Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Where My Girls At? Guest Post from "The Illusionists" filmmaker Elena Rossini


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 
  • Liked/likeable 
  • 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." 

*    *    *    *    *

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!


  1. This totally reminded me of back in the day - at UofO - when I was Co-Chair of The Pocket Playhouse. We (the ladies of the dept) were lamenting the year's line-up of shows and how there were only about 3-4 female roles vs. a gazillion male roles. I put up a petition about it and asked people to vote on what they wanted to see on stage. Then I got called into Bob's office and got yelled at. And, then my petitions were taken down.

    Yes, this has always been a hot topic for me. I currently have my boyfriend (sitting next to me) wracking his brain for a good example of the above mentioned female character lead criteria. It's challenging.

    I did an essay in college about women and comedy and "can women be as funny as men" and the result of my findings was, "no. not really." Why? The womb. Bad answer, I know. It is so hard for us to separate women from sex and relationships and still be able to identify with them as characters.

  2. OK, here is what we came up with:
    Allison Taylor - 24 (The president)
    Law & Order - the female officers meet all criteria
    Silence of the Lambs - Clarice

    Andrew is writing a movie/screenplay right now that has a kick-ass female lead character. Hopefully we can add that to the list one day.

  3. The best I can come up with is Rosalind Russell in "The Trouble With Angels," and I'm not positive everyone found that character likeable.

    SUCH a great post, Elena. I just donated--- and the idea of buying archival footage for the film was much more compelling than that of buying coffee. =)

    It's also fun to compare your checklist to one's own life: am I the protagonist of my own life? Do I treat my romantic relationships and appearance as the whole plot of my life?

    That Ambrose Bierce quote is perfect, if depressing as hell.

  4. hello! I skipped over here from Feministe. I have to say - have you read Henry James' "A Portrait of a Lady?" Ah! It's one of my favorite books of all time, and in a sense literally portrays this conflict. This intelligent, strong-willed woman is determined to live her life, to explore the world and learn and grow on her own, and yet she's still sucked in (viciously and with horrid ends) to a marriage. In any case, Jane Campion filmed a version of the book with Nicole Kidman in the title role, and I think it's not nearly as brilliant as the book, but still quite stunning. And I do think Isabel Archer fits these criteria, she is just torn and chained by custom around her. Also! Miles Franklin's book and then the movie, "My Brilliant Career." Again, the main character portrays this struggle as women tried to break out of the only-for-men molds around them in the late nineteenth century/early twentieth century, but which still holds water today.

    Those are my two recommendations, and honestly I feel like the best examples come from book adaptations, no?

  5. What about Meryl Streep as Julia Child in Julie and Julia? Loved her in that, and I think it fits all your criteria :)

  6. Ah, warmest regards and...what a relief: your article not only matches my sentiments about the film world, but the hopefulness of the research I have been conducting for almost a year. The way that women are viewed/treated in the world is, I believe, fully linked to the way we are portrayed on screen (not only logically, but statistically, it's harsh and must be changed). Furthermore, the perspectives of women that exist on screen are disappointing because women do not make anywhere near an equal number of a films compared to men, at least in the United States. I absolutely welcome feedback and any leads! Here's one of my links (you'll find my contact info on the Linkedin/profiles page if you're interested): http://kaitlinsansoucie.tumblr.com/research

  7. I linked you in today's blog post on my site. Is that ok?

  8. Cameo, I remember hearing about that--I think this was after I'd left the department--and thinking it was so par for the course for Bob. Given the ladytalent that department had, the choices were downright irresponsible, especially given that only the women in the department seemed to have any interest in directing woman-driven plays (and, of course, as far as faculty goes the gifted directors were men).

    Did you see Bridesmaids? I thought that was an interesting example of a way to paint a sort of weak character in a strong way, and in a comedy at that. This NYTimes piece might interest you. Actually, it might interest everyone in this thread: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/03/magazine/a-plague-of-strong-female-characters.html?_r=1

    Rebekah, thank you so much for donating! And ooh, I love your idea of using that female protagonist as a checklist. I live in Jupiter and am a robot-worm, but other than that I fit the criteria.

    Joojierose, thanks for swinging over from Feministe! I haven't read the James book but I like the way you paint it here--at the very least I could stand to see the film. Jane Campion is interesting in this regard--I remember all the hubbub about "The Piano," which is a fascinating character but it doesn't exactly fit all the criteria, does it? It's still the romance that guides her even as she resists it, if I recall correctly. I would put "In the Cut" up for nomination but it also has a lot of lady-punishing--the "slutty" sister gets murdered. (I still like the movie.) And "My Brilliant Career" is awesome!

    Pam, totally! Gah, the only problem with that movie was...Julie! I do wish her all the best as a person but she made for an annoying character. Still, though, even she would somewhat fit the criteria we're discussing here. Julia Child, both the woman and the character, is utterly a role model.

    Kaitlin, exactly: The way we regard women on film is a mirror of the way we treat them in the world, excellently stated. This is part of the problem with "strong female characters" as outlined in the Times piece I mentioned above in the second paragraph of this monster comment--we want our "strong women" impenetrable, not real. Also, I'm thrilled that you linked to me--thank you so much! Looking forward to reading more of your research. (As for Elena, I can't imagine she would mind in the least, and I'll be sure to send her your comment.)

  9. Happy Go Lucky and Baby Mama both kind of fit the criteria. And stretching the rules a bit further, Auntie Mame and Harold and Maude.

    From television: No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (I loved this show so much), and the female protagonist from Intelligence.

  10. Thanks for passing on the info, Autumn! I will keep checking in here for juicy stuff - I love your project.

    In regards to the criteria in the article, I must say, we have to consider that the few female protagonists we see are created and designed by male filmmakers. Women only rarely have a hand in the making of other women on screen. When women like Jane Campion make films with female characters in the lead, the roles respond to male filmmaking, necessarily. Sexuality is what defines a woman's presence on and off screen, so responding to the way we are so often positioned is natural and can be very effective. I must admit have always had a soft spot for saucy films, but aside from my personal interest in sexuality on screen, it is just as important to draw lines between professional success and passion and the body for female characters. This is something for feminist filmmakers to play with in years to come: they need to be very clear about their subversive intentions. A real and powerful oxymoron.

  11. Yes! I share your grief! Have you ever heard of the Bechdel test? Named after Alison Bechdel the cartoonist. She has an even shorter list of criteria that most films fail to meet.

    It goes like this. Does the film have:
    At least two female characters?
    That both have a name?
    And who talk to each other?
    About anything other than a man?

    Those questions highlight how many female characters are plot devices or 'appendages' to a male character.


  12. What about Dr. Temperance Brennan on "Bones"? Maybe not so much in season 6, as her possible romantic interest in her partner became quite a front-and-center issue, but I think she fits.

  13. Leslie Knope from Parks and Rec. Well, her job is not actually very important, but she takes it very seriously and is very competent at it.

  14. Minibear, that does it, I'm going to check out "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. I always meant to but haven't yet. Also, you may be interested in Jess McCabe's guest-blog stint at Bitch, which is all about lady detectives: http://bitchmagazine.org/profile/jessmccabe

    Kaitlin, that's a great point about female filmmakers responding to the work that male filmmakers have put out there. I remember taking a film class and learning about Maya Deren's work, and it was sort of lost on me because I'd been steeped for so long in the world of traditional film that I didn't understand what she was getting at--she wasn't responding to male filmmaking, I don't think. Hmm, now that I'm older I should revisit her work.

    Vibeke, love the Bechdel test!

    Melissa, I haven't seen "Bones" but will keep an eye out. And I feel like for a character that develops over time, a romance being front-and-center ain't so bad. My romances become front-and-center sometimes too!

    Ayelet, I think simply taking a job seriously and having it be understood that the job does have *some* importance and isn't just assisting a bunch of men fits the criteria. And now I want to watch the show! I haven't yet, despite loving Amy Poehler.

  15. Liz Lemon on 30 Rock, Lorelei Gilmore on Gilmore Girls, and Leslie Knope from Parks & Recreation all meet the criteria. Liz may not be likable (and her unique role of fitting the requirements above is often mentioned), and Leslie's fallacy was mentioned. Although Gilmore Girls is entirely about personal relationships, but the mother/daughter ones are far more prominent than the romantic ones. The show has many strong, vibrant women, and Lorelei and her daughter are jointly protagonists. Lorelei had her daughter at sixteen, provided for them, and successfully started and manages her own inn; I think she "works" for this :)

  16. Alexa, I keep meaning to check out "Gilmore Girls" as it seems to be a good example of how feminist programming doesn't always go by a feminist name--it just has smart, engaging characters (from what I hear) who happen to be women. I'll have to check it out, thanks!

  17. The only one I can think of is Ellie Sattler from the Jurassic Park movies. The only one I'm not sure about is her age - I can't tell if she's over 30 or not. And yeah, it involves dinosaurs, but she's a hardworking paleontologist and her romantic subplot consists of a few moments with Sam Neill.

  18. Olivia Dunham from Fringe?
    Romance is important to the story, but her job with the FBI is the main part of the story. There are plenty of supernatural aspects but generally everything happens in "the real world".

  19. Brenda Leigh Johnson, the protagonist from The Closer, meets all the criteria.

  20. Seconding Lorelai Gilmore on Gilmore Girls! The show does focus on her relationship with her daughter, and their romantic relationships, but Lorelai's career is also a significant plotline over the course of the series. (I can't remember if the word "feminist" is actually ever used in the course of the series, but there is a strong supporting cast of women surrounding Lorelai and Rory, most of whom have a feminist outlook.)

    Definitely Leslie Knope and Liz Lemon, too.

    Maybe Ellen Parsons on Damages? I actually stopped watching the show, as I hate legal thrillers, but the two main characters are women.

    This is why I watch lots of TV but few movies -- there are far more female main characters on TV than in movies.

  21. I have to second Temperance Brennan in Bones. Relationships come and go for her and at a certain point she simply walks away from (a great) one because her career/self are more important. The true focus of the show is the work that is done, not just by Brennan but also by two other strong female roles (her boss & her best friend) and at least two on/off strong female roles (a judge & her assistant).

    It could be though that Mysteries, like Sci-Fi/Fantasy, will focus on the topic at hand. (Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher, Nancy Drew) So if you're looking for the toughest categories I'd say Action, Drama, Comedy.

    As a movie buff I'm going to try for one of each of those:

    "Missing" has Cate Blanchett playing a woman who has to rely on her estranged father to help hunt down her daughter who has been kidnapped in the Old West. Action! Adventure! Tommy Lee Jones with a mullet!

    "Conspiracy Theory" - ugh. In spite of the huge crush the crazy lead guy has on her Julia Roberts' character is not about romance, she's focused on her job and the "truth".

    "Calendar Girls" - that movie about older women posing for a nude calendar to raise money for cancer. Haven't seen it but assume it applies.

    "The Blind Side" - Sandra Bullock, from the snippets I caught on the airplane this definitely qualifies. (Drama)

    More difficult than it should be but not impossible. Sadly just like the Bechdel test it's not guarantee of quality. Meanwhile not a bad way to while away some insomnia.

  22. LOVE "Contact" -- LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE IT.

    For the record, though, "Inception" is number 8 in my "Top 10 Best Movies of All Time", which looks like this:

    10.) Singin' in The Rain
    9.) The Prince of Egypt
    8.) Inception
    7.) The Last Samurai
    6.) King Kong (2005)
    5.) The Lion King
    4.) Radio Flyer
    3.) Close Encounters of The Third Kind
    2.) Edward Scissorhands
    1.) The full Lord of The Rings trilogy

    So you can see the kind of movies I gravitate towards -- movies about identity, childhood, quests, epic battles, and good music. None of this chick-flick stuff.

    But Inception has one of my favorite female characters of all time. Ariadne is, I grant you, not quite out of college yet, and very obviously under 30. She does, however, have a good job (I would give anything for her job), is quite successful at it, is very liked and very likeable, is one of the main protagonists of the film, they never once even mention her physical appearance (although Ellen Page IS very pretty in a unique, refreshing, non-stereotypical way), nor does she use her sex appeal to get anything at all. She kisses Arthur, my favorite character, once, to fool the bad guys, sort of like Tom Cruise and the pretty English girl at the beginning of Mission Impossible, but just one little peck on the lips, nothing passionate, and we are never told if there is any actual real attraction there. The movie DOES take place in the real world, albeit only sometimes, as they are constantly dipping into peoples' subconscious, and she is most certainly alive at the end of the film.

    I know that Iron Man does really objectify women, as does Avatar -- I've never seen nor cared to see Hangover -- but you really should see Inception. It's *sniff* BEAUTIFUL!!!

  23. I agree with minibear's picks - Happy Go Lucky & No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency are two of my all-time favorite movies/tv series/books!

    Also, Inception, Parks & Rec, 30 Rock
    And Amelie (love it!), The Help

  24. The Help, although still a few days till release, would be perfect! Also, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

    Autumn- I can't recommend Gilmore Girls enough. It's filled with unbelievably sharp wit and unique characters, and wonderfully strong, imperfect women.

  25. Made in Dagenham sort of fits these criteria. I don't think we're ever made aware how old Rita is, but the actress is over 30, and the film is all about the important role she plays in a strike over pay (whilst her job itself is not particularly important - a machinist manufacturing car seats).

  26. @RubyBastille, @Anonymous, @Becky, @GotNerd: I haven't seen the films you all mentioned, but they are now on my personal list. Thank you!

    @Rebekah: Good point about how more plot-driven shows/films may be friendlier to a female lead--in fact, it could be seen as a sort of easy way to get some lady cred, instead of doing something that's more character-specific but that isn't a "chick flick."

    @Lauren Elizabeth: Ariadne's a good one! She wasn't the main character, but I liked that she was taken seriously throughout based solely on her talents.

    @Alexa: Oh, "The Help" is reminding me of "Downton Abbey," which has some great female characters...that do not fit this bill, because as a British costume drama it is by necessity in large part about who's going to marry whom. Alas!

  27. Insightful and thought provoking -- I shot over from Average Fantastic.

    I will second/third/whatever both 30 Rock and Bones and Gilmore Girls. I watch more television than movies these days, as I like the longer plot spans, and I admit I watch a ton of sci-fi, so it was hard to weed those out.

    I will add: Body of Proof, with Dana Delany, which is new and finding it's footing, but the main relationship of interest to the protagonist is repairing the one with her teenaged daughter. She's a medical examiner.

    "Castle" has a male author as a protagonist, but his "partner" is a well-respected detective, and while the show is a bit "light," Kate Beckett is great at her job, likeable, a good leader, and very much still alive. Her relationships are peripheral, although, like Bones, it's become a bit more central.

    Canadian television gave us Being Erica, which is all about relationships, overall, but provides an interesting antidote to the "strong woman" trope -- Erica is a mess at the beginning, but she does find her strengths as the series goes on, and the character is likeable, her relationships are occasionally central, and she finds her job success as the series goes on. Very relate-able character.

    But best best best? In Plain Sight -- protagonist is Mary Shannon, US Marshall, witness protection inspector -- important job that she's excellent at. She's likeable if abrasive, is around 30 (I think) when the show began, and while her personal life is in play, she is focused on her job. Slam dunk on all the criteria, I think.

  28. Yan, thank you for reading! And your recommendations are great--I hadn't heard of "In Plain Sight" but it sounds right up my alley. And while I agree with Elena's reasoning for excluding sci-fi from the criteria, there's also something to be said about the possibilities therein. Good for the viewer looking for excellent female characters, but potentially not so good for the overall goal of showing that women on terra firma are also complex creatures!

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