Sunday, September 18, 2016

Equality: It's Up To Us

On the heels of National Women's Equality Day in August, I found myself debating with my partner the feminist qualities of 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road, which garnered a lot of attention not just for its stunning visuals and practical effects, but for its perceived feminist plot and characterization. As evidenced by our conversation, and the ongoing conversation of the internet, not everyone agreed with the "fempositive" perception. I don't think I'm being naive in believing that most educated and open-minded people today believe in the value of gender equality, yet women in the workplace still make 80¢ on the dollar, and the "damsel in distress" trope is still alive and well in Hollywood.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Intention does not equal action, and as an advantaged white male in America, I realize with discomfort that despite my feminist beliefs, I am still embedded in a long-standing privileged patriarchy, and coded sexism sneaks into my thoughts and syntax on a daily basis. 

Imaginos Workshop was created because a group of people agreed that art and stories are important, and that shared creativity is an endeavor worth pursuing. We are a multi-ethnic, multi-gender group of strange and unique people, an oddball microcosm of society at large. We are both creators and consumers, telling stories and crafting characters, while also voraciously taking in the wealth of entertainment available to us in so many forms. So how can we be sure that we aren't falling victim to the systemic prejudices that plague our society? How can we avoid unwittingly perpetuating inequalities of race and gender? 

Aliens (1986)
I don't have the answers to all of these complex problems (and my baked-in pessimism regarding human nature whispers to me that we'll never conquer them completely), but I can say that I think positive change starts with thinking critically and interacting with more (different!) people. We should strive for empathy, which in my experience happens when we dissolve that feeling of otherness that comes from ignorance of another group. As consumers of media, we should do so actively, which is to say that we should be critical and questioning of even the most seemingly benign tidbits of popular media, from commercials and billboards to multi-million dollar budget summer blockbusters. Like I said, I don't have all the answers. But I'm trying, and I've come up with a few questions to ask the next time you're sitting down to watch a movie, whether it's an action epic or a romantic comedy (even the term "chick flick" figures into this conversation. See? It's everywhere). 

1. Does a woman or women drive the plot in a meaningful way?

2. If so, do they do it actively or passively? (This follow-up question is hugely important.) e.g. If a woman is captured, thus forcing a man to rescue her, this is passive action which feeds into old patriarchal plot structures. But if, on the other hand, a woman rebels from the status quo (Furiosa deciding to take the war rig off course in Mad Max: Fury Road) or takes action against a threat (Ripley fighting off the xenomorph in Aliens), this is active influence, and in my opinion indicates a measure of equality and respect towards women and their ability to be as forceful and decisive as men, both in changing their own lives and the lives of others, and also in influencing the landscape and direction of the film plot.

3. To what end do the actions of women in the film lead? If they drive the plot but ultimately only in the service of a male protagonist, this is problematic and may indicate a regressive attitude towards women and their roles as being useful only in regards to how it might benefit a man.

4. Is the sexiness of women a key part of the film, both in terms of aesthetics and narrative? And if so, how is it depicted? Women as sexy is of course not offensive in itself. Women (and men, for that matter) can be sexy while still being powerful and intelligent. But if women are there only to satisfy the male gaze as objects of sex appeal, this is damaging and regressive.

This is not an exhaustive system obviously, but I think if audiences ask themselves these questions in combination with something like the Bechdel test, we can say fairly confidently whether a film is feminist or not, or at least get the discussion started in the right way.

- Jonathan

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