Women with ME/CFS on the line

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Amid the hectic scramble to get the new Just A Spoonful episode out this week, plus other deadlines, I forgot to tell anyone that I did a radio interview with Melbourne’s 3CR last week! But I did, and it was a thought-provoking (for me) chat with Amy Middleton, host of Women On The Line and editor of Archer magazine. Here’s the link, or you can listen below:

I’ve listened back to it and lawd, I was so fatigued that day. Battling through some epic brain fog.

We talked about women and chronic illness, specifically myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (and I go into why the name of this particular illness is confusing and significant). We had time to go beyond talking about “what it’s like” living with ME/CFS and to get into the difficulties accessing a diagnosis, let alone treatment.

Amy asked for my thoughts on the overrepresentation of women in ME/CFS (more women are diagnosed with it than men), and while my answer was mostly speculation, it has sparked an interest in me to look deeper into this statistical anomaly. Could ME/CFS’s lack of funding be linked to its overwhelmingly female patients? Sounds a bit conspiracy-theory, but who knows. The more I learn about gender bias in medicine, the more alarmed I become.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the interview, and I hope you will too! If you’d like to read some of my writing about ME/CFS, here’s my Seizure piece from last year, ‘How To Talk To Sick People’, which I recently read aloud to an audience for the first time and oh my god, so snarky.

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May: A Pitch Royal Tomorrowland 2

Posts, The Other Movie Project

Welcome to The Other Movie Project! (Please click on the link if you are not sure what the Project is.)

I am back and tireder than ever. If you follow my podcast Just A Spoonful you may know that I have Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, a condition as painful to live with as it is to spell. Since my movie load has bumped up to around 12 films a month – TWELVE, which is of course AWESOME – I have not been able to keep up with my viewing for this project. Between illness, other projects and my regular work, I hope you can understand why I might not get to every movie each month. Oh, and we’re calling April ‘the Gas Leak Month’.

Since my brain is in a state of constant brown-out I’ll just be updating this blog whenever I can get to it. I hope you don’t mind, and I really appreciate all the support you’ve been giving this project on Twitter. You all are the best. OK, let’s see what the non-white-guys were up to in cinemas near me this May. 1. A Royal Night Out

A promising set-up – two cloistered princesses, granted a rare night of revelry on the night the whole country is celebrating – unfortunately goes nowhere.

I guess it couldn’t go anywhere, really, since the subjects are real-life Queen Elizabeth II and her sister Princess Margaret. And since their family owns most of the British Isles it must be hard to take any great risks when portraying their story. (Although I’m sure 14 year-old Princess Margaret getting drunk in a ‘knocking shop’ will be risky enough for most senior audiences.) It’s charming to see the nineteen year-old Princess Elizabeth imagined as she might have been before the dour sovereign we’re all familiar with.

The film is based on true events – apparently the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret did in fact slip out of Buckingham Palace on 8 May 1945 (the formal end of World War II in Europe) to go party with the rest of London. But A Royal Night Out makes the mistake of splitting up the princesses early in the movie (whose chemistry is the most interesting of the film), and chasing a dull romantic subplot instead. In the film’s imagining, Princess Elizabeth gets separated from her sister and enlists the help of a random Naval Officer, who plays the role of cranky commoner/love interest.

He is handsome and hates the King, she is pretty and the King’s daughter but it’s a SECRET, will they won’t they oh no class divides blah blah blah. Sorry, but it was pretty boring. Sarah Gadon as Elizabeth is great, but the invented Naval Officer ‘Jack’ is an embarrassing sketch of a working class Londoner. And even though Jack has a pretty sympathetic back story and a reasonably bleak future ahead of him, somehow we end up being positioned to feel sorry for the Royal Family? Sitting down for breakfast in their dining room the size of the war veteran’s house? And oh thank goodness Jack’s realised the King is actually a pretty good guy? Republicans will hate this.

I didn’t hate it, but I did realise very early into the film that I was not its target audience. My presence in the cinema must have brought the median age down to about 56. I’d thought, seeing as it was a film about two young women, I might be about to watch the pacey adventure of two bright, powerful and independently wealthy young women having their first exciting taste of freedom. That’s in there a bit – Princess Margaret steals most of the best scenes – but mostly it’s an unfocussed and slightly turgid love letter to the monarchy.

2. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

Twenty-nine year-old Kumiko is dissatisfied with her dead-end Tokyo job and shows no particular interest in her friends or family. At night she sits alone in her cramped apartment, fast-forwarding and rewinding an old VHS tape of the American film Fargo. And Kumiko is taking detailed notes.

She is convinced that Fargo was a true story, and that there is still treasure buried out there somewhere under the Minnesota snow. This premise is a little heavily laid-on, with what I thought were excessive cuts to Kumiko taking out her Fargo maps and staring at them. We get it, she wants to go to Fargo. We know it so well that, although I loved the film’s characterisation of middle-class life in Tokyo, it seems like a long time before Kumiko actually sets off on her quest. In fact, it’s about 45 minutes before the film gets to Minnesota. I began to get impatient during the first half of the film, wanting to set off on the journey already, thinking “Why are we still here??”. Afterwards I realised, hey, that was probably exactly how Kumiko felt. And I was empathising with her. Well played, Zellner Brothers.

The thing is, Kumiko is kind of a jerk. She is surly, she lies, and she seems to have no compunction about stealing – even from charity shops and visually impaired taxi drivers. She is rude and unfriendly and ungrateful for the kindness of anyone who helps her. And that doesn’t change, all the way through the movie. She definitely doesn’t learn the error of her ways. But I found myself wanting her to succeed. Kumiko clearly has difficulty connecting with other people. Her only friend is Bunzo, her pet rabbit (who is actually called Bunzo in real life and I want to break all of Queensland’s laws to adopt it). Kumiko is fed up with banality.

She styles herself as a Spanish conquistador and sets off for The New World to claim the treasure she has ‘discovered’. And that’s the thing about conquistadors – I don’t remember them having much compunction about taking other people’s stuff. Looking at it from Kumiko’s view, her mission makes perfect sense. This treasure is her destiny, why would she lose focus on it for even a moment?

Rinko Kikuchi, as Kumiko, is simply perfect. Using little more than facial expression, she brings complexity to a character that could easily have been under-served by the spare script. Her physicality is impressive, almost clowning – but a tragic clown.

Knowing a little about the real events this film is based on, I wondered how the Zellner Brothers would bring this sad tale to a satisfying close. I was wondering that even up to the final minutes of the film. But, they actually nailed it. And the film never smashes the prism of enchantment that hangs around it. It probably helps to be a fan of Fargo (the movie), but I didn’t find that tripping me up in any way. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is a beautiful film.

cynthia-rose-bellas3. Pitch Perfect 2

Full disclosure here: Pitch Perfect is easily one of my favourite recent comedies. I have watched it more times than I would like to disclose. I knew I was probably not going to be satisfied with the sequel, no matter what they did, because the original was so precious to me.

I was correct. Pitch Perfect 2 suffers from too many locations, unnecessary exposition, and too many new characters added to an already beefy cast. This was too bad because I adore Elizabeth Banks, producer on Pitch Perfect and first-time director on Pitch Perfect 2, and hoped her directing debut would be as excellent as she is. However I couldn’t help noticing the awkward edits undercutting scenes where the comedic talent was so good that all you needed to do was get out of their way.

But again, my expectations were set high for this film based on how quick and funny I found the first one. There are moments of brilliance and genuine heart-feelings. There are some fun developments in the sequel, like old a capella rival Bumper having graduated and joined the team of sad toolies who haunt campus parties insisting they’re still relevant. And a particular scene involving a canoe makes full use of Rebel Wilson as a comedy actor and singer. This movie is a feel-good spectacle and I enjoyed the ride, minus several cringes at fat shaming, American flag-waving, and bafflingly frequent jokes about Guatemala. Guatemala? What did they ever do to you??

Full credit to Elizabeth Banks for continuing a franchise helmed by a team of funny women whose motivations have nothing to do with men. Even in heralded ‘female comedy’ Bridesmaids, the plot centered around a hetero wedding. And Kristen Wiig had to show her emotional development by getting together with the Irish policeman. In Pitch Perfect 2, the women’s focus is on community, self-fulfillment, and the legacy they will leave behind. Relationships with dudes are secondary.

All that being said, the movie’s main conflict is kicked off by the world getting furious about seeing Rebel Wilson’s vagina. A subtle critique of misogyny and cultural anxiety about the female body? Or just a way to be edgy and show people screaming at a vagina? I don’t know, I’m tired. I liked this movie okay?

Final comments: more Ester Dean, always and forever. Look at how much Ester Dean you’ve put into your film, then double it.

Athena quietly wishes they had come up with a better name than Tomorrowland.

4. Tomorrowland

This tweet sums up my exact reaction to seeing this film:

I loved it? This was one of those films where you feel good during the ending, but as you walk away from the cinema you’re like, “Wait, why did they? And where was the? And they killed all those people??”

Tomorrowland was not what I expected at all. The trailer did not do it any favours. It was intense, well-paced, and juuuust this side of tacky. The movie is about a sort of parallel dimension called Tomorrowland where everyone rides monorails and wears jumpsuits and anything is possible. It’s basically Disneyland in the 90s. I was a kid in the 90s, and for me the gleaming monorails and curving concrete structures immediately evoke the dream of the future that Disneyland was selling: clean, shiny, the happiest place on Earth.

And like Disneyland in the 90s, Tomorrowland is in decline. The world is losing hope. They need heroes to change the direction of the tide, to move the world back from the brink of destruction. This can only be done by ‘special’ people, like the cringingly named protagonist, Casey – sigh – Newton. Oh guess what she loves science! And she is apparently still in school even though she looks 25 and drives a motorbike around? I found this a genuine impediment to believability in the film, although this may be a cultural divide between America and Australia. Or maybe I’m just a city girl who wishes she was allowed to have her own motorbike in high school.

Even though the world must be saved by people with ‘special abilities’, I didn’t find this exclusionary or, the gods help us, Randian, because their special ability is optimism and it is infectious. The heroes are people who ‘haven’t given up’, who do the work that needs to be done and pull everyone else up with them. Eventually we could all be heroes. It is a beautiful sentiment and I found the ending quite moving despite its potential to be cloying.

How was this movie not cloying? Well, it has some pretty kick-ass fight scenes involving a 12-year-old girl named Athena who can drive a truck like it’s stolen (it is; she stole it). There are fun cameos from Keegan Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn. George Clooney has a great face. But the reason I really liked it was because it slow-walks the viewer through the actual threat facing the world and how the heroes prevent it.

This is a movie for young people. Like many contemporary young adult narratives, it is weighted down with the horror of the broken world we must inherit. Failing economies; inaction on climate change; society-wide distrust and violence. It’s sad. But Tomorrowland offers realistic hope: don’t give up on the world. Despair only causes more despair, but hope encourages more hope. Hugh Laurie delivers a magnificent speech towards the film’s climax about humanity’s choice to let the world burn if it meant they didn’t have to do anything. A Disneyfied riff on the kind of movie I was watching when I was in high school, when Hugo Weaving was telling Keanu Reeves “human beings are a disease”.

Tomorrowland has the classic Disney race problem. Oh sure, there are plenty of diverse ethnicities represented in the background and bit parts, but funnily enough all of the lead roles (and nearly all of the dialogue) goes to white people. It becomes more obvious when you see plenty of Asian, black and Indian people walking around Casey and co. but only hear white people speaking.

Oh and George Clooney is just trolling us now, with his biggest age gap yet: his love interest in this film is 12 years old. He is 54. Nothing really happens, but more happens that it should, you know? It’s borderline is what I’m saying.

But still, I liked Tomorrowland. I think I liked it? So much happened. Wait, why did they kick George Clooney out of Tomorrowland in the first place? And why didn’t he have a relationship with anyone other than a 12-year-old cyborg since he was 18? Oh damn, I don’t think this film made sense at all. Never mind.

Other movies released near me in May that were NOT about white men:

(The ones I didn’t have time to watch!)

5. PIKU (India)

6. Unfriended (US)

7. Testament of Youth (UK)

8. Bombay Velvet (India)

9. Salut d’Amour (South Korea)

10. Spy (US)

11. Woman In Gold (US)

12. San Andreas (US)

Number of movies released near me in May that WERE about white men:

SIX! Holy shit, well done film industry!

mad-max-fury-road-mask

*Rages incoherently*

A word (or 200) about Mad Max: Fury Road

A few people have asked me if I was going to review Mad Max: Fury Road for The Other Movie Project. Now, I freaking LOVED this film, but it doesn’t qualify for this project and here’s why:

a. It is about Mad Max.

b. Mad Max is a white man.

End of list.

I know many people have been arguing that the film is actually about Imperator Furiosa (the wonderful, WONDERFUL Charlize Theron), but for the purposes of this movie blog, it is not. The movie, titled MAD MAX, follows the story of MAD MAX while he comes to terms with his identity as MAD MAX. We hear his inner monologue, see most of the film from his point of view, and he has the biggest arc. (He goes from angry guy only worried about himself, to angry guy helping a group of women and one cute warboy.) Yes, Imperator Furiosa is the more interesting protagonist and I would follow her into the gaping maw of Death itself. But we only find out her internal workings through what she tells Max and what Max sees when she finds her old tribe. However, I hear rumours that the next Mad Max film will be officially and unreservedly about Furiosa, and WOULDN’T THAT BE FUCKING COOL. If I’m mistaken and the rumour isn’t true, let’s all find George Miller’s email address and make it true.

Now, please excuse me while I start building a pretend prosthetic arm in time to cosplay as Furiosa for Halloween.

My hero.

January: Into The Woods, Wild

Posts, The Other Movie Project

This is the first post for my 2015 blog project, The Other Movie Project. I am challenging myself to watch every single movie showing near me that is not about a white guy. For the month of January, I found two movies that qualified. Two. Find out more about The Other Movie Project here.

Into The Woods

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 10.21.43 pm
Tricked by posters and IMDB and cinema listing citing the lead actor as Meryl Streep, I thought Into The Woods would be a movie about a kick-ass witch who is unexpectedly complex and sings touching songs and has long chats with other complex female characters. Or, Into The Woods was about Emily Blunt, or Anna Kendrick. So many rad ladies in this ensemble cast, it had to qualify! So I went to see it, and discovered that it was actually a story about a whiny baker man.

Though there is a large cast of characters, all of their stories somehow center around The Baker (played by white guy James Corden). Emily Blunt The Baker’s Wife is also there, who is named The Baker’s Wife even though we are introduced to both of them in the bakery at once, both very definitely and very equally baking. Like bakers. Although I suppose technically what Emily Blunt is doing is baker’s-wifing. She is a prominent character but I’ll get to why the story isn’t about her in a minute. The action really begins with the witch (The Indomitable Streep) bursting into the bakery and telling The Baker that she put a curse on his family over beans or something. She gives James Corden and Emily Blunt a series of tasks to complete and a clear deadline and disappears to go advance the plot somewhere else. Then begins a tediously recurring conversation in which James Corden tells Emily Blunt to stay home while he goes on adventures because he is The Baker and she is only The Baker’s Wife.

The rest of the movie is James Corden learning lessons and growing as a man and realising that his wife may actually be more competent than him, while his wife runs around doing most of the work and then dies so that The Baker can feel sad about it. The finale of the movie is all the remaining woman and children (those not killed in the giant attacks caused by Beanstalk Jack’s reckless disregard for other people’s property) gathering around James Corden and asking if they can go home with him. There you have it. James Corden learned to sort of respect his wife. James Corden learned not to abandon his baby. James Corden learned to be a leader. James Corden is rewarded with a family and Cinderella The New Baker’s Wife. The emotional arc is James Corden’s. James Corden narrates the whole damn film. Into The Woods is about James Corden. So tricked.

This movie had so many holes, and most of them were fallen into by female characters. The greatest threat to life in this movie was Falling Over. Jack’s mother (unnamed) is killed by being pushed over. The powerful, terrifying giant (“a female giant!!”) perishes by lying down unexpectedly. Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt fall out of frame and presumably die, without warning or fanfare. I was sure they were fake-outs, and kept waiting for them to spring back into frame, the witch cackling and Emily Blunt saying “Surprise Baker, I’m back, now get your cow eyes off Anna Kendrick”. I was gobsmacked because I naively thought the whole “helpless women sprain their ankles at inopportune moments” trope had died with the 70s.

And feminism dies with the last words spoken by a female character in this film: “Yes [indicates male character], I will come live at your house. There are times when I actually like cleaning!”

FUUUUUCK.*

(All that said, I really loved the scene where the two campy princes sing a campy song about their man-feelings atop a waterfall. Would like to see re-released as a Cracked short film titled Princes Have Feelings.)

*I have been told that Into The Woods is not a great film adaptation of the original Broadway musical, which I haven’t seen, so please know that I am only critiquing the movie as a stand-alone text. I hold out hope that the stage musical makes a tonne more sense.

Wild

Out of the woods and into the wild. All the promotion I’d seen for this Reese Witherspoon vehicle made it look, frankly, super boring. Promoted clips were mostly of her walking, looking tired, or fiddling with her shoes. The general impression I got from reviews and people’s comments was that the central character, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), was unlikeable and had “made a lot of really bad life choices”. I’d seen Sean Penn’s Into The Wild (2007) a few years ago and thought, OK, I guess I’m about to see the girl version of that.

Nope, nope, nope.

Wild was so much better.

Wild is glorious. I recommend that you go see this if you can. I did not find it boring for a second, and I don’t know why I had that impression. I hope it’s down to poor marketing, and not too much to internalised sexism.

I don’t want to make too many direct comparisons to Into The Wild, but it’s so easy. Where in Into The Wild Emile Hirsch’s McCandless felt inscrutable and self-satisfied, Witherspoon’s Cheryl Strayed is someone I could relate to. We are invited into her inner monologue, her motivations, her meditations on her own flaws. I felt wholly invested in this character. When I saw Into The WIld, I couldn’t help thinking that the film idealised McCandless’s abandonment of his family. Wherever he went, he always seemed so pleased with himself. Yet Wild doesn’t rely on sweeping vistas to insert poignancy into the narrative. Strayed’s backstory is revealed in well-paced flashbacks, and the scenes between her and her mother (Laura Dern) are so painful it’s perfect.

One criticism would be that too much is made of Strayed’s promiscuous past when the narrative calls for examples of her “bad life choices”. However, just when it looks like slut-shaming, Strayed has a one-night stand that has nothing to do with self-destruction and everything to do with her own pleasure. She is complex and has agency. Thank the Lady Witherspoon (who optioned Strayed’s book and got this movie off the ground with her own money).

It is a rare movie that shows a variety of male micro-aggressions against women from a woman’s perspective, and futhermore presents them as incidental to the story. Male entitlement is part of Wild‘s landscape, no more or less than rattlesnakes and empty water tanks. And, blessedly, we don’t have to witness any graphic violence. Casual sexism aimed at Strayed isn’t a ‘primer’ for some awful act; it is the act in itself. I don’t think I’ve seen a film that captured this particular social phenomenon so accurately. And it was done with wit and compassion. Good stuff.

Number of movies showing near me during January that were about white men:

Thirteen.

Also notable:

Out of the two movies I saw (Into The Woods and Wild), I recall only one speaking role occupied by a person of colour. So, yep. Not great.

The Other Movie Project: Here we go!

The Other Movie Project

For 2015, I have challenged myself to watch every single movie released in a cinema near me that is not a story about a white guy. Is the movie about a woman, or a man who is not white? I must watch it. Is the movie about someone who does not identify within the gender binary? Heaven help me, I must watch it, because it would be wonderful to see.

I’ve noticed how many movies (and TV shows and books and articles and narratives in general) centre around a white guy. If a woman or a man of colour does occupy a leading role in a film, they are almost always an offsider or partner to a white guy. They’re the love interest, the villain, or the best friend. They’re the other character. I am pushing myself to challenge this internalised bias, that stories about white men are inherently more valuable. I feel like I’ve watched plenty of movies that follow the emotional journeys of white men. I want to watch the other movies.

So I’m putting my money where my mouth is. If a film is released in a cinema near me, and the narrative centres around a woman and/or a person of colour, I will go buy a ticket and watch it. Movies about women of colour? Bonus points!

By seeking out movies about non-white-guys, I’ll have to actively notice how many movies are about white guys. At this point, I’m not sure what the stats are. I might end up watching hardly any movies for this project. I might end up spending heaps on movie tickets (I kind of hope so). How do industry statistics translate into session times at Australian cinemas? I’m going to find out, at least for Brisbane.

After each month is over, I’ll blog about the movies I saw (and the ones I didn’t). First post coming soon. Here we go!

Dawn of the patriarchy of the apes

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Yesterday I watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes and presumed prequel to Day of the Dawn of the Consolidation of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I have some thoughts. If you are avoiding spoilers, please look away now.

Here be spoilers.

OK. So. HOW AWESOME WAS THAT?? Caesar totally rode a horse. He rode a horse and he totally told the humans off. He and the other apes built their own society. They taught each other sign language and spoken language and written language! Most humans don’t bother with all three. I loved the graphics (aside from one awkward establishing shot in a final battle scene where the apes look embarrassingly CGI, and my disbelief was entirely un-suspended). I particularly loved Caesar. What a babe. Hunkiest ape this side of the rise of the planet. And Caesar has a team of pretty cool, complex ape characters with which to interact. Overall, an impressive film.

I just, I have a little note. A small thing, really. You’ll probably laugh. But WHERE THE HELL were all the female characters? Female apes, female humans – missing! In the ape colony, we only meet one female ape – Caesar’s wife – who, I found out from the credits, was named Cornelia, although we are never given her name during the movie. In her brief on-screen time, Cornelia fulfills the female-movie-character trifecta of giving birth, providing motive for her man, and looking pretty while dying. Apparently she was played by Judy Greer. You wouldn’t know, since she doesn’t have any spoken lines and she mainly lays there looking ill. A waste of the vocal talent that brings us the unforgettable Cheryl Tunt on Archer. And yet I have read entertainment blogs actually heralding Greer as a “leading lady” in this film. Really? Silent, absent, and mostly uninvolved in the plot? But then, I guess this is what leading roles often look like for women.

There is one other female character in Dawn of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Dark of the Moon. She is a human woman, who – you guessed it – is the wife of the other leading man. The man who isn’t an ape. Good, so we’ve got one woman on each side of the human-ape war, and they each exist to show that the lead male has ‘something to fight for’. The human female (played by the way-underused Keri Russell – here you can see this leading lady describe her role in the film as “miniscule”) is named Ellie, and is listed on Wikipedia as a “former nurse” even though I had the impression she was a doctor, and she definitely performs surgery during the movie. During some staid exposition at the beginning of the film, we are casually informed that, before society crumbled, she worked at the Center for Disease Control. Sounds like Dr Disease-Expert Ellie would be pretty essential to establishing a new society in a post-Simian-Flu world. But instead we only see her administering hugs to Malcolm – the true leader – and asking him for permission to do things. (He denies her permission, by the way, because “I need you here” to care for his son from a previous marriage.) Why is Malcolm the preferential authority in the struggle to save humanity? Well, he’s an architect. And … tall? Have you heard how deep his voice is?

“Get behind me, Doctor, I have a degree in architecture.”

Yes, the gender imbalance in this movie greatly annoyed me. It is part of a larger problem with this film, where the human characters are not satisfactorily fleshed out (thus Malcolm’s role as leader of the humans is never adequately explained, while Caesar’s leadership status is easily established by his superior intellect, wisdom and physical strength). It annoyed me beyond all reason that the female apes were all wearing pretty, spangly, beaded headdresses that practically blinded them. I know this was probably intended as an aesthetic link to the 2001 reboot Planet of the Apes, but in that movie the male apes wore adornments as well. Giving only the female apes impractical jewelry just seemed to reinforce their status as decoration.

I don’t even know where the human females were. Apparently the human population had been thinned to near-extinction by the Simian Flu, while survivors of that were killed in post-apocalyptic wars. Surely, if we assume that men are usually responsible for wars and for fighting them (given all we know about history), there would be more women left than men. Even now, women represent a slight majority in the population. I’ve never understood why dystopian films have so much trouble imagining a landscape with women in it. Or why, with civilisation apparently dismantled and society being rebuilt, patriarchal structures have survived with ease. In the recent past, global wars have accidentally resulted in liberation for women, because with the dominant male class off killing each other, women have had to step into new roles. This is the kind of stuff that I find interesting about stories set in post-conflict societies: how new interpersonal dynamics emerge under unfamiliar circumstances.

We don’t get any such insights into the human world of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but the ape society has evolved beyond recognition. They have chopped down trees, built a permanent home, even set up literacy classes. However, they haven’t socially gone any further than “Get all the females and young to safety”. OK, in a battle situation, I could understand “Get all the mothers and their young to safety”. But all the females? I mean, the apes were off to fight humans, right? And as a human, I find female chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans pants-wettingly terrifying. Any one of them could rip my arm out of my socket – I know it, they know it. Why weren’t there female apes in the battle? You could tell me that, in real-life chimp society, it is the males who fight the wars. You could tell me that ape society appears to follow a patriarchal hierarchy. This is all true. But this is a science-fiction film in which chimps are living alongside gorillas and orangutans, have domesticated the horse, and can talk. Even though chimps do not have a vocal tract. They also fire assault rifles. You telling me we can’t stretch the imagination to a female second-in-command for Caesar?

You could ask me why any of this matters, if it’s just a work of fiction. I’m tired of fielding that question. It matters. I’m over watching films where there are hardly any people who look like me, and all they do is hug the men and tell them they’re brave. There’s more to my life than that, and I’d like to see women in movies have more to their lives than that, too. Even the ape ones.

The kind of girl I want to be

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So, last night I watched Gangster Squad. It was alright. My housemate and I had grabbed the DVD from the shops and headed home with some burgers. It was a pretty sweet plan – we were both in the mood for action, and I loved the line-up of actors. Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling? Sean Penn being insane? Nice.

But by the second half of the film, I was wriggling around in my seat, grunting to myself. I sat forward, threw my hands up. Yelled some half-sentences at the screen. “But what is she–” … “But why doesn’t he–?” … “BUT YOUR WIFE IS–!!”

Something was really bugging me, and it wasn’t just the awkward direction or the under-developed characters. (All of those A-grade actors were working so hard to make something out of that script, but man, they didn’t have much to work with.)

I was getting seriously bugged by the female characters in the film. Emma Stone’s character – what are her motivations? Why does she hang off the arm of that psycho gangster? The only explanation we get – “I came to this town to be a star”. Come on. “I came here to be a star, but that didn’t work out, so now I’m dating the bloodthirstiest mob boss on the west coast”? What? It was hard to see such a paper-thin role inhabited by the gifted comedic actor of Easy A. I mean, she brought the world this:

The only other named female character in Gangster Squad was the sergeant’s pregnant wife. She was clever and tough as nails, but she still spends most of the film being abandoned by her husband.

The thing I was having trouble articulating to my housemate, a dude of the dudest order, is that movies like these make me feel a bit left-out. I don’t see myself in these movies. I love action, I love thriller, but the only people who look like me in them are not the heroes. I’ve never seen myself in the role of dependent girlfriend or long-suffering wife. Growing up, I didn’t dream of waiting at home to find out what was going on. These weren’t the character types that spoke to me.

I wanted to be Ryan Gosling, smooth-talking with a heart of gold. I wanted to be the straight-shooter, pinging tin cans out of the sky with a knowing wink. I wanted to be that “one man” (in movie voice) who saves the world. I wanted to be Will Smith punching aliens; Keanu Reeves stopping bullets; Tobey Maguire discovering he could climb walls with his fingertips. I wanted to be MOTHER-FLIPPING WOLVERINE.

But I’m a lady.

You might be excused for thinking I’m gender-confused, wishing I was Hugh Jackman or something, but that ain’t it. It’s not me who’s confused about my gender – it’s Hollywood. Women are categorically more interesting, varied, and powerful than is represented in cinema. No wonder that, when I’m watching the latest blockbuster, I find myself relating more to the male characters for their appealing array of courageous and tenacious heroes.

There have been flares of cinematic womanhood that have dazzled my weary eyes, such as Hermione punching Malfoy, or Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, or Pocahontas diving off a cliff with zero fear. And, I know I bring it up a lot, but The Hunger Games. These characters are self-possessed, capable, at home in their surroundings. They have that thing inside them, a special power. That’s what so many female characters in cinema lack: an internal power. Their power is more often derived from external sources (usually whomever they’re letting lie on top of them at night).

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read past here if you haven’t seen Season 2 of Game of Thrones yet and you still want to be surprised.

Daenerys Targaryen, "Game of Thrones".

Daenerys Targaryen, “Game of Thrones”.

I think that’s why Daenerys Targaryen of Game of Thrones has gathered such an intense following among fans: She is the Khaleesi. She started off a meek, oppressed, pretty little thing who did what the men around her said. Then, she walked into a fucking bonfire with some dragon eggs and everyone was like HOLY SHIT. No one told her to do that; she felt it intuitively. It came from inside her, a special power that she possessed. I love that. She isn’t a perfect feminist icon, but as Caitlin Moran recently tweeted (in response to the overthrow of Prime Minister Julia Gillard): “[F]eminist role models don’t need to be perfect. Currently, they just need to exist”.

They exist in real life (see: Wendy Davis). I’m damn sure they could comfortably exist in our imaginary lives, as well.

US Senator Wendy Davis. (Dragon probably photoshopped.)

http://www.timeforafilm.com/2012/12/04/movie-review-pitch-perfect-2012/

Movies That Are Good For Girls

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As longtime readers may know, I used to work with teenagers of the female variety, and I noticed that the only movies they would watch were awful Hollywood rom-coms. In other words, they were living on a steady diet of stupid.

myboyfriendthinksimfatI wrote a post a while back, shaming a few “bad movies for girls” – but now I’m stepping it up. I’m not just bringing problems, here; I bring solutions. So, what movies would be good for these teenage girls (and anyone else) to watch? What movies are out there that offer solid alternatives to the ol’ “I need a boyfriend, wah!” formula? I’ve made a list of movies that I wish those teenage girls would watch instead of No Strings Attached. If they ever felt like watching some light entertainment that didn’t end with Matthew McConaughey laughingly mocking a woman and then planting his face on hers*, I would like them to have some options.

* Notable examples of this trope include: “You throw like a girl” (Sahara, 2005); and “Bullshit!” (How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, 2003), to which he romantically adds, “You heard me. Bullshit”.

I ran all the movies I could think of through the Bechdel Test before selection. If you’re not familiar with Bechdel, passing the test requires that the film includes:

  • at least two (named) female characters
  • who talk to each other
  • about something other than men.

The movies listed below pass that test with flying colours. (It’s harder than you’d think! Apparently only half the movies in cinemas at the moment pass it.) I also chose these movies on the basis that I just like them. They’re entertaining. They suggest that maybe – maybe – it would be feasible to make more films about diverse female experiences. I know my life consists of somewhat more than just “wah, boyfriend” (although that’s in there, too), so it would be nice to see the movie options out there reflect that.

So here are five movies that I think are pretty good for girls:

1. Stick It (2006)

Angry girl is angry! For reasons that have nothing to do with boys! Also, she is a kick-ass gymnast. She and her teammates learn to put personal ambition aside and work together to shake up Big Gymnastics. It’s a gorgeous example of overcoming petty competition in favour of communal thinking. And, thank the heavens, they weren’t competing over men. To top things off, this movie’s got some rad athletic scenes, set to a cool soundtrack. I’d much rather hear girls quote this movie than the Bring It On franchise, as this one gives the mean/angry girls a bit of depth, compassion, and even redemption.

2. Pitch Perfect (2012)

Similar set-up to Stick It: angry girl is angry, joins in a team competition with much eye-rolling, and eventually leads her new friends to victory. But this take on a familiar trope is just so. Much. Fun. With a capella singing groups battling each other on campus, heaps of screwball characters, and Rebel Wilson declaring herself the “best break-dancer in Tasmania” … I mean, I’m in. There is a half-baked romance in the wings for the protagonist (Anna Kendrick), but it’s pure exposition for her character. The real triumph is her relationships with the other girls.

3. Brave (2012)

Made for a younger market than the other films on this list, but such a beautiful story from Disney-Pixar that I had to include it. This Disney princess resists being socialised to accept her fate as someone’s wife, and takes matters into her own hands. The central dynamic is a mother-daughter relationship – rare for Disney films – and it is handled beautifully. I cry every time. Every damn time.

4. The Hunger Games (2012)

Katniss is a bad-ass archetypal Artemis figure who shoots straight, takes no shit, and will do anything to protect her sister. At first I wasn’t sure if this one would pass the Bechdel Test because Katniss spends most of the movie interacting with Gale, Peeta or Haymitch (two of whom fancy her) … But then my housemate (a man) reminded me about the beautiful scenes between Katniss and Rue, the young victor from District 11, in which they teach each other to survive.

In fact, the narrative plays with the romance genre by introducing a “meta-romantic subplot” – Peeta and Katniss must act as star-crossed lovers in order to survive the Games. Is the love real? other characters ask. Or is it just what the audience in the Capitol expects? I think somewhere in there are the traces of an interesting commentary on how our culture consumes romance.

5. Mean Girls (2004)

Did someone say “YOU GO GLEN COCO”?? After reading Queen Bees and Wannabes in the early 2000s, Tina Fey bought the film rights to the book and BOY DID SHE USE THEM. I am using so many capitals because I LOVE THIS FILM. This came out just after I finished high school, and ten years later I still hear teenagers quoting it. Fey certainly hit a nerve with this story of a high school newcomer who learns manipulation at the hands of girl cliques. It explicitly addresses problems with the way girls behave towards each other, and does so in a hilarious and highly-quotable manner.

To the guy who told me he would never watch Mean Girls because “What, it’s a chick movie”, I say GO EAT A HAT. Iron Man; Yes Man; Cinderella Man; Spider-man; Bicentennial Man; Lord of War; Iron Man 2; The Dark Knight; The Last King of Scotland; I Love You, Man; Spider-man 2; Children of Men; The Men Who Stare At Goats; X-Men; Men In Black; Man On The Moon; and Spider-man 3 – I’ve watched ’em all, and ENJOYED them (even Spider-man 3, no matter what people say), and I still have all my lady parts in tact. Oh, you know what, just read this.

"She doesn't even go here!"

“She doesn’t even go here!”

But, Bridesmaids ..? Some may remark upon the absence of Bridesmaids (2011) from this list … But I felt that it only barely passed the Bechdel Test. Yes, there are many female characters, but they do mainly get together to talk about men. And when we get a blockbuster Hollywood comedy written by women with a leading cast of women, it’s still centered around a wedding. I think this movie is hilarious, but I’m not sure it offers a great alternative to traditional patriarchal narratives. That said, I nearly cracked a rib laughing at the ‘airplane scene’.

Just a quick point: I recognise that my list of movies representing “diverse female experiences” is doing a great job of privileging young, white, hetero, first-world girls’ experiences. I get that. I would love to watch more diverse female characters on screen, and I welcome suggestions of movies to watch that can help me outside this bubble.

My overall hope is that we’ll see more movies being made that represent the rich diversity of human experiences, especially in the comedy/romance genres. There are so many more types of people out there! Let’s get their stories into teenage DVD collections, too. C’mon now.

Women. Am I right?

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“This is a real phenomenon: When women feel like outsiders, they lose interest.”

I read the above quote in an article today, and it struck me dead. In the article, a science student writes about gender bias in the scientific professions, and even though I don’t know my boron from my bunsen burner, I found myself strongly relating to it.

See, the thing is, on Wednesday night I had my first go at stand-up comedy. I entered myself in RAW Comedy, where beginner comedians can compete for a spot in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. I had never set foot onstage at a stand-up gig before, and I don’t mind telling you I was petrified. I had a lively group of friends around me, chattering and laughing and telling me I was going to be fabulous, but every now and then I would just go blank with hot white terror.

Part of my terror came, I think, from the fact that I was one of only four women competing on the night. The other 11 were, as you might imagine, men. That in itself wouldn’t have been that intimidating. After all, I’ve been performing at poetry slams and readings for years now, which are still heavily male-dominated. That wasn’t the issue. It was what the men were saying. Joke after joke about violence against women. Seriously. One guy’s punch line was actually – and I quote – “Wouldn’t it be great to know you fucked a woman to death?” Then he talked about going to her funeral and gloating, saying, “Let that be a lesson to all you other ladies”.

Yes. Let that be a lesson to us. In case we ever forget, we aren’t safe here. Comedy is not a safe space – for anyone, I suppose, but especially for women. One male comedian spent his five minutes extolling his disgust at Julia Gillard, saying she had a penis and she couldn’t arouse the most desperate of men and so on and so on. Textbook misogyny: “a-woman-can’t-be-in-power-without-losing-her-femaleness” with a dash of “if-she-can’t-get-me-off-what’s-the-point-of-her”. Not a word, of course, about her actions as Prime Minister. Another man raged against his ex-wife, calling her a “crazy bitch” at least six times before I tuned out. One young, harmless looking guy, who looked like someone your brother might play Call of Duty with, thanked all the women in the audience for setting their Facebook profiles to ‘public’ so that he could masturbate to them.

I am truly baffled when I see male comedians make demeaning jokes about women, and then chuckle: “Ha ha, all the women in the room hate me right now”. All the women in the room – that’s fifty per cent of your audience, buddy! Too many amateur comedians seem to forget that alienating women means alienating half your potential ticket-paying customers. That comedy isn’t just for the benefit of other men.

By the time it was my turn to perform next, I was feeling sick to the stomach. I waited by the sinks in the ladies’ room, staring up at the posters of upcoming comedy tours. Rows and rows of male faces grinned down at me. I smoothed down my hair, eyeing my outfit. Before I left the house that night, I had pulled a ribbon out of my hair, not wanting the audience to be distracted by my gender. Already, I was “gender priming”, having been told for years that female comedians “just aren’t as funny”.

“Even in areas where actual performance is equal, when a certain group is reminded that they are supposed to be bad at something, their performance weakens.” (S. Wofford, Feminspire)

But I did it. I told some jokes. At the end of my set, I sat down with my friends, shaking like a flippin’ leaf. I had survived. I had even gotten some laughs. I put my head down on the sticky table and tried not to gasp for air. I know public speaking is meant to be scary, but it had never really scared me up until this point. Comedy is such a different beast. You can lose the crowd so quickly. And then you’re dead.

Later that night, after seeing off my friends and dragging myself home, I felt empty. Like all the humour had been sucked out of me. My five minutes up there hadn’t been too bad, I thought, but the other comedians’ various attacks on women had shaken me. I comforted myself that the crowd had liked those jokes as little as I did, with most people shifting uncomfortably in their seats or sitting in stony silence. At least the misogyny wasn’t being openly encouraged. But I wondered. After years of going to comedy nights, I can say that jokes at the expense of women are incredibly common. They’re often aggressive and sometimes violent. Why do these comedians still think these jokes would be an awesome idea?

I found myself thinking, are these the people I want to work alongside? Is this an industry I want to join? If I’m going to have to spend years feeling like a second-class citizen, why would I bother? And then today, I found clarity, staring at me out of that science student’s article. I felt like an outsider, therefore I was losing interest. I was already thinking of opting out of my lifelong dream (my mother says that as an eight-year-old I solemnly informed her, “I want to be a stand-up comedian”) because of some dickheads with microphones. Seems to me that comedy is so male-dominated not because women aren’t as interested in comedy. Rather, I think a lot of women listen to the sexist jokes and see the other female comedians putting themselves down to get laughs, and think, “Fuck this noise”.

Well, I won’t be so easily discouraged. If I cancelled my dreams every time some idiot made me feel inferior for being a girl, I’d never have gone anywhere or done anything. I’m gonna have crack at this comedy thing. And whether I keep working at it or decide it’s not for me, I hope my decision will be based on factors other than my gender.