Welcome to Girls on Film -- a Monday-night Cinematical column full of female-centric musing, rants, love and aggravation.
"From watching movies, girls and women come to believe we can only be ornaments, not instruments." - Gloria Steinem in 'Miss Representation'
We love watching films. It's why both you and I are here. It's the reason we read, write and comment about them in public and private forums. It's why we think about them and strive to understand them, if not emulate them in our own work and lives. Cinema transports us out of our own existences and into any number of other worlds. It entertains us and teaches us. It reminds us of our best points, and doesn't let us forget our worst. And, in single-serving 2-ish hour doses, it's the easiest and most convenient way for many people to get their creative fix and add some fictional spice to their lives.
Perhaps this is why we're so protective of it. We enjoy it so, even if we don't want to hear the bad -- especially when it comes to children. When fandom mixes with nostalgia, it's hard to think clearly, to acknowledge that there's something problematic in that film we love so much.
We've discussed it before: To many film fans, there's a distinct lack of great, front-and-center girls for both girls and women to absorb and relate to. But it stretches beyond niche griping. It's a systemic, self-fueling problem that needs to be corrected now.
In a recent interview, Sundance filmmaker Alex Stapleton ('Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel') discussed why she wasn't dreaming of being a director from an early age, like many of the lead directors in Hollywood featured in her documentary. She said:
"You always hear about these male directors -- the Spielbergs and the Sam Raimis -- when they were really young, they would make their own films. I always thought I was a fraud because I never concocted a horror film to show my parents when I was 10 years old. But I wonder if that's because I was a girl? I had an interest in filmmaking, but it was like, 'Oh, you'll be an actress.' And I knew I didn't want to be an actress. But now if you see people like Kathryn Bigelow or Sofia Coppola, you can be young and inspired. It won't be a big thing to accomplish 'cause there's more women doing it."
That subtle comment, "oh, you'll be an actress" is the sort of easily forgotten attitude that subversively makes a huge impact -- one that pulls women into the role of puppet rather than puppet master. It's not so different from girls being labeled "tom boy" once they throw on overalls and dig into the dirt; from being labelled an enigma when their interests are diverse; from being called strangely alien if they don't have acidic emotional explosions. But there is a divide when adult women talk about their own adolescent experiences. The world is changing so quickly that it seems antiquated to use the past to discuss the present. That is, until you hear from those who regularly deal with kids.
Last week, The Sydney Morning Herald published a coincidentally titled piece: "Girls on film." Writer Emily Maguire (her name is sadly absent from the online version, but here's a link to her Twitter) -- who penned the tome 'Princesses and Pornstars: Sex + Power + Identity' in 2008 -- writes not only of family experiences with hard-to-find girl role models, but also what she sees while mentoring young writers. The entire piece is a must-read, but I'll strive to share some of the most impactful bits.
Maguire first relays a story about her niece, and how at three years old, her favorite film was 'Jurassic Park.' It wasn't the sort of film this young girl should be in love with, and no matter what more age-appropriate fare was offered, this little girl was firm. It took two years to find out why. Maguire's niece explained: "Lex. She's a little girl, but she climbed the fence and fixed the computer and saved everyone." This three-year-old had peeled aside all the layers of the scary flick (says the writer who saw it at 16 and spilled $20 of candy on the floor when the spitter fluffed up) to find a girl she could admire. No other film came close because they didn't offer the same inspirational high. She liked "boy" adventure stories and "girl" fairy tales, but found the best of everything in one supporting role.
But still, that was a decade ago. Yet Maguire still sees similar problems working as a mentor for young writers today. She talks of how a young girl was chastised by her male classmates for writing a story about a girl pirate. The sadly Pippi-free boys insisted that although 'Pirates of the Caribbean' has Anamaria, "she's not a main one. The main pirates are all boys." It's a pattern that repeats throughout her workshops. While the girls who write use male and female protagonists equally, the boys write with male protagonists each and every time, usually with all-male casts.
As Maguire notes, it's because children write about what they love and what they see. Geena Davis' Institute of Gender in Media states that between 2006 and 2009, only 29.2 percent of characters in family films were female -- one in four being depicted in sexy, alluring attire, and often being, in Davis' words, "eye candy." Remember -- this is G and PG films, not cinema overall. This is no surprise, really. We live in a world where Bratz dolls -- known for their silettos and sexiness -- are marketed towards little girls as young as four. Sadly, the numbers get worse in crowd/group scenes, with women making up only 17 percent.
Maguire writes: "The best children's films ... [offer] stories so gripping and vivid that children can't help but spend hours talking about and re-enacting their key moments. Anyone who has spent much time with small children would have seen the intensity with which they engage with certain films." They see, they love, they imitate. The more they dig into these films, the more each and every aspect nestles deeper into their minds.
When it comes to cinema, young girls learn a distinct supporting role in life. Instead of the supporting wife, it's now The Exceptional Girl Syndrome. There are great, wonderful female supporting characters that are often more capable than their male, starring counterparts. But they're supporting characters, not directly in the spotlight and just a small fraction of the male talent that swarms each film. What does that say to the little girls and boys who adore these otherwise well written and well executed films? Who absorb them from top to bottom and try to emulate them? Just go back to Maguire's students. Boys should be the leads. Girls, no matter how smart and capable they are, will be the support. It's gender-based merit.
I sometimes feel like the girls of cinema are the Joe Mortons of 'Executive Decision.' Remember his Sergeant Cappy Matheny? The marketing may have boasted Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal, but the true heroism came from the man quickly injured, who saved the day while immobilized. It makes his achievements all the more praise-worthy, but they're still swallowed on the sidelines.
"It's the repetition of sexist messages over time -- especially when combined with a dearth of contradictory messages -- that creates and reinforces norms."
Our comforts lie with male heroes in a world where boy-based storylines are universal and girl-based storylines are gender specific. And as great as some may be -- the toy stories, balloon-house adventures and raining food -- all still uphold this separation, leading little boys to learn a leading role in life, and little girls to be marginalized. And even if we can enjoy and downright adore tales that uphold this, we must, must, must think of how it effects our children -- especially when these stories can be just as great and widely acceptable with a girl lead.
"Given the joyful seriousness with which children treat their favourite movies, filmmakers have a responsibility to at least think about the message they are sending when they repeatedly choose to make most of their characters male. After all, writers and producers make thousands of choices concerning every aspect of the story including, consciously or not, the gender of the main and supporting characters."
It's time to start arguing against it and calling it "P.C. B.S." These are our children we're talking about. And it's completely natural to want them to grow up believing that they can be anything that they work towards, and not just secondary support. We wouldn't directly teach these barriers to our children, so why do we let them persist?