Wednesday 17 August 2011

Feminism and Film/Straw Dogs: The Aftermath

I started writing this post a really long time ago (as in March) but for some strange reason (I think it might actually be because I got a job and therefore stopped thinking, which is slightly disturbing) I abandoned it. I was reminded that I did in fact want to finish it when I watched Straw Dogs this past weekend, a film that left me disturbed in so many ways, particularly in its depiction of women, as well as the critical acclaim it has received in spite of, or maybe even because of this. So, in finally finishing what I started, I'm going to talk about the way women are portrayed in films, and specifically in this one film.

There is a test that one can do to try and establish whether or not a film can be considered 'feminist friendly' or not. This doesn't at all mean that a film must contain any discussion of feminism, but merely that these three criteria are met:
1. It has to have at least two women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something other than men.
This is the Bechdel test. You would think that, by looking at the criteria above, almost every film would meet all three of these targets without even having to think about it, thus creating a film that feminists would be happy with and wouldn't feel the need to moan about later. Sure, there might be a few films, like Die Hard, and Indiana Jones, shit like that, where there is only a token woman who is there to love and support our leading man, and maybe do a little bit of action if the writer is feeling generous. But surely most films must be able to meet even these very simple guidelines?

No. Before I was introduced to this test by a friend, I had never really thought about how well women are represented in film (I know! Lame). But once she told me about it, I kept running through every film I had ever seen in my head, shocked at how many of them even failed the very first part of the test, and how even fewer made it to the end with their dignity (or my respect) still in tact. It's really disturbing how women are underrepresented, over-sexualised and just plain wrong in so many films. Even in Pixar films, which I love possibly above all others, there are just so few female characters- how many female chefs in Ratatouille, for example, or females at all in Up? And beyond that, even in films inhabited by more than one woman, how often are they allowed the opportunity to talk about things other than men? Think of films that you've seen- how often have you seen women discuss nothing but men, when men are allowed to have conversations that involve things other than women, and even allowed to have *gasp* interests that aren't directly related to meeting women and settling down for the rest of their lives.

The Bechdel Test is, of course, not perfect, (as for example, Inglorious Basterds contains two female characters who don't speak to each other but who are extremely strong in their own right, and talk only about the men they wish to destroy) but even in its imperfectness, it reveals so much about the horrible rap that women get in films. I watched the last twenty minutes or so of The Hangover the other day- not only did I find it more than a little racist, the only women I saw were wives, strippers and this one evil shrew of a woman. I might have missed a lot of it, (maybe there was a huge love-in where the women has really interesting conversations and then laughed at the men a lot earlier in the film) but something tells me that these were the only women in the film- horrible little 'types' of women, lacking any real substance at all, and thus just bad characters- forget unfeminist, how about just bad bad writing?

Childrens TV isn't even immune to being judged by the Bechdel Test. Consider The Smurfs. It's all fun and they're blue and stuff, but how many girl smurfs are there? Each smurf represents a different personality trait (vanity, brains, strength, wisdom etc) but Smurfette's entire personality is 'girl'. I don't know about any of the rest of you female readers, but I think of myself as slightly more than the type of genitals I have- maybe that's just me and I'm crazy though, I don't know (thanks to Max Barry and his excellent post for pointing out the ridiculousness of smurfs). In a way, it's even more important for children's TV to smash through gender stereotypes and to portray both an equal amount of female characters, and to make it clear that boys and girls can equally do anything they want to- activities, seriously, do not have genders! But that's a discussion for another day...

So, if you've stuck with me for this long, thanks so much! I'm moving on to Straw Dogs now, promise. The big attraction... or, rather, not very attractive at all. I thought it would be a good film because a) Dustin Hoffman's in it and he's always awesome, and b) I could imagine that Charlie was Alexander Skargard because he's playing that character in the disturbingly similar looking remake that comes out sometime this year. All I knew about this film was that there was a wholly controversial rape scene in it, and why that would make me want to watch it, I have no idea... I'm sticking with the whole Dustin Hoffman defence!

Putting aside the rape scene for a minute, and I really will come back to it because it was the source of much of my feminist horror in connection to the film, let's talk about Straw Dogs in relation to the Bechdel test. There are two (and, I think, only two; or at least only two significant) women in the film, neither of whom talk to each other, each seeming to view the other with a mixture of contempt and suspicion. One, Janice, is basically set up to be the town bike, given little identity other than her sexual identity, and Amy, essentially the film's leading lady, has very little to do with herself other than act childish and watch her husband as he tries to work. It seems odd that, considering they are back in her hometown, she has no female friends to talk to, and with her only friend being her ex-lover, it seems to reinforce the idea of her as a sexual object too. There are glimmers of a real person in her character and the way she is written, but that pretty much all ends with the rape.

What is controversial about the rape scene in this film is not that it exists at all (which, you know, is what I thought it was since it was the seventies and that's not really a done thing) but that, while Amy protests to the rape at first, somewhere in the middle of it, that ends and she seems to be enjoying it. I can't even tell you how horrified this made me, and when I looked it up online, this is exactly what the controversy was over- having Amy 'enjoy' her rape plays right into the hands of the highly misogynist (and just plain horrible) rape myth, that women who are raped, deep down, enjoy it. Not only is this a horrifying message to send out, it's dangerous too- what kind of idea are males going to get from watching it- that rape is bad and wrong, or that it's actually ok because, even though she might not want it, she'll enjoy it in the end. This is an idea not helped by Janice's promiscuity, and together they serve to make a picture that women are 'up for it' constantly, even if it seems like they're not.

Trust me, I don't want to talk about women in regard only to their sexual activity, but Straw Dogs doesn't really give its feminist-minded viewers much else to go on with its female characters. Amy seems to tiptoe around her husband, letting his wants overrule her own, and then, when shit gets really crazy, she falls apart and more or less wants to hide, having no morals to speak of by wanting to let a mob tear apart a clearly learning disabled man (I couldn't help but think of him as Lennie, but I've read too much Steinbeck). This is more than anything a man's film, and I don't have a problem with that- but when every (good) film that exists seems to be a man's film, and female characters are never satisfying, it wears you down a bit. Undoubtedly David Sumner is an interesting, if not entirely likable, character- closed in on himself, not taking a stand on anything, only to discover hidden reserves in himself when he really needs them. But why does this mean that the female characters have to be eminently uninteresting? Surely there's room for both on the screen.

The trailer I've seen for the 2011 version is no more promising. Looking like a carbon-copy of its predecessor (even the film posters are exactly the same), the updated version looks barely updated at all, the casting of Kate Bosworth as Amy only reconfirming her utter uninterestingness (ok, that was mean. But Jonathan Ross said interviewing her was like talking to a lamp! And I've always thought she seemed really really boring...) The main problem I have with the remake, however, is that it was remade at all. Obviously seen as some kind of benchmark of great cinema, it needs reaffirming in its fabulousness by being remade in a whole new time, with the same old misogyny. Give me great, female-led films any day (Juno, we have a date for this evening. Don't be late.)


  1. Wow. I've never really thought of this. The only children's program I can think of that doesn't cave to all kinds of gender stereotypes is Dora (and that makes me incredibly sad).

    For books/movies I'm thinking The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and it's sequels. There is a rape scene in the first one, but she's a strong character and gets revenge. Other than that, nothing really comes to mind.

  2. Oh my gosh, I love Dora! She totally rules her own little world :). There are some English childrens TV programmes that buck gender stereotypes, like having women builders, and this guy who lives in a pink castle (although everyone just goes 'oh, he's gay then' grr) but mostly it's pretty bad. I think there are a lot more strong women in literature, but even then it's something that's often lost in translation into movies. It's just bad!

  3. I've always been a little sad when I think too hard about women in film and to a lesser extent perhaps, in literature. Even when a chick is kicking butt and being all kinds of cool and strong and independant she's wearing stilettos and a slinky skirt or leather pants or is constantly flipping her hair. And even if she doesn't overtly seems to be oozing sex and boobs and lips the camera is panning up and down her body subconsciously planting the misogynistic women=body=comodity ideas into viewers heads. I think this is part of the reason I dislike female actors and women heavy casts, at least subconsciously. Perhaps...

  4. See, when a girl is kicking butt and wearing sexy clothes, I kind of choose to let it go a bit because you have to take what you can, you know? (I know that's a really depressing thing to say!) That's why I defend buffy as being pretty feminist, even though she does wear sexy clothes while she beats evil creatures- also, you know, willow! Hehe

  5. There are definitely worse versions and better versions , Buffy isn't so bad in the grand scheme of things. Plus Willow rocks.

    There are others though, where it's almost an army situation and it's like why...why in the world would the woman have ever thought to put on stilettos. She must have known there was a high likelihood she'd be running around/killing bad guys!?

    That said I try not to think about this sort of thing too much because it usually just makes me sad/mad so I try to ignore it unless it's really in your face!