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Feminism has been a blog buzzword in film criticism for the past few years. Notably around the success of the superhero genre, a vocal majority has cried out for female representation in superhero films. How many men named Chris do we need leading our summer movies? This kicks off a discussion about female representation in films, which turns into a discussion about tokenism and audience pandering and basically tends to turn the comments into a completely unsatisfactory affair. As every blockbuster makes waves, so too does commentary about female representation in films. Baby Driver’s females are flat, Beauty and the Beast is still about Stockholm Syndrome, Suicide Squad and Jurassic World are terrible representations of women in film, where’s representation without tokenism? Honestly, the films you seek are out there, dear reader, they just take looking with an eye to independent cinema. In 2017 alone, Beatriz at Dinner, The Beguiled, and Colossal all did fantastic jobs with even portrayals of both men and women and are some standouts in cinematic feminism. Those didn’t get a wide release so the debate rages on in blogs and think pieces. Instead of just discussing feminism in varying shades of grey, let us look at this topic in a different light. When examining the past ten years against the previous decades of filmmaking and press, it’s interesting to see how females in film have slowly risen to the top, and more importantly, attempts at feminism are beginning to be made in earnest.

A simple comic joke became the gold standard of identifying “feminist” films, or at least “anti-feminist” films in one broad stroke. In 1985 Alison Bechdel penned the above comic as a joke, where a very specific rule keeps two women from the movies and have them ending up at home together. The rule is as follows;  two women (which the rule has expanded to two named female characters) must talk to each other about something other than a man. Seemingly impossible to fail, yet there is an entire website dedicated to proving how hard this tends to be for screenwriters. This opens up a much larger debate amongst movie fans, as one key aspect the Bechdel-Wallace Test misses is quality of the cinema involved. Films with large female ensembles tend to pass the Bechdel-Wallace test, but at the same time those films are treated with minimal respect from critics and audiences. Films that are largely centered around a male cast such as Moonlight or The Godfather tend to fail one or more of the criteria. Does this mean that the test is a terrible idea? Should films not be judged against their females? Well yes and no. Screenwriters should acknowledge that the test’s existence is important as it highlights the fact that female characters should actually be characters and not in the orbit of male characters.

As a response to the popularity of the Bechdel-Wallace Test in regards to legitimate feminist film criticism, a Tumblr user came up with the Mako Mori (above) test. In this test, named after one of the protagonists of Pacific Rim, a named female character must have her own narrative arc that does not support a man’s narrative arc. Three simple points, and yet even fewer films pass this test. As with the Bechdel-Wallace test, there are pros and cons with this examination approach to films. All this does is prove that there is one fully fleshed out female character in the script, it has nothing to do with the film overall as a feminist piece. The purpose of these tests aren’t made for an examination of feminist theory espoused in the narrative of the film. The reason these tests exist, and why they’ve remained so dominant in online criticism, is a matter of whether females are subjects or objects in the narrative. If a film fails either test, it’s no crack against the film itself nor any potential feminist ideals that might be contained within the narrative. However, on a representation front, a film that doesn’t pass fails female characters by giving them no agency, stripping away what could be decent characters and turning them into accessories to the men.

So let’s go in the opposite direction and look at females as the action heroes. There’s a legacy of female leads in the revenge narrative, such as Lady Snowblood and I Spit On Your Grave. There’s also been an onslaught of gun-toting women out for blood. A short list brings up Colombiana, Salt, Hanna, Haywire, Everly, Sucker Punch, and the forthcoming Proud Mary and Atomic Blonde. Even franchises and comedies are getting into the game with The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, Wonder Woman, Spy, Ghostbusters, and The Heat. They all combine talented high profile actors with strong women in the leads. Is this an advancement in terms of feminist film? Technically yes, by having actual strong females in the lead, it does certainly strike viewers as more feminist filmmaking. Female-led action movies don’t usually have women succumb to being mere objects of any men, so of course these films are automatically feminist because, by nature, they’re very much pro woman! However, just because a film has a female lead in an action position doesn’t mean it’s inherently feminist, it just means it has less potential to be sexist.

Let’s strip down feminist filmmaking to two core issues: behind the scenes and onscreen. Behind the scenes is remarkably easy to discuss and is also the largest and most notable change. The New York Film Academy released an infographic in 2013 detailing women’s positions behind the camera and the results are…well, exactly what you’d expect to see. Men held a lot of the power and acclaim behind the camera. Women were largely either, onscreen or working on documentaries, while men were higher paid and more involved in crafting narrative films. The Celluloid Ceiling published updated information in 2016 and the findings were similar despite the year gap. In terms of narrative work, men still have the upper hand with screenings and distribution, while females flourish in documentaries, but women have been slowly rising the ranks largely as producers and directors. Despite some fantastic female cinematographers such as Rachel Morrison ( above, Fruitvale Station, Black Panther), Reed Morano (Meadowland), Natasha Braier (The Neon Demon), and Amy Vincent (Hustle & Flow), no female has ever won an Academy Award for cinematography. Female editors are even less prevalent in modern narrative filmmaking, which is particularly striking, considering early Hollywood was founded on the backs of female cutters. So why are modern narrative films such a boys club behind the scenes?

Part of it might have something to do with modern cinema and more importantly, two bits of film theory. One is strictly cinema and is often referred to as the male gaze. Coined by Laura Mulvey, the male gaze refers to three points in cinematic language; 1) the camera lens is being wielded by a heterosexual man against a woman’s form, 2) the audience’s gaze is being turned upon a woman’s form, and 3) the characters within a film have their gaze upon a female character’s form. As Mulvey herself puts it in Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema, “Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” The essay itself is a fascinating read, but the bullet points are that gazing upon a woman’s form in cinema does two things for the audience: it turns them into voyeurs against the woman’s form and it makes the audience identify with the (typically) straight white male protagonists. Gazing upon a woman’s form is a sort of pleasure for an audience member, turning the female character in question into less of a subject and more of an object. Even if she’s toting a machine gun and taking down nazis or avenging the death of a loved one, certain camerawork will betray the true intention of the female as more of a fetish object for the audience. Worse is when a woman isn’t necessarily fetishized in the traditional way but more through story convenience; the female characters are not sexual objects for the audience, but instead they’re inspirations for the male characters. This is why the Bechdel-Wallace and Mako Mori tests have risen to such prominence lately: audiences are calling out the decades long storytelling contrivances and want more from their female characters than just fodder for male pain.

So what’s the major, defining change for feminism in cinema these past few years? The fact that audiences are seeing and embracing different narrative types and allowing different filmmakers to share their voice regardless of gender, race or sexuality. Get Out, Hidden Figures and Moonlight set records and captivated the hearts and minds of the nation, allowing every single audience member to empathize and identify with something other than a heterosexual caucasian male protagonist. Wonder Woman set records with its box office, Sophia Coppola became the first American woman and the second woman overall to win Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival for The Beguiled (above). Ava DuVernay has become the first African American woman to be given a $100 million dollar budget for A Wrinkle in Time. Films such as Black Swan, Room, and Inside Out can captivate both arthouse audiences and awards season without sacrificing strong female characters. More women directors are getting wider distribution in the independent film world with movies such as Raw, Kedi, and The Zookeeper’s Wife. Women-led films are making decent bank at the box office with Beauty and the Beast, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Wonder Woman.

Women are slowly rising the ranks in narrative film and setting records, female characters are getting more agency, and women are getting recognized for their talent with accolades and jobs on higher profile projects. Finally, the cracks in the celluloid ceiling are beginning to show.

Make yourself heard!