Mind Your Own Men's Business: Women and the Сinema

Once upon a time, I had to watch several erotic thrillers in a row. It was a two-day marathon of similar plots. While watching the second film, I thought that the female protagonist who tied men in knots and got her way at any cost was groundbreaking. By the seventh, I realised it was a cowardly cliché.

by Diana Ushkar and Naya Guseva

There is one thing about strong female characters created by men. They can be divided into two categories. The first is the hapless wives or young girls whose faces are depicted on sitcom posters. And the second is the chthonic creatures who will, by all means, take what they want.

If the problem with the damsels in distress is clear, what's wrong with the second ones? Women seem to dream of strong female characters on screen. But imagine the average viewer who is far from the issue of gender inequality. He sees a woman who moves mountains and kills for her well-being. This cliché is repeated from film to film, where only the scenery changes, but not the outcome. Click – and the viewer never wants to see a strong woman anywhere, even if she is the Virgin Mary.
The standards of the new ethic are difficult to match – as we say, not everyone will be taken into the future. And so it is much easier to go against it. I Care A Lot (2020) has been released recently – and in this comedy, there's nothing to laugh at, but you want to break the main character's jaw right from the start. I've hardly ever seen such unpleasant characters. Rosamund Pike is superb as a scammer making money off old people, but I hope that the scum image doesn't stick with her after David Fincher's Gone Girl (2014) as well.
But here's the problem. Jonathan Blakeson has created not just a masterful con artist, but an openly lesbian and a bit of a radical feminist. "You must be offended that you got screwed by someone who has a vagina?" – says the character. Oh, no. I'm offended by the fact that the only male character in the film who is associated with the Russian mafia, traffics girls into sexual slavery, kills people and crushes expensive eclairs is shown kinder than the woman who ends up losing anyway. And the standards of the new ethic, in which being a lesbian and a feminist means nothing wrong, go to the blazes. "No wonder I hated her from the start. I mean, she's the epitome of all the nonsense they try to foist on us," someone concludes in a review on Kinopoisk, and my heart skips a beat. Because this opinion is shared by many.
Chloe Zhao directed an incredible road movie Nomadland (2020), in which Frances McDormand's character becomes a car nomad, coping with the loss of her husband and embracing her freedom. Greta Gerwig has dedicated almost all of her films to strong women who have been admired by everyone, whether it's Frances Ha (2012), Lady Bird (2017) or Little Women (2019). And you can be sure – a non-fascinated viewer is unlikely to know half of this list.
Meanwhile, in the British TV series The Crown (2016 – present), Elizabeth II appears less frequently on screen than – let's be honest – the goofy not only in the series Philip. In Marvel's superhero franchise, female characters only get a shared scene in the last part of it, and those few minutes have been hailed as some of the most epic. Significantly, many of them never get a proper reveal – the Black Widow film will be released only this spring, after the character's death in the main timeline. By the way, it's directed by a woman – Kate Shortland.

In 2019, Dr Martha M. Lauzen turned her attention to female representation in popular films of 2018: "It's a Man's (Celluloid) World: Portrayals of Female Characters in the Top-Grossing Films of 2018". The statistics are inconvincible – who would have thought we'd still be stuck in the Mesozoic in some areas. Here are some numbers: 65% of males as speaking characters versus 35% of females as speaking characters, 76% of male leaders versus 26% of female leaders and finally 82% of films with 10 or more men in speaking roles.

The conclusion is simple: female characters in male films are mostly shown as either primitive or immoral, or not shown at all.
Considering all this, let's dig deeper and analyze female characters in the films directed particularly by women. In Niki Caro's North Country (2005), Josey Aimes is a married housewife, whose only duty is to bring up children. Sounds like a perfect scenario for those who believe in the American dream. But Josey is not one of those. Actually, her reality has more in common with torture, than happiness. Her husband is an abusive man, who allows himself to beat his darling wife and frighten his beloved children.
Once Josey finally gets free and walks out on her toxic partner, she doesn't find much sympathy back at home. In that place, at that time, whatever happened was the woman's fault, so Josey's father blamed her for what had occurred. "Perhaps he caught you with another guy" – he said, advocating his ex-son-in-law. But despite all that pressure, a woman still needs to survive and raise children, so she applies for a miner job. In those realities, women were not supposed to have such occupations and Josey's male colleagues considered her as an obstacle, an egoistic creature who had robbed one of the fathers and husbands of his potential income resource. Josey becomes a target for lust and hate, men see her as an object for entertainment. The situation is completely unfair. All Josey Aimes wants is a house of her own, good meals and clothes for her kids, and enough money to buy her son hockey skates once in a while. And that's why she takes a risk to fight against the system. She goes through hell but gets her case of sexual harassment considered in court. She is a strong, persistent woman. But Josey's not invincible. She feels broken and suffers really deep because of what her male colleagues are doing with her, betrayed and disappointed when her own father blames her for being beaten by her husband. The woman is worried about her children's future, concerned that she can't afford everything for them – her anxiety turns into an unbearable burden. There are a lot of things that tear her down, but she still manages to overcome them and carry on. Josey Aimes is both strong and weak just like all people are.

In On the basis of sex (2018), we see a tough call between love and career. Ruth and Martin are young lovers, who share a great dream of becoming qualified lawyers, but the universe roots against them. They were still in law school and parents of a toddler when Martin became ill with cancer. Ruth attended all of his classes as well as her own and helped him to complete his coursework, but she could not manage both classes for a long time. After being rejected by the dean, who had declined her request for help, she decided to sacrifice her career and education for her husband's wellbeing.
Ruth is shown, first of all, as a devoted woman, who would do anything for the ones she loves. But she's not that simple. Ruth doesn't give up on her dreams and gradually makes little steps towards them. She begins as a teacher, "You'll teach the next generation how to fight for change" – the ever-optimistic Martin tells her, but she is not satisfied with it. "I wanted to be the one fighting for change!" – and she is the one, as she manages to become the first female court judge in the end.
Phyllida Lloyd also makes attempts to show a profound and strong female character in The Iron Lady (2011). Surely, this is an ambiguous example, as there are still fierce quarrels about the film. However, the object of our interest is a female character and how she is depicted. Portrayed by stunning Meryl Streep, this is a defanged, declawed, depoliticised Margaret Thatcher, whom we are invited to admire on the feeble grounds that she is tougher and gutsier than the men. Yet, a director does her best to soothe the intriguing side of a relentless prime minister and sometimes reveals her under a slightly different light. The human light. Oh, wonder – she remains a woman, not a terminator. Thatcher in the movie has her personal tragedy with a note of distress and self-pity, loneliness and anxiety. She is vulnerable. She loves her husband but sacrifices everything for her career. Thatcher just doesn't allow her feelings to influence her professional path, as most men in her position do. I have to say that it's a fair portrait of a woman in politics.
Sharon Maguire gave us another exceptional character – Bridget Jones in Bridget Jones's Diary (2001). "This is the story of how an anxious, calorie-obsessed, usually pissed woman in her 30s changed the world," – promises Tamsin Greig, author of The Bridget Jones's Diary book, and it is so. Jones is a woman who faces certain problems with career and love. She even starts a diary to motivate herself on reaching new tops, as she has a great aspiration for a career, hopes to find her only one, is intended to lose weight and give up drinking alcohol . Bridget had some failures on her way, but anyway, who in the world didn't? The point is that no matter the circumstances she tries to stay fun and optimistic, and many people find it relatable.
Concluding all this, there is indeed a huge difference between female characters made by diverse directors. The problem of the ones created by men is that they are underestimated. Men just don't understand the nature of a good female character. Chthonic creatures in the form of unprincipled female characters should remain somewhere in the depths along with Cthulhu, as should the unacceptable women shadowing on screen. The best thing male filmmakers can do for the industry today when creating female characters is to mind their own business and forget about superiority. Otherwise, it's time to be scared of the real women.
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