“I’m just like any modern woman, trying to have it all: a loving husband, a family. I just wish I had more time to seek out the dark forces and join their hellish crusade. That’s all.”
In the ancient times of the early 90s, when I was a tiny blonde-haired girl, I had a problem that I have never grown out of. I grew obsessed with films. It all began with Lady and the Tramp, which I knew by heart, then progressed to an inordinate fascination with the cat Lucifer in Cinderella, Millificent’s crow in Sleeping Beauty, and a brief bout with Captain Hook. I tended to gravitate towards evil animal familiars, it seems. Then, I saw The Addams Family and my world change. I wanted to be Morticia Addams.
Morticia was perhaps the first cinematic female I identified with. Never mind that my friends told me I was too blonde to be Morticia; she was my hero. She was vicious, venal, had a sexy husband, insane children, and was perfectly capable of eating your heart without getting blood on her dress. She was gorgeous without being vulnerable, tough without becoming unfeminine. She was admirable, a woman wholly in control who was never expected to sacrifice her femininity for her strength.
Girls did not get to have fun the way boys did. Boys climbed trees and shot guns; they fought with swords and went to war. They were inevitably the heroes, while the girls sat on the sidelines and waited to be rescued. I was never angrier than when I was told that I couldn’t be Raphael from the Ninja Turtles; I had to be April O’Neill. You know what April O’Neill does? NOTHING. She gets abducted all the freaking time. You’d think this chick would put a lock on her door or something.
So very often, I would pretend to be male characters like Peter Pan or Raphael or a returning World War II airforce pilot at Christmas – yes, that was an extensive game of mine – because at least they got to play with weapons and do daring, dashing things. Except when it came to Morticia. Admittedly, in the film she does get captured and have to be saved, but y’know, she never bats an eyelid. She even enjoys it. You can’t really threaten her. The camera places her in a position of dominance and control, not submission, without sacrificing her inherent femininity.
I wish I could say that there has been progress since I was a young girl. Yes, we have girl archers like Merida in Brave, but her conflict is with her mother, not the male-dominated world around her. It is a battle between women to establish their place as women in society, not to rebel against the male structure. There are badass chicks like Black Widow in The Avengers, who’s pretty amazing despite the preponderous of shots focusing on her ass. But there is something wrong when I leave the cinema and think how great it is that Joss Whedon actually made a female action hero into something more than eye-candy. Shouldn’t that be the rule by now? Have we yet to reach the point where a woman can be strong and feminine, without having the camera dwell on her legs, breasts and ass for half her screen time?
That low-grade misogyny continues to run rampant in Hollywood is not really a surprise, although it does sadden me. It’s as though a woman cannot be strong. If she’s strong, then she must be captured, imprisoned, even raped, just to make certain the male viewer knows that 1) he needs to protect her and 2) that even strong women are punished for their strength.
I don’t think that this a problem solely for women, mind. I look at the sheer muscle-mass of some of the men – Thor, for instance – and see how terribly ridiculous it is that that’s our valuation of masculinity. But, damn, at least Thor has his own way. The camera doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time picking apart and analyzing his body – if it did, there would certainly be an outcry that it’s ‘gay’ from folks like James Gunn. Even when the camera dwells on Thor’s physique, he remains in control; it’s more of a grinning appreciation of his body rather than a steady, voyeuristic segmentation of it. Thor’s an unreasonable expectation for boys, certainly, but he’s not an across the board expectation – witness how Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel miraculously charm the pants off of uniformly gorgeous women.
Where does that leave the little girl? Do we have a choice between being Mary Annes, largely there to be captured and then finally rescued, or Black Widows who must be subjected to the leering gaze of the camera if we want to kick ass at the same time? Could Lara Croft survive without being top-heavy? Are we allowed to be sexual without being subjugated, and tough without becoming men? Or perhaps we should all just be Bellas, listless romantic teenagers with no personality, romantically stalked by an undead, pasty admirer who denies sexuality … until of course we get married and then the S&M kicks in.
Characters like Merida and Black Widow are somewhat hopeful, but they are few and far between. I want to live in a world where I don’t leave the movie theatre feeling surprised because a woman action star actually got to be more than tits and ass. I don’t mean to say that Morticia Addams is the perfect feminist, but at least she’s a woman wholly in control of her own sexuality, her own pleasure, her own desires, her own future. She’s just like any modern woman, trying to have it all. Women do not want to be men, we want to be women. But we would like be treated equally, maybe even get to seek out the dark forces every once in awhile with the support of our male counterparts.. Is that really so much to ask?