Katherine Hepburn's Best Actress Oscars, for" Lion in Winter" and "On Golden Pond"

Originally posted at Ms. Magazine

Jake Flanagin at Pacific Standard and Victoria Dawson Hoff at Elle recently floated an interesting idea: The Oscars should be entirely segregated by gender. Their proposal would create categories such as Best Female Director and Best Female Writer in addition to the already segregated acting awards.

Though this would lead to recognition of more women working in the field, it wouldn’t solve one of the Oscars’ main gender problems: the Academy Award for Best Picture. Most films are produced by teams of both men and women, making segregation in that category impossible. And yet, the Best Picture category is where we can see the clearest evidence of the Academy’s preference for male-driven films. Only three of the nine films nominated this year even have women in leading roles: American Hustle, Gravity and Philomena.

Perhaps as significant as the lack of women characters is the treatment in these films of women’s bodies. The main female character in Her is not even human, allowing the film and its central relationship to avoid dealing with the messy reality of  women with bodies. In Dallas Buyer’s Club, one of the two female-gender-identified characters is played by a cisgender man, effectively replacing a body that would raise interesting questions about the difference between sex and gender with one that is much easier to understand. One cannot help but wonder, if a trans actor had played the role, in which category would she be eligible for a nomination?

Where women’s bodies are present in these films, they are almost always objectified through an emphasis on their sexuality. In The Wolf of Wall Street, one woman has sex on top of a pile of  money (the actor says her back was covered with paper cuts after filming) and another woman literally wears money. One could argue that these moments are PHILOMENA-poster-773x1024-504x667designed to reveal the callousness of the male characters, but in imagining and glamorizing a world without any female characters who aren’t objectified, the film ultimately endorses its characters’ worldview. The main female character in 12 Years a Slave is literally a possession, and she is repeatedly raped. Unlike with The Wolf of Wall Street, which encourages the audience to identify with criminals, 12 Years a Slave invites us to sympathize with the victim rather than the perpetrator. In this way, the film does at least provide a critique of turning women into objects, rather than an endorsement.

American Hustle provides the clearest example of Hollywood’s inability to deal with women’s bodies without sexualizing them.Though most of the fashions in which the male characters adorn themselves–from the polyester to the conspicuous chest hair to the hairstyles–are quite unsexy, the women are dressed in ways that reveal their every curve. Though plunging necklines were popular for evening wear in the era portrayed in the movie, women also wore formal dresses that, by today’s standards, look like your grandmother’s nightgowns. During the day, women wore button-up shirts with large collars; the most popular woman’s outfit of the decade was the pantsuit, and hair was more commonly worn natural than elaborately styled.

It makes sense for Amy Adams’ character to wear a dress cut down to her belly button to the disco, but when her character impersonates a British aristocrat, it would have been more logical to have her button up. She would still have been sexy and her talent would have shone just as brightly without an outfit that invites the viewer to spend most of the scene staring at her boobs. Similarly, the notion that a troubled housewife would wear her hair in an updo all the time is incongruent both with Jennifer Lawrence’s character and with the style of the time.

blog-gravity-poster-sandraThe contrast between the body of Christian Bale’s character and those of his lovers is especially striking. Whereas Bale’s character has an outside that matches his inside–his corrupt, conniving character is manifest in his weight, physical health and  unnatural hairpiece–Adams’ and Lawrence’s characters are gorgeous despite their twisted insides. I would love to see a version of this film in which the women’s bodies, the clothes they wear and the hairstyles they sport are as reflective of their unsavory inner selves as the men’s are.

Only two of the nine films nominated for Best Picture are genuinely about women, and the difference in how women’s bodies are treated in those films versus the other seven is telling. Sandra Bullock spends much of Gravity in shorts and a tank top, yet at no point is she sexualized. One might note that she looks strong and healthy, but one’s eyes are not deliberately focused on her breasts either by her costume or the camera. The unnecessary addition of [SPOILER ALERT!] a lost child to Gravity betrays Hollywood’s inability to portray women without reference to their biology, but even the final shot in which the camera slowly pans from Bullock’s feet to her head is much more about showing her strength than it is about showing her girl parts.

Philomena is a film centered around a woman’s reproductive past, yet it trounces the competition in its fully human representation of a woman character. Unlike  Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle, Judi Dench is old enough to conceivably be the woman she portrays. Close-ups of her face make no attempt to hide signs of age, revealing a beautiful woman whose wrinkles only make her intense emotional experience all the more gripping. Though the film is about the woman’s search for her lost child, the woman herself MV5BMjExMTEzODkyN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTU4NTc4OQ@@._V1_SX214_is far more than a mother on a mission. She loves her children, but she also loves sex. She’s a woman of faith, she’s openly accepting of gay people, she loves to read and she makes friends everywhere she goes. This is not to say that every female lead in every movie needs to be a saint;  most real women are not. But is there any other female character in this year’s nominees for Best Picture about whom the audience learns so much and in whom they become so deeply invested because of whom she is instead of what?

You might question whether the absence/objectification of women’s bodies in this year’s Best Picture nominees reflects on Hollywood or the culture as a whole. None of these films would necessarily be problematic on its own—12 Years a Slave in particular performs the important function of detailing the violence under which female slaves really lived and showing slave owners to be as oppressive as they really were. What is telling is the presence of so many films that either elide or sexualize female bodies in the category that presumably represents the best of the best.  The Academy clearly has a critical preference for movies about men, with women present primarily as wives and sex objects.

Though segregating awards by gender would up the profile of women working in Hollywood, it would also perpetuate the notion that there is something fundamentally different about work created by women and work created by men. And it would not solve the fundamental problem at the heart of Hollywood: Movies about men are more highly valued than those about women.

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Originally published by Ms. in the Biz

When Beyoncé’s latest album dropped, feminists went nuts. This is not the first time they’ve gone nuts over Beyoncé: When Ms. Magazine put her on its cover earlier this year, its readers erupted in outrage that a woman who “writhes around,” scantily clad “for the benefit of men” could be considered a feminist. Millions of other women came to her defense, arguing that feminism is about allowing women to be whoever they want to be. The editors of Ms. stood by their choice, but the disagreement hasn’t faded, and the new album has only added fuel to the fire. The combination of lyrics sampled from a Ted Talk given by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We teach girls to shrink themselves
To make themselves smaller
We say to girls
‘You can have ambition
But not too much
You should aim to be successful
But not too successful
Otherwise you will threaten the man.’

– and those contributed by Beyoncé’s husband referring to himself as Ike Turner, casting her as Tina, and referencing a well-known episode of domestic abuse between them, debate once again flared as to the validity of Beyoncé’s claim to feminism.

Such controversies may not do much to further the cause of feminism, but they sure do generate page views. Not surprisingly, therefore, in the last few years, Hollywood reporters have taken every opportunity to ask stars, “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” While women like Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and even Susan Sarandon have eschewed the term, others have boldly taken up the mantle and declared their commitment to changing the status quo for women in Hollywood.

photo2In an interview with the Guardian, Ellen Page spoke freely about her support for reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights and her appreciation for feminism:

I don’t know why people are so reluctant to say they’re feminists. Maybe some women just don’t care. But how could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word? Feminism always gets associated with being a radical movement – good. It should be. A lot of what the radical feminists [in the 1970s] were saying, I don’t disagree with it.

Regarding projects she is writing and directing, she shared, “Of course, if you just write a script in which the woman has control over her destiny and love isn’t the main thing in the film, that’s seen as super feminist. [But] it’s hard to get stuff made, especially if it’s about women. Everything’s about international bankability.”

Geena Davis has thrown the weight of her name, her resume, and her money behind the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, a research-based organization working to “engage, educate, and influence the need for gender balance, reducing stereotyping and creating a wide variety of female portrayals for children’s entertainment.” The Institute found that the ratio of male to female roles in family films – three to one – has not changed since 1946. In a recent guest article in The Hollywood Reporter, she offered some great advice on solving the problem:

Step 1: Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names. With one stroke you’ve created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women — and it’s not a big deal?

Step 2: When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, “A crowd gathers, which is half female.” That may seem weird, but I promise you, somehow or other on the set that day the crowd will turn out to be 17 percent female otherwise. Maybe first ADs think women don’t gather, I don’t know.

By Jerry Avenaim [CC-BY-SA-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Jada Pinkett-Smith, who questioned the feminist policing of Beyoncé by asking “Whose body is this anyway?” on Facebook, also used the social network to defend her daughter, Willow, when she became subject to vitriolic criticism over a haircut: “This is a world where women, girls are constantly reminded that they don’t belong to themselves; that their bodies are not their own, nor their power or self determination. I made a promise to endow my little girl with the power to always know that her body, spirit and her mind are her domain.”

Pinkett-Smith further defined her brand of feminism with a Facebook post on how sexism harms men as well as women: “There is a deep sadness when I witness a man that can’t recognize the emptiness he feels when he objectifies himself as a bank and truly believes he can buy love with things and status. It is painful to witness the betrayal when a woman takes him up on that offer.” She has also become a spokesperson for the anti-human-trafficking movement through her organization “Don’t Sell Bodies.”

The list goes on and on. Jennifer Lawrence has used her press junket for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire to advocate against women calling each other fat and for more reasonable representations of women’s bodies on screen. Evan Rachel Wood loudly protested the MPAA excision of a cunnilingus scene from her film Charlie Countryman. Natalie Portman called representations of women who are vulnerable just as feminist as those of women kicking ass. Amy Poehler told a reporter her feminism is “just who I am, in the same way that I’m a woman, or I’m 5’2″ or whatever.”

The controversy over Beyonce’s feminism shows no sign of fading, but though the singer was “terrified” before the album’s release, she says now she feels liberated, and the dispute certainly hasn’t hurt album sales. If these women aren’t shying away from calling themselves feminist – and haven’t suffered any repercussions to their careers for it – why should anybody else?

So when reporters ask you, “Do you consider yourself a feminist?”, what will your answer be?

This piece is Part Two in a three-part series. See here for part one.

Since Edward Cullen first graced the pages of a young adult novel in 2005, vampires have been the sexy bad guys du jour. But it’s not just the lingering fear that sex might lead to death that makes these nightmarish manifestations of sexual desire resonate with audiences.

Gothic horror literature–which attracts audiences by allowing them to vicariously transgress sexual and social norms while also reinforcing the punishments that come with such transgressions–is a goldmine for contemporary filmmakers interested in exploring the sexuality of adolescent women. The 2011 film The Moth Diaries, based on the 2002 young adult novel by Rachel Klein (who wrote the screenplay) and directed by Mary Harron, harkens purposefully back to the first vampire novel, Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla, and does little to counter the lesbian exploitation premise of either book. Intimacy between girlfriends–including one hanging out in a nightgown while the other bathes–is bathed in soft light, but two women having sex is a bloody, messy activity that leads to death. The movie also uses the Gothic trope of an innocent woman trapped by a sinister figure within a decaying castle  to great effect: The architecture of the girls’ boarding school creates most of the danger, and the only male figure around is clearly untrustworthy. (Spoiler alert) The heroine triumphs, but if it’s possible, this movie is even more sex-shamey than Twilight.

I am looking forward to Diablo Cody writing her horror movie about going to Catholic school, because in Juno she tenderly treats the ambivalent attitude towards teenage sex that she must have learned in that school. But in Jennifer’s Body (2009), directed by Karyn Kusama, Cody turns teenage sex into a nightmare. The small town of Devil’s Kettle serves the function of castle-in-a-remote-wasteland-imprisoning-young-women, where one of the women breaks free only by virtue of the death of the other. A lesbian kiss that wasn’t in the original script makes this film more exploitative than Cody may have intended it to be, but, like The Moth Diaries, Jennifer’s Body cautions us against trusting female sexuality.

In these two movies, the heroines conspicuously lack father figures, but typical Gothic heroines find themselves at the mercy of the very men they are called upon to trust. Silent House (2011), co-written and co-directed by Laura Lau, returns to the idea that patriarchal authority figures–even within our own families–might be the men who pose the most danger. The plot centers again around the house-as-prison metaphor: Sarah, played by Elizabeth Olsen (the far more talented younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley), becomes trapped in her family’s decrepit shoreline house with a sinister figure she assumes to be a homeless squatter. Reflecting the ambivalence with which our culture regards women’s place in the home, the film uses an ancient, secret tragedy to raise questions about whether the heroine is in real danger or is tricked by a tortured mind into believing so.

Gothic novels often dwell upon the fear that the sins of the fathers will be visited on their children. The House at the End of the Street, in theaters now, features  a young man ostracized from his community because of his family. The fatherless woman hero (played by The Hunger GamesJennifer Lawrence), shuns the cool kids and instead pursues this mesmerizing-but-off-kilter boy-next-door. Despite her mother’s attempts to protect her, she finds herself drawn into the characteristic Gothic hallways and secret chambers that contain the enigmatic ancient tragedy from which the boy has yet to recover. Sure enough, her instinctual sexual attraction is offered to titillate the audience, then is violently shut down.

With a little Gothic ambivalence, a feminist can at least enjoy watching the female heroes of these films defend themselves, and not without shedding a little blood. And The Moth Diaries, Jennifer’s Body, and Silent House are all written and directed by women. Perhaps that is why the decrepit hallways, doorways and secret rooms of these Gothic environments betray a cultural attitude that the patriarchy, though still in place, may not actually be good for women, and that isolating them from society might not keep them safe.

Photo courtesy of Patricia.Pictures via Creative Commons 2.0