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Help an 'activist' today-- Questions please! (EP 4)

lisa gornick where are the women?

Market validation, I've learned at Activate, identifies where people feel pain, in order to provide a product that relieves the pain. Help An ‘Activist’ Today: Questions Please (EP 3) explored some questions about niches that aren’t well served, where people might feel pain and go in large numbers to films that were made with them in mind. But women are not a niche; we’re half the population. Within all those niches, are there any common kinds of pain that will be relieved by films about women? And if so, what kinds of films? As I research questions to ask in my survey about films for women, am I faced with an impossible task, just as I was when trying to create questions about films that women write and direct? I hope not. While I know that it’s possible for women to DIWO (Do It With Others), to make and distribute a film with mates, I still dream of finding a sustainable way to do this, where the team gets paid and there are audiences who will pay to watch, and there’s money generated to fund the next film. So I have to give these questions my best effort. Because that best effort is part of working, as Andrea Bosshard (Taking the Waewae Express; Hook, Line & Sinker) put it in her comment the other day change the culture of film-making, financing and distribution…to work towards a sustainable way of making and distributing films SO THAT MORE INDEPENDENT FILMS CAN BE MADE with a little more grace and ease than has been our own personal experience in making two feature enormous challenge in such a money-hungry industry where notions of sustainability are not part of the language, (in fact there is a positive resistance to it) because, I believe, it challenges the entire dominant filmmaking culture.
More grace and ease. I like that. Inspires me to identify—tentatively—some possible pain categories among audiences for films about and for women.

1. Relationship movies

When Anne Thompson of Indiewire interviewed Massy Tadjedin about her new film Last Night (starring Keira Knightley) recently, Anne talked about needing ‘product for women’, stated that Last Night is a ‘real relationship movie’, and that ‘we’re starving’ [for films like Last Night], implying that for her relationship movies are ‘women’s’ movies. Merlene’s and Desiree’s comments after my original post support this.

These relationship movies are often about women in groups, and tend to be comedies. Think Sex & the City, Mamma Mia, and now, Bridesmaids. According to a box office analyst for
Women like going out in groups to watch women interacting in groups. And they are very loyal. If they discover something they like, they tell their friends about it. Women were social networking way before Facebook.
I enjoy many films in this category, and like Anne Thompson would like to see more. And in greater diversity, because they sometimes fall into another category of entertainment about women, where Linda Lowen identifies another kind of pain, from constant exposure to formulaic relationship movies. Writing to acknowledge that it’s twenty years since Thelma and Louise was released, “so bold, so different, so exhilarating and frustrating and heartbreaking and unexpected” she claims that
There’s an audience and an appetite for the kinds of movies about women’s lives that [like Thelma and Louise] almost hurt to watch; and what endless Sex & The City sequels and meet-cute romantic comedies offer us is the exact opposite. Most movies aimed towards a female audience lull us into a stupor of temporary satiation, but they’re ultimately not satisfying…are like bingeing on heavily processed high fructose corn syrup snacks. After the initial rush, you crash because there’s nothing there to digest. As Thelma says at a key point in the film, “I don’t ever remember feeling this awake”. When was the last time you exited a movie theatre feeling that way?
So here's an additional relationship movie pain for some viewers. It stimulates a longing for stories that jolt us awake in different ways than a sugar rush. This kind of awakening may lead to reflection and action.

2. Movies that represent women in ‘real’ ways

Very often, filmmakers follow a variation on the Jean Luc Godard recipe, which defines a woman both as a ‘girl’ and an object: "All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl." Note, he places the gun first. (Tx again, to the friend who told me about this!) Here’s Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, on the pain that Godard-recipe representations can cause:
I complain about the representations of women, but I’m more offended when in movie after movie there are no real representations to eviscerate, when all or most of the big roles are taken by men, and the only women around are those whose sole function is, essentially, to reassure the audience that the hero isn’t gay.
Here’s another take on women as ‘real people’, courtesy Feminist Frequency:

3. Movies with complex, diverse, women and girls as role models

This is an extension of the last category, I think. Emma Farley wrote about these the other day. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media works hard to encourage awareness and action around this category, as well as the previous one, a nice continuity from Thelma and Louise because ‘aware’ is a synonym for being ‘awake’. Feminist Frequency has a related vid on how toy ads teach gender:

BUT. The story of a ‘role model’ won’t attract audiences just because it’s about a strong (young) woman. There appear to be problems with biopics like Amelia, about Amelia Earhart, and with dramas like Drew Barrymore’s Whip It, about an interesting young woman. Why? Loryjones wrote in a comment a while back that made me think:
Nobody--not even most women-- want to watch something as bland as Amelia, no matter how brilliant the script is, because at least 50% of women are already leading their lives, either as independent singles or single parents. Why should women watch reality for ‘entertainment’ when they’re already living the story? There are TONS of courageous women out there. It doesn’t mean their lives would make great films. Conflict, sexiness, relationships, suspense, and unpredictability with a touch of relate-ability--these are the components of great stories. Not just throwing a female into a lead part. Hollywood doesn’t need to work harder. It needs to work SMARTER.
These first three categories are problematic because of the strength of television drama and, now, media convergence. What can film provide to relieve the pain described that television dramas (and characters like Outrageous Fortune’s Cheryl), and the growing number of excellent webseries about women's lives, don’t already provide?

4. A kind of double negative category, a desire for fewer films where women are hyper-violent. 

You’ve seen or heard of some of these films (I really liked The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, partly because of her revenge.)

Manohla Dargis again, in a duet with A O Scott:
It’s no longer enough to be a mean girl, to destroy the enemy with sneers and gossip: you now have to be a murderous one…I’m leery of how [these films] fetishize hyper-violent women.
AO Scott:
It seems to me that what fuels these fantasies is also a deep anxiety — an unstable compound of confusion, fascination, panic and denial — about female sexuality, especially the sexual power and vulnerability of girls and young women.
What about more films that celebrate women’s sexual power and that explore the strength of girls and young women, without the hyper-violence, and with the elements that Loryjones identified?

5. Comedy: ‘women’s’ humour

What is ‘women’s humour’? And how are women hurting, beyond experiencing the obvious and gross ways that we’re portrayed in many comedies? Jamie Denbo’s Bridesmaids article is about the “whole can of worms about women and comedy…what male and female audiences will and won't see,” comedy by women (as writers and performers) as well as about women. Beyond Hollywood there are already many women’s webseries that rely on humour, and there’s also the well-established Broad Humor Film Festival. But comedy is, I think, more culture specific than other genres, though New Zealand’s very own Topp Twins and Flight of the Conchords have certainly made people laugh all round the world. I need to think more about comedy.
I’m not sure how to approach comedy and other genres except in a very general way. There are so many issues, large and small. Women in horror is another example like comedy, a huge genre with lots of sub-issues (see Women in Horror Month for lots about these). For instance:

6. Movies with women in refrigerators

Feminist Frequency is on to this (of course).

And then there’s the pain about the numbers of women represented, as well as the way we’re represented.

7. Women in disproportionate (low) numbers

Remember that new research into how even the animals in children’s books are predominantly male? Feminist Frequency has a great clip that relates to this, too.

This week, as I think about how the disproportionate numbers exist in all the niches, and about Johanna’s comment about the queer niche at Help An ‘Activist’ Today: Questions Please (EP 3), I went through the programme for Out Takes: A Reel Queer Film Festival, on in New Zealand right now. And I counted. ‘Queer’ is a term that aims to undermine the usual gender binary. But somehow that binary elbows its way into the programme. Twenty-two narrative features. Fifteen about queer men’s lives, 75%. Five about queer women: 20%. There are also two about queer women and men. (And, wait for it, men wrote and directed twenty of these twenty-two features, 91%. And, as far as I can see, the filmmakers and actors are almost overwhelmingly pale.) These statistics hurt me, at the core of my identity as a woman, as a lesbian, and as a storyteller, especially as I know that there are films the selectors could have chosen to avoid this imbalance. What about Cheryl Dunye and The Parliament Film Collective’s The Owls and Anna Margarita Albelo’s documentary about The Owls, Hooters (how many films are there about women making movies, what a rare and exciting opportunity?)? Dee Rees’ Pariah? I’m focusing on narrative films because there are usually more docos by women in every festival programme, and Out Takes is no different, but I saw this very beautiful trailer for Sonali Gulati’s doco I AM the other day and would LOVE to see the whole film, so can't resist adding the trailer here. (There are also clips from an I AM screening Q & A available.)

I hope there'll be lots of people in Wellington and Auckland who go to every movie about and by queer women over the next few days, to demonstrate the strength of this audience.

And, there’s the hurt that we don’t hear enough women’s talk in films, what a friend calls ‘women’s changing room’ conversations, immortalised in the Bechdel Test:

8. The Bechdel Test pain

This generates longing for films with women who talk to each other about something other than men. Just in case this is the first you’ve heard of it, here’s Feminist Frequency again. They really are just the best.

Then there are more of my own specific pains:

9. Women’s clothes

This might be just me. I’m hungry for films that integrate a greater diversity of stimulating ideas about and images of women’s clothing as part of their mise en scene. Beyond the clothes that star in Sex & The City, or The Devil Wears Prada. Or the school uniforms that feature in films like An Education. I remember how Fanny Brawne’s sewing delighted me in Bright Star, including that reference to a ‘triple-pleated mushroom collar’. Clothes mean a lot, and I wish more films used clothes in a more complex way. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the silhouettes of the characters in Development-the-movie, what they mean and the designer who can provide them. I’d like to do a Courtenay Place movie with all the women characters in long black Chinese scholar gowns. This morning as I was hanging out the washing I decided that my desire for more films that explore the potential of women's clothing has something to do with daily practices that go far beyond costume and body adornment, what we and those around us wear to present particular messages and to give pleasure to ourselves and others. There's a whole range of daily visceral experiences around clothing and colour and texture and movement, from wearing clothes to making them—choosing fabric and sewing it—to the endless washing, drying, folding and mending of clothes and other household fabrics. It’s no accident that so many (New Zealand only?) women’s films have washing and washing lines in them? The repetitive and meditative action with clothes pegs turns them into prayer beads, sometimes, and the washing into prayer flags. Am I alone in this category?

10. Women and sex

Kinda hesitant about this one, unlike the incomparable Lisa Gornick, who will I hope translate her recent erotic drawings into cinema that makes me laugh and feel as effectively as the drawings do. Most sex scenes highlight how secondary women are in film generally. And don’t convey anything of the anarchistic, messy, complex series of conversations, learning, conflict and laughter that sex often is. They don’t contribute anything to the film’s plot, to its themes or to an understanding of its characters. And the only sex scene in a theatrical movie that I’ve had any kind of visceral response to, over a long period of time (I know I’ve written about this before), was in Andrea Arnold’s Red Road. I went to I Am Love with a mate who had no problems with its sex scenes, and in the dialogue that followed, I finally understood why I didn’t like them, and many similar scenes in other films: for me, they’re like reading National Geographic. (Though I’d like to see I Am Love again, because I saw it when I had residual jetlag and think I missed a lot.) Mostly, sex scenes could be replaced by a simple text: THEY HAVE SEX. Does anyone else feel pain over sex scenes, I wonder?

11. Pain because so few resources are invested in films that relieve the pain generated in all these categories

This is a fragmented list. The hard evidence is fragmentary. Because so little is invested in filmmaking by —can’t help going back to women storytellers, always—about, and for women.

11. Your pain

What hurts you about women in films, or the lack of them? Please, let me know!


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