Lady Films: A Primer

27 Apr

Lately, I’ve been pondering the concept of films made by and/or for women.  It seems a much smaller field than that of “literature made by and/or for women.”  That’s because, as sexist as basically every space on Earth can be, few are more sexist than Hollywood.

The New Yorker recently ran a “profile” of comic actress Anna Faris (from The House Bunny and The Hot Chick), and the article supposedly ballooned into this entire treatise on the state of women in Hollywood.  I can’t access the entire article, because I do not subscribe to The New Yorker (-2 hipster points for Lora), but there have been some notable excerpts popping up all over the web.  None of them are very encouraging:

Nicholas Stoller, the director of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Get Him to the Greek,” says…“You need to make the actress completely adorable, or else she’ll be thought of as the straight man or the bummer….

To make a woman adorable, one successful female screenwriter says, “You have to defeat her at the beginning. It’s a conscious thing I do – abuse and break her, strip her of her dignity, and then she gets to live out our fantasies and have fun. It’s as simple as making the girl cry, fifteen minutes into the movie. Relatability is based upon vulnerability, which creates likability.”

Faris gets million dollar offers for roles she calls “the girl,” or “bounce card roles,” after the reflective sheet that softens the light around an actor, because the whole job is to giggle, simper and coo. She told me, ‘I feel I did that in ‘My Super Ex-Girlfriend’ – a 2006 film in which her role consisted of allowing Luke Wilson to admire her ass and then turning with melting eyes as he ran off to have sex with Uma Thurman….[she said,] “These roles are destroying a generation of boys, who think we’ll forgive any kind of assholey behavior.”

(via RachelSimmons.com)

I’m not really going to delve into the logistics of this, or how it makes me feel, or how I’m learning to accept that this bullshit exists, because frankly I don’t need to cry myself to sleep tonight.  But I will say this:  the quotes above and the attitudes and behavior that they acknowledge exist in Hollywood are the exact reasons why I so passionately want to see films that positively portray women, even if I end up having to make those films myself.

So, if I’m going to do this, I want to know, without a doubt, what a good film for, by and about women would look like.  I’m not talking “chick flicks.”  I hate that term.  Rather, I’m dubbing them “lady films.”

lady film (noun) – A film that has well-rounded, non-stereotypical female characters and female-oriented plots.  It can specifically be made by or for women, or not.  The female characters are realistic, and the ideas put forth in the film do not set out to offend women; rather, the film might even empower its female audience.

Now, if you’re familiar with feminism and/or film culture at all, you might already know the Bechdel Test (note:  that link leads to the TVTropes website, and don’t blame me if you end up wasting your entire day clicking on the links you find there).  Basically, for the unaware, the Bechdel Test was created by comic artist and author, Alison Bechdel.  In order to pass, the film or show must meet the following criteria:

  1. it includes at least two women…
  2. who have at least one conversation…
  3. about something other than a man or men.

SIMPLE.  Here’s an entire website devoted to rating movies based on the Bechdel Test, and here’s the comic strip in which it first appeared.

Thus, my first rule for “lady films” is that they must pass the Bechdel Test.  But to truly be a lady film, a movie has to go above and beyond that.  Filmschooled, a Tumblr I really enjoy, recently blogged about what constitutes a “feminist film.”  She sets out three guidelines for a feminist film.

The first one is Character and Content, and she offers up Thelma and Louise as a good example of this, saying, “it is one of the notably successful, big-budget Hollywood films with women… as main characters and central plot motivators.  I would not hesitate to consider the film’s narrative as feminist; the abuse, neglect and double-standards these women have had to deal with in their lives are all explicitly addressed, and hint at wider structures in American society.”  But, it was directed by Ridley Scott, and can a film directed by a man actually be a feminist film?  Which brings us to the second guideline.

Creative Control.  Filmschooled says, “There is no more appropriate director to discuss here than Kathryn Bigelow, not only because of the recency of her historic Oscar win, but also because of the film for which she was nominated. The Hurt Locker (2008) is the antithesis to a female-centric film in its focus on men in a male-dominated field. No one would bat an eyelash at a man directing a rom-com or other fundamentally stereotypical ‘girly’ film. But Kathryn Bigelow’s role was consistently a point of wide-eyed discussion, as if the very thought of a woman directing a war film was as alien as The Hurt Locker’s arid landscape. Does Kathryn Bigelow’s very role as director imbue the film with a feminist angle?”

The third qualifier is form, and she mentions film theorist Laura Mulvey and her view that film, as an art form, is inherently sexist and an obstacle for women who want to express themselves.  “Pioneering feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey would disagree with both of my first categories. In her view, the very language of narrative film construction and continuity editing (such as the 180° rule and eyeline match) made it impossible for a truly feminist film text to flourish. In her view, women needed to create a radically different film grammar in order to break from the mainstream cinema which relegated women, both narratively and theoretically, to objects of the male gaze. Her radical rejection of mainstream cinematic conventions is illustrated in her own film Riddles of the Sphinx, a text which is composed entirely of entended 360° pans.”

This basically goes beyond my field of expertise (180° rule, whaaaat?), but what I can take from this is that a true lady film would not employ the male gaze, at least not to a gratuitous extent (I’m looking at you, Sucker Punch).  As countless (mostly male) filmmakers have proven time and again, you can have a film full of ladies, but that doesn’t mean you get to call it “empowering to women.”

I think that a true lady film would combine all of these pieces – it would pass the Bechdel test, it could be directed or written by a lady (bonus points), or it could simply portray women in a realistic or even sympathetic light without reducing them to “types.”  They should be allowed to be funny, or sad, or bitchy, or sexy or whatever they want to be, without being judged (perhaps they’re judged within the context of the story, but if the audience is asked to join in on the judging, that’s a different matter entirely).  They don’t have to be defined by their relationships to men.  They can be in on the joke, instead of being the butt of it.

In the next few weeks, I’m going to be watching some widely-regarded feminist films, re-watching some films that I would say are true lady films, and I’ll even take suggestions.  Ultimately, I hope to both create a more detailed list of “lady films” and to answer the question, “What does the perfect lady film look like, and how do I make it?”

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2 Responses to “Lady Films: A Primer”

  1. Lindsey LaVal April 27, 2011 at 4:01 pm #

    YYYYYYYYYYYYYEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. thenerdynegress April 28, 2011 at 12:02 am #

    I’ll be happy to join you in viewing and analysis should you need company.

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