Warning: Hey there! I’m a feminist killjoy, and I am here to ruin some films.
How many movies have been ruined for you since you discovered feminism? Lately, I’m noticing a hell of a lot.
This weekend, I had ‘the girls’ over for a movie night. We bundled into a pile of blankets and cushions and giant unicorns, cracked open some leftover Christmas wine and ordered pizza. It was heaven. Except…something in our movie choices was a little off. These were all the so-called ‘chick flicks’ we’d grown up with and loved – but suddenly, through my smash-the-patriarchy lenses, I found myself recoiling every few minutes. Teeth drying moments of “oh, no,” spattered throughout these stories I knew and loved so well.
Despite all of my friends identifying as feminists, I seem to be the most, shall we say, vocal, on certain things. I was shushed repeatedly as I snorted with derision each time a man came to the rescue, or the already-beautiful actress removed her glasses and suddenly became a princess. But it got me thinking. How many of these films we grew up feeling empowered by are actually littered with sexism? And can we still watch them, once that veil has been lifted? Or are we doomed to dump them with Lara Croft in the bin of pre-third wave feminism pop culture?
So, I took a look at a few films and a few common themes. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
The “I Want” Song
Any writer or movie enthusiast knows that no story will work without a passionate protagonist; someone with purpose and flame. In musical theatre, this is known as the “I Want” song; the character generally is given a solo to show what means the most to them, and what they’re willing to fight for. So I took a few examples, with the of some Twitter folk, to study what some of these female characters are after, and if its conducive to sexism.
I’ll start with the heartbreaker, just to set the tone. Bridget Jones’ Diary has been one of my favourite films for as long as I can remember, and despite her career flourishing mid-film, it is blatant to see that her drive is to find a man. She is single, and she laments being single. She is convinced she’ll die alone, and writes about it furiously in her diary. She doesn’t specify what she expects to gain from a relationship; merely that she wants one – and despite the film’s supposed empowering decision to have Renee Zelwegger put on weight for the role in order to seem ‘normal’, the only other real aspiration she shows is that of losing weight. So Bridget is negative about her, quite frankly, banging body, and she feels much better about it when validated by a man. Oh. Shit.
My Best Friend’s Wedding – Julia Roberts’ character is driven, throughout the entire film, by chasing a man.
Legally Blonde – a film considered by some to be quite empowering based on the supposition that a pretty, peppy, fashion major can also be a bad-ass lawyer – is unfortunately tainted by the fact that she only goes to law school for…you guessed it…a man! Oh. Shit.
The only one of these films I could think of that didn’t have a man at the centre of the I Want, was Miss Congeniality. Sandra Bullock’s Gracie Hart is focussed on her career in the FBI, on catching bad guys and standing by her strict moral code. She’s not fussed what she looks like, she doesn’t care about acting ‘feminine’ to gain approval from her peers. Great, fabulous, I fucking love it. Oh wait, what’s that? The rest of the film is about how that’s not acceptable and she has to change? Oh. Shit.
Apologies and Girl-on-Girl Crime
As Tina Fey says in the immortal Mean Girls, there’s been some girl-on-girl crime here. (I’ve checked, Mean Girls passes the Bechdel test, don’t panic.)
Many of these films are lousy with the pitting of women against each other – jesus, look at Bride Wars! – and slut shaming. And yet when a woman does apologise, it’s to a man!
Let us not forget that this so-called feminist Elle Woods called Vivienne a ‘Frigid Bitch’ simply because she dared to get engaged to her single ex-boyfriend. And while we’re on that, what’s with the whole blondes are the good-guys, brunettes are the bad-guys thing? And don’t even get me started on the whole ‘minorities can only be sidekicks’ thing. Eugh. Have we not seen enough of that? Yes, I realise they sort it out at the end, but not before Vivienne has gone on to slut-shame Elle for what is actually a sexual assault. Oh. Shit.
In Miss Congeniality, there’s Gracie loudly judging all of the contestants of the Miss United States pageant. And why? Because they do care about beauty when she doesn’t. But neither is fucking wrong. We know this, as feminists. We know that the whole idea is to do what you damn well want and not what society wants you to do. This film seriously got my goat, there’s so much wrong with it I can’t even fit it all in this blog. BUT I’LL TRY.
Oh and a special mention to Kirsten Dunst in Bring It On for apologising to her love interest dude, despite having done shit all wrong, and him just being pissed off because she didn’t immediately fuck him after they did some weird teeth-brushing flirty dance, what? SERIOUSLY WHAT?
The Look & The Gaze
Elle Woods is constantly within the male gaze, throughout the film, even in moments when she’s supposed to be all ‘sisters before misters’. She’s a sex toy, an object, to be pursued by Warner, by her TA, by her professor. She’s eye candy, despite her brains. What message is this sending to audiences?
Coming back to Miss Congeniality (this might be the worst one, seriously guys, watch it again and come back to me). Gracie is considered un-worthy based on her lack of femininity. Her life is portrayed as sad and lonely. When she is forced to go undercover (based on how she looks in a swim suit because that’s how the FBI works), she is scoffed at for not being the ‘ideal’ woman. So who do they get in to ‘fix’ her? A MAN OF COURSE. And who suddenly notices her once she looks nothing like herself? A MAN OF COURSE. UGH THIS FUCKING FILM YOU GUYS.
I’m diving really deep in to the childhood ruining now, I’m so sorry. But. How could Eric have fallen in love with Ariel when she didn’t even have a voice?! Oh, yeah, boobs. Gotcha.
The Bechdel Test
So, you’re a feminist right? So you’ve probably heard of the Bechdel Test? Here are the 3 rules you need to adhere to in order to pass it:
1 – Are there 2 or more named female characters?
2 – Do they talk to each other?
3 – About something other than a man?
Let’s review a few:
Bridget Jones’ Diary
1 – There are at least four named female characters.
2 – They certainly do talk to each other…
3 – Ah. Oh dear.
1 – There are three named female characters I can think of.
2 – Yep, they talk to each other!
3 – Ah. Even when she’s giving counsel to her client, they’re talking about her husband. Hmm.
The Little Mermaid
1 – Precisely two named female characters
2 – They do talk to each other very briefly
3 – Never mind.
Miss Congeniality, through some fucking miracle, actually does pass the Bechdel test. Proof that it’s not definitive. Yikes.
But you see my point. And trust me once you start checking, you won’t be able to stop.
Does this mean we can’t enjoy them?
This is the main issue, I guess. I took this to twitter, and the general consensus is that the level of sexism has a direct correlation to whether people are willing to watch them now that they’re more clued in. There appears to be a level of sexism that, much like the movies of the 60s and 70s, we are willing to forgive because it was ‘the way of the time.’ But does this feed future productions? Does it hold back progression in feminist cinema? And how can we, in all good conscience, pass these films down to the next generation, our cultural successors, without passing down that subconscious acceptance of those flagrantly wrong attitudes? How do we share something with which we have such a positive connection whilst impeding the negative impact?
Can you still watch particular films/shows after noticing their sexist undertones?
— Georgia (@UpAndGeorgia) February 6, 2017
I think it falls to us to make quite clear anything that is out of date and damaging, and to explain this to the future generations as they discover the films of our youth, so that they don’t fall into the same patriarchal hole.
As for me – I’m finding it harder and harder to enjoy the films that I once loved.
(Except The Little Mermaid, because come on.)
What do you think? Tweet me @UpAndGeorgia or leave a comment!