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.

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