Girl Power vs. Feminism in Film

6 Apr

So now you’ve heard about the AWESOME time Layne and Elysia had at Slash Pines (by the way, I want to know where the name of the festival came from.  Does it take place in a forest where all the trees look like this:  //\\/\/\\///\?).

But what did the other Chickz do that weekend?!  This is the question you didn’t even know was burning a hole in your brain until just now!  Basically, we partied.  Also, Lindsey and I, along with our friend Ben, went to see “Sucker Punch.”  And Ashley and our buddy Spencer went to see “Insidious,” which made them unable to use the bathroom alone for at least four hours after the film.  Also I went to Butler to watch them win their game against that one team, before they lost the final game on Monday against that other team.  But most importantly, THERE WERE PARTIES IN THE STREETS.  That was fun.  While I was gone, Ashley wore a mink coat around Muncie.


So let’s get down to business (to defeat the Huns #Mulan).


So yes, I went to see “Sucker Punch.”  Did I know it was probably going to suck?  Yes.  Did it suck?  Mostly.  It was neat looking and I was entertained.  That’s about all it had to offer.  So why did I see it?

Okay, I genuinely like to support films that have women headlining them.  And this one has, like, six women.  You see, if these films fail, Hollywood won’t blame the director (unless it’s a female director) and they won’t blame the timing, or the quality of the film.  They will blame it on the fact that “people don’t see films about women.”  As someone who loves pop culture and who wants to see more Hollywood films that reflect a larger variety of experiences and treat women as equal to men, I feel a responsibility to support as many films about women as I can.  I saw “Sex and the City” in theaters, and I’d never even seen the show, nor could I relate to ANYTHING about it (if it was called “Celibate in the City,” that’d be a different story).

I’ve given up on the hope of ever having tons of truly feminist films in movie theaters.  I’d say about 5% of films about women have what I personally would deem a “feminist narrative.”  And rarely, if ever, are those big release, blockbuster, popcorn flicks.  So I had stupidly hoped that “Sucker Punch” might just be that film.  By the time I went to see it, after the reviews were out, after it had a 20% on the Rotten Tomatoes meter, I basically knew what I was in for.  But I still held onto that tiny shred of hope.

The problem with “Sucker Punch” is that it relies on that ol’ cinematic shorthand for feminism:  GIRL POWER.  You may remember the Spice Girls peddling girl power to tweens in baby doll tees about a decade ago.  This is a bit different.  Today, many filmmakers follow this easy guide to creating a Hollywood “Feminist” Film.

1.)  Decide you need a “strong” female character in your film to balance out all the testosterone.

2.)  Create a hot chick character.

3.)  Give her a gun and/or some sort of fighting skills (bonus points for hot Asian chicks who are black belts in karate/ninja star throwing geniuses/samurai sword-wielding badasses).

4.)  Give her at least one decent fight scene.

5.)  Ultimately she’s saved/bedded by a male character, to show she has an emotional side.  No one likes a heartless bitch.  Besides, it’s not like the emotional core of the movie could be a man.  No one likes a pussy.

6.) ???

7.)  Profit.

Okay, Hollywood, unless you’re Quentin Tarantino, this probably isn’t going to work.  The problem with the “girl power” formula is that the woman is almost always still a sexual figure, and she almost always has to have a love interest, and she almost always has to be shown to have emotions, and sometimes maybe she is ultimately saved by a man.  Male action heroes are never required to do any of those things.  Like, did the Terminator have a love interest?  Did a woman save him at the end?  Did he even HAVE emotions?  No, no, and no.  And was that perfectly okay?  Yes.

“Sucker Punch” is a film that is selling itself as a girl power extravaganza.  Yeah, there are girls shooting guns, throwing punches, wielding swords, leaping over gunfire, battling dragons, and flying planes.  But they also do everything in skimpy clothing – lead character Baby Doll is actually dressed in a scanty schoolgirl outfit the entire time, looking like she just stepped out of a “Sailor Moon” cartoon.  And the rest of their time (there are three different fantasy/reality worlds in the film) they spend as strippers/prostitutes at a seedy club run by greasy guy who at one point tries to rape Baby Doll (and it is NOT AT ALL the first example of sexual assault in the film).  At the club, Baby Doll is prized for her virginity.  She even uses her sexuality as a tool to attempt her escape, dancing to distract the men of the club while the other girls steal things they’ll need to get away.  While we never see these dance sequences, they plunge us into the second fantasy world where the girls are under the command of – you guess it! – a man who gives them tasks to complete.  This is where the majority of the action takes place.

The girls are constantly in a state of danger.  For every moment of girl power badassery, there are just as many moments where the audience is forced to watch a girl being tortured or terrified or made to do something against her will.  But that’s okay, because they can also shoot guns and punch robots in the face!  It’s almost as if bad ass female characters can never be just that; they have to pay for or earn it with suffering.

Also, shouldn’t girl power apply to all girls?  This film had a massive problem with race.  There are three blonde chicks, one Vanessa Hudgens (whose character is at least named Blondie), and an Asian woman, Amber.  Guess which one survives?  (If you guessed “blonde chick,” you’re right!)  Meanwhile, Blondie and Amber are easily the least developed characters, and they’re disposed of rather easily and quickly.  Besides, why can’t there be a black character?  We needed THREE blondes, but there can’t be just one character who is darker skinned than Vanessa Hudgens?  If women in general have it bad in Hollywood, black women have it even worse.  Outside of Tyler Perry films, and Halle Berry, they basically don’t exist.

I suppose Hollywood, like most things, is going to continue to be all about the white, straight man.  He has the power, and will be most represented in films. Even when a film isn’t about a white, straight man, even when there are SIX female leads in a film, it will probably still manage to cater to men in some way or another.  So, ultimately, would I recommend “Male Gaze:  The Movie” “Sucker Punch?”  No.  Perhaps just take comedian Patton Oswalt’s advice instead.

Luckily, I did try to think of a few films that I have seen that I would consider feminist, or at least really strong examples of films for and/or about ladies.  Feel free to add your own favorite lady films.

  • Bright Star (Jane Campion, 2009)
  • Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee, 1995)
  • Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004)
  • Pride and Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005)
  • Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)
  • The Duchess (Saul Dibb, 2008)
  • Bend it Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha, 2002)
  • A League of Their Own (Penny Marshall, 1992)
  • Teeth (Mitchell Lichtenstein, 2007)
  • Easy A (Will Gluck, 2010)
  • Sophie Scholl: The Final Days [Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage] (Marc Rothemund, 2005)
  • Aimee & Jaguar (Max Farberbock, 1995)
  • Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)
  • Itty Bitty Titty Committee (Jamie Babbitt, 2007)
  • Funny Girl (William Wyler, 1968)
  • Elizabeth (Shekhar Kapur, 1998)
  • Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2004)

*Sorry this post is late.  I’m ashamed.  My internet bugged out and I had a bunch of reading to do last night.  It won’t happen again.**

**It’ll probably happen again.


14 Responses to “Girl Power vs. Feminism in Film”

  1. Copper April 6, 2011 at 6:13 pm #

    Not to belittle your review (because the ideas are spot on) but if we’re talking about the first Terminator film, the terminator was actually the villain. Kyle Reese was the hero of that movie, and yeah, Sarah Connor saved him as much as he saved Sarah Connor. Not just emotionally, but even physically at the end, when he’s wounded, she’s the one who pulls him along and saves him for a long time from the terminator. And, of course, she delivers the final blow that kills the terminator. So technically you’re right, the terminator has no love interest, emotions, and isn’t saved by a woman, but he’s also not the protagonist.
    If we’re talking about Terminator 2, the lack of emotion is actually shown as a negative aspect of the terminator (the T-800 model, which is the same one as the first movie; the T-1000 is the villain in the second one) and Sarah Connor is as crucial a part of the fighting team as the T-800 is. You’ll notice, in the prison escape scene, that she was successfully out before the T-800 showed up, all on her own.

    The third and fourth movies? They don’t exist.

    Ok, I’m done nerding out about the Terminator series now.

    • leeraloo April 6, 2011 at 9:29 pm #

      I guess I was kind of referring to the whole Terminator oeuvre. I was going to go with that or Rambo, but I wasn’t entirely sure whether or not Rambo had a love interest? So I went with the epitome of “emotionless, loveless hero.” But I was wary the whole time because Sarah Connor is a pretty strong female character, I think. I don’t know. Maybe I should change it.

      • Copper April 6, 2011 at 11:33 pm #

        Yeah, there is that too; when I think of strong female heroines, Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor are the first two that come to mind.

        Rambo doesn’t have a love interest that I’m aware of, but you might also want to be careful which incarnation of Rambo you’re talking about, because he was originally conceived as a Vietnam veteran whose PTSD drove him to do the things he did (sort of like a poor man’s Taxi Driver). Needless to say, they abandoned that at some point during the sequels, and if you talk about the guy in the newest version, that fits the bill perfectly.

        For heroes who fit that mold right from the start, though, you might want to look at, well, most Jason Statham movies, including the Crank movies, unless I’m forgetting something. A lot (though not all) of the Bond movies would fall in that category, because Bond girls are not really love interests, per se, but rather love conquests. Iron Man’s another option

        Then again, a lot of action movies, even the crappy ones, will shoehorn in a love interest to be a catalyst for the action hero to start kicking ass. Like the Punisher movies, for example, both had Frank Castle as happily married before his family was gunned down, causing him to go haywire. Mission Impossible 3 also did this. But make no mistake, the love interests are completely helpless in these movies too; they’re either helplessly trapped, or helplessly killed. Also, none of these movies zoom into the actor’s crotch at a crucial moment, and I understand Sucker Punch decides to go upskirt at a random point that undermines a character, so there’s that too.

      • leeraloo April 6, 2011 at 11:49 pm #

        Hell, I wouldn’t even know which time they went upskirt. It happened constantly during the fight scenes, and half the time they weren’t even wearing skirts.

        As for the action hero, Bond would’ve been a great one. That franchise is notorious for having pointless female characters and treating them like crap.

      • Copper April 7, 2011 at 4:53 pm #

        Wow, so it’s worse than even I heard. I’m really not sure what prompted Snyder to promote this movie as one of female empowerment.

        As for Bond, in the original Ian Fleming novels, it’s not just the women; everyone’s disposable. It’s portrayed as a character flaw of the spy that he’s got a level of self-loathing that he expresses as general misanthropy, (which Casino Royale touched on, part of what made it so good) but the movies somehow warped that into something commendable. They’ve got M now as a female (and Dame Judi Dench, as expected, kicks ass in the part) but that’s an exception.

        Jason Bourne, though, falls perfectly into the emotionless, loveless hero archetype, so much so that I’m kicking myself for not thinking of him first. The three movies pretty much have him running around fighting people, and nobody has an issue with it. And on the other end of things, there are also the Resident Evil: Afterlife (I can’t speak to the other ones, since I haven’t seen them) where, it’s basically Alice running around fighting people and zombies, with normal clothes (I mean, she looks good, but that’s because it’s Milla Jovovich; there aren’t any schoolgirl outfits or miniskirts in sight, though) and brief glimpses of a love interest who comes and goes but is definitely not saving Alice.

      • leeraloo April 8, 2011 at 12:51 am #

        Yeah, Jason Bourne is good. I haven’t seen “Resident Evil” but I’d say the “Kill Bill” movies are very similar. As for Zach Snyder, I still don’t know why I was dumb enough to hold out hope that one of his films would have something deep or worthy to say, at all, let alone that it would be a good attempt at a feminist narrative. He’s been vehemently defending it as pro-woman and even went so far as to say that it is commenting on the way women are treated in nerd/gaming culture (which I don’t see AT ALL; rather, it seems like it was made exactly for that audience). I’m probably more upset that the cast is going along with it, because that’s a good cast. Like, I also kind of expect people like Abbie Cornish and Jena Malone to make better film choices, but I guess in the end I don’t blame them for going for this crazy blowout of a film that would get more press than the stuff they usually do.

      • Copper April 8, 2011 at 8:31 am #

        Well, fame and money. I mean, Jena Malone’s movies don’t usually rake it in at the box office, and I’m guessing her pay reflects that, so one Sucker Punch allows her to comfortably work on a bunch of smaller films. Abbie Cornish, on the other hand, I think Bright Star may have broken her brain, because I was going through her IMDb list to make the same argument, but her next movie is written and directed by Madonna, and the movie she did before Sucker Punch was Limitless, so there goes that leg for the argument to stand on.

  2. Layne Ransom April 6, 2011 at 6:34 pm #

    Patton Oswalt deserves my money.

    • leeraloo April 6, 2011 at 9:30 pm #

      HE IS AMAZING. For real. I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to his albums/watched his specials, but I think you would really like them if you haven’t.

      • Layne Ransom April 11, 2011 at 1:53 am #

        I have seen a good deal of his standup, but don’t own any albums.

  3. amhines April 7, 2011 at 8:42 am #

    The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy should be included on your list. I haven’t read the books, but in the movies the main female is so three-dimensional and honest. They’re awesome films.

    • leeraloo April 7, 2011 at 2:21 pm #

      Yeah, I haven’t seen the films yet (they’re in my Netflix Instant Queue) but I have heard that there’s a lot of rape in them? Which makes me a bit uncomfortable, but then again, an honest film about a woman overcoming something like that and being a total badass seems like it could be a great lady film.

      • amhines April 7, 2011 at 2:47 pm #

        There is in the first one, and it did make me feel really uncomfortable. But I mean, that’s one of the things I liked about it. The sexual assaults weren’t played down at all, and nothing was done to make them more bearable to watch– which is how it should be. If you want the audience to really understand the deep amount of brokenness inside of Lisbeth without her coming across as hard, you have to show where it came from.

        The second and the third are not nearly as graphic (they have a lot of violence, but nothing that disturbing). The first film did such a good job of giving the audience a deep connection to Lisbeth that those emotions carried on successfully through the next two films.

      • leeraloo April 8, 2011 at 12:46 am #

        I’m glad they handle it well and don’t pussyfoot around it. I’ll definitely have to watch them. I hope the American versions they’re making now do as good of a job, but I wouldn’t really get my hopes up about that.

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