Cinema Chats: A Column

Emma Truchan , Editor-in-Chief

   When I first watched Director Steven Soderberg’s Ocean’s Eleven, I was enamored with Tess Ocean. She was strong, assertive, and slightly bitter. When I heard Danny Ocean’s proposition to Benedict to trade her for information regarding his stolen money, I soured a bit. This vibrant, strong-willed woman was equated to a sum of cash; she wasn’t treated as a self-possessing entity, but a bargaining chip for powerful men to pawn. Yet, in the third act, all of her defining traits dissolved when I expected them to be at their most expressive. Rather than fortifying her independence, she fell back into the arms of her ex-husband, fulfilling the bargain in which she did not partake. Feeling betrayed and confused, I blamed Tess’s character initially, until I realized that the creator of the character and her fate should be to blame. The objectification of female characters is the fault of the filmmakers and the filmmaking industry.

   Ocean’s Eleven is hardly the most egregious example of representing women as objects, stereotyping female characters, or tailoring a story to a heterosexual male fantasy. Such habits defined Hollywood for decades, and remain a dominant theme of block-buster movies. “Rewrite Her Story”, a study on female representation in film, analyzed the 56 top-grossing films from across 20 countries. The study concluded, “These films show a world which is run by men, for men. The filmmakers, too, are predominantly male” (seejane.org). The study identifies the root of the issue: women are portrayed in demeaning and inaccurate fashions because those in power are able to promote narratives of their worldview or fantasies, further encouraging such ideas outside the realm of entertainment. 

   The most obvious solution to this issue is to foster an environment that allows female/non-male filmmakers to flourish and succeed. Logically speaking, by increasing the volume of previously oppressed voices, stories and art that are more truthful and equitable to female characters will follow because such directors have a better understanding of that reality. Yet, this solution is not as simple as it may appear. Although some directors may feel inspired and driven by a desire to provide better and healthier representation of women in media, this is not the sole purpose of female directors. Some may not want to make art to compensate for the fact that their representation was mishandled by their forefathers. Some may want to explore films that aren’t solely concerned with feminism and correcting mistakes they didn’t make. And it’s not their responsibility to do so.

   Whose responsibility is it, then, to make entertainment that portrays women in a healthy way, if not women themselves? If male directors are the ones responsible for misrepresenting women for decades, then it should be their duty to repair the damage. Some may complain that since men cannot fully understand the reality of womanhood and its struggles, then they could not accurately make a “feminist film,” or even simply a movie that doesn’t disrespect women. This is nothing more than an excuse for male filmmakers to continue living in ignorance and apathy. To reduce male filmmakers, and, by proxy, the male population, to figures that cannot comprehend feminism only perpetuates the vicious cycle of misogyny is entertainment and reality. 

   Some male filmmakers have already undermined this belief. Director Mike Mills’ Twentieth Century Women is a prime example: the movie celebrates motherhood, femininity, and feminism through the lens of three unique, rich, and tangible female characters, and captures the struggle of understanding modern feminism from male and female perspectives. It is thoughtful, endearing, and challenging. Yet, it is also not perfect. Like the second-wave feminist movement of the ‘60s-’70s, Twentieth Century Women largely ignores the intersectionality of feminism into other realms of discrimination and prejudice, such as racism and ableism. Still, films like Twentieth Century Women show the great potential that exists for feminist films, and the potential male filmmakers have to make reparations.

   Ultimately, repairing sexism in entertainment will take a holistic approach. Fostering an industry where women can succeed and bring their perspectives to the table will be crucial, but the burden of providing healthy representations of women is not their responsibility alone. Male filmmakers must also examine their work to meet new standards that don’t center female characters around male whimsy, but treat them as people. Through unbiased representations in media, the position of women can be strengthened in film and in reality.