[CHRISTMAS 2015 EDIT: Okay, so this post is even more hilarious in retrospect now we know Rey is not the “token female”, but the PROTAGONIST in an otherwise male-centric franchise! But hey, apparently that’s STILL not good enough because now Rey is “too good” – yes, this is actually a thing! OMG … Well, at least you’re consistent Twitter in that you’re NEVER fecking happy. This is why we can’t have nice things or GOOD FEMALE CHARACTERS you nunchucks.
CLICK HERE for a free ebook on how NOT to write female characters and if you’re one of the whiners?? DOOF! Punch in the chops for you … Sort yerself out in 2016!!].
First off, May The Fourth be with you!
So, in a week in which the cast for the new STAR WARS (2015) was announced, it would seem things ARE progressing, since Twitter was up in arms about the lack of women for starters (with some also suggesting the lack of people of colour was also an issue). Can you imagine that happening, say, 5 years ago? ‘Cos I can’t. Back then, apparently I was seeing problems that weren’t there. Gee, thanks!
As everybody knows, women in film is my *thing*, so it would be a tad remiss of me not to address it. But it may surprise some of you to hear that I don’t actually think STAR WARS is the battleground in which to have an all-out gender war. Not because I love the new STAR WARS the way it is, because I don’t … But then, I don’t like STAR WARS, full stop. I didn’t like the prequels or the originals EITHER, even as a kid! (I recall berating my pie-eyed Dad one Christmas when I was about eight for watching it, in fact. Yes, I was a precocious child. Who’d have thought it, eh???)
What you may not have thought however is the fact I met the Star Wars casting news with a “meh”. Whilst of course I WANT diversity (I don’t know anyone who doesn’t, in truth), I don’t believe this actually falls squarely at any individual people’s or place’s feet, either. Yes that might sound like a paradox and it pretty much is, but then life is a paradox. (Frankly I’d need a whole book to write how I feel on this matter but I’m gonna try 2000 words, do bear with me).
So, before you try and bitch-slap me or call an ambulance (I haven’t lost my mind, honest guvnor), here’s my 5 reasons why:
1) The “Man-Centric” Story Vs. The “Woman-Centric” Story
Look all around us and there are “Man-Centric” stories, or stories told from a “male” POV (usually those male POVs are white and heterosexual too, but that’s for another post. Let’s stick with gender for now, since this is the primary focus of the new STAR WARS rage). Rightly or wrongly, the traditional notion in The Industry is that the biggest demographic of the cinema-going public is males, aged 15-40 years, so those male protagonists in the Man-Centric movies are usually of a similar age to those *assumed* to be watching. Le duh.
So, feminist commentators like me get in a strop because there is no such equality for the female audience when it comes to the equivalent: the unsurprisingly named “Woman-Centric” story. Pretty straightforward. However, the waters get muddied in my opinion is when those same commentators then argue for various ways of “measuring” that, whether it’s The Bechdel Test; how different territories should “impact” on what constitutes a financial success; whether we can “prove” women DO like movies when figures for ancillary markets like DVD or streaming are unavailable; or that women DON’T like movies but would if more of their stories are told … yada yada yada. We end up going round and round and round in circles.
Yet a Woman-Centric Story is simply the reverse of the Man-Centric story, as outlined here, by the mighty Melissa Silverstein of the fabtastic site Women & Hollywood‘s definition:
“In order to be considered a women centric film, this film would have to focus on one or more female characters – one protagonist and/or other female characters – at the center of the narrative. A female protagonist or female lead constitutes therefore the main characteristic of women centric. It is her story, told from her perspective.
Women centric film differs from definitions such as woman’s film or chick flick in that it does not refer to a specific genre of films. In other words, it includes animated films, horror films, (romantic) comedies, fantasy and action films. What matters is that the story is told from her perspective – be it an animated female character or girl in the horror film.
Furthermore, women centric does not necessarily imply a feminist protagonist neither does it guarantee that a feminist ‘message’ is contained (although it might).” See the original post and its comment thread, here: What Is A “Women-Centric” Film?
So taking Melissa’s definition into account and clear away all the associated “noise” of the various commentary and basically, we’re talking Male POVs taking precedence over Female POVs. What’s new? I just died of shock … Not.
But now let’s consider the *really* uncomfortable stuff.
If we consider the likes of Hollywood follows the money and ultimately so do indie films (they have to pay their investors back, in the very least) then immediately we can see Man-Centric movies ARE subject to the same issues Woman-Centric movies are, ie. They make lots of money? YAY! Make another one. They don’t make loads of money? UH OH. Bye bye.
Now, let’s look at STAR WARS – there’s been six movies already. SIX. It’s one of the largest film franchises. And guess what? There’s not been many women in them. Now, fans of the movie can get all wet for Leia and say she was “groundbreaking for her time” and who knows, I wasn’t even ALIVE back then, but okay! I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say maybe she was the equivalent of Mako Mori. Whatever. (What I DO know is, Mako Mori didn’t wear a gold bikini chained up to a phallic slug and fuel the sexploit dreams of a trillion marauding Geeks WORLDWIDE, but okay fine-FINE, I did I’d give them the benefit of the doubt, whatevs).
Yeah, yeah I hear the rest of you: it’s not the 1970s anymore. There SHOULD be more than one token female in a tentpole (ooh Matron), you know I agree with you. BUT … and it’s a big but (snarf) … Audiences want entertainment, first and foremost, not a lecture. If those audiences don’t want more women for whatever reason (six movies! SIX!) then SHOULD the new STAR WARS (2015) include women for some commitment to diversity as in, “Hey, it’s 40 years later, biatches! Feminism, W0000T!” ?
SO: Anyway, none of the above actually matters when we’re talking $$. It boils down to THIS: if we want more movies made with female protagonists? We have to actively support them. That means watching them no matter what. But not enough of us do it seems and we have to ask ourselves WHY. It honestly seems to me that all people do is slag movies off these days and say “all female characters are shit.” Well guess what, I watch movies EVERY SINGLE DAY and I don’t think ALL female characters are shit. How can they be?? Why isn’t the conversation moving on? If it was because there really have been no great female characters then fine, but it’s BS. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve referenced some great movie with a kickass female character in it who’s brilliantly written, only to be met with “I haven’t seen that one.” Yeah okay, we can’t watch every single movie, but if you want to CHANGE movies? Then why the hell aren’t you watching MORE OF THEM??
2) The “Male Gaze”
We hear a lot about the so-called “male gaze” – effectively, this notion that women on screen are pieces of meat to be ogled by men like Leia in the gold bikini. Of course there’s FAR TOO LITTLE DIVERSITY when it comes to the Male Gaze, but I have three additional problems with the Male Gaze being the supposed “main problem”:
i) The subtext ends up that sex is somehow unpleasant or sordid and whilst some obviously is, the vast majority (especially between consenting adults, who actually LIKE sex) is not
ii) It infantises women by suggesting they are not automatically in control of their own sexuality and those that are, are somehow dangerous and/or subversive (especially when we consider the representation of women of colour and/or what I call “Little Lolitas” trapping the older man, especially via pregnancy)
iii) What about the female gaze?! I feel this is very underrated and certainly in the last thirty years of Hollywood movies, the notion of “male eye candy”, whilst not “as standard” as the dolly bird in hot pants walking in slo mo (she is EVERYWHERE), **ALL** Hollywood male stars have to be as fit and gorgeous and be prepared to walk around in as few clothes as the women and in some cases **coughWOLVERINEcough** be actually NAKED.
So as far as I’m concerned the Princess Leia equivalent in STAR WARS (2015) can prance around in her gold bikini all she wants because my son can now take himself (thank God) to the cinema to watch her! Whilst I love a good Hollywood blockbuster that at least tries to include female characters, to be honest when I’m not perving on Hugh Jackman, I’m more in it to see stuff like giant robots kick the ass of giant monsters, so anything STAR WARS (2015) can offer can frankly KISS **MY** ASS.
SO: I know, I know, naked gorgeous females are everywhere and men can be stars even if they look like the back end of a bus. We’re judged outwardly on our appearance far more than men are and our credibility is always called into question, whereas men get much more opportunity to be *themselves*, generally. Whilst The Male Gaze is a part of that culture of scrutiny, it doesn’t CAUSE that culture and it doesn’t necessarily *have* to be a bad thing. What we’re suffering from then is a GLUT of The Male Gaze, so our brains are exploding and we’re looking to Hollywood to save us … But how can it? It’s giving us what we say we want, because we’re spending the money on that and NOT the stuff we’re complaining we don’t see enough of. WTF?
3) The Issue With So-Called “Strong Women”
I call these ladies “Kickass Hotties” and they’re certainly fun. In comparison, wet blanket Princess Leia spent most of her time prancing around appealing to various blokes for help (her most famous catchphrase IS “Help us, Obi Wan!” in fact … LE SIGH), so I for one wouldn’t mind seeing whoever’s playing the token female in STAR WARS (2015) deliver a few karate chops to the face of the new Darth-Whatever.
However, all that’s hardly ground breaking; we’ve had over twenty-odd years of it in fact, since Sarah Connor. Too many films, directors or actresses try and pacify us with soundbites about so called “strong female characters” when what they really mean is some gorgeous bird in a leather jumpsuit doing Tae Kwon Do. Yet still they remain. We have to remember what I began this article with: supply and demand. If the Kickass Hottie was not popular, she’d have died a fiery death somewhere in 1993 and then Hollywood would have sealed her in concrete and we’d have never heard from her again.
Oh yeah: people who watch Man-Centric films like scantily clad women. Doh. Okay, you think Kickass Hotties are sexist and you’re probably right, but I hope that Christian Bale in the nude [or whoever] doesn’t get you off, else that makes you a big fat hypocrite. Fact is, objectification exists on both sides of the fence and SURE there’s more of it in Man-Centric films, because there’s more of them, because people keep paying the money for them.
SO: If we go to a supposedly Woman-Centric movie to discover that actually, that female protagonist and her story is simply paying lip service to the NOTION of Woman-Centric (and it’s really a Man-Centric movie), then yes: we’ve every right to feel aggrieved. But if we’re at a movie that apparently purports to be a Man-Centric movie like STAR WARS (2015), then why are we surprised there’s a just a token female character? And if we’re at STAR WARS and not some movie with great a female character in it, then are we really surprised the Women-Centric movies don’t get off the starting blocks???
4) Female Writers & Filmmakers = More Female POV? NOPE!
It seems a no brainer that if STAR WARS had been written by a woman, or made by a female director, the story would be “better”; the female characters would be “well rounded”; everything would be more “equal” and our daughters won’t all grow up to be SCARRED FOR LIFE BY ALL THIS SHIT. It makes sense, right?
Except it doesn’t necessarily work out that way. As I always say, I see NO correlation between great female characters and the gender of the writer or filmmaker. In fact, some of the WORST female characters and most misogynistic stories I’ve read have been written by women! But many writers won’t believe this, preferring to think that having a uterus means one is *bound* to write women well, or that men *simply can’t* write a good female protagonist, in particular. By the same token, I’ve lost count of the number of male writers who’ve employed me to read their screenplay, urging me to tear apart their female character in particular because they “can’t possibly know” that POV! Um, no.
So think of it this way. Kathryn Bigelow is a kickass woman in her own right, making it in a man’s world, making history as the first female director to win an Oscar. EVER. In 2010!!?! The utter wrongs of that are for another post too, but take a look at Kathryn’s IMDB listing. Take a goooooooooooood look:
NEAR DARK … POINT BREAK … STRANGE DAYS … K19: THE WIDOW-MAKER… THE HURT LOCKER … ZERO DARK THIRTY … She doesn’t exactly make “CHICK FLICKS” does she??
I love Kathryn Bigelow and she’s a great filmmaker: her stuff is exciting and looks fabulous. She’s an inspiration to any young woman or girl wanting to make it in this industry because she identified her niche and she went out there and grabbed it with both hands, becoming top of her tree. Super kudos to her.
But bottom line: if Kathryn Bigelow had made movies that WEREN’T about the forces, or DIDN’T have predominantly male leads, or WEREN’T action-adventure … Would we have heard about her, never mind given her an Oscar? Makes me wonder. But we can’t know that because she doesn’t “do” Woman-Centric Films from a female perspective generally, as laid out by the Women & Hollywood definition. Instead, Bigelow does Man-Centric movies and very well she does it too.
SO: Don’t think this is somehow EASY to fix, or that Hollywood is some secret cabal to keep women down. Again, it’s money. Maybe Bigelow really loves macho stories, or maybe making Man-Centric films was a calculated move to ensure her own career success. Who knows? My point is, if it is the latter, why should she apologise for it? She wanted to be successful, who doesn’t? Loads of people love her films. Isn’t that what being a director is about?? And Kathryn Bigelow as an individual doesn’t “owe” us any more than JJ Abrams does … again, both of them saw what people wanted and provided it, so became successful. SO GUESS WHAT: if you want more feminist films, then support them and you make the feminist equivalent of Kathryn Bigelow and JJ Abrams successful! BOOM.
5) Drawing Lines in the Sand Is A Waste Of Time, Anyway
THAT’S RIGHT! I really don’t care about Woman-Centric and Man-Centric movies and all its associated tangles and debates. I watch what I watch and I like what I like. I just want BETTER MOVIES and more GREAT CHARACTERS.
But we have to get real and consider the notion of “better movies” and “great characters” means different things to different people, because they want different things. Doh.
What’s more, this means shoving stuff in to appease a minority that will piss off the majority of the target audience, makes no financial sense IF the primary concern is commerce (which it is).
Instead then, we must consider:
i) Is the story the best it can be?
ii) Are the characters “right” for the story?
iii) Who is the target audience?
iv) What does the audience WANT? (ie. spectacle over story; predominantly male characters, etc)
v) What do I want? (as an audience member, or as a writer, or both)
vii) How can change occur?
And, with a risk of boring even myself, it starts and ends with the BUCKS, my friend! How much do we have? What can we do with it? What audience can we attract and how? Because change cannot occur without an audience; we’re just shouting into the wind.
Look, I totally get it. Before the Star Wars casting news even broke this week, I figured there would be only one token female, because there’s be no less than SIX movies with one token female in them now. The weight of history dictated it would be the same in the new movie. But also, we have to remember we haven’t even SEEN the movie yet anyway. As Film Uber-Nerd @DrewAtHitFix points out, this new STAR WARS “token female” could actually be amazing! Whilst I’m keen to see more women on the silver screen in general obviously, I don’t see the point of yet more 2D representations of women. We’ve got enough of those already.
What I did not figure on was the backlash. At grass roots level I think that can only be good, because it signifies a change in audience attitudes, which in turn will eventually FORCE the change through, especially if Hollywood is all about the $$$ … which we know it is.
By the way, the above won’t work if you still go to SEE Man-Centric movies like STAR WARS (2015), just to write and talk about how “outraged” you are about it. Hollywood doesn’t care if you LIKE its films, as long as you’ve paid your money. (And for the record, regardless of gender, if you don’t like sequels, remakes or reboots either? DON’T WATCH THEM. Vote with your wallet!!)
BUT this also means you HAVE to see all the Woman-Centric films (yes, even BRITISH ONES! Shock!) that contain those female protagonists and characters you purport to want, otherwise basically all this supposed “campaigning” for equal gender representation is actually just a load of hot air and you’re just wasting everybody’s time. Just sayin’.
So what’s it to be?
BY ME BEFORE, ABOUT GENDER:
5 Reasons Screenwriters should watch PACIFIC RIM
5 Top Female Character Stereotypes – And 1 Tip To Avoid Them
Samey Stories & Characters To Avoid
Heroes, Villains & Disposable Men: 5 Reasons Male Characterisation Needs An Overhaul Too
The Powerful Feminist Theme Of THE WOLVERINE
6 Reason Sweden’s Bechdel Cinema Rating Is A (Well Meaning) Mistake
6 Stock Characters All Writers Need To Retire NOW
Perhaps, and what the Hell do I know? Perhaps the leaning towards ‘maleness’ in the Star Wars franchise arises from its original premise (s), in that George Lucas was so enamoured with Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey that the template for the whole series unfolds thus.
In Maureen Murdocks book ‘The Heroines Journey’ she recalls a talk with Campbell in 1981 and was interested in his views on what she thought was a woman’s journey, in as much as she thought that the female spiritual development was to heal the internal split between woman and her feminine nature.
She was surprised when Campbell responded that women don’t need to make the journey, all she has to do is realise that she’s the place that people are trying to get to. When a woman realises what her wonderful character is, she’s not going to get messed up with the notion of being pseudo-male.
This answer stunned Murdock and she found it deeply unsatisfying. The women she knew do not want to embody Penelope, waiting patiently, endlessly weaving and unweaving.
So she set about finding the what and wherefore of the heroines journey.
So if Lucas based his films on and stuck rigidly to Campbells philosophies, then perhaps behind the mask thereby lies the explanation as to why. Or maybe some explanation as well as the big bucks too! ( It was interesting to read (I forget who it was) an interview with a guy who spoke to a producer behind Cameron’s Titanic and said it wasn’t really for him, the producer, female, said, no surprise, it was targeted at 15 to 25 year old females!!!
“Campbell responded that women don’t need to make the journey, all she has to do is realise that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.”
A great point James and one I have my own take on. I think Campbell is right AND wrong on the notion of the hero’s journey: some people need to find themselves, sure; whilst others have to realise they are the destination. But I think this has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with personality. Traditionally men voyage and women wait maybe; there may have been truth there once, or there may not. But nowadays, the lines are blurred on this completely. I know I had to voyage hard to find out who I was for example, whereas my husband WAS the destination for me and while he was waiting, like Penelope with her tapestry, he was creating stitches of his own “self”.
You also have to remember that in general Campbell wan’t trying to create anything. He was describing what he saw in stories that already existed. So he could be entirely right that the ‘The Heroines Journey’ has traditionally been as he described without that being ‘correct’ in that it is what we want in a story.
A very good point Elton!
Yes I think that is what Murdock is saying, that now, women too must make their own journey, but with or without males and that it must be their own journey by personality and by gender (I still contend there are enough differences between the two sexes to justify that view), that it is different (or can be) and that there is no need to imitate men and in that sense that epitomises the heros journey in that you enter into the woods at your own place and find your own path. Don’t follow others. As Dylan said ‘The times they are a changin’. I truly believe that it is largely Man who has brought us here, but it is women who hold the big revelations.