Gender bias in Hollywood

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There‘s been a rash of quality movies lately, mirroring the New Hollywood of the ‘70s. But, wonders Hannah McGill, why are so many of the female characters either washing up or pregnant?

Gender bias in Hollywood
Should Kelly Macdonald call her agent?

Last month, I was sent a Christmas gift by my DVD company. It was very nice of them, except for the fact that it consisted of samples of aftershave and moisturiser liberally emblazoned with the words ‘for men’.

Now, in common with most people named Hannah – and, I assume, a few other subscribers – I am not a man. Not such a big deal, in the grand scheme of things, I admit. But the assumption that people with DVD players are males is interesting. And especially so in the course of a winter during which cinemagoers may have noted a certain imbalance afflicting the big award-baiting films of the season. The good, surprising news is that we do seem to be experiencing a freak plague of auteur-indulgence, with unsafe commercial bets like Paul Thomas Anderson and Joel and Ethan Coen being handed substantial budgets to forge defiantly uncommercial films, and megastars like Brad Pitt choosing brooding, wordy, introspective epics over throwaway teeth ’n’ torso numbers.

But the bad news? Well, there’s an unavoidable degree of gender bias going on. Believe me, it gives me no pleasure to vocalise this whinge. I’ve always held that the most narrow-minded argument regarding women and the movie industry is the one that harps on about their supposed ‘exclusion’, thus denying the contribution made by women to every branch of the cinematic arts. I never bought that one about actresses disappearing once they depart their toothsome twenties, either: from Crawford and Davis through Kidman and Blanchett, haven’t actresses hit the height of their fame and clout in their third and fourth decades? (And wouldn’t you rather be Helen Mirren than Lindsay Lohan right now?)

On the whole, then, I am a glass-half-full type of film-business feminist. Yet this season has done a good deal to test my faith. A visitor from space might be forgiven for making the same assumption of which my DVD providers are guilty: that the movies are basically a boy thing. The absence of significant female characters (ie those with names and lines to speak) in Anderson’s ‘There Will be Blood’ was so striking as to seem like a statement: a symptom of the lack at the heart of the protagonist’s solipsistic, profit-obsessed existence. But when you line Anderson’s film up against ‘3.10 to Yuma’, and ‘The Assassination of Jesse James…’, and ‘No Country for Old Men’, and ‘American Gangster’, and even the likes of ‘Superbad’, its virtual chicklessness starts to look more like a trend.

Give your paranoia free rein, and you might note that those female characters who did achieve some prominence had a tendency to be pregnant, preoccupied by domestic chores, or both. No disrespect to the pregnant or the houseproud but it would have been nice to see the female experience represented by more than ministering to men and fretting over fertility (and no, Amy Adams seeking her prince in ‘Enchanted’ doesn’t count). Watching ‘The Assassination of Jesse James…’, I fairly cringed for Mary-Louise Parker. An actor of her grace and cleverness reduced to standing at a sink for the full seven-and-a-half-hours’ (or whatever it was) running time? Wait, though, there’s another female character, played by the exceptional and underrated Alison Elliott. What will she bring to the story? Still more near-wordless sink-standing, that’s what. There’s one other female in sight: she’s a vamp who gets people killed with her adulterous shenanigans.

‘No Country for Old Men’ is a territory not especially friendly to women either. Touching though her performance is, Kelly Macdonald is working with a character composed of little more than squeaky questions, big lovely eyes, and befuddled loyalty to her dragon of a mother and her no-good man. Marisa Tomei is great in ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’, but much of the buzz has focused upon the fact that she is topless for almost the entire film. Suddenly, one comprehends why Cate Blanchett has elected to play a virgin and a bloke…

Of course, it’s hardly a new phenomenon for women in movies to represent either wanton harlotry or restrictive domesticity (or – most insidiously of all! – the former swiftly morphing into the latter post-marriage). It’s one of those things, however, that I kind of hoped would shift a bit in my lifetime (along with the pay gap, the low rate of rape convictions, and 18-year-old breasts in newspapers. Oh, the naivety).

The current crop of handsome, sprawling auteur statements clearly references the New Hollywood of the ’70s, but with even less oestrogen involved. Bonnie without Clyde; Harold without Maude; plenty McCabe, but precious little Mrs Miller. It’s as if the suspicion of feminine authority expressed by Tyler Durden in ‘Fight Club’ a near-decade ago (‘We’re a generation of men raised by women; I’m wondering if another woman’s what we need…’) has been adopted wholesale, as a necessary component of the arty rebel mentality. Katherine Heigl – next to be seen as a boyfriendless bridesmaid in a romcom near you! – has noted her discomfort with this element of the undeniably fun and jolly ‘Knocked Up’: ‘It paints the women as shrews, as humourless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys…’

Just as you don’t have to be a man to watch the odd DVD, you surely don’t have to be a woman to see the limitations of this kind of thinking.

Hannah McGill is artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.


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