The anticipated all-female Ghostbusters has recently garnered some unexpected results. Even though the trailer made it look like a monstrosity, the final reception was quite divisive. But one thing is for sure; whether you found it good, bad or merely okay it certainly wasn’t on Last Airbender levels of horrific. An argument against critics of this film is that they’re all raging misogynists. An unfair assumption to make, but all the controversy has begged the question; what’s the best way to make a movie feminist?
Of course there isn’t a clear answer to this, but there are ways to identify when it’s being done well or not. Films like Sex and the City are classic examples of how not to do it. There’s nothing wrong with liking these films but an enraging thing they do is demean women under the guise of empowering them. Sex and the City tries to spread this message about conquering life’s challenges and keeping the sisters together but it doesn’t work because women are reduced to archetypes. Everyone in the film is a skinny shopaholic who obsesses with wealth and finery and most of their troubles centre around men. The film even goes as far as to suggest the lifestyle they lead is something every woman wants. One doesn’t have to look very far to know that’s not the case.
You could argue that films like these are trying to portray women as empowering figures and it is understandable why we need films featuring strong women. For the longest time women in fictional media were usually just the damsels; the prize for the heroic man to win in the end. This leads to characters like Lois Lane, who are so one-dimensional and useless that Superman must’ve considered letting the train hit her at least once.
The 80s, 90s and early 2000s recognised this and so there was a need to make women strong and able to go toe to toe with men. In many cases this was done really well such as the Disney film Mulan or with the brilliant character Marge in Fargo but naturally there were slip ups such as Mamma Mia! or that godawful Patch Adams movie. In the same way that Michael Bay’s Transformers films assume all males are action-obsessed sex pests that like anything with a big explosion in it, these films assume all females are the same: empty-headed shells who only really desire romance. None of them are strong confident workers just because they’re strong confident workers – it’s because deep down they just want to be held. Once again the message of empowerment is lost because it leads back to clichés and stereotypes.
So what is the best way to make a movie feminist or at least more empowering towards women? There’s no right answer but a technique in a lot of films that seems to really work is… just write a character. Don’t try and make a person’s gender or race or religion their whole identity unless it’s essential (such as Carey Mulligan’s character in Suffragette). Make an identifiable character and just have them be female. You’d be amazed how well that works.
Take Ellen Ripley in Aliens. She could very easily have been a male but she happens to be female and no one cares. People love that character for her personality and her heroic actions, not her gender. Recent films have been really good at doing this too. Daisy Ridley’s Rey was the best (and arguably central) character of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and out of all the awesome things to come from Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa was most people’s favourite. Pitch Perfect is so funny because Becca and the rest of the Bellas are likeable, relatable people. Even if you took out the all-female aspect of their acapella group they’d still be hilarious characters. These films promote equality and feminism subtly and maybe that’s the best way to do it.
We live in a society where we’re slowly but surely starting to judge others by their personality, not their gender or race or nationality, and films that wish to be feminist should do the same thing. Obviously we’ve still got a long road ahead of us before everybody is on an equal footing but film is one of the best forms of escapism and if we continue to make and celebrate films with characters we love and admire for their integrity instead of their gender, then maybe the light at end of the tunnel is a lot closer than we think.