Rebel Girls and Rapunzel

My research assistant has directed me towards this video, created by an outfit called Rebel Girls:


Where to begin?

Firstly, if a couple of Italians want to replace fairy stories like Rapunzel with books containing sanitised biographies of famous women and they’re crowdfunding to do it, good luck to them. Nothing wrong with that. Nor do I see much wrong with exposing young girls to stories about real-life, successful women.

What I don’t get is why this is considered rebellious: the books are called Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, which makes me think this is more about the parents than the kids. I had an older sister and a childhood containing lengthy periods of extreme boredom, so I am familiar with girls’ annuals such as Bunty and Judy. They were full of stories of brave, strong girls and women, some of them featuring real-life heroines. I believe Bunty’s longest running strip was The Four Marys, and although old-fashioned it hardly portrayed girls negatively, or weak and in need of a man’s help. Indeed, friendship, cooperation, and resourcefulness in the absence of men seemed to be the main theme. Were girls who read Bunty back in the 1960s and 1970s considered rebellious? Probably not.

But it’s clever marketting. What modern, third-wave feminist wouldn’t want to boast at an Anti-Trump protest march that her five year old daughter is a rebel and taking on the Patriarchy? Sadly, we only really hear feedback from the parents who insist their kids love it. Would they tell us any different if it weren’t the case? It reminds me of posh yummy mummies who went to uni together insisting their kids are “besties” even though they fucking hate each other.

That said, there’s no reason why kids shouldn’t love the books and if their parents say they do, who am I to argue? But why the knocking of Rapunzel? According to Wikipedia:

Rapunzel is a German fairy tale in the collection assembled by the Brothers Grimm, and first published in 1812 as part of Children’s and Household Tales. The Grimm Brothers’ story is an adaptation of the fairy tale Rapunzel by Friedrich Schulz published in 1790.The Schulz version is based on Persinette by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force originally published in 1698 which in turn was influenced by an even earlier tale, Petrosinella by Giambattista Basile, published in 1634.

Rapunzel’s story has striking similarities to the 11th-century Persian tale of Rudāba, included in the epic poem Shahnameh by Ferdowsi.

If a story has maintained its popularity across an entire continent for around 350 years, there might be something to be said for its universal and timeless appeal. The two women in the video seem to think the idea of a woman being locked away somewhere and dreaming of rescue is ludicrous, which is indicative of what they know about history and the world at large.

It also shows a staggering lack of understanding of literary allegories: young girls are prisoners to some extent, of their parents. Girls can relate to having their freedoms restricted, and whereas some may wish to bust out on their own by murdering their parents (now that would make for a rebel), most simply dream of an easy escape in the arms of a handsome prince where nobody gets hurt and everyone lives happily ever after. Far from a woman languishing in a tower being ridiculous, the story’s very success is proof that it resonates with a lot of girls, particularly those reaching sexual maturity but whose family or culture doesn’t yet allow them to explore it.

If I can work out the allegory of Rapunzel in twenty minutes of a Thursday morning, what excuse do these two women have? They not only appear to be a bit dim, but some humility wouldn’t go amiss, would it? Declaring timeless and universally liked stories to be ridiculous might appeal to loudmouth feminists in dungarees, but it’s indicative of a certain lack of class. Perhaps they’re right that men wouldn’t be portrayed in the same way, but why didn’t they run that to its logical conclusion by writing a story where a princess wanders the lands seeking random men to rescue from a life of back-breaking servitude in the master’s fields? I know why, and so do they.

Whether they like it or not, most young girls are interested in princesses, castles, and brief misery followed by rescue at the hands of a handsome prince. Not so many will be interested in a book about Malala Yousafzai, Frida Kahlo, and Simone Biles. To be fair, they might like the page on Beyoncé, but I’m unsure how she helps young women reject gender stereotypes:

Some of the reviews are interesting, too:

I wasn’t really expecting to have to explain gender reassignment surgery at this point in her life, so I am glad I read ahead and can skip that particular story.

and:

Keep in mind, a 6 year old doesn’t exactly understand the concept of gender identity. So since there are multiple stories in here regarding gender identity pioneers, it’s awfully strange to have to explain to my little girl that it’s perfectly ok to just be herself, she doesn’t have to change because the person in the story did.

and:

There are much better books written for girls. This book was more about politics …

and:

Not sure if the story of a transgender kid should be included in a children’s book

My advice to parents is stick with Rapunzel; your kids will thank you one day.

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Stories, History, and Takeshi Kovacs

This piece on the original Star Wars contains an interesting snippet:

When it was released, it wasn’t labelled Episode IV – that tag was added for the 1981 reissue – but it did give the impression that its story was already well underway. Nodding to the Saturday morning science-fiction serials that inspired him, Lucas included a so-called “opening crawl” of introductory text which explained what went on in the previous notional episodes: “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.” And from then on the film maintains the mischievous illusion that, if we’d come to the cinema a week earlier, we might have seen those Rebel spaceships striking from that hidden base. We hear that Obi-Wan Kenobi served Princess Leia’s father in something called the Clone Wars, that Darth Vader was Obi-Wan’s pupil, and that Han Solo has fallen out with a gangster named Jabba the Hutt. There are references to an “ancient religion” and an “Imperial Senate”. And, of course, there is the declaration that all of this happened “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”. These allusions heighten the wondrous sense that the adventure we’re watching, as amazing as it is, is just one of the many which have taken place in this particular far, far away galaxy.

Providing a deep sense of history to a story can make all the difference, and this is something JRR Tolkien obviously knew. There are scenes in The Lord of the Rings where characters come across colossal statues of long-dead kings who ruled over empires which vanished eons before. Throughout the book there remains an enormous weight of history, much of it only hinted at or – like real history – incomplete, with the connection between the past and present not fully understood or explained.

Star Wars doesn’t quite do that, but it achieves the same effect of making the audience believe that the action on the screen is part of a much larger storyline that has been running for centuries. This makes the audience invest more in the outcome than if it were taking place in isolation, as so many films are.

However, referring to previous events carries a certain risk:

…tantalising cases which are mentioned but not described in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books (“The politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant”; “Ricoletti of the club foot and his abominable wife”). We know that the texts being cited aren’t real, but it’s intoxicating to imagine that they were.

I haven’t read the stories in question, but I am reminded of the smart-arses who produce the Cinema Sins series when they covered Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (3:07 and 16:13):

Indy makes a casual reference to an adventure that would easily have made a better movie than this one.

This was precisely my thought when I read Broken Angels Richard Morgan’s second Takeshi Kovacs novel. Readers may recall that I thought the first novel, Altered Carbon, was superb and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. Alas, the follow-up doesn’t even come close.

It started well, with Kovacs recovering on a hospital ship orbiting over a planet ravaged by a war between government-hired mercenaries (of which he is one) and a brutal revolutionary. After reading Altered Carbon I was hoping the sequels would focus on military campaigns, similar to what Heinlein did so well with Starship Troopers, and when Broken Angels opened in the middle of a war I thought that’s what we’d get. But instead we end up going on an archaeological dig which takes far too long and when they find what they’re looking for Morgan’s storytelling – and even his descriptions – go rapidly downhill. In the middle of it all the hero decides to tell us about adventures past:

Envoy conditioning gives you a handle on most kinds of fear, but you’re still aware of what scares you because you feel the weight of the conditioning coming online. I’ve felt that weight every single time. In high orbit over Loyko during the Pilots’ Revolt, deploying with Randall’s vacuum commandos around Adoracion’s outer moon, and once, in the depths of interstellar space, playing a murderous game of tag with members of the Real Estate Crew around the hull of the hijacked colony barge Mivtsemdi, falling endlessly along her trajectory, light years from the nearest sun. The Mivtsemdi firefight was the worst. It still gives me the occasional nightmare.

At which point I dearly wished I could read about these rather than the convoluted tale I was wading through at the time.

There were some good moments: Takeshi Kovacs is still an awesome character, even if he engages in far too much white-knighting over a woman he doesn’t know and who hasn’t done anything to earn his obsessions. The technological aspects are good too, and most of these are retained from Altered Carbon. And there are a few scenes which stand out, not least their first encounter with one of the feared Corporations which are bankrolling the war.

It would be unfair to say that the Corporations are depicted in cartoonish fashion in Broken Angels, but the overall message is clear: corporations and governments are bad, m’kay. By the end I had gotten a little fed up of the moralistic posturing of Kovacs who has carried the worst elements of his character over from the first novel along with the best. When he fights the main villain at the end, I’m not even sure what his beef is: he sounds like a confused teenager.

But all is explained at the end when we get this note from the author:

This is a work of science fiction, but many of the books that influenced it are not. In particular, I’d like to express my deepest respect … to John Pilger for Heroes, Distant Voices and Hidden Agendas, which together provide an untiring and brutally honest indictment of the inhumanities perpetrated around the globe by those who claim to be our leaders. These writers did not invent their subject matter as I did, because they did not need to. They have seen and experienced it for themselves at first hand, and we should be listening to them.

If you’re using John Pilger’s writings as the basis for a story, it’s not going to be very good.

Nevertheless I stuck it out for the third Takeshi Kovacs novel, Woken Furies. Like the second one it started well, and then got very good as Kovacs found himself attached to a bad-ass group of mercenaries who make their living decommissioning rogue war machines out in a wasteland somewhere. I was just looking forward to another few hundred pages of these adventures when the lead female tech takes a funny turn along with the plot and Kovacs goes white-knighting for the rest of the book. Once again there are some good scenes but the story is all over the place and by the time the ending came I didn’t really care about any of it.

Richard Morgan has created a very good central character built around intriguing technology, but in attempt to make him more complex he’s added shallow traits which seem bolted on. I think he’d have been better off making Kovacs extremely one-dimensional and making everyone else more complex. This can work with bad-ass characters: look at Judge Dredd, for example. I think Morgan is a good sci-fi writer and can write some very good scenes, but his storytelling is poor. Altered Carbon was a sound enough story, but its real pull was the atmospheric descriptions and the central character. He didn’t come close to recreating the atmosphere in the follow-up novels and Kovacs alone was not enough to carry very weak and badly-paced storylines. I still enjoyed them, but I can’t help thinking that Kovacs, once established in Altered Carbon, would have been better off in the hands of a different author.

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Robert M. Pirsig

Robert M. Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, has died at the age of 88.

I first came across this book in 1998 when I was on holiday in Rhodes and I borrowed it from somebody in the hotel. I got through the first few chapters before he asked for it back, and so when I returned to Manchester I bought a copy of my own. It was heavy going in places, and some people at the time (my sister being one of them) said it was rather pretentious and there is some truth to that, but I recall thinking it was very good nonetheless. There were certainly some interesting ideas in there, one of them being that university students should not be graded: instead of chasing marks they should simply attend, because only those who truly wish to learn and apply their knowledge would stick around. I was also swayed by the author’s arguments on quality, which I notice are mentioned in the article I’ve linked to:

The protagonist of Zen attempts to resolve the conflicts between “classic” values that create machinery like the motorcycle, and “romantic” values like the beauty of a country road. He discovers all values find their root in what Pirsig called Quality:

“Quality . . . you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist.”

There were two other elements to the book that appealed to me, one of which ought to be pretty obvious to those who know me: that of motorcycle maintenance. As you know I’m an engineer (at least, that’s what my degree certificate says) and I’ve spent a few years of my life as a rather enthusiastic amateur mechanic, and I found the technical details and descriptions of the maintenance philosophies interesting in their own right.

There was also the theme of the great American road trip in which the author discovers himself, which at the time interested me a lot. On my wall in my student hall of residence I had a huge map of the United States, and for a long time I planned to drive around as much of it as I could. Some stories would now have me tell you that I never found the time and life intervened, but not this one: I went to the US in the summer of 2000, rented a car, and did just that, covering 26 states (if I include those I went through on the Greyhound). But it wasn’t Pirsig’s book which inspired me so much as William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, which I’d found knocking around back home in Wales. While it doesn’t have the Zen wisdom and chapters on motorcycle maintenance, it is a far better account of a journey of self-discovery across America.

I’ve read Blue Highways at least twice, Zen only once. Both are with me here in Paris. Perhaps I should read Pirsig’s tome once more, and see what I find different in the nineteen years since I last read it. I’m sure the ending will be no less heartbreaking.

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Feminists and Film

The Oilfield Expat put up a good post about a year ago asking why, if the Patriarchy is busy dissuading women from studying engineering and pursuing it as a career, so many women nevertheless studied chemical engineering, leading to the process engineering departments of oil companies being full of them:

If there is a patriarchy preventing women from becoming well-paid and successful engineers, they’ve overlooked the Process department.

I was reminded of that yesterday when I saw the good folk at Samizdata link to this Spiked! article on what they call feminism’s war on art:

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) announced last week that it had adopted a system called the ‘F-rating’, intended to draw attention to films regarded as feminist.

These ratings are intended more as a provocation, designed to make people think about how women are depicted in film, and represented in the industry. As the F-rated website describes it: ‘The stories we see on screen need to be told by a broad spectrum of people to represent our diverse culture. Without change, we will train the next generation to only recognise white males as the protagonists and the ones in control of the cameras, scripts and budgets.’

The underlying assumption with feminists is that in the arts world, as with everywhere else, women are kept from participating fully by the deliberate actions of, presumably, men. The idea that perhaps women might not want to go into the film industry in the same numbers as men, or that they might simply be crap at the tasks therein, doesn’t seem to enter the mind of the modern feminist.

The problem with the feminists’ assumptions over women in the arts is the same as the one that The Oilfield Expat highlights in a different context. Whereas he asks “What about the Process Engineers?”, I ask “What about the literary world?” If there is an overbearing Patriarchy keeping women from being scriptwriters and film directors, you’d have thought a similar mechanism would be in force in publishing and literature.

Regardless of whether a Patriarchy exists, in the arts or wider society, literature is one area where women have indisputably held their own against men, and they have done for generations. Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters are canons of English literature, held in the same regard as Dickens and Hardy. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein achieved unprecedented commercial success and spawned an entire genre of horror stories, films, and plays. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind is considered one of the cornerstones of American literature selling over 30 million copies, as is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The most successful children’s author by quite some margin is Enid Blyton, although perhaps she ran into some Patriarchy at the beginning:

Blyton’s manuscripts had been rejected by publishers on many occasions, which only made her more determined to succeed: “it is partly the struggle that helps you so much, that gives you determination, character, self-reliance – all things that help in any profession or trade, and most certainly in writing”.

Or perhaps not. Note the emphasis on hard work and lack of demands for an F-rating in publishing. A lot of kids today might not be familiar with Blyton’s works, but they will certainly know J.K. Rowling, another female author who has enjoyed staggering success. Less well known would be Richmal Crompton of the William series and Sue Townsend who created Adrian Mole. I could also mention Daphne du Maurier and Joan Aitken, but I think I’ve made my point: if there is a Patriarchal system at work in the arts keeping talented women from realising their full potential, then it is doing a shockingly poor job insofar as female authors are concerned.

The Spiked! article attempts to address this:

Film is unique among artforms. Its emblematical qualities, of capturing and representing appearances, means it often carries the burden of postmodern theories of representation. As such, it has been one of the main focuses of feminist scrutiny.

If you have to resort to language as woolly as that, you’re clutching at straws. My guess is that it is a lot easier for feminists to muscle in on a cushy job around a film set than it is to sit down and write a decent book that people want to buy.

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Dialogue

In my opinion there are two things which make a good film: a good story and good dialogue.  Preferably there will be both, but one will suffice.  Good acting helps too, but even the best actor can’t save an awful script.  I like films a lot and I’ve watched plenty, and sometimes I’ve watched the same film a dozen times.  One thing I have noticed about modern films is how awful the dialogue is compared to previous eras.  I don’t know if technology can now capture the attention of audiences such that compelling dialogue is no longer required, but it is rare I watch a film these days and think the dialogue is any good.

This isn’t true of films from a different era.  The other night I switched on the TV and found myself twenty minutes into The Maltese Falcon (1941) which I have seen many times.  I kept watching because no matter how often I hear the dialogue between Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade and the other characters I never get tired of it.  My favourite scene is this one:

Note the abrupt change in tone and manner when he addresses the stenographer.  This is what makes the scene for me: Spade’s beef is with the district attorney, whereas the stenographer is merely a guy doing his job, and he acknowledges that.  Of course he’s also being a complete smartarse, and his aside to the stenographer is done at the expense of the district attorney.  Note also the speed at which Bogart delivers his lines.  I doubt there is a A-list actor today who could handle that scene, which may be why they don’t even bother trying any more.

I should add that we have Dashiell Hammett to thank for both the story and the dialogue in The Maltese Falcon, both of which were virtually unchanged in the transfer from book to film.  I am trying to write a book (and making steady progress) and one of the things I am putting the most effort into is the dialogue.  Without good dialogue, I’m not even sure it would be worth writing.

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Elif Şafak on Identity Politics

A friend, who will shortly be sending me invoices related to research assistance if this keeps up, sent me a link to this 20 minute talk by the Turkish author Elif Şafak in which she talks about the politics of fiction.  I have not read any of her works but my friend, who is herself Turkish, thought I’d find it interesting and she was right.  There is a transcript of the talk at the link, and the bit that I found most interesting was as follows:

Yet as much as I love stories, recently, I’ve also begun to think that they lose their magic if and when a story is seen as more than a story. And this is a subject that I would love to think about together. When my first novel written in English came out in America, I heard an interesting remark from a literary critic. “I liked your book,” he said, “but I wish you had written it differently.” (Laughter) I asked him what he meant by that. He said, “Well, look at it. There’s so many Spanish, American, Hispanic characters in it, but there’s only one Turkish character and it’s a man.” Now the novel took place on a university campus in Boston, so to me, it was normal that there be more international characters in it than Turkish characters, but I understood what my critic was looking for. And I also understood that I would keep disappointing him. He wanted to see the manifestation of my identity. He was looking for a Turkish woman in the book because I happened to be one.

We often talk about how stories change the world, but we should also see how the world of identity politics affects the way stories are being circulated, read and reviewed. Many authors feel this pressure, but non-Western authors feel it more heavily. If you’re a woman writer from the Muslim world, like me, then you are expected to write the stories of Muslim women and, preferably, the unhappy stories of unhappy Muslim women. You’re expected to write informative, poignant and characteristic stories and leave the experimental and avant-garde to your Western colleagues. … Writers are not seen as creative individuals on their own, but as the representatives of their respective cultures: a few authors from China, a few from Turkey, a few from Nigeria.

The writer and commuter James Baldwin gave an interview in 1984 in which he was repeatedly asked about his homosexuality. When the interviewer tried to pigeonhole him as a gay writer, Baldwin stopped and said, “But don’t you see? There’s nothing in me that is not in everybody else, and nothing in everybody else that is not in me.” When identity politics tries to put labels on us, it is our freedom of imagination that is in danger. There’s a fuzzy category called multicultural literature in which all authors from outside the Western world are lumped together. I never forget my first multicultural reading, in Harvard Square about 10 years ago. We were three writers, one from the Philippines, one Turkish and one Indonesian … And the reason why we were brought together was not because we shared an artistic style or a literary taste. It was only because of our passports. Multicultural writers are expected to tell real stories, not so much the imaginary. A function is attributed to fiction. In this way, not only the writers themselves, but also their fictional characters become the representatives of something larger.

She’s not a fan of identity politics clearly, and she makes a good point above: if a westerner (man or woman) writes a novel then it can be about absolutely anything, but if a non-western woman writes a book then it is expected that it will be a vehicle to champion whatever trendy, lefty cause the western literary set subscribe to in her country.  Anything else and the chattering classes start scowling and wishing she’d written something else, something that confirms their prejudices and, as always, makes everything political.  How condescending is this?

It appears that Ms Şafak just wants to write stories about anything she likes, stories that she thinks people will enjoy.  Good for her.

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Nobel Bob

A short story in two parts:

Part 1 – Look how cool and edgy we are:

Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Prize, Redefining Boundaries of Literature

Part 2 – Take your virtue-signalling elsewhere:

Bob Dylan still refuses to acknowledge that he won a Nobel Prize

Good on him.

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Russia and the USA: Converging in the S-Bend

In the comments of my most recent post on Trump, regular commenter and fellow blogger Alex K. spots an interesting similarity between Russia and the USA:

In the late 1990s, people who posted about the Clintons deserving pink (prison issue) undies and the MSM being leftwing through and through sounded like boring whiners unloading their loserdom into cyberspace. Losers or not, apparently some of them were right, but it only became obvious to me during this campaign how incredibly corrupt HRC always was and how the US media is capable of lying. They are catching up with Putin’s state media the way they play fast and loose with facts and work up fits of hysteria.

I noted this partly because I came across another unsavoury similarity between the two nations, also in a blog comment, over at David Thompson’s:

It doesn’t matter what you do. You are the object, not the subject. Consistency on the side of the rule-makers is not only not required, it would get in their way.
I knew we were doomed back about 1980 when I heard an account of a small meat-packer who got in trouble with OSHA (US Federal Occupational Health And Safety). Their inspector noticed the removable cleaning hatch on the packaging line, and told them the presence of the hole in the machine was a violation. Shop owner replies that the Cal-OSHA (California state equivalent) inspector had insisted on the hatch. Too bad, violation, pay up and weld it closed. “But what about Cal-OSHA? They’ll fine me and make me re-install it.” “Not our problem.”

There is a paragraph near the end of John Mole’s I was a Potato Oligarch where the Moscow police department orders him to install bars in the window of his restaurant’s kitchen as a security measure, only for the fire department to fine him for those very same bars.  Of course in Russia this was a deliberate scam to keep the income via bribes or fines flowing and in the USA it is simply bureaucratic incompetence paired with callousness, but the result is the same for the end user.

It’s hard to see how either country is moving in the right direction.

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Altered Carbon

Following a thread over at Chez Worstall on sci-fi novels, I acted upon the recommendation of two commenters to take a look at Altered Carbon, a 2002 novel by Richard Morgan.  I’m not a huge sci-fi fan and when I tried reading some of the classics I found them too dated.  Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers was an exception, but I couldn’t finish Stranger in a Strange Land.  However, I enjoyed Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but that might be because I could visualise it better thanks to Blade Runner.

But one of the chaps who recommended Altered Carbon described it as “a sort of blade runner crossed with Sam Spade”, which was enough for me and so I bought it for my Kindle.  I found to my delight that the description was absolutely spot on, and I was hooked immediately.  I am rarely very impressed with modern fiction, with the last book that really held my attention being Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for which I shunned all in-flight entertainment on a long-haul trip between Nigeria and somewhere.  Altered Carbon had the same effect, and then some.  I can’t recommend it highly enough, and I am looking forward to reading the sequels.  I was also excited to hear that Netflix is making a TV series of it, which if done properly ought to be brilliant.

That’s why the Worstall Arms is the most popular pub in town.  Come for the economics, stay for the comments.

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Female Role Models and Women in Films

The good folk over at Mostly Film have asked the questionPositive Role Models: Where are the Women in Film?

This question interests me on two levels.  The first is that I don’t think there are many positive role models for young women anywhere, let alone in films.  I have a habit of asking women who they would consider to be role models for young women and teenagers just to see if they have any more clue than me.  The last person I asked was my ex-pal Angela who was, as I’ve said before, a fully paid-up feminist.  Her first response was along the lines of historical figures, all worthy women: Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, and one or two others long dead who I didn’t know.  But when I asked her to name some that are still alive she faltered.  Michelle Obama: successful only in the sense of whom she married.  Elizabeth Warren: best known for having invented a Native American ancestry in order to get into Harvard Law School under an assisted places program.  And that was about it.  Being mischievous, I asked why Condoleeza Rice wasn’t considered.  She said she didn’t know, but I did: she was a Republican, and that would never do.  The same goes for Margaret Thatcher.

In fairness to Angela, she wasn’t the only one to struggle with this question.  A lot of women (including her) don’t follow sports closely enough to know the female sports stars, such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, who could easily qualify.  Most women when pressed propose Beyoncé, at which point I show them this:

Uh-huh.  Just what you’d want your teenage daughter aspiring to.

It’s a difficult question, one that’s a lot easier to answer for boys mainly because most of them are into sports of some sort (as to why boys generally like watching sport whereas girls generally don’t is a question I’d like to have put to Angela; no doubt the answer would have included the term “social conditioning”).  When I was growing up most boys were into football or rugby, so they had the likes of Ryan Giggs and Jeremy Guscott to hang on their walls.  Failing that, there was cricket or motorsports.  Of course we looked up to rock stars too, but the good thing about having sportsmen as role models is they are (usually) in good physical shape and are famous for mastering a discipline rather than doing something outrageous.  I believe girls and young women have a much tougher time finding a decent role model, for the simple reason there are a lot fewer about.

So it’s not surprising that it is difficult to find decent female role models in films, as this is merely part of a wider issue.  But it is also part of a second wider issue: there are not many decent female role models in films because there are so few decent female roles of any kind in modern films.  The reason for this, in my opinion, is mainly due to the dumbing down of all film roles, be they male or female.

In an age where studio executives refuse to take a risk and audiences apparently need to be spoon-fed every scene, film characters have become increasingly one-dimensional to the point that they might as well walk around with labels on saying “Goody” and “Baddy”.  Every “good” character has to have at least one scene early on showing us how noble and righteous he is (usually by kissing his wife and kids, or reading them a bedtime story) followed by one showing him wearing a pained expression during a moral dilemma (Tom Hanks’ recent output has taken this to nauseating levels); every “bad” character must be shown murdering somebody in a gruesome fashion or at least kicking a dog; and each character’s appearance must distinguish which side they’re on as effectively as a football strip (the turncoat in The Matrix was the one character with a huge scar down his face: he was never going to be anything else).  Ambiguity in a character is seriously frowned upon these days, presumably because there is a danger the audience might get confused.

It wasn’t always thus.  I recently watched Hud (1963) in which Paul Newman was cast as an arrogant, violent, irresponsible ranch-hand but somehow the audience ended up viewing him as the hero, much to the surprise of the actor himself.  This was in no small part due to a slick script and some very good acting on the part of Newman and the supporting actors, but it shows that once upon a time a character could be cast with the director unsure of how the audience would receive them.  I noted early on in the film that no modern production would feature a character like Hud, let alone in the leading role.  I also doubt that any modern actor could pull off a role like that.

Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind (1939) is another example of a man cast with dubious morals, played superbly by Clark Gable.  It’s highly unlikely such a film would even get made today without turning into an anti-slavery harangue, and a character like Rhett Butler – who not only fights for the Confederacy but is a shameless womaniser and a blockade-runner to boot – would be sanitised into fighting for the other side as a minimum.

A third example is Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941), where he is as close as the story gets to having a hero yet thinks nothing of shagging his partner’s wife and doesn’t care one jot when said partner gets murdered, not to mention his misogynistic behaviour and slapping women around occasionally.  Could you see a modern detective being cast like this?  Not a chance, he’s too morally ambiguous.  In fact, all the characters in The Maltese Falcon are morally ambiguous, there’s not a single one I can recall that is particularly nice.

Now I mention these three films not just to illustrate complex and questionable characters played by men, but also because of their female leads.  In Hud, the part of Alma Brown is superbly played by Patricia Neal (Roald Dahl’s wife, as I later found out).  Her character is neither one of heroine or villain, she is simply what passes for an ordinary woman caught up in the mess that Hud makes around her.  But that doesn’t mean the character is uninteresting, by contrast she is as intriguing as the male lead with her own set of virtues and flaws, particularly her failed marriage which forces her to work as a housekeeper living in a small annex of the main ranch house.  Even though she is unquestionably a “good” person in the narrative, she ends up worse off than at the beginning through no fault of her own.  Very few, if any, of these elements would make it into a modern female film character, and they would be all the more dull because of it.  Neal’s character is so interesting because she has flaws and is ambiguous (e.g. complimenting Hud on his looks even after he tried to drunkenly rape her) – just like people are in real life.  Funny, that.

Rarely has a female character been better scripted than that of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, for which we can thank Margaret Mitchell.  I read the book when I lived in Nigeria, and was rather surprised to find the character an absolute bitch: she married her first husband in a fit of pique, the second one for money and security and spite, and the third (Rhett) while still pining after bloody Ashley to the point she ends up on her own and doesn’t seem to give a shit.  There is a line in the book where somebody (it might be Rhett) points out that O’Hara didn’t even bother to ask after her second husband upon hearing news that the group he was in had been attacked and some of them killed (including him, as it turns out).  But she’s a fascinating character because despite all of this she is incredibly strong and resourceful and you are always under the impression she is being forced by circumstances into taking certain actions and her heart generally lies in the right place.   What modern film would have a heroine like this?  Or modern book, for that matter?

I am sure modern actresses would kill to have had the opportunity of Vivien Leigh to play a character of such complexity as Scarlett O’Hara.  But as with the men, these characters simply don’t exist as the leads in a modern film, and the best one can hope for is a small supporting role usually as some sort of eccentric.  A female lead these days needs to be one of the following:

1. An innocent victim of some more powerful force (such as a violent husband, or asshole boss) who she eventually overcomes through perseverance and/or being much cleverer than her adversary. (A Goody)

2. A ripped, kick-ass chick straight out of comic-book fantasy who beats up Samoan extras and can throw knives through chipboard.  (Can be a Goody or a Baddy)

3. A sassy, independent, fuck-you-in-your-face, policewoman, soldier, politician, or CEO.  (A Goody)

4. A woman who saves her husband/boyfriend from his own stupidity. (A Goody)

What’s a girl to do if she wants to play Scarlett O’Hara or Alma Brown these days?  Little wonder there are few inspiring female role models in films if each character has been sanitised or exaggerated beyond all recognition of what it is to be human.

While male actors have also seen their available characters stripped down to almost cartoon levels, at least they still have one avenue of opportunity open to those who want a more interesting role: the chief villain.  It’s common to hear actors say they prefer playing villains because the characters are more interesting, and this makes sense: you can take more risks with a character that meets a sticky end (see Leonardo DiCaprio’s repulsive slaver in Django Unchained).

But what villainous roles are open to women these days?  Other than the tank-girl sidekick I mentioned at No. 2 in my list above, they don’t really have much option on that score, either.  Which is a shame, because women have starred splendidly as the villain in the past.  The character of Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon is a great example, being fiendishly manipulative and greedy throughout and winding up being carted off to the gallows for her treachery, and played flawlessly by Brigid O’Shaughnessy.  More recently is Nicole Kidman’s superb performance as the evil weather girl in To Die For (1995), which I showed to Angela partly to demonstrate my belief that feminist-driven political correctness has over the past decade or two killed off the best roles for women in films.

The one exception I can think of is Rosamund Pike’s character of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl (2014).  That was one of the most intriguing (and disturbing) female characters I’ve seen portrayed in a long time – which is presumably why the film did so well and Pike’s performance earned her an Oscar nomination.  Women deserve better roles in films and scriptwriters should stop pandering to the grievance industry and start creating complex, morally ambiguous, flawed, and sometimes nasty female characters which are also human and therefore believable.  Maybe then we’ll see a role model or two emerge.

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