Abbie Lauten-Scrivner is a journalism sophomore and Mustang News columnist. The views expressed in this column do not reflect the viewpoints and editorial coverage of Mustang News.
With the rise of feminism in Hollywood, I hear more and more movie narratives described as feminist. These films tend to be driven by a predominantly female cast and depict provocative, unusual women who challenge gender norms. I took a look at four movies from 2016, which received buzz in the media and from the public for their feminist nature. Then, I sat down with other feminists and discussed to what extent we agreed with these classifications, as well as what brand of feminism each film promotes. (Warning: spoilers.)
‘The Girl on the Train’
This thriller follows the entangled lives of three women caught in the intricately obscure web of one sociopathic man (Tom). The three female leads fall into the character types of the pathetic ex-wife (Rachel), the new picket-fence wife/mother (Anna) and the seductive young mistress (Megan), who is murdered. Only once Rachel and Anna band together do they discover the truth: each -woman has suffered through sinister abuse secretly inflicted by one man’s devious conspiracy. By listening to and helping each other, Rachel and Anna liberate themselves from the clutches of their murderous abuser and avenge Megan’s death.
As business administration sophomore Micaela Lofy pointed out, “The movie really emphasizes the power of female comradery to fight patriarchal oppression.” The persistent ambiguity of the truth behind Tom’s violent duplicity is symbolic of the struggle against patriarchal dominance. Rachel knows something heinous is afoot, but is unable to explicitly name it until the film’s end. She and Anna must literally fight for their lives to reveal the truth. This parallels the obscene amount of effort women must go through to prove experiences of oppression like sexism and rape.
Lofy also complimented the film’s portrayal of those struggling with addiction, mental illness and a history of abuse.
“It moved the viewer through how someone in an abusive relationship might see the situation, only clearly seeing the reality at the end,” she said. “It brings attention to the insidious nature of abusive relationships and the danger of gas lighting.”
However, the movie’s feminist message is weakest in its intersectionality. Lofy called its feminism “selective.” While each female’s personality is different, all three are white, upper middle class and conventionally attractive. The film does little to challenge stereotypical clichés of “types” of women.
For these reasons, I give “The Girl on the Train” two-and-a-half feminist stars out of five.
This movie received some of the more intense public and media conversation as the gender-bent remake of a beloved American classic. Reactions ranged from excitement for the new spin on the reboot to appalling sexist, racist commentary. The latter included Milo Yiannopoulos bullying actress Leslie Jones on Twitter.
Political science sophomore Katie Ettl pointed to the success of a film driven by a quartet of quirky, unconventional, powerful women to be inherently feminist. It directly challenges historical Hollywood norms. The severe reactions the movie provoked proves this.
Furthermore, the movie passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. This test measures whether a film includes at least two named female characters who actually talk to each other about something other than men. It serves to expose films that use female characters solely as a medium to continue male narratives when there are no men currently present onscreen. Only about 50 percent of movies pass this test.
But the female Ghostbusters indisputably belong to themselves. Their ambitions and interests within the context of the film do not support a convincing romantic subplot. The women work too hard to worry about the troubles of men, they’re too busy being heroes. It is so refreshing to see a movie with heroic women stay true to its message without tainting their story with a forced, unnecessary and unbelievable plotline about romance. (Remember Black Widow and Hulk in “Avengers: Age of Ultron”?)
However, Ettl is apprehensive about the movie’s stereotypical casting of the “street smart” Ghostbuster, Patty Tolan, as the only black woman in the film. She stands alone in her street expertise among three highly educated white women. This plays in to the tired and toxic image of black intelligence being limited to street smarts.
Additionally, despite insinuating that the character Jillian Holtzmann is queer, the movie fails to be bold enough to declare it. Post-production, director Paul Feig was asked in an interview with the Daily Beast whether Holtzmann was a lesbian or not. He responded, “I hate to be coy about it, but when you’re dealing with the studios and that kind of thing…” Thus, giving fans their answer. A weak move indeed.
“The movie could have gone a lot further,” Ettl says. “But if you like this movie, you’re a feminist.”
“Ghostbusters” gets three-and-a-half feminist stars.
This film features a female driven cast of an entirely different kind: a trio of black women working for NASA in the 1960s. Compared to the previously discussed movies, this is without a doubt the most successful in demonstrating intersectional feminism.
The movie refuses to categorize women. It demonstrates the vast complexity of not only personality, but identity that one woman can have: female, black, white, leader, mathematician, engineer, friend, mother, wife, lover, etc. It then shows how these identities allow different levels of privilege or marginalization.
The distinct contrast between the level of power Kirsten Dunst’s white character has compared to Katherine Coleman, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson sharply reveals the intersections of gender and race in defining privilege. Both the white and black women share the experience of not being taken seriously by the patriarchal powers in charge. But the black women face sexist male perceptions from incredulous black men within their community, as well as from the racist white hegemony.
One disappointing plot device was the film’s commitment to the white savior trope through the fictional actions of the benevolent white boss. He fights for the equality of his black female employees. He sees people, not color (“Here at NASA we all pee the same color,” he said), enforcing the problematic ideology of today’s color-blind racism. His character was showy, stole from the independent strength of the female leads and was essentially fictitious.
“I feel like it was meant to be a justification for white people,” Ettl said. “People can point at him and say that not everyone was so bad.” Mainly, his character served to dilute the overt racism at NASA into a more palatable form.
“Hidden Figures” is worthy of four feminist stars.
Despite focusing on men rather than women, this film exemplifies feminist attitudes toward masculinity. The film’s commentary about the psychological and social effects of toxic masculinity challenge patriarchal norms. The characters defy stereotypes. This bold, raw critique demands all the attention the film
Following the life of Chiron, a queer impoverished black boy from Miami turned Los Angeles drug dealer, the movie illustrates the harm in conforming to societal pressure to perform the patriarch’s brand of masculinity. After years of homophobic bullying, Chiron runs from his queerness.
This shame moves him to overcompensate through exhibiting hyper-masculinity. He has the car, the muscles and the gold grill. He is strong, serious and in control: the spitting image of rugged heterosexuality.
“If someone saw grown Chiron. White people would probably be afraid,” Ettl said. “There would be so many stereotypes.”
Yet, the film shows the viewer through context that Chiron’s depth is infinitely more than that. He is a victim of society, surviving the only way he saw available
“Moonlight” definitely deserves four-and-a-half feminist stars.
I would hesitate to ever give a movie a full five feminist stars. The concept of a “perfect” film that is completely representative seems unenlightened and presumptuous. No single movie could show the tenets of feminism in their entirety. Only through the culmination of many intersectional films that challenge presumptions of the norm and strive for the truthful, raw depiction of the underrepresented will Hollywood’s feminism be bettered. Intersectional feminism in Hollywood allows mainstream movies to show as many majority and marginalized identities as possible. With the recent movies I have seen, I am optimistic this is the future that feminism in Hollywood is headed toward.