AWFJ Women On Film – The Week In Women, August 14, 2009 – MaryAnn Johanson

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Katherine Heigl would just shut up if she knew what was good for her (even if there are no decent roles for women in Hollywood), the value of female film critics, and Don Draper, the perfect imperfect man.

WOMEN SHOULD KNOW BETTER THAN TO SPEAK UP. “The Hollywood hate campaign [against Katherine Heigl] is rooted in simple misogyny,” says the Times Online. Well, duh. The problem started, the Times notes, when she spoke to Vanity Fair and said such things about her film Knocked Up as:

It paints the women as shrews, as humourless and uptight, and it paints the men as loveable, goofy, fun-loving guys. It exaggerated the characters, and I had a hard time with it, on some days. I’m playing such a bitch; why is she being such a killjoy? Why is this how you’re portraying women? Ninety-eight per cent of the time it was an amazing experience, but it was hard for me to love the movie.

How dare she bite the hand that feeds her?! (This was the tact taken by KU director Judd Apatow and her costar Seth Rogen recently when they critiqued her remarks on that bastion of feminist commentary, Howard Stern’s radio show.) She should be grateful for the work, even if the only work available for women in big-budget Hollywood films these days is as humorless shrews — see: The Ugly Truth. Who does she think she is, anyway?

Back to the Times Online:

Of course, Heigl is not the only woman in Hollywood to play such roles repeatedly. A recent article in the entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times criticised the sudden proliferation of identical female parts in Hollywood and claimed that a deficit of decent parts is forcing talented actresses to play “cardboard cut-outs of a controlling, manic working woman”.

Heigl, though, is the only one on this list who has ever spoken out against this sort of typecasting. In the big film studios, pro-ducers complain that the economic climate has led to massive cutbacks by the companies that own them, fewer films being made and a timidity among the commissioning decision-makers.

“I’ve never seen a film that isn’t the spitting image of either the director or some kind of fantasy that he has about life or women,” says one (female) executive. “When the public retaliates against the actresses that play these roles, I think they’re really retaliating against the roles. People see Katherine Heigl playing a robot in Knocked Up. They hate her, and they hate her even more when she ends up having a personality off screen. It’s not as if there is a huge range of exciting parts out there; audiences often don’t realise that.”

Who’s helping promote the idea that Katherine Heigl is so annoying? How about Newsweek, which recently asked, “Why Is Katherine Heigl So Annoying?”:

How did Katherine Heigl fall so far and so fast in esteem? Part of it is pure sexism. Every decade has a Most Annoying Actress (not that long ago, Jennifer Love Hewitt was the object of tabloid disaffection), never an actor, and it’s a distinction doled out via a caveman’s principles. Heigl violates every archaic, unspoken rule of being America’s box-office sweetheart. A lot of actors smoke, curse, drink, and mouth off, but she gets the most grief for it. Last summer, when she was caught flicking a finished cigarette onto the sidewalk, Star magazine quickly tarred her as an environmentally unfriendly “litterbug” who inappropriately goaded a nearby police officer into letting her off without a ticket.

See, this “pure sexism” just happens, accidental-like. And because major news magazines publish pieces questioning the level of annoyingness women display.

I’m looking forward to Newsweek’s upcoming pieces on “Why Simon Cowell Is So Annoying” and “Why Robert Pattinson Is So Annoying.”

STRONG WOMEN ARE HISTORY. The Times Online is on feminist fire this week. Natalie Haynes explains “Why women need to act up”:

Is it simply the case that, in current film and television vogue, men’s stories are the stuff of drama and women’s are the stuff of melodrama? If a man is convicted of a crime he did not commit and sent to a jail full of dangerous criminals, the resulting film is The Shawshank Redemption, consistently voted into all-time-favourite lists by film fans. If a man is convicted of a crime he did commit, then we have Audiard’s A Prophet, a brilliant, terrifying portrayal of a young French Arab brutalised by the prison system over his six-year jail sentence. But when a woman is sent to jail, we get Prisoner Cell Block H. Or Bad Girls.

Most contemporary dramas with a central female character have an historical setting. Kate Winslet finally took her Oscar home for playing a concentration-camp guard. Abbie Cornish recently drew rave reviews for playing Fanny Brawne, John Keats’s muse, in Bright Star. And even Quentin Tarantino, whose women get progressively braver, cleverer and tougher with each film, sent Mélanie Laurent back to the second world war for Inglourious Basterds.

But if a story is set in the present and features women in one or more central roles, the only way to sell it is as kitsch melodrama. The most successful DVD of the past year, and indeed the most successful one ever in the UK, is Mamma Mia!, written, directed, produced by and starring women. With sales figures like it has — 5m copies in this country alone last year, which means that one in four households owns a copy — it may seem rather unfair to complain that Meryl Streep used to be a byword for Oscar-nominated dramatic performances, not singalongs.

If women are going to act up, we’re going to need to do it ourselves, and stop working for the system that isn’t interested in telling our stories. And yes, that’s a message to the likes of Katherine Heigl: if you don’t like the movies you’re being offered, don’t do them. Tell your own stories. Unless the comforts and luxuries Hollywood offers are too much to turn down. And then you really do have no one else but yourself to blame.

WHY GIRLZ SHOULD BE ALLOWED. Last week I mentioned the fact that Disney had replaced the two male hosts of At the Movies with two different male hosts, and I wondered if the company had even bothered to consider adding a female host. (It’s safe to assume Disney would never have considered two female hosts — who would watch that except other chicks?)

Now, I’m not one who believes there is a single “female voice” that one women could represent — all women do not think alike, just as all men do not think alike. But, sort of paradoxically, even just one prominent female voice in film criticism, such as on At the Movies, could help smash that bizarre notion, as Monika Bartyzel at Cinematical this week suggested:

I think it would be even more important for the overall cinematic community by having a popular, visual representation of a female critic who loves more than the stereotypical “female fare.”

Like it or not, there’s an attitude towards women and cinema — especially those who write about it — and to have a thoughtful, cogent reviewer who could show love for a superhero film or an aggressive art piece, just as much as a romance or comedy, would be a wonderful step forward.

Having a male and female critic argue over the finer points of an action film, or share their distaste for a vapid romantic comedy, would set us on the road for more real expectations and opinions of taste.

Bravo.

IS DON DRAPER THE PERFECT MAN? Well, surely not. But lots of women are finding themselves fantasizing about the Mad Mad protagonist (played by Jon Hamm). As the series returns to TV this Sunday, August 16, for its third season, Vanessa Richmond as AlterNet may have hit on the reason why we find him so sexy:

Draperphiles know that although he is immoral, and even amoral, he’s more woman-friendly than any hero in recent memory…. Unlike the other men in the show, he seeks out powerful, smart, accomplished women who don’t pull their punches or play the expected roles for women…. With them, he shows more sides of himself than to his wife or colleagues. He rises to the challenge of an equal — and makes it clear despite the way he talks to them and treats them, that he considers them as such.

And how did Don Draper become this paragon of unexpected feminism?

Maybe because he’s one of the first prime-time male leads to be written mostly by women, a ground-breaking anomaly. The Wall Street Journal said, “Seven of the nine members of the writing team are women. Women directed five of the 13 episodes in the third season. The writers [have created] a world where the men are in control, and the women are more complex than they seem, or than the male characters realize.” And one in which the hero is a bastard (literally and behaviorally) but values and appreciates women more than most who seem nice and woman-friendly on the surface.

I knew there was a reason why Mad Men felt so… different.

OPENING THIS WEEK. There are no women to speak of in District 9, but there’s some interesting gender issues behind its fascinating aliens — see my interview with cowriter-director Neill Blomkamp for a peek into the conceptualizing that went into the gendering of his ETs.

The Time Traveler’s Wife stars Rachel McAdams in a science fantasy story that turns time travel into a metaphor for abandonment in romantic relationships: her husband (Eric Bana) disappears unexpectedly for what could be long stretches of time, leaving her to wait around for him. Lots of women already know how that feels…

Teen-rock flick Bandslam is, not surprisingly, focused on a boy character (Gaelan Connell), but it does at least offer a few complex female rockers in Vanessa Hudgens’ mopey misfit and Aly Michalka’s not-so-golden former cheerleader. It could be worse, from a feminist perspective (and better a narrative one).

Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo gives us a female protagonist — a girl goldfish who wants to be human — as the famously feminist filmmaker almost always does.

Female protagonists abound at the arthouses this week: in Grace, a horror flick about motherhood; in Earth Days, a documentary about the early environmental movement; and in Cloud 9, a drama about the romantic choices of a middle-aged woman (yes, they do have choices!).

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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 Women On Film archive, type "MaryAnn Johanson" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).