So this week, Twitter broke two pieces of news. Sheffield Theatres here in the UK are pledging to have an equal split of male and female roles in plays developed in-house: their artistic director (a man, by the way) says it’s “not just about numbers, but also about the scope and range of parts female actors get to play”.
It would be fair to say a minor avalanche of tweets erupted in my TL and @ box at both announcements. I didn’t engage with many of them (it’s submissions week for @Londonswf and there was not time), but overall it would appear Sheffield Theatres were largely hailed as progressive heroes (heroines?); and in comparison, the makers of True Detective were largely condemned as complete assholes who are waaaay too male AND white (incidentally, series director Justin Lin is not white, but why let facts get in the way of a little Twage? Moving on).
Look, I’m not some apologist asshole who says the status quo is just fine ‘cos it suits me. For one thing, it DOESN’T suit me, especially as a woman working IN the film industry. Also, you’d have to have never READ THIS BLOG in your entire life to think that. Le DUH.
So, it’s true: on the one hand, the amount of talk dedicated to raising the profile of female roles and characters is excellent atm. When I started blogging about this in earnest in 2009, I was lucky if I found half a dozen links to support my point … Now? I’m literally spoilt for choice, as you can see here on my “Girls On Film (And Beyond)” Pinterest board. It would seem Feminism is very much “in” and what’s more, it’s not just the audience talking about it, but the industry too and just about every celeb you care to mention. What’s not to like?
Well, the amount of spectacularly missing the point, for starters, which can usually be summed up in feminist commentary as:
“There should be more female characters in [X produced thing]!”
Remember, we’re all agreed: we need more (and better!) female characters and we need them NOW. However, I am still getting frustrated with the notion that to create “better” stories we automatically “just” need to ADD MORE WOMEN. Women are not tea bags. You don’t just add us to a movie and somehow miraculously make that movie better *just like that*.
WHOA, wait a second. How can adding more female characters NOT make better stories??
Well, you know when you start learning to write essays and you go off at a tangent and your English teacher writes “STAY ON POINT” in red in the margins? That’s what feminist critique needs to learn to do when it comes to specific movies and the female characters they are supposedly “missing”. Let me illustrate.
DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a kickass movie: I really enjoyed it. Pretty much everyone who watched it (that I know and have spoken to about it, anyway) agrees it’s exciting, it’s interesting, it’s got heart. Certainly when I watched it I was GLUED to the screen; the woman I went to see it with (a non-screenwriter, btw) was talking for DAYS about it, saying it had made her question loads of things she had previously taken for granted, including the automatic assumption we would be on humans’ side if there was an inter-species war.
WOW. Needless to say, the above is some mean feat of storytelling. What’s more, as many new and seasoned writers alike are fond of saying (and I include myself on this), just changing ONE audience member’s opinion makes our job “worth it”. On top of that, one of the screenwriters Amanda Silver is herself a woman (and yes, seeing a woman’s name at the end credits of a mega blockbuster movie will ALWAYS give me a thrill).
Yet, for much of the scriptchat online, it would appear some feminist commentators think Amanda Silver simply FORGOT she is herself female and didn’t write any “major” female characters into DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES because, you know, maybe she was doing her nails or something at the time? NYC Mag writer Kyle Buchanan – another feminist man, presumably – appears to suggest this very idea (if not the nails part, to be fair):
“Do I think that the DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES filmmakers made a conscious decision to minimise and exclude female characters? Quite the contrary: I think they didn’t even realize they were doing it.”
Now Buchanan *does* admit DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is otherwise as kickass I think it is, but here we have the very typical audience response / assumption that Hollywood apparently doesn’t know what it’s doing, or that filmakers – even when they ARE women themselves!! – don’t realise female characters **can** exist in blockbuster storyworlds. Read the rest of Buchanan’s article, HERE.
C’mon guys. Not only is this assumption tossed about the web incessantly by self-appointed progressive media watchmen (& women!), I raise you the idea Amanda Silver (and her co-writer Rick Jaffe for that matter) knew EXACTLY what they was doing in DAWN … And NOT because Silver is some kind of traitor to the female race; or because she was selling out to a patriachal notion that says “men don’t watch female characters”.
Instead, I’d wager actual, real money it’s because Silver set out to construct a very specific TYPE of story! Here’s why:
1) Apes live in a patriarchal society
First things first: the obvious. The main apes in this story, chimps and gorillas, are patriarchal. That is a fact. The notion apes would suddenly go, “Oh hey, let’s have some female apes at this table” seems a bit unlikely. BUT GUESS WHAT – female apes ARE still present in DAWN. Caesar’s mate / queen ape Cornelia plays an integral part in the story played out, not just of the catalyst pneumonia she has; but also the birth of Caesar’s new son; OR the fact she will the difficult decisions she faces once Caesar is (apparently) despatched. That’s a lot of shit (aka conflict) for a secondary character to deal with, yet she deals with it all with grace and a total lack of hysteria. But hey, she doesn’t have any real dialogue (because she’s an ape), so I guess she’s a NOT REAL CHARACTER, right? GNASH.
2) DAWN is a male-centric story
In this dystopian future, it would appear men are in charge of the small communities of humans left. This is not a major stretch and works as a kind of microcosm of our current society. In addition, the humans are represented mostly by Dreyfus, a Captain Ahab type; along with Malcolm (our “new blood”, who doesn’t want a war), plus his partner Ellie and Malcolm’s teenage son, Alexander. Throughout the piece, all the problems on the humans’ side come from Dreyfus (or his “representative as antagonist” when he is not there, a secondary character called Carver, who is the catalyst for events when he shoots a “teenager” ape in the woods). In contrast then, all the solutions come from Malcolm – as we expect – who can only create those solutions with Ellie’s help! On this basis then, Malcolm can only be part of the solution; he is not THE solution, meaning Silver and Jaffa’s characterisation neatly sidesteps the tedious “Great White Hope” issue, present in far too action/adventure stories like DAWN.
In other words then, DAWN is a male-centric story, the exact opposite of THIS definition of the female-centric story:
So, by its very nature, Ellie is obviously subordinate, BUT she helps Malcolm in the following ways, thus performing an integral role in events regardless:
i) Ellie is a peacemaker (note: NOT a facilitator of male emotion), thus helping to not only talk down the apes, but Dreyfus too and most strikingly, Malcolm himself when he does not believe he is a leader (perhaps underscoring the notion “behind every great man there is a great woman”?).
ii) Despite Malcolm’s assertion that Ellie must leave at a certain time should he not come back from the ape’s camp, she does not; instead, she stands her ground, despite her own fear, meaning she is brave, but refreshingly, she never once starts karate-kicking anyone for once and nor does she wear a leather catsuit.
iii) It’s Ellie’s prior medical knowledge that saves Caesar’s mate, Cornelia from pneumonia, thus earning his trust and by proxy, the rest of the apes’
iv) Ellie is the one who realises intuitively Caesar has stuff to work through regarding his past (signposted for the audience via the name of his son, “Blue Eyes”, the same as Caesar’s mother the first movie), so insists they take him back to the apartment he lived in as a young ape with Will, before the pandemic.
v) Ellie “stands in” for Malcolm in the resolution as Alexander’s protector; even though she is not his mother, she will take up the role and in a completely non-hysterical or “Mom Warrior” type of way – she is doing what needs to be done, because why the hell wouldn’t you?
3) So why not more Ellies?
By the way, perhaps now is a good time to mention I had a completely to different response to Ellie than I did Frieda Pinto’s character Caroline from the first APES movie. Ellie is not the voice of any male conscience like Caroline seems to be, or even the voice of reason (too role functions often placed on female characters in male-centric stories, ‘cos y’know, WOMEN ARE SO MUCH MORE SENSIBLE THAN MEN, Hollywood apparently reckons).
Instead Ellie is gloriously matter of fact, without being completely heartless. When Alexander discovers that Ellie has a dead child (as indeed most people do, in the post-pandemic landscape), he asks what he name was; Ellie simply says, “Sarah.” From there is possibly the strongest moment of the entire movie, when Alexander says “I’m sorry” and Ellie just nods, as if to say, we all are.
This kind of character work is GLORIOUSLY understated and concretes Ellie as a character of worth and substance. This is something feminist critique is supposed to want, yet brushes over in most commentary I read about this film.
But OK, you didn’t see that; your response is your response. But if you want to know “why not more Ellies” – as articles like the Vulture piece seem to suggest – here’s why, from a screenwriting POV:
In any type of story, as a writer you do not seek to fill it full of characters – female OR male – with role functions that deviate from whatever theme or mission statement that story has. It’s extremely unlikely you would fill a male-centric story like DAWN about Alpha Males finding their way in the world – ape or human – with a bunch of quiet, reflective and composed characters like Ellie.
But if you think making female characters subordinate in role function in male-centric blockbuster stories is a new thing or that *somehow* a female-centric blockbuster in the action/adventure territory would somehow be magically different, then I suggest you are sorely mistaken. Let’s take a look at possibly THE most renowned female-centric action/adventure blockbuster ever, which is 1986’s ALIENS.
ALIENS of course places Ripley at the heart of the narrative; the story is told from her perspective. That said, most of the supporting cast is male (whether marines or not), with only a handful of female characters, just like DAWN. Check this out:
i) Newt might be female, but she is a cypher. Her ONLY purpose in the movie is to motivate Ripley to save her (on the basis of Ripley’s backstory that her daughter died of old age before Ripley returns home after events of the first movie. Of course, you could make the same argument for Cornelia being a cypher too, though I disagree based on the various ADULT choices she makes I’ve already outlined; Newt in comparison has no real choices to make).
ii) There are two peripheral marines by my count: Dietrich, a medic, who is snaffled and cocooned in the first nest sequence, so has just a few lines (and an impressive scream I might add); the pilot of the dropship who despite living to *almost* the end is another peripheral character. No difference to how peripheral females are treated in current male-centric blockbusters, then!
iii) Interestingly, the monster in the story is female. Traditionally, creatures like The Blob were basically gender-less, or creatures like Frankenstein’s Monster symbolic of male violence, so the notion of a “Queen Alien” was truly groundbreaking thirty years ago, hence the popularity of “Get away from her, you BITCH!!” Strikingly, Ripley must despatch her (and protect Newt) in a “classic way” via brute strength, the the robotic loader. This is a great example of taking something new (female monster) yet still doing what the audience wants, which is KICK ITS ASS.
iii) And then of course there’s Vasquez …
A secondary character rather than peripheral like Dietrich or the dropship pilot, Vasquez is the ultimate kickass character, female or not … She has no “girly trappings” whatsoever, figuratively or literally! Hudson even says, “Hey Vasquez, you ever been mistaken for a man?” to which she replies: “No. Have you?”
So despite being female then, if Vasquez had been the only one left by the end of the story (instead of Ripley, characterised as MOM warrior, remember), Vasquez would have probably lobbed a bomb in, blasting Newt and called it a mercy killing, no? So, there is NO contrast between Vasquez and the rest of the marines on the basis of gender alone. She was groundbreaking at the time and won awards because no one had done really done that before.
But now it’s thirty years later.
The notion of contrast has become more and more difficult in the last three decades, because we’ve essentially RUN OUT of “new characters” that no one has seen before. A female character like Vasquez who can do anything the fellas can, the exact way they can has been done: she is no longer an archetype! Cue the rise then of the kickass hottie, instead. LE SIGH.
Yet one thing that hasn’t changed is the NEED for contrast between characters. Without contrast, ensembles of characters bleed together and we need to know who stands for what in the story, very quickly. Blockbuster movies then may choose to minimise female characters in male-centric stories on this basis: it’s immediately obvious who those female characters are. So ironically, it could feasibly be argued reduced female involvement in male-centric movements is because those female characters are to signpost that character’s SIGNIFICANCE and IMPORTANCE to the narrative, NOT because she is disposable.
Look, no one is arguing movies that actively reduce female involvement in male-centric movies down to simply “the girl character” are anything other than BAD. But when a character is layered and interesting (read: not automatically sexualised) like Ellie, the fact she is perhaps one of the only female characters draws our eye to her; her gender becomes a type of catalyst that hopefully makes us realise which her actions are integral to the plot. More on this, next.
4) DAWN is all about (male-centric*) juxtaposition
Note I wrote “male-centric juxtaposition” in the subheading of this section, by the way. Finding one’s way in the world as I’ve already mentioned is something every single one of us goes through, male OR female – but arguably, there is at least some gender divide on HOW that occurs, even if that only means navigating the bullshit gender stereotypes and binary expectations society places on every single one of us.
So, it’s very easy to see the theme of juxtaposition in DAWN: just as Ellie’s involvement is integral in turning the grave situation around, a line is drawn in the sand between the humans and the apes, but also between humans (Dreyfus versus Malcolm) and apes too (Caesar versus Koba). This not difficult to understand, because part of the issue here is STRENGTH, both literal and figurative: Dreyfus wants to BLAST the problem aka the apes, or the “animals” as he calls them; instead, Malcolm wants to negotiate. There’s a difference between brains and brawn ie. book/tech smarts; or streets smarts and sheer brute strength, illustrated throughout the society of BOTH humans and the apes throughout the movie, which is summed neatly in the great scene when Malcolm attempts to go into the apes’ (seemingly deserted) camp, only to be confronted by THAT Gorilla:
However, the most telling and interesting juxtaposition in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is between Alexander and Blue Eyes.
We start the movie with Caesar and Blue Eyes hunting; from there, Caesar ends up having to save his son. In comparison to Caesar, Blue Eyes is a melancholy young ape who perhaps lacks confidence; he doesn’t know his place in the apes’ world yet. Blue Eyes is unsure of who he is, which is further signposted by the birth of his new brother, a potential usurper. Whilst all of us have to deal with this worry, male OR female, this element of the story is synonymous with the male-centric view of the characters and storyworld in *this* movie, as we assume *one day* Blue Eyes will take over from his father.
In contrast, Alexander LITERALLY doesn’t know his place in the world, or even if he will have one in the future. Malcolm’s concerns for his son stretch beyond this too and at one point in the movie, he even says something along the lines of Alexander “seeing too many terrible things, too young”. Everyone in this apocalyptic landscape has lost family and friends in the pandemic, not to mention their society, livelihoods, homes and hopes, so Alexander is symbolic of this.
However, even with the above juxtaposition, Blue Eyes and Alexander have very strong similarities too: they’re both quietly intelligent; they’re both slighter than their fathers; they’re both asked to come down on the side of right or wrong and most obviously, those “terrible things” Malcom mentions Alexander *has* seen before the story begins, Blue Eyes LITERALLY sees in the battles against the humans in the actual movie.
And now, take a second look at the actual pictures in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: more on why, next.
5) If you actually look, females ARE in the movie!
Check out the peripheral characters in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and you will see many, many females – especially human, especially children – in the shots!
Regardless of whether you believe in film theory guff like fe/male centric stories, this simple act of inclusion of females on the periphery proves the writers and filmmakers didn’t simply “forget” to write female characters into the story … Instead, they made a CONSIDERED STORY CHOICE about which ones to carry the main story, based on the above points.
Sure, there could have been some *more* females in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, but then guess what – it would have been a DIFFERENT STORY! So why not just WRITE that different story instead of shoe-horning women into THIS one?
The problem is not DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, or other [well written!] male-centric stories **like** it, old or new. The minimising of the NUMBER of female characters in male-centric stories is not even a new thing and nor does it automatically point to the notion filmmakers are misogynists or clueless. The problem is not male-centric stories, even.
The real issue is simply thus:
There are TOO MANY male-centric stories!
So STOP trying to shoe-horn women into male-centric stories and start writing woman-centric stories as well.
We’re counting on you, screenwriters.
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