AWFJ Women On Film – The Week In Women, January 22, 2010 – MaryAnn Johanson

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The destruction of humanity is not a woman’s fault, dammit; the new trend of behind-every-great-man movies; Precious is not a documentary…

WHEN IS AN APPLE NOT AN APPLE? Caprica, the Battlestar Galactica spinoff, premiered this week on SyFy, and now that we’ve actually seen the pilot, the art that’s been used to promote the series for the past few months suddenly looks kinda baffling:

There’s something really interesting about the idea of Zoe and the Eve metaphor.

That’s Mark Stern, executive vice president of original content for SyFy and co-head of Universal Cable Productions, and he said that to the Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan back in November, when the art debuted. And Stern is correct: it’s a powerful image, one tied to the notion, from Christian mythology, that women are somehow responsible for the fact that human life is such a misery. If Eve hadn’t urged Adam to bite that apple, see, we’d all still be living in paradise (or so the story goes).

Turns out, however, that the image is deeply misleading when it comes to Caprica. Sure, it’s a show about humanity’s near-fatal arrogance, about how our quest for knowledge almost resulted in our extinction. We created artificial life in the Cylons, and particular the “skinjob” Cylons, which look like humans, and then the Cylons turned on their creators and tried to wipe us out, and just about succeeded. Battlestar Galactica opened with that Cylon attack; Caprica rewinds to the moment when the Cylons were birthed, 60 years earlier.

But Zoe — the teenage girl pictured in the ad — had nothing to do with offering humanity the choice the ad mentions. At best, we might say that she discovered the apple… and then kept it to herself. A computer and cognitive science prodigy, Zoe Graystone (played by Alessandra Torresani) discovers a way to copy her consciousness into a virtual-reality avatar of herself. And then the flesh-and-blood Zoe is killed. Her father, a technology mogul billionaire, Dr. Daniel Graystone (played by Eric Stoltz), accidentally stumbles across the ersatz VR Zoe and he’s the one who presents that apple of knowledge to humanity. It’s his desire to see his daughter live again that makes him download her into a robot body… and it’s his ambition — he’s stuck in his development on a government defense project until Zoe’s work gives him the push he needs to make it work.

It’s bad enough that the Eve story is rigged from the beginning — the God character doesn’t play fair with her — but it is, at least, Eve herself who does steal the apple and offer it to Adam. But it’s even worse for Zoe to be taking the blame for the whole Cylon mess and humanity’s near destruction. The power of an image is hugely diminished when it doesn’t actually represent what it’s meant to.

TWO STEPS FORWARD… USA Today suddenly noticed that filmmakers — non-Hollywood filmmakers, but still — have suddenly noticed that most stories about great men are also stories about women as well:

A clutch of recent biopics take a closer look at marriages involving major literary, scientific or historical figures and the spouses whose influence advanced their achievements, even if they got precious little credit for it from history.

Creation, opening Friday, depicts the marriage of Charles Darwin and his wife, Emma, as loving and devoted despite being a microcosm of today’s evolution-vs.-creationism debate.

The Last Station, released last week, examines the volatile, crockery-breaking marriage of Russian novelist Count Leo Tolstoy and his wife, Countess Sofya, and their titanic, end-of-life battle for his soul. Director Michael Hoffman says new scholarship about Tolstoy has shifted to bring more attention to Sofya, herself a talented writer and photographer.

Unfortunately, those are the only two movies USA Today writer Maria Puente could come up with. Her third example almost refutes her thesis:

And The Young Victoria, released last month, makes the case for Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, as crucial to her success, though he got little thanks besides statues and his name on grand buildings (and even then he had to share with Victoria).

Still, perhaps it truly is worth highlighting the fact that some filmmakers, at least, are interesting in telling stories about the past that don’t pretend it was only men who shaped the world.

…ONE STEP BACK. New AWFJ member Monika Bartyzel at Cinematical casts a weather eye on the new spate of postapocalyptic movies, and notices something rather annoying:

But the one aspect that melds perfectly with the like-minded cinema that comes before it is that women are doomed in a post-apocalyptic world. The Book of Eli embraces this notion with fervor, using every opportunity it can to portray women as bait, whores, and victims of grisly rape. The only solace for this future is having a male partner who can share in the fighting and defense. With a man, there’s some slim chance of survival. Without? Women are doomed.

It’s a theme well-worn in the genre, but it’s time we moved beyond it.

The notion is carried through critical darlings like The Road. It’s a solid part of Mad Max, although they at least give Tina Turner some power in Beyond Thunderdome. The extended cut of Waterworld entertains the idea that Helen and Enola will be sold to slave traders. Cyborg finds a young Haley mentally tortured by Fender’s gang before being ruled by him, and while they might have a woman act as the savior of the world, she had to become a cyborg for the honor. It’s even the future of Tank Girl until Lori Petty’s Rebecca Buck transcends expectation to become the kickass, water-releasing savior of a desert world.

Beating and raping women seem to be the easiest way for a film to shout out the desperation of an apocalypse. Hurt a woman and you’ve succeeded in showing the bleakness of the scenario. It’s lazy and tiresome, and sadly, Eli seems stuck on it. The idea of women as property is not enough. The film includes two drawn-out and grisly rape/attempted rape scenes, lingering on desperate screams and struggle. They don’t evoke a sense of desperation, or futility. Instead, they feel like nothing more than torture porn — especially when they’re matched with a cinematic world where women seem to be nothing but sex objects. They’re bait. They’re raped. They’re powerless.

It seems that just as women are getting their cinematic due in new stories about the past, the new stories about the future are doing their best to put us right back in our “proper” place.

PRECIOUS IS NOT A DOCUMENTARY. Stuart Jeffries begins his profile of Gabourey Sidibe in the GuardianPrecious will open in the U.K. next week — with this:

Just for the record, Gabby Sidibe is not a functionally illiterate high-school girl. Nor has she been repeatedly raped by her father. She doesn’t have two children as a result of her father’s abuse, one of them a baby with Down’s syndrome who has been taken into care. She doesn’t live in a disgusting apartment dodging frying pans hurled by an abusive mother. Nor, incidentally, does her mother hate Sidibe because she “seduced” her father. None of this is Gabby Sidibe’s life story at all.

Well, of course not. Sidibe is an actor. Does anyone honestly believe that Jeremy Renner disarms bombs in Iraq? Apparently, though, it’s not Jeffries who’s the idiot, but lots of other people that Sidibe encounters:

Sidibe keeps getting mistaken for the girl she plays. “I’ve seriously got people saying to me: ‘Are your children OK now?’ And not just from ordinary people, but from people who’ve been in the movie business 20 or 30 years.

“How dumb is that? It’s got credits, it’s got people in it who’ve acted before, it’s got stars like Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz in it; why would you think it’s a documentary? It’s like – Lenny Kravitz is in my documentary? And he’s my nurse? And Mariah Carey is my social worker?”

And least she’s not bitter about it:

When I ask her if she’s angry about being mistaken for Precious, she replies: “I’m not mad – it’s like the funniest thing evurr” as though she were Alicia Silverstone in Clueless.

It pisses me off, though. Is it the fact that no one can imagine a 300-pound black woman as a movie star, as someone with talent? I suspect that might be what’s at work behind the bizarre discconect between Sidibe the performer and those who cannot see her as one.

OPENING THIS WEEK. Once again, women as central protagonists are all but absent from this week’s new releases. The mother (Keri Russell) of the sick children is an aside in Extraordinary Measures, as their father (Brendan Fraser) and a scientist (Harrison Ford) work to find a cure for their disease. In Tooth Fairy, Dwayne Johnson learns how to be a better man when he’s shanghaied into being a temporary tooth fairy; part of his sentence involves babysitting the children of his girlfriend (Ashley Judd), whose role consists mainly of scowling with disapproval at everything happening around her, in those brief moments when she’s allowed onscreen at all. The premise of Legion would have seemed to hold slightly more promise for a meaty female character, since it’s about an angel (Paul Bettany) who has come down to Earth to protect the pregnant woman (Adrianne Palicki) whose baby is destined to save humanity. Unfortunately, she’s barely a character, just a vessel for one. (The baby? Male, of course.)

See the AWFJ’s regular weekly 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, 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 archive, type "MaryAnn Johanson" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).