Dear Harriet,

Remember January, when we were walking through the streets of Rotterdam from that theatre that until the end of the festival I’ve never quite managed to find my way to by myself since you always knew where it was and I just followed? There was a feminist film programme section at the festival called “What the F!?” and we were just coming out of a screening of I Stay with You (Me quedo contigo, Artemio Narro, 2014) which had a lot of people walking out, if I remember correctly, and it left us somewhat perplexed, too.1 It was one of the three films in the programme section directed by men (the other two being To the Editor of Amateur Photographer [Luke Fowler, Mark Fell, 2014] and No Men beyond This Point [Mark Sawers, 2015]—which, coincidentally, is playing in November at the Ljubljana film festival) and though I would like to say that the gender of the filmmaker should hardly play a role in how we judge a film or its ideological stance, our discussion of I stay with you seemed to also be revolving around the issue whether the psychotically and senselessly violent women of the film were reflecting the director’s (misogynist) view of women as inherently evil or psychotic. When I interviewed the director about it, I was quite happy to see we were on the same page—he also said, among other things, that violence is “a human condition, not a gender condition. […] In the 90% of the films […], if women are being violent, it is only as a reaction to a male action. […] ‘She was raped, now she is studying Kung Fu and fighting back.‘” He also mentioned the controversial I spit on your grave (1978, Meir Zarchi), a rape-and-revenge classic, and how it’s a case of the female protagonist only being allowed to fight back after all of the monstrosities (and monstrously exploitative things, I might add) that are done to her by men—without any particular reason. I thought it ridiculous that the film was originally titled Day of the Woman—so, what I’m asking, if a bit cynically, is, are women in films only allowed to have “their day” after being raped and tortured? Is the director’s opinion and mindset, let alone their gender, relevant here at all or should we just consider these (and any other) films as “texts”? I find this question interesting also in connection to another film, Girlhood (Bande de filles, 2014), because its director Céline Sciamma highlighted the issue of female violence specifically and how it—contrary to depictions of male violence—always has to be justified somehow, but also because she was the target of critiques herself for being a white film director making a film about black, working-class teenagers from the Parisian suburbs. Do you think that No Men Beyond This Point (which had its audience—including me, at first at least—laughing out loud) is doing more damage by doing exactly the opposite from I Stay With You—bringing the depiction of behaviour associated with femininity to its extremes and imagining a world ruled by women as a world without violence (and even sex), and thereby reinforcing the gender stereotypes without questioning the sexist ideology (and its motives) behind it for even a second?

— Dear Tina,

I do remember that. The cinema was the Cinerama, I liked the walk there because it past a brilliant bakery. I remember being annoyed by Me quedo contigo, and our grappling with questions about the director’s portrayal of women. Having now also discussed the film with the director when I hosted a post-screening Q&A at Edinburgh International Film Festival in June, I know he identifies as a feminist, and as you say, feels that his film turns gendered violence around. Some of the audience in Edinburgh also walked out, and later complained that they were ill-prepared for the level of graphic violence in the film. The way that Narro opens the film with scenes that suggest a melodrama, a typical girls-just-wanna-have-fun scenario and then drastically shifts the action to all out torture and rape, is a tonal shift too much for most viewers. To your question about women “having their day”—I think that this term is used as an acknowledgement of the typical horror trope—it’s almost like an apology to women for being consistently portrayed in horror films as disposable victims. It makes me think of what I read recently in Clarissa Pinkola Estés 1992 book, Women Who Run with the Wolves, which I’ve actually not long started reading. Estés uses storytelling to uncover truths about the true nature of women, and early on uses the Bluebeard myth to make a point about women’s consciousness. In the myth, the naïve woman marries Bluebeard despite her older sisters dislike of him, and is later horrified to learn that he is just the psychotic murderer that they thought he might be. Estés cites the tale as an example of a woman neglecting her instincts due to societal pressure to “play nice”, she becomes a victim rather than disappoint a man. It’s the curiosity of her sisters—and their instinct to learn and gain knowledge that saves her. I watched American Psycho (2000) last night and the victimhood in that also relates here, in two ways. First because of one scene in which the prostitute, Christie, having survived a night of beatings at the hand of Patrick Bateman, is hesitant but nonetheless persuaded back to his apartment. She is conscious of his darkness, his Bluebeard qualities, if you will, and yet her economic dependencies bring her back. She’s not totally naïve, but she still wants to believe it’ll be OK. Secondly, American Psycho is directed by Mary Harron, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Guinevere Turner, (who both, incidentally have mainly written and directed short films and television, rather than feature films, despite having made one of the most critically acclaimed films of the 2000’s) and most people seem to forget the film was directed by a woman. Perhaps the gender of the director doesn’t matter. Does Harron bring a “feminine” quality to American Psycho? I’m not sure about that. Then again, if you look at something like Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001), in which Béatrice Dalle’s Core devours her victim, penetrating his body in a way akin to that demonstrated in Me quedo contigo, you see a very tactile, thoughtful approach to body horror. Denis uses close-ups to inspect the male body, whereas Narro frames the bodies in a wide, fixed shot akin to theatre, so we can take in the whole scene. Is Narro’s spectatorial view of violence a more “masculine” approach? The difference between these films and Narro’s, is of course that they’re overtly horrific from the outset. What is so objectionable about Me quedo contigo is that it undermines our expectations. Women aren’t allowed to be fun, silly, naïve, polite, witty AND psychotic! I do think that No Men Beyond this Point is more damaging though. I too, started out laughing, as the film cleverly exposes the absurdity of the oppression of women in fake news reels. The film’s plot, however revolves around a quest to restore heteronormativity, and along the way there are missteps. When women no longer need men to procreate, they’re portrayed—as you say—as being uninterested in sex and lesbians are portrayed as women who’ve given up on men, rather than a legitimate identity. If we are to believe Sawers world view, women are sexless, non-violent, lacking curiosity and uninterested in science (space exploration is cancelled). Thinking of it that way, it’s actually a very sexist film! Narro also spoke to me about Me quedo contigo as being about the absolute power the women possess—they do what they do because Valeria’s father “has money”—the implication is that they’ll pay off anyone who questions them. At the end of the film they’re seen together as a cohesive group, stronger together than they were at the start of the film, with Natalia essentially rejecting her relationship. When I watched Thelma and Louise (1991) recently I thought of this ending again too. Narro seems to make Me quedo contigo an antidote to Thelma and Louise, because in his version, the cowboy is dispatched, and the women keep their power at the end. What do you think?

— Dear Harriet,

Since you mention Thelma and Louise—isn’t it interesting how from today’s point of view, or the point of view of someone who has seen Me quedo contigo at least, it seems really innocent and both women seem more sweet than violent, yet when the film came out, the “violent behaviour” of the two women was quite controversial: Neroni writes, “the reaction to Thelma and Louise—a film about two friends who begin a vacation together but end up running from the law after killing a man who tries to rape one of them—more closely resembles society’s past reactions to actual female murderers than to other films”2, noting how the public tried “hysterically” to define real life femininity, feminism, and violence in reaction to this film. She points out that while it is true that the violence Thelma and Louise committed in the film was both aggressive and extreme (killing a man, robbing a convenience store, to blowing up a tanker truck, etc.) compared with other standard action films in which the body count often ranges between fifty and two hundred, Thelma and Louise is practically nonviolent, with its body count of only one. She concedes that the public outcry over the film was fuelled in part by the film’s attempt to explore how the one to be potentially involved with violence is the average woman—both Thelma and Louise are depicted as leading ordinary, even boring and stifling provincial lives, playing the roles of caretakers, working as a housewife and a waitress—as opposed to “the wealthy psychotic woman3. As it turns out, the latter is a regular trope of films made in particular historical times of societal change which also challenged gender norms—such as WWII, when large numbers of women suddenly had jobs—as a way to displace the feelings of anxiety accompanying the change, into an aesthetic realm. A good example is the fear of the psychotic career woman in the nineties, with films such as the infamous Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992) being made. And with this, I can’t help but returning to Me quedo contigo for one last time—could the ostensibly edgier film of the two actually lose some of its subversiveness (at least that concerning gender) with its simplistic, even naïve black-and-white handling of class? Is attributing violent behaviour, or in this case, psychoticism, exclusively to the rich—the elite—not forcing violence to stay safely within the borders of “the Other”—even if they may not be the marginalised; and thereby ultimately avoiding the fact that there may be a violent streak in each of us, regardless of gender, class, political persuasion, etc., etc., something that may perhaps only become apparent in certain circumstances? I think the same thing could be said of the typical action heroine of the contemporary mainstream film, who with her superior knowledge of weaponry and fighting skills is keeping the violent behaviour at a safe distance from the everyday, ordinary girl or woman. And on that note: these “action girls” are seemingly a contradiction to the woman-as-image theory typified by Laura Mulvey, assuming an active male subjectivity and a passive female objectivity, men being the agents that propel the narrative, and women stopping it. The action girl is not really passive: she can fight, she shoots, even kills and rescues others sometimes, in short, she very well might be carrying the action in ways normally reserved for male protagonists. However, Mulvey also writes that classical cinema conventionally portrays man as the bearer of a voyeuristic gaze and woman as its object, and the action heroine is more often than not filmed to accentuate her body. Even the functional, muscular heroines’ bodies of the 1980s and early 1990s gave way to a more traditionally feminine and sexualised body by the late 1990s and into the 2000s, and there is a heated debate surrounding the cinematic depictions of comic-book heroines such as Wonder Woman going on in the last few years! It seems that the cinematic gaze of the action film codes the heroine’s body not only as a subject, but also as an object (perhaps it could be argued that it does the same with the muscular male hero). Brown even writes that “the action heroine who exhibits a mastery of guns represents a woman who has usurped a particularly phallic means of power,” and that “the sexual, [fetishistic] implications of female gun use in contemporary cinema has not been ignored by filmmakers.4 There is a kind of an idealism about these Hollywood depictions of strong, assertive women. It seems that female characters—action heroines or not—must often overcompensate for being female in the first place, which makes me think of a great piece that I once stumbled upon on “strong female characters” and how they are actually bad for women. In it, Shana Mlawski writes, consider Rachel Taylor’s character in Transformers, who, Megan Fox claims, is an intelligent, Strong Female Character. Of course! She’s a 23-year-old, model-thin super-attractive super-genius hacker who is so very smart that everyone in the Pentagon spends the whole movie looking at her dumbly because she’s just so much better than them at everything. […] Good characters, male or female, have goals, and they have flaws. Any character without flaws will be a cardboard cutout. Perhaps a sexy cardboard cutout, but two-dimensional nonetheless.5

This brings me to your question regarding Thelma and Louise—in a way, at least, and how the women are brought together at the end of the film—both films actually, no matter whether they are losing or winning the game on the whole. Perhaps what is happening with over-compensating female action heroes after so many years of damsels-in-distress could be compared to portrayals of female friendships in film and on television these days after decades and decades of catty, envious, back-stabbing woman-to-woman relationships in different media. From Bridesmaids (2011) to Broad City (2014-), and on a meta level, also the media and fan portrayal of Fey-Poehler friendship, the relationships between women have suddenly started being idealised to the point of absurdity—even if, realistically speaking, they are as likely to end in disappointment, betrayal, or just plain growing apart as any other type of a relationship. But I’m losing track of violent women—there are two more things I wanted to comment quickly on: firstly, it seems to me that cinematically dismembering the male body into parts in Denis’s Trouble Every Day that you mention is dehumanising the man in question, making him be ravaged not only by the film’s murderous character, but also by the camera; just like most of pornography is objectifying the female body by reducing it to its parts—breasts, lips, vagina—and thereby reducing a woman to her sexual functions. Secondly, I love Estés’s comment on women being socially bound to the rules of politeness to the point of defying common sense and especially their own sense of caution that you cite—and I think it might be the reason why people are having a debate on whether women are “naturally” violent or not in the first place.

Dear Tina,

Exactly! Men are socially conditioned to speak out, be heard, be aggressive, defeat your enemy, as we see from studies of men interrupting women at work, for example.6 Women are taught all sorts of negative associations to do with speaking out, sharing an opinion or questioning male authority, so this directly extends to the myth of the non-violent nature of women. Women have been shaped by society into a form that plays along with male leadership, rather than challenging it, so it’s not “nature” that has decided women are non-violent, it’s society! With regards to the objectification of women in “action girl” roles, and your suggestion that the male body could be both subject and object too, is that this can be seen in recent super hero movies, such as Spiderman 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004), Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011) or Ant-Man (Peyton Reed, 2015) where there’s always a shot of the hero removing their clothes. It might be part of a montage of transformation from ordinary to super, a training sequence or part of a character’s “down time” but this self-conscious acknowledgment of the sculpted male body has become a staple of the genre. The point about the Strong Female Character is very interesting. I particularly like what Mlawski says about the ordinariness of male characters in such action films (like Shia LeBeouf in Transformers [2007]) where they act as an analog for the male audience, achieving wish-fulfilment by dating the “hot girl” whilst remaining fairly unimpressive themselves. Taking the idea of the “Strong” female further, it’s not just in action films where such characterisation prevails. There are so many examples of the female having to be a role model in every area of her life in order to be acceptable to audiences. Did you notice the theme put forward by BFI London Film Festival this year? Festival Director Clare Stewart called “2015 the year of the strong woman” and highlighted a number of films, including festival opener, Suffragette (2015) as key to this;

Kate Winslet standing up to her iconoclastic colleague in our Closing Night film Steve Jobs; Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara falling in love in Carol; Diane Lane and Helen Mirren—one holding, the other attacking the fort in Trumbo; Saoirse Ronan making the heart-wrenching move from Ireland to America in Brooklyn; and Maggie Smith as the irascible Miss Shepherd in The Lady in the Van.7

Stewart also noted the films in the programme written and directed by women, but made clear that these still only made up 20% of the programme overall. Looking at her selection, these strong women aren’t the super sexy, hyper intelligent, physically strong, perfect women of the action films mentioned – the Strong Female Characters8 and in fact, they most likely have genuine flaws and their own motivations, but they might be just as problematic, by being classified as “strong”. Strong suggests tough, heroic, leaders when in fact such characters might have a lot more nuance and depth, and if described differently, might relate more closely to their audiences. Using the word “strong” to describe the character is again, a way of compensating for even having female characters. Why could Stewart not say “the year of women”? Why the need to use “strong” as a qualifier? Sophia McDougall discusses this well in The New Statesman;

I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martial artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative.

Perhaps an equality of male and female characters means women on screen who demonstrate a distinct ordinariness, too. The kind of scary ordinariness from whence violence might occur, as you discussed in relation to Thelma and LouiseSuffragette uses an ordinary woman at the centre of the narrative to tell an important story about a key part of our history, one which does involve a lot of violence perpetrated by women. This ordinary woman becomes “strong” however, due to the sacrifice she makes for the suffrage cause. And she doesn’t distress the audience because of the film’s historical context. I read recently a great interview with Marjorie Liu, the writer of a new comic called Monstress, published by Image Comics. In it, Liu speaks of the essential messages she wanted to convey in writing a story about a matriarchal society, and it made me think again of the skewed and limited view of gender in No Men Beyond This Point and the violence of Me quedo contigo. Liu says;

If men disappeared tomorrow, we might not be as concerned about sexual violence, but that would still exist—women batter other women, and women are enablers of rape culture. If men disappeared tomorrow, we’d still have war, poverty—the exact same problems we have now. We like to imagine that women would do a better job of ruling the world—and I’m one of those optimists—but women aren’t a superior kind of life form, just because of our gender. We’re awesome, but not perfect. We’re human. Just like men.10

It strikes me that this should be the point of departure for all scriptwriters, who should do as Geena Davis suggested, and just makes sure 50% of their characters are female;

Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names. With one stroke you’ve created some colourful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women—and it’s not a big deal?11

In fact, this is what happened with one of the most complex, interesting and yes, strong, female characters in one of the most successful action films of all time: Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, in Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), Aliens (James Cameron, 1986) etc. The writer, Dan O’Bannon had originally written Ripley as a man, but Scott made the switch reportedly because he thought it would undermine the audiences expectation for the character; “She would be the last one you would think would survive— she’s beautiful12 How typical that Scott equated a female character with weakness! When I think of all this in relation to our point of departure—Me quedo contigo— it’s clear that Narro was not attempting to create characters with the nuance and depth that McDougal, Davis and Liu call for, but rather inviting a conversation about perceptions of female characters in the first place. Exactly the kind of conversation we’re having! He took things to the extreme in order to provoke thought, rather than simply entertain, which is valuable, but of course I too would like to see more films like Girlhood and Fidelio, Alice’s Odyssey (Lucie Borleteau, 2014) and less like the upcoming Scouts’ Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (Christopher Landon, 2015), which if the trailer is anything to go by, portrays exactly the kind of Strong Female Character we’re talking about.

— Dear Harriet,

Having had the misfortune of being commissioned to review Scouts’ Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse some days ago, I can say for sure that it does portray exactly that, and in general abhors women or female characters that could take up screen-time unless they are also strippers or at least dressed like ones. But the fact that the Monstress comic that you mention is about a teenage girl who “literally has a monster inside her” reminds me of the concept of the “monstrous feminine” that Barbara Creed has written about, and that might also be relevant here—because if we said before that in horror (and other) films, women are most often conceptualised as victims, the monstrous feminine is the complete opposite of that, though it might roughly serve the same purpose as representing women as non-violent: these stories seem to be cautioning against women transgressing the boundaries that have been put in place for them in a patriarchal culture. Furthermore, they are advocating the need for men to exert control over women and their sexuality: Creed argues that the prototype of all definitions of the monstrous is precisely the female (reproductive) body, threatening the masculine authority if left undisciplined. Here, she is challenging the traditional psychoanalytic view that man fears woman as castrated—instead, Creed maintains, he fears her as castrator. She seeks evidence in various examples of literary history and its numerous gendered monsters, which most of the time, do not simply happen to be female: their very monstrosity is defined by it. She explains that “all human societies have a conception of the monstrous-feminine, of what it is about woman that is shocking, terrifying, horrific, abject13. Broadly speaking, what is rendered as horrific, are women’s bodies; the abject is what the social order has expelled. Female body and its functions (especially in a reproductive sense, for example menstruation, pregnancy and birth) are often abjected from our society’s symbolic order, and it is from these conceptions that each society has formed its female monsters, like Sheela-na-Gigs, women holding their labia apart to reveal their vaginas as an opening into a dark, terrifying place in twelfth-century Ireland and England, mythical creatures such as Grendel’s mother, Lilith and the succubus, variations on vagina dentata or even the symbolism of Aliens or Carrie (Brian de Palma, 1976), films that on the whole, might be read as sympathetic towards women. Monsters by their very definition therefore are abject, and for Julia Kristeva, so too is the maternal; and since encountering the abject is a psychologically traumatic experience, this is a frequently-exploited source of horror. Numerous examples of female monstrosity are in themselves acts of oppression, since they are inherently gendered acts of subjugation: they are, as mentioned before, artificial constructs which are implemented by a domineering patriarchy in order to contain or control “excessive femininity”, since the abject, as defined by Kristeva14, is that which does not “respect borders, positions, rules”, which “disturbs identity, system [and] order”. In a similar vein, Creed writes that many societies have used the image of the monstrous-feminine to validate the proper role for woman—a role that bolsters male power. Proper women do not seek to usurp the male role, create unrest, undermine femininity, reject motherhood, terrify, castrate or kill. Proper women should avoid the labels of man-hater, witch, Amazon, whore, lesbian or castrator. But the concept of the acceptable woman of course also gives rise to other sets of female stereotypes such as the virgin, sweetheart, mother and angel.15

And this is another reason why I think this is relevant to our discussion: the images of the monstrous feminine have now—also with violent women on film—taken on a subversive role and started to be “read against the grain”, questioning the belief that women are more likely to be victims than monsters; or rather, dismantling the whole dichotomy of images of women split between being a victim to be rescued or at least avenged or a monster to be annihilated. Instead, like in Monstress, some women have “taken great pleasure in seeing themselves as monsters with the power to terrify.”16 Even more, while “monstrosity” in itself is something which does exist outside of societal and biological norms, it does not exist outside of nature: just as Simone de Beauvoir has famously written that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman, Donna Haraway emphasises that “biology is discourse, not the living world itself17. This would mean that rather than representing an abject failure to conform to biological boundaries (like in Plato and Aristotle’s view of women as subhuman, somewhere between a beast and a man, as “failed males”), monstrosity in fact can be used to locate gaps and contradictions in the way in which films represented the dominant values and mores of the culture: it threatens to reveal the gender boundaries as nothing more but arbitrary constructs, and thereby, to expose them to be liable to be dissolved altogether.

  1. The film turns the all too familiar cinematic depiction of kidnapping, rape and torture upsidedown by switching the genders of the victim and the perpetrators. Four women in their late twenties of early thirties throw a bachelorette party. One of them picks up a man—“the cowboy”—in a bar and makes out with him in her car; meanwhile, two others decide they want in, too. They handcuff him, playfully at first, and then tie him up back at home, drugging him and then slowly letting free rein to their most sadistic impulses, raping him and torturing him to the point of death.
  2. Neroni, Hilary. 2005: The Violent Woman: Femininity, Narrative, And Violence In Contemporary American Cinema. S U N Y Series in Feminist Criticism and Theory. State University of New York Press, New York, 36–37.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Brown, Jeffrey A. 2011: Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishism, and Popular Culture. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 31.
  5. Mlawski, Shana. 2008: “Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad for Women”. Overthinking It. 18 August. Web.
  6. Sandberg, Sheryl and Grant, Adam. 2015: “Speaking While Female”. New York Times. 12 January. Web.
  7. Stewart, Clare. 2015: “Introduction”. BFI London Film Festival brochure.
  8. Robinson, Tasha. 2014: “We’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome”. The Dissolve. 16 June.
  9. McDougal, Sophia. 2013: “I Hate Strong Female Characters”. The New Stateman. 13 August. Web.
  10. McMillan, Graeme. 2015: “ ‘Monstress’: Inside The Fantasy Comic About Race, Feminism And The Monster Within”. The Hollywood Reporter. 3 November.
  11. Davis, Geena. 2013: “Geena Davis’ Two Easy Steps To Make Hollywood Less Sexist (Guest Column)”. The Hollywood Reporter. 11 December.
  12. Robinson, Joanna. 2015: “8 Great Female Roles That Were Originally Written for Men”. Vanity Fair. 7 June.
  13. Creed, Barbara. 1993: The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. Popular Fiction Series. Routledge, London, 1.
  14. Kristeva. Julia. 1982: Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. European Perspectives Series. Columbia University Press, New York, 4.
  15. Creed, Barbara. 2012: “The Monstrous Feminine: Stereotyping Against the Grain”. In: Contemporary Visual Art and Culture Broadsheet, 41. 1., 30-31.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Haraway, Donna.1992: “The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others”. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, Paula A. Treichler, eds., Cultural Studies. Routledge, New York, 295-337.