March 30, 2009
Their stories are getting very interesting! (Apparently, the writers got my memo.)
It may seem as though I do nothing but watch television and movies. There’s a lot to write about because – I am pleased to say – women are being written rather well, in some cases. They’re increasingly dynamic. Unlike “chick” shows where several characters add up to one “real” woman, each character embodying a facet of the female psyche (think: Sex and the City, Designing Women and The Golden Girls, to name a few), some of today’s women have a little more in the mix: they’re allowed to be sexy and smart and confused and confident…all at the same time. What a novel idea!
Over the years, I’ve generally stuck to the programs on Showtime and HBO: Sex and the City, Deadwood, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, The L Word, which I wrote about two weeks ago, and Big Love, which I’ll probably write about in upcoming weeks. I generally avoid network television (I watch Damages, The Office and 30 Rock right now) because commercials are annoying and the content doesn’t usually interest me. Believe it or not, the lack of sex, violence and profanity that you might expect me to applaud given my reaction to Watchmen coincides with a reduction in substance. Unless the television show is about flying nuns, there should be a modicum of each to keep it real. (Think: Watership Down – bunnies with blood and guts…and fascism. Very interesting!)
I estimate that I watch between six and eight hours of television per week; and in that six or eight hours, I try to keep my feminist perspective honed. It might surprise you that The Office – very funny though generally devoid of topics for intense discussion – contained a golden nugget of feminist historical significance several episodes ago. I highly doubt that the writers were aware they’d created this landmark occurrence unless one of them was attending a college English literature seminar at the time… I just became aware of it during a second viewing of the episode last night.
Jim bought a house for his new life with fiance Pam, and he reserved for her the stand-alone garage as an art studio. When he surprised her with the house, he’d already set up the garage. He gave her just what every woman needs: creative independence. According to Virginia Woolf, every person should have “a room of one’s own.” And this space must have a door with a lock and key. It must be hers and hers alone, Woolf advocated, apart from the spaces of home and work or home/work united.
Because Jim has given Pam this space for her unique liberty, she has no need to abscond with her creative ideas later on, the way that Edna Pontellier does in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, a landmark feminist text. Edna – the quintessential oppressed wife and mother – recedes to the cottage behind her middle class American home to express herself through art after she meets a mysterious single women named Mademoiselle Reisz. Reisz plays the piano hauntingly, casting a kind of spell over Edna who subsequently becomes inspired to create the separation between herself and her family. She wants to make her own music, so to speak.
In the case of Pam, as a wife and mother, she’ll feel little or no need to assert her independence. All she has to do – in order to feel herself again – is step out her back door and cross the lawn to her makeshift art studio in the garage. “It gets great light,” Jim announced when he presented it to her, canvases, easel and necessary art utensils already in place.
Meanwhile, “over the hill,” and unarguably overweight office chum Phyllis is happily married to Bob Vance, Vance Refrigeration. (In case you missed it, he does own his own business!) Phyllis is perhaps my favorite character on the show because her narrative arc shows that romantic dreams really do come true for nice women who aren’t the aesthetic ideal, but who wait their turn with thoughts optimistic. Bob once paid $1,000 for a hug from his wife at a charity auction (the top moneymaker)…and in a later episode, the happy couple abandoned their dinner guests (Jim and Pam, no less) for a sexscapade in the handicapped restroom. (Pam ate some of Bob’s French fries, and helped herself to a bite of his steak too! It just goes to show you that there are two kinds of couples in this world: those who enjoy sex in public bathrooms, and those who wish they did!)
These characters and their antics make me laugh so much that I re-watch episodes, often three or four times. But sometimes I need a little intrigue and that’s when I turn to Damages, starring the incomparable Glenn Close. Her character, Patty Hewes, is wicked to the core and a firecracker of an attorney to boot: in other words, she’s Snow White’s evil stepmother crossed with Alan Dershowitz.
It seems that all the shows I like are wrapping up their seasons – or even going off the air permanently – right now: The L Word (cancelled), Big Love (hiatus), Damages (hiatus), etc. But the one I’ll miss the most – the most revolutionary program in television history, which I just finished watching on DVD in rapid fire succession with the final episodes purchased on Apple TV: Battlestar Galactica. Though it has no mainstream accolades to show for itself, CNN reports that the cast and writers of the show executed one final diplomatic operation at the United Nations before fading into the past. It seems that the struggle for the survival of the human race after its near-anihalation at the hands of renegade cylons (machines, or “toasters”) really struck a chord with post-9/11 political leaders. Like their 1978 shortlived predecessors, Battlestar Galacticans utilized their own expletives (“Frack!” “Mother Fracker!” “Gods dammit!”) but found a way to stay human(e) in the face of near extinction. What can we learn from them?
For starters, we can learn that women have just as large a role to play in preventing the Apocalypse as do men. So there! The original series portrayed an ill-equipped elected civilian leader who led the human race to ruin with the help of a corrupt count, both male. In the 2003-9 re-imagined series, the civilian leader is transformed from a one-dimensional character into a force to be reckoned with: former Education Secretary turned “dying leader,” President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell). Though suffering from breast cancer for the greater part of the show’s four mammoth seasons, Roslin rarely lets her authority slide. She’s tough when it’s warranted and warm-hearted when she can afford to be. And her winter romance with Admiral Adama is one of the most thoroughly convincing love stories ever to air on television, despite Roslin’s failing health. (I think the original President Adar would have stayed in bed.)
The re-envisioned show also transformed the swashbuckling, womanizing Captain Starbuck (played by pretty boy Dirk Benedict) into the swashbuckling, seductress (I hate the word “slut!”) Captain (Kara Thrace) Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff). I’ve read comments by some women who don’t like this re-imagining because Kara Thrace is rarely feminine and mostly a hard-drinking, hard-punching sex instigator. “Why can’t she be a tough girl who is still a girl?” they wonder.
What do you want her to do? Put on make-up and knit a sweater? She’s a pilot who’s bunk mates with a bunch of other (male) pilots. She’s bound to be a little crass. She smokes cigars, drinks liquor and plays cards with the rest of the pilots…of either sex. It’s how they unwind after a long day of heroics and it sounds good to me!
I like Kara. I like both of these women because I think they work hard and make sacrifices without self-pity, proving that they have the right to be where they are. In the first few episodes, the qualifications that they bring to the table are questioned, first by a cylon skin job (one disguised as a human) and then by the Admiral, among others. I don’t remember anyone ever saying “because she’s a woman” – the show is too subtle for that. It was implied that the question arose as to how much of the burden these women can carry because of their sex. The answer: all of it! Kara Thrace could pilot a colonial viper after a few rounds of whiskey and Laura Roslin led the survivors of the twelve colonies to “Earth” after a few treatments of chemotherapy.
Even though Battlestar Galactica has ended, there may be an evil cylon or two left in the universe. I guess it will be up to Patty Hewes to…hire a contract killer to assassinate them…or sue them – whichever angle works out best in her favor.
June 4, 2008
With the hustle and bustle of daily life, I sometimes forget to listen to the little girl inside. She whispers, “I want to be a film director when I grow up.”
Several days ago, I saw a curious red balloon dancing in the rain. It gently rose and fell with the wind. I immediately ran outside to take a picture. Why? What is inspiring about a lonely red balloon?
When I took a moment to listen to my little girl inside me, she reminded me of the little French movie from 1956: Le Ballon Rouge by Albert Lamorisse. It’s about a little boy who befriends a red balloon and travels with it all about Paris for a day. And in the end, he flies away from a group of bullies who’ve popped his friend the balloon, clutching the balloon’s balloon friends who’ve flown over to play.
That’s a simple premise for a very lovely movie about friendship and imagination. When I was young, and even today, it spoke to me about the power of will and make believe. And where there’s a will, there’s a movie. I wanted to tell the stories created in my mind with much the same simplicity. I became a filmmaker and made two short films with very little dialogue and lots of fanciful imagery.
As I grew older, I realized that so few films spoke to me in the same way as Le Ballon Rouge had. There are many reasons for this: dialogue is often obvious and overstated, tropes exhaustively explored in films marketed at me and other twenty-something women are superficial, etc. Increasingly over the years, I have felt excluded from mainstream cinema because I have felt that so much of what happens on the inside of a character is exploited on screen. Additionally, the roles of women in these movies are marginalized: female characters are either sexy or matronly, but are rarely neither or both.
“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly.” Laura Mulvey points out in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema” that fictional cinema has a long-standing tradition of falling in line with the male phallocentric gaze: filmmakers have reflected male dominion, which has been at large in the world, in their movies.
“The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world. An idea of woman stands as lynch pin to the system: it is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies.” To me this means that men want women to be powerless, but it is female submission to this desire that makes that power all the more relevant. If we women said “No!” and “Fuck you!” more often, we’d minimize this phallocentricism…in theory.
We are obsessed with the phallus in human society, today and historically. Swords, guns, buildings and rocket ships all make use of this physical presence, one that is outward and potent. The vagina on the other hand is inward and secretive. How could imagery in motion pictures possibly reflect this? In truth, there are few that do.
There Will Be Blood, the 2007 Oscar-nominated loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, works on this level of contempt for the female and castration of her power. Filled with flat, dry landscapes, one cannot miss the enormous erections of phallic oil towers and the seminal gushes that emerge there from. And yet Sinclair was sympathetic to the plight of the common female prostitute, as much as he was the working man. Gone is his socialist message. In the only scene in the movie that does depict a prostitute, she is heard but not seen. And there is no supporting imagery in the film that makes a case for her struggle. She and her vagina are sidelined.
How can I love the movies when they so blatantly offend me by castrating the presence of women?
I love the movies because every so often there is a little gem that comes along and speaks to me. The red balloon represents for me my vagina on screen, you see. It gets blown about and still follows the one sensitive person to whom it is instinctively drawn. “Look at me,” it says. “Love me.” Meanwhile, a gang of bullies thrusts after it and tries to pop it by throwing stones.
In 1993, Jane Campion made The Piano wherein she ties a female character’s identity to an instrument. I particularly like the scene in which Harvey Keitel, lusting after Holly Hunter, finds a hole in her stockings as she plays her piano. He pokes the hole with a stubby finger. Later on, Hunter’s own finger is cut off in an horrific instance of spousal reprimand. If the finger is meant to be a phallic image in the visual language of the film, then Hunter has been castrated. There’s also an unusual shot of the back of Hunter’s head wherein the camera tracks into her neatly-wound bun. This is the filmmaker asking the viewer to ask, “What’s this character thinking?” I think this entire movie is Campion’s way of exacerbating the tendency of cinema to take away all the power from women, including their right to keep secrets.
And last year in 2007, Adrienne Shelly’s film Waitress was released posthumously. The film’s female lead bakes pies and the pies stand for her secret emotions: she doesn’t want to be pregnant so she makes “Bad Baby Quiche.” At one point, she considers making a pie with a banana in the center. Wait! “Hold the banana,” she says and takes it out of the vaginal center of the pie. (I love this movie!)
Words cannot express my relief at witnessing a film about a woman who rejects the imposed obligation of motherhood and who embraces her own sexuality in the process. And yet she says to her lover, “I don’t want you to save me.” (I love this movie!)
Last week the movie Sex and the City was released and did big box office numbers; in fact, it had the largest opening weekend for a movie targeted at women, who statistically don’t rush out to the theatres on opening weekends. I liked this movie. But unfortunately, the female characters still reflect the male gaze that has created them. Carrie Bradshaw may have a new big closet, but it is a gift from a wealthy, powerful man. In an episode of the television series, Bradshaw likened this man to the Chrysler Building. She enables him to be so by assuming the passive role in their relationship. He is the skyscraper to her walk-in closet. (This only works for me because it seems to work for both of them.)
The little girl in me wanted to grow up to be the first woman ever to win an Academy Award for Best Director – maybe she still will. But I’ll have to do it on my terms with my women characters and my red balloon clutched in my small, chubby hand.