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Heroine Content Summer 2009 Film Preview (and some thoughts on discouragement)

This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.

Here at Heroine Content, we are blessed with a wonderful community of readers. Two of them have become guest posters, and during our email exchanges they have each asked very good questions which I'd like to address today - before walking through our list of films for the rest of 2009.

First question is from d (who apparently is spending her time writing really long comments here and at Women & Hollywood instead of getting me those final Matrix trilogy review edits). She asked this:

Do you ever get discouraged about the state of women in action films? Sometimes I feel like we, we as in the women who want these films, are just a small few screaming in a vacuum and no one hears us. I loved Sarah Conner in T2 and enjoyed Ripley in Aliens and Alien 3, but gosh, why are those still like the only ones we have that are good? Or rather, the ones most can agree are good? [...] So I guess I just wondered if you and Grace ever became discouraged as you saw the state of things, as well as watched all those movies.

BonnieBelle, who represented with her Star Trek review, asked this:

I'm looking at what's coming out this summer, and am not impressed. There are hardly any action movies, let alone girl-friendly ones. Transformers looks like a 2 hour shot of Megan Fox's backside, with 10 minutes of robot fights. :( What are your thoughts?

In 1992, I went to college in St. Paul, MN, and shortly thereafter found a world of amazing women rock stars on the radio. Hearing PJ Harvey, Liz Phair, and Tracy Bonham was like a revolution to me. I didn't quite realize they were a new thing on the scene, and I didn't realize that they were part of a mini-boomlet of female rockers that would fade away. I didn't realize that something I loved so much would be so limited.

That's part of the challenge Grace and I face with writing Heroine Content. The list of films we could possibly review is quite limited. For the first two years of the site, we were reviewing about 40-50 films per year. We have a list of past films split up between us. Though we don't think it's complete, we think it's pretty close.

Each year we review some of those, and whatever new films we can find. In 2009, we've reviewed seven new release films so far, and there are only eight more new films left that we have identified as possibilities for reviewing here. A couple of them probably won't pan out. So let's say at best 12 new films, and then we'd have to pull 25 or more from the "old" list. At that rate, we would basically run out of films to review in the next three years... unless we start mixing in substantial amounts of Hong Kong cinema, which neither of us are particularly qualified to write about.

Can you imagine that happening if were were writing about action movies in general?

I'm pretty sure that for all practical purposes, there are an infinite number of action movies. What we lack is action movies in which women have action roles. So if you want to talk about being discouraged, let's talk about the fact that we could actually run out of movies.

Let's also talk about the fact that we often post several reviews in a row that basically say "Well, that sucked." I hate doing that. It feels negative and depressing and it almost takes away the central reason for doing the blog. We do it because we love seeing women really and truly kick ass, just like I really loved my women rockers during that lovely renaissance period. It's demoralizing showing up over and over again on the blog to point out the flaws, the disappointments, and the general suck. We have not given a film four stars since August of 2008. Watchmen was the first one to win three stars since September of 2008, and the last American big budget release to win three stars before that was reviewed here in January of 2008.

Part of that is undeniably our rising standards over time. (Unless Grace disagrees with me, in which case it's my rising standards over time.) We started this blog in part to practice our critical viewing skills, and by golly it's working. I don't claim to be perfect at this, or even very good, because what I know about race, ethnicity, class, disability, and other issues is still exceedingly slim compared to what I know about the rich white women's feminism that was my entry point into anti-oppression thought. However, writing Heroine Content has meant that I spend a whole lot more time thinking about these issues, reading about these issues, and being disappointed as hell when filmmakers fuck up so much.

Let me now throw in a snippet from The Invisible Woman, a September 2008 essay in The American Prospect by Alyssa Rosenberg:

When I was a kid, visiting my cousin meant I got to do two things: sleep on the top bunk and page through his epic comic-card collection. I may have learned about dating from Archie Comics' Betty and Veronica, but the superheroines of Marvel and DC Comics were much more exciting. I coveted Rogue's kinetically charged boyfriend, Jean Grey's red mane, and Wonder Woman's strength, even squeezed down to trading-card size. It was perfect training for a future superhero-movie consumer. I've followed my memories of those tiny illustrations to the theater to see the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises, I cheered Stan Lee's cameos in The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man, and in May, I read everything about Marvel Comics' announcement that its film-production division would release six new movies by 2011.

But as the biggest superhero summer so far comes to a close, I can't help but notice that women have been firmly relegated to the sidelines as girlfriends and assistants. Five of the six upcoming Marvel movies feature male leads, and it's not clear which, if any, superwomen will end up in the only ensemble picture in the lineup, The Avengers. Why is it that a film industry will cast lovably schlubby Seth Rogen as the Green Hornet and will take a serious chance on an Ant-Man movie (both are due to hit theaters in 2010) but can't get it together to make a Wonder Woman flick? Or any true superheroine movie at all?

I think many of the people reading this blog will recognize her experience immediately, both the love and the painful disappointment. I've read comments about our work here, both on other blogs and in comments here that we have not published, accusing us of having an agenda, setting out to bash films, trying to tear things down. I know that people of color, especially, are targeted for that kind of criticism. Here's a newsflash, people. We want Hollywood to give us something to love. Like Alyssa Rosenberg, we have a history with certain kinds of content that makes us want to accept it, internalize it, and share it. We give it the benefit of the doubt, we try to make excuses for it, but often it's just inexcusable and un-ignorable. We can't love it enough to make it anything other than what it is.

Beyond my own personal reaction, I can't imagine how much more acute it must be, what a horrible sense of being erased and backstabbed, for people of color, people with disabilities, and others who have bonded with these fantsy worlds and then get treated like they don't exist or like they're jokes. I have no way to understand it viscerally, my position in society is far too privileged.

So when d asked if we ever get discouraged, I would say hell yes, and the process of writing this blog has actually been one of the factors that has discouraged me. Learning more about how bad it is has discouraged me. Watching a bunch of terrible movies also doesn't help. (Red Sonja review coming up soon!)

d said she felt like one of a small few screaming in a vacuum. I was going to say that I am part of the problem because I often give filmmakers my money even though I know a film is going to be bad for women and everyone else... but now I'm realizing that my moviegoing patterns have shifted significantly since college. Here's what I noticed. I actually have to take BonnieBelle's word on it that there is a drought of action films this year because I don't track action films overall anymore. I used to go to just about every big action film that came out, unless it starred Sly, or Arnold in a non-Terminator role. But I stopped going to Bond films, because they just didn't interest me. And then I stopped going to some of the other action films. Never made it to Die Hard 4 (and not just because of the negative comments I heard about how Maggie Q's character was treated). I just wasn't interested anymore. Iron Man and Bourne managed to draw me in, but I can't recall any other action films from the last several years that has appealed to me unless they had women in action roles.

So my economic vote is going to different films than it was in the past, and I guess that means I'm less part of the problem than I used to be. Do I think there are enough people like me, or us, to make a difference any time soon? No. Sorry. We're not going to achieve anything through sheer numbers. Sometimes I have hope, like when suddenly the Bechdel test gets a lot of media attention, but generally I think that ticket sales

Looking at the film list for the rest of 2009, like BonnieBelle, I am not particularly inspired. Several times a year I look through upcoming film lists for any hint of a potential Heroine Content title, which is discouraging in and of itself, since it's so rarely evident from the film's description whether the one woman is actually going to do anything. But here are my thoughts and some trailers for the films we expect to review for the rest of this year. If I missed any, let me know.

Terminator: Salvation

Terminator: Salvation IMDB Page - now playing - Link to the Terminator trailer

Moon Bloodgood didn't impress me in Street Fighter, since she wasn't given anything to do, and the whole "will she be topless" faux controversy doesn't bode well. Still, here's a picture of her firing a gun, so who knows? Helena Bonham Carter would shock me if she slapped anyone, Bryce Dallas Howard is cast as wife, and there are a couple of other women on the first page of IMDB credits?

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen IMDB Page - opens June 24th - Link to the Transformers 2 trailer

I second what BonnieBelle said. And this time, it could even be more racist, if the devolution of other series we've reviewed here (cough Resident Evil cough) is any indication.

G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra

G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra IMDB Page - opens August 7th - Link to the G.I. Joe teaser trailer

The Baroness is wearing a padded bra, is there any reason why aside from the director being a jackass? If there was some kind of economic argument, I could at least understand the logic, but does anyone think the profits on this film are going to be higher because of this "enhancement"? This is one I am seriously considering NOT gibing my money to based on that issue alone.

District 9

District 9 IMDB Page - Opens August 14th - Link to the District 9 trailer

Science fiction but probably not action. Also, likely to be extremely depressing.

Whiteout

Whiteout IMDB Page - Opens September 11th

Kate Beckinsale as a U.S. Marshal, tracking down a fugitive in Antarctica. I've been so mystified by Beckinsale's action career - she was Selene in Underworld, but she was also thrown in the fridge in Van Helsing. Will this be another kick ass role, or another turn as damsel in distress?

Surrogates

Surrogates IMDB Page - Opens September 25th - More at Get The Big Picture

Why does the synopsis of this film sound like an Asimov ripoff? Anyway, there are enough women listed in the credits that I'm hoping for a miracle.

2012

2012 IMDB Page - opens November 13th - Link to the 2012 Trailer

Surely if the world's ending, Thandie Newton and Amanda Peet might have to at least run, jump, or climb a tree, right?

Avatar

Avatar IMDB Page - Opens December 18th

No, not that Avatar, the other one. The one with Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, and Zoe Saldana, and CCH Pounder. Honestly, I barely care what it's about after reading that list of names, I'm going no matter what.

5 Comments

I second the opinion on Avatar. I haven't seen a preview and I don't care. I'll be there.

As for the obvious backsliding of Hollywood.....sigh. I remember being so excited about so many movies when I was younger. Though I hadn't quite actualized by desire for characters cut from the Ripley/Sarah Connor mold - it was there. I wanted to see women kicking ass and taking names. The introductions to Trinity, Selene and Alice made me squeal like a gleeful little girl (never mind the later developments) with joy! But now? Sigh. There's almost nothing.

I think it really hit me just how ridiculous it was that NO MOVIES were coming out that passed the Bechdel test when I rented Hard Candy one weekend. There are literally 4 characters in the movie. Most of it is spent between the two main characters inside one room....and it STILL manages to pass. That is normally the kind of film I'd rationalize a Bechdel fail on - how can I expect it to pass when it's an intense claustrophobic psychological drama between two people? Except it can - and did - with such ease that I didn't even realize it until much later.

As for running out of movies - you can try to branch out to TV. Or expand your definition of heroine to include the crafty clever women leads. Though the latter will only add a handful of films, and all of them will be old.....

Obviously our only option is the hostile takeover of a big budget movie studio. We start funding films with real action heroines, they slaughter the box office, and the other studios wallow in agony as people stop watching the crap they're selling.

Patrick said at May 26, 2009 1:30 AM:

Thank you for this entry, which is one of those that make me realize again how good I have it.

I would normally count myself among d's »we«, because I too want to see action films with female heroes. And more black, Asian, or otherwise non-mainstream heroes. But when it doesn't happen, at least I – a white guy – am sure to be represented... unless I start looking for atheist heroes in the movies :-)

As to superheroes: I think most superheroines in comics are part of the more cheesy heroes (Sue Storm can become invisible? Really? Wow.), and where they do have better ones (X-Men), Wolverine overshadows everything else, which is probably what will happen with Avengers, as well: the heroes with their own separate movies will be more prominent, and as of today I'd guess Iron Man will rule the show.

But why don't they simply make up a new superheroine – and not for a movie where she's the jealous ex-lover, please? Or change it around – turn Thor into a black woman, for example, and don't tell me Angela Bassett wouldn't rock that role.

I recently got flak on a German message board because I suggested for Star Trek to:
- turn one (or more) of the crew into women, e.g. McCoy
- give Uhura more to do than pine for her guy
- include an LGBT character (maybe Sulu)
- give the women frigging trousers to wear, and if you need Uhura to wear a skirt, at least have other women wear trousers so it doesn't look like skirts are mandatory.

The last one drew most of the comments, mostly about how the women probably chose to wear skirts, and I shouldn't extend my point of view to the surely more egalitarian future**, and how skirts are more practical, anyway, and so on. The only other comment about that was how a gay character would have been a total waste.

But why not change things around?

**which strikes me as really convenient. Movie portrays the past: "that's just how it was back then." Movie portrays the future: "You don't know that they didn't all choose to be that way, because you can't use contemporary society as a measure." Movie is in the present: "lighten up, it's just a movie."

You can't win, can you?

Having just returned home from Wiscon 33 -- http://www.wiscon.info/ -- my head is full of feminist stuff. This really speaks to me, to the call-to-arms feeling I always leave the convention with. The paucity of titles on your list is rage-making. But, that said, I will note that WHITEOUT is based on a very good comic by Greg Rucka. Rucka, as a novelist and a comics writer, makes strong female characters and includes people of color as fully-realized leads. Here's hoping that the WHITEOUT movie keeps those traits.

Alyssa captures best how severe the problem is, when she asks why a Wonder Woman flick is still nowhere to be found, yet feature films are planned for more than a few male superheroes, and some of them quite obscure? True, they could invent a new superheroine, but they already have one that can stand her ground against any superhero--Hulk and Superman included. Wonder Woman, long one of comics' most noted characters, has plenty of marketing appeal, enough that a WW movie would seem a slam-dunk to bean counters. With tweaks and updates, which they generally do anyway, the ultimate superheroine is ready-made for the filmmakers, and for us. That a WW movie has yet to make it to production is testament to the sexism that permeates Hollywood whenever the subject is powerful women. (But I keep prodding them anyway, http://www.athleticwomen.com/blog/categories/11-Wonder-Woman.)

This list of upcoming films doesn't offer much hope, either. I see only two that look promising--Avatar and Whiteout.

I am in agreement with everything Skye wrote. I'm just as discourage. And looking at the upcoming releases, I feel even worse. Not only are there few movies worth us even reviewing, but there is former-heroine Milla Jovovich as a victim in "The Perfect Getaway!" And film version of both "The Stoning of Saraya M." and "The Lovely Bones," just to make sure you feel like shit about the state of women in the world.

I do have a teeny slice of hope held out for "Inglourious Bastards," but that could just be my Grindhouse-love talking.

There's also Amelia coming up in October...but again, that might be a stretch. Plus it stars Hilary Swank.

One direction I think about going sometimes is female villains, about whom we haven't talked much at HC as yet. Women playing proper villains is just as important to me as them playing proper heroines. But there just aren't that many of those, either.

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