AWFJ Women On Film – The Week In Women, March 5, 2010 – MaryAnn Johanson

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Female directors barely exist, the joke of enlightened sexism and

CUT, PRINT, MOPE. EW.com has named its 25 greatest working directors. Guess how many of them are women?

One.

And honestly, it feels like a bit of a stretch for EW to say that Kathryn Bigelow clocks in on this list at No. 4. It feels as if The Hurt Locker hadn’t managed to catch on with critics and arthouse film fans, there wouldn’t be a single woman on this list at all. Sure, there are guys on this list that made me say, “Hmm, really? Greatest working film director? I mean, he’s made a couple of pretty good movies, but greatest working film director? Hmm.” Like Jason Reitman at No. 17, and Guillermo Del Toro at No. 15. I mean, they’ve made good films, but still… The whole list feels like a bit of a stretch in places.

And even given that — that surely EW was working on a curve here — they could find only a single female filmmaker to call one of the greatest.

I’m not suggesting, either, that EW is wrong in its overall assessment of the state of filmmaking. But that’s even more depressing: it’s a sad commentary on how few women are making movies at all. The second tier of the list, 26 through 50, includes three more women — Nancy Meyers at No. 50, Mira Nair at No. 45, and Sofia Coppola at No. 30 — but that barely makes a dent. That’s still, for the overall list of 50, only an eight-percent representation by women. Terrible.

NO SUCH THING AS ENLIGHTENED SEXISM. Susan J. Douglas at AlterNet beautifully breaks down the current state of depictions of women in mainstream media in a piece entitled “Enlightened Sexism: ‘Women’s Success’ Means It’s Fine to Resurrect — Even Celebrate — Sexist Stereotypes.” First, she examines how shallow is the “female power” image that the media presents to us:

What the media have been giving us, then, are little more than fantasies of power. They assure girls and women, repeatedly, that women’s liberation is a fait accompli and that we are stronger, more successful, more sexually in control, more fearless and more held in awe than we actually are. We can believe that any woman can become a CEO (or president), that women have achieved economic, professional and political parity with men, and we can expunge any suggestion that there might be anyone living on the national median income, which for women in 2008 was $36,000 a year, 23 percent less than their male counterparts.

Yet the images we see on television, in the movies, and in advertising also insist that purchasing power and sexual power are much more gratifying than political or economic power. Buying stuff—the right stuff, a lot of stuff—emerged as the dominant way to empower ourselves. Women in fictional settings can be in the highest positions of authority, but in real life maybe not such a good idea. Instead, the wheedling, seductive message to young women is that being decorative is the highest form of power—when, of course, if it were, Dick Cheney would have gone to work every day in a sequined tutu.

And then, because women are — allegedly — so powerful, it’s okay for us to play with clichés of “femininity” and female sexuality:

But the media’s fantasies of power are also the product of another force that has gained considerable momentum since the early and mid-1990s: enlightened sexism. Enlightened sexism is a response, deliberate or not, to the perceived threat of a new gender regime. It insists that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism—indeed, full equality, has allegedly been achieved. So now it’s okay, even amusing, to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women. Enlightened sexism sells the line that it is precisely through women’s calculated deployment of their faces, bodies, attire, and sexuality that they gain and enjoy true power— power that is fun, that men will not resent, and indeed will embrace. True power here has nothing to do with economic independence or professional achievement: it has to do with getting men to lust after you and other women to envy you. Enlightened sexism is especially targeted to girls and young women and emphasizes that now that they “have it all,” they should focus the bulk of their time and energy on being hot, pleasing men, competing with other women, and shopping.

Enlightened sexism is a manufacturing process that is constantly produced by the media. Its components—anxiety about female achievement; renewed and amplified objectification of young women’s bodies and faces; dual exploitation and punishment of female sexuality; dividing of women against each other by age, race and class; and rampant branding and consumerism—began to swirl around in the early 1990s, consolidating as the dark star it has become in the early 21st century.

Finally, Douglas looks at how it all serves to shackle women:

What so much of this media emphasizes is that women are defined by our bodies. This is nothing new, of course, but it was something millions of women hoped to deep-six back in the 1970s. Indeed, it is precisely because women no longer have to exhibit traditionally “feminine” personality traits—like being passive, helpless, docile, overly emotional, dumb and deferential to men—that they must exhibit hyperfeminine physical traits—cleavage, short skirts, pouty lips—and the proper logos linking this femininity to social acceptance. The war between embedded feminism and enlightened sexism gives with one hand and takes away with the other. It’s a powerful choke leash, letting women venture out, offering us fantasies of power, control and love and then pulling us back in.

These are but small excerpts from a much longer and very well argued piece. Read it all.

WEIGHT POLICE ON PATROL. Against that backdrop, we’re probably supposed to see Kirstie Alley’s new series, Big Life, as some sort of triumph against the body Nazis: it’s a docu-reality show about the actress and “her battle with weight loss,” among other things. But as LatoyaPeterson at Jezebel notes:

Viewers have an insatiable appetite for narratives about fat people that serve up the desire to change, embarrassing situations, and a heaping helping of self-flagellation.

and

Fat shaming is the new Millennium bloodsport, and American television watchers have taken the place of the voyeurs in the Coliseum.

But it’s Big Life is enlightened, see? It’s about a woman being honest about her weight. There’s no rubbernecking aspect to it at all. Not at all.

AND THE AWARD FOR MOST CLUELESS FEMINIST GOES TO… Kim Elsesser, who is actually a research scholar at the Center for Study of Women at the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times this week suggesting that there is no longer any reason to segregate Academy Award acting categories by gender. Because the wominz, we are so totally equal these days!

Since the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, separate acting Oscars have been presented to men and women. Women at that time had only recently won the right to vote and were still several decades away from equal rights outside the voting booth, so perhaps it was reasonable to offer them their own acting awards. But in the 21st century women contend with men for titles ranging from the American president to the American Idol. Clearly, there is no reason to still segregate acting Oscars by sex.

Clearly!

But separate is not equal. While it is certainly acceptable for sports competitions like the Olympics to have separate events for male and female athletes, the biological differences do not affect acting performances. The divided Oscar categories merely insult women, because they suggest that women would not be victorious if the categories were combined. In addition, this segregation helps perpetuate the stereotype that the differences between men and women are so great that the two sexes cannot be evaluated as equals in their professions.

It’s true that biological differences do not affect acting performances. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that so few movies offer meaty roles to female actors! It’s always tough winnowing down the best performances by men each year, because there are often so many of them. And it’s often equally tough to come up with enough performances by women in movies that give them the opportunity to really act.

Today, the number of female-run production companies, female directors and great roles for women continues to increase. Four of the five films represented in this year’s best actress category center on strong female characters.

But would those movies be represented at the Oscars at all if the acting categories were gender neutral? There’s no guarantee that they would be, and in fact, it seems likely that they would not.

Sounds like more of that “enlightened feminism” nonsense…

OPENING THIS WEEK. Alice in Wonderland — wonder of wonders! — features a female protagonist and a female villain. Too bad the movie’s so damn dull that it is not even worth recommending on that basis along. And Brooklyn’s Finest, of course, features just about no female characters of any substance at all. Though the one hooker character is refreshingly unencumbered with a heart of gold.

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 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).