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beauty is pop culture // sex rules the world 

  • Ennie Fakoya.

Aren’t We Tired of Feminist Cinema?

Updated: May 28

Is feminist media trying too hard and too often to be politically correct whilst coincidentally lacking the nuance of what it is to be a woman, and what it is to be anything other than a white woman?

When the word feminist is used to describe a film, I feel a gnawing urge not to watch it. Not because I hate films about women, but because I dislike what some of them have turned into.

This isn’t about all feminist films, however, there is a pattern. In a YouTube video essay by ‘Pompous Unhelpful Nit’, these patterns are laid out in pink, squiggly text;

  •  A lack of understanding of the film's audience, 

  • Unsure of the message they’re trying to convey

  • A female victim dying as a mark of justice (This is particularly stupid)

  • Taking hush money as a big F.U. to the man - or men. 

  • The story is motivated by feminism, and nothing else. 

The last point is particularly true in the current rise of feminist cinema. The story is replaced with several scenes of women quoting feminist literature or being very on-the-nose about how society sexualises and demonises women. None of these things are wrong, but when that’s your entire story, one begins to worry that we’re not understanding what feminism is supposed to be. 

It’s unfortunate to see the lack of care given to female protagonists when there are already too many shallow portrayals of women, especially women of colour. 

In conversation with screenwriter and journalist, Shaznay Martin, she points out that “If feminist films were working intentionally to be seen as improving women's rights through representation or deconstructing stereotypes, then that would be a good feminist film. It can’t be just a thing like ‘here’s a bunch of women.” 

Writing complex female characters and films about complex female issues is difficult for any one person to succinctly capture. But to place a woman at the centre whilst simultaneously de-centring her by creating a caricature is very telling.

Via YouTube: Pompous Unhelpful Nit

It’s not every woman that can make a film about feminism. Your Greta Gerwigs and Sofia Coppolas can write only one kind of feminist story which is fine, but to assume that the pinnacle of every woman’s experience is considered in their catalogue would be a bit silly. 

Shaznay Martin: “I think intersectional feminism is the final form of feminism, where everyone who is affected by the patriarchy is valued. It’s only feminism for a specific group of people. If your film isn’t able to be feminist for people with intersections of marginality, then it can’t be feminist.”

 It’s a hard thing to do, to include everyone with enough nuance and dexterity that each marginalised group deserves. We’ve been on the fringes for so long and the media that is meant to represent us feels distant. 

In trying to bridge this too carefully, we get “The Feminist Film”, in which a woman is put in a horrendous situation and, instead of being presented with an interesting, substantial plot, we are given a story that has no idea what to do with with the traumatised women they’ve written. 

That’s not to say it’s all bad. Feminist cinema has given women - both good and bad - voices. Women's issues were confronted in spaces unimaginable to a time before the genre, and ultimately, it's brought about the conscientious desire for women to question what they want and why they want it.

In Harper’s Bazaar's “75 Essential Feminist Movies You Need to See”, some gems are listed; Roma, Hidden Figures, Wild, Set it Off, the list goes on. There are good films about women struggling, women winning, and women being their own person.

Via Paramount Pictures

Shaznay wrote an article about ‘One Love, the biopic about Bob Marley. The focus of this article was of course on Bob Marley, but also his wife. 

In the article, Shaznay notes that “her character was depicted with a level of profoundness that I might not have ever witnessed for a dark-skinned Jamaican woman in cinema ever before. Rita was presented as a complicated, layered woman with perhaps more emotional depth than even the star of the film himself.”

She goes on to say that Rita, the wife of this larger-than-life poet-musician, refused to be overlooked as just an extension of Bob Marley. It’s a message that becomes clearer when you learn that Rita herself was a producer of the film. 

Having the woman that one is trying to portray will always work better than guessing and getting it wrong. Placing them into a narrow frame based on your understanding will only make your film less feminist because what kind of feminism are you trying to portray?

The other issue is where the creator comes in. Who’s telling feminist stories? Who is the film industry giving the super mega budgets to? Men have long since been at the helm of filmmaking, and now they get to turn women into caricatures of already-established male characters in popular IPs.

The men trying to tell us that women and their bodies are being empowered through lots of teenagers having sex and besting creepy cult leaders are not the people who should be telling anyone about feminism. 

These stories happen to women every day. The silly shit that goes on screen can also be mirrored right in front of you. Sometimes, the misogyny is overt and un-clever and said by odd men.

But most of the time, the things that are said wrapped in another, subtler thing are usually more understood. Being left out of a conversation you’re physically in, feeling an automatic sense of danger around men, being pestered about your womb and your ovaries and your eggs and timing is ticking and ticking and men don’t like their women old and that’s normal, women have dealt with man-children for centuries, why do you get to be different?

Girl, Interrupted (1999) Dir. James Mangold

We have expanded our resources, however, to appreciate the Sullen Woman. From Sad Girl Literature to Sad Girl Cinema, women are putting themselves at the forefront of rage and violence. It is an interesting era, especially because a lot of people think that this concept of the enraged woman is a new, shiny feature film waiting to happen. But women have always been enraged, it’s just that one woman’s anger is seen as more digestible than another. 

What some believe to be feminist cinema - and feminist media overall - has a very pale, white lens to it. Oftentimes, the subversive sad girl in a melancholic film has more luck in getting away with her sad girl antics than a woman of colour would. A central issue in some feminist pieces of media is that they don’t have more impactful roles for women of colour that explore their complicated lives because it’s too complicated. Being a woman, a woman of colour, and potentially a queer, disabled, or fat, woman of colour creates too many venn diagrams that crafting a story sympathising with all of that is considered a hassle.

These women aren’t often seen as marketable and we know why, but how do we bridge the gap? Is the issue that these films aren’t being made, or is it that non-white, non-male lives are more palatable for marketing?

A film that deals with women should strive to understand where all of these issues come in. It’s not impossible, and it’s certainly not a ‘hassle’, but it is a challenge. It takes a level of sensitivity that the film industry seems to lack. So, where do we stand in all of this? Either way, feminist films will continue to be made, whether by men or women or executives who don’t see gender but endless zeros on a check. But writers and filmmakers of colour want to see themselves on screen, and we can only hope that they're given more chances to do so.

 Are you passionate about exploring the intricate worlds of beauty, sex, fashion, wellness, and culture? Do you belong to a marginalized community and have unique perspectives and stories to share? If so, Nightstand Service is eagerly seeking contributing writers like you! Get in touch:


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