One of the dozens of things I keep track of in feature films is the language used in reference to female characters. One of the reasons for this is that language is very revealing about filmmakers. It tells us a lot about how well or poorly they think of women. Alice in Wonderland (2010), an adventure fantasy based on Lewis Carroll’s books, boasts six named female characters that appear in more than one scene (Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Lindsay Duncan, Jemma Powell and Frances de la Tour). It is one of the biggest box office hits of the 21st century, and the screenplay was written by a woman: Linda Woolverton.
In this film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland no women are referred to as honey or sweetheart (or broads, dames or chicks for that matter). No woman is called a b*tch or told to f*ck off. One of the most striking things about this visual treat, however, is the assertive language used by the protagonist, Wasikowska, the knight in shining armour who slays Jabberwocky. She says to Timothy Spall, “I make the path!” and tells him, “From the moment I fell down that rabbit hole I’ve been told what I must do and who I must be. I’ve been shrunk, stretched, scratched and stuffed in a tea pot. […] this is my dream! I’ll decide where it goes from here.” When she catches her brother-in-law being unfaithful to her sister and he says to her, “You won’t mention this to your sister, will you? […] You don’t want to ruin her marriage, do you?” she says, “Me? But I’m not the one who’s sneaking around behind her back.” This indicates disapproval of this man's behaviour. And a woman voicing disapproval of a man's behaviour in film is somewhat rare. Also, when told she is not properly dressed she says to her mother (Duncan), “Who’s to say what is proper?” This indicates disapproval of the beauty ideal imposed on women—another rarity. Moreover, she has a purpose in life besides finding a man, yet another rare progressive inclusion. She tells Duncan, “Don’t worry, mother; I’ll find something useful to do with my life” before becoming an apprentice in a shipping company and setting sail, unmarried and happy.
This Alice is the type of protagonist female viewers deserve but seldom get. When women work behind the camera it makes a significant difference in terms of what a movie has to offer female viewers. I look forward to sharing my findings about the language used in mainstream movies of the 20th and 21st centuries in my upcoming film guide for women.
© 2019 Alline Cormier
Language in His Girl Friday (1940)
One of the dozens of things I keep track of in feature films is the language used in reference to female characters. Part of the reason for this is that language is very revealing about filmmakers. It tells us a lot about how well or poorly they think of women. His Girl Friday (1940), a screwball comedy about reporters based on a play called The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, contains three named female characters that appear in more than one scene (Rosalind Russell, Helen Mack and Alma Kruger). It boasts screen legend Cary Grant and is considered one of the funniest American comedies of all time, which doesn't mean it has anything to offer female viewers. Indeed, often the most highly regarded movies have little or nothing to offer female viewers.
In His Girl Friday women are referred to as honey and sweetheart. One woman is called “the very homely dame.” Grant, the managing editor of a newspaper, calls Russell a “doll-faced hick” and a “drooling idiot.” He says to her, “You’ve got the brain of a pancake.” When she tells him he would not have hired her if she had not been doll-faced he says, “I thought it’d be a novelty—a face around here a man could look at without shuddering.” Grant calls Kruger “an old dame,” “a cock-eyed liar” and a “gray-haired old weasel.” When men describe the regular job they would like one says, “With a desk and a stenographer. I wouldn’t mind a nice big blonde” and another adds with a wink and a hand gesture that shows it isn't her eyes he is thinking about, “With big brown eyes.” Grant, who has gagged Kruger with a handkerchief, orders Abner Biberman to take her away, saying, “Lock her up. See she doesn’t talk to anyone.” He also says to a woman over the phone, “Now listen you 10-cent glamour girl. […] You say that again I’ll come over there and kick you in the teeth!”
The above-mentioned examples are telling. Regressive (i.e. sexist) language and behaviour permeate the film. His Girl Friday is not the first film in which women and girls were disparaged, disrespected and threatened through language and it was not the last. I look forward to sharing my findings about the language used in mainstream movies of the 20th and 21st centuries in my upcoming film guide for women.
© 2019 Alline Cormier
Last night I analysed The Grizzlies (2018) at the theatre. It is an entertaining, powerful and sometimes heartbreaking drama set in Nunavut and based on a true story about Inuit youth and their teacher. It scores fairly well for women’s presence and voice, likely because it was directed by a woman (Miranda de Pencier) and co-written by a woman (Moira Walley-Beckett). Some of the things it has to offer female viewers are significant and rare in film so they are worth mentioning. For instance, it includes a woman in a position of power (Tantoo Cardinal plays a school principal), a smart girl (Emerald MacDonald), affection between females, respect for the opinion of an elderly woman and praise for girls (MacDonald’s teacher tells her she does excellent work and says, “You’re the smartest kid in the school”). There are other uncommon inclusions, such as assertive females (MacDonald and Cardinal). Furthermore, its exclusions are just as important as its inclusions (e.g. absence of sexualization of females and derogatory names in reference to females).
One of The Grizzlies' greatest strengths is the consideration shown for female viewers. Here violence against women and girls (VAWG) is not ignored or taken lightly and it is not gratuitous. When a teenage boy hits a girl (off-screen) she receives support from her teacher, and the boy is shown feeling deep remorse. When a man assaults his wife he is taken away by police officers. The filmmakers’ approach to VAWG, as well as suicide, is considerate, not graphic or gratuitous. Viewers do not need to be shown the girl’s boyfriend hitting her to know what happened. A skilled filmmaker can suggest an assault without showing it. Unfortunately, many filmmakers either lack the skills to do this or they do not mind seeing females harmed. Either way, they rarely film such scenes in a way that makes them less uncomfortable for female viewers.
The Grizzlies' filmmakers also explore the issue of the harm VAWG causes communities (e.g. through the teacher’s reaction, the son’s helplessness and pain and the boyfriend’s remorse and sadness). This is a film that should be shown in high schools because it is one of the very rare films that deals effectively with suicide, domestic violence and relationships between Natives and non-Natives. A hopeful movie in an era desperate for hope.
© 2019 Alline Cormier
One of the dozens of things I keep track of in feature films is the language used in reference to female characters. Part of the reason for this is that language is very revealing about filmmakers. It tells us a lot about how well or poorly they think of women. Reservoir Dogs (1992), a crime drama written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, who also stars in it, contains no named female characters and no women with lines. This, too, is telling. In one scene a woman screams as Steve Buscemi pulls her out of her car by her hair. This is all the voice women are afforded in this movie that runs over one and a half hours. So all the language relating to women is not spoken to them but rather about them—to other men.
So what do men say about women or to women in Reservoir Dogs? This merits attention and is illuminating. Women are referred to as a cooze, chicks, b*tches, broads and a “f*ck machine.” Men, including Tarantino, say “motherf*cker” three times. He says of a woman, “[…] she’s getting the serious dick action. […] It hurts. It hurts her. […] when this cat f*cks her, it hurts.” Eddie Bunker says of waitresses being special, “What’s special? Takin’ you in the back and suck your dick?” Buscemi yells at a woman as he smashes her window, “Get the f*ck outta the car!” He tells other men, “What a white b*tch will put up with a black b*tch wouldn’t put up with for a minute, man.” Michael Madsen says to Chris Penn, “Eddie, you keep talkin’ like a b*tch I’m gonna slap you like a b*tch.” Penn tells other men, “Lady E, I mean, she was a man-eater-upper. Un-f*ckin’ believable. Every guy that ever, ever laid his eyes on her had to jack off to her at least once.” Tim Roth says of a woman, “I’m makin’ this b*tch rich. She didn’t have to do jack shit. […] I was doing all the work.” When Harvey Keitel asks him about a woman crossing the street in front of their car, “That girl’s ass?” Roth replies, “It’s sittin’ right here on my dick.” Keitel tells him, about their planned store robbery, “You might get some b*tch talk shit to you but give her a look like you’re gonna smash her in the face next—watch her shut the f*ck up.” Randy Brooks refers to a woman as “that invisible b*tch.” And finally, a policeman refers to a woman as “this real sexy Oriental b*tch.”
I shone a spotlight on the language used by Tarantino's male characters in reference to women because it is evidence of his comfort with misogynist attitudes towards women. In Reservoir Dogs women are disrespected and sexualized in speech from beginning to end. This is not negligible and should not be ignored by those who are concerned about the fact that we live in misogynist societies. I look forward to sharing my findings about the language used in mainstream movies of the 20th and 21st centuries in my upcoming film guide for women.
© 2019 Alline Cormier
The Public (2018)
Last night I watched The Public (2018) at the theatre without taking notes—something I rarely do now. It is a progressive and entertaining film that scores moderately well for women’s presence and voice. There are four named female characters, and it passes the Bechdel test—a test that serves as an indicator of the active presence of women in movies—but just barely (women speak very briefly about something besides a man). Moreover, Taylor Schilling, Jena Malone and Gabrielle Union have a real voice here. However, it is worth noting that the exchanges between women are very limited and sometimes antagonistic, which constitute drawbacks. For the most part they only interact with men. Also, the sexist age gap is maintained here: the lead male’s love interest (Schilling) is 22 years his junior. Its greatest strengths, as far as women are concerned, are the minimal sexualization of women and an absence of violence against women (VAW). Its main strength, for moviegoers generally, lies in its subject matter: poverty and homelessness. The filmmaker's focus on these issues is so effective that it makes up for the drawbacks. It is also worth nothing that this is one of the exceptionally rare movies in which characters discuss carbon footprints. Evidence that at least some people in Hollywood have heard of the environment and climate change. The Public is actually suitable for teenage viewers, unlike many movies nowadays that have a PG-13 rating. The screenplay was written and directed by Emilio Estevez. If The Public is indicative of the quality of his other movies (as writer/director) they are worth checking out.
© 2019 Alline Cormier
One of the dozens of things I keep track of in feature films is the language used in reference to female characters. Part of the reasons for this is that language is very revealing about filmmakers. It tells us a lot about how well or poorly they think of women. American Psycho (2000), a horror movie based on the novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis, contains four named women who appear in more than one scene. It boasts A-list actors like Christian Bale, Reese Witherspoon and Jared Leto and is now available on Netflix.
The language in this deeply disturbing and pornographic film adaptation of Ellis' equally disturbing and pornographic novel merits attention. Women are referred to as chick, honey, doll, bimbo and a hot number. Bale says to a woman who cannot hear him, “You’re a f*cking ugly b*tch. I want to stab you to death then play around with your blood.” Shouting, he calls an immigrant woman a fool and a “stupid b*tch-ee.” He calls Cara Seymour a b*tch and a “piece of b*tch trash!” He calls Chloë Sevigny a “dumb b*tch” and says to her, “Be a doll and just get me a mineral water, okay?” He says to Samantha Mathis, “You’re f*cking me, and we haven’t made plans. What could you possibly be up to tonight?” To Seymour he says , “I want you to clean your vagina. […] from behind. Get on your knees” and “Christie, get down on your knees so Sabrina can see your asshole” before saying to Krista Sutton, “Sabrina, don’t just stare at it. Eat it.” On the street he whistles at Seymour as if she were a dog. Bale says to Leto, “I like to dissect girls.” Three men say in unison, “There are no girls with good personalities.” A man says to Bale, “A good personality consists of a chick with a little hard body who’ll satisfy all sexual demands without bein’ too slutty about things and will essentially keep her dumb f*cking mouth shut.” Bale quotes an American serial killer of the 20th century who wondered what women’s heads “would look like on a stick.” He says in a phone message to his lawyer in which he admits to killing people, “I killed Bethany, my old girlfriend, with a nail gun. […] I guess I’ve killed maybe 20 people, maybe 40. I have tapes of a lot of it. […] I ate some of their brains.”
Cinematic history is full of misogynist films but even still, this one is shocking. Ellis' novel's appalling treatment of women and misogyny voiced by its male characters makes one wonder why a film adaptation was ever considered. It boggles the mind. Surely it wasn't necessary to show more misogyny to prove that misogyny is horrendous. Watching the daily news should have taught us that. Sitting through this movie to analyse it was a sickening experience and a reminder that our societies are comfortable with books and films in which women are held very cheaply.
I look forward to sharing my findings about the language used in mainstream movies of the 20th and 21st centuries in my upcoming film guide for women.
© 2019 Alline Cormier