“Haven’t Seen It”

July 17, 2009

I have a fun little game I play when I get stuck watching a movie that bores me: I switch the genders of the characters in my head. It almost inevitably makes a bad movie more interesting, and usually teaches me something about how gender oppression works.*

Try it yourself (don’t forget the announcer or the music):

Just threw that last one in because The Wicker Man is the best movie ever made.


Anyway, sometimes the ways that movies enforce and perform gender roles are subtle (the way that sympathetic male characters engage in far more physical comedy than female characters, whose bodies are usually only used for laughs to inspire audience disgust, for example, only becomes clear after you’ve watched multiple films through this lens). Some are screamingly overt (can you imagine a helpless adult man pleading for his “mommy” to save him?). But it’s always there.

One of the things that becomes most clear if you do this enough is the prevalence of the “Smurfette syndrome,” in which a movie presents many different male characters with different characteristics, but only one female character, whose primary role is to be sexually appealing to the male protagonist, with a secondary purpose of observing him as he lives out his story arc and providing him with approval and validation.

The Smurfette syndrome is one of the primary reasons I don’t watch many movies. As much as I can identify with male characters as fellow humans, I can’t help but feel alienated when nearly every character, in every movie, is a (white, straight) guy.

It’s well documented that there are many more male characters in film than female characters, by a margin of about 3 to 1. Most movies fail the Bechdel Test. It’s also worth noting that by far the majority of producers, screenwriters and directors are men (over 90%). It’s very rare to see women presented as complex characters, and even rarer to see female characters imagined by women.

This makes a lot of movies kinda boring to me, and beyond the more subtle Smurfette syndrome/Bechdel Test failure issues, the outright sexism? (as in: entire movies about how the masculine men jockey for dominance and blow jobs from that one lady in the mob/corporation/army/navy/marines/imaginary outer space military division/sporting event/police department/law firm, entire movies about how women are annoying mommy figures who just bring the man children down, entire movies about how it’s fun to see ladies with boobies get stabbed and tortured, rape-as-plot-device-to-further-male-character-arc, fat/old/slutty/not slutty ladies are useless jokes, etc. etc. etc. for ever. and ever.) These things make me annoyed. Which is not a feeling I seek out for entertainment.

But there’s always the inevitable moment when someone asks me if I’ve seen the latest bromance or action flick. It kind of leaves me stuck. On the one hand, I don’t usually want to go into a monologue about gender representation in film, especially since most people haven’t really thought much about it and are pretty attached to their favorite movies, which sets the stage for defensiveness. On the other, that puts me in the uncomfortable position of having to hide my thoughts and feelings in order to get along. So I usually say something about how I don’t watch many movies, and try to change the subject. It’s one of those lonely with other people moments that get more and more common the more you question why things are the way they are in this world. Turns out all those platitudes about the road less traveled leave out the part where that road is often covered in horse shit.

Unfortunately, I don’t see much chance that this will change any time soon. I guess, for now, at least there’s Joss Whedon. (He starts speaking at 2:06)

*You can do the same thing with other forms of identity oppression, though mostly what you’ll notice is a complete absence of various oppressed groups… interesting in its own way. Quentin Tarantino movies are a hot and fascinating mess, if you want to examine how race and ethnicity are presented when people of color are included in a story.