"Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels."
In graduate school, I had a roommate get all over my case for videotaping a Pedro Almodovar movie I'd seen the year before and wanted to watch again, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (pictured above). She asked me to please not watch it when she was in the apartment. "I don't see how you can possibly want to watch something that is so degrading to women," she told me. She was also disgusted that I liked Midnight, the 1939 movie in which a female character says she doesn't disapprove of a man beating his wife.
A few years later, I was having lunch with a female coworker and told her the story about how I loved A Clockwork Orange so much the first time I saw it, that I went back to the theater the next night to watch it again. And once I went to the Paramount to see it when I had a fever of 102. She looked at me like I was insane. "I didn't know I had a fever at the time," I explained. "It's not that," she said. "But you liked A Clockwork Orange? I wouldn't see it myself, I heard it's terribly misogynistic." "Well, yes ... but it's very good," I replied. And this week, acquaintances have been giving me the hairy eyeball because I admitted to liking a movie advertised with a poster featuring a woman in chains: Black Snake Moan.
I am sometimes inconsistent -- charmingly so, I hope -- in my attitude about gender stereotyping and sexism in movies. For the most part, I can't stand it. I don't like movies where the male characters all get to be funny and the women are nymphos, nagging bitches or maturing influences. I have been known to go through phases where I cannot watch one more movie where the only women are supportive wives. I don't like movies where the men get to kick ass and the women have to be rescued, especially if the women just stand there and shriek instead of trying to fight or at least run for help.
I don't like movies where the women are victimized and the camera lingers a little too long and perhaps even lovingly on the attack or rape or abuse, although if the woman comes back later and avenges herself, I tend to dislike the movie less. I don't like movies where a woman is humiliated or abused or kidnapped and then falls for the guy who does it, but then why did I just admit to liking Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!?
I'm not sure why the sexism in some movies will get under my skin and make it difficult for me to enjoy a movie, but in others, I'll give it a pass. Women in A Clockwork Orange are certainly stereotyped, but then so are all the men. Besides, the movie is that good. One of my all-time favorite films is The Wild Bunch, in which women appear only briefly, usually as prostitutes. I know that sexual stereotypes often bug me less if I find the movie genuinely funny, but that's not always true for contemporary comedies: I enjoyed watching The 40-Year-Old Virgin but the stereotyping irritated me slightly.
It's very difficult for me to switch off the inner feminist who rolls her eyes when the seemingly tough female protagonist is rescued at the last minute by a bunch of guys, or when we're supposed to sympathize with a poor downtrodden husband who just wants to hang out with the guys but nooooo, his mean old wife makes him stay home and babysit his own children. When I'm not accused of being a traitor to my gender for liking misogynistic Stanley Kubrick films, I'm accused of having no sense of humor for not liking comedies in which women are belittled.
Exploitation films, which seem to be enjoying a renaissance this year, are another matter entirely, because they often include strong women. Sure, the heroines are scantily clad and may end up being whipped or imprisoned, but they're usually able to triumph in the end. Even the modern-day films that pay homage to the exploitation genre include good female roles: Quentin Tarantino's films Jackie Brown and Kill Bill had wonderful female protagonists (and villains too, in Kill Bill), Domino turned Kiera Knightley into someone fierce and frightening, and I thought the female assassins were the best part of Smokin' Aces.
I dislike the term "chick flick" because for me, a chick flick is one full of strong women who take action -- they don't sit around the table eating ice cream from the container while complaining about men, or dance around to Motown with each other in multigenerational harmony. In college, I read Alison Bechdel's "Dykes To Watch Out For" comic strip about The Rule, in which a character will only see movies with multiple female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. I don't think a comic strip has ever had such a strong influence on me.
This is all background on why I wanted to write a weekly column about women and film. Sometimes I want to talk about sexual stereotyping in contemporary films and whether trends are forming. Sometimes I want to talk about female filmmakers that no one seems to have heard of, or the box-office successes that are directed by women, and why that often goes unnoticed. Sometimes I want to interview women who work in various aspects of the film industry. And sometimes I just want to tell you about a film with the kickass female characters, during a time when the blockbuster films are all about football teams or guys in drag. If I'm missing such a film, I hope you'll let me know.
[The quote at the beginning of this column is often attributed to Ann Richards, who popularized it, but may have originated earlier from a Frank and Ernest comic strip written by Bob Thaves.]