If you’ve been paying attention to the critics, they’ve been preoccupied with two things about Brave: whether Merida (Kelly MacDonald) is gay, and whether we ought to complain that Pixar’s first girl-oriented film still makes its heroine be a princess.

And thus they miss the point. The radical thing about this film is that it up-ends the mother-daughter relationship in film.

There is nothing more overdetermined than the mother-daughter relationship in film. So many of them are fraught in predictable ways that assume all manner of things about middle-aged→ older women and their younger counterparts. Take a look at children’s film and it only gets more extreme. All those wicked stepmothers in fairy tales set the stage for the kind of mother trouble we see. (No wonder so many films kill off mothers right away; I’m lookin’ at you, Bambi.) How can the girl/ young woman thrive if her mother is still there being bossy and/or needy?

Which is why Brave is so cool. It starts from a fraught mother-daughter situation and then up-ends the trope entirely. It’s fantastic.

I’m not going to spoil it for you — the film is too delightful for spoilers — but let me say that Brave is also somehow about narratives and tropes in a way that The Neverending Story (1984) was. It’s meta, but only meta in ways that offer 10-yr-old kids a little bit more than their younger siblings will get, and offer parents a kind of delicious message on their own. It’s not ironic, reference-laden meta like my new favorite show Community. It’s refreshing.

The ways that Merida and her mother (Emma Thompson) have to change … well, that narrative ultimately says something about how just as stories can trap us into a hoary set of conventional outcomes, so they can also free us.

I love the way the film shows Merida’s father and his buddies all sitting around drinking, telling stories about great (past) adventures, while Merida and her mother are off having an actual adventure that changes everything. Fantastic.

Advertisements

Brave is not just a Pixar film with a female lead (two female leads, really), but one about a girl who doesn’t want to be told how to act, how to live her life. Merida wears dresses and likes to shoot arrows. She has long, gorgeous hair but wears it in a big mess of a red tangle. She runs and jumps and acts exuberantly rather than behave like a lady, as her mother desires. She finishes her father’s stories and can’t breathe in a corset. Most of all she doesn’t want to get married off to one of the three eldest sons of neighboring clan leaders.

So critics started a conversation about whether she’s gay.

“Because,” as Stephen Colbert put it nicely on last week’s Colbert Report, “any 15-yr-old girl who rejects an arranged marriage has got to be gay.”

Is it so radical for a girl to just want to be herself — before being crammed into other roles, like girlfriend, wife, gay, straight, tomboy, girlie-girl? Is it so radical to allow her to not define herself according to hoary stereotypes?

What is wrong with us that we’re so eager to slot children into sexual boxes? Is it so hard to fathom that some kids just don’t want to be sexual creatures yet? That some kids’ gender identities don’t fit into molds, and that those gender identities don’t necessarily signal anything about who they will want to sleep with down the road?

Now, I realize I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to watching media with a queer eye — when I sang the praises of the feminist potential of the Women’s World Cup last summer, it was partly because “whether or not they’re gay (and open about it), many female players have embraced butch haircuts or personal styles that signify at least tomboyness if not queerness — and this is good both for gay rights and for helping to blur a gay/straight binary.” I loved The Celluloid Closet for its analysis of how, in an era during which homosexuality was erased from film narratives, viewers scoured early American films for the slightest, tiniest evidence (clothing, effeminacy, a snippet of dialogue) that a character might be gay.

But hello, that was about adults.

Is it the most radical thing to allow kids to not be sexual — to allow them to express their gender freely without leaping to conclusions about what their gender performance signals about their sexual orientation?

I’m thinking here about my sister, who dressed as a tomboy till she was about 15. No, she’s not trans. No, she’s not gay. She just liked dressing as a tomboy. She wasn’t interested in playing any kind of boyfriend game just yet. Get over it.

524688-venus-noire-affiche-quebec-depuis

Starting in 1810, a woman named Sarah (“Saartjie”) Baartman — born enslaved among the Khoi people in what is now the Eastern Cape of South Africa — spent five years allowing herself to be exhibited as the “Hottentot Venus” in Britain, Ireland, and France. People flooded to see her in part because of her large, protruding buttocks, but even more because everything about her appearance seemed so “exotic,” including her dancing. In re-creating Baartman’s story, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Black Venus (Vénus Noire) raises the right question: to what extent was she in control of her fate?

The answer is not. at. all. And that made my feminism hurt.

venus_noire_2

It’s been a long time since I hated watching a movie so much as I did this oneNor can I remember having my mind so tweaked for days afterward. This film dares you to pronounce it too long (166 mins), too didactic, too depressing.

The fact is, it’s hard to watch a film about a character so abject as Saartjie (Yahima Torres), especially because by the time the film opens, she has already sunk into an alcoholic depression. That’s right: this is a very long film about a depressed woman exhibited as a freak in cultures that despise Black people.

BlackVenus600

Is there another way to tell this story, except to underscore Saartjie’s abjectness? In a long early sequence, Kechiche recreates the scene of her performances. Her partner/handler, Hendrick Caezar (Andre Jacobs), appears onstage as an exemplar of the brave white European explorer, issuing hyperbolic, dramatic warnings to his audience about the dangers posed by this specimen from “darkest Africa” while Saartjie waits in a cage, leash around her neck. On cue, she growls and claws at him like an animal, movements choreographed by the two of them long ago, but which she now clearly finds demeaning and emotionally exhausting. Once released from the cage, she moves about the stage to thrill the audience, dances, and pretends to want to attack her spectators. The entire act follows in this vein, culminating with Cezar allowing members of the audience to come up and touch her buttocks. The pain on her face is excruciating.

As historical re-enactment, it’s riveting. As a film, it’s excruciating.

dp france HD 16 Copyright MK2

If Saartjie pretends to be animalistic to make money, the director makes it clear that her freak-show viewers are the true animals. They glean safety in numbers as they laugh uproariously at her movements and marvel at her unusual physical shape, moving up toward the stage to touch her behind. Even if she and Caezar have a backstage relationship more like partners, the onstage performances are killing her. 

Except when she dances. Saartjie closes her eyes and enjoys her own performance; the audience grows silent; and everyone forgets the exaggerated civilization vs. savagery script in which they’ve been acting. 

BV3

Not long into Saartjie and Caezar’s run of performances, a humanitarian group called the African Association brought them to court for violating Britain’s 1807 Slave Act abolishing the slave trade. The Association charged that Saartjie was a slave being held in degrading conditions, both of which violated the new Slave Act. They also offered evidence to support these charges. Saartjie appears on her own to refute those charges — in fact, she testified for three hours, insisting that she was guaranteed half the profits and had every right to exhibit herself as she pleased.

76675

Even as she testifies eloquently about her rights, her freedom to earn money in her own way, and her agency to make her own decisions, us viewers find ourselves confounded — trapped between what we have already seen of her alcoholic misery and our desire for her to, indeed, have “rights” and “freedom.” Is she telling the truth, or has she been compelled? Is she fooling herself — that is, does she need to believe these statements because she’s so miserable? The fact that the court finds in her favor hardly answers those questions. 

Once found to be a free woman by the court, Saartjie finds herself under increasing pressure not only to continue performing as a racial freak, but — for the first time — to display her genitals and to be exploited as a sexual oddity.

venus_noire (1)

Her partner Caezar abandons his financial interest in the Hottentot Venus exhibition to a Frenchman named Réaux (Olivier Gourmet) who doesn’t bother to pretend Saartjie is his partner. Traveling to France, he exhibits her in every way he can find — from gatherings of lascivious aristocrats to mixed-class groups fascinated by sexual perversion, and eventually as a museum object for the anatomist Georges Cuvier of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle.

What is worse? Being the central objet in a group of perverts, or being measured by a group of scientists who harass her to show her genitalia, which are larger in Khoi women than many other groups?

venus_noireThis film never lets you forget how you’re supposed to feel about these scenes, about Saartjie’s subjection, about her increasing helplessness. In some ways it represents the filmic version of those outraged scholarly books that seem not to know that we all think racism is bad. At the same time, it displays scenes from our racist history that capture something true. It is true because it shows her desire to believe that she has free will together with the fact that she does not.

So did I hate this film because it was long and didactic, or did I hate it because I want to see women with some degree of free will? Shouldn’t I recommend a film that displays the depths of horror of a woman’s life without agency?

The film made me angry and frustrated — and hell, I do this hard stuff for a living. Did I need the preachiness of “racism is bad” pounded into me for 166 minutes? Did I need the endless scenes of her drinking, being mistreated, getting sicker, and being probed by the scientists in Paris? Did I need this film — one of the very few that features a Black woman as its central character — to show her so unhappy throughout? I wanted to turn it off even though I knew about most of that stuff before seeing the film. For others this might be a revelation.

Maybe it made my feminism hurt so much because this film seems to fit so neatly into how feminism gets depicted by haters: as a man-hating, humorless, everything-is-bad movement of dreary types. Or maybe it’s because the film so resolutely denies that Saartjie had any feminist or anti-racist possibilities before her.

So let me sum it up: damn. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll keep running over those scenes for days afterward. It’s the best worst film I’ve ever seen.

Every year I lose in Oscar-night ballot-offs with my friends. Good thing I don’t bet actual money. You see, I insist on voting with my heart. To wit: last year I voted for Demián Bichir for Best Actor, in part because it suited the We Are the 99%/ Have-Nots vs. Haves mood I was in.

Do my choices amount to mere whimsy? Not at all, particularly considering the context. On schedule, the Academy disappointed us with its lists of nominees — overlooking terrific films, shutting Kathryn Bigelow out of competition for Best Director. Moreover, we all know from those “for your consideration” ads that the studios are pushing hard for their own films to get votes…because, yes, lobbying helps win votes. Moreover, the voting at this stage always entails voting against certain films almost as much as it’s a positive process. In sum, presented with a deeply problematic selection/ voting process, my methods of choosing What Should Win at Sunday’s Oscar Awards Ceremony are better than most. 

Shall we?

best actor

Best Actor(s) in which I opt for emotion over restraint (and the long shots over the bookies) by rooting for Emmanuelle Riva and Joaquin Phoenix. 

The odds-makers tell us these two don’t have a chance. Nor do I have a beef with the likely winners; of course Daniel Day-Lewis was great, and you know how much I love Jennifer Lawrence.

But Riva and Phoenix did things in these roles that I can’t shake from my mind. They took risks they’ve never taken before; I still have memories of the naked, helpless Anne (Riva) being washed by a home health care worker and crying out (“it hurts! it hurts!”); and the emaciated, twisted Freddie (Phoenix) happily pouring various toxins and photographic chemicals into a cocktail shaker for yet one more night of blankness. These are the actors who should win.

best supportingBest Supporting Actor(s) in which I give Lincoln its due and root for Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field

These are dicey categories for me, as I haven’t seen some of the most relevant films (Django Unchained; The Sessions; Les Misérables). And yet I have opinions anyway!

No one with Jones’ accent has any right playing a senator from Pennsylvania, but he was so good here. And oh, Sally Field walked that fine line between despair and self-consciousness so beautifully. 

I haven’t written about the film here. My overall take on it is that it was a beautifully acted and written piece that was marred by ham-handed directing at the beginning and end — I’m sorry, folks, but Spielberg needs to step back from the swelling violins moments. Anyway, speaking of directing ….

best picture directorBest Picture and Best Director in which I abandon all betting wisdom and root for Zero Dark Thirty and Michael Haneke

In two years we’ll look back and see the hubbub that shut Zero Dark Thirty out of serious competition and wonder what the hell people were thinking. In two years we’ll catch Argo getting recycled again on one of those cable channels and think, “Okay, it is a great story, but I can’t believe Hollywood was so utterly fucked that this film won a Best Picture Oscar.”

Hence I’m voting for Haneke for Best Director, as that was the second best film of the year.

best editing cinematogBest Editing and Cinematography in which I maintain that the Academy doesn’t know what these categories really mean, and vote for Silver Linings Playbook and nothing at all for Cinematography.

It’s the editing that made Silver Linings Playbook such a terrifically crackling comedy — I’d go so far as to argue that it’s the editing that stands out the most to me in making this so watchable. I just don’t even see there being any serious competition here, even as I have lavished so much praise on clunkier editing jobs in Zero Dark Thirty and other films.

And on Cinematography: you know what’s likeliest to win? Life of Pi! 90% of which was filmed before a green screen so that special effects could be inserted later!

Now, I understand that such filming can also be exquisite; and indeed, this was a beautiful film to watch. But I’m so exasperated that the eloquent filmmaking of Amour wasn’t nominated (and in that apartment!) as well as Beasts of the Southern Wild that I just want to spit.

best screenplayBest Screenplay(s) in which I root for some underdogs: Beasts of the Southern Wild and Moonrise Kingdom.

I’ll admit it: I’m rooting for Beasts simply because it’s one of the few times a woman was recognized in this year’s Oscar ballot beyond the acting categories. Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin might not have written the best script in the bunch — that might have to be Tony Kushner’s Lincoln — but I’m sticking with my choice for political reasons anyway.

And Moonrise Kingdom. It was just so weird and creative and delightful; just thinking about it makes me want to see it again right now. Lovely.

best foreign animated

And finally: Best Animated Feature and Best Foreign Filmthe only categories in which my choices have a pretty good chance of succeeding with Brave and Amour.

Let’s just summarize this by saying, I can’t be wrong all the time. I’d be through the roof if Brave pulls this off.

A few closing choices:

Short Film/Animated: please let it be Head Over Heels, the one true independent in the bunch (and a really great, creative short); see it here!

Costume Designthe one way I want Snow White and the Huntsman to be remembered.

Original Scorethe one way I want Argo to be remembered. (Or, rather, the king-ification of composer Alexandre Desplat.)

We’ll see whether I can catch up on the other short films (live action, documentary short subject) by the end of the afternoon via some creative web searches. And I’ll see you all at the red carpet tonight — during which you can laugh hilariously at my near-complete shutout.

Can we also collectively hold our breaths that emcee Seth MacFarlane isn’t as misogynistic, racist, and otherwise offensive in person as he is as a filmmaker, and/or that better human beings wrote the show? yeah, maybe not.

??????????

This bronze Greek statue of a female Spartan athlete, ca. 500 BCE, serves as this year’s La Jefita award! (Winners must contact me directly to receive these excellent prizes.)

Only one more week before Oscar night, but who cares about that charade when there are the La Jefitas to think about? For the second year now I’ve compiled my list of the best 2012 films by and about women to celebrate those female bosses. It’s just one way I seek to subvert a male-dominated and sexist film industry. Because who cares about that Hollywood red carpet when you can enjoy an anonymous, verbose film blogger’s Best Of list?

Oh yeah, baby!

Unlike the flagrantly biased Oscars, the La Jefitas are selected with scientific precision; and although each year we have a select number of categories (Most Feminist Film; Best Female-Directed FilmBest Fight Scene in Which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass) we also add or tweak other categories to suit that year’s selections.

Shall we? Let’s start with a big one:

Best Actress:

Anna Paquin in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. No matter how ambivalent you may feel about Paquin’s earning paychecks with fodder like True Blood (the later seasons, anyway) and the X-Men franchise, you can’t deny the force-of-nature bravura she displays in this extraordinary film. Replacing the saccharine Southern accent she put on in those other productions, she appears here with a kind of nervous mania that suits the particular cocktail of high school, trauma, selfishness, and guilt cooked up by this girl. When I wrote about it last spring, I called Paquin’s character an “asshole” — it’s hard, even now, for me to back away from that harsh term, for she has truly channeled the kind of chatterbox/ smartypants self-absorption and avoidance so crystalline in privileged teenaged girls. She captures it perfectly, and her particular vein of assholery is crucial to a film that wants us to think about the wake we leave behind us as we stride through the world.

vlcsnap-2012-07-08-20h11m04s115

Paquin won Best Actress, yet I have so many honorary mentions. I’ll narrow it down to two: Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea and Nadezhda Markina in Elena — two eloquent drawing room dramas that rely on perfectly-drawn portrayals by their female leads.

 

Female-Oriented Scene I Never Expected to See Onscreen (extra points for its political riskiness):

 

The abortion scene in PrometheusSeriously? The film displayed such a strangely negative view of parenthood overall — indeed, I wondered in my long conversation with film blogger JustMeMike whether the film’s major theme was patricide — that in retrospect one was left shaking one’s head at all of Ridley Scott’s madness. And still, I return to the abortion scene. Wow — in this day and age, with abortion politics as insane as they are — did we actually witness an abortion in a major Hollywood release?

prometheus-c-section1

Yes, I know she was trying to abort an evil monster/human parasite/amalgam; but I’ll bet there are 34 senators in the U.S. Senate who would argue it was God’s plan that she bring that evil monster baby to term.

6753479407_7b729bed69_z

Best Fight Scene in Which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass:

Gina Carano has no competition this year after her performance in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. I know, I can’t remember the plot either; nor can I remember how it ended. And no, I’m not going to talk about the dialogue, or Carano’s acting ability.

Rather, the entire film was a paean to Carano’s superiority in ass-whupping. It was a thing of beauty — starting with her takedown of Channing Tatum in the diner and reaching its crowning glory with teaching Michael Fassbender a lesson in the hotel room. Be still my heart. Who needs plot or dialogue when you’ve got a human tornado?

Most Depressingly Anti-Feminist Trend of the Year:

quvenzhane-wallis-beasts-of-the-southern-wildWhere did all the parts for Black women go? The tiny dynamo Quvenzhané Wallis has ended up with a well-deserved nomination for Best Actress this year — for her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild, filmed when she was six years old — but people, no 6-yr-old can carry the experiences of Black women on her tiny little shoulders.

Sure, we all complained last year about The Help — really, Hollywood? you’re still giving Black women roles as maids? — but let’s not forget some of the other films last year, most notably (to me) Dee Rees’ Pariah. And although I’m not surprised to find an actress of Viola Davis’ age struggling to get good work onscreen, I want to register how utterly depressing it is to find a Black woman of her talent and stature not getting leading roles in great films.

One can argue that high-quality TV is making up for the dearth of great parts for Black women onscreen. Just think about Kerry Washington in Scandal, for example. But for the sake of the La Jefitas I’ve limited myself to film — and I want more non-white actors, dammit.

Most Feminist Trend in Film in 2012:

96e01327d031803081109f0f0a25c1e12012 was the Year of Fierce Girls. It doesn’t take much to call to mind the most obvious films, starting very much with Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. To list a few:

Now, I will also say that with all these good parts going to awesome girls (some of them animated, however), I didn’t see as many terrific parts going to mature/ middle-aged women; but still, considering how deeply male-dominated children’s filmmaking is, this is a very positive trend indeed.

Helene Bergsholm in Norway's Turn Me On, Dammit!

Helene Bergsholm in Norway’s Turn Me On, Dammit!

Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actress Known for Very Different Roles:

Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. I have a big ol’ crush on Lawrence from her serious roles, but I’ll be the first to admit that she found herself getting the same part over & over — that fiercely independent teen girl who struggles against the Great Forces that make life so difficult (Winter’s Bone, X-Men: First Class, The Hunger Games). Comedy wouldn’t have struck me as Lawrence’s forte.

lawrence_2397638b

So count me impressed. Surrounded by excellent actors inclined toward broad humor, she does something crucial to make this film work: she balances her humor with a true gravitas that keeps this dizzy screwball comedy grounded. She’s funny, but it’s her seriousness and laser focus that stay with you and remind you what a good film this is. And part of the way she does it is through her sheer physical presence — she is so sexy while also being formidable. This is no tiny slip of a girl who’ll fade away from Bradley Cooper’s character, the way his wife left him emotionally. You get the feeling their relationship will remain a rocky road, but their attraction and shared neuroses will keep things interesting for a long, long time to come.

Best of all, this change-up will hopefully give Lawrence lots of scripts for the near future, giving her the chance to develop more chops.

Most Feminist Film:

Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now, the sneaky, funny, sexy Lebanese film about a tiny remote village split down the middle between Christians and Muslims. A wicked, perfect retelling of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.

WhereDoWeGoNow

Like Lysistrata, Where Do We Go Now? addresses the serious problem of war via a deep unseriousness; the Muslim and Christian women in this village seek out increasingly goofy means of distracting their men from hating one another. Add to this the fact that beautiful widow Amale (Labaki) and the handsome handyman Rabih (Julian Farhat) can barely stay away from one another, despite the fact that they hold separate faiths.

That tonal unseriousness leaves you unprepared for the terrific quality of the women’s final solution — which reminds us that the topic ultimately addressed by the film (violence in the Middle East more broadly) is so important, and so rarely examined from women’s perspectives. A terrific film that makes you wonder why no one else has mined the genius of Aristophanes until now.

Honorary mentions: Turn Me On, Dammit! and Brave.

That’s all for today — but stay tuned for tomorrow’s La Jefitas Part II post, in which I announce this year’s Film of the Year, Best Role for a Veteran Actress Who Is Not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep, Sexiest Scene in Which A Woman Eats Food, and Best Female-Directed Film. Yes, these are all separate categories. Because reading Feminéma is like everything you’re missing at the Oscars, friends! it’s like Christmas in February!

And in the meantime, please let me know what I’ve forgotten and what you want to argue about — I do love the give and take. Winners: contact me directly at didion [at] ymail [dot] com to receive your prizes!

Here’s something you don’t often see onscreen: a woman who doesn’t cover up the fact that her hair has thinned.

Lidia Bastianich is PBS’s Italian cooking maven whose show, Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen (she also has spinoffs like Lidia’s Italy), always marks the difference between the overly personality-driven Food Channel shows and PBS. To wit: she doesn’t do anything to cover up her thinning hair. For comparison, let’s look at the Food Channel’s Giada de Laurentiis:

tumblr_lh1ydfJTRo1qb30joo1_500

Any normal human might find a contrast between these two women absurd. Be assured I’m not trying to draw a conclusion about their respective talents for cooking — just their comparative screen appearance. (We could also discuss Giada’s obviously spectacular breasts and/or that alarming set of teeth, but let’s try to stay focused.) I just want to make the point that it is amazing to me that even good old PBS hasn’t forced Lidia into a wig. (What do I know? They may have tried.)

I got onto this subject originally because the subject of hair kept coming up in strange and interesting contexts. There was Callista Gingrich, Newt Gingrich’s wife, whose immovable helmet of hair preoccupied so many bloggers last year. Perhaps because I’m a big fan of natural hair for Black women, I have read several other bloggers who yearn publicly for Michelle Obama to stop relaxing/ironing her hair.

I’d been collecting a random assortment of hair moments onscreen for a while, but it was a comment over at JB’s terrific film blog, The Fantom Country, that gave my post clarity. Writing about how many times he’d noticed Andrew Garfield’s luscious hair, JB wrote wryly, “Perhaps he is a particularly expressive hair actor” — why, it’s comments like these that make my blog so resoundingly esoteric. (See also posts on noses, mouths, and teeth.) Esoteric it may be, but it’s my confirmed opinion that hair is an easy site for the downfall of a film or character.

BridgesLet’s start with a few actors who consistently make their hair work pretty goddamn well. I’ve seen Jeff Bridges in just about as many different hair parts as one can imagine, and they always work for me — even (especially?) when he shaved his head for the bad-guy role in Iron Man. Bridges has this way of truly appearing to be one with his hair; whether it’s the shaggy Dude from The Big Lebowski (1998) or the long-haired ex-con in American Heart (1992, below), the hair seems fully folded in with the rest of him. It’s perhaps not a surprise that an actor like Bridges, who conceals so much of his acting craft behind his prodigious modesty and naturalness, would be able to handle these hair parts so effortlessly.

jeff_bridges_american_heart

Other actors, it seems, grow into their hair. I never thought much of Connie Britton as a younger woman — on the rare occasions I ever caught that Michael J. Fox show Spin City (1996-2000) I mainly thought of her as The Hair — but now that she’s in her 40s she has gotten better roles and more gravitas. I just loved what she did with her role as Mrs. Coach/Tami Taylor in Friday Night Lights (2006-2011); one never forgot how she rocked those strawberry waves, but it seemed so fully in keeping with the role. I still haven’t caught up with her new show Nashville (2012- ) despite the regular reports from blogger friend JustMeMike that I have to keep archiving for reading later. But Britton’s hair in the Nashville country music scene? It’s a hair marriage made in heaven. Connie-Britton-Lights_610

On occasion one finds an actor whose hair was so integral to her character onscreen that they become inseparable. Surely the best example one can imagine is Judy Davis’ breakout role in My Brilliant Career (1979). As Sybylla Melvyn, a teenager yearning for something beyond marriage and motherhood in turn-of-the-century New South Wales, her hair exemplified her character. Frizzy, irrepressible, flyaway, and heavy with impossibility — it fit so perfectly with Davis’s plain, freckled face and her terrific intelligence that it’s impossible to think of that role being taken on by anyone else.

723820718_3fdcde22b8_z

MV5BMTQxNzkzODkwNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzcwNzE2Ng@@._V1._SX640_SY640_

Judy Davis in The Eye of the Storm (2011)

A note: I’ve been disappointed to see that Davis rarely shows that hair anymore. Like so many women, she now keeps it straightened and severely managed. I still can’t see her onscreen without wondering where her hair went.

There are occasions when an actor with forgettable hair takes on a great hair part. The best example I can think of is from last year’s Prometheus (2012): Michael Fassbender’s turn as the creepy robot with a fixation for Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). It’s one thing to admire O’Toole’s brassy, glinty-eyed heroism; it’s another to emulate his hair. What a nice touch that was. One couldn’t look at Fassbender throughout the film without seeing the robot’s own self-consciousness of carrying that carefully coiffed hair — hair that symbolized so much.

Click on this image of Fassbender and you’ll get a nice .gif of the hair regimen.

tumblr_mbuanjTQWe1ri08goo1_500Sadly, it’s more common that I notice hair more like Andrew Garfield’s — hair so demanding that it ought to have separate billing. Pushy, greedy hair; hair that demands a little too much screen time.

Yes: I am speaking of Merida’s hair in Brave (2012). Yes: I loved what the illustrators did with this. But yes: it took over.

brave-merida-small

Nor is this a fault limited to animators. Why, just last week I complained about Jessica Chastain’s hair in Zero Dark Thirty — what was wrong with those hair people on set? If there’s one thing I know a lot about, it’s how (cough) the rigors of personal hygiene and grooming have a tendency to drop away when one is single-mindedly working on a problem and scrutinizing the evidence. Por ejemplo: I’m sitting here right now on a Sunday afternoon, furiously typing a blog post about hair and movies, having not even run a comb through my hair all day. This is how us ladies behave when we’re focused. We do not fuss with ‘dos like this:

zdt00014

(And honestly, the movie wasn’t about some nice lady professor who keeps a blog. Chastain’s character went to black sites to witness torture of detainees! She sat around in a dreary cubicle at a CIA outpost in Pakistan! Argh.)

I have to conclude with a big hair role that stymies me: Penelope Cruz’s mane in Nine (2009). It’s so absurdly great that, for me, it veers between unbelievable and some kind of parasitic being from another planet that has attached itself to her beautiful head. I mean, us ladies have a lot to envy when it comes to Cruz, but nowhere does her hair appear to such effect than here, teased and streaked to the point that it ought to have its own life insurance and bodyguards. Just watch this sexpot number unfolding in the imagination of Daniel Day Lewis:

See what I mean? it’s just so much hair that every time I see this scene I wonder if the hair & makeup people actually added more to her head to enhance the excess of it all as she shakes it all over Lewis’s body. No wonder so many of us fantasize about sex and hair — criminey, see here for the definition of fetish. 

nine60

As with all my most esoteric pieces, I can only hope that my hair fixation rubs off on you and you start to scrutinize the hair acting of all your favorite/hated actors. And when you do, I hope you post a comment about the people I’ve forgotten, the great hair roles of yesteryear, and the Hair Aliens Attack parts that I need to watch.

Which reminds me. Jennifer Aniston: greatest or worst hair actor of all time?

brave-1024list of filmsThis is ultimately a glass-20%-full question.

I have now re-read A.O. Scott’s NY Times Magazine piece, “Topsy Turvy,” several times — a piece that leads with the subtitle, “this year, the traditional Hollywood hierarchy was overturned. Heroines ruled.” I want to know exactly how he came up with that subtitle, because I don’t think the article supports it. Nor does the evidence.

Now, I have seen a lot of really good films this year — films that feature terrific female leads, stress women’s experience in fresh ways, highlight gay/trans characters, and are sometimes directed by women. Just scanning over this list makes me feel encouraged. Scott particularly mentions some of these: Brave, The Hunger Games, and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Let us not forget, too, the box office success of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II and Snow White and the Huntsman, two films that give me less encouragement but which nevertheless get women into the equation.

Four of those movies — four! — were among the 15 highest-grossing films of 2012. This is very good, for when Hollywood sees female-oriented or -directed films earning big bucks, it’s more likely to fund future projects.

But let’s not forget those other top-grossing films: the endless stream of supremely dudely fare like Ted, The Hobbit, and the superhero business in which women play the most conventional roles of all: The Avengers, Skyfall, Amazing Spider-Man, and so on. I give Anne Hathaway props for her role in The Dark Knight Rises but she remains only an interesting twist on the usual female suspects in such vehicles.

If I say this was a good year for women onscreen (and behind the camera), is that impression based solely on a perceived slight uptick from the usual — which is that women get fewer leads, fewer lines, a smaller range of interesting parts, and far less opportunities to write and direct than men? Is this glass 20% full, or 80% empty?botsw-image-3

When I look back at 2012 I see new levels of schizophrenia about women in public life. When Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls was released, she was attacked on all sides. Jennifer Lawrence was termed too fleshy for the role in The Hunger Games. But movies & TV were only the tip of the iceberg. Let’s not forget the public schizophrenia outside the world of film. Sandra Fluke’s public flogging at the hands of Rush Limbaugh; the massive troll campaign against cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, who sought to scrutinize gender in video games; the revival of anti-birth control measures; unnecessary trans-vaginal ultrasounds required of women seeking abortions in Texas and (almost) Virginia; the crazy anti-woman, anti-gay GOP platform during the 2012 election; the public whack-job discussion of rape by prominent Republicans running for office.

Of course, those two politicians lost. But ladies, you’re wrong if you think this is the end of efforts to ban abortion altogether or to humiliate women who seek sexual and political equality. Let’s not kid ourselves by thinking that Hollywood doesn’t reflect that schizophrenia, at least on some level.

Was this year better than last year for women in film? Tough call. Last year had Bridesmaids, The Help, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Bad Teacher (oh yeah, and another Twilight) all near the top of the list of highest-grossing films, plus all those amazing foreign and independent films that delighted me during my La Jefita Awards. And hello, The Iron Lady. Maybe I can say 2011 and 2012 were equally interesting years for those of us willing to seek out and draw attention to the topic.Hunger-Games_13

Most important is the question, do these two strong years indicate a change in emphasis in Hollywood? Well, no. Sure, Pixar finally gave us a female lead in Brave. Does that mean they’ll have another one soon? I doubt it. We’ll get more Hunger Games, but we’ll also get more superhero fare in which women are negligible and/or tokens. Will Cannes allow even one single female director into competition? It’s a crap shoot; that film festival didn’t have a single female director in 2012. It looks good that Kathryn Bigelow will get nominated for Best Director at this year’s Oscars. But is that really a sign of a shift?

The best I can hope for is that we have a third good year for women in a row. But when I say good, I don’t mean that opportunities for women/ gay/ trans peoples are improving in big ways. It’s a fragile thing, this good year designation. The ever reliable Stacy L. Smith of USC’s Annenberg School, who crunches these numbers all the time, simply terms women onscreen “sidelined, sexy, and subordinate” and doesn’t dicker with minute distinctions.

Let’s just say that we have little evidence to trumpet a “Hollywood hierarchy was overturned” narrative, Mr. Scott. But I’m hoping for a good year in 2013 anyway — and by good, I mean that it’ll look a teensy bit better than 2012.

What’s the deal with Scottish accents in American children’s movies? Let’s list them:

  • The villagers and lesser characters in Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) all have Scottish accents, while the leads have posh British accents (excepting the Huntsman, our working-class hero).
  • When they filmed Tintin (2011), voice artist Andy Serkis gave Captain Haddock a Scottish accent, prompting outrage from fans of the books. It should be noted that while some fans protested that Haddock was portrayed as Cornish in the books, others pointed out that actually he was Belgian, as was the books’ author Hergé, and had only been translated as Cornish by the English publisher.
  • How to Train Your Dragon (2010) was full of Scottish accents – inexplicably, as one presumes the film was about Vikings (who were Norse).
  • Shrek (2001) had a Scottish accent – reportedly because voice artist Mike Myers wanted to use the same accent as his mother, who’d read children’s books to him in that voice.
  • The entire cast of Brave (2012) have Scottish accents. Of course, in this case the characters are actually Scots, wearing kilts and all.

Qu’est-ce que c’est? Why so many Scottish accents in American children’s films?

Maybe it’s because Americans find Scottish accents to be funny and/or eccentric? less snooty-sounding than posh English? gruff and good-hearted?

Have we come to associate weird oldey-times with Scottish accents as well as funny clothes?

Or has it just become a weird tic in Hollywood?

It’s hard to figure the genealogy of this trend, as I doubt many children today would make cultural references back to Scotty of Star Trek — or to late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson, for that matter, or Trainspotting.

I found an article from the Journal of Sociolinguistics that posits that among English respondents in a large study, Scottish accents ranked almost as high for “social attractiveness” as Received Pronunciation (what I call “posh”), even though these accents didn’t rank nearly as high when it came to “prestige.”* So it’s not just Americans, apparently, who find the accent appealing.

Still, I’m baffled. Ideas? Comments?

And what does it mean that a generation of English-speaking children will grow up associating a Scottish accent with children’s films?

_____________

*Nickolas Coupland and Hywel Bishop, “Ideologized Values for British Accents,” Journal of Sociolinguistics 11, 1 (2007): 74-93.

Charlize Theron’s clothes are awesome. Like the silver-coated small-animal bones strung together in a headdress than hangs down onto her forehead:

Also, the Dark Forest is really cool, and the dwarfs are excellent.

Otherwise, Snow White and the Huntsman is a big mess of over-writing and confused themes that looks great (terrific CGI, creative ideas behind it) but feels incredibly shallow.

Now, I could complain about all manner of things, like Kristen Stewart’s acting (my friend M mused wryly as we walked out of the theater: “I sure hope Kristen Stewart never gets stuck in a paper bag”) or the preposterous notion that she is “fairer” than Charlize Theron’s evil queen Ravenna.

But let’s not be small.

Instead, let’s complain about the writing, because this film is confused (not unlike Stewart, above). What is this film about?

The original tale, as it comes to us from the Brothers Grimm, is a pretty simple catfight faceoff between an evil queen who wants to be the prettiest and a good, innocent girl whom everyone loves, especially the dwarfs. Queen puts girl to sleep with poisoned apple. Girl gets kissed by prince, and their marriage ends the evil queen’s reign. (In one particularly horrific version I still remember from my childhood, the queen gets punished by having to wear a bewitched pair of iron shoes that force her to dance until she dies. I always wanted to know why, if Snow White was so nice and all, did she permit that punishment?)

In short, the original doesn’t really leave much room for a feminist reading unless you are prone to wishful thinking, or if you are a clever writer of fan-fic. Mostly it’s a tale of men taking care of the delicate Snow White — various dwarfs and princes and whatnot — while she talks to fawns and bluebirds and perhaps sings a song. Feminist it’s not.

Snow White and the Huntsman wants to turn Snow White into an action hero. Or perhaps I should say that at some point in the writing process someone said, “What would happen in she kicked some ass?”

The writers didn’t really follow through, however. Except for that one scene in which Snow White makes a very nice running & sliding move down a drainpipe to escape from Ravenna’s castle.

Mostly she’s dragged unwillingly toward bravery, leadership, and violence by helpful men. When the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth, aka Thor except with a Scottish accent and darker hair this time) helps her slog through the awesome Dark Forest, he slices off her ridiculously long gown to miniskirt/ thigh level to help her move.

So helpful to have those men around for their quick thinking, because no way would that have ever occurred to this Snow White.

It’s not that vestiges of a feminist vision behind the film aren’t still in evidence, but they mostly emerge from Ravenna’s mouth and/or her backstory, which are actually kind of interesting. “I was ruined by a king like you, my Lord. Men use women,” she tells Snow White’s father on their wedding night. If that seems like a kinky thing to tell your new husband, she follows it up by offing him in short order. Later, when she meets the Huntsman, Ravenna says ominously, “There was a time when I would have lost my heart to a face like yours. And you, no doubt, would have broken it.”

Of course, beyond this level of man-hating there isn’t much sisterhood. Mostly Ravenna spends her time sucking the youth out of pretty young girls … because the youth-and-beauty theme still predominates.

Helpful information: the film was co-written by three men with all-over-the-place resumés: John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, A Perfect World), Hossein Amini (Wings of the Dove, Killshot, Drive), and Evan Daugherty, who has no films under his belt at all.

Now, I’m not a robot: like anybody else, I’m perfectly willing to watch Chris Hemsworth affect a Scottish accent and get sweaty and dirty as he protects Snow White.

I just had a hard time when the Huntsman tells Snow White that she needs to take on leadership in raising an army to fight the queen, and she demurs … until that magical kiss raises her from the dead and she finally assumes the role of leader —

— only to give the Worst. St. Crispin’s. Day. Speech. Ever. Let’s just say that Kenneth Branagh will not be looking to Stewart to star in any forthcoming interpretations of fiery Shakespearean heroines, at least any characters that have lines that don’t need to be mumbled.

There’s also a very confusing plotline in which Snow White is proclaimed to be “life itself” despite the fact that she brings death and destruction wherever she goes. Oy vey.

In other words, whatever impulse motivated the writing of this film (that is, beyond the impulse to create narrative set pieces in which the CGI experts could make shit look cool) ultimately falls apart because the whole thing is a mess.

What I realized after witnessing so many potentially feminist plotlines dissolve into anti-feminist helpless girl and/or catfight scenarios was that this is the quintessential statement of what media critic Susan Douglas calls “enlightened sexism” — the film makes gestures to feminism to calm us down, to remind us that it’s not a retrograde tale like the original fairy tale, but it makes those gestures merely to brush them aside and assert the same old sexism as ever. Indeed, it sells sexism to women under the guise that this sexism is somehow feminist.

In the end, it doesn’t matter that Hemsworth is a hunky bit of all right, nor that the dwarfs are enacted by an utterly delightful assortment of great actors (Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost,  Ray Winstone, Johnny Harris), nor that Charlize Theron makes the best bad guy ever, nor that her clothes are so great, nor that the CGI is so watchable.

What matters is that we’ve been sold another bill of goods in the form of that red apple, people. And once you take a bite, you drop into such a deep sleep that you’ll be mistaken for dead.

According to Roger Corman’s classic cult film The Wasp Woman, the first in my mini-marathon of Cult Horror Movies about Female Monsters, we should be worried about two things: women’s fear of aging (who doesn’t know that?) and science (again, duh). Early on, the experimental scientist Dr. Zinthrop tries to explain to his boss that he thinks he has found a miracle anti-aging drug in the royal jelly of queen wasps. The man replies:

“Listen, Zinthrop, I understand about science, and progress, and all that, but you were obtained to extract queen bee royal jelly. Now, it’s a health food! A cosmetic! It’s not a miracle drug or an elixir of youth! That sort of thing is impossible!”

Oh, Zinthrop, why didn’t you listen?

Like any good would-be mad scientist, he heads for New York City — where cosmetics magnate Janice Starlin is meeting with her team to talk about why the company’s profits have taken such a nosedive. Why? one brave marketing douchebag asks mockingly — because you, Janice, have gotten old. Her haggard face makes the whole company look bad. Who wouldn’t agree with those lines and the bags under her eyes? horrors! and I haven’t even shown you an image of her terrible glasses!

Don’t get the wrong impression: as unflattering as that screen shot is, Janice Starlin is no bitch. Now, I’m relatively new to the genre of female monsters, but it seems to me that ultimately these films address what we might call the Bitch Semiotic, in honor of the classic Sigourney Weaver line in Aliens: “Get away from her, you bitch!” delivered to the gigantic alien monster mother. Film monster women might have many reasons to be bitchy, and many manifestations of their bitchiness. Janice, in contrast, is merely tragic — tragically desirous of a more youthful appearance.

She tries to explain Zinthrop’s wasp jelly plan to a member of her company’s marketing team named Cooper, but he won’t have any of it. In fact, he’s a font of condescending and questionable entomological wisdom:

“I’d stay away from wasps if I were you, Miss Starlin. Socially, the queen wasp is on a level with the black widow spider. They’re both carnivorous, they paralyze their victims and take their time devouring them alive. They kill their mates in the same way, too. Strictly a one-sided romance!” [har, har.]

With bad jokes like that, I could hardly wait till Cooper’s own foreshadowing did him in.

Naturally, Janice arranges with Zinthrop for secret injections of the wasp serum — in deliciously perverse needle scenes set in classic Hollywood laboratories. Naturally, when the reverse aging process doesn’t proceed as rapidly as she’d hoped, she sneaks into the lab and injects herself with more. Naturally, someone says (prophetically), “Cosmetics are one thing. Medication is another.” And naturally, Zinthrop’s experiments weren’t thorough enough to show the dangerous side effects:

But my favorite is the great line, muttered amongst some company employees baffled by the mysterious changes to company policies: “It’s not funny any more, Mary. There’s something going on in that building — [dramatic pause] — and I’m gonna find out what it is.” Screenwriters of yore, where have you gone? Why can’t we enjoy scintillating, literary subtlety as in days gone by?

Don’t get me wrong — there are many things to recommend The Wasp Woman: 1) it’s only 73 minutes long; 2) it’s streaming on YouTube and Archive.org as well as Netflix; and 3) in refusing to engage with the Bitch Semiotic, this film allows its star, Janice Starlin (Susan Cabot) to appear so genuinely appealing that she actually subverts the plot a little bit.

You’d think this would devolve into a simple tale of a woman driven mad (and carnivorous, and murderous of her mates) by her need to appear younger-looking — heaven knows that’s what all of Cooper’s foreshadowing indicated. But in matter of fact she’s surprisingly touching. It’s hard to hate her when she prances into the office one morning looking to-die-for gorgeous. She asks her secretary how old she looks. 23? the secretary guesses. Maybe 22? at which Janice looks wistful, for that’s the age at which she started her cosmetics company — 18 years ago. (Yes: that means she’s 40 years old!) The film doesn’t demand that her delight in looking young would itself make her a monster of vanity, or a killer of more beautiful women, like the evil Queen in Snow White who stands in front of her mirror all the time. (Are there really two Snow White films coming out this year? Groan.)

I started this marathon of cult horror films not just because I love cult films and need more excuses to see them, but because I think the subject of female monsters seems rich with interpretive possibility. It seems to me there are at least two primary questions that help us assess the genre: what causes their monstrosity? and, what does their monstrosity make them do to the other characters, aka men?

I’m willing to guess that most female movie monsters are driven to their monstrosity by singularly female traits. Whether it’s their desperate desire to be beautiful, their overpowering sexual drive, their crazed dementia after being dumped by a man, or (as in Aliens) a maternal instinct on steroids, Hollywood’s female monsters are — I suspect — just the flip side of Hollywood’s typical gender code. These are Girls Gone Wild, except usually in a bitchy way.

In playing out these narratives of women who’ve let their natural lady-ness take them way too far, I’m guessing The Wasp Woman is a bit of an outlier. Not only does it refuse to turn Janice into a bitch, but there’s no sex, no dangerous lady-temptress luring a man into her web of lies.

What’s next? Depends on availability and information. I’ve been constructing a list that includes the following:

  • Astounding She Monster (1957)
  • Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (1960)
  • The Bad Seed (1956)
  • Black Sunday (1960)
  • Cat People (1942) and Curse of the Cat People (1944)
  • Cat Women of the Moon (1953)
  • Cobra Woman (1944)
  • Devil Dolls (1936)
  • Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
  • Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
  • Gill-Women of Venus, or Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women (1968)
  • The Gorgon (1964)
  • Mesa of Lost Women (1953)
  • Queen of Outer Space (1958)
  • The Reptile (1966)
  • She-Wolf of London (1946)
  • Wild Women of Wongo (1958)

I have yet to work out the kinks in my system — after all, I want women who actually turn into monsters, not just sexy vampires or sexy prehistoric women, so some of these titles may have to go. I’m also taking suggestions.

Some advice to all us ladies: go out there and kick your own Bitch Semiotic today. Why, the next thing you know, we’ll have our own Hallmark holiday.