Monday, October 15, 2007

Women in Film

Originally intended to post this at SMALLPONDFILMS.ORG, but the code on the message board turned it into one long paragraph; figured I'd post it here so it was at least readable...

Took a film class in college all those years ago, and one of the lectures was about the "role of the female" in film, or something like that. Now, granted, this was back in 1989, and things HAVE changed, but not all that much. Here's the basic idea of that particular day's worth of discussion:
In American cinema, Women play one of two roles: either that of the "traditional" woman, or that of a woman struggling to exist in a world defined by men. That's it. Nothing in-between. Either women in film served as wife/mom/secretary/daughter / teacher/maid/nanny/etc, or they were some sort of "Norma Rae" - type character. And the percentage of "traditional" to "Non-traditional" was seriously wacky, like 80% to 20%. The double-seriously wacky thing is that an argument can be made that the 20% of "non-traditional" female roles are - in fact - "traditional", simply because these women struggling to exist in a male-dominated world are forced to embrace an "outlaw" position because (and here's the rub) of the rules that are dictated by men. Thus, a "non-traditional" female playing the "outlaw/survivor in a man's world" is, in fact, playing a traditional role. These roles have further been broken down, as the following bit STOLEN FROM seems to reflect:

" In order to examine popular culture and its reflection of American society, we must look at America’s most beloved form of media, film. Film historians and researchers have found out that men play a disproportionate amount of leads and heroes. They were also depicted as employed professionals, as opposed to the percentage of women who were depicted as unemployed housewives. In a study of 100 films released in 1941 and 1942, “eighty percent of films focusing on the love/hate problems of a man had a good bad girl as the main female character. In 50 percent of the films, the good bad girl successfully opposed a bad girl,” (Butler, 141). In a study of the films from the 1930s to 1970s, historians have categorized four dominant types of roles that women played. The first one is the “Pillar of Virtue” types played by Doris Day or Julie Andrews. This category also features mothers and mammies such as Hattie McDaniel’s character in “Gone with the Wind.” The “Glamour Girl” range from sex goddesses such as Marilyn Monroe in “Bus Stop” to femme fatales such as Marlene Dietrich in “Blonde Venus.” The “Emotive Woman” is the sexually frustrated Rosalind Russell in “Picnic” and the seductive Elizabeth Taylor in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Thus, the last category, the “Independent” woman or the Katharine Hepburn type, is Barbara Streisand in “Funny Girl,” or Jane Fonda in “Klute,” the liberated woman. Throughout much of film history, women have been depicted as manipulative, sexually repressed, or sexually overt. There was also a lack of sisterhood and films with women interacting with other women in a positive light. In the 1950s, especially, we witnessed an era of “reaffirming male dominance and female subservience; movies showed women as breasts and buttocks, again idealizing women who were ‘pretty, amusing, and childish,’” (Butler, 145). Much of this female contempt has endured and remained, although it may not be as obvious as the previous decades. Nowadays, we see more sensationalized sexual roles for women as the trend began in the 70s. Women now are also shown as waifs similar to the 60s trend, which was a severe contrast to the idea image of the 50s. All in all, women are becoming an endangered species in films and taking increasingly less leading roles.

Ever since the 1960s, the women’s movement has been concerned with media portrayal of women. Major studies of the most pervasive medium, television, and particularly its commercials revealed the same subordination of women we saw in film. In commercials, most voice-overs were done by men and overall, men were featured more often than women. The women who were featured were limited to family roles. Women were shown doing housework and men were the beneficiaries of their work. On the other hand, men were employed, had careers, and were doing something outside the home. More significantly, even though the age of the female population is bit higher than the male, commercials featured a disproportionate number of young women as opposed to men. “In commercials during children’s programming, women and girls were seen less than men and boys,” (Butler, 93). In television programs, such as soap operas, quiz shows, prime-time dramatic shows, and public-affairs programs, we saw similar trends as well. Once again, “men are more often employed than women and have higher status jobs. Also, the woman’s marital status is known more often,” (Butler, 93-94). She is marked by her relationship with men.

Some new discourse has been generated to the negative media portrayals of women as well. Let’s take the film noir genre for example. “These were thrillers made in the 40s and 50s, usually shot in dramatic black and white, with sensual stars who would use their attractiveness to manipulate luckless men,” (Root, 17). Film noirs such as “Double Indemnity” and “Sunset Boulevard” are such examples where the characters of Barbara Stanwyck and Gloria Swanson trap men into their evil ploys. “The women usually die too, however, punished for their relentless attempt to satisfy their own desires and the threat that they represent to the stable world of marriage, family and female submissiveness,” (Root, 18). However, of late, feminists have begun to have a new view of film noirs, suggesting that these films show women who are outside their standard role of femininity. Although they use their sexuality, they derive power from it and use their intellect to get what they want. They represent strong, active women and these virtues override the male-centered moral it is to enforce upon the audience. Another alternate approach to this is understanding some of the dynamics of the rock video, which embodies the opposite of the male gaze. Rather than omitting the possibility of voyeurism for the female audience, it almost works as a gender blind construct. “The rock star body, and in alliance with videos, is always coded to be looked at whether male or female,” (Brown, 105). For one thing, rock videos contain “performance, a direct address, which produces a different kind of gaze than those that pertain in film, and fantasy, in relation to dominant cultural definitions of pleasure and desire,” (Brown, 10). Although some videos highly objectify women, these are examples of studying oppression to draw new conclusions and findings.


Interesting. Note that, even though this article expands the female roles into four categories, three of those categories would fall distinctly into that of the traditional female role.“Pillar of Virtue” “Glamour Girl” “Emotive Woman” all are traditional, AMERICAN, perceptions of woman-ness. The “Independent Woman", however, is a much rarer creature in American popular culture (indeed, one can look at underground and/or so-called "art" films and find a more greater percentage of liberated female characters... but not as many as one might expect...). The intriguing thing is that this is changing - albeit slowly - as we become older as a country and the world "shrinks" through the availability of European and Asian films, thus exposing "US" to "THEIR" attitudes towards women (both liberal and conservative).

Bringing us to the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez film GRINDHOUSE, and (specifically) Tarantino's segment, DEATH PROOF. Instead of retyping it, I'll just quote myself from awhile back on Small Pond...

"Adam once wrote: "No audience can become invested in characters when the first set is abruptly killed off as victims of the same incident halfway through, and the second set does nothing more but spit dialogue serving no purpose to progress the film, and is accompanied by the stereotypical sassy, black, female, character to serve as the rude and crude comic relief."

Ah, but here's where you're potentially mistaken. First off, the concept of audience being invested in characters is one sold by screenwriting hacks that sell formula books over the Internet. Much more interesting is the character that can die at any time, become evil/good at any time, disappear at any time during the movie. The craptastic H'wood formula of, "Introduce characters/challenge characters/have characters find love-honor-redemption-success" bores the hell out of me; even I'm getting tired of the 1,001 rip-offs of Joseph Cambpell's work. The joyful thing about "Death Proof" is that the characters DO become roadkill - but well after we've ALREADY invested in them as characters that are at least interesting enough for our attentions. The days of audiences needing people in black hats and white hats are far from over, but I get the feeling that audiences are more sophisticated than that now, and we have to allow our characters to be (gulp) human. Ironically enough, QT creates very ... uhm... "Tarantinoesque" characters that resemble humans in their behavior, but then again twists them into iconic inversions of what our lizard brains expect.

And if we missed it, QT gave us all a single, brilliant moment in the movie when - out of the blue - he has Kurt Russell (a star of enough 70's/80's shlock that "Grindhouse" might have been a trip down memory lane for him...) suddenly break the fourth wall and look knowingly into the camera at the audience to deliver a smile of beatific proportions. Not a SADISTIC smile. Nope. Not a CRAZY smile, or a GOOFY smile, or even a SLIGHTLY OFF KEY smile, but rather, the kind of smile that Mr. Russell would happily (one might assume) wear on his face for his 30th family reunion, had he grown up to be a "Regular Joe", rather than "Kurt Russell". It is at this moment that Tarantino - working with his tools of film and actor - inform the audience of: "Okay, enough of this standard fare. Let the cinematic games begin."

And lo and behold, but from that point and beyond, "Death Proof" becomes more than just an homage piece ala "Terror Planet" (which was excellent on so many levels) and "Pizza Man vs. The Dude" (which was not excellent on so many levels... *sigh*...). Instead, with "Death Proof" Tarantino somehow manages to connect the "B" movies of the 70's to the "A" movies of the new 21st century, blurring the lines between both by drawing attention to the pre-conceived lines between both and saying, "hey, remember how these cool old flicks broke all the damn rules? Isn't it awesome that - in the spirit of these cool old flicks - we can continue to break all the damn rules, even the rules that were made breaking traditional rules?"

In short, Tarantino performs some drastically needed shock-therapy on the genre by continuing its evolution, rather than embracing the constraints that the genre pieces imposed upon themselves (ironically enough) by breaking the constraints of previous film theory and economic barriers. For example, "Evil Dead" and "Halloween" - staples of late-night viewing in downtown theaters in the early eighties. After those movies, it seemed that EVERY DAMN HORROR MOVIE had to have a litany of the following things: MASSIVE GORE CONTENT, NUDITY, HAND-HELD CAMERA WORK, FASTER EDITS, and A SOUNDTRACK THAT MADE PEOPLE JUMP (mostly because loud sounds do that to us...).
And after all those "B" and "C" grade slasher flicks went the way of "Wham!" and Eddie Murphy's singing career, what were we left with? The death of the horror film for quite some time (or until Hollywood started spoofing itself and/or stealing stories from Asia...) in this country.

Same thing with Heavy Metal music (which, curiously enough, paralleled the grindhouse era...): did we really need another hairspray band in 1990? Do we really miss "Poison"? Not so much. Why? Because most of those bands failed to evolve beyond the three chords they knew how to play whilst popping the top off a can of Aqua Net...

I saw "Grindhouse" for the second time tonight, and I've gotta admit that it was better upon second viewing than the first. And while Tarantino may be accidentally doing everything that I write that he's doing, does it really matter as long as he is, in fact, doing it?

In any event, this extended essay began as a questioning of Adam's claim that the female characters of "Death Proof" are stereotypical and (I infer here) shallow, to which I say thee NAY! Let us analyze them briefly:
"Death Proof" is unconventional in that it serves itself up in two halves, each half following a group of women during their day/night out. Both groups are stalked by Kurt Russell, a homicidal stuntman with a kick-ass Chevy Nova. A bit shocking is that 45 minutes or so into this 90 minute piece, the first set of women (five in total) are whacked, upsetting whatever traditional training we have as audience members of this type of film - apparently, the good guys have all been killed, which is a bit strange for us when the movie is only half over. This causes us to subconsciously field the question of, "Hmm. The good guys can't all die at the end of the story, so therefore Stuntman Mike must be the good guy because he's the only one left alive at the end of this story-unit." Which is A DEVIOUS BASTARD THING THAT TARANTINO DOES. Why? Because he's poking us in the psyche; these feelings don't quite sit well with us, do they. The mass-murderer CAN'T be the hero.

Or can he?

Did we go see all those "Friday the 13th" movies for the unknown and crappy actors in them, or did we go see them because we wanted to see how Jason was going to whack the next round of dope-smoking teens?
The nice thing is that Tarantino doesn't jump up on a soapbox to preach about how misogynistic the male psyche was/is. He just gives us - in the first half of "Death Proof"- what old skool exploitation movies gave us in spades: the perception that the male will always be dominant, as represented by the metaphor of the toys we make, the dietary choices we have, and the sophistication of our ability to talk circles around, "wimin-folk."

And then "Death Proof" launches itself into the 21st century where grrl power is not only evident, but far more interesting than seeing Freddy Krueger and his knives. No longer is the male the dominant critter on the block; here Stuntman Mike has chosen to take on four women of professional status, three of whom are substantially self-actualized. These women can walk the walk and talk the talk. They deal with sexual, physical, and power issues as equals to men. Example: the conversation in the yellow Mustang (Mustang?) about, "which ladies are getting dick." The message is clear - no longer are women subjected to the rules of "proper" (read: male determined) society in regards to sex. Women - at least these women - deal with sex in almost the same manner that men do: they want it when they want it, and if they don't want it, they have damn good reasons for not having it. Compare to the first half of "Death Proof", where a similar conversation occurs, but is completely different: the early women used sex as a device to manipulate and control. The women in the latter half of "Death Proof" don't see it that way; rather, they see it as an equal part of a relationship with men, one that women can enjoy in the same ways as men, and without the social stigma that is still present in some of the more... "provincial" parts of this country. Note also that the more "empowered" (I hate the term, but it will suffice for now) the woman in the latter story is, the more control she has over her own sex life. It is not an accident that Tarantino makes the Rosario Dawson character a woman whom has a child (albeit off-screen), who also has somewhat fuzzy logic in her dealings with sexual dynamics. Only when she chooses to "play with the cool kids" does she come into being, and only does she do so fully when she chooses to join the hunt for Kurt Russell's character. Curiously, SHE declares that Stuntman Mike needs to be killed (while the others stop at, "kicking his ass"), and - at the end of the movie, SHE is the one whose boot crushes Mike's skull.

Also in "Death Proof" are diner scenes: one with the objectified women that end up being roadkill; and one with the modern woman that end up NOT being roadkill. Notice that in the early scene there is mainly discourse about how women can manipulate social scenarios to gain male attention, while in the latter scene the discourse is about everything and anything BUT gaining male attention; rather, it deals with being a "smart" female without being an "objectified" female. One of the characters carries a gun. Why? Simple: it's a tough world out there, and people need to protect themselves - especially without bowing to conventions of a bygone era such as "not doing laundry at midnight" in the basement of the apartment building. These, Tarantino seems to be pointing out, are the actions of an era where women are victims, rather than this "new" era where women are tired of putting up with the shit men heap upon them. However, it is worth noting that one of the four women in the second story is a "traditional" female character from the exploitation genre: he even goes so far as to put her in a cheerleader outfit, for crying out loud. Symbolically, this shows that, while Tarantino recognizes this "new sexual order" that seems to be developing in America (and if you haven't noticed the newly sexually predatory nature of teenage girls of the last five years, go hang out at the mall for a Saturday afternoon and listen to their conversations...) has not only gained a hefty toe-hold and is potentially the driving force behind a new, 21st century sexual revolution, it HAS NOT permeated society (re: female society and female psychological perceptions of self), NOR shall it for some time. And, of course, what will be the last demographic of female society to fully embrace the new and truly equal woman (as opposed to the fascist Nazi-esque feminists of the '70's, of whom even Gloria Steinham said, "We took it a bit too far...")?

That of the dumb, caucasian female, who (figuratively and literally) will be left behind to deal with the cro-magnon males that choose not to advance and evolve with the rest of society, while the cool kids go out, break all the rules, protect themselves, and kick some serious ass.


I could go on and on about how MUCH sociological gold Tarantino has stuffed into "Death Proof" with his use and inversion (near perversion) of iconic characters and the manipulation of traditional movie schemata (things I feel compelled to mention are the use of PARALLEL EDITING, PARALLEL STORY STRUCTURE, and the fact that - if'n you watch closely - the closer "Death Proof" gets to current modern (re: enlightened?) perceptions of sexual power dynamics in society, the fewer "artistic" scratches and intended technical glitches occur, until (finally) the last five minutes of the film are as clear as anything currently on the market...), but it's late at I need a smoke. Let me end, however, with this: there is a WHOLE LOTTA SHAKIN' GOIN' ON in "Death Proof" - much which needs to be looked at with a critical eye before being dismissed out of hand. Granted, it might not be your cup of tea (entertainment wise, that is); on that level I must say things along the lines of "beauty" and "eyes" and "beholders." But I think one would be hard pressed to say that there wasn't some serious sociological positions being either a) stated; or b) reflected upon by Tarantino in this movie."

"Hmm..." sez I. Things ARE changing, which brings us back to Brandon's question about writing roles for WOMEN, and the difficulty many (most?) male writers have in doing so. Ultimately, I can only come to one conclusion:

We have had it culturally ingrained into our collective psyches that women MUST play the "traditional" role. Thus, more often than not, when WOMEN talk on-screen, MEN tune out of the conversation. I'm not trying to make a point about sexism here; American culture has already proven beyond a doubt that it is predominantly sexist.

The point I'm trying to make is that - even when provided with a stunning example of the independent woman in film, as in the latter half of DEATH PROOF, MALES (generally speaking) will not be as willing to sit and listen to the chatty conversation as they would were the conversation be done by males.

Thus exposing the double-standard of our culture: we value what men have to say, we belittle what women have to say. From a writing standpoint, this can be a very difficult hurdle to clear, because, what if - what if we're going through life thinking that we are open-minded, clear-thinking individuals, only to discover (upon reflection) that we don't pay attention to, "the fairer sex?"

To conclude, Kip kinda' has it right: men ain't women, so's men don't know what women's be thinking. Hopefully, the above goes into the depth of WHY that is...


Boise Filmmakers. No Tourists.