Month: October 2013

A Post-Andrea Apocalypse: Why Can’t Women Survive on “The Walking Dead?”

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Where the film industry gives us one Ryan Stone, TV gives us twenty Carrie Mathisons.

In an age where quality roles for women in film are drying up, it only makes sense that another medium would harness the opportunity to showcase strong female characters on a large scale.

Thanks to television, we have the likes of Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife, Leslie Knope on Parks & Recreation, Hannah Horvath on Girls, Selina Meyer on Veep, and countless other characters on network and cable which reflect the diverse palette of female representation streaming into our homes night after night.

The Walking Dead, one of the most successful shows of the decade, has seen a viewership increase of nearly 10 million (up to 16.1 watching its Season 4 premiere) since its first airing in 2010, soaring in the key demo week after week. It’s popular. It’s the perfect blend of fluff-fun and narrative beauty. It’s also a show which fiercely defies the progressive environment for women the contemporary television industry has blossomed into by pitting most of its heavily-developed female characters against death in a losing battle.

Season 3 of the hit series saw the demise of Andrea (Laurie Holden), a character who was never really given the privilege of being taken seriously beyond what the audience wanted her to be, thanks to the public’s never-ending hatred for her seemingly ill-informed decision-making. Andrea’s arc on the show was, to me, some of the most compelling character development I’ve ever seen (read my initial analysis before the start of Season 3 here.)

What began as a throwaway, cliched take on a down-and-out woman ready to take her own life evolved into a fruitful, satisfying examination of reversed will, clear mind, and determined spirit. We watched Andrea evolve from the brink of death (nearly by her own hand) into a woman actively rejecting a reversion to gendered hunter-gatherer society that would most likely emerge in a real-world post-apocalypse.

We most clearly observed this transformation during the bulk of Season 2, where Andrea’s superficial “failures” can only be seen as byproducts of her victimization by a world which can no longer tolerate feminism, as truly evolved “society” has crumbled and become far too advanced for those surviving in Andrea’s group. Though their version of “society” very much reverted back to the demeaning, gender-specific hunter/gatherer delegation of responsibility that predates contemporary life, most of the women seemed comfortable taking a backseat to the men throughout Seasons 1 and 2.

Lori, Beth, and Maggie took pride in keeping Hershel’s farm tidy and functional, preserving what little shred of normalcy they could, albeit inadvertently bringing an intangible dream to the group’s fingertips, though their hands could never close upon it. Fresh-baked bread and a pitcher of lemonade on the table for the men returning from a zombie slaugtherfest became a fantasy merely  teasing of a way of life that had long since disappeared.

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And thus the show evaporated the place of the woman within its world. Carol, worse so than the women bustling to maintain the state of the home, was defined purely by her maternal responsibility; the first half of Season 2 is dedicated almost entirely to finding her lost daughter, Sophia. Though emotionally-crippling in its revelation, the discovery that Sophia was amongst the imprisoned zombies in Hershel’s barn (she’d been dead the entire time) came as affirmation that women could no longer retain their natural roles as mothers, let alone foster some sort of domestic mirage Lori tried to uphold inside the house.

Andrea, however, rejected these roles. Always the independent, she fought for her equal place among the men. She made countless mistakes along the way (accidentally shooting Darryl being the most glaring), but these only worked to solidify her status as second-class in the eyes of the men. A girl playing catch-up, if you will. Should it have gotten to the point where Andrea felt the need to try so desperately to win male praise that her judgment is clouded, allowing her to mistake one of them for a zombie?

This sort of gendered acceptance issue wasn’t present in the other female characters, and that’s what made Andrea interesting. Season 3, however, shows us that within the confines of The Walking Dead ideology, womankind has no place in this zombie-infested post-society. The fact that Lori dies after giving birth comes as confirmation that nurture has reverted to nature.

Lori is the epitome of a passive, secondary citizen woman in this archaic era of reversion. We can even look at her sexual exploits in contrast to Andrea’s and see that her fate was sealed from the start. Throughout Seasons 1 and 2, Lori is sexualized by Shane and lets the desires of the men, whereas Andrea sexualizes Shane herself by initating the act. Lori takes pride in taking care of Hershel’s house with the other women while Andrea resists it, and spends the rest of her time pregnant. The result? Immediate death upon the fulfillment of her “duties” as woman.

On the other hand, Andrea comes to represent the death of the feminist woman in this era, albeit after a struggle for acceptance. She only dies once she relinquishes her independence as she succumbs to the pitfalls of affection and enters a dangerous relationship with The Governor of Woodbury, becoming the sexual, emotional, and psychological property of a male tyrant amidst her own struggle for independence and power. She submits to what she wants most. The Governor’s power trumps her rejection of “natural” role. Her death at the end of Season 3 solidifies the end of the powerful woman in a society that reverts to a “natural” or primitive social structure which relegates women to second-class status.

Her death is the death of the independent woman, and we’ve yet to come across another female character with this kind of symbolic importance.

What we have now is a mish-mash of female characters who are either shoved to the forefront of our attention because the other previously-developed women have died (Carol), or placeholders merely filling their roles as “sister” (Sasha), “girlfriend” (Karen and Maggie), “caretaker” (Beth), or even death itself (the female hiker who kills herself in front of Rick in the woods).

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Our sole hope at this point lies in the hands of Michonne, whose femininity has only come into play at one key point throughout her entire arc on the series. Last week, Beth placed Judith in the hands of a reluctant Michonne. In these few moments, we watched her face grow from bitingly angry to hopeless. In these few moments, we’re able to see the pain’s origin, and a glimpse of the person Michonne used to be. Did she have a daughter? A child she was close with and lost in the zombie takeover? Does she long to return to her own days of innocence as a child relying on the care of others?

We saw Michonne not as the tactical, cold defender that she is, but for a moment as a human. Intentionally ambiguous, the reason for her tears isn’t–and hopefully, won’t be–fully-explained. The mystery of her origin is meaningless, as being a “woman” is meaningless within the society of the survivors. Women fulfilling “duty” are killed, and women resisting it are eventually put into place.

Whether this is intentional or merely an exerted analysis may never be known. Whether the show’s reluctance to let the female “win” in this post-society world is brilliant commentary or lazy regression remains to be seen, but at least with Michonne we have a (re)starting point to piece together what Andrea started.

Oscar Season Diary #3: The Academy and Box-Office; Does it Matter for Women?

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I hate the word “gendered.”

Maybe it’s because we live in a time where it’s unjustifiably easy to see the dichotomy between male and female–especially within the film industry. Or maybe it’s because I know I use the word far too often, to highlight issues pertaining to the prior sentiment.

When you think about it, the existence of separate categories for actors and actresses at the Academy Awards is sort of sexist in itself. When the boundaries are set, difference is emphasized, and thus the funneling begins. A performance is a performance, and separating them based purely on gender has never felt right to me, never more so than now, when the American film industry is so conflicted in its representation of gender.

Since the 1970s, movie studios have benefited from this sort of separation of gender. The first round of true blockbuster films (Star Wars, Jaws, etc.) were male-centered. The trend of appealing to teenage boys continues today in what is very much the same vein of appeal as it was back then–even though that initial crop of young males are now well into their forties. Films are marketed to men, by men, and are consumed in varying quantities; whether you have a pre-destined hit like Iron Man 3 or a string of major flops like R.I.P.D., After Earth, The Lone Ranger, and White House Down, studios consistently push male-driven films like it’s the only thing they know how to do.

Films like Klute, The Exorcist, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Network made the decade a breeding ground for powerful films about powerful women. Women drove the plot. They weren’t filler that needed justification simply to hang over a man’s head.

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But, women were still sexual, you might say. And not to the point that they are in films today. I’d actually say healthily so, as opposed to the empty sexuality we so often see on contemporary movie screens. Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) in 1971’s Klute is a prostitute both socially and sexually. She has sex with a lot of “Johns,” as she calls them, but rarely do we see her engaging in contemptible behavior. She doesn’t so much use her sexuality like a pawn in a chess game to get what she wants, but rather she absorbs the act of sex as a means to feel desirable. She’s not after the act of sex itself as much as she craves the closeness and sense of self-worth. She isn’t validated by sex, she’s validated by belonging–as a woman should–as an equal part of another person’s life.

Jane Fonda won Best Actress for the role in 1972.

Bree is a powerfully-written character, and the type of female character you don’t see anymore. Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone in Gravity is a similarly-detached female, having once been a mother but not bearing the weight of a mouth to feed anymore, as her daughter died at the age of four. Stone carries the grief, but doesn’t externalize it as a weakness. Instead, the film unravels as a rediscovery of herself; her rebirth; her coming to terms with her physical fragility (the fragility of life, not gender, mind you) on the brink of death as a means to regain a sense of worth that most women in film are only represented as possessing if they’re a mother or a wife. Stone has no generic tropes to validate her; she has only herself, and is validated in her strength and will to survive–to live life itself–with former pain (not in spite of it) that won’t drag her down anymore.

Sandra Bullock is currently neck-and-neck with Cate Blanchett for Best Actress over 40 years later.

The Academy has long been able to pick out strong female parts and amplify their effect. The crop of nominees for Best Actress reflected a diverse array of women that reflected the ever-present demand for strong female characters. Zero Dark Thirty, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Amour, and The Impossible featured female characters that drove the plot of their respective films. Silver Linings Playbook, the film which took home the Best Actress award for star Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, happened to feature a fantastic actress in a male-driven film who won for a supporting role. Nonetheless, the age and cultural range (9-year old Quvenzhane Wallis, 86-year old Emmanuelle Riva) compared to the Best Actor category was astounding.

While we’re still seeing male-driven, top-heavy blockbusters dominate the box-office, there’s no denying the impact women are having on American audiences. Let’s take a look at each of the films that have opened to over $35 million weekends so far this year:

  • Gravity – $55.8 million
  • Insidious Chapter 2 – $40.2 million
  • The Conjuring – $41.9 million
  • The Wolverine – $53 million
  • Despicable Me 2 – $83 million
  • Monsters University – $82.4 million
  • Man of Steel – $116.6 million
  • Fast & Furious 6 – $117 million
  • Star Trek Into Darkness – $70.2 million
  • Iron Man 3 – $174.1 million
  • Oblivion – $37.1 million
  • G.I. Joe: Retaliation – $40.5 million
  • The Croods – $43.6 million
  • Oz The Great and Powerful – $79.1 million
  • Identity Thief – $34.6 million
  • The Heat – $39.1 million
  • World War Z – $66.4 million
  • The Hangover Part III $41.7 million
  • The Great Gatsby $50.1 million

If we remove sequels, family/animation films, and superhero/adaptation films, we’re left with:

  • Gravity $55.8 million
  • The Conjuring $41.9 million
  • Oblivion $37.1 million
  • Identity Thief $34.6 million
  • The Heat $39.1 million

Only one relied on the box-office power of its male star (Tom Cruise in Oblivion) to open a large number. The others? Driven largely by their appeal to women or appeal because of women. The Conjuring featured two strong central female characters (Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor) in a genre that largely skews female, Identity Thief hit it big solely because of Melissa McCarthy’s presence, while her appeal combined with Sandra Bullock’s presence in The Heat propelled it to box-office success as well. What else do these four films have in common? They’re all films with original screenplays and successful gross to budget ratios (Gravity being the best opener. Go figure, with a woman pushing 50).

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That brings me back to Gravity and its Oscar chances. The Academy has a duty to not only legitimize itself by nominating great films, but also to reflect what the general public deems acceptable, as well. This is true more so in recent years where films like Avatar, Les Miserables, and The Help sneak into the Best Picture race. Audiences like films that make them feel good (even when more powerful, era-specific films like Zero Dark Thirty are perhaps more reflective of our cultural climate and, therefore, more “important”), and the Academy often falls victim to this sort of blind acceptance of anything that’s neatly-tied together and pushing as little buttons as possible. How else do you explain Argo winning the top prize last year? Unless you go with the Ben Affleck sob story, that is. Poor Golden Boy didn’t get a Best Director nomination, so we’ll console him with the year’s top prize for American films. No word yet on if Kathryn Bigelow will justifiably receive honorary Oscars for the next decade after embarrassingly-cruel tactics led by U.S. politicians (you know, people with real power outside a superfluous movie industry awards bubble) ruined the reception and impact of her film.

Gravity and the case for Sandra Bullock, however, reminds me of how the road to Oscars 2009 should have gone down if The Blind Side were a much more deserving film than it actually was. We saw Bullock win her first Oscar for her role in The Blind Side, a film that entered itself into the Oscar race thanks to its gigantic box-office success (nearly $300 million worldwide). While the film populated the clear “people’s choice” spot amongst the Best Picture nominees, there was no denying Sandra Bullock’s vital extra-filmic role in a changing moviescape. She’s one of the few movie stars (regardless of gender) who can still open a movie based on her presence alone. Even her less successful films of the past ten years manage to gross at least $30-$40 million domestically. It took me a while to realize that her win for Best Actress wasn’t for her performance, but for her essential presence in the industry as a whole.

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Gravity
is making its impact as a critical smash, box-office hit and, yes, a success for the gendered debate within the film industry. The Academy would be insane not to give Bullock the win, if not to pat themselves on the back for a job well done four years ago, but to cement the crown firmly atop the head of the face of the return of the powerful Hollywood female. While Cate Blanchett’s performance is far superior, it’s clear that Oscar has a duty here. In a year when each of the leading female contenders is over the age of 40 (the supposed “age of death” for an actress’ career), Oscar can sink the boat a’la 2012, or it can be on the right side of a changing tide. These women and films are proof that an actress’ career doesn’t have to fade once she reaches a certain age.

The answer to how this year will play out in the Oscar history books lies largely within Gravity.

The All-Encompassing, Glorious Force of “Gravity” in Commercial Hollywood

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Gravity
, above all else, is a marvel as a rarity.

A film like this has immense pull as a pre-destined hit; In an age of the dying concept of a “movie star,” it plucks its cast from the handful of box-office draws that remain; it’s complex, yet effects-driven in an era of juvenile cinema which sees mature audiences flocking to cable television for adult-oriented entertainment instead of their local theater. But, most of all, it’s a film that really knows how to be a movie without sacrificing its challenging soul—and that’s often more difficult to find for yourself than a casual trip to the moon.

Gravity unfolds with a small cast and a large scope, pitting astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) against a barrage of misfortunes. Their space shuttle is struck by rogue debris from a nearby satellite (we hear, only briefly, about the Russians shooting down their own satellite for reasons unknown), forcing them to trek the reaches of space for survival. The film could have divulged into gimmicky, spectacular formula and still managed to solidify itself as a hit. With two powerhouse actors in key roles, a glossy high-concept, and an established director of titillating cinema (Alfonso Cuaron, directing his first film since 2006’s similarly-brilliant Children of Men), Gravity could have easily devolved into a quick cash-cow driven by its 3D bells and whistles. Cuaron, however, dares to take a step beyond and challenge his audience, crafting a much more complex tale of human introspection showcasing pensive, powerful moments of a woman reclaiming a sense of self and balancing them with a dazzlingly-effective narrative metaphor.

The beauty of the film lies largely within its coherence; I don’t mean to praise a show-dog merely for making it to the show, but rather to stress the importance of studio productions that maintain basic structure, yet remain challenging enough that they can still be justified as stimulating staples of film culture in a complete, harmonious package with each part having a hand in the last. We get from A to B fairly simply, and Stone’s journey towards survival is, without giving anything away, a reaffirmation and appropriation of the false realities of a society conditioned to accept comfortable closure versus grim reflection. Does Gravity hold a mirror to society, make us uncomfortable in our chairs, and force us to think about the world around us? Absolutely not. Does it envelop us, expose itself, and force its audience to consider the character as complex beyond the binary of her survival or death? Absolutely. It’s a film rooted in style, form, content, and narrative all working meticulously and harmoniously off one another, with effect reverberating throughout the film.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (long overdue for an Academy Award, which he’ll surely earn for this) crafts a visual space that encompasses the wide scope of an endless galaxy, yet manages minute details and camerawork that mimics Stone’s physical or emotional state at any given point. The camera is alive, the camera is complimentary, and the camera insists on doing more than merely showing us what’s happening. Lubezki ushers us inside, versus making the spectacle an intangible production of impossible fantasy.

Alas, what we have with Gravity in the character of Ryan Stone is a woman whose presence the script doesn’t seek to justify, though her contemporaries are often victims of just the opposite. She’s flawed, imperfect, and allowed to exist in a world women rarely are afforded in American films; one that isn’t revolved around her gender. It’s one of the film’s crowning achievements within an industry with a serious lack of substantial roles for women; there are little to no strings holding her into position. She isn’t interchangeable, and once we learn the story that built her, the film becomes more than a survival thriller—which Gravity can also work just fine as—and shifts into a collective visual metaphor for her spiritual and emotional rebirth. It’s rare for a commercial film to transcend one of its gimmicks; superhero films rarely shake their adapted identity, horror films swallow themselves whole, and the pretense of 3D or overt special effects often distracts from what ties everything together in the first place; story, character, and narrative, but Gravity exceeds those expectations (do we even have these as expectations for films anymore?) by astronomical bounds.

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The “fetus” scene

Gravity is a film that dramatically takes us along for a character’s transformation, never letting us up for air the entire time. It retains its roots as a fairly standard survival procedural, but effortlessly blankets us with the kind of storytelling that, since the 1970s, is simply hard to find in commercial movies.

Ultimately, Gravity is a feat of filmmaking about human feats of the spirit and physicality, at once a reminder of the pure escapist power of cinema, yet not relying on its fantastical construction to do the bulk of its heavy-hitting. It’s a mesmerizing journey into the magic of movies and the pure, unfiltered power of emotion we so often forget in the trainwreck that is the state of a misguided contemporary mainstream Hollywood that still panders to an audience of teenage boys. In its sweeping, momentous urgency of emotion, I recall films like Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey  when I think of Gravity, not simply because they’re all space-centric masterpieces, but because each shares an inclination for change amidst a sea of indifference. It’s interesting to see a film so similar yet so different take the reins of awards season by storm, and it’ll be even more interesting to see just how large the impact of Gravity will be when we’re still talking about it in 20 years.