Like many another crime fiction junkie, I'm mildly obsessed with Steig Larsson's Millennium trilogy. I pounced on the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, when it first appeared in the States, and was rather thrilled to discover a good crime story with a startling unique and complex female character at its heart - an unfortunately rare occurrence. All too often, especially historically, women only occupy the backdrops of noir genre tales.
But beyond the story itself, the (anti-)heroine Lisbeth Salander has also seemed to find herself in the middle of a popular criticism debate about women, violence and the representation of both in art. The graphic depiction of both the violence - extremely sexual in nature - she is subject to and the violence she delivers in return has been the justification for critics to discuss whether or not her story deserves to be taken seriously or if it's nothing but salacious drama only befitting the pulp from which tradition it springs.
With the recent passing of Bettie Page, the kitschy 1950's-era pinup model, a lot of folks have felt compelled to explain the exactnatureofherappeal. I'm no exception. While I recognize the fact that what appeals to one does not necessarily appeal to another, and that there are plenty who never saw Bettie's appeal at all, I think her importance goes beyond the issue of simple appeal.
It's a definite overstatement to assign her any sort of feminist ground-laying, even accidentally so - I think she would have been rather appalled by the thought, frankly. But, to me, the thing that makes her photographs so, well, appealing is the obvious fresh, unstudied joy in being who she was, naked and unashamed, as well as the innocent devilishness of playing with taboo sexual mores. She didn't appear to have an agenda, and when the men and women photographing her did, she seemed to be able to twist that agenda into something harmlessly fun by the sheer force of her ebullient personality. I think that it's overreaching to claim her as the foundation for the sixties' sexual revolution, especially since her work was largely underground until the 80's, and I can't imagine she had any thought at all about inspiring a generation of third-wave feminists who would attempt to embrace sexual archetypes on their own terms. But it's undeniable that she became a lovely icon for these movements, and, retroactively, the perfect representation of the sincerity and love of freedom they were trying to popularize.
Throughout the latter years of her life, through mental disorders, divorces, and born-again religion, she refused to be photographed, insisting that she remain in her fans' minds as she was then - proof that she understood the power in her images, and the power in people's identification and attraction to her images. With this she also insured that, come seclusion or death, she would never really go away. For which many of us are endlessly grateful.
I was reminded that yesterday, December 10, was the birthday of Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace - otherwise known as one of the pioneers of computer programming. While the exact nature of her contributions to Charles Babbage's analytical engine research is disputed a bit, her icon status as a computing visionary and inspiration to tech-inclined women is pretty solid.
So it seems an appropriate time to release a project I've been working on for a little while now: the Deliberatepixel t-shirt store, with its first offering: the Ada Lovelace: Heroine Geek t-shirt. It's the first in a series of "Heroine Geek" shirts featuring inspirational women from technology history, which might expand in the future to women from other geeky/sciencey areas.
Coincidentally, two days ago, December 9, was the birthday of another female computing icon: Grace Hopper - but I don't have her shirt ready yet. She'll be in the store soon, along with the ENIAC programmers and Hedy Lamarr.
Another person I've liked more and more lately, Amy Poehler, is heading up this new online show, Smart Girls at the Party, celebrating young girls doing some cool things. Pass it on if you know one in your own life.
But, of course, I have to say: sponsored by Barbie? Really? Sigh.
In another critical update to a film I've been dreading, although this one not so favorable, the reviews of The Women are out. And Chris Wisniewski's is priceless:
For English, The Women is undoubtedly (and mysteriously) a labor of love, but for Warner Brothers, its 2000-screen rollout is a cynical calculation that the same female audiences who turned out for The Devil Wears Prada and Sex and the City—starved of decent movies actually made for them—will choose to waste their hard-earned money on this dull and pedestrian bit of moviemaking instead of, say, contributing it to Hillary Clinton’s debt relief. This is the same brand of cynicism that landed everyone’s favorite hockey mom on the national Republican ticket: women will be so happy to see themselves finally represented, on the stump or onscreen, that they won’t really care about the substance of what they’re seeing—the candidate doesn’t have to be worthy; the movie doesn’t have to be good; they simply have to be.
I don't really argue with the linked article's argument - in fact, it's exactly right. But there's a missing piece to this discussion, and it's that taking stock of newspaper writing, especially newspaper cinema writing, is hardly taking an accurate picture of the present and and future of film criticism. The landscape isn't quite so bleak if you take into account the women writing about film on the web. Let's face it: for good or bad, newspapers are in a steady and probably irreversible decline. The web is where it's at. It's also where writers like Anne Thompson, Karina Longworth, Alison Willmore, and Dana Stevens are. It's also where I happen to be, a woman writing about film. For once, I'm going to put aside the righteous indignation and focus on optimism instead. It's not great that so few women critics are featured in today's newspapers. But it's not the end of the world, either.
Have I mentioned that film blogger Karina Longworth is one of my favorite writers on the web? Well, she is:
But linguistic clumsiness aside, panel after panel featured actresses, who should have better things to do, endlessly discussing their own physical attributes, as the young men in the audience continually made it clear that this was all they were interested in. When asked how playing the girlfriend role in the third Mummy film differed from her usual day at the office, Maria Bello answered, "Well, I'm not naked in this film!" Cue the smirking slur from a young gentleman in the crowd: "Wow, that was the wrong thing to say. They just lost my ticket."
How did a group of women pull off a TV show in a country where women can’t drive, can’t vote, and really aren’t supposed to hang out with non-related males? Well, they have a saying in Danya’s hometown, "Jeddah is different." And for the record, so is she.
I've been complaining about the forthcoming remake of 1939's The Women for quite some time, even before it was given a definite release date. That's some dedicated whining. And now that the remake isscheduled to be unleashed upon us this September, I can take my whining to a whole new wonderful level.
In the "Rebel Genre" there are three kinds of feminine prototypes: The Vixen, The Good Girl and the Rebel by Proxy. The Rebel by Proxy was an especially strong concept in 1950s and 1960s, when The (Male) Rebel was still being defined and the fact of his having a strong female lead was in negotiation. After all, we wouldn't want The Rebel to be domesticated by love now would we?
There are some things I could nitpick at in Julia Barry's recent piece from AlterNet, "Feminism 3.0: Women and Media", but instead I'll appreciate it for what I believe it's intended to be: a sincere plea for women and their allies to work together instead of fighting one another. I also appreciate that, unlike other articles one might read about The State of the World Today, Barry ends with a list of positive actions to take and links to read. This might not satisfy a feminist already well-acquainted with the nuanced problems of being a "feminist" in the media industry, but it's a nice introduction for those who are learning about it.
I'm not really into Valentine's Day (and, frankly, I'm only phrasing my dislike that mildly because it seems spewing one's disgust with manufactured, obligation-ridden, and establishment-reinforcing holidays is so last year) - but have a good one and all that anyway. As a compromise, here's a couple links to celebrate, but in an alternative fashion:
Via the wonderful Cecil Castellucci, I discovered the Amelia Bloomer Project - an annual list of feminist books for young readers. Castellucci wrote The Plain Janes, the first title from DC's "comics for girls" division, Minx - and it's on the 2008 list, along with some other great reads.
I may have decried the lack of female filmmakers among the Oscar nominations, but Women Make Movies points out that, as far as Sundance goes: "Although only 25 percent of the films in the festival’s four feature-length Documentary and Dramatic competition categories were directed by women, they won 50 percent of the top prizes." The full press release is posted at Feministe. Not bad.
Also, this type of success at the independent level emphasizes that the lack of women directing and producing mainstream movies is due less to the availability of competent female filmmakers and more to the biases of the system in which they're working. Just sayin'.
The Oscar noms are out, and while the lack of nominations for female directors is (as always) glaringly obvious, there are three women writers nominated for best screenplay, and another for adapted screenplay - and quite the respectable group of actresses acknowledged, including my longtime favorite Tilda Swinton.
Kim: "Although the boys are in pretty much equal danger of being dead before the final credits, it's almost always the girls who are portrayed as most vulnerable and in need of protection. Why? Well, because girls have vaginas, which puts them at danger of being attacked by the male half of the population. Therefore, we must costume them in the most revealing ways possible, make them aware of their own sexuality, and then punish them for it with death. That way, when we kill the girls off, it'll kind of be their own fault for being such sluts. It's not just horror films, of course; from thrillers to romantic comedies, women are endlessly at the mercy of their vaginas. And therein lies the appeal of Teeth...."
Scott: "If you get over the rather distasteful subject matter and focus on what's beneath the surface, you'll find a flick that's got a whole lot to say about young women and their fear of burgeoning sexuality, society's general distaste (and, let's face it, fear) of the female sex organ, and the ways in which men do a serious disservice to womankind by treating their "naughty bits" as if they're something to be ashamed of."
Nick: "Thus, the glee that greeted the multiple severed penises, while disconcerting on a basic level (my god, are women really this tickled by castration!?), makes some sort of sense as a response to years of horror films in which men have exerted violence (often sexual in nature) against women. Nonetheless, their reaction continues to be puzzling, given that Teeth is generally so crude and schematic that it seems the only proper reaction to these climactic images is unsurprised, eye roll-accompanied groans."
Matt Singer at IFC agreed with Nick that the broad characterizations and campy humor drowned out the film's serious implications. As soon as a screening hits Ohio, I'll evaluate it myself.
Last month, I received an email from a friendly film publicist who sounded like he actually might have read at least a bit of my blog and forwarded press info on a movie appropriately relevant to my feminist/film slant: Teeth.
In case you haven't heard the rumblings about this indie horror flick yet, it caused a bit of a stir at last year's Sundance with its subject matter - a reworking of the vagina dentata myth. Brush off your Latin, and, yes, that means what you think it means: toothed vagina. The myth is often seen as a warning to men about having relations with strange women, and a symptom of dread about women's sexual power.
As for Teeth itself, it goes something like this: "High school student Dawn (Jess Weixler) works hard at suppressing her budding sexuality by being the local chastity group's most active participant. Her task is made even more difficult by her bad boy stepbrother Brad's increasingly provocative behavior at home. A stranger to her own body, innocent Dawn discovers she has a toothed vagina when she becomes the object of violence. As she struggles to comprehend her anatomical uniqueness, Dawn experiences both the pitfalls and the power of being a living example of the vagina dentata myth." (from publicist email).
Reports about the film paint it as extremely violent, appealing to women, and disturbing to men. And although it has "strong feminist undertones" (also from publicist email), it also seems to have a current of dark comedy running through it. This is definitely a film impossible to call worthwhile or worthless until it's actually viewed - and I think, if only for curiosity's sake, I'm anxious to do that.
There are often guys who storm out at some point in the movie, which I usually find satisfying. We were at a film festival recently, and I came back for the last 15 minutes. After the dog incident, these two guys stood up and walked out, saying, "Thanks for that." It was really funny that they would last that long, and then five minutes before the end, that was the last straw and they couldn't take it anymore. Men react differently to certain parts of the movie more viscerally than women do, and I've heard about men who were disturbed about just how into the movie their girlfriends were.
So, looking at this through the lens of torture-porn apologists who think extreme horror featuring on the sexualized destruction of women is harmless - maybe the harm comes more clearly into focus for them when the violence has a different gender target? Maybe this film will at least convince those men who never understood before why some women object to those films why they in fact do.
Just a note: the DeliberatePixel Feminism feed is now aggregated by Feministblogs.org, "community of weblogs by self-identified feminists, women’s liberationists, womanists, and pro-feminist men." Stop and and subscribe to read the other great feminist blogs involved.
Who would you guess to be the photographer responsible for a new special exhibition helping to celebrate women in technology - why, Bryan Adams, of course!
Yes, that Bryan Adams, Canadian and soft-rock legend. Apparently he's now a photographer. Who knew.
Anyway, his photo collection is part of the Blackberry Women & Technology Awards 2008, and while it seems nicely done and features many worthy women, none of them are really related to technology, so I'm a bit confused as to why it's included in this project. Not to mention the fact the collection is titled "Modern Muses, " since muses are traditionally rather submissive and objectified figures who are noted for inspiring others to do things, not for doing things themselves. Not exactly the best choice for a title honoring female achievements.
I don't quite get it. But if you're so inclined, you can nominate worthy women in tech you know over at their website.
I didn't intend to start out the week's blogging with such a depressing subject, but this story about the victim of a honor killing in Britain is heartbreakingly important. Its' footnote also addresses the necessary division of these type of crimes from religion:
An obsession with gender and status, and its corollary, the assertion of masculine power through violence, is by no means exclusively Islamic. Sikhs in Britain and India, and Christians in the Middle East, have also been involved in honour killings, and dowry-murders have taken place among Hindus. Rather than being a direct result of Islamic teachings, these killings are really the sharp end of a patriarchal system that crosses religious boundaries, and in which a woman’s reproductive potential is regarded as family property.
Seems as good a time as any to mention that Nothing but Red, an anthology of writing and art about violence against women inspired by another honor killing case, has extended their submission deadline until December 1. Visit their website to read how you can submit your own work.
Turkey is not the only country where women are shot, stabbed, strangled and maimed in the name of honour. But it is the first one to really tackle the taboo issue up close. The artistic interest comes in the wake of increased coverage of honour killings by the Turkish media and a vast array of government-backed education programs. Suddenly even universities are encouraging students to highlight the issue in doctoral theses.
While it hasn't been officially confirmed, it's really just an almost refreshingly honest statement of most major studios' current policies. Try to name even half a dozen successful recent films starring women that aren't brain-dead romantic-comedies. Now come up with a list of valuable men's leading roles in popular films. Which one's longer? Definitely the latter, and that's assuming you could even come up with enough of the former to actually make a list.
Is it just good business practice? After all, why would any business keep putting out a product that wasn't making money, and it was pretty popularly and critically determined that both Kidman's and Foster's films (The Invasion and The Brave One, respectively) were not that great.
But what I question is why they automatically assume the reason for it is that the films featured females in starring roles. Some other, just as valid reasons, are that the direction wasn't good, the writing wasn't good, the supporting cast wasn't good, or that the premise of the movie itself wasn't good. Why are none of these nearly as important as, or at least taken into account with, the fact that there's a woman up there on the screen for the majority of the film's running time?
Instead of cutting out women because the horrible films they're in aren't making money, why not try putting women in good, vibrant, challenging leading roles? Why not stop keeping them confined to the chick flick ghetto and start giving them quality scripts, directors, and production?
Who knows - there might be a whole new market out there, of both men and women, who would be willing to see movies like that. But we'll never know unless somone tries to reach them.