Sunday, May 15, 2016

A night at the movies

I took my son to see a film the other night. One of the cinema ads was part of a campaign against domestic violence. It showed a young couple having an argument in a car. The man gets out and hits the side of the car in anger as he leaves. The woman is left traumatised by this, trying to reassure herself that things are alright by repeating "He loves me, he loves me." She conveys intensely a feminine vulnerability and emotional sensitivity.

And then the film, Captain America: Civil War began. And almost immediately a female character played by Scarlett Johansson began to ju-jitsu her way across the screen, smashing apart one muscular bad guy after another. She must have punched/kicked/strangled about 30 or 40 during the course of the movie.

And I couldn't help but wonder what image of women my son took away from all this. Women as highly physically vulnerable and emotionally sensitive? Or women as kick-ass heroines, who can more than match it with male aggression?

I didn't much enjoy the film (I was possibly not in the right kind of mood for it). Even when the men fought, it seemed to me to be missing the point. Each of them had a kind of gimmick that made them special in who they were: a shield, or armour, or an ability to change size. They belted each other throughout much of the film, relying on their gimmick for protection.

The thought occurred to me that the ordinary man has a chance to be something more than this. He has a chance to experience masculinity, in its essence, as a life principle imbued with extraordinary meaning, a meaning that makes up part of who he is - his own self - as a man. Better to turn to this, the greater thing, than to the lesser attributes of comic book superheroes.

As for the Scarlett Johansson character, I thought that Alastair Roberts framed the issue well:
Fictional worlds are places in which we can explore possibilities for identity and agency. The fact that women’s stature as full agents is so consistently treated as contingent upon such things as their physical strength and combat skills, or upon the exaggerated weakness or their one-upping of the men that surround them, is a sign that, even though men may be increasingly stifled within it, women are operating in a realm that plays by men’s rules. The possibility of a world in which women are the weaker sex, yet can still attain to the stature and dignity of full agents and persons—the true counterparts and equals of men—seems to be, for the most part, beyond people’s imaginative grasp. This is a limitation of imagination with painful consequences for the real world, and is one of the causes of the high degree of ressentiment within the feminist movement.

Does Scarlett have to be severe (like her film character on the right) to win meaning?


  1. Hi Mark, you said you "wondered" what your son took away from the different portrayals of women at the movie. Did you ask him?

    It would be interesting to know how a young man processes these modern portrayals of women. I know for myself, I'm not a fan of Hollywood taking traditional masculine movies and feminising them, like the new Star Wars and Mad Max movies - putting women in the lead roles. In Fury Road, Mad Max very much plays a secondary role to the Charlize Theron character.

    Don't get me wrong, a movie with a female lead is not inherently poorer for it, but don't remake movies with a role reversal spin. That is my key point. I know I will not watch the new Ghostbusters movie for this reason.

    1. If I remember, I'll ask him and let you know. He shows promising signs of being able to form opinions outside the politically correct bubble. He definitely prefers the male characters - those are the ones he talks about, which is hardly surprising for a boy his age.