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’ve been trying to write about Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild for weeks. Here’s my problem: I have read other people’s reviews, and I keep wanting to respond to them rather than to the film itself.

It’s not that I doubt my own response to the film. I found it a riveting story about the kind of childhood we never seen onscreen. It shows the world through the eyes of 6-yr-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), complete with ugliness, fantasy, and flickering glimpses of adult concerns. But other reviewers have focused on the film’s political stance in placing it in an overlooked Louisiana world that evokes but never mentions Hurricane Katrina, and in telling the story of a child who sometimes appears dangerously unprotected by the adults around her. These perspectives make me want to defend the film for what it is, not for what it might have been if someone else had made it.

Granted, criticism is tricky business, and I would be the first to defend the right to express one’s response to a film, even if that response deals more with the film’s role in the zeitgeist than its artistic merit. It goes without saying that I’d defend a critic’s right to express an unpopular opinion, perhaps even more so after the weird exchange last summer between the NY Times‘ David Carr and A. O. Scott about the role of criticism. In it, Carr attacks Scott for offering up unpopular opinions about film that Carr depicts as elitist; Scott tries to explain why that’s not the case. (For particular pleasure, see Jim Emerson’s great breakdown of all the logical fallacies Carr commits during the course of this exchange.)

In some ways I see film criticism in the same vein as I see my academic scholarship: as an honest attempt to further a longer conversation among people jointly concerned with finding something meaningful, something true about humanity.

I’d heard enough about Beasts of the Southern Wild to expect that it would be a movie about Hurricane Katrina, focusing on those people most abandoned by the social safety net — a community so far on the margins that it seems almost post-apocalyptic. And yet what I found was different. Rather, I marveled at its imaginative view of childhood. I never expected to walk out and think, “This is a film about America through a child’s eyes” — which was exactly how I felt.

I especially loved the way the film doesn’t try to offer an adult’s reality, but privileges Hushpuppy’s idiosyncratic perspective. Through her eyes, we spin a fantasy in our minds about her long-gone mother, thanks to a tale told by her father. We get angry with her father when he just disappears for a while, leaving her alone, only to return with evidence of a hospital stay about him (which she neither asks about nor understands). When she condenses all her fears and creates in her imagination a herd of giant boar-beasts, racing closer and closer to up-end and destroy her life and that of her community, we remember our own crystallized fears all too well from our own childhoods.

But then I started reading about people who walked out of theaters because they felt it displayed something damn near close to child abuse. (What?! I wondered.) Or because it romanticized poverty. (How is that degree of filth and poverty romantic?) Or a fantasy of racial harmony amongst whites and Blacks.

Most heartbreaking to me was the extensive takedown by superstar cultural critic bell hooks over at NewBlackMan (In Exile), who felt the film to be a “continuous physical and emotional violation of the body and being of a small six year old black girl.” hooks finds nothing to admire here; she likens it to The Help (2011) for its racist and sexist stereotypes of Blacks. She even argues that “the camera toys with the child’s body pornographically eroticizing the image,” which I don’t see at all.

hooks’ takedown is so all-encompassing that I have a hard time knowing where to start in defending the film. I’ve been in her place before — having seen a film (like Greenberg) that everyone seemed to admire, yet which I found so resolutely misogynistic that I could not, would not, see any redeeming qualities.

But criticism is a conversation, yes? I cannot stop myself from insisting that hooks is just wrong. Of course I believe that everyone has different responses to a film’s artistic merit, political commitment, social context. hooks has ever right to hate the movie, to find it lacking. And I can argue that in both her vehemence and the substance of her specific criticisms, she has refused to see the film’s many virtues.

Beasts seems so significant to me because it tells a story about childhood (and America) through the eyes of a tiny Black girl — insisting that we see it on her terms. I didn’t see the film as being primarily about race; perhaps hooks’ true complaint is that it should have been. Instead, it’s about childhood, poverty, and self-determination — aspects of the lives of the characters which are inextricable from race, to be sure, yet in this case are more central to the story. True, Hushpuppy is not sensitive to the ways that race divides, perhaps because of her extreme youth (and perhaps because the director and writer didn’t want to tell the story that way). No matter the reason, this is not a story about a girl focused on the subject of race, and it seems unfair to demand that it be otherwise. Rather, Hushpuppy knows perfectly well that her community is threatened and that other, richer people are responsible.

If her worldview is not primarily oriented to race, it nevertheless seems vital to me that Zeitlin asks us to consider these matters via the person of a 6-yr-old Black girl, to see her as our heroine — which we do, effortlessly. I can’t help but feel this is sort of remarkable. I complain every single week about the fact that film offers so few opportunities for women, especially women of color, to get interesting parts. Well, here’s the best role for a Black female of the past five years — goddamn if I’m going to let it pass when someone says this character offends them, or that Hushpuppy is a mere cardboard cutout or racial type.

Stepping back, it occurs to me that my frustration with hooks’ full metal jacket bullet fired at this lovely film is related to my ongoing concerns about cultural criticism more broadly — both within and without the academy. I read too many critiques that are beautifully written, fervent and learned, yet which fail to understand as honestly as possible an artist’s actual work, to weigh fairly its successes and shortcomings, and attempt to place it in contexts that help us understand it better. hooks’ long piece certainly inflicts a wound on this film, but rather than hit the center of the target it has only done some damage to one of the film’s extremities — an arm, perhaps, or an ankle.

I must admit, however, in working up a righteous response to her vehement piece, I feel my critical juices flowing, my muscles tensing. Sometimes criticism really is about the back-and-forth. It’s all about the conversation. I do love the conversation, the way that criticism gives people the chance to debate.

So before I forget, let me note: what a find is Quvenzhané Wallis. Has any child actor ever inhabited her role so fully and with such genuine intensity as this one, from listening to the heartbeats of chicks and turtles to having an imaginary conversation with her long-gone mother? Wallis is now 8 and next year will appear in Twelve Years a Slave (2013). I can only hope she continues to have good luck with roles and directors and scripts, for she has a gift that could make her a truly great new child star.

So I woke up this morning to find it was 1° F outside. (That’s -17° C. Can we say “yikes!”?) Naturally, two things crossed my mind:

  1. (Sarcastically.) It’s really too bad the gym is closed and I’ll have to stay inside all day in my pyjamas.
  2. (Seriously.) Why is everyone calling Meryl Streep’s performance in The Iron Lady an “impersonation” of Margaret Thatcher?

I know, you’re thinking:

  1. What a geek.
  2. Yeah, why “impersonation”? Please tell me, Feminéma!
  3. It’s just a little cold — put on a few layers and go for a walk already, wimp.

Blogger JustMeMike pointed it out in his review of the film, noting the term’s appearance in virtually every review (just google it and you’ll see). “How come no one referred to Leonardo DiCaprioimpersonating’ J. Edgar (Hoover) in the same way?” he asks. Exactly!

Impersonation. It’s one of those terms that skirts between flattery (“an eerie job of inhabiting that real-life personage”) and a backhanded slam against such close attention to accent, appearance, and personal tics as less than true acting (“it’s only a parlor trick”).

It reminds me of the problem of the “uncanny valley” in modern 3D animation (I’m looking at you, Tintin) whereby audiences find themselves revulsed and disturbed when an animated character looks too realistic. Impersonators, after all, are the kinds of low-level entertainers who appear in Vegas or on Saturday Night Live. Impersonators emphasize exactitude rather than artistry. A great impersonation gets all the details right — but can’t go further to impress with real acting skill.

Let’s also remember that there are female impersonators — that category of campy performer who dresses as Liza Minnelli or Dolly Parton in order to get a lot of whoops from a drunken audience. These performers are not associated with manly acting talent.

As near as I can tell, those critics who are also good writers have used the term impersonation not to complain about Streep, but to contrast her strong performance with the utterly disappointing film. Roger Ebert writes, “Streep creates an uncanny impersonation of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but in this film she’s all dressed up with nowhere to go.” A. O. Scott likewise uses his flattery of Streep’s work as a rhetorical pivot to detail the film’s shortcomings. “Ms. Streep provides, once again, a technically flawless impersonation that also seems to reveal the inner essence of a well-known person,” he explains, before complaining about “the film’s vague and cursory treatment of her political career.” In other words, these writers seek to make it clear that Streep did what she could with a lame script.

Since then, however, critics who are less aware of their vocabulary’s connotations have jumped on the impersonation wagon to use it all the time in describing her role. “Meryl Streep’s performance as/ impersonation of Margaret Thatcher had Oscar written all over it,” writes Roger Moore. John O’Sullivan also admiringly notes that Streep’s “uncanny accuracy … goes beyond brilliant impersonation” in his piece for Radio Free Europe. These pieces blur the boundaries between impersonation and acting; yet my actor friends bristle at the notion that they are equivalent or that performing in the role of a real-life person demands impersonation. After all, numerous flattering reviews of My Week With Marilyn state something to the effect of, “Michelle Williams doesn’t so much impersonate Marilyn Monroe as suggest her.” None of these statements seem overtly to associate impersonation with acting that leaves something out. I truly don’t think these writers use the term to complain about Streep (or Williams, right), at least not consciously.

But this returns us to JMM’s question: why don’t these writers use the term impersonation when they discuss Leonardo DiCaprio’s J. Edgar (or, for that matter, his Howard Hughes from The Aviator)? Why wasn’t Michael Fassbender “impersonating” Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method, or Colin Firth “impersonating” King George V in The King’s Speech, or Jesse Eisenberg “impersonating” Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network?

Here I can only speculate, as I don’t know the inner souls of all these film critics, but I want to suggest that it can be attributed to an unconscious bias in favor of the superlative acting skills of male actors. An enormous percentage of published film critics in the US are male. Combine this with an industry seriously tilted toward male success and you have conditions within which even the most female-friendly critics are less inclined to celebrate an actress’s accomplishment without using terms with complex connotations. (Would a male critic really associate a male actor with the term impersonation so long as there are “female impersonators” out there?) This bias may be unconscious and not intended to express sexism, but we can see its effects nevertheless.

Until I started this blog and educated myself on the issues, I was unaware of the extent to which men dominate filmmaking and film criticism. It’s not just the fact that women appear onscreen less, behind the camera less, as producers less, as writers less — and that they get paid less overall. It’s also the more subtle things — the ways a woman’s subtle performance will get overlooked as male critics fall over themselves to praise her male co-star. The ways that female actors inhabit such a severely limited range of body types — I dare you to come up with the female equivalent of Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti, much less Cedric The Entertainer or Gérard Depardieu.

These critics may not be consciously demeaning Streep’s performance. But the term impersonation is not a wholly flattering description of what she does — if it were, we’d have seen it appear in reviews of men’s biopics.

Now, off for a walk while it’s still a balmy 11° F (-11.6° C).

from Tyler Perry's For Colored Girls (2010)

Q: Why were the Academy Awards this year such a total white-out?

A: Because films by/about people of color just aren’t good enough. Did you see Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls? Gawd.

Replace “race” with “gender” and we get the same answer — except using Jennifer Aniston’s The Breakup as evidence — and, with that, we all die a little inside. You’re just not good enough. In this conversation I feel like I’m talking to a film critic version of Stephen Colbert: someone who claims “not to see race” (or gender) and is solely concerned with the merit of a good film. The reason why Hollywood keeps rewarding films by/about white dudes, we learn, is simply because the rest aren’t good enough. This is the flip side of Natalie Portman’s “I just want to be perfect” line from Black Swan that I wrote about in January (most viewed post ever!) — isn’t it interesting that wanting to be perfect and not being good enough are the fates of women and minorities, not white dudes?

from Tanya Hamilton's Night Catches Us (2010)

This subject has been on my mind for a while, since reading a thoughtful lament by Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott in the New York Times, but even more after seeing the tepid Oscar tribute to Lena Horne by Halle Berry. Berry is the first and only Black actor to have won an Oscar for Best Actress (for 2001’s Monster’s Ball), yet her lines for this tribute didn’t mention race at all (and let me note that I doubt Berry had a say in writing those lines). “Lena Horne blazed a trail for all of us who followed,” she said. “Thank you, Lena Horne: we love you and we will never ever forget you,” she said, blowing a kiss to the screen. Ah, Hollywood, your racial anxiety is showing. By us did Berry mean people of color? And where exactly is that trail for Black actors in a year of all-white winners? 

from Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck's Sugar (2008)

One might argue that this is a problem of metrics: it’s not that Hollywood is racist, but viewers are. The Wire was the best show ever on TV but it never made much money for HBO because, reportedly, shows about African Americans don’t sell well either domestically or overseas. And if you think it’s tough to sell films about American Blacks, just imagine trying to find an audience for a film about Black people who don’t speak English. Which leads me to Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s extraordinary film Sugar (2008) — which is secretly where I’ve been going with this post. Tracing the career of a Dominican baseball pitcher, Sugar (Algenis Perez Soto) who arrives in the US with the hope of making it into the major leagues, this film is really about how hard it is to believe you’re good enough.

Algenis Perez Soto in Sugar (2008)

At first it seems that Sugar’s future is golden. He stands out in his Dominican baseball academy and gets plucked to participate in spring training with the (fictional) Kansas City Knights, where he’ll have the chance to prove his worth to the big club. He begins to glimpse there the uphill battle before him:  many terrific players who lose their confidence or get injured orjust aren’t good enough. So when he again moves up the ladder to the Knights’ Single-A feeder team in Iowa, he has to face those pressures in a lonely, rural environment where few speak Spanish. “All the players here are really good,” he tells his mother on the phone to keep her expectations realistic, to no avail. Even the kindly white family who take him in bark rules at him in that patronizing tone: “NO CERVEZAS IN THE CASA,” they say. “NO CHICAS IN THE BEDROOM.” It goes without saying that there’s also no familiar food, salsa dancing, or girls to flirt with without cultural pushback. It’s horrible — and what if he’s not good enough?

The fact that Sugar’s a pitcher makes his plight all the more believable. More than virtually any other position on the team, pitching is a lonely, mental game: when you stand on the mound you feel the other players’ expectations, the coaches’ critical judgment, the powerful need for precision and self-control. When it all comes together, he feels like the golden boy he was in the Dominican Republic — but tug at a loose thread and suddenly it starts to come unraveled. One bad game can bleed into another bad game. Add to that the language barrier and Sugar starts to become a different guy than he used to be.

It’s a beautiful, smart film. Boden and Fleck earned a pile of prize nominations for this film, fewer than for their magnificent Half Nelson (2006) but then, that was mostly about a while guy who speaks English (and is played by Ryan Gosling). Most of their nominations for Sugar came from indie festivals — because, perhaps, it just wasn’t good enough for the Oscars? At RottenTomatoes.com it has a whopping 93% approval rating, yet David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (with only a 72% approval rating) edged it out for an Oscar nomination for Best Picture? Benjamin Button was better?

Race in Hollywood is the flip side of gender in Hollywood — god forbid you try to film while being Black (or female), as we’re still worshipping at the altar of the white male teenager and his penis, as Helen Mirren put it. But rather than deal with the implications of that prejudice, let’s just stick with our pronouncement that women and people of color just aren’t good enough. In the meantime, can someone please tell me why Paul Giamatti keeps getting so many roles as despicable shlubby men who score fabulously beautiful women when I don’t even want to think about him, much less watch him on the screen?