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.


  1. It was totally Phantasm 4 we had that argument about. Awesome post though! Only I feel I should explain in great detail what you're missing about The Thing...

  2. I WISH I had taken your word for it and just said Phantasm 4...

  3. You make some interesting points. They made me think about my top few films, and all of those pass the tests (I think, though to be honest it's a while since I've watched any of them).

    I feel like I have some food for thought. Maybe I'll post a better comment later when I've chewed over this a bit more... thanks for posting :)

  4. Great post! I wish you could follow up on this topic!



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