“Return Of The Jedi is great, but the Ewoks are so annoying.” That’s a pretty common refrain from Star Wars fans. In fact there are whole fan edits dedicated to removing the little fuzzy bears from the film’s climax; I can only assume they’re made by the most hardcore of Star Wars lovers. The idea that a movie can be good despite its weaker elements is one of the most basic tenets of film criticism. Yet when it comes to dissecting films from a feminist viewpoint, we seem to have trouble keeping that in mind.
When I tweeted about my frustration with the female characters in Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (one human, one primate, both of whom contribute very little to the plot), a friend replied, “Sorry to hear it’s a bad movie.” But it isn’t a bad movie. In fact, it was one of my favorite action blockbusters of last summer. Yet my specific feminist frustrations were extrapolated into a larger condemnation of the film. No one assumes that critiquing the Ewoks means you dislike Star Wars. So why did my complaints imply I hated Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes?
We’ve fallen into an all-or-nothing rut with feminist criticism lately. Battle lines are immediately drawn between movies that are “feminist” (i.e. “good”) and “sexist” (i.e. “bad”). And that simplistic breakdown is hurting our ability to actually talk about this stuff.
The best films generally feature complex, fully developed characters with diverse perspectives. So when female characters are one-dimensional tropes, the film suffers for it—in much the same way a film suffers when any of its main characters are one-dimensional tropes (and/or tiny, fuzzy bears). And when a character who’s supposed to be smart makes dumb choices—like running away from dinosaurs in high heels—it hurts the realism of the film (just like when tiny bears are able to take down Stormtroopers by throwing rocks at them).
But since Ewoks are fictional creatures, the way they’re presented has no impact outside of how well it serves the plot of Star Wars. Women, of course, are not fictional creatures, and study after study has shown that onscreen representation impacts both the self-confidence of those seeing themselves represented and the empathy of those exposed to new perspectives. In other words, the way female characters are presented has a concrete impact on millions of lives. That adds a level of urgency to feminist criticism, which, in turn, can make many people defensive about the movies they love.
But for all the awesome feminist themes in Mad Max (let’s plaster “We Are Not Things” everywhere, please!), there’s still plenty worth critiquing. The idea that the downfall of society immediately brings about the subjugation of women is the least innovative thing about an otherwise unique film. And while it’s awesome that Imperator Furiosa frees the model-esque wives from Immortan Joe’s tyrannical clutches, it’s perhaps not quite as awesome that the movie can’t muster the same empathy toward the less-conventionally-attractive women being used as milk bags who remain locked up. Nor is it great that the wives (who go on to be complex characters) are introduced hosing each other down like they’re auditioning for a Carl’s Jr. commercial. And as Anita Sarkeesian explained on Twitter, the film’s feminist message relies on defeating the type of cartoonish bad guys who seldom exist when dismantling real-life patriarchy.
None of that cancels out Mad Max’s amazing female representation nor the fact that it’s a kickass action flick. But the film’s relationship with its female characters is worth examining with a level of detail that the label “feminist masterpiece” doesn’t quite imply.
And things get even trickier when a film isn’t as universally beloved as Mad Max. Concerns about Black Widow (and some meta commentary about her in the press), meant Avengers: Age Of Ultron became an unexpected feminist battleground last May. Was the fact that Black Widow’s arc focused mostly on romance and infertility a blatant act of sexism? If so, had Joss “Strong Female Character” Whedon lost his feminist credentials? And were those who enjoyed the film in fact sexist themselves?
Personally, when I write feminist critiques they’re seldom meant to outright condemn a property and certainly never to attack its fans. (Hell, I’ve argued that Disney princesses can be empowering. I understand the idea of liking problematic things.) In fact, I’m more excited to engage with stuff I think has real artistic merit rather than point out that Furious 7 probably didn’t need so many close-ups of women’s butts. I want to highlight the weaknesses I see in Agent Carter’s gender politics or Game Of Thrones’ nudity because those shows have fantastic female characters I think could be treated even better by their respective narratives. And when I note the lack of women in X-Men: Days Of Future Past and Guardians Of The Galaxy it’s because I love the worlds those films create and would like to see more diversity in them.
Feminist criticism isn’t about ripping something to shreds or making others feel guilty for liking it. It’s simply about pointing out a specific creative weakness and then taking that a step further to explain the real-world social ramifications of that weakness, all in the hopes of dissuading future filmmakers from making the same mistake.
By far the easiest way to improve female representation is to demand more of it. As Geena Davis explains in her fantastic article “Two Easy Steps To Make Hollywood Less Sexist”:
In all of the sectors of society that still have a huge gender disparity, how long will it take to correct that? You can’t snap your fingers and suddenly half of Congress is women. But there’s one category where the underrepresentation of women can be fixed tomorrow: onscreen. In the time it takes to make a movie or create a television show, we can change what the future looks like.
If the Avengers team were made up of three or four women it wouldn’t be such a problem for Black Widow to have an arc that involves romance. But as it stands, she has to be all things to all people when it comes to the film’s female characters, and the filmmakers who create her are (understandably) buckling under that pressure.
Indeed, what makes Mad Max so exciting is its sheer number of women. If one or two bore the sole burden of representation, it would be easy to dismiss Furiosa as an uber-competent “strong female character,” the wives as damsels in distress, and the female motorcycle gang as minor supporting players. But because they all appear together, none of them feel like stereotypes. The film acknowledges the vast diversity of the female experience and presents these women as active players in their own stories. That wealth of onscreen representation is a luxury men have long enjoyed and it’s precisely what feminist critics are demanding—that women not be presented as token characters but as living, breathing human beings.
Because even when we dream up stories set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, we can’t seem to imagine that they might contain more than one female character. And that should bother us just as much as those damn Ewoks.