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Feminism in Hollywood

2011 April 14

Hollywood is generally fairly reluctant to produce films with strong feminist messages. It is far easier to sell women cast as the sexy sidekick or vapid damsel in distress. Older women generally get portrayed as the perfect or controlling mother, wise or bitter hag, or as the uptight nag. (check out this brilliant flow chart for an exploration of why strong female characters in film are so hard to come by). But in the past few weeks I’ve seen two films that surprisingly subvert this dominant paradigm as they explore the stories of women trying to escape from the expectations of patriarchy. Unfortunately, they aren’t being received as such.

The latest version of Jane Eyre was spectacular. Those of us who love the novel have been waiting for Hollywood to finally get this one right. Charlotte Bronte wrote into the character of Jane that longing she as an intelligent woman in her age had for independence. Jane is a person who isn’t afraid to tell the truth even if convention discourages such from a woman. But she also is constrained because she is unable to express outwardly all that she holds in her head. While that is explicitly expressed in terms of her artwork, it serves as a metaphor for women in that era. The best she could hope for was to be a governess and to teach others what she passionately cares about. Charlotte Bronte too felt that gender constraint in her time. Even this tale of a woman struggling to be independent had to be published under a male pseudonym because society would never accept such writing from the pen of a woman. All her gifts were constrained by what the world allowed her to offer.

Into this world of constraint Jane asserts, “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.” In willing it so, Jane finds a way to be herself despite the constraints of culture. Yet interestingly it is cultural constraints that are ensnaring that very message with this film version. The film is being received as a beautifully portrayed period piece love story and the audiences in the theaters are mostly women. While the film might be those things, it tells a story that is far deeper than those stereotypical gender-based constraints. That message of women breaking free and being accepted in the world as creative intelligent people is lost amidst the background romantic tale.

The other feminist film of the moment, Sucker Punch, suffers from a similar response. The film itself is a brilliant exploration of the history of the struggle against patriarchy. It portrays young girls who have been betrayed by imposed fathers (step-fathers and priests) being shut away and taken advantage of because they are women. Their attempt to escape this imprisonment is depicted through dream sequences that use Jungian symbolism to show them entering worlds typically controlled by men (church, battlefields, fortresses, technology) and conquering them in order to escape them. They had to play by the rules of those worlds and demonstrate that they could dominate in those realms in order to move past them. It is a deconstruction of those realms that leads to a better world for the girls.

Yet the movie itself follows the same format. It accepts the genre of fan-boy action films and subverts it. The girls look like the typical mindless sex toy – with costumes, lollipops, and choreographed moves expected in that genre – but don’t embody those roles but are portrayed that way in order to enter that oppressive realm and expose it for what it is. But of course, the average movie-goer can’t get past the trappings and understand the commentary. They want it to be a straight fan-boy film full of babes with guns that they can ogle at and therefore criticize it for not meeting their expectations. The message is lost on them for they came expecting the very thing the film serves to deconstruct. Who can hear the feminist message when they are upset that they weren’t titillated enough by the eye-candy?

I loved both films. But as I read the responses of others, I have to wonder what place feminism (as in the assumption that women are people and not just objects) has in Hollywood and therefore our culture. It is so rare for strong whole women to be portrayed or for the patriarchy to be questioned, and when it happens it is lost on most audiences, so what hope is there for that message to ever truly take root in our cultural imagination?


12 Responses leave one →
  1. Happy permalink
    April 14, 2011


    Thanks I wasn’t going to see Sucker Punch because of the ratings but now you’ve sparked my interest. The “Magdalene Laundries” was a wonderful description of patriarchal dominance even though the injustice was dealt out by nuns. Joni Mitchell gives a wonderful description of the patriarchal system in music and history though her songs. Thanks again.

  2. April 14, 2011

    You’ve renewed my interest in Jane Eyre. It was a school text book and became much loved, but none of the films or TV series have done it justice. Wonderful book!

  3. April 14, 2011

    Julie, have you seen Made in Dagenham? It’s a British film set in 1968 about 187 female workers at a UK Ford facility who stood up to unequal pay and won. It also reveals the attitudes of the men, who at first were unwilling to support the women in their quest for economic equality. It’s an excellent movie–I recommend it.

    • April 14, 2011

      Just saw this movie this past weekend, Julie. It was a good flick.

  4. Lindsay permalink
    April 15, 2011

    Feminist Frequency has a GREAT review of suckerpunch, pointing out many of the same issues you do!

    the True Grit review is also interesting- its argues the female lead is not a feminist character because all she does is adapt stereotypical male traits, instead of providing an example of a feminist woman with a range of traits and qualities attributed to both genders.

  5. April 25, 2011

    It’s nice to hear that there is yet another version of Jane Eyre out there; this one sounds like a quality production.

    The problem with “fan boy” movies is that Hollywood hasn’t figured out how to stop making them. They don’t hold up well, they’re marketed in the worst possible way, and what really helps make money for movies is to appeal to a broader audience with a quality piece of storytelling. The gate is swinging pretty wildly between crap like “Sucker Punch” and whatever they’re throwing Katherine Heigl into these days. Can’t anyone find the middle ground?

  6. January 5, 2012

    One of the best feminist movies this year: Bridesmaids.

    • January 1, 2013

      That’s an inventive answer to an intertesing question

  7. February 19, 2012

    Great response! I was shocked at how much the reviewers missed in Sucker Punch’s sexuality and even criticized it for not being more violent and degrading.

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