Female directors, protagonists redefining genre expectations

The 70th Locarno Film Festival (held in Locarno, Switzerland) excluded all films solely directed by women in its main competition. Other categories, however, included a handful of female directors and a couple “assertive” female leads, according to critic Jaime Grijalba in his essay “French Women Take a Stand: How Two New French Films Address Issues of Representation.”

Grijalba compares two features with female protagonists, one directed by a woman and the other directed by a man. Valerie Massadian’s Milla tells the story of a 17-year-old runaway who falls in love with an older man. Serge Bozon’s Mrs. Hyde centers on a high school physics teacher with superhuman powers. The latter, it seems, has a much stronger female lead. “Ironically, among these two titles, the film directed by a woman seems to be the one that falls short of disrupting genre expectations,” he writes. “Mrs. Hyde presents an overall more progressive view and actually upends stereotypical gender roles, having Huppert’s character working while her husband stays home to take care of the house.”

The Locarno critic presents an interesting, albeit archaic argument: What is the genre expectation? Is a male-directed film with a tough female protagonist better than a female-directed film with a “weak” one? Maybe that thinking doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. With the box office success of Wonder Woman, director Patty Jenkins is paving the way for female directors to get their stories told, with or without a crime-fighting Princess Diana of Themyscira.

In response to James Cameron’s criticism of Wonder Woman (in which he called Gal Gadot’s character an objectified icon and a step backwards), Jenkins took to Twitter with the message, “James Cameron’s inability to understand what Wonder Woman is, or stands for, to women all over the world is unsurprising as, though he is a great filmmaker, he is not a woman,” she wrote. “Strong women are great. His praise of my film Monster, and our portrayal of a strong yet damaged woman was so appreciated. But if women have to always be hard, tough and troubled to be strong, and we aren’t free to be multidimensional or celebrate an icon of women everywhere because she is attractive and loving, then we haven’t come very far have we. I believe women can and should be EVERYTHING just like male lead characters should be. There is no right and wrong kind of powerful woman. And the massive female audience who made the film a hit it is, can surely choose to judge their own icons of progress.”

A wide variety of writers and directors is needed to create narratives for every gender, class, race and sexual identification. Regardless of how empathetic and talented a male director is, the lens will remain male. Female directors should be granted, at the very least, equal opportunity to represent her own vision and the prospect of creating, as Ms. Jenkins says, multidimensional characters.

When a film is released, there are many tests that are used to decide if a film has “good” or “bad” representation of different groups in society. The Bechdel-Wallace test (if the film contains at least once scene where two women have a conversation with each other containing subject matter other than men) helps to give insight on if films are using women as mindless property, or if they are used as individual beings capable of independent thought. It is not up to the male critics to determine whether a female protagonist is or isn’t strong, but rather review films directed by women regardless of the story being told. There is also the Tauriel Test which measures female representation in a canon (named after Captain Tauriel in Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies). A film passes this test if there is at least one female character who is good at her job. Seems pretty simple, but you may be surprised at how many films actually fail this test. Then there’s the Sexy Lamp Test (established by Kelly Sue DeConnick), which measures how relevant a female character is. A film passes this test if none of the women can be replaced by a sexy lamp while the plot remains intact (in other words, if one of the women can be replaced by a lamp and the plot doesn’t change…the film fails). And of course there’s the Furiosa Test, created after the release of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). This tests the importance and empowerment of the female characters in a film. A film will pass this test if it causes misogynists to boycott it. Without pointing any fingers, I think it becomes pretty apparent how important the female driven female narrative is, and how crucial it is to include well rounded multidimensional female characters in a film.

© Brigid K. Presecky & Lindsy M. Bissonnette (9/5/17)

Featured Photo: Valerie Massadian’s Milla © Cinema Defacto

Middle Photo: Serge Bozon’s Mrs. Hyde ©  Les Films Pelléas, Arte France Cinéma, Auvergne Rhône-Alpes Cinéma

Bottom Photo: Patty Jenkins directing Wonder Woman © Warner Bros. Entertainment

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