Thursday, October 11, 2012

Wherein Feminism May Have a Point

Famed internet movie critic Jabrody has a list of the 50 most memorable movie characters, parts 26-50, 11-25 and 1-10. Check it out.

I'm going to take a cue from the Steve Sailer trick of using a list compiled for one purpose to answer an altogether different question. So what was striking about the list to me?  One thing that does stand out is just how few female characters make the cut - only 9 out of 50.

Now, absent some serious explaining, I'm aware that the previous sentence would be in the running for 'most pissweak sentence ever written on this blog'. So hear me out.

First of all, there is absolutely no implied criticism of Jabrody here. Quite the contrary, in fact - I thought he was maybe even overly generous in including interesting female characters (Princess Leia wouldn't have made my top 50, and Kim Basinger was, to me, eminently forgettable in LA Confidential). Not only that, but the next names on my list would have been men (Gordon Gekko, Trent from Swingers, Arnie in Terminator 2). In fact, if you pressed me for my most memorable female character, I could only think of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Scratch that - how many movies can you name where the female character is even the most interesting character in that movie, let alone all movies? Nurse Ratched doesn't pass that test for me. The only one that comes to mind there is Amelie.

So let's assume for the purpose of argument that there really aren't many memorable female characters, and this isn't just because I'm an evil misogynistic patriarchal oppressor, it's some kind of consensus view. Why is this interesting?

The reason is that movies, like advertising, give a direct window into our collective psyches. There's lots of reasons why there might be few women in boardrooms, including boring facts about education and the impact of child-rearing. But movies are just fantasy - we put in what we want to put in.

And for one reason or another, that doesn't include interesting female characters. The category of 'interesting' or 'memorable' is sufficiently broad that it's not like the women need to succeed in a male role either. But for some reason, scriptwriters aren't compelled to write in witty dialogue and back stories that makes women seem memorable as characters.

I suspect that part of the issue is that a lot of women are in movies more to look attractive than to be 'cool'. Sure, it helps for guys to be attractive. But can you imagine a female version of Philip Seymour Hoffman or Woody Allen? It seems that being attractive is almost a strictly necessary condition for being famous as an actress. This makes it more likely that the actresses being selected might just not be that good in the acting part. Some of the characters on the list make it purely from knock-it-out-of-the-park performances by the actor in question. Heath Ledger as the Joker and Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in 'No Country For Old Men' come to mind as characters that might have been boring or trite in the hands of less capable actors.

The standard feminist answer is that movie audiences, like society in general, are sexist in their expectations of women. But this doesn't seem to explain why there aren't memorable female characters in movies marketed specifically to women. Can you think of any interesting female character in a romantic comedy? Me neither. I don't think you can pin this just on audience sexism. If this is audience demand, I think it's not limited to one gender. If women demanded interesting characters instead of hotties that they could aspire to be like, studios would probably deliver.

Part of the reason might be that scriptwriters tend to be male, and thus have more ability to empathise with their male creations. Hence they end up getting the more interesting dialogue.

Truthfully, I don't know the answer, but it is puzzling.

It reminded me of the other interesting feminist critique of movies, the Bechdel test:

Does the movie
1. Have at least two [named] women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man?
I certainly don't think that every (or even most) movies would be more interesting if modified to pass the test.  But that doesn't mean it's not an interesting question to consider.


  1. Mentioning the Bechdel Test reminds or an interesting article I read about horror films. Superficially they seem to have a great deal of violence against women and punish promiscuity. But when looking at it from a feminist perspective, they provide more female heroes and often pass the Bechdel Test. Perhaps that is why Sigourney Weaver's Ripley almost made my list.

  2. Huh, that's a good point. I don't tend to watch so many horror movies, but from what I've seen it definitely sounds right. Ripley would be a clear winner in the 'most interesting character in the movie' test. The other winner in that category that I thought of afterwards was Lola from 'Run Lola Run'. But oddly that movie actually fails the Bechdel test (which surprised me when it was pointed out, but when you think through the movie, she doesn't talk to other women).