Bechdel test. The whole point of this story is that Rosemary is trapped, with no line to the outside world. Therefore, it’s necessary that she not talk to friends from her former life.

AND IS IT ANY GOOD?

I’ve watched this several times and the more I watch it the more of a feminist story I feel it is. I’d like to know if Ira Levin was conscious of creating a story which so beautifully acts as a metaphor for certain common feelings experienced while pregnant.

The viewer will be left wondering what happens after the story ends, but I hesitate before recommending reading the 1999 sequel, which Levin wrote himself but which is pretty terrible. You’re better off not knowing what happened next.

Is This T-Shirt For Boys?

Last week I was in Target buying socks and undies when a woman and her son (about 12) walked past. At least one of them had terrible body odour, but that’s by the by. The more interesting thing is their shared theatrical response to finding a Frozen t-shirt in the boys’ section. The boys’ section, of all places! “That’s ridiculous!” they exclaimed to an audience of me, as if I might join in and tut-tut the shop assistants who obviously messed up when hanging the garments.

If you read my blog you’ll know my position on this.

is this t-shirt for boys

The world is full of parents who promulgate the idea that stuff with girls in it isn’t for boys. Nothing new there.

What I find more interesting is my daughter’s new lunch bag from Aldi: A choice between Frozen and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (She chose Frozen.) Here’s a picture of the lunch bag:

Frozen Olaf Lunchbag

 

Don’t know about you, but the ensemble of Olaf between the two female leads reminds me a lot of images we see all the time, like when racing car drivers accept a trophy flanked by two women in bikinis, or B-grade actors when they prepare to get shot by the paparazzi.

gilles-marini-two-women

Surely, the most sexist, conservative consumer of Frozen merch could be persuaded that the movie is not just for girls. Not only does this lucky man have a blonde on his arm, but the Betty/Veronica duo, from which he can choose.

Yes, I know, I’m imprinting my adult observations of porn culture on top of this children’s film. So I’ll look at it from a child’s perspective. From the most naive position I can imagine, I come to the following conclusion:

In a film about two sisters, a male character must still take centre stage. The male character is the most important, not only in boys’ movies but in girls’ movies, too.

Breaking down with numbers:

  1. In a film with an ensemble cast of 13 first billed characters (not including the duplicate voices of childhood Anna and Elsa), 4 of those are females. This means 9 out of 13 are male. Yet this is a film ‘for girls’.
  2. In a film ‘for boys’ (let’s take last year’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for comparison, since that was my daughter’s alternative choice for the insulated lunch bag), we have exactly the same gender ratio. Of the 13 first-billed characters 4 are female, 9 are male. Yet this is a film ‘for boys’.

Someone elsewhere may have done a breakdown of actual lines of dialogue according to gender, but looking at the raw numbers, this is a common ratio. Whether a box office film is ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’, or more rarely, ‘for both’ there are generally more male characters than female. And yes, I’m including the snowman, and the turtles too, because when animals speak and wear clothes, or are personified and generate audience empathy, they are for all intents and purposes, human.

I doubt the sheer number of male characters in Frozen would convince sexist/conservative anyones that boys may happily wear a Frozen t-shirt without harassment, even if it features just Olaf’s goofy grin, but I’m glad that this time our local Target ran out of room in the ‘girls’ aisle’ and had to spill over into the ‘boys’. I hope that will happen more often.