Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
One of the most insidious and problematic thorns in the fight for female equality in Hollywood isn’t the misogynistic mogul looking for a romp on the casting couch or insisting that women can’t make big money at the box office. It isn’t the male gaze and the continual sexualization of women on the big screen. It’s the use of two seemingly good, yet deeply problematic words that send me into an irate rage, or at least a very heaving session of grumbling and eye-rolling; words that have plagued cinema for years: “For Women.”
It sounds promising, or at the very least, innocuous. The qualifier suggests projects and groups that keep all women in mind – films that offer great, diverse selection of real female characterizations, that features strong female casts crafted by women. It suggests that if you are a woman, the selection will certainly appeal to you. But see, like “chick flick,” that qualifier is oh so rarely used to simply connote women-positive filmmaking. Instead, it’s this leash that perpetuates the faulty gender division, promoting personally reductive consumption in the women who buy into the concept, alienation in those who don’t, and pompous attitudes in the men who view the affair from afar.
Take a journey through modern media, from the gossip rag, to the television stations, to cinema and cinematic lists and the notion of “For Women” sets up a particularly nasty view of the female race. The mags promote little more than beauty, diet, and sex advice, the stations either come in Lifetime package of insidiously bad filmmaking or the brain-out-to-lunch reality TV world of Oxygen, and the feature films like to unleash an ongoing barrage of pink, shopping, babies, meltdowns, and superficial connections.
Then those oh-so-great pieces of cinema are put into neat little categories for the next dose of “For Women” fare. In my dreams, those two words would attach themselves to a wonderfully Bechdelian list of films. Instead, there are gems like this list of “Top 25 Films for Women.” The lead-in explains: “Call them chick flicks if you like but some movies are just perfect for women. … Bring home any of the movies on this list and she'll thank you.” The list, of course, offers the likes of Steel Magnolias, Terms of Endearment, The Blind Side, Erin Brokovich, and A Star is Born, and I’m sure I’m not the only woman who knows many fellow femmes that wouldn’t be interested in most of the films on that list. Or, there’s the Top 5 Christmas Movies for Women that are labeled as such for their “romance, heart, and holiday spirit." Or you can Google “top ten movies for women” and see lists for cougars, chick flicks, tear-jerkers, romance, fashion, and “guy’s movies” women will like.
It’s not about catering to women. It’s about setting up a stereotypical dichotomy between the sexes and catering to the most reductive common denominators. It’s not bad to want to absorb a little fashion content now or then, to want to grab a box of tissues and cry, or to want to temporarily run off into a world of cinematic romance. It is bad to assume that these are the driving forces in the female experience on a whole (and that they arise without media manipulation), to marginalize the well-rounded women with interests that stretch well beyond the stereotypical, and worse yet, condition the female public to consider “For Women” content to be normal and perpetuate the ridiculous sex divide. Its hegemonic influence is just as damaging as the male-dominated cinematic arena.
The system creates women to follow the conventional path, and those who do not immediately become coded as the other. In other words, to be something more than a woman obsessed with stereotypical topics like beauty and romance in the “For Women” world is to be the freak. No wonder society is still chugging away at sex equality. A girl’s easily accessible entertainment choices are sifting through mainstream media for representations that offer a more diverse collection of women, or slipping into the Lifetime, chick flick mold. She must be willing to question the notion of “For Women.” In many cases, she must have an inherent sense of media manipulation because, sadly, it’s not exactly required education for the electronics-led youths running around out there.
It’s the premise of Miss Representation, a film that premieres today on Oprah’s OWN network and outlines the impact of media on girls and women. How children aspire to be anything and everything at young ages, and how girls’ views of their future diminishes as media saturates them. Luckily films like this, and an increasing number of women-in-positions-of-capability, are making their way onto the screens.
But there is still the undercurrent of that slimy combination of words. On the MR trailer page, there are comments like (slightly edited for clarity): “Women will dress for the attention that she is looking for. It has nothing to do with how men treat them; it’s because a woman thrives on flattery she gets that she dresses or acts like a tramp.” That’s an extreme, albeit fairly prevalent response to questions of the female experience, but one could just as easily cite the many comments about PMS affecting a woman’s ability to do her job, or the almost full refusal of Hollywood to show women who do not offer mainstream sexual allure, or the women who consider themselves different because they don’t fit into the “For Women” mold. (In my youth, I certainly prescribed to the latter, thinking myself alien for how I differed from the mainstream notion of femaleness.)
"For Women" is not for women. It's a label to shove women into this neat little box of fluffy consumerism, to help dilute the dreams of girls and maintain the status quo. It's a moniker that manipulates rather than embraces. If "For Women" was truly FOR women, there would be fluff, yes, but there would also be a deluge of experiences outlining every walk of life, inspiring women to reach for the stars in the sky rather than the crafted images in the gossip rags. Womanhood would be defined by our killer interests rather than our heel size. "For Women" would help foster individuality and render the whole notion of the term useless because it would appeal to humanity and be part of the status quo.