AWFJ Women On Film – The Week in Women, June 5, 2009 – MaryAnn Johanson

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Women get pushed to the sidelines, unless they’re the most powerful celebs in the world. But even that ain’t as good as it sounds…

IS FAME POWER? It sounds better than it actually is: Forbes magazine has dubbed Angelina Jolie the most powerful celebrity on the planet, and Nos. 2, 3, and 4 on Forbes’ most-powerful list are also women: Oprah Winfrey, Madonna, and Beyoncé Knowles. But how does Forbes define power?

The Celebrity 100, which includes film and television actors, models, chefs, athletes, authors and musicians, is a measure of entertainment-related earnings and media visibility (exposure in print, television, radio and online).

The Celebrity 100 is a measure of power based on money and fame. Earnings estimates, which include income from films, television shows, endorsements, books and other entertainment ventures, are calculated between June 2008 and June 2009. … Fame is calculated using Web hits on Google Blog Search, TV/radio mentions on LexisNexis, overall press mentions on Factiva and the number of times a celebrity’s image appeared on the cover of 25 consumer magazines.

Is the ability to make millions of people talk about you “power?” How powerful are “powerful” women if they don’t have the power to change the system in which they’re working? Angelina Jolie’s name may bring audiences into movies, but it seems unlikely that even her involvement would get a greenlight for a project that didn’t already conform to basic notions about what Hollywood wants to sell us… which does not tyypically include movies about women in other than stereotypical roles.

If women truly are as powerful as Forbes seems to suggest, why aren’t there more women in positions of true power — say, as the head of a studio or a TV network? Why aren’t women better reflected in the entertainment Hollywood gives us?

Just because the ‘Mona Lisa’ is the most famous painting in history doesn’t mean the fine arts haven’t been dominated by men. And just because Angelina Jolie is the person best at being famous doesn’t mean it isn’t men who continue to control Hollywood.

FAR OUT. Where do we find powerful women? In the realms of complete fantasy, like science fiction. Total Sci-Fi offers its rundown of “The 25 Women Who Shook Sci-Fi,” and it is, indeed, a list of some of the most compelling, most complicated women to be found in popular entertainment. Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, from the Alien series of films, tops the list, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence at all that both Ripley and the No. 3 character on the list, Kara “Starbuck” Thrace from Battlestar Galactica (as played by Katee Sackhoff), both started out as male characters. If that’s what it takes to get intriguing female characters on the screen, I’m fine with that: let’s write every character as male, and then cast half of them with female actors, and see what happens.

BANISHED TO THE SIDELINES. The Hangover, opening today, offers a splendid example of how women are sidelined as characters in many mainstream films. The only female characters with any significant story or screen time are the nagging bitch of a girlfriend (played by Rachael Harris) to the character played by Ed Helms, and the stripper/hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (played by Heather Graham) he marries in a drunken stupor while on a Vegas bachelor party trip with three friends. Neither woman is a character in the sense that she learns anything or grows or changes, even in the slightest degree, and that’s fine, to a point: the story is not about them. The Hangover is a “guy” movie, supposedly, so it’s about the guys, and the unchangeably bitchy or unalterably perfect women are present only as a motivation for the Ed Helms character to change and grow.

But it isn’t just “guy” movies that sideline women. Almost any movie considered of general interest to mainstream audiences does the same:

  • The lovely animated Up gives us a hero in Carl, who changes and learns and grows as a person… with his deceased wife, Ellie, as his motivation.
  • Last year’s Oscar-winning Best Picture, Slumdog Millionaire, dangles the beautiful girl before the male protagonist: she’s to be his real prize, not the money he could win on the game show.
  • Last year’s Oscar-winning Best Animated Film, Wall-E, was about genderless machines overlain with gendered qualities, and of course it was the genderless machine deemed male who was permitted a journey of self-discovery while the genderless machine deemed female who was perfect and beautiful and goddesslike and hence unrequiring of change.
  • Which performance did Kate Winslet win her Oscar for last year? It wasn’t Revolutionary Road, in which her character is a person who undergoes a personal crisis and a transformation — it was The Reader, in which her static character is the impetus for the male protagonist to come to a new understanding about himself.

Oh, sure, there are movies in which a women character is the centerpiece and the male characters around her may not change: they’re derided as “chick flicks.” Because the experiences of men are considered universal and of interest to everyone, while the experiences of women are niche and of interest only to women.

Imagine if almost every movie we saw — including those lauded as the best of the best — forced men onto the sidelines, cast them as either irredeemable bad or inhumanly good, and never allowed them a journey of self-discovery. Imagine if almost every movie we saw said, in its subtext, that men were only good for what they could do for women. Wouldn’t that be expected to eventually piss off half the audience, no matter how good each of those individual stories might be?

AVERAGE GIRL GETS SUPERHOT GUY. Speaking of “chick flicks,” My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s Nia Vardalos is back on the big screen this weekend with My Life in Ruins, which will not, alas, do anything to change the ghettoization of movies about women. I do like, however, something that Vardalos told the Los Angeles Times this week about why women like her are necessary in Hollywood:

In the movies, you often see the average-looking guy with the incredibly attractive woman. In my movies you see the average-looking woman with the super hot John Corbett. I’m happy to make those movies for all of us women. Guess what? We need people like me on screen. That’s what movies are. You go and escape for a sec.

She’s speaking not only of Ruins but of her upcoming film, I Hate Valentine’s Day, which she also wrote and directed. (It opens July 3.) It’s about, as the Times explains, “a snappy, commitment-phobic florist who will date men only five times before a mandated breakup, a plan that goes awry when John Corbett (her ‘Greek Wedding’ costar) opens a restaurant on her street.” I’ll reserve judgment till I see the film, but this doesn’t sound any more promising than Ruins

ALSO OPENING THIS WEEK: Sam Mendes’s latest, Away We Go, features one of the loveliest romantic couples I’ve ever seen onscreen in the about-to-be-parental John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph. Neither of them is perfect, both have an opportunity to grow, and all without the film ever needing to dangle the loss of their relationship in front of them. Bravo!

There’s also Downloading Nancy, in which the always powerful Maria Bello takes a dangerous journey of self-discovery via a walk on the dark side with a man she meets on the Internet. That probably can’t end well…

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MaryAnn Johanson

MaryAnn Johanson is a freelance writer on film, TV, DVD, and pop culture from New York City and now based in London. She is the webmaster and sole critic at FlickFilosopher.com, which debuted in 1997 and is now one of the most popular, most respected, and longest-running movie-related sites on the Internet. Her film reviews also appear in a variety of alternative-weekly newspapers across the U.S. Johanson is one of only a few film critics who is a member of The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (the Webby organization), an invitation-only, 500-member body of leading Web experts, business figures, luminaries, visionaries and creative celebrities. She is also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. She has appeared as a cultural commentator on BBC Radio, LBC-London, and on local radio programs across North America, and she served as a judge at the first Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Film Festival at the 2003 I-Con, the largest SF convention on the East Coast. She is the author of The Totally Geeky Guide to The Princess Bride, and is an award-winning screenwriter. Read Johanson's recent articles below. For her AWFJ.org archive, type "MaryAnn Johanson" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).