Chloe Young | Contributor
Hollywood – and the women in it – are a hot topic these days, from the many, many sexual assault allegations against different men in the entertainment industry to the rising trend of female-led movies. The discussion of how Hollywood treats women is too deep and difficult a concept to delve into completely in one article, but we can focus on the stories Hollywood chooses to tell about women and what effect they have. As a form of mass media, film plays an important role in shaping culture, and must therefore be held to a high standard. By looking at contemporary films through a feminist lens, we can identify common sexist tropes in films, as well as critique what is viewed “progressiveness” in film, since these standards are often insufficient and can even be damaging.
At the most basic level, one must consider if the movie has well-written, believable female characters, if these characters develop without reliance on a man’s narrative and if they themselves or their stories are intersectional. Several “tests” have been created in to supposedly determine if a film is “feminist,” though this usually just means “not blatantly sexist.” The most famous of these is the Bechdel test, which requires that two women are named and have a conversation that is not about men. The Mako Mori test is a bit of an improvement, as it requires a woman have a narrative arc independent of a man. The Mako Mori and Bechdel tests are both miserably shallow and fail to include any degree of intersectionality, making both tests insufficient. (And what does it say about our society if this is how we evaluate whether something is “feminist” or not?)
Take the two new Star Wars films as an example of movies that fulfill both these tests, but still fall short in many ways. Both star female leads with independent stories of finding identity and something to fight for. While the new films include men of color, both new female protagonists are white, and there is only one prominent actress of color in either of the new films. Played by Lupita Nyong’o, the award-winning black actress, the character is hidden behind CGI so that it is impossible to recognize this.
The Star Wars franchise is a great example of where Hollywood is succeeding and failing in this new wave of female-led films. While both of these films tell good stories about independent women, they are not intersectional, and intersectionality is a major component of feminism. Many contemporary films illustrate this terribly common issue. Atomic Blonde, for example, ended a romantic subplot between two women by viciously murdering one of them on screen, turning what could have been positive representation into violence. Additionally, the recent remake of Ghost in the Shell whitewashed its original Japanese lead, casting Scarlett Johansson in the main role. Another film, The Danish Girl cast a cisgender man to play a transgender woman. This final example demonstrates how supposedly “progressive” films can actually be incredibly damaging: this movie not only excluded over trans actresses in a role that was blatantly suited for one, but also continued the myth of trans women being little more than men in drag.
These failed attempts are problems, especially because these films do not truly attempt to be intersectional, meaning they cannot satisfy what it means to be feminist. Intersectional films are possible – and they achieve praise and renown. Consider Moana and Hidden Figures, both of which star women of color and both of which earned Oscar nominations. It is not only possible to make films that are intersectional — true to representing the demographics of our society and highlighting the achievements and capabilities of marginalized populations — but they are profitable, and more importantly, entirely necessary when it comes to representation and the future of film.