Tuesday, January 18, 2011

More Feminism and the Movies

We are discussing the movies of James Cameron and how they stack up in terms of positive portrayals of women.  See the previous post for background.
There are a couple of litmus tests one can apply to films to determine whether female characters are central to the story and are also portrayed as in control of their own destiny.  One is called the Bechdel Test, which requires the movie to have 1. Two women (who have names), 2. who talk to each other, 3. about something other than a man.  This site lists movies and how they rate according to the Bechdel Test. 
The second test is one I made up many years ago, called “The Feminist Film Test”.  Here’s how it works.  For the movie to pass the test, it must (1) have a female lead, (2) who survives or succeeds, (3) without the intervention of a man (saving her, dying so she can live, giving her a job, etc.).  
Let’s apply these two tests to Cameron’s films and see how they fare.
First, we have The Terminator with one strong female character, Sarah Connor.  It fails both tests.  There is a minor conversation between Sarah and her roommate, but it mostly revolves around men and dates and is superficial.  Sarah is ultimately saved from the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) by Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), so it fails The Feminist Film Test.  Terminator 2: Judgment Day also fails both tests.  Sarah and son John Connor are both saved by a second cyborg (Terminator 2) who sacrifices itself to save them.
Next is Aliens.  Now, don’t confuse Aliens with Alien, the first movie in the series and directed by Ridley Scott, not James Cameron.  Alien passes both tests (two women talk about something other than a man and Ripley saves herself without any help from a man).  Aliens does barely pass the Bechdel test because two females talk about something other than a man (but is minor to the film’s story).  It only partially passes my test because Ripley is helped at various critical junctures by a man (Hicks shows her how to use a weapon, saves her from the creature, and backs her up when she’s challenged; Bishop (male android) saves Ripley and Newt from the exploding processing facility by piloting a dropship to pick them up in the nick of time).
In the Abyss, we have a strong female scientist!  Unfortunately, this film fails both tests also. Dr. Lindsay Brigman has no meaningful conversation with the one other woman character and is saved by her ex-husband, who still loves her.
True Lies barely passes the Bechdel test (Helen Tasker does trade insults with the female villain), but fails my test (Arnold saves both Helen and Dana Tasker and then recruits Helen as his spy side-kick in the end).
Similarly, Titanic barely passes the Bechdel test (Rose and her mother have a few conversations about something other than men, although these do relate to men), but fails my test (Rose is, of course, saved by Jack, who ultimately sacrifices himself so she can live).
So far, Cameron’s films are not living up to the idea that his movies buck the Hollywood tradition of portraying women in stereotypical roles, typically subservient to a male character or exists only to enhance a male character.  
The problem is not that a few movies by Cameron fail to be about women or women’s issues or even that there are a few misogynists who conspire to prevent women from playing central roles in film.  The problem is with an entire industry that makes movies that mostly cater to or are about men, mainly white men (unless they are Will Smith or Denzel Washington).  I enjoy films that are told from a male’s point of view or are about a man’s life or accomplishments. What I take issue with is when someone makes a movie that is clearly told from a male (often puerile) viewpoint, but tries to dress it up as being modern-thinking, progressive or pro-feminist by throwing in a few female characters who can fight, cuss, do science, or whatever (like a man). Such superficial tokens may even do more harm than good.  
I’ll save my analysis of Avatar for the next post.


Caqui said...

Sarah is never saved by a man in Terminator 2. And she isn't even rescued per se; she was on the verge of escape before she was interrupted by the two battling robots. And even if she was rescued, that wouldn't make it an anti-feminist film. Sarah consistently takes matters into her own hands, such as when she tried to kill one of the key figures behind the development of skynet (the program responsible for the apocalypse); she would've been successful had she decided not to kill Dyson (this was her own conscious decision). She may have been the stereotypical southern belle in Terminator 1, but in the sequel she's grown as a character. She's independent and resourceful. She kicks ass without having to wear high heels or a tight leather suit. She's militaristic and a trained tactician. In the minigun scene, we see several female officers. And Sarah does have independent conversations with other named, female characters (Tarissa Dyson and Jolanda Solcedo), so T2 actually doesn't fail the Bechdel test. In fact, the Bechdel site lists t2 as passing all 3 tests. Seriously, watch the movie again.

Caqui said...

Sarah is also never subject to the male gaze. She's never depicted with make-up, and the only time we really see her body is when we are first introduced to her; she is shown doing chin-ups, a distinctly unfeminine, masculine activity. She's never objectified in a sexist manner. She's a fierce action heroine, and one could argue she's the main protagonist of the film. Sure, Terminator 2 may not be a strictly feminist film, but it is at least feminist-friendly. Shoot, the movie even goes so far as to criticize mainstream fatherhood; once when John's foster mother scolds her husband for not helping around the house and especially when Sarah Connor gives her monologue on fatherhood in the middle of the film. But most importantly, Sarah as character is defined by her actions, and not by what she is. Cameron empowers motherhood in Terminator 2, but Sarah isn't defined by it; ultimately, Sarah's motive isn't simply to protect her son, she wants to save the world. If this isn't a positive, feminist depiction of a female heroine, then I don't know what is.