AWFJ Women On Film – The Week In Women, April 10, 2010 – MaryAnn Johanson

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It’s our culture of misogyny that allows Star Wars fans to be likened to female victims of serial killers, and

WEAK LIKE WOMEN. I’d been hearing quite a bit about the 70-minute-long video review of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace that appeared on YouTube last December. Assembled by a fan known as RedLetterMedia — whom I learned via a post at Disinformation is actually Milwaukee-based filmmaker Mike Stoklasa — it’s an obsessively detailed takedown of the film, composed of clips from the film as well as material from other sources, that’s almost as long as the film itself. I’d kept telling myself I’d have to make time to watch this, but I never did manage that.

Until this week. At an unrelated screening early in the week, I overheard two of my fellow entertainment journalists discussing the fact that RedLetterMedia had posted a followup, an even longer video critique of Episode II: Attack of the Clones. But what caught my attention was a fact about RedLetterMedia’s approach that I had not heard before: the reviewer was pretending to be a serial killer. This set off my This Week in Women bell, because — thanks to my own minor obsession with the concept of criminal profiling — I knew that serial killers are almost exclusively white men, and their victims are almost exclusively women. (There are exceptions, of course, but they are exceptions that highlight the rules.) How could serial murder — which almost always features the sexual predation of women — be tied to Star Wars, or to film criticism?

Ralph Bernardo, in the aforementioned Disinformation post, explains the apparently strange juxtapostion like this:

Do note that his twisted sense of humor isn’t for everyone, particular his “Buffalo Bob”-style narration and the “Mr. Plinkett” scenes in these reviews can be distracting. (My take is he does this in the reviews to say that it’s even obvious to someone psychotic that these movies are terrible … or he might just enjoy playing a psycho.)

It’s indisputably true that RedLetterMedia makes some startlingly cogent points about the many, many failings of The Phantom Menace over the course of his 70 minutes (the most biting and pointed may be that the film has no protagonist!). But he also, in his monotone voiceover, throws in seemingly random jokes about violence against women: to explain why an attempt to kill good guys in the film is so illogical, he says, addressing the film’s bad guys, “Obviously you’ve never suffocated a hooker that’s trying to escape from your crawlspace before”; at another point, he explains, “I analyzed this film with a team of cheerleaders, and they came up with one unanimous conclusion: that if I let them go they promise they won’t tell nobody.” He also visits his basement, where he says his “grandkids” always leave their Star Wars toys, which “inadvertently” reveals to us that he is keeping a terrified women prisoner:

This week, RedLetterMedia posted to YouTube his look at Attack of the Clones, and it is more of the same: brilliantly insightful and shockingly misogynist. The reason the movie is so terrible?

The only way to really describe it is to imagine that someone has dumped out five separate puzzles into a pile on the floor, mixed them all up, and told you to put ’em all back together in one hour, or they were gonna stuff you into an old fridge filled with flesh-eating cockroaches.

And by “you,” he means the new female prisoners in his basement:

This is unusual, on its face, because it’s clear that RedLetterMedia assumes that he is mostly talking to an audience, male or female, that accepts that maleness is the norm. Early in his critique of The Phantom Menace, for instance, he explains why a film needs a protagonist by using examples — Marty McFly, John McClane — that are almost exclusively male (Sarah Connor is his only female example); these are the “normal” people through which genre films introduce us to their not-normal conceits (the Force, what terrorists want, why Terminators hate us, etc.). The protagonists are the people who “get the girl in the end as icing on the cake.”

Now, RedLetterMedia’s description of the protagonist in Hollywood films isn’t wrong: they are almost exclusively male and heterosexual. (The notion of a lesbian action hero who gets the girl in the end is so unlikely that such a movie would have to be considered something of a parody of Hollywood conventions.) But by suggesting that “you” are like an imprisoned woman who is being tortured and will later be murdered for the twisted sexual gratification of a man, RedLetterMedia is reinforcing not only Hollywood conventions but those of the larger culture: he’s implying that his (presumed strong and in-control) male or male-identifying audience has been reduced to the status of female prey by George Lucas. Whether we take that as a criticism of Lucas (that he’s abusive of his fans) or as a criticism of the fans (that they’re willing to accept unreservedly whatever Lucas throws at them because they love him so much), the slight against women is obvious. Fans are weak and vulnerable, are victims… just like women. And who in their right mind would want to be taken for a woman?

Perhaps RedLetterMedia himself does not condone such a dichotomy, that men are strong and able and “normal,” women are weak and vulnerable victims and rewards. But by choosing such a metaphor through which to critique a film — and in doing so to such acclaim (the first critique has gotten almost two million views) — he’s being just as cheap and manipulative as he accuses George Lucas of being.

BUT AN ABUSED WOMAN IS BEAUTIFUL. Charles Isherwood in The New York Times opens his profile of actress Kim Cattrall, currently appearing in the West End, like this:

For a woman looking visibly bruised, Kim Cattrall exudes a strangely beatific air. The bruises are small, after all, and merely physical: little mustard-colored spots on her fair skin that look like flowers that have fallen and faded in the snow. And they are badges of honor of a sort, testament to the commitment with which she is ripping into her role in the hit West End revival of Noël Coward’s “Private Lives.”

Presumably her costar in this endeavor, British actor Matthew Macfadyen, is getting similarly beaten up for his art, since they two are:

flinging furniture, Champagne glasses, assorted gewgaws and occasionally each other around the stage of the Vaudeville Theater as they enact the turbulent on-again, off-again romance between Amanda and Elyot, the central characters in Coward’s classic comedy about the heady raptures and deep ruts of romantic passion.

And because, as Isherwood explains:

To emerge from these nightly skirmishes entirely unscathed would be the mark of an amateur.

Imagine how the tall (six-three), handsome, virile Macfadyen’s bruises would be described: they’d render him even more rugged and masculine, his suffering and pain just demonstrating how strong he is. A beaten-up woman? Her wounds are like “flowers” that make her “beatific”… you know, serene and happy, almost saintly.

I wonder if Isherwood actually asked Cattrall whether she thinks her bruises are like flowers.

Then again, Isherwood thinks its “cheerful” that Times of London theater critic Benedict Nightingale said this about her performance:

combines allure with the mulishness of a woman who knows her own mind as well as her own body.

Read that again: A woman who is her own person is stubborn like a mule. How dare she not be open to male influence!

Do you think Nightingale would say anything similar about Macfadyen, or any other male actor? Would a male character who knows his own mind as well as his own body ever be called “mulish”? Or would it just be taken for granted that this was how he thought of himself, and that there was nothing strange about it?

When will women be accorded the same basic humanity?

OPENING THIS WEEK. There’s a moment in Date Night, about the long-time married, in-a-rut couple played by Tina Fey and Steve Carell, in which she explains to him that she never fantasizes about being with another man, but she does fantasize about being alone. I wonder how many men realize just how many women feel this way…

The Runaways, the film about Joan Jett and Cherie Currie as girl rockers in the 1970s when girl rockers were unheard of, was supposed to go wide this week. That it instead is “expanding” to only around 200 screens (800-plus would be minimum for wide) is yet another disappointing measure of how little support movies about women get.

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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).