AWFJ Women On Film – The Week In Women, January 29, 2010 – MaryAnn Johanson

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TV’s still very very bad for women writers; when violence = commitment; a movie about women as people and

TV: BY MEN FOR MEN. AWFJ member Nikki Finke at Deadline Hollywood asks whether this is the “worst network pilot season for women?”:

According to one Hollywood agency’s stats so far this year, 33 comedy pilots have been picked up by CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX. Only 3 are written by women. And 36 drama pilots have been picked up by CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox. Only 6 are written by women. This is being called “the worst year in a decade” for female writers and showrunners. “‘Created By’ is a credit where the money and power is — and women are being denied it,” one source keeping track tells me. “Nina Tassler, Les Moonves, Christina Davis, Steve McPherson, Susanne Patmore, Channing Dungey, Angela Bromstead, Kevin Reilly, Peter Rice need to comment on why they all gave women the sack this year.”

Television has been, in recent years, the one entertainment domain in which strong, complicated female characters could headline their own stories. Some of those stories were created by women (such as Saving Grace), while others were created by men (such as The Closer). But even those shows — smart dramas about smart women — tend to be on the cable networks, not the broadcast ones. And as Reuters reported recently that in 2010, experts estimate, more than 90 percent of all television watched will be via traditional broadcast.

So: Most people who watch TV will see stories written by men about characters created by men. Some of those stories will be about women, but if the recent history of broadcast television is anything to go by, those women will be victims (CSI’s dead woman of the week), stereotypes (the standard sitcom nagging wife), or — at best — partners to men (Law & Order SVU’s Olivia Benson).

We’ve been told that big-screen movies are targeted at men and teenaged boys, and that’s why the making and content of big-screen movies are so dominated by men. Will that be the same excuse we get regarding TV that’s looking more like it’s intended for men only… even though more women than men watch TV? Is there a deliberate move on to — for some bizarre reason — reduce the number of women who watch TV? Or is it all just Hollywood’s inapplicable attachment to sexism even when it hurts the bottom line?

WHO SAYS MEN CAN’T MAKE A COMMITMENT? Michael Winterbottom’s new film, The Killer Inside Me — an intimate portrait of a serial killer, from the serial killer’s perspective — just debuted at Sundance. Its reception has been less than kind… and thank goodness for that. USA Today’s Anthony Breznican calls the film “revolting,” explaining:

the camera savors the savage dispatching of these women, making you not repulsed by [serial killer] Lou Ford, but repulsed by the film’s delight in it, like a craven accomplice.

It’s the film, after all, that is grabbing the back of our heads and thrusting our faces into the gore.

AWFJ member Katey Rich, reviewing the film from Sundance, says:

When The Killer Inside Me was written as a novel by Jim Thompson in 1952, it might have seemed shocking to spend time inside the mind of a guy who gets a sexual kick out of beating women with a belt before punching them in the face. But in 2010, in a film directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Casey Affleck, it’s yet another disturbing and painful descent into a sociopath’s mind– both shocking and overly familiar.

[W]hile it’s debatable whether the movie shares Lou’s own misogyny, the camera does take a certain delight in shocking us by showing repeated shots of Jessica Alba’s face being beaten to pulp. When men are killed in the film they’re shot cleanly or dispatched with offscreen, but the women suffer brutally– and you have to wonder if Lou is the only one enjoying it.

And that is absolutely par for the course for today’s entertainment environment. Sure, men are dispatched onscreen with disturbing regularity, but very rarely with such drawn-out intensity. And — perhaps unsurprisingly — therein one finds the inevitable defense of the film. From Mark Olsen at the Los Angeles Times blog 24 Frames:

when Affleck beats Alba to a bloody pulp a few scenes later it is off-putting and confusing, but purposefully so. As Affleck casually puts on a pair of gloves as they are talking and then begins to playfully slap her face, Alba’s character doesn’t quite grasp that he has turned on her. Then as he starts to punch her in the face at full force, often while tenderly saying “I love you,” he seems to relentlessly just pummel on. The duration of the scene is not to take pleasure in her pain, but rather to show the level of commitment, of sheer psychotic will, that it takes to beat a person to death.

Who says men can’t make a commitment?

NEWSFLASH! FILM DEPICTS WOMEN AS HUMAN! It seems that Sundance wasn’t a complete feminist wasteland. Irin at Jezebel sums up what’s particularly noteworthy about Nicole Holofcener’s new film, Please Give:

[It] offers something distinctly… relatable: female characters that are neither bitches nor saints.

You know, as if these female characters were actual people, real human beings. Imagine! And this is vital, because even the most prominent, most complex roles for women we typically see don’t quite qualify:

Some of the most acclaimed performances by actresses last year, even in the better films, were for parts playing monsters (Mo’Nique), giants (Meryl Streep, Sandra Bullock), or ingenues (Carey Mulligan). (And those are the brighter notes; girlfriend or victim — or both— is far more common). There’s something refreshing about adding something decidedly in between.

Amen.

OPENING THIS WEEK. The only female character to speak of in the new Mel Gibson’s thiller Edge of Darkness is his Boston cop character’s adult daughter (played by Bojana Novakovic)… and she’s murdered mere minutes into the film. In the 1985 British miniseries the film is based upon, the cop there at least had ongoing conversations with the ghost of his daughter (or perhaps just his memory of her) throughout the story, which at least offered an adult female presence. No such luck in this remake: Gibson’s memories of her, what few there are, come almost exclusively in little-girl form.

Perhaps we should have wished for When in Rome to exclude female characters, too. Kristen Bell’s supposedly professional adult is a mess — she’s actively seeking a man to love more than her job. Her boss (Anjelica Huston) is a bitch. Her mother (Peggy Lipton) is bitter and angry. Her sister (Alexis Dziena) comes off best of all… and she’s a nitwit who marries a man two weeks after she meets him. Of course, the men in the film don’t fare any better. But that’s hardly a consolation.

For more, see the AWFJ’s regular weekly rundown of new releases.

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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).