Friday, March 14, 2014

Being a Feminist is Hard, and Other Thoughts from a Filmic Female Dreamer

Prepare for a post full of paradoxes. About time I gave meaning to the shitty, nonsensical title I gave this blog when I was 14 and impaired by my Inception obsession.

I swore I would never write a big post on the state of feminism/females in the film industry. But after Ryan, who will forever be the rabbit I chase (not insinuating you are a rabbit, Ryan, but you get the metaphor I'm heading for here), posted a piece on Lena Dunham not pushing her case for females being given opportunities in the whole entertainment industry hard enough, I chimed in on the comments section. And hey, in the two hours of lectures that came after that comment, I decided I want to make a post on this ongoing saga.

I've never seen anything Lena Dunham has done apart from This is 40. Girls has been on my watchlist but considering I still haven't seen Game of Thrones season three, I don't think I'll be getting around to it any time soon. So really, I can't judge her standings on anything, but she did raise some valid points at SXSW where she noted that Adam Driver is getting some great role offers, yet the central female cast are not. Ryan said that Lena should aspire to write about more females rather than the ones she knows of. Fair points all round.

This is where I stand on feminism. You probably know by now that I want to be a filmmaker. It's leaning more towards writing screenplays because I want to write about females. The reason that I want to be a filmmaker stems back to the literal moment that Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar for Best Director in 2010 (though she did win for a largely "male" film, which critics are quick to point out, but AT LEAST IT HAPPENED). Late last year, likely due to procrastination, I found myself reading Indiewire religiously, especially the Women in Hollywood/other pieces on women. Anything else I could find on the internet about this topic, I would read. I still do it. However, as this is inspiring and fuels my aspirations more, it's also poisonous.

I don't claim to know what it is like in the film industry for a filmmaker, and maybe in 20 years if I ever do achieve my dream my tune will be changed. But I feel like all we ever do is talk about these problems. Sure, it's great to talk. It's what I'm doing right now. If I were to ever become famous enough to do a Ted Talk or something (which is one of my many weird aspirations), this is what I'd be saying:

Continuing to talk about these problems with a low rate of females in the film industry is like that eight year old girl who begs her parents to let her have a pony but she lives on the 10th floor of an apartment building in the middle of a city. But she wants one just because that’s the thing you want when you’re an eight year old girl. If she were to have the pony, she’d have to go live on a farm, go back to the grassroots, and work hard to look after that pony. What we need to do is go back to the root of the problem and start again. Work hard to preserve what we want if we want it enough. Creating the opportunities instead of settling with the opportunities made available to us. Because that girl is never going to get a pony on that 10th floor. If she really wanted it, she’d have to create her own opportunities and work hard to preserve it. I'm not saying that the eight year old girl can go out and buy a farm, but it's not entirely impossible either. Her parents may keep telling her no, and then all of a sudden when that girl is able to buy her own farm, she no longer wants to have a pony. If we keep pointing out the flaws in the system, we're going to stop wanting to fix them.

Perseverance is key. The uncompromising power that you threaten the normal with is key. Creating the opportunities that you want to see, instead of talking about them for many people to go "hey, cool idea kid", but they don't actually do anything about them.

But hey, who am I to talk? I'm not a filmmaker. I don't even fully believe in my dream (thanks to other poisonous ideals that come with the film industry). If I still persevere with this dream, this is the change I'd like to see. All I have to do is think back to moments like Kathryn Bigelow winning an Oscar, Cate Blanchett outing the sexism in Hollywood in her Oscar acceptance speech, Jessica Chastain's character in Zero Dark Thirty, the filmographies of the likes of Blanchett, Chastain, Katharine Hepburn, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams etc etc etc to see that great stuff has happened, so instead of complaining, let's persevere.

And yet, the biggest flaw in the system is that we constantly have an arrow in the back of these mythical "strong female characters". You wanna know one of the most underrated characters of 2013? Margot Robbie as Naomi in The Wolf of Wall Street. Here we have a film clearly about misogyny, and an extremely misogynistic man, and in the middle of all this we have this woman who fits Jordan Belfort's misogynistic ideals. People were quick to comment on the fact that Margot doesn't wear much in the way of clothing, but here's what she has to say:
"As for my character in particular, the nudity and the sexual side to her is her main power over Jordan. She uses that to manipulate men to get what she wants. That’s her form of currency in a world where she’s surrounded by millionaires, and she’s come from nothing. She didn't have any money whatsoever. That’s how she became a millionaire, you know? So she definitely wouldn't see it that way. She wouldn't feel sorry for herself for having to take her clothes off. She would do that willingly. In fact, she would pity the men that are dumb enough to fall for it. It’s her form of power, so it wouldn't feel exploitative for my character at all."
She's just as materialistic and money-obsessed as Jordan, just in a different way. And at the end of the film, the domestic violence comes into play and that became a big controversy, but does that mean that Naomi loses her power over Jordan? Is she weak? No and no. She's a fighter, Jordan is a heinous and disgusting man. And yet, all anyone wanted to talk about were all her nude scenes, and how that weakened her "feminist standing". She made a complete fool of Jordan and his stupid ideals! Also, it was a perfect deconstruction of the "trophy wife" being a part of the prized American Dream. We see her right from her introduction into the dream and how she gets out of it.

The "strong female character" is something that makes it so hard to be a feminist. Critics are quick to say that Katniss Everdeen is a great female character because she's strong, but she's weakened by her love triangle. As soon as men come into play, females lose their "strength". Maybe it's because of an over-saturation of romantic comedies. But, I don't know, just because I'm a female who might be in love with a guy, does that all of a sudden mean that I'm a weaker human being? Feminism and the "strong female character" seems bent on erasing males. If it's equality you're looking for, you may as well show how they can balance and co-exist and stop trying to have them in a power play that's all based on strength. Weak women are interesting. Powerful women are interesting. Weak women pretending to be powerful are interesting. WOMEN CAN BE INTERESTING. You just need to give them a chance to be interesting.

Also, "strong female character" is basically a synonym for "female character given male qualities to be seen as strong". Can we stop with this notion that males are the end all of strength? MALES AND FEMALES ARE DIFFERENT KINDS OF PEOPLE. This does not mean that they aren't equal. Just because a woman puts a lot of effort into her appearance, is scared of breaking her nails, dyes her hair all the time, wears lots of make-up does not mean that she isn't strong. In fact, actresses are the strongest of all because they have to put up with the bullshit Hollywood standards. That's another post in itself (because the tabloid industry is just ridiculously sexist). Just don't ever think for one second that making a female character with solely male sensibilities will make them a "strong female character". A woman can break down crying if she wants to (case in point: people who didn't understand why Maya was crying at the end of Zero Dark Thirty). A woman can pin all her hopes on a man if she wants to. A woman can yell and scream until she gets what she wants. The moment you start looking for the qualities of a "strong female character", you've lost a good female character.

Let's stop pretending like females don't happen in Hollywood. They have before, they are now. Let's keep persevering and stop poisoning.

Otherwise, people like me won't want to write films about female characters because we don't want them to be so dependent on males. We want to make them appropriations of all of these contradictory feminist ideals, so much so that they aren't human. Everyone's so quick to say that there's a right and wrong way of writing female characters. And it's awfully restricting.

We are never going to have a perfect balance. We are never going to have equal opportunities. But to have people actually trying is better than nothing.

One last thing: it isn't the fault of women that they're under-represented in films. If we spent all of our energy waiting for the person at fault to fix their wrongs, we're going to be waiting an awful long time. Be the change you want to see. That's all there is to it.


  1. Amazing. I love this. All of this. If you do start writing films and hopefully I start making them at around the same time, we definitely have to work together and make a badass female-centric movie, okay? Okay.

    1. Can I do the special effects? I mean, if I do somehow get specialized in Visual Effects, don't know if that's possible in little Denmark ;).

      Stevee, I truly love this post and I'm so sorry I only got around to reading it now. The best point you make is that weak female characters are interesting too - the problem of the film industry isn't the lack of strong female characters but female characters in general!

  2. Wow, great post, you made some great points, especially these two
    "strong female character" is basically a synonym for "female character given male qualities to be seen as strong". Can we stop with this notion that males are the end all of strength?"
    "But, I don't know, just because I'm a female who might be in love with a guy, does that all of a sudden mean that I'm a weaker human being? Feminism and the "strong female character" seems bent on erasing males. "

    1. Hey - great to see you around these parts again! I'm glad you enjoyed those two points, they're the ones that annoy me the most out of all of this.

  3. This was a great post, I completely agree with everything you've said here. It's my aspiration to be a screenwriter too and I hope that someday I have the opportunity to write something with meaning and value to change these ridiculous film industry stereotypes. Thanks for inspiring me even more with this post!

    1. Awesome! From one fellow screenwriter fighter to another, all the best of luck - we can do this!

  4. Lovely post, Stevee, yet I'm a bit hindered by the word "female"-- maybe it's the fact that English is my second language, but the word "woman" seems much more appropriate. But again, might be because of my teaching.

    I love your inclusion of Margot Robbie. Her character was, well, everything she said herself. I hope you'll get your TED Talk. And I promise to watch any movie you'll ever make, or where you participate in making it, and recommend it to everyone. Until then, I'll just read your blog and love every bit of it.

    1. Sorry, I didn't even realise how much I used the word! You can tell I never edit my stuff at all, life's too short for that.

      Margot Robbie was so awesome in The Wolf of Wall Street, she was such a lady hero. And thanks! I hope I don't let you down (and I sure hope my Ted Talk happens some time in the future!)

  5. Great post, loved your points about Naomi - she used sex and her beauty as a way to manipulate man - she had Jordan wrapped around her little finger. I thought she played him in a brilliant way, she bailed out just when she knew things are about to get bad.

    I like your point about this idea that when man comes into play woman is weaker. This is just such a ridiculous point of view. This is why I like so many female characters in Game of Thrones, my favorite being Catelyn - she was never as fierce as when fighting for her husband and family. Fighting for people she loved gave her strength.

    People have this idea of 50's household but they forget man and woman can have relationship based on mutually beneficent partnership. That's the ideal - not erasing men.

    1. Thanks! I loved Naomi so much, mainly because we always see the same old story where the rich douchebag guy gets to marry the beautiful girl and then we never hear anything more from her. Naomi was badass in the way she played Jordan, it was great. How in the hell Margot wasn't in awards contention is beyond me.

      Catelyn is awesome! Which reminds me, I *must* get on to GoT season three. Argh.

      Heck yes to the mutually beneficient partnership! I don't understand why they're all like "let's erase men". That doesn't prove our case at all, it just makes us look whiny and stupid.

  6. Great post and ideas! A great example of people saying a strong female character is weakened by love is Lisbeth Salander. People get so up in arms that she had feelings for a person and thought it betrayed her character. That to me is insane. I might not be as awesome as Lisbeth, but am I less of a feminist for loving a man? Not at all, that's just silly and most feminists would never try to say so, yet when watching a film character it's demoralizing (to some, not saying all feminists since I obviously feel the opposite). A big part of promoting strong female characters is having them on equal playing fields as men in films.

    We really need more roles with strong females, and the best way I feel I can do that at least is buy a movie ticket. That's the easiest way to prove Cate Blanchett's point.

  7. Loved your post! I completely agree with all of this. While I'm not a huge fan of some of the YA book-to-film adaptations, I'm glad it's playing a part for the younger generation and showing that woman can be strong! (and not just physically strong!). And just because a woman is in love with a man doesn't make her weak. Though I don't think The Hunger Games if the best piece of literature/film, it does have some great views on this. Katniss is extremely strong, but she still relies on Peeta, and that doesn't make her weak. I'm glad we at least have these popular movies featuring awesome females which can give a brighter view to the younger generation. Great post!

    1. I don't love The Hunger Games either, but I'm damn glad that Katniss Everdeen exists on our screens and in the hearts of young girls. I think she's been a real game changer.

  8. Stevee, I love this post, I really, truly do. But it kills me to read lines like: “I don't even fully believe in my dream.”

    Believe me, I know what a lofty dream it is, but you have to believe in yourself in order for others to believe in you. No one is going to hand you the career of being a filmmaker, you have to fight and claw and work to get there. Every artist is plagued with moments of self-doubt, I get that. But trust me, this dream of yours CAN happen. Very few people actually go on to win Oscars, but the dream of creating and making films is possible. It really is. I believe that, and I believe in you. You just have to believe in yourself first.

    As you say, perseverance is key.


    1. Cool. It's got a lot better since I came to uni, because everyone here thinks my dream is cool, whereas back at home they're mostly like "you come from Dannevirke, don't ever expect to succeed in anything". The people who win Oscars definitely don't get there by not believing in themselves - and that's what keeps me believing!

      But the self-doubt thing is very much an NZ thing. There's this really popular song at the moment that says something like "I'm trying things that seem fucking crazy to most
      As kiwi kids it ain't in our nature to boast
      So we be playing things down we be making jokes
      In case we choke rather make out like we didn't try
      Than bare the shame that we built a plane that didn't fly" which is pretty true in the case of most of us here, which is why people are too scared to do anything. Don't know where this all came from, but hopefully I can beat it!

  9. Great post! Very well said, and I'm glad you talked about Naomi in WOWS. The more I think about what Lena Dunham said, the more annoyed I get with it though. Not that I don't agree with her points, I do, but complaining that the actresses on Girls don't get offered better things is kind of ironic. They don't get offered anything because they haven't proven they can really act. (With the exception of Zosia, who I've seen play a different character) The only reason Allison Williams is on there is because her father is big in TV, and she comes off the exact same way in interviews as she does as Marine on the show. It's not that big of a stretch.

    1. I can't comment on the Girls situation, but yeah, going by what Ryan said, Lena hasn't really stretched her legs for anyone. It's cool that she's telling a situation about women, though - one is better than none.

  10. This post is on fuckin' point. Thanks to TV shows like Game of Thrones, Mad Men and The Hour, I'm yearning for works that don't have women reduced to only housewives or arm candy. I want women to actually do something when they're onscreen.

    Should I get into Hollywood writing scripts, first thing I'm writing won't have a straight white guy as the lead character.

    1. I'm so over straight white guys in films! No more! TV has some really great female characters. I really want to start bingeing Mad Men - I must get them out at some point!

  11. That is a great post. Especially since you aspire to be a filmmaker and want to do stuff that you want to make. I'm trying to write stuff myself as most of my ideas are driven by women. The stories I want to tell are about strong women or women who are flawed and unsure about themselves.

    I liked what you point out about Margot Robbie's character. Especially in the end where her character definitely becomes more awaken by the realities of what is happening and she made a bold choice for herself and her child. I thought that was a very underrated moment in that film.

    1. Yes, keep writing about flawed women! They're the best kind of women.

      Margot's last scene was amazing. People got so caught up in the domestic violence component that they don't realise just how great she played that scene and how important it was to the film. She was so great.

  12. GREAT piece. i do think we need to get out of the idea that strong female characters are only comprised of one characteristic. i am more concerned about the complexity of roles, rather than whether they can survive a natural disaster with their makeup still in tact

    1. Complexity is what we need, definitely not strength! These strong female characters aren't interesting at all...

  13. Stevee, I don't really have anything that I can add. Amazing piece. I love how it recognizes the inequality yet takes a proactive approach to fixing it. Awesome.

    1. Proactivity is what we need to erase the inequality! Hopefully I can further this tirade even more some day...

  14. That's a beautiful piece, and that is a FANTASTIC analysis of the Naomi character in "Wolf of Wall Street." Copy and paste and forward to everyone. Well done. And good luck. Rock on in your screenwriting quest. The world is round.

    1. Gracias! Ah, Naomi. If only our Margot was at all of the awards shows because she was nominated. And I will definitely rock on in this round world!

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You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.


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