Lack of Movie Reviews

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The Answer to Why We Need More Female Directors

If you did not gather from the trailer that Zero Dark Thirty stars a woman, achieving success in the male dominated military industrial complex, then you would not be alone. I don’t blame the movie’s marketers for masking that fact in order to gain a broader audience. In fact I encourage it, make more feminist leaning movies, disguised in the trailers as conventional patriarchal fare.

I went to see this movie solely because Kathryn Bigelow directed it. If you missed the Academy Awards two years ago, she won best director for The Hurt Locker, becoming the first female director to win the award in it’s 83-year history. In large part, Bigelow delivered what I expected of Zero Dark Thirty, a gritty, unflinching, yet nuanced look at the search for and assassination of Osama bin Laden. What I did not expect was a strong, intelligent, assertive, female lead, Maya (Jessica Chastain), who champions an unpopular theory on the whereabouts of bin Laden.

As a bonus feminist feature, the movie includes Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), a colleague of Maya’s at the CIA who becomes a friend. Two strong, realistically portrayed, female characters in one movie is almost too much to hope for. And their camaraderie in the midst of an overwhelmingly male environment, is moving to watch.

The lack of sexism Maya encounters gives much more credit to our military than it is due. No one makes comments to her face about being a woman in this line of work. No one makes any sexual comments about her. She doesn’t seem to be treated any differently because she is a woman. And while I realize that this may not be realistic, it was so refreshing that I was willing to overlook it.

Lest you think Bigelow or the movie’s writers are entirely avoiding issues of sexism, at the end of the movie, at Maya’s triumphant moment of success and vindication, a senior officer is on the phone to command and you hear him say that their analyst has confirmed the identity of the target, “yes, sir, the girl.”

To be clear, this movie is not for the faint of heart. It has torture, blood and violence. Katie Halper at Jezebel has this to say.

And I agree while the film depicts torture, it does not endorse it. It shows it as something disgusting instead of sanitizing it. It’s true that the film does not vilify the torturers. But, it is also true that the film refuses to vilify the torture victims, and even portrays them in a sympathetic light. It’s not clear whether torture played a direct role in finding Osama bin Laden. But torture was rampant and systemic for a period following 9/11. And to pretend it wasn’t would have been dishonest and trivializing. Bigelow wanted to show the ugly side of the war on terror. And she certainly did.

So suck it up and go see Zero Dark Thirty, because I want to see what Kathryn Bigelow does next.

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Pitch Perfect, Is Indeed

Suit up, feminists. Pitch Perfect has arrived. Just ask yourself when was the last time you watched a movie with a variety of feminist messages directed at a young female audience. These may not all be messages you like or approve of, but at least this is not your weak-ass feminist thought delivered on the down low, dumbed down for corporate America’s idea of what a teenage girl is.

Anna Kendrick plays a college freshman, obsessed with producing music, who is challenged by her father to get involved in college activities in an attempt to prevent her from dropping out to pursue a music career. They agree that if she participates in a college club for a year, she can leave college with his grudging support. The club she is persuaded to join is an all-female, competitive a cappella group.

This group had historically recruited women with patriarchy compliant beauty, who wore airline stewardess costumes, and sang decades old standards. However, due to an embarrassing showing at the previous year’s competition, those women were no longer interested in the group. As a result the remaining members end up recruiting a diverse group of women. The movie centers around the conflict of the old school traditional paradigm with a new school sense of diversity and innovation.

Pitch Perfect succeeds beautifully as a comedy, producing some hilarious and imminently quotable lines. Rebel Wilson in particular stands out as an overweight woman with supreme confidence and a wicked wit. Perhaps most notable is that though the main character does have a romantic relationship, it does not consume her or become her sole focus. Her relationships with her female friends, her work, and the club’s competition are as important if not more so than her romance.

Best of all, Pitch Perfect is an uplifting movie that didn’t once give me the feminist wince.

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True to the Source Material

Nothing makes this feminist movie-goer itch more than the above statement, which means movie-makers can’t create diversity in the cast because altering the gender, race, or sexual orientation of the characters would not accurately reflect the original creative work.

Action adventure movies are incredibly lucrative to producers, and of late those movies are being made about classic, comic book heroes. These comic book heroes are almost universally white men. In the Avengers, there is an ensemble cast of six heroes, five white men and one woman. Now if you ask what is apparently a sacrilegious question like, “why couldn’t Hawkeye be a woman or why couldn’t Iron Man be a person of color,” you will most likely get this reply, “that would not be true to the source material.” We’re talking about works of fiction based on works of fiction. And yet this idea of maintaining some kind of accurate translation of the source material seems to trump any ideas of gender equality in the cast or proportional representation of people of color; and don’t even get me started about heroes of same-gender sexual orientation.

Lord of the Rings is another excellent example of this. There are arguably nine main characters in this trilogy, all male, all white. Why couldn’t Peter Jackson change the gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity of just one of these characters? Say it with me now, “true to the source material.” Again the movies are works of fiction, based on the books, also works of fiction, written in the 1950′s, taking inspiration from medieval England. It’s true that Tolkien’s books are remarkably like actual medieval England except for the whole magic thing, and the creation of various races of creatures, including orcs, fairies, dwarfs and hobbits, but otherwise, seriously, medieval England. Now I can give Tolkien a tentative pass for being born before the turn of the previous century, and having had little exposure to progressive ideas like humanism, but Peter Jackson gets no such pass. And the excuse that the movie must be ”true to the source material,” wears quite thin a decade in to the new millennium.

It’s time for producers to realize that they need to be true to their audiences more than they need to accurately reflect any particular work. Movie-makers need to get their asses off of their white man thrones and discover that women, and people of color, and those with disabilities and minority sexual orientation, all of us want to be represented on screen. All of us wish to have our stories told. We’re tired of trying to put ourselves in the place of the white leading man. It is past time that we are part of the story.

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It was Horton Hears a Who that made me first think about writing feminist movie reviews. I had taken the nieces to see it. As the movie went on the sexism became so bad that I considered walking out. We discussed sexism in the movie afterward; how perhaps the worst father ever has 96 daughters and one son, yet the boy gets all the attention and saves the day. But I still wished that I had read something before I went that would have steered me clear of exposing the nieces to such blatant sexism. I wanted someone to give me a thumbs up or down as to whether I could enjoy potential movie experiences without being overly distracted by how the women were presented as clueless or the men as the only strong characters in the plot. These are things that wouldn’t necessarily be obvious in a trailer.

Brave gets a thumbs up. Take any children you know or see it with adults. I haven’t met anyone who didn’t get a tear in their eye at the end. It gets a lot of things right. Most obviously the main character in our story is female. The primary relationship explored is with her mother, so it sails through the Bechdel test with flying colors. Merida goes on dangerous adventures, rides a horse, and is completely self-sufficient in the wilderness. She is an expert archer, not bad with a sword, and defends her mother with a ferocity topped only by her mother’s defense of her. The conflict of the story revolves around Merida’s refusal to get married despite her mother’s insistence. This is indeed a different kind of fairy tale princess. And the ending doesn’t disappoint. She does not fall in love with a brave prince who saves her. She and her mother save each other, gain a better understanding of each other, and her suitors go home.

It does get a few things wrong, but they were not so dramatic as to make the movie unwatchable. Queen Eleanor is the nag and disciplinarian in the family, who enforces typical gender roles, while Merida’s father is the entertainer and encourager of fun. This stereotype is maintained in the younger generation as Merida’s triplet younger brothers are mischievous, fun-loving and unruly.

I will save my rant about how the need for historical accuracy in works of fiction is a lame excuse for excluding all minorities. Needless to say it was an all white film.

I’ve quoted from the Geena Davis Institute before, but it bears repeating, “Even among the top-grossing G-rated family films, girl characters are out numbered by boys three-to-one. That’s the same ratio that has existed since the end of World War II. The Institute’s research indicates that in some group scenes, only 17% of the characters are female.” The latter is what bothered me about Brave. Many of the group scenes with 30-40 characters were all male except for Merida and Queen Eleanor. Again from the Institute, “these absences are unquestionably felt by audiences, and children learn to accept the stereotypes represented.” Sure Brave has two strong female characters, but they are clearly not the norm. The rest of the brave, strong characters in the movie are men.

Despite all of this, I found myself heaving a pleased sigh of relief at the end of the film and thinking, “Finally.”

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