How Can I Even Write about Women in Film?

This piece is part of the Feminist Odyssey Blog Carnival. It’s hosted this time around by Don’t be Afraid to Open Your Eyes, and its theme is Women and Film.

So, my first thought on getting ready to write this entry was to skim my own shelves of DVDs for women-centered films that I love. (My second thought, yes, was to go, “Oh, Women and Film. It’s a bit broader than Women in Film. Whatever. This works.”) My third thought was, “Huh. I don’t actually have any.”

Now, let me explain. I am perhaps somewhat less into movies than most people. I see them occasionally and enjoy a substantial portion of what I see — but have very few movies that I truly love. For me to love a movie means that I look forward to seeing it a virtually unlimited number of times, though maybe not all in rapid succession. I may like dozens of movies, but the “love” list is short.

(Also, please do not confuse “Movies I Love” with “Movies that are Good” or “Movies that Stand Up to Critical Acclaim.” They are separate lists, y’all.)

I have this idea of me as someone who is drawn to women’s stories and to complex, realistic women characters. This is actually true when it comes to my self-selected reading. However, that image breaks down — quite spectacularly — when I evaluate the movies to which I’m drawn.

  • Remember the Titans — I’m a sucker for a good sports movie. This is my favorite. And while it’s not completely devoid of female characters — though interestingly, the female character with the most screen time is the spunky and adorable girl of Sheryl Yoast — it is pretty decidedly a movie that centers men, boys, and their stories.

    Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with that on its own, but I’m thinking about what it says in the larger pattern of my viewing choices. For one thing, as I mentioned, I like sports movies, and I tend to watch a fair number of them. However, I can easily name twice as many sports movies where the majority of characters are men and boys as I can sports movies that feature women and girls. For two, that proportion of representation is something that repeats itself in other movies I love.
  • The Princess Bride — This should be better, right? After all, it has a doubly termed — princess and bride — woman character right in the title. And, to be fair, the story could not take place without Buttercup. That said, not only are there many more active men characters than active women characters in this movie — I’m counting Westley, Inigo Montoya, Vizzini, Fezzik, Prince Humperdinck, Count Rugen, the grandfather, the grandson, and Miracle Max to Buttercup, Valerie (Miracle Max’s wife), and the woman who boos Buttercup at her introduction in Florin — a number of the male characters are more active than Buttercup herself, who does a fair amount of waiting for Westley to save her. The princess bride may be both the love object and title character here, but The Princess Bride is not her story.
  • The Evil Dead trilogy — Also known as Ash Gets Progressively Cheesier, More Misogynistic, and More Badass. (But, you know, that’s a little much to fit on the DVD cases.) Though Ash’s level of respect to them (as humans) varies, the women in the movies basically exist to be turned into zombies. Moreover, pretty much the only time they get to do things in the movie — other than scream, run away, or be wooed by Ash — are when they are zombies.

    Sadly, I know of exactly zero zombie movies with a woman lead character. There are some strewn through the Night of the Living Dead series, but their functions seem to be mostly screaming, waiting around to be saved (a la Princess Buttercup), and/or dying (because even Westley didn’t have to deal with zombies… except himself). Zombieland‘s Wichita and Little Rock are about as good as it gets, but even they wind up in need of some serious saving — by men! — in the end.
  • The Muppet Christmas Carol — (Don’t laugh. I love all versions of A Christmas Carol. Plus, if they made a movie called Michael Caine Reads the Phone Book, I would pay $10 to see it, $15 if it came out in 3D.) In terms of delightful Muppetude, this movie is awesome. In terms of girl or women characters who contribute meaningfully to the plot, it’s about in the same place as is Remember the Titans: characters portrayed with realistic integrity and agency but a limited number of them and with a limited number of lines.

    First, there’s the Ghost of Christmas Past, who shows Scrooge the various Christmases from his childhood and young adulthood. I’m not entirely sure if she chooses the memories to show him or if she’s compelled by some kind of Fate or something. However, she definitely, counters Scrooge’s arguments about not wanting to see certain Christmases, citing, “I told you, these are the shadows of the things that have been. That they are what they are; do not blame me.”

    Then there’s Belle, young Scrooge’s former love interest. Though she exists as part of the “teach Scrooge a lesson about his life” memory campaign, she also gets a fair bit of agency when she’s the one who breaks off the relationship. However, then she sings about it, at which point, I either fast forward (what? I own it on VHS) or busy myself until present-Scrooge (Michael Caine) joins in.

    And of course, who could forget Miss Piggy as Emily Cratchit? She is her fabulous Miss Piggy self, speaking the truth about — and standing up to — Scrooge.

    All that said, this is still Scrooge’s story. While I’d count the Ghost of Christmas Past among the secondary (rather than tertiary) characters, all the rest of them — Bob Cratchit, Gonzo as Charles Dickens, the Ghost of Christmas Present, Rizzo the Rat — are men. Or frogs as men. Or… whatever the fuck Gonzo is.

All this is not to suggest that there shouldn’t be movies with male-dominated casts or that center around men’s experiences. I’m not even suggesting that there’s an overall dearth of good woman-centered movies. (I’d guess as much, but I have no data on it. Also, when I guess, I happen to be wrong a lot.) However, while I explicitly do seek out books that feature women’s stories, I don’t really do the same with movies. With movies, I sort of… just let them come to me. And when not actively seeking out more women in movies leaves me with a shortage of strong and leading women characters, that is a pattern that merits further scrutiny.

VHS Cover of The Muppet Christmas Carol

Sadly, that is not my original. I made the mistake of thinking I could give it away — as I was moving from one place to somewhere. Now I know better.

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I'm here. I like stuff. Some other stuff, I like less.

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5 comments on “How Can I Even Write about Women in Film?
  1. this was a really interesting post! if i may make a suggestion, have you seen the 1993 remake of ‘night of the living dead?’ i definitely recommend it, as i am a huge fan of both versions. the remake makes use of the original script, which involves barbara being an extremely active character, and an equally capable counterpart to ben (who is played by tony todd in this version, which may or may not sway you to watch, but i think he’s just so rad), whose storyline also hews to the original screenplay as opposed to the amended version used for the original film. the impetus for changing both characters’ arcs was based on casting decisions (judith o’dea auditioned barbara as slowly coming unhinged, and the creators loved it; and casting a black actor to play ben rendered certain plot elements and visuals unacceptable). it’s a bit difficult to explain without getting too spoiler-y, but i found this article on the adaptation extremely interesting:

    http://www.thewrap.com/movies/blog-post/night-living-dead-casting-cult-classic-20545?page=0,0

  2. Kimberly says:

    I don’t follow sports AT ALL. But I absolutely ADORE sports movies. Especially football ones. Remember the Titans is a smokin’ good one. And ya, Michael Caine – seen SecondHand Lions? It’s worthy of a “love.”

  3. Lindsay says:

    I have this problem, too. (I actually hadn’t noticed it in The Princess Bride, which is also one of my all-time favorites, but you’re right — Buttercup is the only female character with more than a bit part, and she spends most of her time either getting towed around by Westley or moping around Humperdinck’s castle, waiting for Westley to show up and save her. Funny how you can see a movie, like, more times than you can count, and memorize its dialogue, and not even notice how few of its characters look like you.)

    Some movies I love that are either all-male or almost all-male: Lawrence of Arabia (actually all-male), Fight Club, The Usual Suspects, and pretty much every samurai movie Akira Kurosawa ever made. I also have a genre I love, like you and sports movies, that skews even more testosterone-heavy than most movies: superhero movies! LOVE THEM. Can’t get enough. But the heroes are almost always men, with women relegated to love-interest or damsel-in-distress roles.

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