Friday, January 15, 2016

What Does it Mean to Say a Film is "Feminist"?

I just read an article from Bust titled "A Feminist Defense of Quentin Tarantino" by Courtney Bissonette that makes the bold claim that Tarantino has overt feminist motifs in most of his films. While I take some issue with some of the individual observations in the article (most notably that the author's discussion of rape in Tarantino's films omits the Pulp Fiction plot line that revolves around rape), I'm more interested in the way the article made me wonder what it is, exactly, that makes a film "feminist."

Bissonette's criteria is never stated directly, but her evidence seems all over the map to me, and I'm going to try to break it down here and discuss some of the nuances of it.

1) The Inclusion of Women Behind the Scenes
This is a minor point in Bissonette's article, but it comes early. She notes that "a woman named Sally Menke edited every one of his films until her untimely death in 2010." She uses Menke's editing as evidence that Tarantino's groundbreaking and award-winning work has been aided by the work of women in roles that are typically male dominated, especially for action movies.

This seems to be a valid claim to me, especially when we consider that women are grossly underrepresented in industry roles like production and editing. For another interesting take on women editing narrative action films (a space where they are even more underrepresented), consider the conversation surrounding George Miller's decision to ask his wife Margaret Sixel to edit Mad Max: Fury Road. While Miller insists that he wanted a woman's touch to avoid the film looking "like every other action movie," Sixel brings up her hesitation at taking on the project because of the domestic demands of having her husband on a busy filming schedule while she was simultaneously working on such a time-consuming project. While it's only a tiny microcosm, I can't help but notice that the man's comments are about the work while the woman's comments are about the impact on the home and family, a set of pressures that face women in practically every career field.

Anyway, this criteria seems like a valid one, and while some feminists might bristle at the idea that it takes an established male voice like George Miller's or Quentin Tarantino's to grant women access to the industry (as if it's some kind of gift bestowed by the powerful), I think that the realities of power dynamics have demonstrated time and again that part of disrupting unfair systems involves allies on the other side of the equation.

Directorial jobs for everyone! 

2) Men Speak Highly of Women
For me, this was the most dubious of Bissonette's claims. She cites the scene from Reservoir Dogs in which the all-male cast discusses Madonna's sexual confidence in a positive light. Elsewhere, she cites Samuel L. Jackson's character from Pulp Fiction calling a vagina the "holiest of holies" and that he notes that his girlfriend is a vegetarian, which makes him a vegetarian.

Bissonette implies that these lines suggest some kind of respect for women that is inherently feminist, but I just don't see it. Men putting women on a pedestal for having vaginas is deeply patriarchal, in my opinion, and I don't think it's anything new, edgy, or otherwise disruptive to traditional gender narratives.

And I took the comment about forced vegetarianism to be a knock on his girlfriend's nagging and controlling nature, a popular running gag about women across different media channels.

Having male characters show appreciation of or affection for female characters is not necessarily feminist, though I don't think it's necessarily unfeminist. It just is. Merely acknowledging that women exist and that there are social interactions with them doesn't cut it as "feminist" for me.

3) Men Recognize Women's Oppression
Bissonette doesn't really separate this point out from the previous one, but she also cites places where male characters recognize the oppression of women as evidence of Tarantino's feminist efforts. For example, she notes that the Reservoir Dogs characters comment on women being unable to get high-paying jobs and that the Pulp Fiction characters make a comment about Mia Wallace not having anything as horrible as rape happen to her.

I can see a much more convincing argument that having a male character recognize the brutal impact of rape or the inequality of the work force is a feminist theme. In fact, reading this made me think about a film I have a hard time figuring out my feelings about: Black Snake Moan. In this film, Samuel L. Jackson plays a recently divorced man who is at a low point in his life when he finds a scantily clad, assaulted, and unconscious young woman played by Christina Ricci. He brings her home, ties her (still in her underwear) to his radiator, and spends the rest of the film curing her of her promiscuity and anxiety (which we find out stem from years of sexual assault as a child). On the face of it, there is pretty much nothing feminist about that film, and there is plenty to criticize as stereotypical, demeaning to women, and problematic. But I think that its redeeming quality comes in the way that Jackson's character grows alongside Ricci's. While her oppression, abuse, and mistreatment (even at her own hands) is obvious, his is buried, and those realities fall along gender lines. She wears her abuse externally because it's expected of a woman to be victimized. He has to hide his emotional wounds (even from himself) because he is supposed to be hardened by masculinity. Their shared experiences move both of them forward and toward one another in a way that complicates the simple criticism of the film as sexist, and I think it's within this category that I would make that argument.

Overall, using narrative film to show male recognition of female oppression seems to fit feminist goals for me.

4) Female Characters Own Their Sexuality and their Strength
Bissonette's point about female characters who own their sexuality and display empowerment through physical strength and (often) sheer brutality is probably the most popular argument for what makes a Tarantino film feminist. Consider this list from Vogue or this very similar one from The Telegraph.

Tarantino has some literally kick-ass female characters. These are tough women who can kill, kick, and maim with the best of their brutal male counterparts, and it's often refreshing to see female characters who can carry on meaningful dialogue that isn't about anything stereotypically "girly." The fact that some of these characters are simultaneously seductively clothed and scantily clad paints a complex portrayal of sexuality and empowerment in a way that I, and the third-wave feminist movement, am happy to see. Being sexy does not mean being limited to sex as a narrative tool.

Final Thoughts

So what is it that makes a film "feminist"?

The flip side of all of this is how a feminist awareness can really make watching movies and enjoying it a difficult task. What seems to make a film unfeminist is when female characters are used as sexual props, given one-dimensional roles that only exist to further the plot lines of male characters, and are otherwise erased or marginalized.

When I've talked to people about films they consider feminist, there are some titles that come up again and again. Fried Green Tomatoes. Boys Don't Cry. Thelma and Louise. North Country. 9 to 5. Often, these films seem to take on sexist oppression directly, making it a major theme of the film, and I think that's an obvious and fair way to judge a film as feminist.

But that's a pretty limited band of criteria that I think has to be broadened. Surely a film can promote feminist ideals or even just sprinkle in some feminist themes without such an overt axe to grind. In fact, while I love and personally enjoy many films that have those strong, obvious messages of female empowerment, I'd make an argument that subtle shifts to the portrayal of women on the screen and inclusion of women in directorial, production, and editing roles is probably doing more to reach a broad audience and slowly move the needle of equality forward for the largest segment of the population.

I'm less concerned with whether or not Tarantino's films in particular are "feminist" (though the feminist and Tarantino fan in me thinks that at least some of them probably are). I'm more interested in how what criteria we're using to judge whether a film (and television, music, really any entertainment media) is feminist.

If we draw those lines too narrowly, I think we're cutting out a lot of influential, powerful material and frustrating well-meaning feminists and feminist allies just because they don't meet a bar of perfectionism that isn't realistic.

But if we draw those lines too broadly, the term "feminism" loses meaning entirely, and we get to the point where we can call anything feminist without actually considering its ideological impact.

Perhaps the real answer is that there are as many ways to enact feminist principles in media as there are ways to live out feminism in our individual lives, and just like real people living real lives, films are going to have degrees of feminist alliance that brighten and fade. As consciously feminist film viewers, I think our best bet is to identify and celebrate the moments when we can, criticize the harmful elements that continue to oppress and degrade, and cut some slack to the moments in the middle. Not every moment, line, character, or scene has to be feminist for the film to make a difference, and we should keep our eye on the prize: a social shift that steadily (if sometimes painfully slowly) moves us toward equality.

Images: erika g.

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