None of that girly stuff

One of the working definitions of “character actor” is “not the hero, but maybe the hero’s best friend”; as I recall, this was a common description of Ronald Reagan, affable on film but not awe-inspiring.

On this basis, almost every working woman in Hollywood is a character actor; she doesn’t get to be the hero, but she might be the hero’s girlfriend. In other words, nothing at all like real life:

We’ve become so used to Opinionated, Strategic Woman = Villain, and Beautiful Women = Piece of Ass With Perhaps Secondarily A Surprisingly Good Brain, that it’s hard to imagine an Oscar-style movie in which women like these are heroes, and in which their interactions have nothing at all to do with men. It’s totally rational that in the real world they could be. Women in the real world regularly kick ass in the sciences. They risk their lives photographing warzones. They spend a great deal of their time having nothing to say about men, weddings, menopause, periods, or their vaginas, and often can be found, you know, analyzing medieval marginalia, drafting policy arguments for politicians, and running through the park thinking about string theory.

You just won’t find them at the local octuplex:

Yet the movie versions of us — the mainstream Award Winning versions of us — are more typically found offscreen, coming on to serve the male world changers coffee, tie their neckties, support their ambitions, and look beautiful. We can be found bending over backwards in heels to show men how well we can shake it, while still maintaining the ability to raise small children, which startling capacity will, of course, help the male main character realize that he should be more emotionally available, and that he should also perhaps take some vengeful action against the things that have hurt the woman he loves.

We are told that this is because the single largest segment of the motion-picture audience is young men, and this is what they want to see, over and over and over again. And it’s not just movies, either:

[W]hen the novelist Mary Gordon spoke at a boys’ school, she learned that the students weren’t reading the Brontës, Austen or Woolf. Their teachers defended this by saying they were looking for works that boys could relate to. But at the girls’ school across the street, Gordon said, “no one would have dreamed of removing Huckleberry Finn or ‘Moby-Dick’ from the syllabus. As a woman writer, you get points if you include the ‘male’ world in your work, and you lose points if you omit it.”

There is, in fact, exactly one television series — not even enough to be a subgenre — in which the lads will turn out to see female characters doing it for themselves, with scarcely any references to males. Not that this is a harbinger of the future or anything; in fact, there are already signs of flankhurt.

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3 comments

  1. fillyjonk »

    10 June 2014 · 10:59 am

    The whole “They need to read books they can ‘relate’ to” makes me so sad, because nothing will bore me faster than a novel that is so much like my own life. What I want to read is stuff that’s DIFFERENT from my life – set in another time, another place, and/or with characters different from me.

    Reading isn’t an escape if it’s just a damn echo chamber. Perhaps the reason some people don’t read much is they were only given “books they could relate to” as schoolkids.

  2. Roger Green »

    10 June 2014 · 11:59 am

    You DO know that you are risking becoming a feminist. Not that that’s a bad thing.

  3. Charles Pergiel »

    11 June 2014 · 10:52 am

    What’s that line? “Nobody ever failed by underestimating the intelligence of the public.” Something like that. People are emotional animals. We want movies that play on our emotions, not movies that make us think. Except weirdos like you and me, which means I don’t watch comedies, and I always hated Goldie Hawn’s characters.
    The best part of “Game of Thrones” is that it shows how horrible people can be to each other, which was common practice in the West as recently as a couple hundred years ago. Sorry for the disconnect there, it’s still early here.

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