Women and Hollywood


alienOriginally published by Women and Hollywood

When Women and Hollywood asked me if I wanted to do a couple of guest posts on horror movies, I jumped at the chance. Like Kerensa Cadenas mentioned in her introduction to the series, I have an abiding fascination with horror movies and the way they manage to articulate seemingly inarticulable fears. Unlike Kerensa, I liked them even when I was very young–some would say too young to have been watching them.

Not only did my mom give in to my desire to see movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Ghost Story in theaters before I was 10, my parents were also at the forefront of a technological revolution when they bought their top-loading VCR, giving me the chance to watch the R-rated movies I couldn’t see on my own and to plumb the depths of the history of horror. Much Hitchcock was watched on that VCR.

My absolute favorite thing to do for my birthday was to have a slumber party and make all of my friends watch totally terrifying movies and then avoid sleep for as long as possible with me. (I later learned that I actually might have traumatized some of those devoted friends. My apologies.) A perennial favorite at these gatherings was the original Ridley Scott film Alien and its sequels. I rewatched the first movie recently, and you should, too.

To appreciate the power of Alien, you’ve got to go back to 1979, to situate yourself at the end of a decade in which technological change had increased at a rate of Steve Jobs over Pong squared. Think floppy disks, microprocessors, jumbo jets, MRI technology, test tube babies, artificial hearts, and Apollo 18, the first joint-U.S. and U.S.S.R. spaceflight.

Then, watch Alien. If you’ve seen it before, you’ll see it anew. If you haven’t seen it, the way in which it represents the anxieties, excitement and challenges of a decade will not date it but will rather add to your appreciation of a genuinely well-acted, well-told story. Scott, like most filmmakers, insists that he was just trying to make a good movie, and I don’t mean to imply that he was deliberately trying to represent the fear created by a scientific alliance between two Cold War enemies and all that that meant for the future of, you know, humanity. But artists are always inspired and informed by the world in which they live, and, seen in retrospect, this film spoke directly to the fears of its time.

I rewatched Alien with two things in mind: The fact that the role of Ripley was intended for a man, and the idea that the film was, to some extent, about anxieties created by advances in reproductive rights. The truth is, I thought I’d come up with some brilliant insight that nobody had ever thought of before to offer you. But the fact is, the feminist scholarship on Alien is a whole library unto itself. From Freudian analyses that the movie’s central action of trying to expel an alien life form from a “ship” represents male anxieties upon being displaced from the process of reproduction, to Marxist interpretations of the anti-capitalist nature of the story, more things have been said about Alien than any blog post could ever best.

So I will simply say this. Rent the movie. Pop yourself some popcorn. And settle in to revisit this seminal feminist horror story with new eyes. As you watch, ask yourself these questions:

1.Does the layout of the ship–whose central processing unit is called “Mother” — remind you of anything?

2. Is the main idea of the movie that expelling a life form from your body should be difficult, or is it that the constraints of Authority are the only things that make it so?

3. Is the film grounded in women’s fears that they still may not actually be in control of their own reproductive systems, or men’s fears that now that abortion is the law of the land, the role they have to play in reproduction will be negated?

4. How would the movie be different if Ellen Ripley were a dude?

5. Does Sigourney Weaver getting mostly naked at the end negate the overall feminist premise of the film?

Watching Alien with its historical context and these possibilities in mind makes it easy to see why the film was so successful. Its root fear can easily be either male or female anxiety about reproductive issues (or both), meaning everyone will respond, on a Jungian level, to the shared nightmare upon which on which the movie relies. Having been written as a man, the character of Ripley is as well-fleshed out as the male characters–something that cannot be said of many Final Girls. I will even go so far as to say that the storytelling is strong enough that Ripley stripping down to her undies reads as evidence of her vulnerability, not her sexuality. (See Star Trek: Into Darkness for some genuinely unnecessary space stripping.)

Given the many interpretive possibilities of the film, you might not agree with me. So watch, decide what you think, and let me know. In fact, make this priority one. All other priorities rescinded.

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Holly L. Derr is a director, professor, and feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her@hld6oddblend or on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom.

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-1Originally published by Women and Hollywood

Leslie LaPage launched the LA Femme Film Festival in 2005 after a dispiriting trip to the Sundance Film Festival, where she saw precious few films directed or written by women. The first LA Femme festival featured 40 films and two seminars; this year’s festival screened over 100 films, hosted six seminars, and culminated in a fully produced awards show. Six films garnered distribution deals from Origin Releasing.

Celebrity honorees this year included Michelle Vicary, Executive Vice President of Programming for Crown Media Family Networks (owner of the Hallmark and Hallmark Movie Channels) for Executive Achievement; comedian Sara Rue, who recently sold her first movie as a producer to Dimension Films and her first half-hour pilot as the writer/creator to Warner Brothers and the CW; and Judy Reyes (Devious Maids), who was honored with the Lupe Ontiveros Image Award. Julianne Michelle & Joycelyn Engle took home the award for Best Feature Producer for Awakened, while Ilse van Lamoen won for Best Documentary with Daughters of the Niger Delta.

I spoke with LaPage, who said that the seminar component aims to educate women filmmakers who haven’t necessarily gone to film school but nevertheless have stories they want to tell. As part of this effort to make more women into experts in the field, she provides filmmakers who submit to the festival but do not get in with VIP passes to the 4-day event and hopes they will use what they learn to submit again.

The “Alternative Methods for Breaking In” seminar, composed of the women’s committee of the Writer’s Guild, provided perspectives on a variety of avenues to success, from working in a foreign country to winning obscure screenwriting contests. Panelists offered practical advice such as “you need a lawyer more than you need an agent” alongside encouragement never to give up. “Don’t take no for an answer” was also the theme at the “From Web Series/Internet to Primetime” seminar, where panelists enthused about the opportunities provided by the internet not just to create your own content but also to monetize it.

The festival’s tag line “By Women, For Everyone” was evidenced in the fact that neither of the seminars were about the fact that the participants were women. They were, as at non-women centric at festivals across the country, simply panels of creators talking about their craft. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist asking the Alternative Methods panel how being a woman factors into their careers. Elizabeth Martin shared that she and her writing partner, Lauren Hynek, who are working on a script for Amazon, managed to leverage an earlier script–a zombie stoner comedy–based on the fact that they were not the bros that producers expected to find attached to such a project. On the other hand, some of the men they work with regularly refer to them as “the girls.” Martin shared, “Every time they say it I get a little [makes face] ugh. I’m a woman. I’m a lady, and I’ve been doing this for a while. I’m not really a girl.” Other panelists shared similar experiences of being treated as novices just because they are women.

In an encouraging sign of progress, this year half of the films in the domestic drama category at Sundance were by women. LaPage says she thinks women in the industry have taken important steps in the last few years, but that we still have a ways to go. Her ultimate goal is to create a 100,000-person attendance 10-day festival that includes live theatrical and musical performances by women, a convention of women video game creators, and fine art exhibits. She also plans to expand the film component to ten screens that show both domestic and international movies.

I want to be one-stop shopping for women creating art for the globe, whether that is in TV and film or fine art and theater, because media is media and entertainment is entertainment. It’s about women creating art for the globe.

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Holly L. Derr is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom.

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Rebecca Hall in The Awakening

Originally posted at Women and Hollywood

Much has been made by media critics of the propensity of horror movies to fetishize the murder of women – to make them victims, suffering at the hands of brutal forces for their sexual sins. The slasher films of the ’70s and ’80s as well as their ’90s sequels allowed audiences the killer’s-eye-view of mostly naked women fleeing attack.

In the last few years, horror films have returned to the home as the site of terror. Some of these films, like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, The Possession, and Insidious, feature children in danger. Some, such as The Conjuring and Sinister, focus on a threat to the whole family.

Others are specifically about women, and in them the supernatural force to be contended with is often a manifestation of the central character’s repressed memories of trauma. Rather than emphasizing the killer’s perspective, the best of these films are structured so as to provoke sympathy for the victims and to celebrate the strength of women who overcome abuse.

(Trigger warning: Two of the examples offered below deal with sexual abuse, and though the offenses do not happen on camera, the psychological pain of the victims is pretty intense.)

The best of these films is Silent House, co-written and co-directed by Laura Lau. Elizabeth Olsen plays Sarah, who has returned to her family’s summer home to prepare it for sale. She becomes trapped in the house (which has doors that lock from the inside, natch) and is terrorized by a shadowy figure she assumes to be an intruder. Who or what this is saved for a late reveal, but as the film progresses it becomes clear to the audience that something evil happened here when Sarah was young and that despite her denial of it, that evil lives on. The camera work manufactures a one-shot/real-time experience, often from Sarah’s point of view, allowing the viewer to share her sense of claustrophobia and disorientation.

It can be hard to find a horror movie that features really good acting, but The Awakening, a British film set in post-World-War-I England, pulls it off.Rebecca Hall, known in the U.S. as Ben Affleck’s love interest in The Town, plays Florence Cathcart, an investigator of paranormal phenomena who travels the world disproving the existence of an after-life. The caretakers of a private boarding school, played by Dominic West ( The Wire) and Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge), bring Cathcart to their campus to get to the bottom of a haunting. There she faces seemingly inexplicable phenomenon that ultimately lead back to her own past. Cathcart’s recovered memories are not of sexual abuse, but the story warns against the danger of denying the past just the same.

The most difficult to watch of these three examples, Lovely Molly, directed and co-written by Eduardo Sánchez (The Blair Witch Project), is noteworthy mainly for its rejection of the ultimately redemptive narrative structure of the other two. Molly, who has moved back into her childhood home with her husband, isn’t just dealing with the effects of childhood abuse; she’s also a drug user. The distinction between what in her harrowing experience is caused by the supernatural manifestation of her past trauma and what is caused by drugs is never really made clear, making it too easy for the audience to blame the victim. Characterized by the same kind of camera work Sánchez used in Blair Witch, Lovely Molly provides a visceral, up-close experience of the main character’s suffering, but ultimately it relies more on blood, gore, and nudity than psychology, suspense or surprise. Given the progress the genre has made in allowing audience’s to identify with the victim instead of the killer, Lovely Molly feels like a step backward.

Most of this century’s horror movies have been gore-fest remakes (a la Rob Zombie’s Halloween) without any real cinematic storytelling. Independent films like Silent House and The Awakening, on the other hand, focus the story on the woman’s point of view, relying on a suspenseful unfolding of story and character more than shock. These films even go so far as to empower female characters with the psychological strength to overcome the worst kinds of victimization, and for the not-faint-of-heart, they can provide a welcome catharsis.

Holly L. Derr is a director, professor, and feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her@hld6oddblend or on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom.

During the lead up to this year’s Comic Con International, a Networked Insights analysis of social media conversation showed that 54% of people talking about the conference were women. So when I arrived on Thursday morning I wasn’t surprised to see that women were everywhere as fans, experts, press, and industry. At panel discussions, in interviews, even at parties, woman after woman said the same thing: The Internet is changing the world for geek girls and for women in Hollywood.

At the Gender in Comics panel, writers and illustrators celebrated the fact that women no longer have to brave male-dominated comic book shops to be consumers–they can order online. At The Most Dangerous Women at Comic Con: Dual Identities panel, actors, producers, and cosplayers who have faced harassment from men unable to accept them as real fans celebrated the way other women can come to their defense on their online platforms. The women on the All Shapes and Sizes Welcome panel came together to share their experiences being body-shamed by agents, producers, and fans and their decisions to move outside traditional venues to a space where they can do what they love and change the dominant paradigm.

Using social media, the women of Comic Con have formed countless platforms on which they can pursue common interests and career goals. The League of Extraordinary Ladies is a group of women who share a desire “to chase our dreams to do what we love, and to use our own talents to encourage and support each other in our individual pursuits.” Elisa Teague’s publication Cupcake Quarterly a pin-up magazine featuring women of all shapes and sizes without photoshopping. Helenna Santos-Levy founded the online magazine Ms. in the Biz to provide a “destination for women in entertainment who are looking for a positive community that shares resources, imparts wisdom, and fosters success.” And Comedian Gloria Shuri Navi’s The Beauty Adjustment, a diverse collection of videos by women of all sizes talking about why they are attractive, has become a YouTube phenomenon.

The connections these women have with each other extend far beyond the convention. Creator, actor, host, and geek Kristen Nedopak assembled an all-female team of producers to create The Geekie Awards. To be held in Hollywood in August, the awards will honor independent creators and geeks in steampunk, superheroes, sci fi, fantasy, zombies–everything you see at Comic Con–in categories such as short films, web series, arts and crafts, cosplay, toys, games, and podcasts. Nedopak described the industry transformation happening online:

Because of YouTube, Twitter and all social media, it’s much easier for women to access their audience directly. You create, produce, and you’re on camera so you have more direct access to fans, plus they’re commenting right there. It’s more genuine. In Hollywood, the press puts out what they put out and you judge people based on what the media tells you. Well, in social media you can directly tell people what you want them to hear and how you want them to hear it. Even women who make comics, they have direct access to their fans because they don’t have to go through publishers. As producers, we’re completely in charge of our brand, completely in charge of our product, and we put out there exactly what we want.

Stephanie Thorpe, who spoke on the panel Web Creators Assemble, produces the web series Ladies and Gents–a collection of 30-second to two-minute scenes in the restrooms of a typical LA club. Thorpe came to her first Comic Con when she was eight and left with her first comic book: Elfquest. As an adult, Thorpe became an actor because wanted she wanted to play her favorite genre characters. When she didn’t find enough of the kind of roles she wanted to play in Hollywood, she started making content herself. Today she owns the film and TV rights for the 35-year-old Elfquest franchise.

Across the board, the geek women I spoke with celebrated the fact that genre fiction has gone mainstream and is apparently here to stay. They credit The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and the most recent round of superhero movies for allowing geeks who, in their early lives had to hide their geekdom for fear–in Thorpe’s case–of being pushed down the stairs at school. And though they’ve all experienced some pushback from men who feel the need to test their knowledge of the geekiverse, they agreed that overall the community has becoming more welcoming and more respectful to fans of all kinds.

At the end of the All Shapes and Sizes Welcome panel, a nine-year-old girl named Jezebel asked the panelists, “When you guys are walking down the street and people give you dirty looks and you think it’s because of your weight, what do you guys do?” Actor Miracle Laurie, who was cast to play a character described as overweight in Dollhouse, despite the fact that she’s only a size 12, answered:

I just want to tell you one thing that I hope you take through life forever. You cannot take anything personally, because everyone is going through life in their journey. Everyone has their own issues and their own things that they’re unhappy about. So just know that if they look at you or say something, that has nothing to do with you. It’s not your problem. It’s theirs.

Clearly, the future of Hollywood involves a totally new kind of Jezebel.

Photo courtesy Stephanie Thorpe