Working Girl

Blog post @ Volume 3, published on 31 August 2012

Sexist tropes abound in our culture and you don’t need to be a gender studies post-doctoral student to know it. Just think about it. There is always the pretty (but shallow/daft), outspoken (but hysterical), sexually active (but promiscuous) woman in a movie to counteract the more virginal, subdued girl next door who is bound to fall in love, yet not totally emasculate, the hero. And who is the character that is first to die on action movies? That’s right, the less than alpha-male, unter-masculine man who dared to admit he was scared. Action heroes are usually orphans, whose wives or girlfriends are dead (or died in the course of the story) or who are just inexplicably asexual (god forbid they were ever gay). All these tropes have names and they are not less true now than they were in the 60s when Germaine Greer wrote extensively about them

Lindy West (bless her!) put it all in evidence back in 2008, with a list of the “most pathetic female film characters of all time”. It’s short and yet revealing of the amount of totally vacuous roles given to women in the film industry. Damsels-in-distress, poor little things who cannot run, nor punch, nor even hide for heaven’s sake! They look beautiful and scared and our volunteering heroes shine in these women’s slim existence, which in itself is offensive to men too, as if the male gender needed to be surrounded by impalpable identities, as if always endangered of being eclipsed if otherwise. 

As the meme goes: little girls today are brought up with Bella from Twilight (who will die for her sado-masochistic boyfriend) and not Buffy (who will kill her boyfriend if he dare hurt her). Hence, in an attempt to make it all better Aleona Krechetova replies to West’s article with a list of “positive female roles”. True, you have Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games – a pretty badass teenager,  from a pretty left-wing series. She’s an archer and kicks lots of butts on her way to survival, dismissing the process of sexualisation and the commodification of her very existence for the sake of her sister’s life. She is great but, alas, an exception. 

The Bechdel Test is a well known formula that shuts down any attempt to argue that we no longer live in a sexist society. Try to think about a movie that passes all of these questions:


1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it

2. Who talk to each other

3. About something besides a man

You probably cannot. The truth is, most movies you’ve watched recently do not pass this test. And I am living proof of that. In the last three weeks I’ve watched the following flicks:

a) Frost/Nixon

b) The Ghost

c) The Lovely Bones

d) Vicki Cristina Barcelona 

e) The Edge of Love

f) Flashbacks of a Fool

g) Monsters

Only two of these movies pass (c and d). 2 out of 7 in the span of fourteen days. And even here I am being rather lenient with Vicki Cristina Barcelona, as, albeit making his female characters talk about art and life and love to each other, Allen does this always through the mediation of the object of their affections – Juan Antonio, a man! He is not there, present, meddling in any way other than by the fact that it is because of him that these encounters and these conversations are being held. In many ways the emancipation of these female characters is close to none. 

But maybe that is due to Bechdel’s simplicity and formulaic analysis. If we are to read between the lines, many more hues of sexism can be seen in even the most women filled film (and it would *not* be reading in too much, trust me). We seem to have an over-production of books, movies, TV shows and plays in which the female protagonists and their fates are literally ignored, discarded and simply left to rot in that magical place where unfinished plots go. Furthermore, the culture we live in gets away with a whole lot of sexist behavior that we all accept as the normal course of that given narrative.

Let’s look at the movie Monsters (last of my list) as an example. This is the story of two people stranded in an alien-infected South America, trying to reach the United States ASAP. It starts with the very sexist premise of a male journalist (Andrew) having to be sent to “rescue” the daughter of his employer (Samantha) from wherever godforsaken land she decided to end up in. Why she is there and why she is hurt is not explained. Who cares hey?, we have an alien invasion here, loads of military everywhere, US airstrikes in impoverished Mexico, chaos, anarchy, corruption, non-English speakers – the US version of hell on Earth. The two characters then go on a journey heading to the border, facing a whole set of obnoxious setbacks – from extortionist ticket sellers, to passport-thiefs and the continuous threat of being bombed by US jets or smashed by squid-like gigantic creatures that glow in the dark. In every single one of these obstacles Samantha’s reaction is either pouting, bribing (with her big, fat, engagement diamond ring) or simply whining helplessly while crying out for Andrew. She is not a particularly lifeless character throughout. She is bubbly and caring and subliminally beset with her impending marriage. There should clearly be depth to this person, but it is never allowed to show through. 

And the worst of it all is that, while watching the movie, in no specific point you would say – hmm, this is ridiculous, she could be doing something. Why would you? She is scared and definitely reacting in ways I probably would were I to be placed in a jungle with wild electricity-hungry alien creatures that can crush me at any point for no good reason. No, what one should point out it how calm and sussed out the journo is. He takes action, barely breaks a sweat. He is adventurous, he knows no fear. He is there to calm her down, protect her from the creatures, save the day. And the fact that upon first glance neither I nor anyone else watching the movie raised a brow or made a comment about the engendered disparity of their reactions is what is so scary. Were it the other way around it would be the story about a tough cookie of a woman, not about aliens. 

And therein lies the problem. Because a story about aliens should be about aliens – having a heroine should not make it any different. We desperately need to contradict this ubiquitous trope that stories with women are about women. As if being part of the other 50% is this big exceptional fact that makes it the very focus of the story (I know there are exceptions – the Alien series, for instance). 

Until we do, you can compile me a list of 100 inspirational female (and feminist) film characters, it won’t make a bloody difference, you are still pointing out an aberration: women being inspirational. When at the mention of Mulan people think of Chinese history and the Great Wall, instead of the *woman* who pretended to be a man and saved the Empire, I’ll be content.