A SHORT LIST OF MOVIES YOU WILL NEVER SEE

GRAY LINES

Cate Blanchett is a double-dealing politician who is secretly running a drug ring through the maritime trade of her homestate, Louisiana. Lupita Nyong’o is the crack investigative reporter who busts her, setting off a scandal throughout Washington and uncovering layer upon layer of corruption, up to the highest levels.  Federal policy on no-bid contracts is rocked, as are American notions of truth, justice, and blondes.  Best Picture Oscar, and shared wins for both Blanchett & Nyong’o in the Best Actor category. (Yes: Best Actor.) 

Cate Blanchett & Lupita Nyong'o photographed by Cliff Watts for Entertainment Weekly, Feb 2014

Cate Blanchett & Lupita Nyong’o photographed by Cliff Watts for Entertainment Weekly, Feb 2014

****

Late last night I got into a rip-roaring feminist mood, which is not unusual. I am, after all, a woman, and a writer, and I spend a lot of my time looking at heinously genderskewed media, whether it’s film, theater, TV, or books. Most typically, particularly in the Award-Winning Categories, the ones that designate things Serious Stories For The Ages, there are piles of narratives about men changing the world. Check them. Oscars, Emmys, Pulitzers. We’re utterly used to seeing awards ceremonies during which, for example, ten (usually white, naturally) men stand up, and thank an audience for giving awards to their great art, art which almost always features a bunch of male movers and shakers. We’re used to seeing movies and plays about serious topics which have almost entirely male casts. We don’t even blink. Why would we? These are the kinds of stories that mean something. The equivalent movies (or media) with all female casts would almost certainly be marketed as chick flicks, be vigorously less serious, and would contain discussions of weddings and menopause. (How often, in a serious male-cast film have we heard a character say to another guy “I’m really having trouble with my prostate, man. It’s why I can’t focus on shooting that villain.” Things like this, regarding hot flashes, morning sickness and cramps come out of female character’s mouths all the time.)

This is how we’ve been taught to see the world.

These Award Winning films, plays, TV series, etc, are set in the science world, the financial world, the social justice world, the crime world. Sometimes they’re set in the near future, or in critical moments in the past. There are usually a couple of female characters in each of them. They’re always beautiful and young, and also they’re usually secretaries, interns, or cheated-on wives. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, they might be dead daughters, which means they’ve got a narrative arc with which to push their grieving fathers into the action that ultimately…changes the world.

Their only means for changing the world are getting injured or killed (to drive male characters toward revelation and revenge), getting married (to achieve “Important Because of the People In This Conversation” status), or getting the right piece of paper just in time to the guy who is ACTUALLY going to change the world, but who probably also has time to take a long look at her ass as she walks out the door, having delivered the missile codes.

This isn’t unusual to see, of course: this is Hollywood, and it is also mass media popular storytelling, which is why I regularly hit critical mass on it. These are the stories young girls are consuming. These are the stories that tell women what they can be. These stories, folks, are fucked up. They break us. Stories are how we learn to live.

Stories which calculatedly and carefully do not include active women tell us that women are not useful parts of society.

Do storytellers not realize that women are impactful parts of the world? 

Do audiences not realize that women are impactful parts of the world? That women change the world? That women are, indeed, as interesting as men are? Why are all the women offstage in the important stories?

Those last are rhetorical questions. The charitable interpretation is that we don’t realize, and that oops, we just need to have it pointed out. (It’s been pointed out. A lot.) The less charitable interpretation is that the system has been fucked for centuries, and that narratives featuring women as impactful characters have always been in short supply.

Oh, are you about to remind me about, say, Lady Macbeth? Okay. Point taken. Lady Macbeth is a complicated female character in a sea of male characters (who are busy changing the world), yes. She’s also a villainess who controls men with her vagina and ambition. She’s powerful. But she’s the dark side of Opinionated Broad. In tons of the kind of story-telling I’m talking about – mass market, mainstream, award winning, there’s a Lady M character, for whom no one really deserves a cookie. Lady M is easy to achieve. I’m going to remind you now that Lady M, opinionated broad that she is, also loses her mind and commits suicide offstage for her sins, late in Act 5.

Impactful female characters should not just be villains and secretaries, and  – category unto themselves – Beautiful Girls. They should also be complicated heroines, changers of policy, battlers against civil wars. But we’re used to putting one woman for every ten men into a story and feeling that we’ve done enough to show that there are women in the world, and that we know it.

Every time I see a story with no impactful female characters, I wonder if the writer notices that indeed, they ARE changing the world. Badly. I suspect many story-creators do not in fact realize this. Because they think of the world in terms of men changing it.

***

WOAD

First century AD, and the world is in turmoil. The Roman Empire seeks to violently colonize the domain of Boadicea (Angelina Jolie), Queen of the Iceni tribe, in Wales. The warrior queen, painted with blue battlepaint, leads a revolt against colonialism, leading 100,000 troops against Rome, and defying the Emperor Nero. She nearly prevails, though in the end she dies heroically on the battlefield defending her country, and raising her fist in the air. She doesn’t have a husband. She leads male troops. In the end, her troops mourn her, and burn her body. The final shot is smoke. 

Angelina_Jolie_2

Angelina Jolie, Date & Photographer unknown, but looking like she could tear Rome with her teeth nonetheless. We’ll just pretend those lips are indigo blue.

***

Films about Boadicea have been in development for years, and regularly seem to collapse. They’re expensive. Conventional wisdom – based on the prevailing myth about what important stories consist of – tells us that audiences will not come to a giant historical action epic focusing on a female hero. Why not? Would you go to see the movie I just described? I would. At this point in human history, we should have Oscar Contender movies about people like Ada Lovelace, Boadicea and many, many others. We need them. The last time there was a major Hollywood movie about Marie Curie, it was 1943. 1943!!!!! Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), often described as the world’s first computer programmer, has never been the subject of a major Hollywood film, though I’m quite sure people have tried. There’s never been a biopic about Josephine Baker, though it’s been mooted and collapsed repeatedly, with stars ranging from Diana Ross to Rihanna. The civil rights leader Diane Nash has never been the subject of a biopic, and indeed, is often edited from the action in larger depictions, despite her radical bravery, ferocious commitment to social change, and clear influence on the action. There are countless other examples of things that should exist…and don’t. Yet the male equivalents do.

Let me be clear here: What. The. Fuck?

Not only does this not make good sense in a There Are Amazing Women in the World context, it does not make sense in a storytelling context.

Perhaps I should point out now that intriguingly, given the many centuries of wrongs done to women, that the stakes are actually HIGHER for heroic female characters than they are for equivalent male characters.

High stakes = better stories, right?

A female character going up against a world of men to fight for justice is more likely to have her life threatened than a male character is. Female characters often are put into stories to disappear. In the real world, women who fight for justice (or walk down the street), in any medium, are likely to be casually threatened with rape and murder. I am. Pretty much daily. Centuries of stories have taught men that it is okay to treat a female character like a walk on, that it is okay to reduce her lines to zero, to reduce her power to pretty, and to reduce her impact to whether or not she is hot enough to walk down the street in front of them. The same is radically not true for most men.

Thus: female characters fighting for justice, doing impactful things? Are actually working harder than than their male equivalents, because the deck is stacked hard against them. Why would we not wish to increase the stakes in our stories by featuring female characters risking EVERYTHING, as opposed to male characters risking their careers, or reputations?  Men typically get threatened with humiliation and loss of material possessions. Women get threatened with violence and loss of life.

The women who have changed the world have done it against significant, intense, life-threatening odds.

If that’s not Great Story, I don’t know what is.

***

I was having a conversation yesterday afternoon with a friend of mine who teaches theater to teenagers. She’d been in a classroom watching group-created performances, seeing them for the first time, and was startled to discover that the teenage girls in the classes had cast themselves in improv roles in which they were nearly all dead or dying, women suffering injuries, raped, murdered, hit by cars, and otherwise destroyed. The only women who spoke tended to talk about men. The other role the teenagers had given themselves was the role of Hot Walk On.

This was, needless to say, not the case with the boys in the class, who all had lines and actions. But everyone had tacitly agreed that the women in the room were more important for their bodies than their brains, and for their capacity to motivate male characters into action, specifically by being sacrificed.

Why? Because these are the kinds of stories we recognize as a society. Because these are our current big stories. Because this is the fucked world we’re living in.

My friend taught her students about the Bechdel Test, and then talked about why female characters should be doing things other than dying. She gave them, it sounds like, the serious gift of revelation: you have a voice. You are impactful. You can play a character who is a whole person, not just a tool to help male characters achieve their goals.

You can change the world. 

***

FALL PHENOMENA

A team of the world’s best scientists (Kerry Washington, Michelle Yeoh, Helen Mirren, Salma Hayek) are recruited to intervene when a meteorite is headed toward Earth. They must find a way to minimize impact – and their skills are put to the test when they discover that the meteorite is not celestial, but engineered material, and that someone on Earth has actually rigged the fall as an act of war. (Note: This is not a world in which all the men are dead. This is simply a world in which the most qualified scientists in this room happen to be women.) Their intern (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) occasionally distracts them with sex appeal, but is largely mute, though in a key moment, he does provide a single, startling line of insight.

credit: Mike McGregor / Contour by Getty Imageswashingtonkerry__130718174844michelle-yeohxn6nh9rx5ljvjlr

 There is no random shot of all these women together, so this is the lineup. Imagine them saving the world. 

***

All these movie scenarios I’m describing are essentially gender-reversed plots of films we’ve felt totally comfortable watching. We’ve become so used to Opinionated, Strategic Woman = Villain, and Beautiful Women = Piece of Ass With Perhaps Secondarily A Surprisingly Good Brain, that it’s hard to imagine an Oscar-style movie in which women like these are heroes, and in which their interactions have nothing at all to do with men. It’s totally rational that in the real world they could be. Women in the real world regularly kick ass in the sciences. They risk their lives photographing warzones. They spend a great deal of their time having nothing to say about men, weddings, menopause, periods, or their vaginas, and often can be found, you know, analyzing medieval marginalia, drafting policy arguments for politicians, and running through the park thinking about string theory.

Really.

Yet the movie versions of us – the mainstream Award Winning versions of us – are more typically found offscreen, coming on to serve the male world changers coffee, tie their neckties, support their ambitions, and look beautiful. We can be found bending over backwards in heels to show men how well we can shake it, while still maintaining the ability to raise small children, which startling capacity will, of course, help the male main character realize that he should be more emotionally available, and that he should also perhaps take some vengeful action against the things that have hurt the woman he loves.

This is pretty crazy.

This is pretty sad.

This leads to female characters whose main event is offstage suicide. This leads to girls who do not realize that their main event can be anything they want, that it does not have to be pretty, nor does it have to be sexy. That it can, in fact, be about nothing but brain.

And…

Lest you think I am trying to create a non-entertaining universe of media, something that is all about politics and nothing to do with fun, I present you in conclusion with the following scenario, which will be familiar to you from years of movies we’ve accepted unblinkingly as popcorn and soda classics, as fun bubblegum, as the stories we want to see when we want our brains to be empty and then filled again with a bunch of pretty things.

***

THE ROLLOVER

Sleek, impeccable and brutally charming, international con-artist Miranda Plaza (Tilda Swinton) violates parole to organize the perfect heist. Together with former partner Rene Lamar (Penelope Cruz) the duo employs 8 of their former heistwoman colleagues to pull off a gigantic multi-national bank robbery. The heistwomen are contortionists, lock picks, munitions experts. None of them use sex appeal to achieve their goals, but they’re smart and skilled, and the dialogue is rapid-fire, stylish, and fun as hell. Plaza’s ex-husband (an unknown) plays a minor role, the only male role in the film. But damn, he’s fine. 

So fine that this film – much as Thelma & Louise made Brad Pitt’s career – makes him famous.

See? I’m fair.

Tilda Swinton & Penelope Cruz at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party, 2012

Tilda Swinton & Penelope Cruz at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party, 2012 – Do these two women not look like they’d pull off any heists they wanted to?

***

Here’s a storified link to the series of Tweets that inspired this essay: #FeministBecause

 

99 thoughts on “A SHORT LIST OF MOVIES YOU WILL NEVER SEE

  1. What, there are no actualised women in contemporary movie roles? Wait, wait, there’s… erm… hang on… oh! I know! What about that one in thingy that does wossisname and is saved by the guy – rats, that don’t count either.😀

    The only exception I can offer (and we all know that exceptions prove rules) is SALT – and as a fan of mindless explosions, weaponry & chases – this was a film that ticked the friday night curry and beer box as well as any. Of course, she was the only woman with a key role, in the entire film.

    I have to admit, i’m dubious about casting CB in the first one you pitch, but the plot of everyone of these seems pretty damned watchable to me. While we’re talking about biopic’s, what about a Cleopatra that isn’t white, and doesn’t collapse into a mans arms at the first whiff of his BO?

    Anyway. More women doing stuff in films, and not there as eye-candy or a sop to teenage boys fascinated by cleavage and legs – Yes Please.

  2. You should check out the British TV series THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE, about a team of women codebreakers in WW2 London who, following victory and demobilization, use their collective codebreaking and pattern-spotting skills to solve crimes. Marvellous stuff.

  3. The Brits actually did a film called Warrior Queen with Alex Kingston as Boudica (I guess that’s an alternate spelling?). I’ve wanted to see it, but apparently the only way to do so here in the U.S. is to buy a copy from the BBC store.

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  5. While we’re talking about Ada Lovelace, and the women of Bletchley Park, I’d love to see Adm. Grace Hopper get some recognition.

  6. I think people are coming more and more around to the idea where a strong woman character can lead a major film. There’s Frozen still breaking records, and there’s currently a huge demand for action films starring Black Widow, Wonder Woman, or Mystique (though we have to hope the guys making those franchises will see the appeal of a superheroine movie without having to focus on cleavage at the same time). I think that as more people try to take risks with female-centered movies that aren’t chick flicks or romances or whatever, we’ll see more of the kinds of films like the one you created above.

    Maybe you could even write the screenplay for one.

  7. You’re right, when it comes to film, and I must say, I’d love to see these movies!

    I will say that I’m encouraged to see some women in TV defying these rolls, though. Olivia, from Fringe, and President Roslyn from BSG come to mind as whole characters with complexity, agency and a leading roll that focuses not on what they are, but what they can DO. There is progress being made, especially as more women are becoming writers. We need more female directors, though.

  8. Two more women for you to consider: Ella Baker, a major leader and strategist in the civil rights movement who founded SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), and Maria Theresa, empress of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire for 40 years in the 19th century.

  9. I love this line: “Every time I see a story with no impactful female characters, I wonder if the writer notices that indeed, they ARE changing the world.” Good post!

  10. Your op-ed does not grapple with the implications of how women speaking to women use language in public vs. how men speaking to men do. It’s very different. If you recast a male movie with women in the important roles, you have to change the way language is used or the plot will quickly ring false. Once language use is changed, the plot is altered, and outcomes may differ markedly. Women could easily be led to a different solution to the problems posed by the plot because they describe problems in ways unique to women. Maybe there’s a diplomatic solution instead of a war, maybe there’s a compromise instead of a winner/loser ending. Maybe the women dash off to save the children and let the dam break. Or maybe not. But it’s a very different movie because the dialog will be very different in the female version.

    • Yeah, bro, you’re right, women speak a separate language.
      Or, er, perhaps we actually communicate using the same language men do.
      Have you seen Salt, with Angelina Jolie? That role was written for Tom Cruise. The part in your comment about how the women might dash off the save the children and let the dam break was pretty amusing though!

    • Wow! Did you just say women talk to women differently from the way men talk to men? Dude, my female friends and I, close as we are, have never ever discussed (1) tampons, (2) menopause, (3) male or female genitalia, or (4) babies. We have often discussed art, theatre, film, politics, our careers (as Professors, Doctors, Editors, authors, etc), Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Holocaust… Shall I continue? We hate chick-lit-rom-com films as well as books or series that feature 99% male character interaction/action and 1% “save the helpless female who always throws away the gun when it comes her way” action. Because we all know we’d grab that gun and blast the bad guys to hell and back. Welcome to OUR world, Bro.

  11. It is to sigh…and then growl, eh? In the movies we DO see, and yes, I know, what the fuck do I expect from Disney…but, the new Maleficent was so visually arresting and DID have Angelina Jolie looking like her teeth could terraform a kingdom. So my hopes rose too high. She was the protector of a faery land — she was maimed and unwinged by a lying liar of a man with ambitions to a neighboring throne. She took revenge, still doing her job for her own land; but as Disney would have it, she was “rehabilitated” by breaking her own curse and mothering her enemy’s child. So, again, thank you Hollywood; women are only ennobled by child-care? To a degree, as a humanist, I rejoiced to see her care for a girl-child rise about her need for revenge; but that could have been a secondary theme of the film all the same.

  12. Reblogged this on lefthandwriting and commented:
    Everyone needs to read this. Women ARE powerful. We can run the world without being the Villainess, exactly. Somebody gotta start appreciate it or our daughters wouldn’t even try to become the greatness they can be.

  13. So true! And even when they do make movies about powerful women like Margaret Thatcher, they insist on the closing shot being of her washing tea cups… which she proclaimed earlier on in the movie was not what she saw as her life’s purpose (or something to that effect). It’s not just girls, but boys too, who grow up watching this crap and forming ingrained opinions on gender roles and capabilities.

  14. The more woman act like if there is problem with woman in the world, the more propaganda or the more we could push our selfs down. I Actually act undercover, I have a cover, I never say everything I feel and see in this male world that is of course, do pathetic and disgusting to tell you the truth, the whole existence is not just round it, but infiltrate curvy, and this free energy is raising and the Empire will fall, many of us are with in this war, and the winers wont need to fight. Just be! sharpening your skills and not to clean and pretend we are better, just be! at this step we gain force.

  15. There isn’t anything in this post I can argue with; the exception being Angelina Jolie as Boudica. I think an actor with a bit more physical presence, instead of just being svelte, would serve better. Other than that one admittedly personal point of departure, I find this post to be spot on! You are an amazing writer and I’m going to Amazon forthwith to snag a copy of QUEEN OF KINGS. Please don’t stop doing what you’re doing, the way you do it. I’m an immediate follower and fast becoming an ardent fan. Thanks for the insight, inspiration and, most of all, the language. Love your work.

  16. There was a TV movie resembling Woad…..but I ffing hate how movies/TV are so often waaay behind real life….women need more active roles in stories, I cannot stand women being portrayed as passive *things*….a woman I know once said “women have sooo much power just by being there, we don’t need *insert active attribute here*”, and I lost respect for her because just being there is not power, no one achieved anything by just being there (no, inspiring others to do shit is not achieving something) and you cannot even take care of yourself by just beeeing theeere. FFS.
    However there are self-publishing sites such as Lulu where you can write stories on whatever you want, set your own price and market it to the many people who would like to see women as active heroes.
    I honestly have to respect for gender roles and it was only until recently that I found out that I wasn’t “normal”…f society.

  17. I would watch the hell out of each and every one of the films described! I want to see women in these roles, kicking arse, taking names, saving the world, fighting monsters. Yes. Yes to all of it!

  18. I think part of the issue here is that female characters are written as women first, people second, while male characters are written as people first, men second. In other words, men are the default and the idea of writing about a female historical figure becomes difficult because you’re writing about a *woman*. While sometimes gender is inescapable (for instance if you’re writing a story set in Victorian Britain), that doesn’t mean it defines the character or the narrative. In many settings, like fantasy, sci-fi, or even just modern drama, gender need not be addressed if you don’t wish to do so.

    This part of your post really resonated with me:

    “Perhaps I should point out now that intriguingly, given the many centuries of wrongs done to women, that the stakes are actually HIGHER for heroic female characters than they are for equivalent male characters.”

    This is something that’s never occurred to me before, but it’s so clearly true. While writing about a woman doesn’t mean you have to start thinking about gender, it does give you a ready-made option for further conflict in your story. It’s pretty much a win-win situation: if you don’t want to worry about gender, then pick a setting where you don’t have to and just write a bunch of people who happen to be female, but if you wish to, you can consider the implications of being female in your story and give yourself another layer of drama.

  19. Wow this is well put and a very true reality. I wanted to post that I am guilty of the very type of thinking to which this blog highlights. Proof? This articule features pictures of female actresses I being a film lover, promised myself I would see. I know these women to be brillant hardworking women and social climate changers. However condition as I am to giving favor to men as being the innate visionaries and true leaders the promise I made to myself was not kept, and seeing thier movies was forgotten. Categorizing women into a realm of relavantism but not leaders makes me a hypocrite. The same conditioning in which I favor men over women is the same conditoning that favors categoring sterotypes on minorites. Mass media, epecially fiction novel’s that claim to be creative often favor in this way. Thanks for the observation and intrinsic change I can be making in myself.

  20. Reblogged this on RubyG and commented:
    This pretty much explains the reason or the reinforcement of the “dichotomy” that is the human female, we are impactful and we are important. We dont just fall into the category of harlots or witches. Society please dont see me as the damsel in distress, for we all have the capability of being the hero….oh but misogynist Hollywood wont have that. Great blog!

  21. Those “gender-reversed” movies would be great ideas in some bizarro world where the genders actually were reversed. Too bad we live in the real world, huh?

  22. Reblogged this on barbdsykes and commented:
    Wow!! These are movies I want to see – strong lead female characters who have beauty, style and mainly brains and expertise. I wonder how I could channel the passion and drive of this blog to the young girls and women in my village I am currently serving in (Peace Corps Volunteer in Ghana)??

  23. I love how your title–a short list of movies you will never see–contradicts what it says. After this, I’m definitely itching to watch some of these. Thanks for the list!

  24. As mentioned above ‘Warrior Queen’ is a very good movie with a very strong female lead who is over 22 and did not roll off the Hollywood Barbie-doll production line, There is room for female action stars , Sigourney Weaver in Alien being a prime example. She was the first female star in a Sci Fi movie who grabbed a gun and said ” follow me boys” rather than twisting her ankle and screaming when the monster appeared, which up until that movie had been the only role for women in that type of movie. I want to see more older women in movies, can’t understand why any actress over 40 is ignored by Hollywwod.

  25. Pingback: Gender Flipping Plots and X-Men | Catchy Title Goes Here

      • I’m sorry I didn’t read your post all the way through to the end. What you are saying is important and I agree 100% with you. I have a friend right now in LA who is doing research in the UCLA Library Archives in order to complete her doctoral thesis. Incidentally, she is writing about the place of women in the movie industry, from directors, producers and actresses. I will forward her your post!

  26. There are many films with strong women in them. Battlestar Galactica, Honey, all Alien films, Erin Brockovich, The colour purple, Freedom writers to name but a few. All great films in their own right with great female characters. Nice to see somebody mention our Welsh Queen Boadicea, as many people in the UK would never acknowledge her as Welsh. Thanks for that!😉

  27. Preach it girl! I wish more people were aware of how cookie-cutter cinematography actually is, and what really underlies it.

  28. Pingback: Check this out: Movies we want to see | Brida Anderson

  29. This blog really resonated with me. There simply aren’t enough movies, or books, with strong female characters. I think that’s why I’ve really been drawn to the Young Adult market lately, to the dystopian genre, in particular. With books like Hunger Games, Divergent, Legend, you have young girls saving the universe. Unfortunately, I hear the market is saturated and we’ll now be given more contemporary. Oh good. Back to girls agonizing about boys and acne. I also hear there’s a push on in the YA market to publish more books with male protagonists. It seems to me young girls read more fiction than young boys. Why can’t they read about girls saving the universe? Sad.

  30. Opera, on the other hand, has many, many women in the leading roles. Tosca, Lucia, Aida, the list goes on and on. So in art, as opposed to entertainment, women are getting their due respect.

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