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Filmism.net Dispatch December 8, 2020

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Look, I'm all for people feeling happy that they're finally being represented on screen. And every young girl or young woman having role models to look up to, in tears in cinemas because they're finally seeing capable female characters holding their own on screen is a victory for the widening of the lens in popular entertainment.

Here's my problem with it. Actually there are kind of two problems, and the first one is more of a niggle, especially when it comes to the constant (and necessary) calls for decent female characters. All those cultural critics and cinerati falling over themselves praising Marvel et al for finally giving us some female heroes to root for seem to have very short memories.

Have they forgotten Elsa? Rey? Hermoine Grainger? Katniss Everdeen? Gamora and Nebula? Furiosa? Neytiri? Eowyn and Galadriel? Lisbeth Salander? Jean Grey? Trinity? Clarice Starling? Ellie Satler? Princess Mononoke? Sarah Connor? Laurie Strode? Ellen Ripley? Leia Organa?

But go even further back. Holly Golightly? Cleopatra? Hildy Johnson? Vivian Rutledge? Margo Channing? Of course, a comparable list of male celluloid heroes who are complex, flawed and human is probably much longer (although I'd argue the opposite; right up until the late 1960s, Hollywood traded on the same stoic, fearless, iron-jawed, can-do hero, and plenty of movies still include that archetype), but every review that breathlessly fawns over a female movie character with agency and purpose forgets we've had such characters since cinema began.

When it comes to racial minorities it's a very different story, and the old Lenny Henry joke is true; there was a time the only decent job for a non-white actor in entertainment was the guy who pushed Ironside around in his wheelchair. We're now in a golden age of racial representation and I don't think you'd find many people who'd argue it should continue.

It's hard not to be cynical about the motives of Hollywood studios sometimes to try and get ahead of history. It was revealed in 2014 that the Hispanic audience was the biggest single demographic for the first time for the domestic US box office (https://www.thewrap.com/how-hispanics-became-hollywoods-most-important-audience/), and just a few short years later we saw Pixar's Coco and Guillermo Del Toro production The Book of Life, movies tailor-made to Latino moviegoers. But at least it's happening.

However, in the case of female characters, look again at the above list. I took a beat between Leia Organa and Holly Golightly, and not just because there was a gap of 15 years between them. Cleopatra, in an immortal performance by Elizabeth Taylor, was a political and military figure in history and Vivian Rutledge, in human pot-of-warm-honey-full-of-venom Lauren Bacall, was so slippery and wily you wonder through the whole movie (The Big Sleep) wondering whether she's actually the villain. The same goes for Margo Channing in the form of firebrand Bette Davis in All About Eve.

But with a few exceptions (the women of the family who muck in and take over the maintenance workshop in Porco Rosso when the men have all gone off to war, for example) being a capable female in a movie meant one thing after Carrie Fisher's regal, poised performance as Princess Leia; knowing how to fight. The same way Star Wars changed movies to be about battle, conquest and the Campbellian path of the heroes journey, female characters changed into warriors who could fight and serve as eye candy for (and defined by) the male gaze.

Female characters became less about using their brains and more about the very masculine idea of brawn. It reaches a ridiculous crescendo every time a twentysomething woman beats up a room full of male goons in an action movie.

Vivian Rutledge's weapon was her steely determination to keep her secrets, and drown you in those eyes while she did so to distract you from the real issue. Margo Channing and Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) in His Girl Friday issued withering putdowns and electric patter that was so incisive and cutting it's like Aaron Sorkin went back in time to write for them. They never once sacrificed femininity and made smart sexy just like Marlene Dietrich or Marilyn Monroe did with beauty.

Even the incomparable Audrey Hepburn as Holly in Breakfast at Tiffany's plays a character who's so beset with problems she could be transposed effortlessly into a million indie hipster dramedies of today. She's a cute scatterbrain who dates the wrong men in her quest to marry for nothing more than money, can't get her life in order, gets mixed up with drugs and goes to jail for it, plays with the affections of the man who's in love with her, cruelly sets about abandoning her cat... and she's still the cultural icon we all know.

And lest you think all we can write and direct when it comes to female characters are those that adhere slavishly to the Madonna/whore dichotomy in modern times, you've obviously only been watching Fast & the Furious and Marvel movies. Rebecca Hall (usually the best part of any movie she's in) recently played tragic real-life newscaster Christine Chubbuck in Christine , and it's one of the best depictions about how emotionally rich and contradictory a human being (let alone a woman) can be in recent years.

All those pre-kick ass era women were written and performed with flaws, fears, insecurities, desires and doubts. Yet today we think it's gender equality because we can laud a woman for doing a backflip in midair after riding a motorcycle off a roof, hefting an M41A and blowing away a chamber full of Xenomorph warriors or grabbing Kyle Reese and dragging him to safety when he's mortally wounded by the T-800 as the gold standard in female characters.

She's not a woman who can get paid the same as her male peers, who manages the daily struggle of job and family or even who stands up for what she wants in the face of constant societal pressure about how she should look, live, groom, love, eat, speak and everything else. She just hits people.

Haven't we been seeing that from our male cinema heroes for the last century? Just because it's a female it doesn't make a movie any more interesting. As this incisive blog post points out, that doesn't mean empowerment.

Very little on screens has impressed me in recent weeks. A neat little Aussie sci-fi movie, 2067, stretches every dollar as far as it can and even though there's some creaky dialogue and performances, the sense of scope in the design and visuals shows a lot of talent. But not much else to report.

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