The Fem Spot

Good news for the women of television

Posted in Feminist Theory, Film and Television by femspotter on March 30, 2009

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 CityDeadwood, 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 DamagesThe 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?

Captain Kara Thrace and President Laura Roslin

Captain Kara Thrace and President Laura Roslin

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.

A little about violence against women: Watchmen and beyond

Posted in Film and Television, Pop Culture, Sexuality by femspotter on March 20, 2009

March 20, 2009

Two of the top-grossing movies (#2 and #3) at the United States box office this past weekend (3/14-15) contain brutal (man on woman) rape scenes. It wouldn’t be such an issue if one of the two films didn’t trivialize rape to the point where ignorant viewers confuse sexuality and violence.

In Watchmen (#2) – which I’ll admit I walked out of after an hour because I was miserable and I’d been tricked into seeing it by some marketing geniuses who had fashioned a movie trailer that recalled the glory and action bliss of director Zack Snyder’s previous hit 300 – a scantily-clad female hero is nearly raped by another “hero” (and it is implied that she later fails in her attempt to fend off the same culprit with the same intent). He says all of the cliche lines: ‘No’ as in Y.E.S.? You wouldn’t put those clothes on if you didn’t want some action! (I’m reproducing those quotes from memory. They may not be entirely accurate…I’m not going to watch the film again to confirm them, even in the spirit of good journalism. No!)

I subsequently had a revealing conversation with a tween on The Internet Movie Database Watchmen message board. He told me that he was disappointed with the relatively “small” amount of violence in the film. He said that 300 was much more exciting because of its heightened levels of bloody action and because the rape in that movie happened on screen. He condemned the current graphic novel adaptation for failing to present the sexuality that the source material calls for (I’m paraphrasing – he was neither eloquent about his views, nor did he spell all of his words correctly!)

I responded that he needed to reconsider: “Are you clamoring in favor of a ‘real’ rape scene?” I asked. “Why would you want to see that?”

“I don’t want to see a rape,” he argued, adding that he just wanted to see “sex of any kind” in the scene where the Comedian beats up Silk Spectre and attempts to penetrate her with his penis before their interaction is interrupted.

I pointed out that “sex of any kind” in such a scene would constitute a rape. Rape isn’t really sexual. It’s really just violent.

Radio silence.

The critical reception of the film is mixed. There isn’t a mainstream feminist film critic writing as an authority on this issue, but I’ll turn to two mainstream critics who did address this man on woman rape/violence occurrence, however briefly.

You want to see the attempted rape of a superwoman, her bright latex costume cast aside and her head banged against the baize of a pool table? The assault is there in Moore’s book, one panel of which homes in on the blood that leaps from her punched mouth, but the pool table is Snyder’s own embroidery…Amid these pompous grabs at horror, neither author nor director has much grasp of what genuine, unhyped suffering might be like, or what pity should attend it; they are too busy fussing over the fate of the human race — a sure sign of metaphysical vulgarity — to be bothered with lesser plights. In the end, with a gaping pit where New York used to be, most of the surviving Watchmen agree that the loss of the Eastern Seaboard was a small price to pay for global peace. Incoherent, overblown, and grimy with misogyny, “Watchmen” marks the final demolition of the comic strip, and it leaves you wondering: where did the comedy go?

– Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

The theory I espouse from Lane’s review is that the creators’ blatant disregard for human (including female) suffering explains the overall desensitized reaction to the film. Rape is painful for the victim; it should be painful for the viewer too, especially when the viewer should identify with the victim. Claudia Puig of USA Today didn’t mention the rape (attempted or otherwise) in her review, so perhaps it didn’t bother her. Apparently, it didn’t bother Sara Vilkomerson at The New York Observer either (not to mention the fact that she used the word “gender” incorrectly in her review – arrrgh!). And Lisa Kennedy of The Denver Post liked the film.

Michael Phillips of The Chicago Tribune pitted the attempted rape in Watchmen against the onscreen rape in The Last House on the Left (#3) in his review of the latter film:

“The Last House on the Left” hinges on humiliation and vengeance, which makes it like most other modern horror titles. Its focus on sexual assault, however, puts it in a different, more primal league. The way director Iliadis shapes the key misery-inducing sequence, there’s no hype or slickness or attempt to make the rape palatable or visually “dynamic.” For that you have to go see  “Watchmen.”

Sara Paxton in "The Last House on the Left"

Sara Paxton in "The Last House on the Left"

Both films contain rape content (The Last House on the Left is about vengeance resulting from the act), but Watchmen presents this violence without a caveat. Instead, the film justifies the rape by (I’m told) making the Comedian repentant and by (I’m told, although it’s also obvious) structuring the story so that Silk Spectre’s heir apparent is conceived during the Comedian’s successful, albeit violent, conquest. The movie should have shown the rape and not just its unsuccessful precursor. And it should have condemned the violence. Instead, it delights in violence of all kinds. A pedophile therein doesn’t just kill a little girl…he leaves her bones to be chewed on by dogs. Isn’t the first half of that thought horrific enough on its own? Why must it be compounded?

It really scares me that my tween forum buddy craves more violence than Watchmen offers up; but it scares me more that he was allowed to see the movie in the first place, when – clearly! – nobody is helping him understand the dark material he witnessed. I keep promising myself that when I’m a parent, I won’t restrict my kids’ viewership on the basis of sexuality or language in film, but will censor violence if need be – if my children are as sensitive to it as I am. I probably should go and see The Last House on the Left so that I can make a fair comparison. I’ve read about all of the gory parts on KidsinMind.com and I once stomached the original 1972 mess. I’d like to have an intelligent discussion about violence against women with somebody in person or online; but, I realize that the target audience for both of these films is not me. And it’s not teenagers with feminist parents either. Perhaps that’s why there’s a lack of sensitivity and understanding out there when it comes to this topic: nobody is talking about it.

Violence against women in our American culture has reached a celebrated status: we love to know all about and judge the Rihanna affair. A CNN.com article about violence against an elderly woman in Saudi Arabia – sanctioned by the government, no less – reached “Latest News” status last week, but then was downgraded in less than an hour in favor of stories like “Boat made of plastic bottles to sail to Australia” and, in “Popular News,” “Oprah comments on Rihanna.” The Rihanna scandal is a circus. Violence against women is real.

The message this flip flopping sends to me is that we (the general CNN-viewing public) are only interested in violence against pretty, young women.

There seems to be some confusion out there that rape and violence are one and the same thing. I’m sure that Watchmen tween isn’t alone in his confusion about rape and sexuality. And I really can’t blame young viewers when cinema marketers are targeting movies at them that they can’t possibly understand. Their age group has been weaned on similar movies like Sin City, wherein all women are either prostitutes or exotic dancers except in the case of a lone female police officer (also played by Carla Gugino, the Watchmen rapee); but she’s still naked just like all of the other women and, in a particularly sadistic form of castration (read: weakening), her hands are cut off by a serial killer. She is therefore rendered powerless. (Is it just me or does Gugino need a new agent?)

When I left the theater in the middle of the movie – which skillfully manifests a bold and seamless apocalyptic aesthetic, I’ll admit – I read the Lane review on my husband’s iPhone, lamented that I hadn’t read it before I plunked down my 10 bucks, and subsequently went to visit the “real” characters of The Wrestler (loved it!). Unfortunately, that made me think about how many abusive males were nominated for Academy Awards in 2009: Mickey Rourke, Sean Penn, and – most recently – Josh Brolin have each been accused of assault.

I guess it’s okay, though. Brolin, like the Comedian, has been forgiven. (That’s sarcasm.)

Malin Akerman in "Watchmen"

Malin Akerman in "Watchmen"

When Watchmen let out, I wandered back down the corridor to find my husband but instead found a group of teens who “absolutely loved” the film. A pretty and – of course – terribly slender young woman stretched her arm behind her back to fondle the tips of her long blond hair. “Do you guys think that I could be Silk Spectre (2) next Halloween?” she asked her friends.

Great! Not only does she want to dress in next to nothing and masquerade as the anti-heroine, but she’s also responding to a lackluster performance by the world’s second blandest film actress, Malin Akerman (Kelly Preston gets my vote for number one). I wanted to drag her down the hall and force her to witness the depth in Marisa Tomei’s fine performance.

Also on the news radar last weekend was the brawl that broke out in the audition line for the upcoming new season of America’s Next Top Model. I wonder if Halloween’s Silk Spectre was the culprit of that “violence against women.”

Ladies, we really are our own worst enemies. We don’t need any help from Alan Moore or Zack Snyder if we’re beating each other up over who gets to be America’s Next Top “Insect.”

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