Sunday January 21, 2018

Women in Refrigerators: Female characters in superhero films, a feminist outlook

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By Atul Mishra

What does a Black Widow bring to the table? What’s Scarlett Johansson’s reel role in The Avengers? Is Rachel of Dark Knight a damsel in distress? Where is Spiderwoman or Batwoman? We hear of the superheroes, but we don’t often hear about super-heroines. There have been all those men like Batman, Superman and Spiderman. Why didn’t anybody (and hasn’t hitherto) write or film women like Batwoman, Superwoman or Spiderwoman?

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Luce Irigaray, Belgian-born French feminist, argued in When ‘Goods Get Together’ that sexuality and the patriarchal machismo that’s inherently been so obvious in our society is legitimately nothing but a transaction. 6301704418_eae771570f_o

The phallocentric divide rivers down to a profit-loss statement. This happens in the film fraternity as well. Some characters have phallus, others don’t. The ones who don’t are aces in the deck of film cards, merely there to sexualize the script.

This has been perpetually present in the movies as well. There have been many female characters alongside our superheroes merely to facilitate the script and monetary credentials attached with the fraternity. As Gayatri C. Spivak asks, “Can the subaltern speak?” The reality of these female characters is that they are subalterns. They don’t really have a voice. Rachel in Batman is a damsel in distress, defined only by her relationships with the men in movie. Mary Jane in Spiderman has to be saved by his Man like the Castle of Otranto. There is a lack of agency attached with the female characters which make them subjugated when juxtaposed with larger than life superheroes. So why have these characters? Probably the Irigaray argument comes into play here that non-phallic human characters are a tool of transaction. Giving a physical reality to these characters like say Scarlett Johansson playing the Black Widow is a way to glue audiences to their seats. No doubt sexuality is the most appealing thing in a heteronormative hegemonic patriarchal culture. The result of this discourse then weakens the already weak character and the actor. But the magic of physicality and sexuality still works on the screen.

Gayatri C. Spivak
Gayatri C. Spivak

Drawing along these feminist lines, Bechdel test comes into mind. As a fact, any fictional work that has at least two female characters who talk about something other than man passes the Bechdel test. Most of the superhero movies fail this test. A few like Thor and Catwoman just passed but most of the others including Spiderman series, Batman series, Avengers and Hulk have failed the Bechdel test.

Even the movie posters have the male machismo angle attached to them. All the theatrical posters of superhero movies have those hulky-bulky-clad-in-a-particular-glaring-costume heroes. The females are subjugated even in the posters let alone the screen and script. So the stern and gloomy reality check of the portrayal of female characters in superhero movies is that first there are dominantly only superheroes and not super-heroines and moreover the grim echelon ascends due to the realization of weak female characters portrayed alongside the Achilles of silver screen.

nemas_supergirl_by_slippyninjaLaura Mulvey, the British feminist film theorist, says- “In film, women  are typically the objects, rather than the possessors, of gaze because the control  of the camera (and thus the gaze) comes from factors such as the assumption of  heterosexual men as the default target audience for most film genres. Women  are the bearer of meaning, not the maker of meaning.”

All this portrayal is also mainly because most of the superhero films have been directed by male directors, be it Niblo and Reed’s The Mark of Zorro or upcoming Snyder’s Dawn of Justice. So superhero films are actually men’s stories with hyper-sexualized women’s stories which make the latter a bearer of meaning and not its maker. The female portrayal can be seen as “women in refrigerators” and one of the stark contemporary examples is Rachel of The Dark Knight where she is murdered for the male’s storyline to progress and catapult the rage of male characters.

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Top Hollywood women unveiled a sexual harassment initiative

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Top Hollywood women unveiled a sexual harassment initiative
A combination photo shows some of the actresses who have made allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein. Listed in alphabetical order, top row from left, Asia Argento, Rosanna Arquette, Jessica Barth, Cara Delevingne, Romola Garai, Judith Godreche, Heather Graham, Angelina Jolie. VOA

USA, Jan 1, 2018: More than 300 top women in Hollywood — from Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence to Emma Thompson and Cate Blanchett — unveiled an initiative Monday to tackle pervasive sexual harassment in workplaces, calling special attention to their “sisters” in less than glamorous blue-collar jobs.

The initiative, dubbed Time’s Up, caps a year in which the Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct scandal touched off a deluge of allegations that brought down powerful men in entertainment, politics and the media, prompting companies, government agencies and even the U.S. federal court system to re-examine harassment policies.

But in an open letter printed in The New York Times, the new initiative lends the star power of its A-list members to the cause of women in less prominent fields, urging support and respect for farm workers and others whose humble positions leave them vulnerable and voiceless.

“We fervently urge the media covering the disclosures by people in Hollywood to spend equal time on the myriad experiences of individuals working in less glamorized and valorized trades,” the group says in its full-page ad.

“To every woman employed in agriculture who has had to fend off unwanted sexual advances from her boss, every housekeeper who has tried to escape an assaultive guest, every janitor trapped nightly in a building with a predatory supervisor, every waitress grabbed by a customer and expected to take it with a smile … we stand with you. We support you.”

$15 million goal

Last month, the head of Ford Motor Company apologized to employees at two factories in Chicago and promised changes, after a scathing expose by the Timesdetailed pervasive harassment and mistreatment of women at the plants dating back to the 1990s. It was one of the first major media investigations into sexual harassment in blue-collar workplaces.

Among the specific steps it announced, Time’s Up has established a legal defense fund that, in just 12 days, has raised $13.4 million toward a $15 million goal aimed at providing legal aid for women and men who were sexually harassed, assaulted or abused in the workplace.

It has vowed to push for legislation to strengthen laws on workplace harassment and discrimination.

The group insists that more women must be brought into positions of power and leadership, while every woman should have equal benefits, opportunities, pay and representation.

As for Hollywood, it wants “swift and effective change to make the entertainment industry a safe and equitable place for everyone.”

And it called on women to wear black at Sunday’s Golden Globes as a statement against gender and racial inequality, and to raise awareness about the group’s efforts.

‘Dear Sisters’ 

The open letter in the Times, which also appears in the Spanish-language La Opinion, opens with the words “Dear Sisters” in large, bold type, and closes with the words “in solidarity,” followed by the names of the 300 women.

Several of Weinstein’s accusers signed the open letter. They include Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale, as well as Salma Hayek, whose lengthy account of mistreatment by Weinstein — “my monster,” she called him — was widely circulated on social media after appearing last month in The New York Times.

Weinstein has denied some of the allegations, including Hayek’s assertion that he pressured her to do a nude sex scene in one movie.

Other prominent women lending their names to the Time’s Up cause are actresses Natalie Portman, America Ferrera, Amy Schumer, Halle Berry, Julianne Moore, Keira Knightley, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Susan Sarandon, Uma Thurman and Viola Davis; producer Shonda Rhimes; Universal Pictures chair Donna Langley; feminist activist Gloria Steinem; lawyer and ex-Michelle Obama chief of staff Tina Tchen and Nike Foundation co-chair Maria Eitel. (VOA)