AWFJ Women On Film – The Week In Women, March 19, 2010 – MaryAnn Johanson

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The Liz Lemoning of American pop culture; women aren’t interesting, according to Hollywood, just bitter and complainy and

THE UGLY TRUTH. It’s hardly a new thing in American entertainment culture: the conventionally beautiful woman cast as the unattractive frump no man would dare look at twice. It’s as recently retro as the adorable Janeane Garofalo as the “ugly” girl in 1996’s The Truth About Cats and Dogs and as classic as the stunning Olivia de Havilland as the plain, bookish Melanie in 1939’s Gone with the Wind. But Chloe at Feministing sees a recent intensification of the trend to the point where it can easily be given a verb. To cast a conventionally beautiful woman in a role that then requires her to be denigrated as ugly and undesirable is to Liz Lemon her:

For those of you who don’t spend an embarrassing amount of your time watching sitcoms on Hulu, Liz Lemon originates with NBC’s 30 Rock. The most frustrating thing about 30 Rock, an otherwise excellent show, are the constant references to the fact that Tina Fey’s character Liz Lemon is ugly. The thing is, Tina Fey fits conventional standards of female beauty almost to a T. Liz Lemon, like Rachel [of Glee, played by the beautiful Lea Michele], is a flawed character, but the constant references to her ugliness are just absurd. And while beauty is of course subjective, these two women absolutely meet our culture’s standard of female beauty: they’re young, white, slim, cis-gendered, well-proportioned and able-bodied, with long shiny hair and smooth skin. They may not be Victoria’s Secret models, and they may have brown hair and glasses, but they certainly still meet society’s standards of female beauty.

Why is the Liz Lemoning of popular images of woman a problem?

Firstly, it means that the bar for female beauty is being set higher than ever: if Tina Fey, Lea Michele and America Ferrera are “ugly,” what hope is there for the rest of us? It also means that we’re being told one thing and sold another. We’re being told that there is a space on television and in popular culture more broadly for women who defy conventional beauty norms, women who are “ugly.” Hell, there’s a whole show about a woman who’s ugly! It’s right there in the title! But in reality, those “ugly” women look an awful lot like the beautiful ones.

Then again, everyone knows that ugly women aren’t really people, so why should we care?

MORE OF WHAT’S WRONG WITH TV. Linda Wallem, cocreator of Nurse Jackie — just one of female-centered series on the premium cable network Showtime — talked this week to Jezebel’s Irin about how bad the entertainment environment is for women… and she pulls no punches:

All the [network] TV executives in LA were going, “Women are not interesting.” And you see what happened to television. Shame on them…. I don’t care if I ever work in Los Angeles again for another network.

Irin writes of the creative wall Wallem encountered “after a relatively strong period of interesting roles for women in the 90s”:

Something kicked in — I don’t know if it was a new breed of television executives. I don’t know. It just felt like, we’d go into pitch meetings and it was the 60s. I didn’t just want to only write about women but all of the sudden it was, the only female part in this pilot is going to be the wife, and oh, she’s long suffering. Fear kicked in, and laziness. All of the sudden there was an idea -– demographic bullshit, that guys 18-49 are not going to watch a women-driven show.

Carl Greenwood at the British entertainment site Virgin Media notes the decline of strong female characters on TV, too, though all of his examples from the 1990s and today are American imports. As always, alas, the U.S. sets the standard, in many ways, outside our borders, too.

MAYBE THIS IS WHY WOMEN HAVE SUCH A TOUGH TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Because even some women don’t get it. Drew Barrymore is, arguably, one of the more powerful women in the movie industry: her production company, Flower Films, is responsible for such hits as He’s Just Not That Into You and 50 First Dates. Arguably, her path to that success was made slightly easier by the industry connections of her Hollywood-royalty family (her grandfather was screen legend John Barrymore)… or at least by the built-in name recognition that would have come anyway, even if she hadn’t stolen the show as a kindergartner in Steven Spielberg’s megablockbuster E.T. Does she have words of encouragement for women who might be encountering resistance pursuing silver-screen dreams? In a word, no (via the Daily Mail):

But doesn’t she feel that roles for women become more sparse the older they become? ‘I admit I’ve been fortunate. I’m not at that place yet, age-wise, and maybe when I am I’ll feel that way. But I think, “Get over it! Don’t be bitter and complainy! Figure out something else to do with your life.” It sucks that it’s sexist, and it sucks that it’s not often the case for men, but you don’t have to sit on the couch and be angry that you’re not getting roles. Pick up a camera, work at a dog rescue home, become a writer – there are a million things to do in this world.’

Picking up a camera to make one’s own movie might possibly be good advice for women frustrated at Hollywood’s sexism (though I rather believe that Barrymore is suggesting here that women take up still photography as a hobby, not that women make their own movies… which remains an uphill battle for support and funding for women directors and producers). But volunteering at a pet shelter is not. There are indeed a million things to do in this world, but giving up and dropping out is not a solution to Hollywood’s sexism. And to call women “bitter and complainy” who attempt to fight it is clueless at best, insulting at worst.

SPEAKING OF THE BUDGETS OF WOMEN FILMMAKERS…What would women filmmakers do with an unlimited budget?

(from Telegraph 21 via Jezebel)

Me? I would make a kickass epic about the American Women Airforce Service Pilots who flew planes in noncombat situations during WWII to free up the men for combat, and how much they loved their work even though they were treated like shit because they weren’t seen as “real” soldiers. I love this photo:

There women look industrious and confident and happy — they know they’re doing important, useful work, and they’re having the adventure of their lives doing it — and I’d love to make an epic movie about them that is A League of Their Own meets Band of Brothers, a movie that would portray them as complex, flawed heroes who died for their country (without even benefit of a military funeral)… but more frequently lived for it, and never got any thanks for or even acknowledgement of their work until just this month. But they’re only women, so again, who cares?

OPENING THIS WEEK. Gerard Butler has free reign to beat up his ex-wife, Jennifer Aniston, in The Bounty Hunter. Female characters are all but absent in Diary of a Wimpy Kid, save one wise girl who appears only when the male protagonist needs some Jedi advice for surviving middle school. Women are bitter, vengeful nags or beautiful, rescue-needy dolls orbiting the male hero of Repo Men. But at least we have the Swedish film Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which features a strong female protagonist in a murder mystery that explicitly indicts male misogyny and violence, and the indie The Runaways, about tough rock chicks blazing trails and screwing up in intriguing ways in the 1970s. Women’s stories and women’s concerns: always niche!

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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).