In film, you can take away a man's job, his marriage, his land, his worldly possessions and cash, and send him hurtling into an identity crisis that calls into question his masculinity and his place in the world. From this, we get some of the best stories featuring deep personal journeys. But in order to send a woman on a journey you can only do so much: take away her man or her kids, or physically assault her.
Everything done to women in film in order to make them interesting is dependent on men -- men are the catalyst for why a woman falls apart, and their stories often involve them going "crazy" to some degree, lending credence to the idea that a woman's identity and emotional and mental stability are derived from what a man can provide. The genesis of a woman's journey is always about a man, while a man's journey on film is only sometimes or partially due to what a woman has done to them.
During this year's Fantastic Fest, I saw three films that carried similar themes: A Field in England, in which a group of war deserters travel through a field, unwittingly consume psychotropic mushrooms, and struggle with their identity and their sense of self-stewardship; James Franco's Child of God, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, in which a backwoods hick (who reads like the yokel prototype for Alien in Spring Breakers) has his land taken away from him and begins losing what little sanity he had to begin with; and Escape from Tomorrow, in which a suburban father loses his job, thus exacerbating his very specific middle-aged white male insecurity. It's not that these films are sexist or perpetuate stereotypes -- they simply reflect the ingrained societal understanding that fosters an environment in which stories about male journeys are simply more interesting than stories about female journeys.
Even one of my favorite female-driven films in recent years, Young Adult, has Charlize Theron's journey beginning with the announcement that her high school sweetheart is having a baby -- even then, the film is more about Theron's Mavis coming to terms with insecurity. On the surface, she wants to get her old boyfriend back, but thematically, the story is about her own identity and what happens when her mean-spirited actions reflect her inner ugliness back at her. Like the best female representations in film, Mavis is complex and hard to sympathize with -- and while it's easy for us to identity with male leads, it's more challenging to get the audience to identify with a woman, especially one who willfully makes mistakes. Socially speaking, we've been trained to believe that women are less prone to make mistakes, but there's this tricky double standard in which we blame them for the ills that befall a man (if a marriage or relationship dissolves), and yet when we look through the eyes of the woman in a similar scenario, we still blame her for her bad fortune. We both exalt and condemn women in the same breath.
Spring Breakers, Short Term 12 and Frances Ha are all great examples of films this year where the female leads go on incredible journeys that aren't dependent on men -- Spring Breakers challenges the male gaze by cannibalizing it, and engages the audience in the idea of the fantasy of female agency and asks us why that has to be a fantasy at all. Short Term 12 gives us a strong female character who struggles with her ability to be a mother when her own past still affects her, reflected back at her through the emotions of the orphan kids she helps care for. The film takes the ideas of a woman being affected and afflicted by a man and her female-specific ability to reproduce and nurture, and somehow avoids being a story reduced to just that, instead finding the universal humanity in Brie Larson's Grace and her emotional journey. Frances Ha tells the story of an aimless post-collegiate aspiring dancer and how she struggles to cope with adulthood. Her story doesn't rely on boyfriends and ex-boyfriends, but on her friendship and search for individual identity and meaning. These women are all flawed, complicated and prone to mistakes and unsympathetic behavior, and they are all the heroes of their own stories.
Imagine a version of Escape from Tomorrow about a suburban wife on vacation at Disneyworld with her family, who loses her job and thus her ability to contribute to her family -- as she lugs her kids and husband around the happiest place on earth, she descends into madness. The plot could easily work for a woman, and hell, it might be more interesting that way (even though Escape from Tomorrow is pretty amazing as is), but we're never interested in modernizing our approach to women in film. For a woman to go on a journey of self-discovery, she has to lose her boyfriend or her husband, or have her kids threatened, or be sexually or physically assaulted so she can find empowerment in revenge.
Last year, in a New Yorker profile of Anna Faris, an anonymous female scribe said that the only way to create an adorable, empathetic female character is "to defeat her at the beginning. It's a conscious thing I do—abuse and break her, strip her of her dignity, and then she gets to live out our fantasies and have fun. It's as simple as making the girl cry, fifteen minutes into the movie." That same profile discussed how people don't want to see powerful women in movies, or women who act like men. Why can't we have a movie that establishes, from the beginning, that a female character has her shit together and then, like a man, loses something that defines her, like her career, her friends, the house she saved up to buy, or her ability to do what she loves? We see these things in movies, but it's always with the additional "and also, her boyfriend/husband left her," which then becomes the driving force for everything that follows, and the only thing that truly matters.
The upcoming film Jane Got a Gun seems like it might be the answer to this problem -- the plot follows Natalie Portman's Jane, a frontier woman whose outlaw husband comes home riddled with bullets and criminals hot on his heels, threatening to attack their home. So Jane grabs a damn gun (and her ex-lover) and decides to defend her land. Portman herself recently spoke out in an interview with Elle UK about feminist movies, and how the only semblance of female empowerment we get in films is women kicking ass like men:
The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a "feminist" story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.
Even when we get a film about a strong woman, it's always with the caveat that she behave like a man -- but never in a sexual manner because that would be slutty. No, a feminist woman in film must be Lisbeth Salander or Hanna or the girls of Sucker Punch, and those films are the male fantasy of female empowerment. They aren't told by women or from the perspective of honest female experience, and yet they're marketed at women.
Obviously, the larger problem here is that there are not -- and never have been -- enough women working in film and television. The research conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film continually proves this. It also concludes that while there's been a 5% increase in women as leads or co-leads in films since 2002, there's been an equal decline in women presented as protagonists in film. We're always the bad guys, we're always the ones ruining men's lives, and when we are as troubled, complex, and flawed as male protagonists, we're the antagonists -- even in our own stories.
Being interesting and being the good gal aren't mutually exclusive.