Monday, May 05, 2008

It started as a really long email to Jonathan that he told me he thinks I should post...

So I am a feminist. That’s right, I kind of believe in gender equality. I believe that our public policies should be sensitive to both the ways we discriminate by treating men and women differently (banning women from going topless but not men), as well as the ways we discriminate by treating men and women the same (banning both sexes from exposing their breasts in public, thereby discriminating against the gender that breastfeeds).

Recently, I have been thinking about a particular gender issue, that frankly I feel is not discussed, but which I think is extremely problematic. I’m not sure what to call it, but if I had to write a journal article about it, I might call it the essentialism of being a woman and the non-essentialism of being a man.

It starts with a simple question: why do female-centred movies suck?

They suck, they really do suck. I know not all women agree with me on this, but I am largely uninspired and under-whelmed by the ‘chick flick’. The less male actors in the film, the worse the chick flick gets. A frenzy of make-up and outfits, catfights and giggles and hope, hope, hope, that the man will love, love, love her. Lame, lame, lame.

So, why do female-centred movies suck? Even if they don’t suck (to the women who like them), at least then, why do women, like me, enjoy male-centred movies but men, like Jonathan, dislike female-centred movies? Why?

While you think about it, another question:

Why are women so staggeringly sidelined in movies?

If you are really honest with yourself, you will agree with me that in general, women are cast in films for only two reasons: 1) the movie needs some one-dimensional eye-candy OR 2) the plot involves the ‘female’ plotline of dating, pregnancy or princesses (because, you know, all issues involving real women can fall into the categories of courting, making babies, or beauty).

Men do not fit so easily into any box, of course. In movies, they are way funnier (imagine a plot in which two competing female skaters are paired together to win a figure skating championship ... and try not to imagine the women as essentially 'womanesque' and the movie not as a chick flick) and have much bigger problems than women (saving the world mostly, but also, running the country and making money).

Today, I have put my finger on an answer, or perhaps better phrased, a theory.

The Genderlessness of Men

I submit that in popular culture, men enjoy a sense of 'genderlessness' while women are defined by their femaleness only: that aspect of being a woman that is exclusive to women. Consider that movies with a mostly male cast are for the masses, male and female (Dodgeball, No Country for Old Men, The Usual Suspects, 40-Year Old Virgin) but movies with a mostly female cast are for women only. Name one female-cast movie that you've seen and that you’ve liked, as a man. I can list 10 movies (with all male casts) that I liked, as a woman.

So what gives?

The societal rule seems to be this: Where it can be either a man or woman, make it a man. Where a man won't do, only then, make it a woman. Only then.

As a result, our understanding of women (based on popular culture) has become overly feminized. The parts of us that we women hold common with men has been obscured because we are only portrayed in our role as deviating from men; we are only cast in a movie when a man won't do (i.e. the character is pregnant). As a result, it appears that women are breast feeders and pregnant mothers, sisters, girlfriends, and wives of other (more main) characters. It appears that women care only about their hair and nails, the attraction of males, being a bride, having children, being sexy. Since these are all roles that men can’t play, they are saved for women in movies. What is problematic is not that women play these roles but rather, that they ONLY play these roles. The aspects of being a woman that women could share with men (going away to college, working at the quickie-mart, busting out of jail) disappears, because men always play the uni-sex role, plus male-only roles as well. Hence, there is a much higher demand for male actors, and most movies feature male characters.

My argument is that this overly ‘feminizes’ women. As a result, men appear generic, associated with those human characteristics common to both men and women, plus male-exclusive characteristics, while women become a niche of only those human characteristics that men don't encompass. And, as a result, it's no surprise that women watch male-lead movies (as women can identify with the uni-sex qualities of the men playing those roles) but men don't watch female-lead movies (as women are never cast in uni-sex roles, so there is nothing for men to identify with).

I also don't think this is just a 'movie' thing. And it is not a small issue either. Viewing women as essentially female (lipstick, breasts, hips), and viewing men (or males) as essentially standard and normal is extremely problematic for women (without them even knowing it). An extreme of this is animated characters: a male skunk always looks like the animal it is based on but a female skunk has to be differentiated from the 'males' through long eye-lashes, red cheeks, a pink bow, sometimes, yes, even breasts and hips under a dress. Women are and have always been a 'deviation' from standard, from normal. A male washroom sign has a person on it. A female washroom sign has a person wearing a skirt on it. Deviation, again.

The implication is a distortion and exclusion of women (from popular culture) that women themselves are not even aware of. No one notices nor cares when all the South Park characters are male, when all, ALL animated movies feature non-human males in lead roles - the Lion King, the Jungle Book, Land Before Time, Finding Nemo, Toy Story...when all the characters on The Simpson's that don't require a particular gender are male, leaving all female characters to be 'sisters and wives of so-and-so...' save for a school teacher and a few female classmates. No one seems to care about women's lack of exposure in movies, and the particularly 'female' roles they play when they ARE in movies, even though women (in real life) participate in both female and unisex activities.

And it's hard to lament the lack of (good) movies with women in them, that men want to watch, because that reality has never existed. I really wonder what the world would be like, how people would view and feel about women, and how public policies would manifest differently, if women were not just this niche category of deviations (menstruation, child birth, sisters) from regular humans (men) that need to be accommodated but remain largely fringe in pop culture.



Anonymous Brendan said...

I saw "Failure To Launch" in the theatres.


And loved it both times.

8:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For your consideration:

Men are the ones who make movies. Or, rather, have been the ones who made movies. Though this is changing, the movie industry is still overwhelmingly dominated by men. Even chick flicks are made, with a very few exceptions, by men. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned during my lifetime, it’s this: men don’t understand women. So, when something is set to celluloid it is likely the men making the movie will write about men in situations they know something about (or, in the case of bad movies, situations they think they know about). Women are then added in for moral support of the main character, eye candy, or any number of trivial reasons. If there is no need for overtly feminine characters they are sometimes left out altogether. Think Lawrence Of Arabia or There Will Be Blood.

When women are needed for the plot they are usually presented as the feminine ideal: busty, hippy, eyelashy. Think Lara Croft. Men, being men, enjoy the eye candy aspect of the fairer sex whether it is needed for the plot or not. As for cartoons, it is easier to differentiate between the sexes if you don’t have to look for the telltale signs of the sex. The female skunk is virtually identical in appearance to the male but if you add eyelashes and hips and maybe even tits, it is far easier to tell them apart. Cartoons have always used exaggerated features to get their point across. Think anime.

All this may explain why there aren’t many substantial roles for women but it doesn’t explain why movies featuring women in leading roles are almost universally shitty. There are a few movies out there about women made by women that are great but they are far outnumbered by the shitty ones. For every Boys Don’t Cry there are ten (or even a hundred) Notebooks. It seems even women directors who make chick flicks, make bad chick flicks.

Chick flicks usually pander to the dating, courting, wooing demographic and therefore reflect that period in the movie. These movies are shitty because there is no real conflict in these movies. Does anyone really care whether Eve gets Adam? I don’t.

There are good movies about courting, wooing, dating but they rarely focus on the woman. Think All The Real Girls. These movies are not about the end result of Adam and Eve living happily ever after but about the internal conflict of the characters as they grow, learn, change and ultimately become who they will be for the rest of their lives. If the ending of the movie depends on the relationship it will be shitty and have a more prominent role for the woman. If it does not depend on the relationship it is a dramatic presentation.

So why is it these movies are shitty? Is it studio interference? Maybe, but that doesn’t explain chick flicks that are the end result of exactly what the director and/or writer set out to do. Is it artistic laziness? Yes, but that doesn’t explain the few gems out there.

Maybe this has to do with one universal truth: tragedies are better than comedies. Shakespeare was a master of both and even his comedies pale in comparison to his tragedies. Comedies rely solely on clever banter, comical misunderstandings or physical hi-jinks whereas tragedies rely on human nature and how we react to tragic situations. Anything that explores human nature will be better than something that explores puns. But then, why aren’t there more tragedies about women?

One possibility is this. Men make movies. Men have all had the fantasy of saving the damsel in distress while vanquishing the evil-doers and winning the damsel’s heart in the process. Think True Romance. The damsel roles don’t require cerebral females just ones with big tits. These are usually comedies and women have been typecast as the eye candy. Apply this logic to all, or most, female roles and you have what we have now. This seems to apply to most female roles in pop culture as well. Think Britney Spears vs Tom Waits. Christina Aguilera vs Bruce Springsteen.

Having said all that, I have one question of my own: Why do women enjoy chick flicks? They perpetuate the stereotype of women being the wife to be, the sappy, weepy, weaker sex. If movies were made that portrayed men in such poor light I doubt I would be fan.


P.s. I realize that this has turned from a response about women in cinema into a cinematic genre dissection and discussion (a poorly structured and argued one at that) on societal norms with absolutely no answers but it was fun to write.

P.p.s. Brendan, hang your head in shame

2:26 PM  
Blogger Sima said...


Wanna write my blog? You make excellent/interesting points.

My initial thought as to why women like bad, bad, chick-flicks, is because of some bizarre social convention: women watch chick flicks because it is something to bond over with other women. It's female peer-pressure. Much the same way that (I suspect), men, don't like gorging themselves on bad food (i.e. a beer, some chicken wings, more beer, fries, then a hamburger, and another hamgurger, and come on... have another one!), but feel the need to, do so, to, you know come off manly.

I've always thought that women can bring out the worst parts of women (and men can bring out the worst parts of men), and not having enough inter-sex inter-action, allows those weird perversions (chick flicks, and male gluttony, respectively) to enjoy popularity.

4:24 PM  
Anonymous Isaac said...

First off, male gluttony is brought on more by the beer pressure than the peer pressure.
The reason that sexes bring out the worst in themselves is probably math. It's an exponential thing. Twice the men means four times the need to prove the testosterone content of one's reproductive system. Same goes for women.
And last but not least, I need more inter-sex inter-action.

5:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sima, I really loved your post. I think you covered super coherently several of the unfortunate angles in the gender entertainment imbalance.

I'd also like to point out though, that "failure to launch" is actually a good example of how many chick flicks still are dominated by male characters. There's at least one man for every woman, and men are still predominately cast in the sexless roles. Or in the female roles if we want to add a gay character.

This was a big beef of mine back in highschool, when I acted more. Because of course this is also all true in live theatre.

Lately though, I just don't think about it and don't watch many movies. Because gender issues aside, they do generally just perpetuate all the worst human dynamics of our culture.

(Liz forwarded me this post. I'm not completely just wandering in off the virtual street, as it were.)


10:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So what you're saying is:

Women should not want to attract men

Men and women should look the same

Men should grow boobies so they have to keep their shirts on

Kids should not be able to tell the difference between the males and females in their cartoons

I should not know which restroom to use

10:54 AM  

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