bookgazing: (mansplaining)
movie poster for The Women showing all five main women in different poses

‘The Women’ is a female focused film that is both refreshingly different and disappointingly normal. It follows the lives of four very different female friends, but it mainly concentrates on the life of Mary. Partway through the film Mary and her three best friends Sylvie, Edie and Alex find out that her husband, Stephen, is having an affair. Mary spends much of the rest of the film working out what to do with her life, supported by her friends. While all four women appear throughout the film, the most significant relationship is between Sylvie and Mary, who have the much complicated relationship of many long standing best friends.

First, the astounding thing about this film: it contains absolutely no men. It took me a while to work out that men were deliberately excluded from the world of ‘The Women’, as I kept expecting men to show up eventually. They never did. Check the cast list, there are no male actors in this film. The women talk about having important relationships with men, but these men never appear on screen (until the very end of the film) and they never speak aloud. The audience even only hears phone conversations with male characters through reported speech from the female characters. Excitingly, this absence of men this doesn't mean the film confines its characters to roles which are traditionally female either; women are powerful executives and at the end of the film we see a female doctor delivering a baby. Can we just take a moment to let this stylistic choice sink in? ‘The Women’ lives up to its name by removing men to put women at the centre of the action. Just, wow – an amazing choice in a world where women are so often defined by their relationships with men in visual media.

Despite this exciting, female focused approach, ‘The Women’ chooses to be quite ordinary in the societal makeup of its female characters. In other words, it’s another white, straight, upper class feminist piece of media. To make an off the cuff comparison it’s a ‘Sex and the City’ for viewers who require a more consistent complexity in friendship stories they watch. As in ‘Sex and the City’, most of the characters in this film are very well off. The majority of the cast is white. All but one main character is straight. As it has been, so shall it be.

It’s hard not to see ‘The Women’ as a yet another piece of media that shuts a large group of women out of the feminist fortress and then justifies slamming the door by making these women stereotypical monstrous. Take Crystal, Stephen’s mistress, who is played by Eva Longoria. Crystal is an unrepentant man stealer; an easy caricature for viewers to focus their hatred on. She’s a straw mistress, with a ridiculous stripper-like name. She’s also an overtly sexy, gold digging, perfume counter attendant who just happens to be played by a chromatic actress. Longoria is Cuban –American and one of I think, three actresses in the film who aren't white.

Eva Longoria as Crystal, drinking champagne while wearing lingerie

In ‘The Women’, her character stands in opposition to her lover’s well off wife, Mary, who is played by a white actress, Meg Ryan. Crystal is clearly not meant to be read as likable; for one thing she betrays a member of her own gender in a film that celebrates female friendship. Mary, as the heroine of ‘The Women’ and a character that viewers spend a lot of time learning about, is clearly marked out as the beloved. It’s difficult to imagine a situation where a wife and a mistress are able to understand rather than hate each other, so featuring this kind of female conflict doesn't automatically introduce problems of female competition into ‘The Women’ (although we might wonder why the central conflict in a female focused film has to be over a man). However, the particular ways in which this film draws comparisons between the two women makes this portrayal of the dueling mistress and wife …sticky.

In order to influence the viewer’s feelings about Crystal and to make it easier for viewers to empathise solely with Mary, Crystal’s is given a set of traits that make her particularly unattractive when set next to Mary’s independent, every woman character. As I mentioned above she is super sexualised and it is implied that she displays her body to lure a man. Once she gets Stephen’s attention she uses him for money. This kind of characterisation would make for an uncomfortably stereotypical portrait of the other woman in any circumstances. The opportunistic, vamp-tramp model of the other woman? Again? Really?! But taking Crystal’s race and her economic class position into consideration the use of these particular stereotypes also reinforce negative perceptions about chromatic women and working class women. In contrast to Crystal, Mary may be attractive but she never exhibits her body publicly and she dresses in clothes that are coded as ‘tasteful’ not ‘sexual’. A major story line in this film is about her attempt to build a business independently of Stephen and her father. It’s difficult not to feel that these specific differences between the two women matter more when one is white and the other is chromatic, especially when they are both in a film where the majority of sympathetic characters are also white.

Crystal and Mary face off in a changing room, Mary is wearing white, modest lingerie, while Crystal is wearing a black teddy for symbolism

‘The Women’ does make token efforts at being a piece of intersectional feminist media. Alex, is played by Jada Pinkett Smith, a black actress and her character is also a lesbian. Unfortunately Alex is never really at the forefront of the story. Viewers learn very little about her, beyond the fact that she is sassy (oh dear lord), likes to party hard, isn't often in a long term relationship and likes hot women. Her inclusion in ‘The Women’ makes a difference. There have been enough female focused projects where the main characters are all white to make viewers realise that a black actress getting a main part in these projects is a big deal. And there really are too many projects about female friends that totally exclude lesbians. But the sidelining of Alex’s character, the fact that she doesn't really get an individual story line or much character development, means that ‘The Women’ is far from progressive.

‘The Women’ also displays a blinkered understanding of class privilege. After finding out about her husband’s affair, Mary works hard to try and understand what she wants now that her marriage seems to be over. In the end, she decides she would like to build her own fashion design company. It’s interesting that while characters in the film keep emphasising that they are proud of Mary for doing this on her own, the start up money for this company comes from her mother. It is only Mary’s position as the child of a well off parent that allows her to create her own company and realise her dream. Yet the film plays this off as if it is nothing, as if it isn’t even worth commenting on the fact that Mary’s economic privilege enables her independence.

Consider this in connection with the film’s clear direction that audiences should view Crystal’s money grabbing, man dependent ways as anti-feminist, or at least a lazy way to live. I’d say the film’s instruction here is more than a little galling. Mary’s family situation means she can afford to shape a good job for herself, allowing her to keep up her luxurious standard of living. Crystal works on a perfume counter. I don’t think many would argue that having an affair in the hope of improving your financial circumstances is anything but skeevy, but jeez, drawing a feminist comparison between the financial decisions of a woman with rich, supportive parents and a woman who works in retail is really misleading.

Saying all this, I really enjoyed ‘The Women’. I sat down to watch half and hour of it while I waited for some food to cook and ended up sucked into the entire film. I liked the dynamic between the four women, especially the friendship between Mary and Sylvie which was explored in-depth. The dialogue was funny. I really liked that this was a film about older women, who had made lives for themselves but were still developing. And I’m a sucker for stories that are really about women and female communities, not just about the men in their lives.

I just kind of wish film makers would produce more stories that concentrated on female friendships among women from various sections of society. And that any conflict between female characters in these stories didn't have to end up implying that particular types of women don’t make the feminist grade, especially when there are racial and class implications to vilifying these women. You know what I really want after watching ‘The Women’? I want the story of Crystal and Tanya’s friendship, one where Crystal’s new girlfriend meets Alex and they all go our partying together. If fan-fic won’t provide, I guess I’ll just go watch back episodes of ‘Girlfriends’ and ‘The_L_Word’.
bookgazing: (i heart books)
Oh here’s the film post that I promised, what...two weeks ago?
To atone for the fact that even more of my money is going to the sparklepire empire in 2011, I have been trying to watch more smart people films over the past few months. Ok, fine, I did go and see ‘Arthur Christmas’ (rocking, get yourself to a cinema screen if the compulsory holiday cheer is already wearing you out) as well, but mostly it’s been classily shot film, marketed to my actual age range.

'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ )

'Good Night and Good Luck’ )

'Winter’s Bone’ )

'Jane Eyre’ )

'Capote’ )

That’s what films I’ve been watching. What have you seen recently and what should I watch next?
bookgazing: (Default)

In 'Red Riding Hood', a recent adaptation of the 'Little Red Riding Hood' story Valerie is the girl who will come to possess the famous red cape. She has always tried to be good, or so her voiceover tells us), but from the very first scene she is tempted from her duty by a hunting trip with her friend Peter. Peter grows up to be a humble woodcutter (important!) who Valerie loves very much. Sadly Valerie’s parents want more for her than a life as a wood cutters wife and betroth her to Henry, the son of a wealthier metal worker. Alas, alack Valerie loves Peter (who I was cheering for, because a romantic hero called Peter in a werewolf film, that is some meta-coolness right there).

This troubled love triangle takes place in a village that must constantly placate a wolf with animal sacrifices. The wolf hasn’t killed a human in a long time, but just as the film opens Valerie’s sister Lucy is found dead. The wolf seems to be linked to Valerie in some way and she spends most of the film trying to keep from being taken, without letting the wolf destroy her village, while the audience attempts to work out who could be the wolf.

I heard rumours that 'Red Riding Hood' was a feminist retelling, which tweaked my curiosity. One feminist reading of the original 'Little Red Riding Hood' is that the story warns young women of the dangers of straying from the path and exploring the world for themselves. The film gestures towards this reading of 'Little Red Riding Hood', by making the wolf a hindrance to women’s unsanctioned sexual exploration. At the beginning of the film Peter and Valerie are making out in the woods, only to be interrupted by the warning horn that signals that the wolf has killed again. They return from the woods and find out that Valerie’s sister has been killed by the wolf. Characters initially assume that Lucie may have been killed because she snuck out to meet Henry on a wolf night. Both of these characters are exploring romantic partners outside their parents sanctioned choices and have stepped outside the bounds of their parents village.

'Red Riding Hood' made me think hard about how I identify a piece of media as feminist. How do I interpret work as feminist? How important is my knowledge of the creator’s intent? I feel like there’s feminist intent behind this film, attempting to make it a film that deliberately pushes a feminist message. However, I also think my feelings are mostly based on flimsy moments in the source that could easily be interpreted as simple reiterations of anti-female messages. In the scenes I described above the film is restating the original symbol of the wolf as a warning against the dangers of women straying from their sanctioned lives. Valerie kisses Peter and the wolf horn sounds. Lucie possibly goes to meet a boy and the wolf kills her. This restatement of the original fairytales message that responding to unsanctioned sexual interest can lead to danger, does not make the film an explicit feminist interpretation of the story. The original tales of 'Little Red Riding Hood' contain the same themes and I don’t think many would argue that these themes make it a text with a deliberate feminist intent.

The meaning behind these moments was never explicitly clarified. No one ever comes out and says ‘Using a wolf to represent a warning to women against exploring sexuality is creepy wrong’ so, why do I interpret them as moments created out of feminist intent? Why did I see them almost as wink to camera moments and think of the director Catherine Hardwicke raising her eyebrow, pointing and mouthing ‘See the messed up anti-female bias in the original story’? Maybe I identified them as feminist because reviews had told me to expect to find a feminist slant in this film. Maybe I reinterpreted these moments in light of later, clearer feminist commentary about the uncomfortable link between imprisoning women and protecting them from wolf shaped danger. Or maybe I saw them as feminist moments, because Valerie and Peter clearly express the happy, cheerful side of their attraction to each other. I guess my assumption is that if a film includes characters who are free to express happy feelings of sexual interest, any moments that speak of sexual interest being punished by a wolf, must be included as knowing commentary? Like I said I’m concerned that this is flimsy reasoning, which relies too much on my interpretation of the films intent. And as we all know interpreting sources based on assumptions about intent is a dodgy business. I will think on and see if I can identify anything more concrete that makes me interpret these moments as feminist.

Whatever led me to see these moments of cloudy meaning as pointed feminist commentary, some kind of explicit feminist commentary needed to appear to convince me that this film was a feminist piece of media. The most effective moment of commentary comes when Gary Oldman’s character, Father Solomon, arrives to hunt the wolf. His small daughters venture out of from his heavily armoured carriage, crying and shaking. They ask if the wolf he seeks here is the one that killed their mother. Father Solomon says it might be, then bundles the girls into the carriage. They are driven away to a mysterious location while they sob and peer out from a barred grill. The shot of them being driven away is a strangely chilling moment. It also allows the film to allude to ideas that men sometimes imprison their daughters under the guise of protecting them, which subtly comments on Little Red Riding Hood’s function as a warning tale.

Father Solomon quickly reveals himself as a villain, who the audience should despise, by contradicting widely held modern sensibilities, for example by accusing a boy of being a werewolf because he is disabled. If anyone wasn’t freaked out enough by the idea of a father locking his daughters in a constantly moving jail for their own safety (I mean that pretty much had me screaming SCARY VILLIAN in my mind) the other grounds that establish him as a villain suggest that all his actions, including his attempts to protect his daughters, should be viewed as suspect. This scene acts as explicit commentary on wider ideas about male protection of the female, specifically fathers’ attempts to control their daughters lives, which the ending of the film ties into nicely.

The theme of fathers controlling daughters and the metaphor of wolves representing overly protective fathers is the best developed strand of feminist commentary in this film. Sadly, that isn’t exactly saying much. The theme is not sustained, or really referenced, very often in the film after Father Solomon’s scene with his daughters. The viewer has to wait until the end for a really strong return to the theme of fatherly control. And yet it is still the most well developed feminist thread in this film. Red Riding Hood is scattered in its presentation of feminist critique and doesn’t quite know what it wants to comment on. At first it seems to want to pick away at the anti-female aspects of the original tale. Then it switches and tries to provide a wider criticism of historical attitudes towards women, as Valerie is unwillingly betrothed to Henry. Father Solomon says he found out his wife was a werewolf and killed her, so surely the film then switches to criticism of husbands who…I dunno, kill their wolfed out wives and metaphorically clamp down on their wives abhorrent wolfish sexuality? The line of feminist investigation is all over the place.

It’s like the film knows it wants to be feminist and it knows about a range of feminist issues that could be addressed in an adaptation of 'Little Red Riding Hood', but it panics - there’s too much feminist correction to be done, it feels overwhelmed and it tries to take too much patriarchy on at once. There are flares of successful commentary, like the scene with Father Solomon’s daughters, but the feminist critique isn’t shaped into a satisfying, sustained narrative line. I was left with muddled ideas about what the film achieved in terms of feminist commentary and I feel unable to point to many specific parts of the film which are effective pieces of feminist examination. The ending brought the feminist angle to the front of the story again as a villain walked through the ways that the wolf’s killing was been full of punishments for deviant female sexuality. Valerie defeats the wolf, dressed in her red cloak which is an obvious ‘I am woman, see me stab’ moment. However, I felt that although the ending makes 'Red Riding Hood’s' feminist intent clearer, it isn’t enough to shape the film into an effective piece of feminist media.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy some aspects of this film. I might be the only one, judging from other net chatter, but I genuinely didn’t know who was going to turn out to be the werewolf. The misdirection of the film worked really well for me and I followed it willingly as it suggested that Peter, Valerie’s grandmother and the young priest could each be the werewolf. I even suspected Father Solomon for a while. It’s a shame though that the film doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity to offer different kinds of feminist critique as each new person is framed as a potential wolf. The symbol of the wolf could potentially change its meaning depending on which character is thought to be the wolf. The film focuses on the entertaining mystery aspect of the town’s uncertainty rather making explicit reference to the symbolic chances provided by the changing accusations.

But perhaps it’s a mistake to focus mostly on the story’s symbolism and themes. As kind of a hot, action thriller 'Red Riding Hood' is quite a fun romp. As I said, the mystery element is intriguing. It’s also sexily shot. I watched the trailers and there is something alluring about the snow, flowing red capes and dark woods . It’s a classic combination, designed to tap sensual indicators set up by a lot of old stories and cultural ideas I guess. It certainly worked on me. And there’s a lusty 12A hot edge to certain scenes, especially one where the village dances because it thinks it has defeated the wolf. I’m very fond of Amanda Seyfriend since her appearances in ‘Mean Girls’ and ‘Veronica Mars’, so it was nice to see her reappear...

'Red Riding Hood' is definitely not the worst film I’ve ever seen ('Varsity Blues') or even the worst film I’ve seen all year ('The Adjustment Bureau') and I feel a little unfair summing up all it’s good qualities in such a short paragraph. Unfortunately, it’s undeniable that there’s more bad than good in this film and to say the good points go any deeper that surface appearances would be to skew the truth. It’s a sexy, adventure romp with a strong gothic violence vibe that trips daintily along the line between darkly sexy and genuinely uncomfortable (personally I think the scene near the end where Valerie is forced to wear a stylised iron wolf mask is disturbingly fascinating). It includes a feminist focus, even if that focus is all over the place. It’s a paranormal romance film where the female lead is be allowed to kiss a guy without HEAPINGS OF SHAME being piled upon her head. I would watch it again if I were to find it while idly flicking through channels.

A few comments on some of the weirder stuff found in 'Red Riding Hood':

The romantic love triangle in this film is made of fail from the very beginning. There’s a total lack of romantic chemistry between either of the two male leads and Valerie. Henry is just so incredibly meh, even his hair cut is apathetic. There’s never any real tension about who Valerie will end up with, so why include a love triangle? Answer: because someone spent a whole meeting boring on about how love triangles are hot right now, until everyone in the room caved or head desked themselves to death.

There’s a pretty lusty vibe between Peter and Valerie, but I couldn’t see any deeper romantic feeling between the two of them. I have no problem with characters whose relationship is entirely about sexual attraction, but this film asks me to believe that Peter and Valarie are the kind of loved up couple who could weather paranormal tests and forced betrothals. I believed they were hot for each other and having a great time, but I didn’t really see any especially convincing emotional connection between them.

Suzette, Valerie’s mother’s costume and makeup is zupped up to the max, in comparison with all the other actresses. I’m not sure if her corseted, brightly coloured outfit and flawless foundation was an attempt at some kind of weird feminist commentary (we find out she’s had an affair, maybe the emphasis on her overtly sexy appearance was meant to reflect her status as a woman of unsanctioned sexuality). If her appearance was intended as commentary it was stupid (as stupid as having British actors speak with American accents while playing Roman soldiers in ‘The Eagle’). If it wasn’t, her costuming and makeup were bizarre in the context of this film.

Father Solomon arrives in his ominous armoured coach and his guards step out, all wearing helmets. They remove their helmets and…they’re all black, or Asian. Right from the get go, the audience understand that he is a villain, because he’s accompanied by a guard force whose members are positioned as strange, ‘exotic’ and threatening partly because of the fact of their race. They make the villagers gasp. Black and Asian men would have been scarily unfamiliar and threatening to them right? I mean, maybe, I don’t really know enough about Russian ethnic history to comment, but whatever, that’s not really the point. The point is that Red Riding Hood is another film that associates particular racial groups with evil, menace and unfamiliarity. It misuses (probably) historically plausible attitudes to justify including a serious modern racial bias that we see reoccurring throughout the film industry. Please make this kind of thing go away.

Personally I find it annoying that a disabled character was included in this film, just so that he could be killed. Plod (yes, I know, maybe the villagers would give him a derogatory nickname, but perhaps the viewer could also have been told his real name just the one time) He isn’t given any back story or characterisation. Then he’s suspected of being the wolf, because he’s disabled and likes card tricks, so Father Solomon has him killed. It’s contextually realistic for Father Solomon to think a disabled person could be in league with the devil, but Plod needs to have some kind of substantial characterisation. His disability should not be just a plot point, which allows Father Solomon to kill him and show a modern audience how unhinged he is. I’m not sure I’m explaining this very well, but I definitely feel like everyone involved in this film needed to think harder about the inclusion of Plod.

Reading the ending with a feminist head on and looking for consistency in the symbolism creates a problem. Peter is bitten by the wolf and turns into a werewolf. He goes away for a while until he can learn to control himself. Then he returns, to continue his romance with Valerie. Well looking at that symbolically it gets all kinds of messy (and I’d probably spoil the ending if I explained why). I suspect we’re supposed to view Peter returning to Valerie’s arms as a wolf, as Valerie embracing her sexuality…Meh, I want to give it the benefit of the doubt, but it feels dodgy to me. This was the only moment in the film where I was suddenly struck by the incongruity of the director of a Twilight film ( part of one of the most anti-feminist teen franchises in the last five years) directing a feminist remake.

So, it’s another case where I quite enjoyed a film that was a bit silly and found plenty of fodder to roll round my brain. At the same time there were some parts that would make me uncomfortable talking about this film as just a silly romp, with a few theatrical problems, so you got this long post. I hope you found something of use here (and now off to try and get some book reviews written up, before my weekend disappears under a friend’s birthday celebration).


bookgazing: (Default)

October 2014

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