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feminism in movies

hope's picture

feminism in movies

How might feminism be portrayed through popular films? I pondered this question while working in the dining hall one evening. I decided to seek the opinions of my fellow workers, and asked, “What’s an example of a feminist movie?” I got a few responses, but a popular answer seemed to be GI Jane. So I then began to ponder the type of feminism portrayed by GI Jane. And I had to admit, GI Jane is pretty badass—joining the Navy, shaving her head, doing all those pull-ups. She gets a lot of crap, but eventually overcomes her many obstacles and proves that women can be just as tough and strong and brave as men. She becomes “one of the guys.”

I suppose she is pretty inspiring for young girls who want to one day join the Navy, or maybe just play football and take shop class. Still, I believe that Peggy McIntosh might classify the feminism portrayed in GI Jane as the phase II type. GI Jane is, after all, the exception, the one woman who is able to break into and succeed in the realm of men. Her name isn’t actually even Jane. It’s Jordan. Jane is a feminine name, and it rhymes with plain. Plain women don’t join the Navy. Plain men might join the Navy, but only exceptional women do.

GI Jane does not really seem to be attempting to subvert the patriarchal system of the Navy or prove that women are equally worthy, but rather that she herself is equally capable and worthy. In what was probably one of the most defining moments in her path to acceptance, she tells her antagonistic commanding officer to suck her dick, thus gaining the respect of her peers. In this critical moment she does not claim her gender to imply that yes; women can do this too, but instead claims a dick, implying that she is not like other women; she is good enough to be a man.

My goal is not to criticize GI Jane. A man would not be expected to represent his whole gender with his actions or choice of words. He would not be expected to want to prove anything other than his personal abilities. Is it really fair to hold GI Jane to a higher standard? Even if she is focused on personal achievement, by proving her own capabilities does she not make the path easier for the women who may follow? Is she just a driven individual or is she also a feminist? Perhaps the navy will begin with accepting one woman as equal and will eventually cease to see gender as a factor at all.

The possibility of a future in which the Navy doesn’t consider gender reminds me of another movie, Starship Troopers, in which giant alien bugs attack the earth and the military must fight them and defend the planet. What is noteworthy about this film is not the scariness of the giant bugs, but rather the almost nonexistent role which gender plays in the structure of the military. Today the Unites States still doesn’t permit women to participate in certain aspects of the military. Whether the goal is to protect the women from harm or to protect the men from the incompetence of the women, the ban of women from the front lines reinforces the idea that women are weaker and less capable than are men. In the future military of Starship Troopers there is no such notion. Women and men perform the same tasks and are made equally vulnerable to the deathly claws of the giant bugs.

The social interaction of the soldiers also offers an illustration of what gender dynamics might be in the future. In one scene in particular the soldiers are all in the locker room showering together. There are not separate facilities for men and women, nor is there any indication that any of the soldiers find this situation abnormal. There is no sexual tension, they just chat casually about life plans. They are completely naked and gender doesn’t even matter.

Even thought gender didn’t play a large role in the Starship Troopers, it was still present. And there was a bit of to-be-expected romance between the surviving male and female characters. So is it possible to tell a story in which gender is not present? I don’t know, but a recent movie that may have come close is WALL-E. WALL-E is a robot living in the future who falls in love with another robot, EVE. Now robots, it seems to me, shouldn’t necessarily have genders. That’s part of their appeal.

Many people with whom I’ve discussed the movie, however, seem to think that WALL-E is a “boy robot” and that EVE is a “girl robot.” Of course I can see how, if one was attempting to assign gender to the robots, a person might arrive at this conclusion. One could interpret WALL-E to be a more masculine name and EVE a more feminine name, though they are both actually acronyms. EVE’s voice is also higher. (If EVE is the girl robot then it might be considered feminist that she is portrayed as more assertive and capable than WALL-E.) I’ve also talked with people who think, for various reasons, that the robots are both female or are both male.

What is perhaps more puzzling than the genders assigned to WALL-E and EVE is the need we feel to assign any gender at all. The fact that the genders of WALL-E and EVE are not strictly assigned or explicitly stated may make the film accessible to more people, but it seems that in order to relate to the story we ourselves need to assign the characters genders or sexual orientations that match our own. Perhaps we do not yet have the mindset needed to comprehend or appreciate a love story that is completely genderless.

Or perhaps it is only in retrospect, in discussing the movie, that we feel the need to assign gender. I remember watching the movie and not even considering the gender of the robots. It was only later, when trying to describe WALL-E to a friend, that I became in need of a pronoun and thus discovered a need for a gender. Is language thus limiting the ways in which we can think about a story? If so, then maybe it is through films, with which we can witness an action rather than be told that “he” or “she” performed it, that we should explore a feminism that aims to eliminate gender.

What would such a film be like? Would it have human characters? Would it have robot characters? Could it be a love storey, or does love especially encourage gendering? And even if they were to create a compelling storey free of gender, how would the film makers prevent the audience from speculating on or assigning the characters’ genders? Maybe before any attempt to create a genderless storey can be made the mindset of society has to be changed. Maybe we are conditioned to sort, to gender, and without establishing these categories for ourselves we feel too lost to attempt further comprehension. Maybe one day in the future people will be as confused by our use of gender as we are in its absence.


Anne Dalke's picture

A Genderless Future?


You cover quite a bit of territory here, looking @ several movies as well as the directive nature of pronouns, before imagining a "genderless" future. Let's see if I can break down your various observations, and find a way forward.

The first text I thought of, as you discussed GI Jane, was the first text we read together in this class: Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas, which argues, you remember, that three causes are identical:

  • establishing a woman's college
  • supporting a professional women's organization, and
  • preventing war.

Woolf asks lots of hard questions about whether what you describe as GI Jane's "breaking into and succeeding in the realm of men" is really a feminist act; if you'd like to think some more about this, see also Cynthia Enloe's 2000 book, Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives, as well as her earlier Does Khaki Become You? The Militarization of Women's Lives.

When you muse about whether it's "really fair to hold GI Jane to a higher standard," I find myself asking whether feminism itself is a "higher standard"--> the imagining of, and working towards, a different future.

The second film you look @ is Starship Troopers, which you find noteworthy for "the almost nonexistent role which gender plays" (am thinking now of Jessy's celebration of The Book of Salt: "A relief for me...the kind of story I want to read more of, in which there are people...who have lives outside their genders, identities beyond their sexual partners and practices....").

The remainder of your essay focuses on this imagined genderless future. Given what we've learned in this class (most recently on our gender-in-poetry day), it's hardly surprising that we feel the need to assign gender. What is surprising to me is that you imagine a completely genderless future. I'm wondering how you think what you describe as the current "mindset" can be changed?

You offer one possibility: using images instead of words, and so freeing ourselves from the limitations of pronouns; we can "witness an action rather than be told about 'he' or 'she.'" But do we not ascribe gender to images? How directive can an artist be, of the movies (already) playing in our minds?

Along this line of thinking, see Words vs. Graphics, by one of your classmates, who argues that words "offer more freedom" to the reader, while pictures involve a more "direct" process, a transferal from the brain of the author to that of the reader, without an intermediary. The central idea of that essay is that words allow/invite/insist on more imagination on the part of the reader, than images do. The latter are more directive, more instructive, more didactic...and so more helpful "when the author wants to make sure the reader is thinking exactly what the author wants to convey." Images, in other words, prevent the audience from speculating...

but you are speculating beyond such limits, I think? Where do you want to go from here?