4 Ways Hollywood Keeps Screwing Up Feminism In Movies
All the behind-the-scenes drama aside, a lot has been said of late about Olivia Wilde’s new feature film, Don’t Worry Darling and its take on feminism. Some critics have come out, lamenting the simplistic nature in which the movie apparently tackles these issues, and others have called its content “half-baked ideas” that feels like The Stepford Wives, only with better visual aesthetics and, unfortunately, no Christopher Walken in sight.
Now, we have yet to see this film, so we won’t be commenting on these reviews, but they did make us wonder about the many ways Hollywood keeps trying to incorporate feminist issues and themes in the talkies, only to leave us cringing at their attempts. We’re talking screw-ups like …
Strong Female Character, Only There To Serve Men
In Hollywood, it seems that behind every lead male character, there’s a supposedly strong woman who propels the man forward by … kicking the bucket. This is a story trope as old as time, only now mixed with at least one scene of faux feminism to somehow justify its continual usage. X-Men: Dark Phoenix is a classic example of a modern film giving a woman one shoehorned “female empowerment” speech, only for her to die almost immediately so the lead men in the story can get off their butts and do something.
We’ll give you a minute to unroll your eyes because that clip was a lot (and, to no one’s surprise, not written by a woman). Of course, Raven/Mystique then gets killed by — of all things — female rage.
Serves Raven right to, uh, step up and try to help her fellow gal in need, apparently. It’s hard to understand the reasoning behind Raven getting to tell Charles Xavier where he can shove his women-saved ass and then have another woman kill her off. We’re supposed to cheer for Raven calling out the patriarchy and standing up for women, and then have no more of her. The optics are just bad here, no matter how you try to spin it.
There’s the clever and witty Irene Adler, who needs no man to tell her how to rob them, but she, too, gets killed off right at the start of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. See, even though Holmes was already going after Professor Moriarty in the source material, he apparently needed some extra motivation in the movie — and by motivation, we mean killing off the strong female character who seems to match him.
And don’t get us started on Black Widow’s stupid sacrifice scene in Avengers: Endgame.
At least she got her own movie, unlike Raven. Anyway, the message is clear: You can only be a strong woman with a noble legacy if you die for the men, ladies. Apparently, Hollywood’s idea of moving away from women characters who are nothing more than sexual objects in need of men to save them is by having them save the men, and then be gone.
And sure, not all of our onscreen power women die, but that usually means they’re reduced to some dumb love triangle, a la Twilight. Tauriel from The Hobbit movies was created to bring some female balance to the overwhelmingly-male saga, and as is the nature of elves in Tolkien’s world, she’s pretty badass.
Yeah, our girl’s got skills, and she could’ve been such an interesting character. Alas, when she’s not showing off her archery magic, all we see is her swooning over dwarf Kili while Legolas drools over her. It’s so uninspired and disappointing to have her personality be reduced to “Woman fights; Woman f**ks,” and nothing more.
It should also be pointed out that the portrayal of women being strong only because they fight like men and share masculine traits kind of implies that being more feminine is weak. There’s nothing wrong with a woman who has these traits, but diversity and nuance here are sorely needed. Strong women like Marvel’s Natasha Romanoff and Charlize Theron’s character in The Old Guard are hardcore fighters who strut like men and hardly ever show much emotion beyond anger. That’s … pretty masculine and seems to suggest that to be a strong woman, you need to act like a man.
And on that point …
The All-Female Reboot Problem
Note to Hollywood: A movie isn’t automatically feminist because it stars a bunch of women or has a female lead. The all-female reboots we’ve had the past six years are proof of that.
The Ghostbusters movie of 2016 was less “look at these authentic and interesting new characters” and more “look how they mirror the original ones, except Bill Murray for obvious reasons.” The new characters weren’t bad, and the actresses did their best here, but it’s hard to argue that they weren’t so obviously tethered to the men who came before. Heck, even Leslie Jones’ janitor character compares to Winston Zeddemore’s Ernie Hudson in that they’re the only Ghostbusters who aren’t scientists, who are Black. Why they didn’t decide to change that up just boggles the mind.
Ocean’s 8 is filled with women who “see, can do it just like men” as these tough ladies reign the onscreen era of “Girls Don’t Cry.” Also, this movie never lets us forget that Sandra Bullock is just George Clooney’s sister. Like, never. It brings up ol’ Danny Boy so often that we’re left wondering if they think we have amnesia.
The Hustle — which is a gender-swapped remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels based on the 1964 movie Bedtime Story — tries to be more authentic, but unfortunately, the talented Anne Hathaway decided on a voice that makes her sound like some posh British dude most of the time.
This new trend of all-female reboots doesn’t seem to be ending soon, with Margot Robbie set to star in a women-centric, yet another Pirates of the Caribbean movie, because the idea of simply doing a wholly original film about women pirates apparently gives Hollywood people aneurysms. Listen, we enjoy watching women kick butt and going on capers historically reserved for men and whatnot, but a lot of these movies end up masculinizing femininity and forcing women to essentially retell original male stories instead of their own. But hey, how else would Hollywood be able to profit from oversimplified feminist ideas?
Individual Exceptionalism Does Not Equal Feminism
According to the folks writing and producing these big female-led blockbusters, a strong woman does it alone, and she has a superhuman ability to do so. Following the push to include more women on and off-screen in the Hollywood machine, we finally got Marvel movies like Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman. The former was fine, albeit heavy-handed on its whole ‘90s riot grrrl feminist vibe that tended to frame feminism in a mostly middle-class white woman way. The latter managed to give us a powerful woman dripping with femininity, but it also used the observation of “Damn, hot woman is also super competent!” as some sort of punchline. Also, we’d count the exact amount of horny men gazing at Diana Prince in Wonder Woman, but gosh, we just don’t want to.
There’s probably an argument here that these two movies — both the product of the film industry quickly cranking out female-led films to try and make everyone forget the predominantly male ones we've gotten so used to — had to be made to get the reactionary phase done, dusted, and out of the way. Only … what have we had since then? One Black Widow movie (that was long overdue anyway), WandaVision, and the current She-Hulk show that again frames our big green gal as a woman who can do it all — and even better! — than men, like it’s supposed to be a revelation. At least the character of Jennifer Walters is more nuanced than “lost but totally competent woman in a breastplate.”
Even Legally Blonde, a movie praised by many for being ahead of the curve on feminism in film, went the Radical Individualism/Girl Boss route when they cut Selma Blair’s ending from the movie. See, the movie originally ended with Elle Woods and Blair’s character Vivian Kensington teaming up and starting a Blonde Legal Defense Fund at Harvard together. Only, test audiences didn’t care for this ending that saw two women — initially at odds over a man — coming together in the end to work alongside and support each other. No, they wanted to see Elle being exceptional and succeeding all by herself because apparently, some people just want to see a brilliant woman doing everything alone.
The idea that women need to be extraordinary and hypercompetent and do everything on their own stands in contrast to the entire MeToo movement that largely depends on diverse women collectively coming together to actually bring about widespread change, regardless of how supposedly exceptional they are. But, you know, everyone’s always looking for some Jesus story.
When Feminist Ideas Go Wrong
There’s a saying about some road being paved with good intentions, and when it comes to many a Hollywood movie, that saying sure applies. Edgar Wright, for instance, seems to have good intentions in mind when it comes to writing female characters, but boy, does he tend to get it wrong. A lot has been said about the problems with Ramona’s lack of autonomy in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and Lily James’s character in Baby Driver amounts to nothing more than a woman serving a man while literally wearing a waitress outfit. Last Night in Soho, however, really shined a light on Wright’s, uh, questionable ideas about feminism and how one should tell the stories of gender-based violence survivors.
In the above movie, there’s an initial sort of kinship between the main character, Eloise, and Sadie, a young woman from the ‘60s who got pulled into the sex industry by men promising her fame and fortune. By the third act, however, the film pulls the rug from under us by saying no, Sadie isn’t the real victim here — even though she was sexually assaulted and abused by a string of men. No, she was actually the victimizer because apparently Wright and company think it’s bold to say that women can behave badly, too.
It’s tricky to get into it without giving away too much, but let’s just say that the connection these two women from different time periods share with regards to, well, being a woman in a sexist world, gets trampled on in the end when the movie decides to become some kind of warning for women to (check notes) not get mad and retaliate against the men who harm them, apparently.
Wright’s co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns has said that the film is “about the exploitation of women. And the exploitation of any marginalized group, really.” Sure, it’s about that, and not much more, unfortunately. Instead, the theme of exploitation seems to have been sidelined for spectacle and, of course, another killer Wright soundtrack.
Then there’s the Halloween reboot of late that, with its first installment of the new trilogy, attempted to look at the trauma shared by three generations of women … only to ultimately frame them through the context of a man. By the time the bonkers sequel rolled in, the movie had abandoned any attempt at real introspection. Needless to say, we’re not holding our breath for any of this being corrected in the upcoming trilogy finale, Halloween Ends.
Much has also been said about the way in which Amy Poehler's Netflix movie Moxie! attempts to right the wrongs of the exclusive, all-white riot grrrl movement of the ‘90s … by having the white suburban girl triumph in the end and receive validation for her supposed activism. It’s all pretty cringe, and it makes us question, again, who should be telling these stories.
But hey, people learn from their mistakes, right?
Zanandi is on Twitter.
Thumbnail: Universal Pictures, Disney Platform Distribution