First of all, I must admit that I stopped watching the Oscars a while ago, as I lost interest in mainstream cinema and most of the nominations left me cold. However, while the Oscars may not represent the best movies of the year, they do give an account of what popular directors and producers are creating these days, which audience they reach and what gets talked about.
The nominations for February 2011 surprise with a comparably high number of movies that feature female leading roles. This is a good-enough reason for me to have a closer look at some of the nominations and to determine the winner of my own personal feminist Academy Award. Perhaps not surprising, a film’s quality often (not always) corresponds to its feminist message for me. The following ratings of one to three stars refer to the film’s feminist qualities only.
Warning, spoilers ahead!
1. Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)
This is a tricky one for me, since I loved Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream and I’ve been a fan of Natalie Portman ever since Léon: The Professional. In theory, Black Swan has everything I could possibly ask for: great actors, drama, horror, beautiful costumes and dance! But somehow the message this movie conveys seems to go little further than this: in order to become a genius you must sacrifice your sanity. Not that there is anything wrong with that and I appreciate the attempt to depict a female genius for once; there can never be enough. And in fact, many feminist critics have read the film as going beyond the classical stereotype of beautiful young girls whose perfection, artistic or otherwise, lies in their virginal innocence, for Portman’s character has to get in touch with her darker, more sexual self to be able to dance both swan characters. However, it feels a little odd that she needs to be made aware of this by her manipulative and quite predatory ballet teacher (Vincent Cassel has had more appreciative roles) instead of developing this desire herself. This is partly the reason for why her (imaginary) lesbian encounter doesn’t quite feel like genuine homosexual desire or curiosity, but more like a not so original attempt at attracting a young male audience as well. Black Swan could have been an amazing portrait of a tormented artist; unfortunately the actual dancing scenes lack the brilliance they are trying to convey. For a truly surprising or shocking horror drama, the narrative lacks the originality and depth, hence my hesitation to read a more progressive message into it.
2. The Social Network (David Fincher)
This is the boy version of Black Swan. No, seriously. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is presented as the tormented genius of our generation, and even though it didn’t drive him insane (yet), it did turn him into an asshole, according to this film. David Fincher is known for dealing with rather ‘masculine’ subjects and The Social Network is no different. Technology, formulas, hot groupies, what could be more masculine than that? Sounds like a cliché? Well, it’s not a cliché if it’s true, the makers of this movie claim.
The Social Network has been criticized for presenting a world that’s made up entirely of white priviliged men, where women are only allowed to be beautiful, intoxicated and sexually available accessories. But is this a true representation of the actual circumstances? I don’t know but I can imagine it to be a slightly exaggerated version, just like the cinematic interpretation of Zuckerberg’s initial motives for inventing the first social network: taking revenge for his ex-girlfriend’s rejection. Now I can take away from this movie that Harvard tech geeks who want to join a fraternity are all misogynistic assholes, or I can accept that this environment breeds sexism just as much as any other male-dominated society. In that regard, the film may be very accurate even though it doesn’t exactly inspire resistance.
In the end, Zuckerberg has achieved everything he wanted, but the only thing he ever really craved for was the recognition of this particular ex-girlfriend. Do I honestly believe this is how the real Zuckerberg feels? Not really, but it’s nice to think that he might.
3. True Grit (Joel and Ethan Coen)
I want to start off by saying that I love neo-Westerns. I really do. I enjoyed The Assassination of Jesse James immensely, even though I would not consider it a great film, and There Will Be Blood is among my absolute favorites of all times. So when I discovered that the Coen brothers made one and that it was considered Oscar-worthy, I was very excited. The disenchantment followed quickly when I read that the directors were aiming at a larger audience and therefore a softer rating. Is that why they decided for a teenage heroine instead of tough cops and outlaws? Not to give a false idea; the movie is still fairly brutal, but the use of violence feels forced and the ending is almost anticlimactic and rather tame. Moreover, I personally dislike films that present children and teens as snotty-nosed know-it-alls, but I was willing to give it a try. Huge mistake. Hailee Steinfeld’s character Mattie Ross is even more annoying than expected. I didn’t believe Juno’s depiction of teenagers either, but at least they were witty and didn’t go around showing off their legislative expert knowledge and negotiation skills, at a time when women were barely allowed to learn how to read. I guess I’m supposed to get excited about young female characters that are presented as super-smart and tough, but to me it just seems so contrived. Perhaps Mattie has grit, but it doesn’t feel true.
Then again, i feel like a very harsh critic in this case. I should be thankful to the Coens for injecting some girl power into the male-dominated genre. So I’m willing to hand out an extra star for viewers who don’t have to cringe every time Mattie opens her mouth.
4. The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko)
Finally, a comedy, I thought to myself. Except that this movie is actually not very funny. It is awkward. The situations, the characters, the dialogue, it all feels quite uncomfortable. But then again, life is awkward. And surely, when two overbearing, lesbian mothers meet their sperm donor for the first time, it must be even more awkward. So far, so good. One of the mothers feels neglected and ends up having an affair with the sperm donor, which is soon discovered. Perhaps the strongest scene of the movie is when Julianne Moore stands in front of the TV and lets her family know – lets us all know – that her mistake did not change her feelings, that you hurt the people you love the most and that marriage is hard. None of this is new, none of it is controversial but perhaps therein lies the strength of this movie. Why should this gay family be any different from any other white middle-class American family? The set-up may vary but the problems are the same. If only the director hadn’t gotten cold feet when it came to the sex scenes. Okay, married sex may generally be more boring and awkward, but this film seems to suggest that in order to have truly satisfying sex you need a penis. A bit more courage would have been great. If the viewers can accept homosexual parents, they sure as hell can deal with a passionate love scene between two adult women, no?
5. Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)
Clearly the dark horse in this competition, Winter’s Bone offers unknown actors and an insight into the other America, the America that Hollywood would like to make us believe doesn’t exist. This downbeat version of the American heartland is inhabited by people who would never vote for the Tea Party, because they have long ceased to believe in political agency, and they don’t care about the 2nd Amendment, because for them owning a gun is not a constitutional right but a means for survival. Have you ever wondered why so many young Americans join the army and the National guard? This movie gives you the answer: they often don’t do it out of national pride or because they like to shoot people, but out of mere desperation.
The 17-year-old female protagonist of Winter’s Bone has no desire to become an admired artist (Black Swan) or go on a revenge spree (True Grit). She merely wants to find her father, so that she can keep her house and provide for her two siblings and her catatonic mother. But doing so becomes an ordeal, as she is met by her neighbors with suspicion, antagonism and brutality. Poverty has driven these people into crime and violence; hidden in the woods of Missouri they have set up their own Wild West for America’s “White Trash”. Needless to say, this hopelessness has generated a vacuum for humanity, which makes both men and women susceptible to preserving the little power they have left through brute force. While the men are still running the show, the movie reveals how easily women become complicit when they have no one else to rely on. In all this moral corruption, the main character Ree feels like a breath of fresh air, and thank God, she doesn’t talk like a fifty-year-old script writer but like a courageous young woman, who goes to great lengths to preserve that little bit of happiness she has left.
And the winner is... Winter’s Bone, for its authenticity and its believable heroine. Runner-up is The Kids Are All Right for a mainstream take on a controversial subject matter. True Grit could have been a good movie with a better screenplay. The Social Network is really good in many respects, but it certainly doesn’t further a more positive representation of women in mainstream Hollywood. Black Swan is a beautiful package with little content.
See you next year!