Posts Tagged ‘women in media’

Recently, The Cut put out a list of 25 quotes from famous women all about female friendships. The topic is an inspired one, in my opinion, because, as the article points out, friendships between women are complex – far more complex than movies, television, or most forms of media will cover. Via the lens of Hollywood, women, as we relate to each other, are rarely depicted in a positive manner. Much of this is due to the skewed gender dynamics of any grouping of oldacquaintance-toastcharacters. Whether it’s an action movie, a television procedural, or a popular cartoon series, women are typically outnumbered two to one.  And that’s assuming there’s more than one woman in the cast. There’s a reason why “The Chick” and its corresponding trope the “Smurfette Principle” exist; the lone female character in the main cast serves as the only representative of half the viewing audience, of which the other half gets at least four characters to latch on to, and her entire reason for existing is to be the love interest/girl equivalent of the male lead or just simply “The Girl” meant to embody all things under the broad category of feminine.

So you can imagine how difficult it is to portray friendship among women with any depth when this tendency to keep to one girl per team means the lone female’s personality and drive are always dwarfed by her relationship to the male cast, specifically the leading man. Men get to “bro out” because there are just more of them while female characters are either one-of-guys or sporting the coldest shoulder in need of the leading man to thaw. The message sent to girls and women is clear; this character has earned a special place amongst this group of men, something you too should strive for but if another woman shows up you should be wary of her immediately. Think about cartoons of the 80s and 90s. One girl in this special group with mostly guys, she has doe eyes for the leading man, and then another voltron-teamwoman shows up. This femme fatale immediately zeroes in on the lead guy and openly flirts with him just for the sheer pleasure of making the girl jealous. Typically she ends up being the villain of the week defeated by the end of the episode, but that storyline shows up in just about every cartoon. Trust me. It’s a very rare thing for an extra female character to just randomly show up and become best friends with the sole leading lady…unless that’s also a ruse for the episode. Cartoons were really formulaic back in the day. The point is, girls are taught from a young age to be distrustful of other women, which dovetails into adolescence and adulthood as the media constantly pits women against each other in a way that emphasizes spite and jealousy over friendship and loyalty. And the general lack of a female plurality means women have fewer characters to identify with and emulate.

And that’s where the ultimate problem lies. Because of the gender imbalance, female characters are either written with no personality so as to be a blank enough slate for female viewers to project themselves upon or they’re written with ALL THE PERSONALITIES so as to cover every base that the writer believes to be salient to women – assuming all women go through the same milestones and experience full character arcs within a predetermined time frame. The luxury of multiple male characters is you can have varying personalities, ya know like in real life, that viewers can relate to. It’s why Black Widow’s storyline in Avengers: Age of Ultron has received so much criticism, lots-of-new-avengers-age-of-ultron-character-detailsmostly but not exclusively, from women bemoaning the romantic drama between her and Bruce Banner as well as the disclosure of her sterilization while being trained as an assassin. As the only female lead in the Avengers ensemble, some felt the romantic/can’t-be-a-mommy angle was unnecessary for Natasha and further proof of Hollywood’s systemic misogyny. In truth the absence of women creates an absence of stories, which creates a need to see those stories done correctly for fear that it’s a one-time offer.

Mark Ruffalo reiterated this point during his most recent AMA:

If anything, Black Widow is much stronger than Banner. She protects him. She does her job, and basically they begin to have a relationship as friends, and I think it’s a misplaced anger. I think that what people might really be upset about is the fact that we need more superhuman women. The guys can do anything, they can have love affairs, they can be weak or strong and nobody raises an eyebrow. But when we do that with a woman, because there are so few storylines for women, we become hyper-critical of every single move that we make because there’s not much else to compare it to. [Source: Nerdist]

WWTo put it another way, think of all the scrutiny the Wonder Woman solo movie has come under before a script has even been written. Casting decisions, Gal Gadot’s body, the costume, the director, the studio, her cameo appearance – all of it has been and will continue to be debated and picked apart until the finished product is released in 2017. And even then it will be the subject of multiple conversations, essays, and op-eds about women in the film industry, female led movies, female led action/superhero movies, and the depiction of women in comics. The scrutiny and the nitpicking will be exhaustive and unrelenting. Why? Because we’re concerned that this is it. If Wonder Woman doesn’t succeed, for whatever reason, it’s just more fodder for studio executives to proclaim that female led movies don’t sell. Thus, Hollywood continues to trudge along like men are the universal demographic, which makes it even harder for women to carve out even a smidge of safe space in the Hollywood machine.

I know I’m being hyperbolic, but don’t tell me any bit of that doesn’t at least have a grain of truth. It’s frustrating because as a woman I’ve been taught to find more sympathy and empathy with male characters purely because my choices were limited in the amount of women present in the cartoons, tv shows, and movies I watched. As a kid, and a tomboy, I didn’t think much of it, but as an adult it just doesn’t make sense to put limitations on the amount of women in an ensemble when you’re effectively closing your story off to other narrative avenues and character interaction. Pro tip: If there’s only one woman on the bridge crew of a spaceship, or a group of mercenaries, or a ragtag team of miscreants looking to raise hell maybe make one of the four or five interchangeable meatheads a woman. Hell, make half of them women. Or better yet, make the WHOLE CAST WOMEN!guardians-galaxy-walking

It’s not such a crazy idea since women generally interact in groups, so the National Geographic specials have told me. And it’s not just a case where one woman is hanging out with a group of men. Nope. Get this. Women occasionally hang out with other women. Weird, right? Sometimes a group of women can get together, all of them from differing backgrounds and life experiences, somehow stay in a room together, have a laugh or a serious conversation, and part ways on friendly terms with the desire to hang out again. But you wouldn’t know that from Hollywood where all-female casts = romantic comedy/drama/coming-of-age/Lifetime cancer movie of the week tear-jerker. We’re given the “Chick Flick” label because all other movies are for guys? Again, that’s a limitation based on the old school assumption that women have to be coerced to see westerns, sci-fi, horror, or action movies where we typically see the a significant shortage of female characters. In actuality, we love those films just as much as men and willingly go see them. But you know what we rarely see? More than one woman in those genre ensembles. And if there are maybe two women they’re either rivals, they never have a scene together, or one of them dies to further the male character’s plot.

bridesmaids_poster021-e1304923490553-700x361That’s why all-female casts like the Ghostbusters reboot, the much maligned Expendabelles, the up-coming Jem and the Holograms, and even the rumored 21 Jump Street spinoff matter. The same goes for Bridesmaids, The Heat, Rizzoli and Isles, Cagney and Lacey, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Parks & Recreation, Broad City, Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra, and Sailor Moon. They feature more than one female character in the lead, if not a female-dominated cast, which allows for personalities to flourish and create differing character interactions based on those personalities. No one character has to shoulder all of femininity. Instead, all of them get the chance to showcase how nuanced women are in relation to each other.

A blog post from Amanda C. Miller about Sailor Jupiter sums this up nicely:

You see, when you have an entire team of girls instead of just one or two, it makes the writer’s job easier because they don’t have to be as worried about playing it safe with their sole precious female character, and can therefore be more nuanced and complicated in their approach. You can give them each distinct personalities, flaws, strengths, desires, POVs, etc, because you have more than just one person representing an entire gender. With proper representation, you have the freedom to just show people as human. The good, the bad, the ugly, the quirky, so on and so forth. This goes for any underrepresented group of people.

Women are funny, competitive, vulgar, emotional, intelligent, romantic, standoffish, brazen, intimidating, generous, etc. but we need more properties that emphasize these aspects through interactions with other women. We need and want an all female Ghostbusters because we had to sit through two movies where four guys with varying Broad citybackgrounds in science and psychology ran around busting ghosts but the only two women in the cast were the secretary and the damsel. You know what would be awesome? Four women from varying backgrounds of science, psychology, and paranormal studies running around busting ghosts and talking to each other like friends or colleagues would. Will one of them have a love interest? Will one of them be married with kids? Maybe. It’s always a possibility. But it’s just as possible that all of them are single, two of them are in the Illuminati, and three-fourths of them eat ice cream while watching late night B-movies on basic cable. The point is you have the option to choose without worrying about who representing “The Girl”. They’re all “The Girl” but now it’s time to figure out what that entails.

Don’t get me wrong, some headway is being made. Comic books like Batgirl, Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Gotham Academy, Rat Queens, Lumberjanes, and the new Jem and the Holograms are going strong with their emphasis on girl power and the strength of friendship but it’s still a small pool in an ocean of books featuring male leads. Television and film? Yeah, needs some work, but it’s work worth doing to have an even greater selection of quality stories.

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When we look at feminist texts in the category of fiction, brutality and the subjugation of women are common themes in which authors explore how women strive for or gain agency within a world that has no qualms about denying or silencing them. The realm of science-fiction allows for a more heightened realization of these themes through the fears women have about their BITCH PLANET LOGO 1place in society and how institutions of power reinforce those notions. Science fiction also allows authors to take the combination of fear and reality to their most logical, or illogical, extremes; exposing the raw nerve of women as pawns, and sometimes perpetuators, of corrupt, fundamentalist societies intent on keeping them compliant. In this vein, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet strikes the right balance between over-the-top prison movie exploitation and biting social commentary.

In the future, not sure how far off but that’s really not important, Earth has taken great leaps to ensure that society is well-ordered, free of “sin”, and most importantly compliant by shipping criminals and radicals off the planet to a prison known as Bitch Planet. Unsurprisingly, all of the prisoners are women who didn’t exactly meet the compliance standards via the rule of law or the perceptions of society. Among the new batch of prisoners are Penelope Rolle, a large woman unafraid to speak her mind and throw her weight around, Kamau Kogo, the fight-saavy presumed volunteer on the station, and Marian Collins, the innocent caught up in the planetary victimization of women.

The CatholicTo be fair, all of the women in Bitch Planet are victims of society in one form or another. While we know some of the prisoners are murderers, we’re not certain of the circumstances that led them to kill. The rest are referred to as radicals, implying that they are political prisoners, demonstrators exposing the reality of a society enforcing compliance whether through speaking out or practicing good old civil disobedience. There is, however, a third category of prisoner, the women who don’t adhere to what men want. While that could come down to just about anything, this particular type of prisoner is mostly embodied in Marian. We learn through dual conversations, one between Marian and the prison’s “Catholic” construct, the other between Marian’s husband and Mr. Solanza, that the two experienced some marital difficulties, which Mr. Collins resolved by having an affair because Marian didn’t excite him anymore. Marian feels guilty that she drove her husband to have an affair, but we’re led to believe that Mr. Collins is trying to get Marian back because of his own guilt in having the affair. The bait and switch occur when we learn that the Mrs. Collins mistakenly being held in detention isn’t Marian, but the youthful and exciting Dawn with whom Mr. Collins had the affair. It strikes a chord immediately because this is how women are already treated in the real world, viewed as nothing more than a means for men to feel good about themselves until they wear out their welcome and are replaced by a newer, younger model.

bitchplanet1-2-05769What hurts the most is that Marian believes it’s her fault for not being compliant to her husband’s desires. It has nothing to do with what she wants or desires. We get a sense of how Marian would fall into this mire of self-esteem in the opening pages as the voice over artist rushes through an unknown city to her job. In the background are advertisements encouraging women to “Eat Less, Poop More” so there’s “Less of You to Love”, “Buy This. It Will Fix You”, and most blatantly “You’re Fat”. All of these ads are aimed at women, drowning them in expectations to be thin and beautiful, devaluing them through body shaming and not-so-subliminal messages. When the voice over gal gets to work, her job is to pose as the voice of a history teacher with the intention of using the recording to play while the Non-Compliants (NCs) are asleep in transit. It’s revisionist history used to indoctrinate these women into the compliant way of thinking.

The religious connotations in Bitch Planet #1 bring to mind Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in which Judeo-Christian fundamentalism is used to justify and enforce class systems and sexual practices, placing women in the lower classes by virtue of being women. As the “history teacher” speaks, we’re given the “In the beginning…” opening that immediately frames this society within a religious context. Mother Earth is no more. Instead, Space is now the Mother and Earth the Father. The women en route to Bitch Planet are being expelled by their “Father” because of their trespasses of gluttony, pride, weakness, and wickedness, sins revised to specifically speak to gender. They’re beyond correction and so are cast out into the “loving embrace of the Mother”, which further reinforces the idea of women as outsiders. Father Planet is where society thrives, but Mother Space is where the cancers on society go. Their nakedness during transport and upon arrival further shames them as they’re watched over by male security techs and “guarded” by men in masks without discernible features. It’s voyeuristic and uncomfortable, which is indicative of how women feel under the scrutiny of men.

Furthermore, the issue of race isn’t specifically stated, but can be viewed through most of the issue. Marian is the only character referred to as the “white girl” while the rest of the prison is predominantly occupied by black women, which is on point according to Danielle Henderson who states in the back matter that “African American women are three times more likely to be incarcerated than white women, and most often for offenses related to men”. The diversity of the cast, as well as the final BP02twist are done explicitly to show the disproportionate population of women of color who visually represent non-compliance.

Bitch Planet‘s timing couldn’t be more perfect in regards to race and gender issues that are still at the forefront of women’s rights and representation in the media. Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro (whose art is amazing, by the way) have hit the ground running with their unapologetic look at society and women through the lens of science-fiction. This is not a subtle book by any means. Its message is loud and clear from cover to cover, ready to hit you over the head in a way that would make Penny Rolle grin with delight.

Sam talks with the Ink-Stained Amazon herself, Jennifer Stuller. The two talk about women as they’re portrayed in movies, television, and comic books and talk about the future of women in media.