Hollywood is generally fairly reluctant to produce films with strong feminist messages. It is far easier to sell women cast as the sexy sidekick or vapid damsel in distress. Older women generally get portrayed as the perfect or controlling mother, wise or bitter hag, or the uptight nag. (Take a look at this brilliant flow chart for an exploration of why strong female characters in film are so hard to come by.) But in the past few weeks I've seen two films that surprisingly subvert this dominant paradigm as they explore the stories of women trying to escape from the expectations of patriarchy. Unfortunately, they aren't being received as such.
The latest film version of Jane Eyre was spectacular. Those of us who love the novel have been waiting for Hollywood to finally get this one right. Charlotte Bronte wrote into the character of Jane the longing, she as an intelligent woman in her age, had for independence. Jane is a person who isn't afraid to tell the truth, even if convention discourages such from a woman. But Jane also is constrained because she is unable to express outwardly all that she holds in her head. While this is explicitly expressed in her artwork, it also serves as a metaphor for women in that era. The best she could hope for was to be a governess and to teach others what she passionately cared about. Charlotte Bronte felt this same gender constraint in her time. Even Jane Eyre, a tale of a woman struggling to be independent, was first published under a male pseudonym because she had a legitimate concern society would not accept such writing from the pen of a woman. All her gifts were constrained by what the world allowed her to offer.
Into this world of constraint Jane asserts, "I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will." In willing it so, Jane finds a way to be herself despite the constraints of culture. Yet interestingly, it is cultural constraints that are ensnaring that very message in this film version. The film is being received as a beautifully portrayed period piece and love story, and the audiences in the theaters are mostly women. While the film might be those things, it tells a story that is far deeper than these stereotypical gender-based constraints. The message of women breaking free and being accepted in the world as creative, intelligent people is lost amidst the background of a romantic tale.
The other feminist film of the moment Sucker Punch suffers from a similar response. The film itself is a brilliant exploration of the history of the struggle against patriarchy. It portrays young girls who have been betrayed by imposed fathers (stepfathers and priests) being shut away and taken advantage of because they are women. Their attempt to escape this imprisonment is depicted through dream sequences that use Jungian symbolism to show them entering worlds typically controlled by men -- church, battlefields, fortresses, and technology -- and conquering them in order to escape them. They had to play by the rules of these worlds and demonstrate that they could dominate in these realms in order to move past them. In the end, it is a deconstruction of these realms that leads to a better world for the girls.
Yet the film itself follows the same format. It accepts the genre of fan-boy action films and subverts it. The girls look like the typical mindless sex toy -- with the costumes, lollipops, and choreographed moves expected in that genre -- but don't embody these roles. Instead, they are portrayed this way in order to enter an oppressive realm and expose it for what it is. But of course, the average movie-goer can't get past the trappings and understand the commentary. They want it to be a straight fan-boy film full of babes with guns that they can ogle at, and therefore criticize Sucker Punch for not meeting their expectations. The message is lost on them for they came expecting the very thing the film serves to deconstruct. Who can hear the feminist message when they are upset that they weren't titillated enough by the eye-candy?
I loved both films. But as I read the responses of others, I have to wonder what place feminism (the assumption that women are people and not just objects) has in Hollywood and therefore our culture. It is so rare for strong, whole women to be portrayed, or for the patriarchy to be questioned. And when it happens, it is lost on most audiences. So what hope is there for this message to ever truly take root in our cultural imagination?
Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.