Friday, 18 March 2011

Feminism Friday: Winter's Bone

I didn't want my Feminism Friday blogs to just be me moaning, I wanted to talk about all the good stuff that women and feminists do in the world too, then last night after watching it, the Writer by Night said I should blog about Winter's Bone.  Obviously, like any good feminist I thought I'd better do as my husband said, and here I am. 

I'd like to stress at this point, that a good film and a feminist film are not necessarily the same thing.  If it wasn't a Friday, I might not even mention Winter's Bone, I don't watch things in order to deconstruct their gender politics because if I did that I don't think I'd enjoy another film again.  I will always notice, but it isn't how I choose films to watch, and many of my favourite films could not be considered feminist.  This is not a review of Winter's Bone, it's a reflection on the messages I find within it.

Chris actually liked the film more than I did, although I liked it too.  I will try not to give spoilers, in fact, I don't really need to say very much specific about the plot.  The good news is, it passes the Bechdel Test within about five minutes, but more than that, the film is full of female characters with names all talking to each other.  Amazing.  And even better, they all do it fully clothed, and in some cases, with woolly hats on.   It is the female community in the film that supports, advises and helps Ree, the central character - and although violence is threatened by male characters, the only real violence in the film is executed by women.  What's interesting about this violence is that it is committed in the name of protection; not revenge or power or personal survival.  Astoundingly, given the odds for escaping this in movies in general, no one is raped.

(I had to search really hard on Google for an image of more than 1 woman from the film.  Note to self: in future, avoid googling anything with the word 'bone')

So, is it a feminist film?  At first I thought not, because in this community men represent power, authority, they are still the catalyst for change and most of the progression in the plot.  Most of the conversation between the women is about men, and indeed the plot revolves around a man.  There is still a moment where a man comes to the rescue - but I am coming to the conclusion this is more in the vein of 'sidekick' than 'superhero'.  Some of the men try to be heroic, but they all fail through cowardice, greed or malice.  Ree on the other hand succeeds without becoming a masculine archetype.  She is still able to nurture, communicate and seek non-violent solutions to her problems.  She is brave, selfless and dignified.  The film does truly celebrate feminine characteristics without devaluing them. 

What interested me most though, was the number of women involved in making the film, reading the credits, there were women - usually plural - in pretty much every behind-the-camera department.  I think our commercial film industry is so skewed towards male stories and tells them in such a blatantly sexist way is because women generally have such a tiny part in the process, men genuinely forget about them.  Then women aren't interested because they don't feel reflected in cinema, and so movies just get made for young men and it becomes a viscious circle.  There was still nothing like an equal split but women clearly had a much stronger presence in the making of Winter's Bone, on a project led by women.  The more this happens, I hope, the more we will see an honest reflection of our world on screen.

Director Debra Granik on set for Winter's Bone

While writing this I've been listening to Debra Granik being interviewed about Winter's Bone, and she makes the point that if we are to have any kind of 'biodiversity' in film making, we need to support the small films, because if they make their money back, the investors are happy and they get to make more films.  She's not talking from a feminist perspective, just any kind of independent film-making outside the glossy Hollywood model.  So I am making a resolution to seek out and pay for movies like this, in the hope that my one voice will go some way to ensuring I get to write more positive blogs!

Monday, 14 March 2011

The Blog I Didn't Write

When I set this up it was my goal to blog at least once a week, but I hadn't banked on having weeks like this.  It hasn't exactly been a bad week, in some ways it's been quite a pleasant week.  All the same, nothing's quite gone according to plan.

It started with The Play I Didn't Do.  It's been a while since I was on stage and over the past few months I've been putting together a two-person show which was supposed to be on last week, but, erm, it wasn't.  In many ways it's a relief because I was kind of terrified, but its also disappointing, sad and frustrating.  Hopefully it's a postponement and if I get it on again you'll be the first to know.  Actually, you won't, you'll be some way down the list behind the rest of the company, the venue, the rights agents and anyone I happen to talk to before I get chance to blog about it. 

So not doing the play gave me a bit more free time, great, I would get to my dance class at least.  So next there was the Dance Class I Didn't Go To.  My dancing buddy and I hopped in the car for the 15 minute journey along the coast.  Only half an hour into the journey, we'd travelled approximately two miles.  We'd already missed ten minutes of our class.  So I took her home and made it to The Moviebar I Did Go To - this was a fun night and I greatly enjoyed being quiz master of the Quiz I Hadn't Written, athough I did have to refer to Rosario Dawson as 'delightful', but it could have been worse (this was the Moviebar our regular quizmaster Didn't Go To, maybe our schedules got mixed up somewhere).  If you live near Brighton and you've never been to Moviebar, check it out.

On Thursday I had the day off work and was planning a shopping trip before a rehearsal for another play I am stage managing for.  Only by then I was so used to things not going according to plan I made this the Shopping Trip I Didn't Go On by dillydallying and then the bus broke down so I just had time for a quick coffee with a friend.  That night there was The Other Dance Class I Didn't Go To because my car was unhappy - possibly with the idea I might end up going somewhere for a change.

On Saturday I Didn't Have Lunch With a Friend, after I got to work to discover that what I thought was going to be a short-staffed day would actually be barely-staffed-at-all day, and in the scramble to give everyone a lunchbreak I'd completely forgotten I had plans for mine.  Or perhaps by this point I was subconsciously sabotaging my own plans. 

On Sunday night the Writer and I Didn't Watch a Film, specifically Notes on a Scandal which we got maybe 40 minutes into only for the massive crack on the disc we had noticed but tried to ignore proved itself beyond ignoring.  We watched Fanboys instead, which was a more fun film than Notes on a Scandal, at least.  FYI, does NOT pass the Bechdal Test.  Not only that, it is possibly the most sexist, degrading film I have seen in the past year - to men as well as women (although surprise, surprise, the girls come off worse).  But don't let that stop you, it had some funny moments and nice cameos. 

And then today I Didn't Have The Day Off when I went in for a couple of hours this morning.  Tomorrow I Am Not Having Drinks With My Ex-Boss who has flu.  Throughout all this I have Not Been Reading Wolf Hall because despite it weighing down my handbag I have been distracted by Eve Zaremba's Work for a Million which I found on a secondhand bookstall - I'm a sucker for any crime fiction which looks remotely dated, to almost any period, and for female PIs, so this was a fabulous double whammy.  Then today when I intended to pick up Wolf Hall again I bumped into a friend at the station and spent the train journey catching up with him instead of reading.

I would say I'm off to bed now but I don't want to jinx it...

Friday, 4 March 2011

Feminism Friday: Any Woman Worth Her Salt

A couple of weeks ago I watched Salt.  You'll have to forgive me, it wasn't the most memorable of films and a lot has happened since so I'll be hazier on the details than I would have been the next day.

*Contains spoilers - but no deeply important plot points*

Firstly, it wasn't a terribly good film, it tried to have plot twists but it basically just meant you spent much of the film without sympathy for any character, risky but with fabulous writing you can pull it off. This wasn't fabulously written and I had a hard time caring about pretty much any of them. 

But it makes an interesting film to watch from a feminist viewpoint because it was apparently originally written for Tom Cruise.  I love action women, I like Angelina Jolie, I hadn't heard great things about the film beforehand but I was willing to throw myself into it.  It had some plus points - there were some outrageous action sequences with Jolie throwing herself off a bridge and jumping between moving lorries.  I can't think of another film where I've seen a female character do that kind of chase without a male sidekick ( rather, without being a man's sidekick), or not in the most ridiculous skimpy dress or shorts you ever saw.  In this she was wearing a beanie and a backpack, and she looked, preposterous lips notwithstanding, like a real woman.  The fights were believable, they didn't make too much fuss about the fact she was a woman throwing punches at men, but also didn't make it too easy for her to disable some pretty big and tough guys. 

There's also an intriguing moment where she kicks a sanitary towel dispenser off the wall in a ladies toilets and uses one to patch up a gunshot wound - this strikes me as a very practical move and I don't think I've ever seen a sanitary towel in a film.  I'm not sure given the wound she had this would really have been possible but this is the world of an action flick and it doesn't do to question feasibility too closely.  It feels like a 'wouldn't it be cool if, now Salt's a woman, she...' but in this instance it paid off, for me at least.

Not so for the moment a little earlier when, after spraying CCTV cameras with a fire extinguisher to cover the lens, she inexplicably, with the fire extinguisher still to hand, whips off her knickers to block the final camera.  This she can do easily and a million times more gracefully than any knicker removal I've seen or executed in real life, thanks to the massive slit in the tight skirt she wears to her office job in the CIA.  I can't believe Jolie even did it, really.  I'd have been tempted to punch the director in the face.  There's also a questionable moment at the beginning of the film when she's learning to fold napkins for her anniversary dinner with her husband.  I find it very hard to believe this was part of the original script, and while the function of the episode is clearly to establish the husband and the occasion, this would never have been written for the character as Cruise would have played it.

When I watch a film, it has to go through two tests.  One is personal, informal, I have been using it more or less since I took A level English and my teacher asked the girls in the class, 'where are you in this play?'  I think the Writer By Night named this the Andrea Test after our first row about The Thing (he says it was about Phantasm 4 but neither of us are prepare to swear to it).  Basically, what I'm looking for is a film to contain female characters I can identify with, who have experiences in the film outside of being wives, girlfriends, mothers, rape victims (in the sense of being accessories, a film like Stepford Wives for example - the good one- about those experiences is fine); who behave with integrity and in a believable way, and the plural is crucial - there needs to be more than one.  Some films I love like Fight Club, don't pass this test; it doesn't make them bad films (Fight Club I think in some ways is different anyway because the film is about male identity and inter-male relationships in today's world).  But it's measure of beginning to see the way women are portrayed in movies, almost by default, without anyone really noticing it might be a problem.

Then last year the Writer By Night put me onto John August's blog which linked to Feminist Frequency's blog about the Bechdel Test.  It's a more formal, much simpler version of my test, asking 3 questions: Are there two or more women, with names, in the film?  Do they talk to each other?  Do they talk to each other about something other than men? Pick a film, any film.  Does it pass?  (But please watch the FF video - she is so much more eloquent, on this or any other subject, than I am).

What is striking about Salt then, considering it has an interesting, three-dimensional female character at the centre of it, is that it doesn't pass either test.  She is oddly the only woman in this world apart from a couple of unnamed agents and White House aides.  There are no other female characters.   It just fails at the first hurdle; not even two with names.  Think about this for a moment - isn't that astounding, more than that, shocking?  She does talk to a small girl, who might be named (I said I might be vague), about taking care of her dog, but the test specifies women, and every single adult woman with any status, all the politicians, spies and terrorists are all exclusively men.  I don't know about you, but this does not reflect the world I live in.  Hard as it may be to believe, everyday I have conversations with other women, who have names, about things other than men!  I see on the news women in positions of power (not enough but that's another blog) with names, talking to each other about things other than men.  We all as adults accept the movie world as being a construct, where things can happen that don't happen in the every day world, but how often do you step back and look what that construct, as a complete picture, is telling us?  And how do we explain to a younger generation why we have chosen to discriminate on screen in a way we would never find acceptable in the real world? 

I realise the same goes for almost any minority group on film; race, religion, sexual orientation.  But women are not a minority group.  Count us, see us, give us names.  Stop making us accessories and rape victims.  Start making us people.  Why is that so hard, Hollywood?

  For this Feminism Friday, I prescribe Allison Bechdel's Fun Home. The Writer by Night bought it for me for Christmas and I read it in seconds, just wonderful and warm and sad and true.