AWFJ Women On Film – The Week In Women, November 13, 2009 – MaryAnn Johanson

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Women do so go to the movies, though we maybe shouldn’t watch TV, and Megan Fox is sexy!

FEMINISM MEANS GIRLS CAN BE DUMB, TOO. And that we have to acknowledge it. AWFJ member Anne Thompson is reporting at Thompson on Hollywood that New Moon, which opens next week, is selling out early showings at a much faster rate than last year’s Twilight. What’s more:

Flixter reports that New Moon is seeing more than twice the activity on Flixster as the biggest grosser of the year, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen did at a similar time before its release.

If the boys can be targeted by Hollywood with movies that pander to their basest instincts — toys! explosions! Megan Fox! — then I suppose we must see it as a sign of progress that girl audiences are getting the same treatment: sighing! moon eyes! Robert Pattinson!

If the Flixster measure is right, and New Moon becomes the top-grossing movie of the year, how will Hollywood frame its success in order to maintain its delusion that women don’t go to the movies?

SERIOUSLY, WOMEN DON’T GO TO THE MOVIES. Box Office Mojo reports that the record-breaking opening weekend of Precious was down to women:

In limited release, Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire had a flashy start. The drama grossed $1.87 million at just 18 sites, averaging $104,025 per location. That ranks as the 12th biggest weekend average on record (unadjusted), and the biggest for a movie playing at more than six theaters. According to distributor Lionsgate, 68 percent of the audience was female and around 50 percent was black.

But women don’t go to the movies.

MAYBE WOMEN SHOULDN’T BE WATCHING TV, EITHER. A disturbing new report from the Parents Television Council, “Women in Peril,” has found that:

storylines depicting violence against females are increasing and being shown more graphically and in ways that have not been seen in the history of television.

These include:

a significant increase in all forms of female victimization storylines; an increase in the depiction of teen girls as victims; an increase in the use of female victimization as a punch line in comedy series; and an increase in the depiction of intimate partner violence.

Among the study’s major findings:

    • Violence against women and teenage girls is increasing on television at rates that far exceed the overall increases in violence on television.

    • Violence, irrespective of gender, on television increased during the study period only 2% from 2004 to 2009, while the incidence of violence against women increased 120% during that same period.

    • Cumulatively, across all study periods and all networks, the most frequent type of violence was beating (29%), followed by credible threats of violence (18%), shooting (11%), rape (8%), stabbing (6%), and torture (2%). Violence against women resulted in death 19% of the time.

    • Violence towards women or the graphic consequences of violence tends overwhelmingly to be depicted (92%) rather than implied (5%) or described (3%).

    • Although female victims appeared to be primarily of adult age, collectively, there was a 400% increase in the depiction of teen girls as victims across all networks from 2004 to 2009.

    • Fox stood out for using violence against women as a punch line in its comedies — in particular Family Guy and American Dad — trivializing the gravity of the issue of violence against women.

Perhaps more surprisingly, examples featured in the study include shows presumably aimed at women, including Crossing Jordan, Desperate Housewives, and Medium.

Violence against women is real, of course, and if we’re to have the kind of gritty, realistic TV that audiences respond to these days — I prefer that in my drama, too — we cannot expect that the reality of violence directed at women will never be depicted. But men are the victims of violence as well, and if the producers of these gritty, realistic programs were interested in merely depicting gritty, realistic, violent reality, we should have seen the incidence of men as victims increase, too. We haven’t seen that, which suggests that the producers are aiming not for gritty realism but for something else.

Perhaps female victims are considered inherently more sympathetic than male victims… and perhaps, then, teenaged female victims would be seen as more sympathetic still. (Though that does not explain the use of gendered violence as a punchline.) If that’s the case, then we’ve got a double helping of work to do: because there’s no reason why men shouldn’t be sympathetic victims, either. Or is it that men are never to be seen as victims, period, because there’s a perceived weakness in being a victim?

WHAT DOES MEGAN FOX WANT? I have found the perfect encapsulation of everything that is wrong with how women are seen, depicted, and received in Western pop culture, and it’s all in Lynn Hirschberg’s profile of Megan Fox in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Hirschberg — who is a female Lynn, not one of those male ones — can’t seem to help herself: everything about how she describes Fox and her career is couched in terms of clichéd sexuality. You’d think, perhaps, that as a woman herself, she might have tried to avoid this, but she is, of course, toeing the line of one of the major perpetrators of female stereotypes in the U.S., one that gets away with it thanks to its former respectability and the misperception that it is somehow “liberal.” (The Times this week ran a piece about how breastfeeding is awesome because it helps you get skinny after being pregnant.)

Hirschberg opens by calling Fox a “fox,” but then immediately recants by noting that, when she met Fox in Fox’s hotel room for the interview, Fox’s casual tee and leggings “gave her a kind of ‘sexy librarian’ look that vividly contrasted with her pinup image”… as if “sexy librarian” weren’t merely another sort of pinup fantasy. (One wonders whether Fox tried to dress as plainly and as unprovocatively as possible, and Hirschberg was simply unable to see her as anything other than a sexpot.)

And then Hirschberg doubles down with this:

For all her raunchy talk, Fox is surprisingly dainty and ladylike.

Because, as we all know, a lady can’t be raunchy. Someone get the smelling salts: there’s a dainty creature who says whatever the hell she wants! One feels like one should fear for Hirschberg, that her head might explode from the contradiction.

Later, noting that the TV in the hotel room was on and tuned to some girly reality show about wedding dresses or somesuch, and that Fox said she watches these things because she doesn’t understand them and is trying to figure them out, Hirschberg characterizes Fox thusly:

Fox said this as if she were contemplating an alien species.

Because, you see, reality shows about wedding dresses represent the actual actuality of all women, and a woman who doesn’t comprehend why anyone would collapse into fits of tears over a wedding dress must be an alien. Because no real women would need to study such a reality show, as Fox indicates she does — a real woman would just understand.

Perhaps Hirschberg really does thing that Fox is an automaton created in a Real Doll factory, a sex toy for male fantasies, and not an actual woman herself. I wonder if Hirschberg herself actually enjoys girly reality shows about weddings or if she’s as mystified as Fox is by them and is merely upholding — for some bizarre, incomprehensible reason — the notion that all women love that crap.

Look, she is an alien!

Having conquered the male audience, she was now trying to figure out what women want.

See, cuz all men love Fox, not just a tiny slice of manchildren who like Transformers movies and women posed like Playboy meat.

Anyway, Fox is doomed, Hirschberg concludes, because:

women… tend to prefer movies that feature more approachable, less vixenish actresses, like Sandra Bullock or Jennifer Aniston.

That’s news to me. Perhaps I’m not a woman after all…

Now, I’m not much of a fan of Fox, either, but I like that she says what she thinks, and ya gotta love that Hirschberg can use this quote from Fox without the slightest hint of irony:

If I had been a typical starlet and said all the right things, I wouldn’t have escalated to this level. I sit down and do an interview and I talk like a person and that, for some reason, is shocking. All women in Hollywood are known as sex symbols. You’re sold, and it’s based on sex. That’s O.K., if you know how to use it.

And Hirschberg plays right along, buying into Fox as a sex symbol and turning around and reselling her to us that way.

OPENING THIS WEEK. Women are there to be rescued in 2012, whether it’s the Mona Lisa or Amanda Peet as John Cusack’s ex-wife, who does literally nothing but scream for two and a half hours while the world ends around her. Good riddance to this world. Women — or females, at least — are all but absent from Fantastic Mr. Fox, except Meryl Streep as the alternately scolding and praising wife to the titular character; the male animals are the ones who get to have all the adventure and all the fun, and they’re the ones who get to learn things about themselves and grow as people. And forget Pirate Radio: the boat HQ of the illegal broadcaster is boys only — well, there’s one girl present, to cook, but she’s a lesbian, so she doesn’t really count.

On the indie side, things aren’t much better. Women in Trouble does feature an ensemble cast of terrific actresses, but it’s all in service of writer-director Sebastian Gutierrez’s fantasies about what women are really like (hint: it frequently involved lingerie). The Messenger, a drama about the soldiers who notify families that their loved one has been killed overseas, does at least feature Samantha Morton in a powerful and unexpected role as a new widow.

See the AWFJ’s regular rundown of new releases for more.

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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).