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.
While reading through the sea of femme-centric news this week, Martha Lauzen’s new piece, Oscar and the Usual Suspects, really hit home. Lauzen, as you should know, is the woman behind The Celluloid Ceiling, the study that makes Hollywood’s gender disparity quantifiable. Her numbers usually pack the biggest punch – like the doozy that female film directors have really declined since 1998 – but this time it is her theoretical debate that resonates.
Mixing her numbers with greater discussion, Lauzen looks at this year’s Oscar race as a mirror of the power in Hollywood, aptly boiling the problem down to a matter of all-too-human comfort that reinforces the status quo. “The filmmaking and nomination processes engage, consciously or not, their participants’ comfort levels,” Lauzen explains. “People feel most comfortable telling stories that reflect their own reality. People nominate individuals and stories they can relate to. There’s no grand conspiracy here. We feel most comfortable with those that look like us.” [Emphasis mine.]
Lauzen goes on to discuss how this habit “translates into a larger social dilemma” where men create, support, celebrate, and report on male-centric creations while women face a lack of visibility that feeds “dysfunctional myths that maintain and even strengthen the status quo.” But there’s also the larger personal dilemma of how media influences and shapes us. If we feel most comfortable by similarity in our surroundings, what happens when there is a lack of similarity? Moreover, if we —in any way—mirror our media, what does it mean for the creation of the female self?
Take Jacques Lacan’s Mirror Stage. It was a key component of Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, informing her discussion of the male gaze and phallocentric desire, but it’s also relevant to notions of comfort and self that arise from the act of watching a film. In layman’s terms, Lacan proposed the idea that a young child begins to form a self when they see their image (like in a mirror). This image seems to be together, whole, while the child feels like a blob yet to control their physical coordination. This creates tension that the child fixes by identifying with the mirror image and creating a self, an “Ideal-I” the kid will strive to be for the rest of their life. Since this ideal perfection doesn’t exist, the child is destined to fail.
This is not so different than the tension between the viewer and the personas they identify with on film, as well as the endless barrage of media messages brought to us by our new-fangled technologies.
As people, we both relate to and distance ourselves from the representations we see on a regular basis. We’re continually forming our persona around these media images, absorbing and shunning on a daily basis. We identify with someone, or we see ourselves as an other, an opposite. This is the compulsion that drives us to remove the humanity from people who commit atrocities, to feel separate and different from the darkness, and it is the compulsion that drives us to strive to be like the perfect Hollywood beings we admire (the real-life people and larger-than-life characters, both creations that do not actually exist as they’re presented). We’re the blob trying to be that idealized person, and we certainly fail in our attempts.
Now narrow this experience to girls and women. As children, girls are inundated with pink passivity and secondary sidekicks that firmly influence the child unless there is an equal emphasis and immersion in the opposite. Hollywood’s female Ideal-I is the princess, the soft heroine looking for her savior; it morphs into the chaste yet sexual young woman, the caring mother, and the knowing crone, personas that rely on naturally unobtainable and manufactured ideals, not to mention an over-prevalent male filter. Women don’t see themselves in diverse roles, they don’t see a myriad of ideals, they don’t even see themselves talking to each other, which allows the Bechdel Test to thrive even today.
The female, cinematic Ideal-I is even more problematic today because it is increasingly removed from any semblance of human barriers, pushing the real subject even further from the mirrored image they’re striving to be. Continuously barraged by plastic, unnatural representations created by marketers, surgery, and Photoshop, the female subject has little opportunity to be comfortable with those that look like them because those embodiments are ceasing to exist on screen, and were never that prevalent to begin with. And, of course, this is the polar opposite of current male representations, where the slacker shlub is just as prevalent and heroic as the muscled macho man; there’s no shortage of varied male archetypes.
The female filmgoer, therefore, gains comfort by either relating to storylines and characters embodied by men, or becoming wildly apologetic to the problematic representations of women on screen. Each path requires a heavy dose of repression to toe to societal norms, which is where Lacan’s theoretical subject merges with Freud’s model of the mind. (Here’s a great resource that allows you to jump from point to point between Lacan and Freud.) To relate to and accept the abundance of male protagonists is to repress the desire to see a recognizable, female Ideal-I, while relating to and accepting the problematic film heroine is to repress expectations of relatability, competence, and hell, to expect any sort of really ideal I. Psychoanalysts like Freud would have had a field day analyzing Hollywood’s current relationship with its male and female audience.
Lauzen’s statement that we “feel most comfortable with those that look like us” continues to echo in my head. It’s such a simple, basic, true-to-life sentiment that not only explains the imbalance within Hollywood, but also cuts to the core of the disconnect between Hollywood and half its audience. Think about that. Half of the audience cannot naturally feel comforted by seeing people on the screen who look like them. They can’t skim the latest releases and regularly find themselves in varied, front-and-center performances. They don’t have a myriad of excellent heroines to emulate. Instead, they must embark on this strangely theoretical journey to be entertained, while also struggling not to have their inner ideal plagued by this distinct imbalance.
So much for the simplicity of sitting in front of a screen and being entertained.