Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


Why are films so sexist?

A 16 mm spring-wound Bolex "H16" Ref...

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Why are films so sexist? I do not have the answer, but they are. In spite of grumpy government ruminations that film studies is a ‘soft’ subject, the medium is a vital expression of our cultural values. Films are mesmerising propaganda tools too. The recent The King’s Speech (which I have not seen, and thus am not reviewing) makes use of the ‘personal triumph against adversity’ genre, which any filmgoer will know, and molds it around one of the richest and most powerful men of his time (he liked people to call him Emperor of India) overcoming a speech impediment. Thus, we have a film in which we hoi poloi and made to root for power and establishment, despite the fact that when applied to life it is against our best interests.

There are many who blithely will tell anyone who cares listen that feminism is no longer necessary as we have sexual equality. Such people will cite all sorts of anecdotes to say it is so, but refuse to listen to the evidence that every sphere of power and money in the UK is dominated by men, be it government, banking, board rooms, chief police officers. And film operates as an amplifying feed-back loop on our society: film reflects our values, intensifies them and dictates them back to us. That is why film studies are necessary, and how they gratuitously exacerbate inequality.

A few days ago, my friend Hannah introduced me to the Bechdel Test. It seems that everyone else knew about this but me. The Bechdel Test was created by Alison Bechdel in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For to demonstrate the overwhelming sexism of film medium. It is a very simple set of three criteria that any film should be able to pass easily, but almost all fail. The criteria are that a film must contain at least one scene in which

  1. There must be at least two women (usually interpreted to mean two named women characters)
  2. They must talk to each other
  3. They must talk about something other than men

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Black Swan, a review

Black SwanI have just got back home after watching Black Swan at the cinema. I think I want to call it a psychological thriller, but it is not a generic film. It is an intense journey that leads you on a dark, emotional introspection of the fragility of human nature, and self-destructive perfectionism. I was left in such a state that I could not speak as the credits rolled, and could barely manage a ‘wow’.

Black Swan is shocking, mesmerising, brutal and beautiful. It may be a film about ballet, but it is dark and tough, and the dance scenes are hypnotically beautiful — flounce and tutus this is not. Darren Aronofsky has directed his best film yet; the promise of The Fountain and The Wrestler have come to perfection here. He has put together an accomplished cast. Vincent Cassel excels as the intensely demanding director of the NYC Ballet who takes a more than personal interest in the development of his principal dancers, and Barbara Hershey is a brilliant choice for the narcissistic pushy mother living vicariously through her daughter, rising ballet star, whose loving support is overshadowed by an obsessive, controlling and ever-present menace. Both Cassel and Hershey anchor the film with their performances, portraying the two characters who dominate the young dancer’s life — ballet company and home.

Natalie Portman, as Nina, the dancer around whom the story is spun, finally shows that, given a director and script of quality, she can really act. Portman portrays the perfectionist ballerina sympathetically as both a vulnerable innocent and psychologically disturbed (both anorexia nervosa and self-harm are strongly suggested). The camera puts us inside Nina’s head, so that we are left wondering if things we see are really happening or just occur in her inner life — passing daydreams and half-glanced sightings of things keep us unsure of ourselves, our own eyes — is she paranoid or are they really out to get her? The film uses CGI to enhance these, rather than its usual use as a distraction.

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