Filmmaker Elena Rossini has directed short films, a narrative feature, and multimedia projects, but it's The Illusionists—a feature-length documentary about the manipulation and exploitation of women’s insecurities about their bodies for profit—that piqued my interest. The film will delve into the issues at the heart of the matter: sociology, globalization, capitalism, and the fear of female power. And you can help make it happen. The film's Kickstarter campaign has been successful, but your contribution can help the film go even farther. Even a $10 contribution could wind up buying coffee on set for lined-up interviewees like Jean Kilbourne, Susie Orbach, or Jenn Pozner—and wouldn't that be a cool claim to make? There are three days left to contribute to this corner of women's history.
I asked Elena to compile a list of "recommended viewing" for readers of The Beheld—fantastic body-image role models, for example, or even just outstanding characters. And when she had trouble doing so, instead of presenting a lukewarm collection she penned this thoughtful essay exploring the challenges of making such a list. Read on:
Confession: I'm a filmmaker who rarely goes to the cinema. I haven't seen the latest crop of blockbuster films—Avatar, Iron Man, Inception, The Hangover—and I have no interest in watching them. I'm an equal-opportunity discriminator: action, sci-fi, drama, arthouse, comedy... Not my thing. Why? Because the representation of female characters in current movies is so limited and stereotypical that it smacks of the 1910s—not the 2010s.
In my 20s, during my formative years as a filmmaker, I must have watched thousands of films. I was a cinematic omnivore, with a predilection for Italian Neorealism, the French New Wave, and Taiwanese and Iranian cinema of the 1990s. When I graduated from film school and took my first steps in the professional world of cinema, I had a realization that profoundly changed the way I see the world—and my cinematic tastes.
When we read magazines, watch movies and TV shows, or see billboard ads, what is the underlying message about the chief role of women in our society? A maxim by Ambrose Bierce—an American writer and satirist born in 1842—says it best: “To men a man is but a mind. Who cares what face he carries or what he wears? But a woman’s body is the woman.”
Women are constantly reminded that their worth is directly linked to their youth and physical appearance. Ambition, power, and success are associated with masculinity and are portrayed as being at odds with femininity. Our popular culture keeps telling women—implicitly and explicitly—that it is virtually impossible to be liked and to be powerful at the same time.
The realization that successful, mature women are virtually absent from mass media and popular culture made me fall out of love with the world of cinema. And it also turned me into an activist of sorts.
When The Beheld asked me to put together a list of my favorite five female characters from TV/movies, I had difficulty finding examples of women who were powerful and whose objectives were not to attract a mate, but rather to do something interesting.
You don't believe me? Give me an example of an onscreen female character that meets the following criteria:
- Protagonist of the TV show/film
- Over the age of 30
- Holds an important job and is successful at it
- Her physical appearance is peripheral to the story (and she can't use her sex appeal to get what she wants)
- Her romantic/personal relationships are peripheral to the story
- The TV show/film takes place in "the real world" (not a sci-fi universe)
- She has to be alive by the end of the film
Thing is, if the character were male, I could give you thousands of examples of films and TV shows that meet these criteria. For women? Not so easy.
I could find only one example from the world of cinema: Contact (1997), starring Jodie Foster—the story of an astronomer who finds evidence of extraterrestrial life.
Jodie Foster in Contact (which totally gave me that I-just-had-an-experience feeling after viewing)
Amelia—a 2009 biopic of legendary aviator Amelia Earhart—had tremendous potential, but unfortunately it zeroed in on her personal life.
Television fared better. I found one airtight example: U.S. President Mackenzie Allen from Commander in Chief (played by Geena Davis). She holds the most powerful job in the world and is extremely good at it; her relationship to her husband is a secondary storyline.
Special mention for White House secretary C.J. Cregg from The West Wing (played by Allison Janney)—unfortunately she's not the protagonist of the series, but she's still a key player in the ensemble drama. Ditto for Peggy Olson of Mad Men.
I sincerely hope to have missed other examples. Because it would be far too sad to think there are so few works out there portraying strong, powerful women doing interesting things.
Why is this an important issue? A couple of months ago I attended a conference at the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). Cherie Blair—who has recently created a foundation for women—spoke during a talk about gender equality. She stressed the importance of showing positive female role models to girls and boys. Carlos Mulas-Granados—the executive director of the IDEAS Foundation, a progressive think-tank launched by Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero—was on the same panel as Cherie Blair. He said that Spain witnessed a radical change in collective mindsets when Prime Minister Zapatero appointed a predominantly female cabinet in 2008. And a very pregnant defense minister—Carme Chacón—walked in front of troops.
Now, if only mass media could adapt, abandoning ridiculously antiquated portrayals of women and showing the obvious truth: that the sky is the limit. In the words of Marlo Thomas: "We've finally reached our era of great expectations."
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Any TV shows or movies to add? I'll throw in a vote for Jackie Peyton on Nurse Jackie. She's a drug addict but is fantastic at her job regardless. Hey, nobody's perfect!