What doesn’t this movie have? Cockney housemaids, creepy English country homes with secret passageways, a black cat, a mysterious back story … and all packed into a tidy 65 minutes of Hollywood movie time. Some people call this film noir, but it’s weirder than that — it’s horror, it’s gothic, it’s melodrama.

And did I mention it’s streaming on YouTube? The perfect thing for a late-night movie:

And when you watch it, pay careful attention to the first ten minutes and tell me what you think. I can’t believe this got past the censors at the time.

Julia Ross has just come in after looking for a job all day, and has a conversation with the maid who cleans her dreary boarding house. If things aren’t already bad enough, she finds a wedding invitation in the mail from a man who clearly used to be sweet on her — why, the housemaid thought for sure Julia would make him forget about that other girl. Oh well.

Cockney housemaid: If you ain’t aiming too high, I know plenty of places where you can get a job like mine. [Julia looks distressed at the notion of being a maid.] But I suppose a fine lady like you was trained for something better.

Julia Ross, looking stricken: The doctor says I’ve got to be careful for a few months.

Maid: Oh. My sister had her “appendix” out, too. She were scrubbing and cleaning the very next week.

Julia: Does it bother her now?

Maid: Nothing bothers her now. She’s dead. But it wasn’t good, honest work that killed her.

Now, tell me: is this a coded conversation about an abortion? Sure sounds that way to me.

Here’s what I’d like to see.

Washington, D. C., 12:55pm:

Within hours of Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) announcing that he had reversed his position on gay marriage after his own son came out of the closet, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) gave a press conference announcing a new stance on abortion.

“During my career in Texas and my first coupla months here in the Senate, I’ve taken a position against abortion, rooted in part in my faith and my faith tradition, and also because the ladies can be selfish and irresponsible,” Cruz began. A senator known for his extreme far-right views (called by some of his GOP colleagues to be “wacko, but in a good way”), Cruz stunned his own caucus with his revelation:

I listened to my colleague talk about his change of heart after learning that his own son was gay, and I was very moved by his Christian love for his child. I’m sure we were all moved.

But then I thought, why is it that so many of my colleagues only change their minds about social issues when it strikes their own family? 

So I began reading about the issue of abortion and realized that approximately 1/3 of all American women have had abortions in their lifetimes, and that 1 out of 5 women is raped in her lifetime. I read about families destroyed when a  woman died during pregnancy because she felt morally obligated to carry the child. And I realized the simple contradiction between my firm belief in smaller government, and my insistence on monitoring women’s bodies regarding abortion and birth control.

Thus, I change my position today not because someone in my family needs an abortion, but because my entire position was wrong and morally inconsistent with my own political values in this great nation.

Well, you can’t blame me for wishing, right?

Don’t get me wrong: it’s great Portman changed his mind. But dammit, why do they only change position when suddenly their own family has a need? I’m sorry, folks, but this should not be how policy works.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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.

I don’t know about you, but this was one of my major responses to the election:

Yup, we’re still in 2012. Collective sigh of relief.

But I keep thinking back to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale, written during that period of evangelical upswing, the mid-1980s. I hadn’t read the novel since I was a teenager, but picked it up again this fall as the birth control and rape conversations were flying fast & furious. The book is every bit as good as I remember, but for different reasons: whereas what I remembered was the horrifying future Atwood imagined, what I’d forgotten was the interior experience of its protagonist.

Because I think what is so chilling about this novel is how they got there, and what they forgot along the way.

Her name is Offred, and I beg you to read the novel just to find out how she has come by that awkward name. We never learn her real name. Offred’s job in this Christian future is to get pregnant on behalf of the high-ranking couple to whom she has been assigned. Like the story from Genesis in which Rachel cannot bear children for her husband Jacob, Offred has been selected to serve as the vessel for her master’s sperm and the baby that will be assigned to her mistress.

According to every single message within society, Offred’s subject position is God’s will.

As horrifying as that is, it’s worse to find two other crucial elements to the novel. The first is that she has forgotten how to live that other life, the life that existed before this new regime. For example, she encounters  a group of Japanese tourists who stare at them and want to take photographs:

I can’t help staring. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen skirts that short on women. The skirts reach just below the knee and the legs come out from beneath them, nearly naked in their thin stockings, blatant, the high-heeled shoes with their straps attached to the feet like delicate instruments of torture. The women teeter on their spiked feet as if on stilts, but off balance; their backs arch at the waist, thrusting the buttocks out. Their heads are uncovered and their hair too is exposed, in all its darkness and sexuality. They wear lipstick, red, outlining the damp cavities of their mouths, like scrawls on a washroom wall, of the time before. 

I stop walking. Ofglen stops beside me and I know that she too cannot take her eyes off these women. We are fascinated, but also repelled. They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds, about things like this.

Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom.

That’s what I worry about: that we are forgetting that making our own decisions about our bodies is both legal and a guarantor of women’s political and social equality. Instead, we’re getting used to a vast cultural and governmental apparatus making decisions for us. We’re getting used to entertaining seriously the notion that abortion is something to be debated — that it is inherently suspect, dangerous, traumatic. Not just abortion: also birth control. Also how to define “rape.”

We are forgetting what it feels like to reject those views. Texas women who undergo state-mandated trans-vaginal ultrasounds when they seek abortions are learning to forget that this is not necessary. Women who vote for libertarian candidates learn to think that those candidates’ views on state-mandated anti-abortion policies aren’t abhorrent and inconsistent with their political/ economic views. We’re told daily about the new varieties of legitimate or forcible rapes. We’re learning that birth control is the new battleground — that maybe The Pill and the IUD ought to be taken away from us.

The second chilling this about the novel is Offred’s fuzzy memories of the years before — how they looked past the ways their society was changing:

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.

Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives. 

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print.

It’s mid-November, the worst of the crazies were not elected, but are we in 2012? The article in The Onion is not so sure. At the end, its interviewee explains that “while she was grateful upon learning what year it was, she had to admit that living in the year 2012 was still quite frightening.” Amen to that. Let’s not forget it.

In the film Knocked Up (2007), when Ben (Seth Rogen) tells his stoner friends that his one-night stand Alison (Katherine Heigl) is pregnant, they offer up a wide range of responses — from congratulations to hoots. Only one of them expresses skepticism about the whole thing. And he can’t say the word.

Jonah: You know what I think you should do? Take care of it.
Jason: Tell me you don’t want him to get an ‘A’ word.
Jonah: Yes, I do, and I won’t say it for little Baby Ears over there, but it rhymes with shashmortion. You should get a shmashmortion at the shmashmortion clinic.

That’s the thing, you see: no one’s willing to say it these days. Thus, let me proclaim it loud and clear: WE NEED ABORTION. And I’m really sick of hearing about exceptions. (And watching films in which the woman always chooses to keep it.)

It’s a campaign year, so our politicians are full of new and creative ways to denounce abortion. The latest and greatest, of course, is the Todd Akins and Richard Mourdocks who seek even greater restrictions on abortion by redefining rape as, alternately, God’s gift for impregnating the ladies OR God’s way of preventing pregnancy. (Yes, my head hurts, too.)

As easy as it is for me to get sucked into that conversation, like I did the other day, the real problem is that they’ve succeeded — they’ve skewed the conversation away from a question of “choice or no choice?” to a question of “how many abortion restrictions can we pile on to an America that’s already restricting abortion at every turn?”

What’s really going on is two separate ideological movements– one about eliminating abortion and the other about redefining rape — merged into a single conversation intended to distract us.

We need to stay focused on the fact women seek abortions, whether it’s legal or not. Given that fact, the only way to ensure anything resembling equal rights in this country is to ensure that abortion is safe and legal and private. Women who live in states with radically restrictive abortion practices are already flooding into Mexico to purchase abortifacients even if they don’t understand how to take that medication. One might also say that the only way to raise a healthy young population of children is to ensure that they are loved and wanted and live with families that can afford another mouth to feed. But most of all, women need the abortion option because the men they have sex with are morons — as well illustrated by the aforementioned Knocked Up. Ben’s friends ride him for not wearing a condom:

Jonah: I can’t believe you didn’t fucking wear a bag. Who does that? 
Jason: Why did we go to Costco and buy a year’s supply of condoms if you weren’t gonna use ’em, man? 
Jonah: I can’t believe you did this. You fucked everything up. 
Jason: The real point is not to get yourself into this position, that’s what you have to realize. You gotta know all the tricks like, for example, if a woman’s on top she can’t get pregnant. It’s just gravity. 
Jonah: Well that’s true. Everyone knows that. 
Jason: What goes up must come down.

ARGH. These are the guys who grow up to become Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin, people. They can’t say the word abortion aloud. But they want to tell you all about their crackpot theories — whether it’s about sex or God or pregnancy. (Their scene, holding forth on pregnancy, floats virtually every one of the Mourdock/Akin theories, BTW.)

The time has come to tell them to stop. This is terrifying — and not just for women who are raped or whose pregnancies might kill them. This is about women’s rights.

Lord knows I, as much as the next girl, love being told by white male politicians what God wants for me. It just gets so confusing for my lady brain when they disagree.

So let me fire this one at Richard Mourdock, the Republican candidate for Senate from Indiana, who explained in Monday night’s televised debate that he opposes abortion for women who’ve been impregnated by their rapists because God “intended” it to happen.

Hang on, so God wants me to be raped? and to serve as empty vessel for the rapist’s spawn?

“The only exception I have to have an abortion is in the case of the life of the mother,” said Mourdock, the Tea Party-backed candidate who knocked Sen. Richard Lugar (R) out of the race at the primary stage. “I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

Don’t you wish that you, too, knew what God wanted? Perhaps it’s only women who are suckers enough to believe in all that “working in mysterious ways” stuff.

Mourdock’s opponents jumped on his statement immediately (they are both rabidly anti-abortion, yet allow for exceptions). “The God I believe in and the God I know most Hoosiers believe in, does not intend for rape to happen – ever,” said Mourdock’s Democratic opponent, Joe Donnelly. “What Mr. Mourdock said is shocking, and it is stunning that he would be so disrespectful to survivors of rape.”

Whoa! whiplash! I have a question, sir: Does God want me to be raped or not? Dammit all, how can there be such confusion on this issue? And can someone tell me how anybody knows what God’s will is?

Other questions arise. If God is involved to this extent, why don’t we tell people that God wants a criminal to invade their homes and hold them hostage just for kicks? Does God want all those other rape victims to be murdered and left in shallow graves?

Yup, that’s right, ladies: we just have to lie back and take all this information about God’s will over our bodies. ‘Cuz lord knows He only talks to politicians.