What is a Feminist-Friendly Film?

November 29th, 2018

Last post, I denounced the term CHICK FLICK, insisting we adopt a more accurate, and less derogatory, term for films intended to appeal primarily to female audiences: “female-targeted films.” Today I want to expand on what that means, and perhaps more importantly, what it doesn’t mean.

The female-targeted film hails from a fundamental logic in niche advertising that suggests films centered around female characters are likely to appeal to female audiences. In theory, this logic makes sense, but it’s shortsighted at best. Spectators, male and female, require more from a movie than merely seeing people that more or less look, and possibly act or speak like they do…

Or do they?

I’m reminded of my theater experience, watching Spike Lee’s CHI-RAQ a few years back. The trailers preceding it were an eclectic mix of action flicks, films featuring primarily African American casts and arthouse fare, ostensibly because those selections should span the array of tastes of folks paying to see a Spike Lee Joint.

The final trailer of the bunch was for Michael Showalter’s film, HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS, starring Sally Field and falling into a subgenre I impishly refer to as “Geriatric Rom-Coms.” Just after, a middle-aged woman a few rows ahead of me shouted at the screen, “Thank you!”

I question if she felt the same way after watching the actual film, but in the moment, I appreciated her reaction. In the trailer, a woman in her 60s is shown to have a full and exciting existence with an engaging career, an active social life, a unique style all her own and a potential romance with her attractive (and much younger) male boss. And who knows? Perhaps this female spectator did not leave as disappointed or offended as I did when I later saw the entire film. Perhaps it was enough just to spend 95 minutes in a world that centered around an actress she grew up with, playing a character close to her own age. Perhaps it didn’t matter to her that Doris was depicted as a lonely, delusional hoarder spinster who repeatedly humiliates herself throughout the film, never growing or learning from her mistakes, purportedly because she failed to marry when she was still young and desirable as the patriarchy demands.

I share this story to demonstrate that a film centering around females is not automatically female-friendly, or more aptly put, it’s not necessarily “feminist-friendly” (see PREVIOUS POST for clarification on feminism.) Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’ve enjoyed any number of films that aren’t feminist-friendly. In a market so flooded with unwatchably bad movies, sometimes it’s enough for a film to be merely entertaining, despite the fact it might tread into sexist or otherwise unenlightened territory (cough, HAROLD AND KUMAR, cough.)

Nevertheless, as responsible consumers of media, it’s important to know the difference. Cinema, like television and advertising, is a highly influential medium with the power to shape how we see ourselves and others—that is, if we passively sit back and consume each film at face value. However, if we engage, question and challenge what we see, we can actually learn from films—even those (sometimes especially those) that perpetuate negative stereotypes.

So, with that in mind, let’s revisit the notion of female-targeted films vs. feminist-friendly films:

A female-targeted film, and/or a female-driven film, is nothing more than each term implies—the film centers around female characters and topics that, according to traditional gender stereotypes, are likely to appeal to females. This is not to suggest said female characters are three-dimensional or relatable in any way, and it most certainly does not suggest the film is feminist-friendly. For that matter, I’d argue many of these films are among the most non-, and in some cases, even anti-feminist films out there, reinforcing patriarchal limitations on acceptable gender conduct and priorities (cough, BRIDESMAIDS, cough).

These films might be fun, they might even offer the occasional moments of female empowerment, but by movie’s end, the portrayal of the female gender is unenlightened at best, downright reckless at worse (cough, TRAINWRECK, cough). So I urge us all to pay attention. Not all films must be feminist-friendly, but we should be aware of those that are not, determine why and discuss them to gain better understanding of their impact on societal perspectives and behavior.

A feminist-friendly film, on the other hand, will feature characters, both male and female in most cases, with names and voices who, despite their inevitable flaws, are three-dimensional individuals with minds and wills of their own, who are not there to serve merely as window-dressing, nor to perpetuate patriarchal stereotypes. Said characters might (and likely will) make bad choices or fail to be inspiring role models at times—maybe always. They might be ugly or beautiful, sexually promiscuous or steadfast virgins. They might be victims of circumstances beyond their control. But they each have the power to reason and to fight for their own agency. And if they choose to give up that fight simply to snag some guy or assuage society, at the very least, they own that decision and don’t, out of nowhere, embrace it as what they secretly wanted all along (unless the story in question is Orwell’s 1984 and they’ve experienced Room 101. Indeed, there are exceptions.)

Next up from me: How to Watch a Film from a Feminist Gaze. But first, Amy returns next week with more movies-of-the week.




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