It’s Ladies’ Night! Not really…

Lately I’ve been watching quite a few documentaries, and not surprisingly, what stands out to me the most are the stories about women. And appropriately, this is International Women’s Day!

    The first documentary I dug into on Netflix today was Miss Representation, which explores the inherent patriarchy in the media. I wasn’t necessarily surprised about the pervasiveness of sexist and objectifying portrayals of women– everyone knows about that. What was surprising was the fact that it’s not getting better. Try, if you will, and count the number of female protagonists whose action is not driven by a man in some way, or whose story arc does not somehow involve finding love and (re)discovering her feminine side..

There’s not many, right?

    Worse still is when you learn that our entire social structure and cultural gender bias is almost entirely created and enforced by a media campaign that was started after the end of WWII. During the war, women went into the workforce in droves. When the war ended, they did not want to go back home– they liked working! Something like 80% of them didn’t want to leave work. But alas, the men returning from war wanted to put their women back in the kitchen, so America’s new-fangled mass media tool, the television came to the rescue.

    Advertisements and TV shows were created by newly created networks that glamorized the image of the woman at home. They focused on how pretty she looked and how perfect her home was– all because she was there to take care of it. As time has advanced forward, we see that this image of the happy housewife at home has become warped and used against women to keep them from achieving success.

    To this day, if a woman is in the public eye, the focus is on what she looks like instead of what she says. Journalists ask her how she can balance being a wife and mother with her career– why don’t they ask men how they balance being a husband and father with their careers? Women are described in terms of beauty and attitude rather than intellect, skill and expertise.

    Entertainment and news media are equally to blame for this– it’s seen in equal measure in both. And then popular culture imitates it like a bunch of monkeys. Take for example, the shitstorm that takes place on the internet every time Feminist Frequency posts a video. My YouTube feed is filled with response videos that often fail to address any of the actual content of her videos, instead focusing on how she looks and what kinds of degrading things they would like to do to her. If you watch one of her videos and make the mistake of viewing the comments section, you’ll find much of the same sort of thing, only badly spelled and usually in all caps.

    Ironically, this type of response kinda proves that many of her arguments regarding gender norms are, in fact, correct.

    Inbred sexism has spread across our society like a plague. If you look at the world of politics, you’ll find that the US is far behind in gender equality–China, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among others, have all had a female head of state. The 2010 election was the first time that women haven’t made gains in congress since 1979. And there weren’t that many women in congress to begin with. This could explain the sudden rise in absurd laws regarding women’s health. There just aren’t enough women around to sit these men down and explain to them how the female reproductive system works– with diagrams.

    And the political commentary surrounding female politicians is vastly focused on what they look like, how they dress, how they act, etc., rather than what their views are, or what they have done during their term.

Weirdly enough, much of this commentary comes from female journalists, who are in turn judged by television producers and the public based on these same criteria. And the public (you and I) will then judge our female neighbors and ourselves based on what we look like, how we dress and act. It’s a vicious cycle.

    Our societal gender constructions haven’t just hurt women, though. I recently watched a short video that has been circulating Facebook for a couple of weeks. It’s kind of a flipside of the Miss Representation film, and it talks about how harmful the American version of masculinity is and how it has harmed young men and boys.

    Turns out, being told to “be a man” and encouraged to hide emotions and present a facade to the world is actually pretty harmful to the psyche of a human being– male or female. Boys with behavioral problems in school are often struggling to express their emotions while simultaneously hiding behind a mask. Men in America have significantly fewer friends than women, even though they crave and need the support of friendship just as much. Culturally, it seems that men are constantly forced to prove their manliness and any infraction– crying, liking fluffy bunnies, things of that nature– can result in the loss of something called a “man card.”

    I don’t have a “woman card.” It seems that women are women no matter what they do, wear, say, or achieve.

    What if we could all just be who we are? What if a man could express emotion and have friends and a woman could be president and earn $1 for every dollar her equally qualified male colleague earns? Would that be so terrible? What if the term President or Lead Pastor could belong equally to a woman or a man and no one raises hell about it? Would it crack the foundation of our society?

    So I think today is a great opportunity to have a Come to Jesus moment as a society. I think the suggestion made at the end of Miss Representation is a great one– recognize the power of the consumer. If we stop watching and buying into the harmful portrayals of women that we see on TV and in movies, the producers and television executives have to change it. If we stop voting for politicians who don’t support the rights of women to have the same general freedoms as men, our political parties will have to change their rhetoric. We have to be courageous enough to say that the way things are isn’t the way that they should be– and then act to make changes happen.

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Indiana Jones and the Damsel in Distress

A couple of weeks ago, my fiance and I went to see the Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark quote-along at the Alamo Drafthouse. If you haven’t been there for a quote-along or sing-along, you should go. It’s awesome. (Free advertising, Alamo. You’re welcome.)

It’s been a while since I’ve seen this particular movie, and I’ve always thought Karen Allen was the best Indiana Jones companion. A viewpoint that must be shared by enough people for her to be dug from obscurity and pushed back into a co-starring role with Harrison Ford in an ill-fated Indiana Jones sequel which will not be mentioned further here. There are no aliens in the Indiana Jones universe, and that’s all there is to say about it.

For some reason, I had never thought about Karen Allen’s character in an in-depth way before, but it must have been fresh in my mind that day. This time, as I watched the film, I realized that as cool as Marion Ravenwood is, she still falls prey to the dreaded Damsel in Distress trope time and time again.

There she is, in her bar, queen of her own world, drinking a big guy under the table. Indiana Jones walks in and she has the ace in her sleeve. She has all the power in their relationship at this moment, because she has something that he needs and she doesn’t owe him anything so it’s his job to convince her to cooperate. Good! She’s in charge of her own situation. Right up until the Nazis walk into the bar.

Then circumstances are entirely out of her control, and she’s about to be tortured by a sadistic Nazi interrogator. The Damsel in Distress fairy strikes again! Luckily, Jones, who had left the bar by this point, returns in the nick of time to save her. Good thing he has every hero’s inbuilt ability to know when the Damsel needs rescuing so that he can sweep in and take care of business.

It seems like every time Marion has the opportunity to be the resourceful and independent woman that she should be, something unexpected occurs to send her back into D in D status.

For example: When Marion and Indy are attacked while roaming the marketplace, Marion is unceremoniously tossed into a hay-filled cart by Indy. She doesn’t stay there, but decides to jump into the fray. She knocks a couple of guys out before she’s forced to hide in the most obvious place conceivable–a giant basket. Really? Is that the best you can do, Marion? I don’t think so.

Of course, she’s discovered and carried off by the villains, but not before leading Indy on a wild goose chase through the streets as she screams his name ineffectually from her basket-y prison, which, I hasten to add, would be pretty easy to topple over and escape from if she moved around a bit more.

Or what about the plane scene? As cool as it may be that she hops right in that plane and beats down a Nazi pilot, then uses the resources around her to help Indy fight off the incoming crowd of Nazis, she still gets stuck in the plane as flaming gasoline pools around it, and Indy still has to rescue her at the last minute.

Throughout the film, she’s totally damsel-ized by Jones, Belloq, Katanga, and the Nazis. They all refer to her as “the girl” and generally treat her as a possession, bandied about from possessor to possessor. Rene wants her because she’s one more thing that he would be taking from Jones. The Nazis see her first as a source of information on Jones and then as a placating gift to Belloq. Jones and Katanga fall into the trap of calling her “the girl” too, nevermind that they are trying to save her, by refraining from using her name, they remove her personhood from her. Why doesn’t she get to determine where she will go and with whom?

She’s objectified by more than just the removal of her name, but also the removal of her clothing. Belloq asks her to change into a pretty white dress– later Katanga gives her another lovely white gown. Always with the white gown; we’re not being subtle here with the color symbolism. Marion is “pure” and “innocent” in her borrowed white dresses. Her own clothing is taken from her and replaced by men, who choose to give her the type of clothing they think she should be wearing. Pants are exchanged for gauzy lace and satin dresses.

Perfect damsel-wear. Down to the pretty little high heels.

It’s not that she’s unable to help herself, clearly she has been able to take care of herself in the years after her father died, and she’s absolutely willing to jump into the fray and help Jones instead of sitting there uselessly on the sidelines. The problem is, every time she tries to help herself or Jones, it somehow backfires. What are we trying to say here? Is she inherently incapable of helping him or of taking care of herself?

Her involvement with Jones and his adventures seems to shove her into damselhood; simply the fact of her moving into his world causes her independence and individuality to fade away until she becomes a generic D in D. It’s as though the screenwriter wanted to make a brave and independent female character, but was afraid that she would not be able to fit into the type of action hero vehicle Spielberg and Lucas were creating. So her personality seems at odds with the character archetype she’s been pigeonholed into.

She strives to be the kind of character we, as the audience, imagine her to be, while still operating within the D in D box. It’s particularly unfortunate when you realize that once Marion Ravenwood’s damseled status is revealed, the most powerful female character in the Indiana Jones universe becomes Elsa Schneider the Nazi scholar from The Last Crusade.

Elsa succeeds in turning the damsel trope on its ear, as she successfully plays the damsel, all the while remaining in control of herself and the situation. She manages to fool both the Jones men and they unwittingly help her to locate the resting place of the Holy Grail. She’s beautiful, intelligent and ambitious, but unfortunately, her ambition is her downfall. Her intense desire to possess the Grail consumes her, and she’s not willing to let it go, even when faced with the choice of saving her own life versus saving the Grail.

Certainly, Elsa is the less sympathetic character between the two women, but she is definitely the most powerful female character in the Indiana Jones trilogy. (What fourth movie? There is no fourth movie. Hush.)

The biggest problem is that powerful female characters like Elsa are more often cast in the role of the villain. The immediate examples which leap to mind come, sadly, from Disney. Just about every female villain I can think of could be considered by our modern society standard a strong and independent character.

Think of Snow White’s evil stepmother, ruling a kingdom alone after Snow White’s parents have presumably died of natural causes. Sure, she’s entirely consumed with her appearance, and at first she entrusts the valuable task of killing her stepdaughter to a clearly incompetent woodsman, but at last she learns it is always best to take matters into her own hands. First things first, she transforms her physical appearance, becoming a hag. Because of course a beautiful queen cannot commit a murder. Her outside must reflect her inside. Her vanity momentarily set aside, she’s ready to make a plan of action.

Unfortunately, her method of killing Snow White is vastly different from her original plan of having the woodsman cut out her heart. The queen won’t be that gruesome, instead choosing to poison her– traditionally poison is a woman’s weapon. It’s sly and passive, requiring more cleverness than brute strength.

So, she’s not too badass; just badass enough for a 1937 Disney movie. And let’s not forget that she is chased down by a bunch of men, who, I must add, do not cause her death. In her efforts to gain the advantage over them, she climbs to higher ground, and tries to crush her pursuers with a boulder, but is foiled by an act of God when lightning strikes the ground she’s standing on, and she falls to her death.

No one is directly responsible for her death–except possibly her. Just like Elsa, the wicked queen’s own desires and ambitions are the cause of her demise. Interesting message we’re sending here, guys.

Or what about Cruella De Vil? She’s in charge of 2 whole henchmen and a massively disorganized plan to make a dogskin coat, but even so, she’s the boss. Jasper and Horace may not respect her at all, but they grudgingly follow most of her orders. Sadly, she succumbs to hysterical madness, yet another common downside to female villainy.

Dare I mention Maleficent? Or what about Mother Gothel? Or Lady Tremaine? Or even Ursula the Sea Witch? All of these characters are independent and clever, relying on their own wits and abilities to defeat the patriarchy around them and make a living on their own, without any man to stand behind. They are all eventually defeated, though, because the heroine is sweet, kind, and innocent enough to get a man to rescue her, reestablishing the status quo.

In fact, the only non-villainous female Disney characters that immediately leap to mind as strong characters who successfully win on their own wits and abilities are Mulan and the Frozen princesses. Frozen has done a particularly good job in escaping the damsel in distress trope, but that’s a post for another day.

Returning to our original Indiana Jones topic, I’m not sure that our current action movies have actually evolved beyond this, to be honest, and I don’t really know what to make of this. It’s disappointing, for sure, but Hollywood seems to be slowly moving away from the Damsel in Distress. And when I say slow, I mean at an evolutionary pace. Like how long did it take for the T-rex to become a chicken?

Yeah, that slow.

I think we may be able to help the process along a bit, but in order for that to happen, we have to start talking more about the problem, demanding a change in our movie fare. And we have started doing that– let’s keep talking.