The Fem Spot

Fem’s “Top Ten” (English language narrative feature films of 2009)

Posted in Film and Television by femspotter on January 3, 2010

January 3, 2010

Last year, 2009, was a great year for women’s issues in English language cinema. Though mainstream critics may have missed the boat on most of them, I hereby take it upon myself to rate 10 films on two scales: 1. relevance to contemporary feminism and 2. cinematic achievement. Each scale allows me to designate films 1 – 10 and then add the two numbers together for a final total, which determines placement on the list. With this system in play, I present a “Top Ten” ranking that includes fair to outstanding movies that American audiences witnessed in 2009. An asterisk (*) denotes a film that would appear on a “Top Ten” list based solely on criterion 2.  I’d like to point out that I am not a real film critic – as in, even though I’ve studied film, nobody pays me to see and write about movies, for shame! – so I’ve seen movies on my budget. If I’ve missed any that you think belong here, let me know and I’ll look for them on DVD or consider amending the list.

Keep an open mind and enjoy!

10.  The Proposal (1:5, 2:2 = 7)

Crazy am I? I did not thoroughly enjoy this silly film when I sat through it with two new girlfriends last spring; however, I did stop and think about something the moment the film’s protagonist (Sandra Bullock) admits to crying in the bathroom after a messy, public argument with a subordinate colleague. That sounded to me like something I might have done. To avoid showing any signs of weakness, I would have hightailed it to the ladies’ room where I’d be free to be…well, a lady. Let’s face it: sometimes women do need a good cry. Crying relieves tension and stress and helps to clear emotions from our minds so that we can be more like…well, men. Bullock’s character is no exception. She’s a woman trying to adapt to a “male model of careerism,” the model that predates the Second Wave of Feminism. But the question that I pondered during the latter half of this movie, chuckling here or there, I admit: why are women adapting to male careerism rather than working to make the workplace adapt to us?

This isn’t always the case, at least not in the United States. We have achieved maternity leave and pay. In some if not most cases, we’ve worked toward equality of treatment and pay on the job. But that still leaves the crying: every working girl knows that she can’t cry at work either because she once did (guilty!) and then found herself subsequently ostracized for it, or because she’s seen it happen to somebody else.

The bathroom is for doing things we hide from public view and crying is something that we believe belongs out of sight and out of mind. But if you’re used to work bathrooms with rusty sinks, musty smells and nowhere but the toilet to relax, why should your temporary moment of emotional relief be sequestered to a 3 by 5-foot area that faces a sign reading “If you sprinkle when you tinkle…”? Some offices now have nap rooms. Perhaps they should also have cry rooms.

9.  Observe and Report (1:6, 2:2 = 8)

Moderately humorous at times, but overall a painful examination of naked male insecurity, I point to this film solely for the “date rape” dilemma that ensued following its release into theaters. (For clarity, I don’t think this instance counts as a date rape – which is an ambiguity intended by the filmmakers, I suppose – because the man involved is clearly not able to distinguish that the woman is under the influence of drugs and alcohol and not consenting to their sex for two reasons: 1. he’s deranged and 2. she yells, “Why are you stopping, motherfucker?!” in the middle of it all. It’s a disgusting scene nonetheless and certainly NOT funny.) Here’s the setup: a woman agrees to go on a date with a man she barely knows and while having dinner consumes much alcohol and some of his prescription anxiety medication, of her own volition. She subsequently vomits and he, reacting to this ugly display, affectionately kisses her and tells her he accepts her just as she is. Cut to: he’s humping her while she’s passed out, he pauses when there’s no reaction, she awakens and insists he keep going and…the scene ends. Yuck!

Do I detesteth too much? I think not. While this scene would be more compelling as a date rape admonition with one of two additional factors – he’s cognisant that she’s in no condition to give consent or she tries to fight him off – it still serves to warn viewers against the dangers of abusing drugs and alcohol at all, let alone in close proximity to somebody you don’t know well enough to trust with your safety. Take heed, ladies. Avoid this scenario at all costs. We have to try and protect ourselves from idiotic men and would-be rapists. We owe ourselves that much and more.

On the one hand, I recommend women see this film/scene for its sobering ugliness; but on the other hand, I think these filmmakers should be forced to clean toilets with toothbrushes for trivializing an issue that IS a serious problem in the U.S. AND EVERYWHERE ELSE!

8. Away We Go (1:5, 2:5 = 10)

Maya Rudolph, John Krasinski and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Away We Go

This is a film about parenthood and more specifically, motherhood. It is primarily a woman’s story and one that involves the searching for home and identity before the birth of one’s child. As seen through the eyes of its unconventional lead (Saturday Night Live alum Maya Rudolph – charming!), existing mothers are either disinterested in their children, detached from reality, obsessive-compulsive or long-suffering. She doesn’t want to be any of these mothers and searches for a way to balance self and motherhood. This is a must-see for any woman grappling with the idea of who we women become as we become mothers and what are the most important things we take with us as components of our identities as we travel through life.

7. Sunshine Cleaning (1:7, 2:5 = 12)

For this touching odyssey of two underachieving sisters going into business for themselves, filmmakers interviewed two real-life women business owners about the realities of crime scene cleanup…and those women confirm that Sunshine Cleaning got it just right. The biggest battle women face in life is perhaps the one we face when looking at ourselves, honestly, and accounting for our choices or lack thereof. Does the former cheerleader turned single mom and maid (Amy Adams) want to rely on the approval of a married man, her lover, as the sole support for her fragile ego? Does her pothead, deadbeat sister (Emily Blunt) want to always cower in the shadow of their dead mother? No and no. And the way out is to stand up tall, dig their heals in and make lemonade from some very sour lemons.

True, crime scene cleanup is not the most glamorous profession – in fact, it may be the least glamorous profession there is. But this film reminds us feminists that good business practices and a strong work ethic can help us distinguish ourselves as conquerors of our American Capitalist economy. Remember to support women owned and operated businesses whenever possible to help empower the women in your immediate locale.

6.  *Inglourious Basterds (1:5, 2:8  = 13)

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to create an epic poem of a movie about Nazi Germany. I loved nearly every moment of this witty, at times intentionally campy and spirited tribute to…well, itself: epic cinema! While female director Kathryn Bigelow turned out a more conventional war narrative in 2009 that has people talking “Best Director” Oscar for the first woman ever (The Hurt Locker),  it is the unconventional spirit of this war narrative that forces me to think about the way our culture glorifies and skews violence. And speaking of unconventionality, get a load of the women in Inglourious Basterds: they are forces to be reckoned with! At once full of sly vengeance and a commitment to ending violence, these women in disguise (adeptly portrayed by Melanie Laurent and Diane Kruger) are essential players in a cruel and gratuitous game, in much the same way their warrior predecessors like Boudica and Joan of Arc were before them. In short: never underestimate a woman’s ability to fight for a (noble) cause.

Melanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds

5.  *Avatar (1:6, 2:8 = 14)

Also on the subject of women and the war/peace effort, this bold and visually hypnotic fairytale focuses on a fictional alien goddess-worshiping, spiritually matriarchal culture where men and women fight, hunt, harvest and pray together as equals. It’s beautiful! And as for the human world that Director James Cameron presents: women may not be calling all the shots there, but they do harness their own moral agency in science and diplomacy.

This trend of exploring female agency is not new for Cameron, who brought us the adventurous heroics of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Lindsey Brigman in The Abyss (1989), and Jamie Lee Curis’ Helen Tasker in True Lies (1994). In fact, when I think of these movies, I don’t think of Arnold Schwarzenegger saying “I’ll be back;” in fact, I don’t think of men at all. I think of Hamilton doing pull-ups, Mastrantonio volunteering to drown in an aquatic vessel filling with freezing water, and Curtis doing a wacky strip tease thinking she’s a spy. These are fantasies I enjoy participating in: I’d love to save the world, save the man I love or at least spend 24 hours thinking I’m clever enough to master international espionage. And in real life, I take this fantasy, this agency, and apply it to the things I can change: the lives of the people I know and love. Kudos to Cameron for injecting feminism into the action film genre that’s generally devoid of interesting women.

As for female agency in Avatar, let us not forget that Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine and Michelle Rodriguez’s Trudy Chacon say “No” to the carnage of this alien culture and fight to preserve it. And on the side of the Na ‘vi, Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri adopts a foreign soldier and teaches him to respect life rather than destroy it. And he, in turn, respects her life and her choices. She tells him he can choose a woman as a lifelong mate, and he responds, “But she must also choose me.” If only this were the way all men looked at women’s choices…

4. *Bright Star (1:6 2:9 = 15)

Edie Martin and Abbie Cornish in Bright Star

Of course, not every film can be a landmark feminist achievement like Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993). But Campion has done again and again what so few filmmakers can: understand and visualize the female condition. Bright Star is no exception. Rather than telling a straightforward narrative of revered poet John Keats, Campion tells the story – or rather maps the emotional landscape – of Keats’ great love, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish in a breathtaking performance). This isn’t your typical love story; this is instead a flight of fancy wherein a passionate girl designs and wears elaborate fashions that depict her sense of self, and secludes butterflies in her bedroom, where she daydreams and cries and pines the days away. What teenage girl didn’t endure this experience…or what felt like this experience? And Keats almost becomes irrelevant…he might as well be David Bowie (to me) or Justin Timberlake (to somebody else), etc. At once, Bright Star is a romance AND an exclusive journey into the soul of a prurient teenage girl. Nobody visualizes female sexuality like Campion!

3. *Julie & Julia (1:10, 2:7 = 17)

Further proof that he needs to retire, Roger Ebert chastised the characterizations of the husbands of Jule Powell and Julia Child in his review of this film.  “Both husbands are, frankly, a little boring,” he wrote. “They’ve been assigned their supporting roles in their marriages and are reluctant to question the singlemindedness of their wives…if the men had been portrayed as more high-spirited, (the film) might have taken on intriguing dimensions.”

Well, Mr. Ebert, I (respectfully) disagree with you on several points. The husbands aren’t boring; they’re just NOT in a movie ABOUT THEM. Quelle suprise! This is a movie, as the title clearly states, about Julie and Julia. This is a movie about women finding their identities from what you so patronizingly refer to as their “singlemindedness.” And yet, to Director Nora Ephron’s credit, I do know what each husband does for a living and what he is passionate about. She didn’t even have to give us that. We female film audiences have sat through many a good movie with poorly (under)written female characters. We’re entitled to a movie about real women now and again, don’t you agree?

And you can’t ask for a better, more sensitive, more nuanced portrayal of a supportive husband than that given by the great Stanley Tucci as Diplomat Paul Child! I hope he gets the Oscar. So there: the Oscar winner I’d like to see come out of this movie is one of your “boring” husbands!

Julie & Julia is about two women who discover their strengths and generate feelings of self-worth, ironically, in the kitchen. Julia Child can’t have children – that is her great sadness – but she leaves her mark on us in other ways. We love her joy, her bliss: her loves of food, wine and sex! And Julie Powell’s sadness comes from feeling like she’s a 30-year-old failure. “Will I be a writer?” she asks herself. “You are a writer.”

Just because nobody pays me for this blog, doesn’t mean I’m not a writer. I am a writer. This is the identity I create for myself.

2.  *Precious (1:10, 2:8 = 18)

The very fact that Director Lee Daniels had to go outside of traditional casting methods to find the right actress (Gabby Sidibe, a bright, shining beacon of realism) to portray a morbidly obese black teenager, pregnant with her own father’s second child, goes to show you that Hollywood has it all backwards when it comes to women. Not only could I not get enough of peering into Sidibe’s stunning yet stoic face, but I left the theater wishing there was another movie playing that could move me in the same way: force me to look at real women squarely in the eyes and accept us. For that’s what Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones does: she goes from looking in a mirror and seeing a white, skinny, conventionally beautiful teenager (her fantasy self) to looking in the mirror and seeing a strong, black, finally literate teenager (her real self). This film took my breath away!

The film also demonstrates how misogyny and racism often work hand in hand to hurt women. There are truths about the black, Harlem culture revealed in this story and the way the women therein are taught to (de)value themselves (i.e. the number of children you have denotes self-worth, there’s no possibility for survival/advancement beyond the welfare office, etc.) that form the backbone for a formidable thesis: illiteracy, poverty and self-hatred form a cultural cycle that is nearly impossible to break. Just look at the shocking, albeit beautiful, posters for the film:

The first image shows how the sexual identity of Precious has fallen prey to a violent man, her own father – as well as her own jealous mother. The second image invokes thoughts of pre-Civil War southern (U.S.) black domesticity. And finally, the third image sets us, the viewers, free. Precious will grow; she will change; she will fly. And we get to go on this journey with her. (Note: Precious is the film adaptation of the novel Push by Sapphire, which may be worth reading for additional thematic material not found in the film.)

1.  *Coraline (1:10, 2:9 = 19)

When I was a girl, I was sometimes unhappy. I was not unlike Coraline, but it wasn’t just my name that people misunderstood: it was my frustration at being born with a perception that didn’t match those in my immediate locale. That’s why, when I went to see Coraline in theaters last February, I wept like a baby when a little girl, not unlike me, crossed into a (dream) world where women are as beautiful as they imagine themselves to be and parents seem interested in the life of their child, only to find out that in order to stay in this fantasy place, she has to sew buttons over her eyes. In other words, she has to blind herself to the fantasy in order to live it. There’s nothing like showing somebody a wonderful world of options and then taking all options away except one! That’s cruel and unusual punishment.

Coraline is adapted from a novella for youth by Neil Gaiman, but much of the visual artistry is the brain child of the filmmakers who rendered stop-motion animation flawlessly to create a female-identified real world and a female-identified, even vaginal, alternate universe. In the former, Coraline and her parents rent an apartment in a grand, pink Victorian house. There’s a black cat (a pussycat) always watching her, two old ladies, hard of hearing, living in the basement, a talkative boy whom Coraline detests, and a circus performer with a collection of mice living in the attic.  These creatures are present in the alternate world but, like Coraline’s father, the men are rendered dumb, even absent, while the women reach their former glory as vivacious Vaudevillian starlets and the mother, “the Belle Dame,” rules with an iron fist.

You're a long way from home, Coraline Jones.

You're a long way from home, Coraline Jones.

At first Coraline is tempted to travel the vaginal tunnel to eat the tasty food prepared by her “other mother,” to wander the ovarian gardens with her “other father” who gives her the time of day… But once the buttons come out, she knows something is wrong and she decides that disinterested parents and gray clothes are better than a fate of self-induced blindness, when one can’t see the things one wishes were true when they ARE true and right before one’s eyes.

This story hit me like a ton of bricks. What we women want are choices. What we NEED are choices. Coraline represents what girls have historically suffered: knowing there’s more to life than what they’re offered, but feeling powerless to achieve the more. Coraline is the reason we founded feminism and she’s the reason why feminist empowerment, the agency to find and seize our choices, is the most important thing that we can inspire in our daughters and the women we know who aren’t already empowered to choose the things they want in life.

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Dear Hillary…

Posted in Feminist Theory, media, News, Politics, Sexuality by femspotter on October 28, 2009

October 28, 2009

Dear Hillary,

On Saturday night in suburban San Francisco, California,  a 15-year-old girl was reportedly gang raped by as many as 10 male teenage attackers while another 10 stood by and watched, maybe even cheered. She was left unconscious beneath a bench on Richmond High School property after more than two hours of this ordeal.

I read about this incident on CNN.com on Tuesday morning and couldn’t believe it had happened. I found it reminiscent of the gang rape of a mentally challenged teenage girl in Glen Ridge, New Jersey in 1989, which I’d read a book about. Well, thought I, after stomping my fists and wailing at the top of my lungs; at least these types of incidents are few and far between.

But later I remembered that in 2008, in the neighboring town of Montclair, N.J., three teenage boys sexually assaulted a female teenage special education student. As in the Glen Ridge incident, the young men used a broomstick to penetrate the girl. Well, thought I, after scratching my head and whimpering; at least that’s only two recent incidents in the United States. I don’t, after all, reside in Afghanistan, for instance, where 90 percent of married women are abused by their husbands. The U.S. is a safe haven for women and girls.

On Tuesday, I waited for other news outlets to pick up the story of the San Francisco teen. I periodically googled “San Francisco gang rape.” Surprisingly, I found very little about the Saturday night incident, and instead stumbled across a December, 2008 gang rape of a lesbian female by four men, two teens and two adults, also near San Francisco. The four had spotted the woman’s car, which displayed a rainbow bumper sticker, shouted hateful epithets at her, struck her with a blunt object, raped her, drove her to an abandoned building, raped her again, and left her naked just outside the building before driving off in her car. Well, thought I, after gasping and digging my fingernails into my thighs; at least gang rape is just a San Francisco and northern N.J. thing.

But then I remembered the similar hate crime of Brandon Teena (nee Teena Brandon) in 1993 in Humboldt, Nebraska. Two men raped and murdered Teena, and also murdered two bystanders, because they hated – and likely feared – Teena’s choice to live his life as a male, though born a female. Perhaps you’ve seen the film adaptation of this incident starring Hilary Swank: Boys Don’t Cry? Well, thought I, after reliving the horror of the film and emotional ruin it left me in; at least it’s only gangs and pairs that hate women enough to murder them indiscreetly.

Oh, wait: George Sodini indiscreetly shot at women in a Pennsylvania gym in August, killing three women and then himself and wounding nine others because, as his personal blog so clearly stipulated, he was tired of 19 years of rejection by women and sexually frustrated. “Thanks for nada, bitches!” he wrote in June. And previously, in 2006, lone gunman Charles C. Roberts IV shot 10 girls, killing five and himself, at an Amish schoolhouse in Pa. leaving behind a hint or two about his unfortunate longing to molest little girls. Perhaps, he shot them out of rage and bewilderment that they existed to tempt him. Well, thought I, after digging to find all the facts of these two incidents and finding myself thoroughly disgusted and alarmed; maybe there’s something in the water…in Pa., Neb., N.J. and Calif.

Why do some men hate women, in the U.S. and abroad? Why do they want to beat us into submission? Why do they want to kill us in heinous ways? Why don’t they want us to be happy with powerful, singular identities and exciting, fulfilling sex lives? Why won’t they let us take control of our reproductive rights without a fight? Why won’t they let us be mothers and lovers at the same time, sinners and saints simultaneously?

There exists a pervasive hatred and fear of women in our American culture. Whether movies, television, art and literature reflect or cause this fear escapes my understanding. But it all culminates at a rigid point: collectively, we believe women are one thing or the other, limited by our sex to be either good or bad. The “good” women are loving mothers, faithful wives, compliant sexual partners and obliging victims. The “bad” women reject their obligations to the “good” tasks, opting for personal pleasure. In other words, “good” women sacrifice themselves for this goodness, while “bad” women sacrifice nothing. As an unnamed Hollywood executive said of Ms. Swank, “Her look and demeanor are not soft, so it’s hard to see her as vulnerable or as a love object.” (Entertainment Weekly, 10-30-09)

Ergo, this Hilary like another Hillary we know, does not fall cleanly into either the “good” or “bad” categories, and is therefore a “difficulty.”

I am reminded of a magnificent argument a certain Secretary of State and former First Lady made to a N.J. Representative in April, 2009 in support of reproductive health and the reproductive health education of women globally and at home, which went largely unnoticed by the media. I am a feminist blogger and I hadn’t heard about it until another blogger called it to the attention of the feminist blogging community. Madame Secretary said:

Congressman, I deeply respect your passionate concern and views which you have championed and advocated for over the course of your public career. We, obviously, have a profound disagreement. When I think about the suffering that I have seen of women around the world; I’ve been in hospitals in Brazil where half the women were enthusiastically and joyfully greeting new babies and the other half were fighting for their lives against botched abortions. I’ve been in African countries where 12 and 13-year-old girls are bearing children. I have been in Asian countries where the denial of family planning consigns women to lives of oppression and hardship…It is my strongly held view that you are entitled to advocate and everyone who agrees with you should be free to do so anywhere in the world, and so are we (the Obama Administration). We happen to think that family planning is an important part of women’s health and reproductive health includes access to abortion, that I believe should be safe, legal and rare. I’ve spent a lot of my time trying to bring down the rate of abortions and it has been my experience that good family planning and good medical care brings down the rate of abortion. Keeping women and men in ignorance and denied the access to services actually increases the rate of abortion…I’m sad to report that after an administration of eight years that undid so much of the good work (of the Clinton Administration), the rate of teenage pregnancy is going up (in the U.S.)…We are now an administration that will protect the rights of women including their rights to reproductive health care.

This statement eloquently confirms the Obama Administration’s commitment to the inalienable human right to life that pregnant women were born with; and that right to survive includes access to legal, safe abortions. The statement also makes clear that Pro-Choice supporters are not crazed baby killers: we are, instead, female protectors fighting for the safety and wellness of women, worldwide. We don’t cheer for abortion but instead believe it to be a necessary component to female reproductive health.

I fear, however, the administration now championed by the Secretary – i.e. that of President Barack Obama – does not share her passion. I fear that President Obama may be… distracted from the goals so clearly described in Madame Secretary’s speech. In July, the President hosted a “Beer Summit” at the White House in honor of a truce struck between affluent Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and a Cambridge, Mass. police officer who had – under national scrutiny – engaged in a “disorderly” scene, which resulted in… no damage to either party.  Earlier this month, Obama traveled to Denmark in a failed attempt to woo the International Olympic Committee into naming Chicago, Illinois, his home town, as the site for the 2016 Olympic Games.  And later this month, Obama hosted an all men’s basketball game at the White House. While he didn’t specifically restrict women players, he didn’t make a point of including them either; just as he doesn’t make a point of following women’s basketball. Personally, I don’t care what the President does during his free time; but on work time he should be cognizant of women’s equality.

The fact that the President is publicly, and “as the President,” interested in “man” activities like drinking beer, shooting hoops, welcoming a “big rambunctious dog” rather than a “girlie dog” into the White House and spectating the Olympics; combined with the fact that his wife seems more than happy to play the part of First Lady “Fashionista,” means that the U.S. is continuing to tolerate and even support traditional gender roles.

Traditionally, a woman might be expected to make way for her husband’s comments on major issues rather than issuing her own. It is possible that the reason a Secretary of State and former First Lady bristled when asked to speak for her husband at a question and answer forum in August in Kinshasa, Congo was because of the invocation of said tradition. News anchors rolled their eyes at the scene, but the offense was legitimate. This is 2009, not 1909. Women can and do vote, own property, hold public office, etc. And when a woman does hold an important position, her opinions on subjects relating to her office’s authority are of greater importance than any adjacent man’s: husband’s, President’s and former President’s alike.

I value your opinion, Hillary. I want to know why this misunderstanding of who we women are and what we can do exists in the U.S., masquerading as hatred and violence; and I want to know what we – what I – can do about it.

With deep admiration,

femspotter

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