Tag Archives: media: tv/movies

The Blood of Carrie: A Feminist Review of the Re-Make

Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power, but also what men fear about women and women’s sexuality. Writing the book in 1973 and only three years out of college, I was fully aware of what Women’s Liberation implied for me and others of my sex. Carrie is woman feeling her powers for the first time and, like Samson, pulling down the temple on everyone in sight at the end of the book.”

– Stephen King, Danse Macabre

Screenshot_1Most feminist criticism of Stephen King’s Carrie has focused on the male fear of powerful women that the author said inspired the film, with the anti-Carrie camp finding her death at the end to signify the defeat of the “monstrous feminine” and therefore a triumph of sexism. But Stephen King’s honesty about what inspired his 1973 book notwithstanding, Carrie is as much an articulation of a feminist nightmare as it is of a patriarchal one, with neither party coming out on top.

The rise of Second Wave feminism in the ’70s posed serious threats to the patriarchal order — as well it should have. But even for those who think change is not only necessary but good, change can be pretty scary. This, with a hat tip to the universality of being bullied, is one of the reasons Carrie scares everyone.

While men in the ’70s felt threatened by the unprecedented numbers of women standing up for themselves and attempting such radical social changes as being recognized as equal under the law, women themselves must have felt some anxiety that the obstacles to fully realizing themselves might be too big to conquer. The story therefore resonates with men in terms of the fear of (metaphorical) castration prompted by changing gender roles, and with women in terms of the fear that no matter how powerful we become, social forces are still so aligned against us that fighting back might destroy not just the patriarchy but ourselves.

Feminism was not the only thing on the rise in the ’70s: so was Christian fundamentalism. In 1976, the year that the original movie debuted, 34 percent of Protestant Americans told the Gallup Poll that they had had born-again experiences, leading George Gallup himself to declare 1976 the Year of the Evangelical. In fact evangelism, then as now — when 41 percent of Americans report being born again — was one of feminism’s more formidable foes, one of those very social forces that would rather destroy women than see them powerful.

The triggering event of Carrie–the infamous shower scene–is a product of the meeting of these two forces. Because of a fundamentalist Christian worldview in which menstruation is not simply a biological process but rather evidence of Eve’s original sin being visited upon her daughters,Carrie‘s mother does nothing to prepare her for getting her period. When she starts bleeding at school, Carrie naturally panics, and as a result faces the scorn of her peers — who laugh at her for not knowing what’s happening – and the scorn of her mother, who believes that “After the blood the boys come. Like sniffing dogs, grinning and slobbering, trying to find out where that smell is.”

I can’t believe I’m about to go all Freudian here, but for the male viewer the shock of seeing unexpected blood between one’s legs clearly represents a fear of castration–a literal embodiment of King’s anxieties about feminism. From the woman’s perspective, the menstrual blood obviously signifies Carrie’s maturation — coming into her power — which has been marred by fundamentalism.

10304319383_31b0b70ec7Without making the new remake of the movie any more violent, director Kimberly Peirce emphasizes the imagery of this inciting event by adding waaaaay more blood to her Carrie. When Carrie gets her period in the shower, there’s more blood than in Brian De Palma’s film. When Carrie gets some of that blood on her gym teacher, which happens in both films, Peirce adds more of it, and the camera lingers on it longer and returns to it more often.

When Carrie’s mother locks her in the closet, Peirce has the crucifix bleed–something that doesn’t happen in the first movie. The blood of the crucifix connects Carrie’s first period to the suffering of Christ, deepening the relationship between debased femininity and religion.

Then, when Carrie gets pig blood dumped on her head at the prom, there’s not just more of it in the second film: Pierce shows the blood landing on her in slow motion three times. This final deluge of blood echoes a scene that Pierce added to the beginning of the movie, in which Carrie’s mother endures the bloody birth of her daughter. Carrie, then, is essentially born again at the prom, and the devastation she wreaks can be read as a result not of her feminine power but of the corruption of it by religion.

Peirce told Women and Hollywood that her goal was to make Carrie as sympathetic as possible. She removes the male gaze aspect of the original shower scene, in which many of the girls are naked and the long, slow shots of Carrie’s body are rather pornified. She makes sympathy for Carrie’s primary nemesis at school pretty much impossible by changing her from an angry girl in an abusive relationship to a sociopath without a conscience. In the new film, Carrie even has the strength to challenge her mother’s theology. Her prom date is more likeable and Peirce uses his death–something De Palma doesn’t reveal until the end — as further motivation for Carrie’s rampage.

None of this changes the fact that Carrie dies at the end, but it does foreground the idea that the message doesn’t have to be that powerful women are indeed dangerous. It can be that fundamentalism is dangerous to women.

If you’re a feminist, I say go see Carrie. Watching her be destroyed — but not without taking out a lot of the patriarchy with her — and then, as a viewer, emerging again into the sunlight unscathed, allows feminists to process some of our deepest fears about what we’re up against. Then we can get on with making the world a place where religious beliefs don’t corrupt our sexuality, where women don’t have to destroy themselves to be powerful and where women’s equality doesn’t trigger men’s fear of their own doom.

Holly L. Derr, MFA, is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist FandomFor more of the Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, check out Parts OneTwoThree, and Four at the Ms. Magazine blog.

Cross-posted at Ms. Magazine.  Photos courtesy of Jade and thefanboyseo1 via Creative Commons 2.0

Lady Spanking: From Kiss Me Kate to Comic Books

Lauren McGuire pointed us to a post by Gilligan at Retrospace inspired by a scene in the 1963 Western, McLintock!  The movie included a scene in which George McLintock, played by John Wayne, uses a shovel to spank his estranged wife, played by Maureen O’Hara.

The spanking scene apparent stuck quite the chord, as it was used repeatedly in the promotional materials.

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Gilligan suggests that the spanking of adult women by adult men was a midcentury theme, from Kiss me Kate to comic books:

Here’s an Q&A from the New York Daily Mirror, circa 1950s (thanks to @perstornes):

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Lady spanking is a manifestation of the infantilization of women.  The idea that they are not men’s equals, but are expected to obey them as subordinates and can be punished when they do not behave.  Of course, materials riffing on the spanking adult women today (outside of porn and fetish communities) would probably inspire an outcry, but that leaves open the possibility that the gendered power asymmetry simply manifests in other ways.  Adult women are still infantilized (see posts here, here, and here) and dominance/submission is still sexualized in mainstream materials (consider our post asking what love is supposed to look like).

Originally posted in 2010; re-posted in response to a new example. Images borrowed from here, here, here, here, here.  H/t Retrospace.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Double Consciousness in Lee Daniels’ The Butler

It always gives an old sociologist like me a big thrill when a classical concept that I love appears in a mainstream cultural product. I received such a buzz when I saw the movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler over the Labor Day weekend.

One of the movie’s African American characters, speaking in the 1940s, notes that a Black man must wear “two faces,” one for other Blacks and another for Whites. Perceptive critics have identified how this borrows from “double consciousness,” a concept that W.E.B. DuBois first wrote about in 1897. A.O. Scott cites Paul Laurence Dunbar’s line, “We wear the mask that grins and lies”; whilst Frank Roberts notes that the movie’s butler “wrestles with the realization that he is in The White House but certainly not of it,” which in turn illustrates the wider dilemma of being in America but not of America.

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Still of Lee Daniels’ The Butler from imdb.com

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Still of Lee Daniels’ The Butler from imdb.com

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However, what really gives the movie its power is how it resonates with the continuing experiences of African Americans today. Black men who are still shell-shocked by the George Zimmerman verdict will know only too well how they often have to show “two faces” in order to avoid harassment. Barack Obama noted this fact when he observed, a week after the verdict, that there “are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars” or of “getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.”

Similarly, Father Bryan Massingale, who is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and a professor of theology at Marquette University, records how he was once “abruptly stopped by the police, rudely questioned and roughly searched, under the suspicion that I was the perpetrator of a robbery” and how “Living with such terror and indignity is to be expected” even if you are ” a priest, a university professor, and a respected member of the community (or so I would have thought).” Such profiling strongly resembles DuBois’ emphasis upon:

…this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.

The entire subtext of The Butler is the manner in which the movie’s different characters cope with the task of continually “measuring one’s soul” in this way: the continual feeling of being trapped in the gaze of the white employer’s “contempt and pity.” It is a tribute to the ability of popular culture to occasionally convey powerful truths that this movie does not pull its punches in staying true to that part of DuBois’ sociological vision.

Dr. Jonathan Harrison earned a PhD in Sociology from the University of Leicester, UK. His research interests include the Holocaust, comparative religion, racism, and the history of African Americans in Florida. He teaches at Florida Gulf Coast University and Hodges University. He’d like to thank Dr. Kris De Welde for her comments on earlier drafts of this piece.

The Banal, Insidious Sexism of Smurfette

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Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Animation

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The Smurfs, originating as they did in mid-century Europe, exhibit the quaint sexism in which boys or men are generic people – with their unique qualities and abilities – while girls and women are primarily identified by their femininity. The sequel doesn’t upend the premise of Smurfette.

In the original graphic novels, Smurfette (or La Schtroumpfette in French) was the creation of the evil Gargamel, who made her to sow chaos among the all-male Smurf society. His recipe for femininity included coquetry, crocodile tears, lies, gluttony, pride, envy, sentimentality, and cunning.

In the Smurfs 2, there are a lot of Smurfs. And they all have names based on their unique qualities. According to the cast list, the male ones are Papa, Grouchy, Clumsy, Vanity, Narrator, Brainy, Handy, Gutsy, Hefty, Panicky, Farmer, Greedy, Party Planner, Jokey, Smooth, Baker, Passive-Aggressive, Clueless, Social, and Crazy. And the female one is Smurfette–because being female is enough for her. There is no boy Smurf whose identifying quality is his gender, of course, because that would seem hopelessly limited and boring as a character.

Here are the Smurf characters McDonald’s is using for their Happy Meals:

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When you buy a Happy Meal at McDonald’s, the cashier asks if it’s for a boy or a girl. In my experience, which is admittedly limited to my daughters, girls get Smurfette. I guess boys get any of the others.

The Way It’s Never Been

Identifying male characters by their non-gender qualities and females by their femininity is just one part of the broader pattern of gender differentiation, or what you might call gendering.

There are two common misconceptions about gendering children. One is that it has always been this way – with boys and girls so different naturally that all products and parenting practices have always differentiated them. This is easily disproved in the history of clothing, which shows that American parents mostly dressed their boys and girls the same a century ago. In fact, boys and girls were often indistinguishable, as evident in this 1905 Ladies’ Home Journal contest in which readers were asked to guess the sex of the babies (no one got them all right):

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Source: Jo Paoletti, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America

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The other common perception is that our culture is actually eliminating gender distinctions, as feminism tears down the natural differences that make gender work. In the anti-feminist dystopian mind, this amounts to feminizing boys and men. This perspective gained momentum during the three decades after 1960, when women entered previously male-dominated occupations in large numbers (a movement that has largely stalled).

However, despite some barrier-crossing, we do more to gender-differentiate now than we did during the heyday of the 1970s unisex fashion craze (the subject of Jo Paoletti’s forthcoming book, Sex and Unisex). On her Tumblr, Paoletti has a great collection of unisex advertising, such as this 1975 Garanimals clothing ad, which would be unthinkable for a major clothier today:

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And these clothing catalog images from 1972 (left) and 1974 (right):

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Today, the genders are not so easily interchangeable. Quick check: Google image search for “girls clothes” (left) vs. “boys clothes” (right):

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Today, a blockbuster children’s movie can invoke 50-year-old gender stereotypes with little fear of a powerful feminist backlash. In fact, even the words “sexism” and “sexist,” which rose to prominence in the 1970s and peaked in the 1990s, have once again become less common than, say, the word “bacon”:

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And the gender differentiation of childhood is perhaps stronger than it has ever been. Not all differences are bad, of course. But what Katha Pollitt called “the Smurfette principle” – in which “boys are the norm, girls the variation” — is not a difference between equals.

Cross-posted at The Atlantic and Family Inequality

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Power, Mickey Mouse, and the Infantilization of Women

Here and there the media becomes interested in the sexualization of little girls and, when they do, I often get a call from a reporter or two.  I’ve yet to see any of them pick up on what I think is the really interesting story.  They want to talk about child models, little girls in beauty pageants, and the transitional tween years for Disney star prodigies, but I always want to add into the mix the infantilization of adult women.

The sexualization of girls and the infantilization of adult women are two sides of the same coin.  They both tell us that we should find youth, inexperience, and naivete sexy in women, but not in men.  This reinforces a power and status difference between men and women, where vulnerability, weakness, and dependency and their opposites are gendered traits: desirable in one sex but not the other.

Now, thanks to @BonneZ, I know that this has something interesting to do with Mickey Mouse.

The original Mouse, Stephen Jay Gould has observed, was a kind of nasty character.  But, as he has evolved into the “cute and inoffensive host to a magic kingdom,” he has appeared increasingly childlike. This six figures below indicate Mickey’s evolution over time:

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Childlike features, Gould argues, inspire a need to nurture: “When we see a living creature with babyish features,” he writes, “we feel an automatic surge of disarming tenderness.”   Allison Guy observes that we see a similar trend in recent toy makeovers – larger eyes, bigger heads, fatter stumpier limbs — but we see this primarily in toys aimed at infants and girls, not boys:

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Guy interprets this trend as the “result of a cultural imperative for women to embody both the cute and the sexual.”  So, women don “cute” clothes with colorful patterns associated with children and wear “flippy skirts” and “baby doll” t-shirts. They wear eyeliner to give the illusion of the large eyes of childhood, foundation to hide the marks of aging on the face, and pink on their cheeks to mimic the blush of youth.  They are taught these imperatives from an early age.

What does it mean that feminine beauty is conflated with youthfulness, but masculine beauty is not – that we want women to be both cute and sexual?  It means that we feel comfortable with women who seem helpless and require taking care of, perhaps we even encourage or demand these traits from women.  Perhaps these childlike characteristics are most comforting in women who are, in fact, the least needy; I submit that we are more accepting of powerful women when they perform girlish beauty.  When they don’t, they are often perceived as threatening or unlikable.

So, yes, the sexualization of girls is interesting — and no doubt it’s no good for girls and likely contributes to older men’s sexual interest in young women — but it’s not just about sexualizing kids early.  It’s about infantilizing adult women, too, as a way to remind women of their prescribed social position relative to men.

Cross-posted at Jezebel and Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Depp’s “Tonto” Costume Based on a Non-Native Artist’s Wild Imagination

Johnny Depp is playing the character of “Tonto” in the movie re-make of The Lone Ranger.  Critics of the original series have observed that Tonto, the American Indian sidekick of the White hero, was a negative racial stereotype.  He was subservient to the Ranger, spoke poor English, and seemed generally dumb (his name translates into “stupid” in Spanish).  Depp has insisted that he wants to play a different kind of Tonto and reinvent the characters’ relationship.

So far so bad, as least according to recently released publicity photos revealing Depp’s costume and make up (coverage suggests that Depp himself is designing the character’s appearance).  Thanks to YetAnotherGirl and Dolores R. for sending in the tip.

Depp’s look was inspired by the art of a man named Kirby Sattler.  That’s Depp on the left; Sattler’s painting is on the right.

Sattler is famous for painting images of Native Americans, but has been criticized for stereotypical representations.  “Indian art” is a contentious issue: many non-Indian artists have made careers painting the “noble savage” and the “young girl with wolf.”  According to Native Appropriations, Sattler “…relies heavily on stereotypes of Native people as mystical-connected-to-nature-ancient-spiritual-creatures, with little regard for any type of historical accuracy.”  Sattler himself has written that his paintings come out of his own imagination or, as Native Appropriations puts it, “he makes these subjects up based on the (heavily stereotyped) images in his own head.”  Here’s a Google image search for the artist’s name:

This, unfortunately, is playing out an all-too-common story.  It goes like this:

  1. There are very few roles for non-White characters in Hollywood.
  2. When we have a non-White character, a White actor is cast into the role (e.g., The Last Airbender and Iron Eyes Cody, the crying Indian).
  3. That actor shows a lack of understanding of the real issues at hand. Depp, for example, has claimed a right to play the role because he has a little bit of Indian in him.  ”Cherokee or maybe Creek,” he says, because he doesn’t actually know.
  4. So, the portrayal is consistent with harmful stereotypes.  In this case, when deciding on a costume, Depp doesn’t choose to represent a tribe as they really were (“are” is out of the question), but instead draws on the work of an artist who admits that he makes up an idea of “the Indian” that appeals to him, a White man with no interest in true-to-life portrayals.

So, there you have it.  Again.

This post originally appeared in May 2012.  For more, see Representations of the “Primitive” Indian and Anachronism and American Indians.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

In Hollywood, Leading Men Get Older; Love Interests Don’t

Robb S. sent along a great set of images from Vulture.  Using case studies of individual leading men in Hollywood, they show that the love interests cast in their films don’t age alongside them over the course of their careers.  Not convinced?  Here’s nine examples and one exception.  For fun, try to guess which leading man bucks the trend?  I’ll embed it last.

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And the exception is!
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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

TV vs the Movies: Which Does Better by Women?

I live in Los Angeles where saying that you don’t like movies is tantamount to claiming atheism in a church. But I don’t like movies, generally speaking. In contrast, I quite like TV. Does this seem weird?

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media offers a clue as to why I might lean towards television.  The Institute did a content analysis of 11,927 speaking characters in “family films” (G, PG, and PG-13) and prime-time and children’s TV shows (see it here).  They looked at the presence of female and male characters and the jobs those characters were doing.  In almost every instance, women had greater visibility, and better jobs, on prime-time TV than they did in either movies or children’s shows.

Presence

Women are, for example, 39% of characters on prime time, but only 31% of characters on kids’ shows and only 28% in movies.  Casts are twice as likely to be gender-balanced on prime time (45-55% female), compared to movies.   Half of the casts of family films are 75% or more male, compared to only 20% of the casts on TV shows and 39% of children’s shows.

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Occupations

Almost half of all American workers are female, but they hold only 20% of the jobs on the big screen and 25% of the jobs on children’s shows. Again, here prime-time does somewhat better: 34% of the jobs on evening TV are held by women.

The next two tables reveal how men and women are distributed among different kinds of occupations in films and on prime time.  Men are over-represented in almost all cases, but the disproportion in movies is almost always significantly worse than it is on TV.

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If you’re one of the people that contributed to Star Trek Into Darkness$70.6 million opening weekend this week, this data might not be surprising.  I didn’t count, but I suspect it falls into the 50% of films that has a cast that is at least 75% male.  It certainly didn’t pass the Bechdel Test; the two female speaking characters, if I remember correctly, never spoke to one another at all, and so they couldn’t have spoken to each other about something other than a man (that’s the test).   (Oh wait, I think one of the twins with tails in bed with Kirk said “hey” when he leapt out to go do something important, so that’s three women with speaking roles).

So, like in lots and lots of films, women in Star Trek were woefully under-represented except as love interests for the two protagonists (Uhura in this movie and Carol, it was foreshadowed, in the next).  I’m used to it, so it doesn’t really stir me up, but that doesn’t mean I have to like movies.  I’ll stick to TV, thank you very much. It’s not perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than Hollywood.

Cross-posted at BlogHerPacific Standard, and The Huffington Post.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.