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Feminism and Film Theory Essay

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Updated: May 10th, 2020

Female Characters in Movies

Eat Pray Love

Eat Pray Love tells a story of Elizabeth Gilbert, a woman who has attained everything that most other women dream of having in their life, yet finds herself unhappy, disappointed, and not knowing what she truly wants in her life. To understand what she wants her life to be like, she divorces her husband, and soon begins a romantic relationship with a theatre actor.

She soon realizes that she needs to “find herself”, and plans a journey to three places: Italy – to find enjoyment in food, India – to have an experience of yoga and obtain some spiritual peace, and Indonesia – to see a certain medicine man who, as she hopes, can provide her with more insights into her life. As a result of her journey, she discovers enjoyment in many things and finds a man who she falls in love with.

Thelma and Louise

Thelma and Louise tells a story of two friends, Thelma and Louise, who decided to go for a two-day holiday in the mountains to have some rest from their dull lives. Unfortunately, their rest turns into a nightmare. Having stopped at a local motel, they meet a man named Harlan. Harlan accompanies Thelma outside of the building, where he tries to rape her while she is under the influence of alcohol.

The incident ends with Louise killing the man; the friends, being afraid that no one will believe their claims about the attempted rape due to Thelma’s intoxicated state, decide to run to Mexico. On their way, they meet another man, J. D, who sleeps with Thelma. J. D. turns out to be a thief; he steals Thelma’s things. The friends rob a shop to get some money, and, with further unpleasant adventures, flee. They are chased by the police, who catches up with them near the Grand Canyon, but the women decide not to surrender, and drive their car down from the cliff, falling into the Canyon.

The movie illustrates how the disadvantaged position of women, who are often perceived as sexual objects for men, and the resulting culture of rape, when sexual harassment is a common phenomenon, leads to ruined lives.

Terminator 2

Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a part of a famous series about the Terminator, a robot from the future in which the humanity loses a war to AI-controlled machines. John Connor is a boy who is known to play a crucial role in defeating the robots in the future, and the Terminator arrives to save him. Together with John’s mother Sarah Connor, they strive to protect John from the T-1000, a robot assassin sent to murder the boy.

Sarah Connor is the central female character of the film. She is depicted as a strong woman who knows of her son’s destiny and, despite being placed in a mental hospital, trains to protect him in the future. When she gets out, she fights almost recklessly against the T-1000, trying to save her son and prevent the coming nuclear apocalypse, proving herself a brave and capable warrior. After the T-1000 is defeated, the audience hears the words of Sarah, who says how she faces the future with the sense of hope.

G.I. Jane

G.I. Jane is a fictional story about Lt Jordan O’Neil, the first woman to be accepted into a training program for the U.S. Navy Special Warfare Group. Lt O’Neil, a topographical analyst, is selected by a local Senator Lillian DeHaven as a trainee of the program in order to prove that women can be as capable soldiers as men. Jordan leaves her old life, undergoes the excruciatingly difficult training program, and performs well at it.

Even though later it turns out that DeHaven actually had different plans for O’Neil, and the Senator frames the lieutenant, Jordan faces her down and manages to stay in the military. After a while, Jordan’s troop is sent in on an operation, where the lieutenant’s topographical knowledge, leadership and strategic skills practically save the mission. Therefore, Lt O’Neil proves that women can perform as well as (and better than) men in the military craft.

Kill Bill

Kill Bill, Vol. 1 is the first part of a martial arts action film (the film was initially planned as a single episode, but was split into two parts due to its length). It tells a story of Beatrix Kiddo (also known as the Bride and Black Mamba), a woman who is a former sword-fighting member of the “Deadly Viper Assassination Squad”, an elite order of assassins.

In the past, Black Mamba had a love affair with her leader Bill, got pregnant, and decided to end her life as an assassin; she escaped to Texas and met a man whom she was going to marry. However, Bill found them, massacred the wedding ceremony, and shot Beatrix. She awakened from a coma four years later, found out that her baby disappeared, and decided to have her revenge on Bill.

The film depicts a rather bloody and cruel story of the assassination order’s activity and the Bride’s attempts to have her vengeance. The motion picture illustrates how women can be as good at fighting as men, but in this case, the unavoidable cruelty of such affairs is depicted in some gruesome detail.

I Shot Andy Warhol

I Shot Andy Warhol is a film about the life of Valerie Solanas, a real historical figure, a radical feminist known primarily for her S.C.U.M. Manifesto, a text that argues that men have deranged the world, and that women need to restore it, as well as for her attempted murder of the artist Andy Warhol. The film starts with a flashforward related to Valerie’s attempt to kill Warhol and to her future life.

Then, the story of Valerie is told; she makes her living in New York by being a sex worker. She is also a lesbian, and she has her own perceptions of the world. In attempts to produce her play, Up Your Ass, she meets Andy Warhol and Maurice Girodias (a French publisher, the founder of “Olympia Press”). They deceive her, and attain much control of her life; her attempt to free herself from this control leads her to shoot Warhol.

The film shows a difficult life of a sex worker (noteworthy, this industry itself exists to satisfy men) who fights for salvation, but falls into a trap in a male-dominated world. While Valerie is rather eccentric, it is easy to see the discrimination she faces in her life.

Discussion

For a long period of time, the position of a woman in the society has been debated. Social and political movements, mainly far left and moderate left, struggled to achieve equality for women in society (feminists, anarchists, certain groups of Marxists, etc.) or to provide them with additional rights (the suffrage movement, left liberals, etc.).

The movement for women got significant in the second half of the 19th century, and became more or less active over the course of years, with a varying degree of success. However, even though more rights for women have been won, there still remains a chasm between the equality of opportunity and equality of outcome (Hardy 34).

In the middle of the 1960s, the ideas of the feminist movement (the so-called second wave of feminism (Gamble 25; Zeitz 673)) underwent significant development, and were spread around the world. By the end of the 1970s, the idea of supporting women in their struggle for equality touched upon the screen and promoted a considerable shift in the film industry (Hollinger 2).

It became a background for the feminist film criticism. It was hard to neglect the idea of gender imbalance and the determination of the male gaze’s importance within the frames in which “women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey 62).

The idea to depict the inequality of women on the screen was to be expected, and it is not a surprise to observe a number of films that tell stories about women and describe the challenges that they are forced to face. However, Mulvey, one of the early theorists who tried to compare the positions of men and women in the cinema, still concluded that male characters drove the film narration, whereas female characters remained to be the objects of male desire and gazing (62).

And yet, there are numerous films that touch the theme of the place of a woman in a society; some of them do it radically indeed, whereas others remain within the more centrist discourse (which is, actually, one of the main discourses in the modern Western society; noteworthy, women still do not enjoy the benefit of equality, which can be counted as evidence that this centrist discourse is insufficient). We will discuss six films where the role of women is questioned, and see to which extent it is done.

On the one hand, these movies (Thelma and Louise, Eat Pray Love, I Shot Andy Warhol, Kill Bill, Terminator 2, G.I. Jane) can hardly be found in the same category because all of them discuss different topics and spheres of life and deliver different messages to spectators. On the other hand, all of them have women as main characters. Despite the differences in genres and directing methods, most of them depict women in non-traditional ways; this feature dictated our logic of their selection.

We will start with Eat Pray Love, the film that is perhaps the least feminist one in our selection. While the adventure of Elizabeth does require courage to be started, and she attempts to escape her dull life, the film does not radically question the “place of women” in the society. Elizabeth does not change her role in the society radically, and does not try to change the position of women in general; she is unsatisfied with her life, but she finds pleasure in things that are perceived as normal for women nowadays – travelling, food, and yoga.

Finally, she meets “her man”, and at this point the film finishes, leading us to believe that she led a happy life after that. So, she finds enjoyment in “eating, praying, and loving” – the things that have something in common with the “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” (children, kitchen, church) that feminists would struggle against. Although few would say there is something wrong about leading such a life, it cannot be called a really feminist one.

The next film, Thelma and Louise, will probably earn much more approval from feminists as a movie depicting the problems that the unequal, male-dominated society results in. In such a society, a man expresses a desire, and a woman is simply its object (Benjamin 86). The two protagonists (after whom the movie is named) go on vacation and find themselves victims of a number of male characters who attempt to use their position to take advantage of them.

Harlan is depicted as a common rapist, though, and this does not offer much insight into the crux of the culture of rape, in which, for instance, it is normal to persist in courtship behaviour even though the woman clearly shows that she does not want it. And yet, the audience can see that the two female protagonists are effectively unable to protect themselves by conventional means against the rapist and other males who use their disadvantaged position, and that the safety of the women, including their sexual safety, is constantly threatened.

The female protagonists of the next three motion pictures play a masculine role. Terminator 2: Judgment Day is not radical enough to be called a feminist film, but it raises more questions about the possible roles of a woman than the previous two movies. It is not very common for women to be warriors today (and it was even less common in 1991), but one of the main characters, Sarah Connor, is shown as an extremely strong, tough warrior who fights for her son and for the future of humanity bravely.

Neroni stresses that the movie shows how powerful a woman can be when she is driven by the instincts of a mother (45), but we would like to observe that, while being a warrior challenges the traditional role of a woman, being a mother does not. Again, there is nothing wrong with being a mother, but that part does not reflect the feminists’ agenda of the diversification of women’s roles. In addition, the strongest warrior among the positive characters in the film is the robot Terminator, who still has a male appearance.

G.I. Jane is similar to Terminator 2: Judgment Day in that it depicts a female warrior, but the challenge to the norms imposed by the society is much stronger here, and it is articulated explicitly. Lt O’Neil went to the army because she did not like the fact that her lover and former group mate had the same grounds on which to build a career, but achieved much more simply because he was a man. She also went there as a part of a political arrangement to prove that women can be no worse than men as warriors, and she demonstrated that with a great success.

Kill Bill, Vol. 1 is similar to the previous two movies in that it depicts a woman playing a non-traditional role of an (unsuccessfully retired) assassin. However, in this case, the acts of violence (done both by the Bride and by the order of assassins) are demonstrated in a more gruesome (read: realistic) way. It is shown that a woman can be as cruel and violent as a stereotypical alpha-male or macho. This actually leads to a question: should women really become similar to the stereotypic alpha-males?

We should conclude that in most of the analyzed movies, an important part of the feminist theory is missing: there should be no stereotypic roles for both women and men! And it is okay for a man to be e.g. a househusband – only it should be done upon mutual agreement with his partner(s), – or, perhaps even better, not to stick to a certain role, but be flexible – for instance, to split the duties in a fair way, one that is currently most convenient for all the partners.

And it also ought to be normal for women to be warriors, or submarine sailors, or housewives, or whoever else – should they desire to. Furthermore, there even should not be a strict and compulsory division of the human race into males and females, and the consequent imposture of gender identities, for not all the people fit into this division, and because of this some are forced to continually remain on the fringes of the society (Butler 18-21; Fuss 99).

It is noteworthy that in the discussed films the female characters are still to a large extent designed for the male gaze (especially, perhaps, in Kill Bill, where the camera purposefully zooms in on various parts of Beatrix’s body (Smelik 179)). So, we would assess I Shot Andy Warhol as the most feminist film of the ones we are discussing. Valerie Solanas, unlike the characters of the previous movies, is not designed for the male gaze (well, at least for a conservative one).

She is an eccentric person who has the appearance of a tomboy and the behaviour slightly resembling that of a hooligan; she is a sex worker, a lesbian, a radical writer, and she fiercely and recklessly resists any encroachments upon her freedom and independence. Of course, the main work of the real Valerie Solanas, the S.C.U.M. Manifesto, is not pleasant if one takes it seriously, and has the potential to spread a wrong image of feminism – for instance, it says that “the male is an incomplete female, a walking abortion” (Solanas 1), whereas even today’s radical feminists do not support such claims, and even encourage men to join the movement (Mackay 332); however, if the text is viewed as satire, it becomes rather funny and accurate in a number of cases.

As for the film, Valerie the protagonist completely does not correspond to the popular stereotypes about women, neither do many other characters of all genders. In our opinion, the degree to which I Shot Andy Warhol causes discomfort in viewers can be used as a measurement tool of their openness to the ideas of feminism and equality versus the conservativeness of their views.

Conclusion

To sum up, it should be noted that the discussed films mostly show women playing non-traditional roles in the society. The least feminist movie is Eat Pray Love; Thelma and Louise makes more stress on the disadvantaged position of women in the society, whereas the three movies about female warriors depict women in roles that are still not completely accepted by the society (Matthews et al. 246).

Finally, I Shot Andy Warhol approximates the feminist model of a film the most, depicting the life of a real, historical feminist, and showing a number of characters who are strongly discordant from the usual gender roles and stereotypes. However, the discussed films do promote the image of a woman playing an unusual role, and this fact should be admitted.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, & the Problem of Domination. New York, NY: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2013. Google Books. Web.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Eat Pray Love. Dir. Ryan Murphy. Columbia Pictures, 2010. Film.

Fuss, Diana. Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference. London, United Kingdom: Routledge, 2013. Google Books. 2016.

G.I. Jane. Dir. Ridley Scott. Buena Vista Pictures, 1997. Film.

Gamble, Sarah, ed. The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Postfeminism. London, United Kingdom: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Hardy, Elle. “Whither Feminism.” Institute of Public Affairs Review 67.1 (2015): 34-37. ProQuest. Web.

Hollinger, Karen. Feminist Film Studies. New York, NY: Routledge, 2012. Print.

I Shot Andy Warhol. Dir. Mary Harron. The Samuel Goldwyn Company, 1996. Film.

Kill Bill, Vol. 1. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Miramax Films, 2003. Film.

Mackay, Finn. “Radical Feminism.” 32.7-8 (2015): 332-336. Web.

Matthews, M. D., Ender, M. G., Laurence, J. H. and Rohall, D. E. (2009). “Role of group affiliation and gender on attitudes toward women in the military.” 21.2 (2009): 241-251. Web.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Feminism and Film Theory. Ed. Constance Penley. New York, NY: Routledge. 2013. 57-68. Print.

Neroni, Hilary. Feminist Film Theory and Cleo from 5 to 7. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing USA. 2016. Print.

Smelik, Anneke. “Lara Croft, Kill Bill, and the Battle for Theory in Feminist Film Studies.” Doing Gender in Media, Art, and Culture. Ed. Rosemarie Buikema and Iris Van der Tuin. New York, NY: Routledge, 2009. 178-192. Print.

Solanas, Valerie. . n.d. Web.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Dir. James Cameron. TriStar Pictures, 1991. Film.

Thelma and Louise. Dir. Ridley Scott. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1991. Film.

Zeitz, J. Journal of Contemporary History 44.3 (2008): 673-688. Web.

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