Saturday, November 19, 2011

Sexism in Cinema

Originally posted on the Filmspotting Forum

In the last couple days I watched a few movies that caused me to reflect on the relations between men and women in film.

The Chronicles of Riddick
This sequel to Pitch Black is easily more imaginative as the first.  You have a militarized fundamentalist group and one bad guy who is seen as the savior against them, although he has his own motivations.  The universe is more complex than one might expect, and the editing and special effects are quirky and fun (except when they are overblown).   The worst of the film was its characterization of women.  It is a male teen fantasy, more than anything.  The men are tough and fight to prove superiority.  The women are seductive and pursue the strongest men, but the strong men resist the woman crawling over them lasciviously.   I understand it's a fantasy, and a Van Diesel film, but why must we have films that perpetuate this caveman fantasy?  Again, it had a lot of positive points, but overall it left a bad taste in my mouth.

Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)
This is a pretty shoddy adaptation of a fascinating George Bernard Shaw play.  Except for Claude Rains and (occasionally) Vivian Leigh, the acting was horrible.  The physical set up of many in between scenes were awful.  The script, however, shone.  It is about how Julius Caesar comes to Egypt and teaches Cleopatra to be a woman-- not in a sexual sense, for it is clear that Shaw thought Caesar to be too old for Cleopatra-- but instead taught her to be independent and regal.  The verbal play, of Caesar especially, is wonderful, and a joy to hear.  I love Shaw scripts.  Even so, it is clear that the play was written in 1898, and an attitude of "a woman needs a man to teach her wisdom" prevails all the way to the last scene.  A woman can be strong in this movie, but never wise.  That is something that men must teach them.  Foolishness.

In A Lonely Place
I have seen a number of Bogie's films, and only a couple have really stood out to me-- The Big Sleep, Key Largo.  But this one tops them all.  What a charming, lighthearted film with a heart of sorrow and oppression.  Dixon is a screenwriter who has had trouble keeping relationships, especially with women, due to his reliance on violence.  If someone says a bad word about himself or another, he flairs up and begins to get physical.  Overall, he's a good guy-- charming, funny, smart.  One day, he is suspected of murder, and through that gets involved in a relationship with his funny and smart neighbor, Laurel.  Rarely have I seen a better screenplay.  The relationships are perfect: believable and fascinating.  It is all so wonderful until it goes gradually wrong.

Dixon actually has the same immature attitude toward men and women that is displayed in the Chronicles of Riddick: Men fight to prove their superiority, women desire men and should be dominated. 

** Spoiler Paragraph** (and the conclusion of the matter)
 However, by the end of In a Lonely Place it is clear that reality doesn't work this way.  You can't have good relationships with people in modern society as if you were a caveman.  In this way, not only is In A Lonely Place a superior work of art, but it is also morally powerful.  It shows the end of living in a teenage fantasy: frustrated, angry loneliness.  So sad, but so true.  There are many people like Dixon who I wish could learn this lesson before it is too late. 


  1. Recently the sexism in older movies have started to get a bit at me. I understand the historical reasons for it to be there, but it doesn't make it more enjoyable to watch. I haven't seen In a Lonely Place unfortunately. But it sounds worth a view from what you're sharing. I'd be happy to see more exceptions to the sexistic dominance among the older movies.

  2. Love your post, Steve. Brilliant and interesting connections among three very different films. I, too, love the way In a Lonely Place jolts one into a dark reality, a sort of anti-fantasy.

    Jessica, I'm curious what you think of His Girl Friday, in relation to the question of how older films present women. I grew up with Cary Grant films, but for some reason His Girl Friday was one I caught up with only relatively recently. As a cinephile, I was supposed to love it. And on one level, it is fun - quick and witty - all the best sort of screwball comedy. But I just could not get past what seemed like sexism to me: it took the man (Cary Grant) to teach the woman (Rosalind Russell) that she didn't know her own mind; he did.

    But I'm completely two-minded in my sensitivity to sexism. You see, I love Philadelphia Story and that one is extremely problematic from the feminist perspective. I can only guess that my hypocrisy has to do with the fact that I saw Philadelphia Story when I was very young, not sensitive to anything like feminism. And I saw His Girl Friday long after I'd gone through my undergrad and graduate degrees, feminist interpretation of things, firmly in place.

  3. I'm afraid I haven't seen His Girl Friday. But maybe it will be the same as for you: a too late encounter to be enjoyable since I've got those gender glasses on nowadays. Not all the time, fortunately, since it would make a lot of movies unenjoyable if I had them, but quite often.

  4. His Girl Friday wasn't as noticeably sexist to me because there were men playing different roles in Rosalind Russell's life in this film. Sure, Grant is the usual pushy man, but his goal is less romantic than the attempt to make his paper the best, and he wants Russell for her reporting skills-- which is not the usual sexist premise. Not the usual romantic comedy premise. But Hepburn has another man in her life, played by Ralph Bellamy, who is a milquetoast sort, clearly under Russell's heel. I felt that it was much more complex than a usual patriarchal setting, and that the ending could be read as sexist, it could also be understood as the natural state of these very unique characters.