Dargis on women (or the lack thereof) in film

In a recent article, “Is There a Real Woman in this Multiplex?” NY Times critic Manohla Dargis points out the decided absence of both female filmmakers and substantial roles for women among this summer’s crop of would-be blockbusters. Her tone is exasperated, but also utterly unsurprised, and slightly resigned:

In 2008, when a white woman and a black man are running for president and attracting unprecedented numbers of voters partly because they are giving a face to the wildly under-represented, you might think that Hollywood would get a clue.


Dargis notes that it’s not only big action movies aimed at adolescent boys that suffer from this problem: last year’s best art films, There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men, both portray worlds that are nearly entirely devoid of women. Further, she makes the sharp observation that the current Judd Apatow comedy factory has presented male leads who are softer and more sensitive than has been typical of the characters in the raunch comedies of seasons past. Because these films generally avoid indulging in some of the more brazen forms of adolescent nudge-and-wink, boys-will-be boys sexism, and instead tend to have story arcs involving the boys growing up a little bit and developing something approaching respect for the women in their lives, they’re perhaps a bit more likely to be enjoyed (or at least tolerated) by female audiences. As A.O. Scott pointed out in his recent review of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, we haven’t yet seen a sex comedy centered around a “relatively ordinary-looking” female protagonist—and given the lack of anything like that, Apatow’s lovable, toothless, nerdy, and more-or-less sensitive male schlubs will just have to do.

Dargis suggests that studio heads (including the growing number of women who now have the power to green light movies) believe that women can’t make commercially successful pictures, reasoning that movies made by women won’t appeal to men. They may be half-right, at least in the sense that women in positions of creative control are probably somewhat more likely to make movies that deal with themes of interest to women, while at the same time many men do seem to be uninterested in (if not outright contemptuous of) stories about women. For some men, it’s perfectly acceptable to denigrate a film focused on women as a “chick flick”—and this is clearly a negative value judgment, a dismissal, rather than a suggestion that women and men might in some cases have different interests (which would in any case still imply that it’s OK for men not to be particularly interested in films about women). And in art house circles, the fact that the vast majority of films are made by and are predominately about men just isn’t discussed much at all—though this really ought to strike the generally liberal and well-educated art house audiences as more than a little odd.

Some small part of this might be a matter of marketing: in the rare cases when Hollywood does make a real go at a film largely about women, it’s often packaged in a way that’s highly likely to turn men off. But under the surface, this fact is reflective of the same problem: many men are only turned off by marketing aimed at women because they believe it isn’t important to be interested in things that interest women—that it’s nothing of their concern, or perhaps that it’s beneath them.

These kinds of problems certainly aren’t confined to the world of cinema. For example: Bitch recently published an excellent story by Sarah Seltzer taking the book pages of the NY Times to task for their persistent, long-running bias against books written from a feminist perspective. This phenomenon is particularly disheartening given the fact that the majority of Americans who read books are women—there’s really no market pressure to appeal to adolescent boys in operation here. Or, take this blog’s third area of interest, music. Rock and roll has always been a boys’ club, and jazz is even worse in this respect. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a review of a Sleater-Kinney record that essentially boils down to “these chicks rock pretty hard for girls,” or (only marginally better) in which the critic devotes so much time to talking about what a shame it is that people always view a girl band through the lens of their gender that he consequently runs out of space before he can actually discuss the music. And just try to think of a single canonical jazz band leader or composer who’s a woman—women are permitted to be “great” in jazz only when they’re singing songs written by men, and when men are taking care of most or all of the arranging duties, too.

But perhaps there’s at least some hope for improvement in the not-too-distant future given the rise of the internet and its long tail. Dargis notes that Tyler Perry has recently built a media empire on making films about black people (movies which Hollywood also assumes that white males won’t ever have any interest in). It’s a shame to think of women (being slightly more than half of the world’s population, and all) as a niche audience, but in an increasingly fragmented media culture, perhaps Hollywood (and also independent cinema) will no longer feel quite so much pressure to appeal to the least common denominator. Perhaps in the coming years it will become at least somewhat easier for women filmmakers (and writers, and musicians) to reach audiences that actually are interested in their work—even if that least-common-denominator mainstream might continue to denigrate and ignore them.


2 Responses to “Dargis on women (or the lack thereof) in film”

  1. 1 fred September 27, 2008 at 4:10 PM

    hollywood is about money. not sex. the female stars do not deliver the same box office or else they would jump at a chance to cash in. thats what its about, performance. and the problem with the “feminist perspective” is that writers like dargis and you don’t bother to look at the figures and past performance of the people in question. and really, things like comedies don’t take much budget. if a break out comedy about women written by women made it big, the first thing hollywood would do is try to make more..whether copies or sequels. its the way they operate. the only thing close is tina feys baby mama, and that under performed for a big movie.

    no ones entitled to movie roles. if women want scripts they should write them. and well there is a double standard. male comic writers writing for a male audience will create strong female lead characters. hollywood sometimes tries to make these into films, look a supergirl, catwoman, aeon flux, electra. these are failures but you can see they did try. boys play as female characters like in tombraider the video game which led to successful if mediocre films. what is the female writers equivalent? there is none. material written for women is far more sexist and female orientated which is probably the problem.

    david poland tears into this puff piece. http://www.thehotbutton.com/today/hot.button/index.html new york times needs higher standards for journalism.

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