Wednesday, 16 December 2015

2015 has been My Year of Diversity in Film and Television

This year, more than any other year, I have noticed a lot of things in film and television that show women in roles that are worth looking up to, and showing amazing strength of character and the development of positive relationships. Often when people discuss the "strong female character" they seem to take that in the literal sense - women who have amazing physical or mental prowess such as Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanov in the Avengers, Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft in Tomb Raider or Charlize Theron's ├ćon Flux. 

This may sound strange, but it ALMOST seems that these interpretations of strong female women are just substituting a woman into a male hero role. Most females (and I say most, not all) are social creatures, who enjoy friendships and relationships. Positive relationships, I should add. A strong woman doesn't necessarily mean a kickass one (though of course I do admire them, but I am not one of them). Stereotyping in media is interesting in that it's so subtle, that we don't even notice how it makes what we see as normal. We all deny it and say "of course I know that black people aren't always violent" or that "Indian people don't all work in Quik-E-Marts", but other things, like gay relationships or even gay public displays of affection seem to be more shocking to people when you don't see them on television and are suddenly faced with them in real life having never seen it before.

The Bechdel test, which first appeared in 1985 in Alison Bechdel's comic strip :Dykes To Watch Out For" is something I have been using privately to assess every work of fiction I come across (TV, movies, books). To pass the Bechdel test it has to satisfy the following requirements:
  1. The movie has to have at least two women in it, 
  2. who talk to each other, 
  3. about something besides a man
It is surprising how many movies I have enjoyed over the last 10 years actually fail the test. Most of the superhero movies I watch by Marvel (except X-Men), Lord of the Rings, and most action movies (The Bourne series, Bond movies, Die Hard series and my favourite movie, The Fugitive). Even animated movies like Toy Story, Ratatouille and Ice Age don't pass the Bechdel test. Interestingly, what DOES pass, are the Disney princess movies, and you know how much criticism there is surrounding those movies about values we teach our daughters.

But this post is not about just women in fictional media. I'm talking about cultural and sexual diversity too.
My most recent TV show that I've started watching is Quantico. There is so much diversity there, that I think the show is brilliant in its representation of not only women, but of other cultures too.

The main character of the show, Alex Parrish, is an Indian (Asian Indian, not American Indian) who is intelligent, beautiful and a brilliant trainee in the FBI. I honestly can't remember the last time I saw an Indian female in a western movie in a starring role (except Bend it Like Beckham - where there were a lot of Indian stereotypes in it), who wasn't just the girlfriend or significant other of a main character. And that's not all. There are twin FBI trainees, Reina and Nima, who are muslim but with both approach their religion differently - Reina is more conservative and wears a hajib, Nima is outspoken and does not. It's also nice to see that the muslim women are not portrayed as the terrorists in this show (as yet!) and that they can be independent, and work hard in something that is not a stereotypical muslim female does (ie oppressed, stays at home, or engage in law enforcement). There are lots of muslims, men and women, who are just normal everyday people and it's great to see that it's being represented here! Also, there are gay characters (and one pretending to be gay) and they are all mixed in together with other FBI trainees of different race and sex - it's not trying to say women or other races are more powerful, but to me the show demonstrates that these are normal things you see in society and we should recognise that.


Jessica Jones was another outstanding series that I binge watched this year. After the much lauded predecessor, Daredevil, I wasn't sure what to expect (and was worried about being disappointed) because I'm sure that I, like many others, wondered "Who is Jessica Jones?" However, it was a portrayal of a superhero which delved a lot more into the darker side of human nature, with a huge emphasis on character development - which you can do with a series, not so easy to do in a movie. Jessica has supernatural strength and unlike other heroes, chooses not to hide it (nor flaunt it) - it's just part of her everyday routine. Her best friend, Trish, with whom she had been avoiding due to her sense of "keeping everyone distant so I dont' hurt them" felt to me like the more emotionally strong character, taking charge of her own challenges, and facing them rather than hiding from them.

There was good representation throughout , from her lesbian lawyer who faced the same challenges with a relationship as you would expect from a married couple, to a mixed black/caucasian relationship that Jessica herself had with Luke Cage. However, the best part of the series was the portrayal of how control in a relationship IS abuse. Kilgrave's "love" for Jessica, made you almost feel sorry for him, with his stalking and desperation to please, yet the warped way in which he carried out the relationship was highlighted so well that I hoped that people could better understand how an abusive relationship can come about.  He controlled her, with mind control, to do the things he wanted, yet he also gave her nice presents, expensive food and hotels, and thought because he "treated her well" with these things, it entitled him the use of her body, because he LOVED her. This is the part that I think many males without positive relationships misunderstand in real life, that just because you love someone and shower them with gifts, it does not entitle you that person's love or their body or their trust. It is a choice to engage in a relationship, between two people, not one person. I probably didn't articulate that well. Also, the reverse chauvinism displayed by the cop, Will Simpson, who was in a relationship with Trish was also interesting - where the guy feels like he has to be the hero and protect the girl but the girls don't really need protecting unless asked for - this is something that I feel like I deal with a lot. I don't need help, and I will ask for it if needed, but just because someone thinks they can do something better than me, doesn't mean that that I should listen to them. It was articulated very nicely in an article by Edeline Wrigh:
Where Kilgrave believes he’s entitled to women he’s put on a pedestal and done “favors” for, Simpson believes he’s entitled to the attention of the “fragile” women (Jessica’s superhuman strength notwithstanding) who must be protected. Where Kilgrave uses mind control to force women to give him what he wants, Simpson manipulates situations “for their protection” while undermining their autonomy. They aren’t enacting the precise same version of toxic masculinity, but in both cases, it’s a mixture of entitlement and manipulation that necessitates they view women’s skills, knowledge, and desires as inferior to their own. Perhaps the scariest part of the whole thing is that they’re convinced they’re justified in doing so.
It's a little more aggressive than what I would like to express, but it is the part where the villains feel like they have the right to remove the decision making of their victims that is the form of abuse that is something that society doesn't quite always see.

(On a side note, it was pretty awesome the number of Aussie actors in it - Rachael Taylor, Wil Traval and Eka Darville)


Mad Max: Fury Road was a movie that I watched this year that surprised me because I actually enjoyed it, AND it also had quite a strong feminism message too. The fact that the heroine, Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa, was the actual protagonist rather than Mad Max, sat very poorly with some of the male audience, which was a shame because I actually enjoyed the movie a lot. It did pass the Bechdel test with flying colours!

Furiosa is a woman - a disabled one at that, with only one arm - and she takes it upon herself to help the wives of Immortan Joe, one of the warlords in this post apocalyptic movie, escape the life that has been forced upon them. Women in this movie are precious possessions - their bodies, their babies, their lives - and Furiosa is merely giving them a choice to be able to live a life that they choose. She can drive, and shoot, like any man, but she is not BETTER than any man, which is why I really enjoyed this movie. I like how Max doesn't feel emasculated when Furiosa has to use his shoulder as a stand to steady her shot. I also admired how the wives, even when faced with a rabid War Boy bent on suicide bombing, showed that life is to be valued and treasured, never wasted, even on an enemy.


The 100, was another series that passed the Bechdel test and should be celebrated for its diversity, though it's one of those series that aims at the young adult/teenager group. Clarke is a leader, not because she is the strongest, but because she has the courage to make decisions and to follow them through. Bellamy is a nice balance to her leadership and I quite like how the two complement one another, both trying to protect their people in their own ways. Bellamy has his strength and testosterone technique, which isn't always the way, and Clarke seems to be the one who reasons and balances, and also shows that the emotional toll that the weight of those decisions can take on a person.  It isn't weakness when emotions or morality take a toll on you, it's human. And showing how characters experience it and deal with it, gives people something to aspire too. Those female strong types who walk around kicking ass and not being "weakened" by emotion is a ridiculous unrealistic stereotype (more of that woman being substituted into the male hero role) and I like that the 100 isn't like that.


It reminds me a lot of Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen, who is emotionally drained and traumatised by all the things that has happened to her in the Hunger games and its aftermath. Mockingjay Part 2 came out this year and a broken, stressed out Katniss, who cries and suffers with all of what has occurred in the past few movies - just like soldiers who come back from war are traumatised by what has happened to them. This movie also passes the Bechdel test and I do like how the road to healing was not the aggressive and violent way (embodied by Gael) but by the choosing the gentle and peaceful way (embodied be Peter who is also an emotional wreck after his time in the Games and the Capital). Moving on from your trauma, acknowledging it, learning to live and deal with it, rather than continuing to motivate you to more anger and more bloodshed, is a message that this movie demonstrates very well.

I guess what I'm trying to say in this post is that we're moving away from the Bruce Willis's John McClane Die Hard hero (who is emotionally stunted, can't keep communicate to keep his shit together, but is a kickass hero, and every just that bit chauvenistic because he doesn't think anyone can look after themself) and more towards the Katniss and Jessicas - that you don't have to be unaffected by the horrors around you and still stay strong and emotionally resilient. Being able to face your emotions and deal with them is heroic in itself.

What I WOULD like to see is not just women facing these challenges - but I would love to see a man facing them and overcoming them. It's great that we're breaking the stereotype for women and other cultures, but when a popular mainstream TV or movie does it for a man as well - well, then that will be another stereotype broken, but I admit that one will be a tough one. I'm not sure how long it will take for the world to be ready for a male hero that isn't macho, emotionally stunted and able to communicate and be a leader that leads with his head and not his sword.


Or maybe, he's already here :)

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