Women Are People Sometimes

by Ashley "TwistedLadder" Herald (@TwistedLadder)

If you've ever spoken to a woman, you might have noticed that they were, in fact, a person. No two women, cis or trans*, are alike; they each have their own tastes and preferences, fears and dreams and nervous ticks. Women are even, strangely enough, as diverse as men are.

This notion sometimes takes people by surprise. Surely women are purely interested in shoes, shiny rocks, and the color pink? And trapping a man into that special social institution which we simply can't allow the gays to ruin - marriage? Well, some women are interested in those things, but it's not a rule. Having a uterus or presenting oneself as a woman doesn't really tie a person to any particular set of desires.

Turns out it is you who is next.Typically, you'd never know that from looking at the movies. A woman in the movies has only a few options; she's the love interest (who might need to be saved), the concerned mother, or the super sexy femme fatale in sexy sex clothes, dangerous and sexy. Or maybe her purpose in the film is to birth the conflict, literally, and she has a freaky weird alien monster baby? Or some combination thereof. For sure, though, her role is usually somehow tied to the fact that she is a woman, and it's often hilariously limited.

Is this always true? Certainly not. Is it true way more often than is reasonable for a society that is half women? Yes. Women are many things in real life, they should get to be many things at the movies, too. Happily, this was a banner year for women popping up in the types of roles we don't normally see them in, or at least doing things we don't normally see them do, in big, mainstream movies.

Honorable mentions this year are White House Down, in which the bravest character in the film is an intelligent and enterprising eleven-year-old girl, The Heat, a buddy cop comedy featuring two women, The To-Do List, a teen sex comedy starring a young woman looking to try out every sex act she can think of, and Frozen, a gorgeous and stunning Disney offering in which our princesses subvert the gender-related expectations planted in your brain by previous Disney films. And yet, the idea that women can do well in comedy and action, or make progressive princesses, isn't absolutely novel. Even if they're not widespread, we have seen these things done in these genres before. So what's new?

Horror, particularly of the hack and slash variety, has never been kind to women. Not only are women often victims of the most grisly and brutal violence film has to offer, it's often in indirect punishment for sexual promiscuity. We've all seen some attractive young woman in her lingerie stand with her back to the window, and we've all seen her get impaled from behind as her mouth opens in a surprised "oh," and she arches her back (interestingly, women seem to make the sound when they die as they do when they orgasm). This kind of thing happens so often in these films it's practically a joke. This is not a genre in which women have agency or pose a non-sexualized threat. They're virtually always victims or almost-victims, just barely survivors.

See? What did I tell you?

You're Next features as its protagonist a young woman named Erin (Sharni Vinson), brought to meet her boyfriend's (incredibly dysfunctional) family. It's not long before the family gathering goes south, with unknown attackers hunting and killing various members of the family. Intriguingly, we see Erin is very competent at fighting back. She begins setting traps, giving advice and, when the opportunity arises, she displays resolve in the face of fear, beating one of the antagonists to death with a meat tenderizer. By the end of the film, she has killed and assaulted more people than the antagonists, becoming a greater threat than the masked villains. By the film's conclusion, the audience has to ask who the real murderer is: the masked men, or the woman who's killed them all?

While that's impressive in the context of the film, what's more impressive is that this is done without reference to sexuality or to her being female. She's not a femme fatale or an angry mother, she's merely acting in self-defense, which becomes more brutal as the film progresses (e.g. she kills a man by shoving a blender into his head and turning it on). Not only do her actions in this film subvert the expectation that she will be a victim, but she completely shifts the power dynamic of the film - putting her on top. This is great for two reasons: (a) it portrays her as a unique character, a human being, and not a limited stereotype (like the hero's emotional baggage or mom), and (b) it makes a great twist by defying the audience expectations, established after too many horror films where women seem unable to evidence competence or sense, and makes one of the victims into the killer.

On the topic of women evidencing competence and sense, my personal pick for the Best Picture of 2013 is Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, which has been lauded for its excellent cinematography and compelling script. Medical Engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is up in space for the first time, helping to install the technology she innovated, when disaster strikes; debris is hurtling through Earth's orbit, catastrophically ripping apart the fragile facilities sustaining the lives of our astronauts, their suits encased in the unforgiving vacuum of space. The beautiful and unsubtle shot of Dr. Stone drifting with her attachment cable resembles a fetus in the womb, and with that the movie lets us know that it is a film about her rebirth. We watch her struggle from one obstacle to another, including her own existential crisis, and as she triumphantly returns to Earth and takes her first trembling steps back on land, in Earth's gravity, it becomes apparent that the theme of the film is human resilience in the face of adversity, whether it be life's travails (as with Stone losing her daughter), physical obstacles (the debris in space), or just coming to grips with being alive and choosing to live, even when it would be easier to die.

Could be anybody.

What makes Gravity a beautiful film, likely to coax tears from the eyes of its viewers, is that it's stunningly relatable. We've all had to fight through something in our lives to get to the next step, we've all experienced loss, and we've all wondered why we're here. The themes of the film are universal. It's utilizing a handy device whose name is taken from a 15th century play; it stars an Everyman. An Everyman is a character that could be anyone, that anyone in the audience could empathize with - they're just an ordinary human being, placed in extraordinary circumstances, usually so the writer can say something about just what it means to be an ordinary human being. And what's really exceptional here, is that the Everyman is in fact a woman. The universality of the human experience is virtually always conveyed through the eyes of a man; strangely, it's always been thought that while women can relate to a man, men could never relate to a woman. With a simple character choice, Gravity throws that out the window and says women are people too. Women are just as flawed and fragile and thoughtful and resilient and human as men, their experience just as universal in the heavy existential questions of life. It's a new application of a centuries-old device in storytelling, and a step forward for equality in our culture.

Storytelling has always been an integral part of human culture. Cinema is just one of the latest and greatest ways to tell a story, and its success as a medium has shown that it is loved by audiences. We take its messages to heart. It's powerful, and the way different demographics are portrayed in our stories - our movies - has always been a reflection of the way we see them as a culture. It has the power to reinforce or subvert those views.

There's plenty of work yet to be done to bring gender equality to the film industry. Women occupy not even a third of all speaking roles in modern films, despite women making up half the population (and half the ticket-buyers). The message of our media, our stories, and our cultural values, has been for so long that women are for sex, for reproduction, for victimization, and little else. Women are portrayed over and over as brainless baby factories. But with the production of films like White House Down, The Heat, The To-Do List and Frozen, the subversion of woman-as-victim in You're Next, and the evolution of the Everyman to present a woman to stand for the universality of the human experience in Gravity, all in the mainstream eye and reaching millions of viewers, I'd say the future is looking bright.

Read more from Ashley "TwistedLadder" Herald at Little Dead Fighting Hood.

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