Filmism.net Dispatch August 10, 2017

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Hollywood is in the grip of a culture war.

While most roles in big American movies still go to white males, commentary about the industry is a melting pot of race and gender equality movements, demands and hashtags that are reaching fever pitch.

Where once the thoroughly British Sir Alec Guinness played a Muslim prince for David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia and it was business as usual, today Matt Damon action vehicle The Great Wall sank before it was even released, the studio and the Twittersphere alike having braced themselves for the onslaught of criticism about how a white hero has to save armies of Chinese peasants from their own problems.

One of the popular movements swept up in the new paradigm of movie industry equality politics that's still dominating airwaves and networks is the portrayal of women on screens, along with the near-hysterical demands for the mythical strong, independent female character. But before we tackle that, it's worth remembering two things about the gender archetypes we see on screens.

First, they haven't changed much since Hollywood's Golden Age. Most male characters are barely veiled reflections of the iron-jawed cowboy, superhero or space ranger of ages past, and most female characters are either caring, motherly and asexual or beautiful, sexually available and dressed as riskily as the cultural era dictates.

And second, there have always been outliers. Every time a movie with a female hero comes out and the director/actress/studio production notes claim a giant leap forward for feminism, it's worth remembering that capable females on screen, while rare, have always been with us.

Any action or sci-fi director working today will namecheck Ellen Ripley (Alien) or Princess Leia (Star Wars) as the models for sassy, capable female characters to emulate; Leia's feisty presence leading the rebellion and standing up to Darth Vader in the original Star Wars is 40 years old this year.

But strong women on screen go back way further. Rosalind Russell gave Cary Grant as good as she got in His Girl Friday back in 1940 and didn't mind being called a 'newspaperman' either, her capability as a woman was in the conduct of her character, not her job title.

Of course, movies about the banter between two veteran reporters embroiled in romantic hijinks (if such a thing existed today) wouldn't be found in the domain of blockbuster cinema.

Just like the fantasies our grandparents enjoyed on screens of cowboys rescuing their women from savage injuns or devil-may-care jet pilots battling ugly monsters in space, we want to see superheroes or alien invasions bought to life too.

But no matter how far filmmaking technology advances, the archetypal characterisations Hollywood peddles are mostly the same even while the collective determination of the industry to wear its feminist credentials on its sleeve is ever-more shrill every year.

This year we've rejoiced in Scarlett Johansson as Major in Ghost in the Shell , Charlize Theron as Lorraine in Atomic Blonde and the grandma of all female heroes, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. Why, the narrative has been crying, has it taken so long to get a movie about Wonder Woman on screens when she's a role model for so many girls?

Here's the question nobody seems to be asking; is she really?

Adhering as closely to the modus operandi of blockbuster cinema as Hollywood's always done, there's something common to all these strong female characters we're supposed to be celebrating. While they're not all defined by their beauty or sexual allure (which is debatable; more below), there's one thing they're all defined by - fighting and violence.

Every northern hemisphere summer when the studios roll out their big sci-fi/action/adventure/overblown-CGI-with-minimal-character-dynamics projects, we hear more and more about how this or that female actress or character should be an inspiration because (and this is the phrase you hear used ad nauseam) 'she definitely kicks ass' (the actress usually adds with a chuckle).

Now, of course we all want female heroes represented on screen, just like we want Asian heroes, gay heroes and the heroes every other popular online equality movement has good intentions about but threatens to turn into tokenism jokes.

But do we need the raft of fleshed out, interesting, human female characters we're told we've deserved for so long to 'kick ass'? Nobody's suggesting all female characters should stay home to cook and have babies, but when did the skill or strength to beat someone up become such a cornerstone of women we're supposed to look up to? Should we be proud and happy that Charlize Theron describes her characters in Atomic Blonde by saying 'I'm a bitch!'.

Women make great teachers, great doctors, great cops, great astronauts, great parents, great gamers, great movie geeks - we nearly got to see if one would make a good US President. Why is the sole focus of presenting feminist friendly women on screen their ability to fight or kill as effectively as any man?

Maybe it would truly be revolutionary if, instead of portraying women who can effortlessly hold their own in traditionally manly screen pursuits like high kicking, driving fast or blowing things up, we saw more male characters who knew how to nurture, parent, care or love rather than just destroy, fight or fuck.

What's the big deal, you might ask, it's just entertainment, and aren't we all adults here? Well, no. The culture of TV and movies are exposed to people far too young to understand the context all the time. Links between violence on TV and aggressive behaviour in children were identified as long ago as 1982.

Imagine for a moment a 10-year-old girl who'll grow into womanhood over the next decade or so seeing an endless procession of Hollywood actresses throwing men twice their weight over their shoulders, shooting a bad guy through the spine from hundreds of meters away with a rifle or swinging her fists and incredibly shapely legs around a room to clear it of heavily armed and fearsome goons.

Might she grow up expecting that if she comes up against sexual harassment or sexual assault (even her own husband or boyfriend if he's drunk and abusive) that she'll be able to throw a roundhouse kick to his head and take him out?

By the time most of us reach any semblance of adulthood we know women usually can't hold off a man in a fight simply because of the physics of body mass and muscle density. But isn't there a chance some girls might be desensitised to the balletic violence they see on screen after successive years of being conditioned to love the 'strong female characters' they've been told they need?

But there's more. Even if we put aside the claim that female movie heroes who visit violence and destruction on others the way male characters usually do is an advance for feminism, let's take a look at the characters themselves, and I mean literally look. Notice a common theme?

Take a look at the Wonder Woman trailer or the official character images from November's Justice League. While the male characters are dressed in full body suits that reveal little to nothing of their skin, Wonder Woman is dressed in little more than a one-piece swimsuit with a few tassels and epaulets on it.

The crew of villains from last year's X-Men: Apocalypse were similarly garbed, with Oscar Isaac unrecognisable under heavy prosthetics, Michael Fassbender in the usual full body get-up and Olivia Munn wearing a one piece leather number that shows considerable cleavage and could only be pulled off after a very intimate and unforgiving waxing job.

Now, none of that might be respective directors Zack Snyder or Bryan Singer's fault. Many superheroes have been dressed in their signature garb for decades (although it is telling that the 2015 redesign of Wonder Woman's outfit to include pants was a major conversation piece throughout comic geekdom).

But look further. Atomic Blonde's superspy Lorraine is a gay (or at least bisexual) character. Is that a step forward, or an excuse to show a steamy sex scene with on screen romantic interest Sofia Boutella, introducing standards from pornography even further into mass-market culture as critics like Gail Dines and Pamela Paul have claimed?

Scarlett Johansson plays a cybernetic being that was mostly naked in the 1995 anime version of Ghost in the Shell , even while in battle. Being a film that hoped to capture the hearts and minds of teens in middle America (a place that's far more politically conservative than the content on movie screens suggests) Johansson instead plays the part in a skintight body suit.

Now, maybe there's nothing wrong with a capable female spy who happens to be gay showing her in a love scene with another woman because sexuality is a normal and healthy part of being an adult. Maybe the skintight bodysuit worn by a cyborg warrior is fine because it adheres to the visual aesthetic of the rest of the film (and, in the ultimate defense, the character from the original looked that way).

in that case, look no further than 2016's Suicide Squad, which showed a gang of dangerous criminals sprung from prison to take down a supernatural entity at the behest of a top secret government handler?

The men of the squad wear their usual gear; various outfits built for utility as assassins, robbers or to suit their unique physicality. Their support personnel of soldiers wear military fatigues appropriate to the combat conditions of an urban landscape. The sole female member, Harley Quinn, wears high heels and booty shorts and looks like a stripper. In fact, as this story noticed, it was another role that fetishised/sexualised star Margot Robbie to an alarming degree).

Four decades ago Ellen Ripley wore the same army-green coveralls as the rest of her crew and when Leia Organa wasn't taking part in royal duties she wore tactical battle gear. Today these kick-ass heroines wear high heels, thong swimwear and fishnet stockings to fight alien invasions, European terrorists and government conspiracies. Have we actually gone backwards?

The moral of the story seems to be that earning the mythical attribution of strong female character requires two things; you need to be able to fight, and you need to dress in a way that makes you appear sexually available and alluring to the male gaze.

To some, including this author, it's a problem that we're even still talking about 'strong female characters' like they're some rare animal. Male characters are assumed to have strength, direction and agency, after all.

So in the face of all the hashtags, discussion panels and token concessions to equality given by screenwriters, directors and studios that they claim as triumphs of inclusion, is anything really changing?

Well, after all that high minded sociology I need to switch my higher executive cognition off and enjoy some aimless thrills, and there are no better to be had than the entire Saw series, which I recently sat down and rewatched back to back. Read my exhaustive reviews of Saw, Saw II, Saw III, Saw IV, Saw V, Saw IV and Saw 3D: The Final Chapter.

You know what jumps out at me more than anything else? Not the gore, the traps, the mood or the distinctive production design that went on to define horror for a decade or more afterwards. It's the writing, the way subsequent writers built on a continuing story instead of just remaking what had come before.

Kong: Skull Island was also awesome for all the right reasons, and not just by bland CGI blockbuster standards either - it's very smart visual storytelling. Also very visual but a departure from Chris Nolan's usually ironclad script work is Dunkirk, and you could do way worse to educate yourself about the quality trough movies occasionally fell into by catching up with Samurai Cop. It's next level bad, like a cross between an 80s straight to video cop thriller and Tommy Wiseau's The Room.

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