AWFJ Women on Film – The Week In Women, February 25, 2010 – MaryAnn Johanson

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Imagine if men were all but invisible onscreen; Kathryn Bigelow is a man, baby! and

WHERE ARE WOMEN? Sometimes it just sneaks up on a gal all of a sudden, almost like she’s discovering it for the first time: So few movies are about women. I attended five press screenings this past week, and only one of those films featured any female people onscreen with any meaningful participation in the stories being told. Cop Out is about two male cops, and while each is driven to do the things he does because of women (a daughter whose wedding needs to be paid for, a wife who may be cheating on her husband), the story is not about these women. A Prophet (Un Prophète) is set almost entirely in a prison — women are barely even glimpsed. Brooklyn’s Finest is another story about male cops: there’s one wife in a walk-on part (again, she’s the motivation for a male character but not a character herself) and one prostitute (who is there to represent a man’s emotional isolation; she is a symbol of her job, not a person in herself); there’s also a slew of female victims and a slew of female set-dressing (naked women cutting coke and counting cash is as much a signifier of “drug den” as the drugs and money themselves). The Secret of Kells is entirely about male characters, though there is a magical female sprite who helps the protagonist, a young boy, discover what he needs to discover in order to change and grow (she doesn’t change or grow herself). Only The Crazies features one woman, a doctor — among several male characters with equal or greater presence in the story, of course — with significant screentime and who could be said to have anything like a character arc.

Perhaps it struck me this week because these movies run the full spectrum of what The Movies has to offer us: There are arthouse films here and Hollywood films, American films and foreign films; the quality runs from absolutely shitty to pretty good to absolutely great. It was a reminder that everywhere a movie lover turns, finding a story — any story — about a woman is tough. A story about more than one woman, as all of these stories were about more than one man? Forget it.

And here’s the thing, too: This week was a reminder of something that I’ve long believed but have not articulated (at least not that I can recall): I cannot condemn any of these movies of the past week on an individual level for being as male-dominated as they are. Cop Out is a terrible movie for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with its gender balance; Brooklyn’s Finest is a great fim for all sorts of reasons that are not lessened by the lack of gender balance. A Prophet (Un Prophète) is a riveting story that would not be the same if there were some sort of obligation for all films to feature 51 percent female characters.

But of course, no one is suggesting such a thing… not even those — like me — who complain that there so few movies about women. It’s the aggregate that’s the problem. Where are the hard-edged movies about female cops in Broolyn? Where are the submoronic comedies about female cops? Where are the historical fantasy cartoons about little girls wandering in the woods? Do filmmakers believe that women do not face tough moral dilemmas like, say, Ethan Hawke does in Brooklyn’s Finest? Where’s the movie about the wife of a gangster who keeps his operation running when he’s sent to prison?

The fact that we do not see these films — and that when we do see movies about women, they are almost exclusively about women chasing men or taking care of children — is so much the norm that I think many people, male and female alike, barely even notice it. But I notice, and it is so disheartening to me both as a woman and as a lover of well-told stories: there is a vast range of human experience that we are not hearing stories about because half the human race is being excluded from the stories we are being told.

Imagine this: Most movies feature female protagonists and villains doing all sorts of interesting and exciting things. Women are cops, thieves, lawyers, terrorists, doctors; women are saving the world, dying of dramatic diseases, and juggling the demands of career and romance and family and fun. They are astronauts and adventurers and spies and goofballs and assholes — they are funny and sexy and messed up and gorgeous and ugly and weird and smart and stupid. Men, when they appear in these stories, only hover in the background — sometimes only figuratively, not actually even appearing onscreen; they are noble creatures, but simple ones, objects of concern or worry or desire or frustration to the women, but hardly people worthy of their own stories: everyone already knows that men are either already perfect or already irredeemable, so what would be the point of stories about them anyway? The men are there just so they can be protected or used by the women, as suits the women. Sometimes, the perfection of the men is such that one of them can guide the flawed but fascinating women to be better people (en route to saving the world or finally admitting that the great guys waiting at home for them deserve better from them). Always, the men are luscious eye candy for the women onscreen and for everyone in the audience… and everyone in the audience will indeed appreciate them, because everyone knows that male beauty is simply more aesthetically pleasing than women’s weird bodies, which have strange bits sticking out in unexpected places and are often kinda doughy and out of shape. Once in a while, there might be a movie about a man, but that movie will invariably be an adorably, fluffy comedy about the search for a job that will allow him to support his family, or perhaps a lighthearted jape about how difficult it is for a single guy to get laid these days. Hey, that’s all that men think about anyway, right? And any male movie fan who complains about the lack of men onscreen… well, he’s probably gay. If he weren’t, he’d appreciate more the fact that movies are all about women.

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?

IT STARTS AT BIRTH. As Geena Davis told the Sydney Morning Herald this week:

It all started six years ago, when Davis’s daughter Alizeh was a toddler. “When she was about two I started watching G-rated videos and little kids’ preschool programming,” Davis told the Herald.

“And it jumped out at me. There was this huge gender gap. It’s partly because I had been in some movies that had resonated with women, so I’d had this heightened awareness of the paucity of parts for female actors. The stuff that we make for us. But I really didn’t know that it was like this for kids.

“You just expect Sesame Street took care of everything and now it’s all educational. So I thought, ‘You know what? I would like to know the facts.’ ”

Her response was to found the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which has commissioned ongoing studies to compare the roles played by girls/women with boys/men. One project examined the 100 top-grossing G-rated films from the period 1990 to 2005.

“It was fascinating,” Davis says. “Typically there are three male characters for every one female character. If it’s a crowd scene, that ratio goes out to four or five males for every female. And 87 per cent of narrators are male.”

Davis argues that young girls (and boys) need to see female characters onscreen, or else they will grow up thinking of females as invisible or unimportant. The institute’s motto is: “Kids need to see entertainment where females are valued as much as males.”

The Herald piece came in advance of her closing keynote address at the UN’s “Engaging Philanthropy to Promote Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.” You can watch her address at the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

GOOD LUCK WITH THAT. From the Los Angeles Times’ blog 24 Frames:

Women may make up 51% of the population, but actresses nabbed only 29.9% of the 4,379 speaking parts in the 100 top-grossing films of 2007, or so says a new study released by University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, which was conducted by professor Stacy. L Smith.

According to Smith’s study, 83% of all directors, writers, and producers on those films were male. Not surprisingly, the number of female characters grew dramatically when a woman directed a film — up to 44.6% from 29.3% if a man was behind the camera.

AND EVEN WHEN A WOMAN DOES SUCCEED… James Cameron is being gallantly magnanimous: The Academy should give that Best Director Oscar to Kathryn Bigelow because he’s already got one. What a gentleman! And if the Academy does give it to Bigelow, the question will be, Did she win because she’s female? Except she’s not really a girl: she’s a man in drag.

Even if Bigelow wins, she loses.

OPENING THIS WEEK. As mentioned above, Cop Out and A Prophet (Un Prophète) are not so great for women, though The Crazies is marginally better. 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, 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).