Watching Sexist Movies as a Feminist

I was watching VERTIGO the other day, and I decided: watching old, classic films can be really difficult for a feminist. I mean, I know that society has progressed since the 50’s, but it still makes me cringe to see a woman get trampled on by men because “that’s how it is”.

There are several things that will immediately grate on my nerves when watching a movie: when a woman is undermined and it doesn’t phase her; when the good-looking woman falls for the male protagonist simply because he’s the male protagonist (he could have nothing going for him, but you know that by the end of the movie, she’s going to be hanging off his arm); and when all the women in a film are interchangeable, presented as images of “womanhood” instead of as characters.

I’ve really had to rewire my brain when it comes to watching the old classics, and remind myself that the story comes from a different era. Instead of getting mad about a scene, I calm myself and think, “Filmmakers wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) be able to get away with a scene like this today, and that is something that I can be happy about.”

But there are filmmakers who get away with it these days, aren’t there? And in those cases, I have to view them as gauging my own progression. I have one particular film that I used to watch every year around Christmastime, and I’m sure you know which one I’m referring to: good ol’ LOVE ACTUALLY. As a kid, I loved this movie. I wanted to have a romance like those in this movie. And then… I grew up.

Luckily, high school and college pushed me to overthink the media, so as an adult, my worldview doesn’t tolerate blatant acts of sexism anymore; but it took me a while to get there. I remember watching LOVE ACTUALLY year after year, and every time I watched it, I would find a new thing to get upset about — scenes that I reveled in as a kid now made me groan and roll my eyes at the idea of such a plot point even being plausible (read: every man has a female doting on him, even when they don’t speak his language, etc. Ironically, the only plotline that doesn’t have a sexist ring to it is the love story between the porno stand-ins). It was a beautiful thing, year after year watching myself blossom as a feminist; and then, I finally got fed up and stopped watching it.

What makes movies like that uncomfortable to me now is that they stress the inequality of women as a standard. But how different is a sexist movie from say, a movie void of sexism, realistically? What I mean is, not all people are feminists. So a story in which every single character reflects feminist views is not going to be entirely realistic. Maybe one day it will be, but for the time being, it doesn’t quite add up. I suppose, then, that I would be okay with the depiction of sexism — not the affirmation of it. Sexism in films needs to be balanced by some kind of indication that it is sexism.

There has been some recent uproar about Joss Whedon and his work on AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON. There were many complaints, but I’d like to focus on one: the sterilization of Natasha Romanoff, and her confession that it makes her feel like a monster. To a lot of people, this was a statement that, despite all the Black Widow has accomplished, she still feels unfulfilled because she can’t have a family (because, you know, that is the only life-goal of all women everywhere).

imageStrangely enough, I see this as feminism causing sexism (it’s a twisted road, but let me explain). Here’s the problem that I have with the previously made argument: look, I totally get that having a kids is not the sole desire of every woman on the planet — but it is the desire for some women. So are we now saying that if a woman desires a family, they are being sexist? Correct me if I’m wrong, but feminism is more about freedom and choice than it is about eradicating one depiction of womanhood and replacing it with another. We have been slowly breaking out of the box that society has put us in for years; why on earth would we do that just to jump back into another box?

Some women want children. Some women don’t. To say that either side is wrong undermines the progress we’ve made as a society and recreates that dynamic that all women are interchangeable. What we need to focus on is that Natasha Romanoff was denied the choice to have kids.

The simultaneous blessing and curse of any story is that it can be interpreted — the meaning of a story is partly created by the writer, and partly created by the audience. Since society likes to compartamentalize, it isn’t too farfetched that they would see the Black Widow as representing all women everywhere. For some reason it is easier to take a man out of his box and understand him as a single entity than it is to take a woman out of her box and do the same. And until society can reach the point where it doesn’t matter what gender is taken from the box, perhaps we do need to be more careful about how characters are crafted, how they appear on screen or in books. Until then, maybe we really do need that balance — and now it isn’t even about making it clear that sexism is sexism, but making it clear that we are all different. We all have different desires, and should be given the freedom and choice to act on those desires.

What a beautiful day it will be when classic films will be feminist simply by being a reflection of the era in which they were made.


Mumma Mia

Happy Mother’s Day, everyone!

For this week’s post, I’d like to tell everyone just how amazing my Mumma is. Let’s start with a little history lesson.

March 2, 1989. The Melville twins were born.

imageWe were planned (or at least a birth was planned — though twins run in the family, so my mother must have expected she would end up with two). The doctor told my parents that we would be boys, so for the first year or so Rebecca and Samantha (not Joshua and Samuel) were tomboys.

My parents divorced when my sister and I were very little. We could never afford any sort of daycare, so my mom taught us the route from school to her place of work, and every day after school Becky and I would take our routine journey to play with glass figurines, bean bag frogs, and seasonal flags (my mother worked at a gift shop). Eventually we moved to Yarmouth, and Mom got a job as a secretary at the church we went to (during which Becky and I played with our pog collection and the bells they had in the storage closet), then moved on up and started working at a bank — a vast improvement, though not perfect. When I finally hit age 14 and was able to get my own after-school job, I always made it a point to have money in my account, just in case a bill needed to be paid.

As a kid, there was this concept that was passed around of a “cool mom” — the kind that didn’t embarrass her children. Looking back, I realize that I was always embarrassed that my mom was the cool mom. It is only as you grow that having a cool mom becomes a cool concept. My mom and I have had our ups and downs… every family has those. But luckily, I’ve had enough sense to hang on tight to my family.

I take after my mom in that respect (and others). She was always the closest of her sisters to our grandparents’ house — some chalk it up to the fact that she’s the baby of the family, but I like to attribute it to her fierce loyalty. She now lives with them as they age. She’s the woman I get my chirpy personality from — she’s full of life, she’s friendly, and she wears her emotions on her sleeve. She’s also the woman I get my nerdiness from, and I am ever-grateful for that.

Mom, thanks for braiding my hair when I was little, and thanks for letting me get your hairbrush stuck in your hair when I wanted to be like you. Thanks for breaking it kindly to me that that fuzzy memory of seeing Brent Spiner at a Star Trek convention as a child wasn’t just a weird dream. Thanks for reading to me every night, and thanks for allowing me to take that bear puppet out of the library so many times. Thanks for leaving stacks of scrap paper around the house so I could steal them and write stories. Thanks for coming into my room, crying, when we ended a conversation with shouts. Thanks for putting up with the painted mannequin in the basement. Thanks for only being willing to watch an episode of Firefly if I watched an episode of Sherlock. Thanks for giving me a childhood based on trust instead of dominion. Thanks for never quashing my free spirit, no matter how bizarre a child I was, and telling me that money would never been an issue in life if I put my heart into it. Thanks for being my mom.

An Ode to Phoebe Buffay (on Social Anxiety)

As many of you may already know, all ten seasons of Friends got put on Netflix a few months back. I loved the show growing up, and now that I’m the same age the characters were in Season 1, I love it even more: a lot more things make sense, and are simply more relatable now. And it still never ceases to make me laugh.

Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been rewatching the series for the past couple of weeks, or maybe it’s the weird socially anxious funk that I’ve found myself in lately, but I’ve really been discovering just how much I relate to Phoebe Buffay (First World Problems: relating to a TV character). She was always one of my favorite characters growing up. In fact, my family used to call me the Phoebe of the group — I was an oddball, usually offering up the unexpected perspective and saying things that sometimes only made sense to me. I used to revel in that oddness (and still do… though I do feel that I’ve lost some of my “Phoebe-ness”, in that respect. As I age, the horrific truth of it is that I’m becoming more grounded and boring) — but now I realize that there’s more than just Phoebe’s weird personality that I relate to.


Phoebe was also kind of the black sheep of the group. Everyone else seemed to have connections with each other (best friends in high school or college, roommates, brother and sister, etc), but Phoebe was just there — she was still a part of the group, but she often seemed to be on the peripheral. There was even an episode in which Rachel specifically points this out — how if anybody would get phased out of the group, it would be Phoebe — and Phoebe gets really offended (and rightly so!).

In college, I sometimes felt like “the Phoebe”. I had a lot of friends who were international students and MK’s (missionary’s kids), and they had this natural bond in the fact that they grew up in a culture completely different to the one they lived in now. I, on the other hand, grew up in Massachusetts (for those of you who would like to tease me and say that that’s like another country, shush. Not the point). The only cultural experience I had was a two-week trip to Guatemala when I was 15, surrounded by my American friends. Did I like learning about different cultures? Yes. Did I have any personal reference to them? No. I’m not saying that it was the fault of my friends that I felt disconnected… I just had a kind of natural separation called My Past.

During my senior year, I shared an apartment with my two best college friends. They were best friends with each other, but during senior year some issues arose between them. Both of them later claimed that I acted as a kind of mediator in the apartment (I don’t remember ever feeling like the mediator, but okay, sure). Years after college, I was hanging out with one of them, and we were watching an episode of Friends — The One After the Superbowl, Part 2 — in which Rachel and Monica are fighting, and Phoebe gets involved and forces them to make up. My friend turned to me, laughing, and said, “You really were like Phoebe!”

This is the part where being the Phoebe of the group starts looking really awesome, if only by association. Even though she was my favorite Friend, I never fully appreciated Phoebe as a kid. I was young, number one, and didn’t understand a lot of the 20-something life that the characters were experiencing, but number two, I never really thought about just how much Phoebe went through. While everyone else was worrying about break ups and awkward first dates, Phoebe was realizing her mom wasn’t her mom, and dealing with a deadbeat dad — and had a past that would put an icy halt to any casual conversation.

The issues that Phoebe goes through in the show are the most complicated of all the Friends’, and yet she handles them just as any of the Friends handle any of their issues — and on top of that, she gladly takes on the role as mediator for the others’ problems. Phoebe may be weird, but she has an amazing strength to her, and that’s something I admire, whether in a fictional character or in real life.

I’m not saying I measure up to Phoebe in those regards, but it kind of gives me a perspective on things: yeah, I may feel anxiety about how I fit into a group, but I do recognize that I’m an awesome person, in many different ways. Sometimes it’s tough to remember that. Sometimes I forget to enjoy people for who they are — not for what they think of me. But that’s who I am, and it’s nice to have those moments where I can relax and enjoy myself for who I am…  to enjoy being the Phoebe of the group.

Oh! And I’m a twin! Guys, the fact that I didn’t think of that similarity until now proves just how much I am Phoebe.