Why it’s important that the Doctor is a Woman (and how we must do better)

Ring the bells! Put on your party dress! It’s official, the 13th Doctor is going to be played by Jodie Whittaker who (drum roll please) is a woman! Yes, a real human woman. I mean, I am pretty disturbed at the fact they can’t get a an ACTUAL Time Lord to play the Doctor but needs must, I guess.

Of course, instead of hearing the announcement and the whole world moving on with their lives because let’s face it, who even cares, a whole bunch of things happened. Young girls being amazed went viral on twitter, everyone got sassy in retaliation to comments that hadn’t yet been said, and a load of old people (mostly) men got annoyed that the Doctor turned out to be fictional character.

When I said ‘who even cares’, I don’t mean to diminish the effect that having good representation (or even any representation) of women onscreen has on our younger population. Hell, even our older population. What I mean is, why is everyone so bloody concerned about it? I thought everyone else stopped watching Doctor Who when I did – somewhere around the first episode of the Matt Smith series. Can’t say I was a huge fan of the Matt Smith era, and I doubly can’t say I was a fan of Steven Moffat. So, who cares? Well, apparently a lot of people. So, why do they care?

Doctor Who has been a staple of British society for the last 54 years. Similar to James Bond, The Doctor has always been male presenting and also similar to James Bond, he is portrayed by several different actors in his canonical world. Unlike James Bond (who merely acts like a misogynist and seduces women), the Doctor lures women into becoming his assistants and then traps them in a police box whilst they fly through time and space. Well, almost.  I’m only sort of joking, I actually used to love Doctor Who, and it has had some really standout episode in it’s time. As a show, it’s also managed to appeal to both adults and children, and push the boundaries of TV sci-fi. Let’s be honest, it’s one of the only good sci-fi shows in the UK…  But I digress. 

Regarding Whittaker’s casting, I think people (read: men) get a bit upset about change, and they can’t quite fathom why anyone would want to swap the gender of the Doctor. He’s always been a white male, so why can’t he always be a white male?

Representation is a funny old thing. So is entitlement. As the Doctor has always been male presenting, many fans may feel that something that they love is being taken away from them. That they will no longer be able to identify with that character anymore, on the basis of gender. This line of thinking is pretty problematic, considering that millions of young girls and women have grown up watching the show – only to see themselves always represented as the assistant, not the main character. 

Boys have always been encouraged to grow up to be the Doctor, girls to be the assistant. The interchangeable assistant, who is also often a love interest. As we already know  seeing ourselves represented goes beyond just being able to identify with TV characters. The Scully Effect  was a phenomenon that occurred after The X Files became popular, with a huge increase in women studying STEM subjects.

It’s also really important for young boys (and grown men for that matter) to see women taking leadership roles onscreen. The more women we see onscreen who have leadership roles, who control their own lives and are not just secretaries, mums, wives or assistants – the more it will be accepted within society too.

Of course, there’s no narrative reason why the Doctor has to be male. The Who-niverse is pretty keen on diversity – if you haven’t watched spin-off show Torchwood with Captain I’ll-shag-anything-that-moves Jack Harkness, then I would definitely recommend it. In fact, Doctor Who’s main message has always been on of inclusion, that equality is paramount, discrimination is wrong and inter-species romance is encouraged. In fact, it has been implied in the past that Gallifreyans can actually change gender. It makes complete sense that the Doctor could become a female presenting character, both within the Who-niverse and outside of it.

I don’t want to get too deep into the mindset of people who get upset that a woman might ruin their ‘favourite’ show because it’s kind of depressing and also really lame. So what I do want to focus on is this progression and why we need to do more.

It is truly is fantastic that the BBC have finally decided to ‘take a risk’, but let’s be very clear. The Doctor has gone from being white and male presenting, to white and female presenting. This is not radical. The Doctor is still conventionally attractive, thin and white. Radical would be casting a WOC, or a Muslim Doctor or an actor who has something other than a regional English accent. After having only white male Doctors for 54 years, Whittaker’s appointment is massive in terms of progression, but it would be foolish to count this as a the final cracking of the glass ceiling. 

Yes, we may now have women Ghostbusters, Rey in Star Wars, Wonder Woman and Michelle Yeoh’s Captain in the newest Star Trek reboot, but we haven’t broken all the barriers down just yet. One of the biggest issues with “White Feminism”, is how willing many self proclaimed feminists are to give up the fight once something doesn’t affect or hinder them anymore (Tory voters who claim to be feminist are a great example of this). Having a female Doctor is a step forward, but we need to keep extending the ladder and pulling our sisters up too, and not stop demanding representation. Let’s not make it another 54 years before we cast a woman of colour in the role (I am still pushing for Michaela Coel to be honest).

We can be happy that we now have a female Doctor, but also be sceptical about celebrating it as some radical movement. Representation is important for everyone, not just white people.

As I said earlier, I haven’t watched Doctor Who for many, many years. But I’ll definitely be watching on Christmas Day this year.

 

Size Matters: A Contemporary Reading of ‘Attack of the 50ft Woman’

Everyone knows that size equals power. Raw, unhinged power. The type of power to destroy or control, just because you physically can. Attack of the 50ft Woman (Nathan Juran, 1958), and all it entails, definitely stimulates some sort of dialogue about power dynamics between men and women – and not just because of the size of the protagonist.

For a B movie made in 50s, marketed at the pulp-sci-fi crowd, Attack of the 50ft Woman is not the most obvious place to spot feminism. And reasonably, it’s not what we would call a feminist film by today’s standards. However, it does do a very interesting job of reflecting attitudes about hysteria, power, sexism and marriage in the 1950s. It’s also unique in that (due to its narrative) actually visually depicts the power struggle between men and women.

In the midst of ‘satellites’ (alien spacecraft) sightings across the world, Nancy (Allison Hughes) and Harry’s (William Hudson) marriage is falling apart. After a short spell in a rehabilitation centre, Nancy has returned to town determined that her marriage to Harry will succeed. Harry has other ideas – namely getting his wife committed so that he can make off with her fortune (Nancy is pretty damn wealthy) with his new squeeze Honey (Yvette Vickers). Nancy knows Harry is a no good two-timing bastard, but her fatal flaw is that she loves him anyway.

Harry’s plan comes close to fruition as he plots to inject Nancy with a lethal dose of medicine, but is caught red handed. Just as he plans his escape from town with Honey, he is stopped by the town’s Sheriff and warned not to leave town. We then learn that, after a bizarre encounter with one of the satellites, Nancy has been transformed from a regular sized human to  (you guessed it) 50ft tall.

With her new physical power, she seeks out Harry at the local bar where he’s cavorting around. Angry and upset by Harry’s infidelity, Nancy destroys the bar (and a couple of other buildings along with it) and ends up with Harry (quite literally) in the palm of her hand. Unfortunately, she is then shot down by the Sheriff, killing both Nancy and and Harry.

Yes, it’s zaney, and there some very questionable ideas about women but there’s also some vein running through Attack of the 50ft Woman that I could get on board with.

Nancy is an incredibly wealthy woman, who is also treated terribly by both the townspeople and Harry. Her mental health is alluded to by the Sheriff, but only insofar as to say that she is basically crazy. She is written off as a wealthy but ‘troubled’ woman who has a drinking problem – one of the Sheriff’s department even saying that she is crazy, but she pays all of their bills so he does what she tells him to. Nancy is described to us in this way before we are properly introduced to her – and when we are it’s quite clear that Nancy isn’t a ‘mad woman’ at all.

Nancy’s main frustration stems from Harry’s inability to stay faithful to her. She is heartbroken, but this is read as hysterical by the men in the town. Attack of the 50ft Woman actually introduces the idea of gaslighting – Harry purposefully makes Nancy think that she is crazy, in order to have her sectioned and take her money. Knowing Harry’s plan, we can empathise much more with Nancy’s apparent paranoia, because she is right! Harry is having an affair, and she shouldn’t trust him at all! Gaslighting is a useful term – generally applied within relationships when one partner attempts to undermine the opinions or ideas of the other. Harry tells Nancy that she is paranoid (both about the alien satellite and his cheating), convincing her that she saw neither event and is simply imagining it. We know, and Nancy does too, that this is simply not true.

So how can Nancy rectify her anger, broken heart and lack of power in a man’s world? How can Nancy escape and get even with her gas lighting toad of a husband? Well, physically she overpowers him. She gets really, really big. One the one hand, Attack of the 50ft Woman is a pulpy sci-fi which features a giant woman in her lingerie, but in another very different reading it’s actually about how little power women can have within society.

Nancy is a white woman with a lot of money. A lot. Her diamonds are almost constantly talked about by herself, Harry, the Sheriff – pretty much everyone. When she is “attacked” by the alien, she tells Harry that it seemed to reach for her diamond necklace. It seems unlikely that an alien would have any interest in jewellery, but Nancy’s paranoia of losing her jewellery underlines her fragile position within society. She has very little power, but what she does have is solely down to her financial status. If she loses that, then there is nothing else she can lean on to be respected or treated as a human (even if this respect is fake anyway).

Of course, this analysis and identification with Nancy requires the film to read in a certain way. We, as a modern audience, recognise the sexism directed at Nancy straightaway. She’s considered hysterical (because she’s a woman), she isn’t taken seriously (because she’s a woman) and the men in the town are all top happy to cover for Harry when he is lying to her. I get the distinct impression that when Attack of the 50ft Woman came out, audiences would not have identified with Nancy at all. Now, though, we can see this film for what it is. A woman being gas lighted, lied to and emotionally abused whose only glimmer of hope to regain some of the power in her relationship is to quite literally overpower him.

Master of None and the Nice Guy Delusion

Last month, Master of None returned to Netflix for a second season. Aziz Ansari’s Dev had left New York heartbroken after a pretty heavy break-up, to embark on a pasta making apprenticeship in Modena, Italy. Master of None had been a bit of a revelation in terms of it’s frank and honest discussions about gender, relationships, representation, immigration and the media. So I have to say, I was pretty excited when it got renewed, and spent most of the year counting down the days until it came back. So you have to believe me when I say it absolutely pains me to write this article about how Master of None has developed a Nice Guy issue.

Before I start, let me just say that there are many highlights of season 2 which include and are not limited to: Arno and Dev’s beautiful friendship (showing that men can have emotional connections with each other), the difficult sexual assault story-line with Chef Jeff, the interrogation of modern app-based dating and every scene in which Aziz Ansari’s real life parents star as Dev’s parents.

It was ‘Thanksgiving’ however, which rated far above and beyond the rest of the series, for me. The episode is self contained and takes place in Denise’s house, Dev’s best friend (played by Lena Waithe), showing several thanksgiving dinners which span through their childhood. Not only did we get a charming insight into the origins of Denise and Dev’s friendship, we also were invited to understand Denise’s character better. In half an hour, Master of None introduced us to her family, her childhood, her early relationships and showed us her struggle with her mother with regards to her sexuality. In the rest of the series, Denise has been a hilariously funny and down to earth ‘sidekick’ for Dev, and it was satisfying to see Denise get a narrative arc of her own. Not only do we rarely get to see black or lesbian stories told on TV, but together? Unheard of. For this, Master of None has done itself proud.

What let it down though? Well, for all of Dev’s allyship and good intentions, it turns out that he is actually a “Nice Guy”. A man who talks the talk and claims to be a feminist, but inadvertently undermines and objectifies women all the same.

As explained by Nicole Froio at Bitch Media, Master of None doesn’t seem to be able to create believable or interesting female characters. This is, of course, with the exception of Denise but Lena Waithe co-wrote Denise’s episode with Aziz Ansari, so this goes some way to explaining why Denise is a well rounded and interesting character. I actually didn’t pick up on Master of None’s women problem until season 2, where the issue became largely apparent.

In ‘First Date’ we see Dev going on the same date with a number of different women. We never get the opportunity to know them at all (not like we know Dev), and they all come across as either shallow, opportunistic, not available, too available or generally not nice. They are nothing more than bodies, with no backstories and nothing to say for themselves. They are there for Dev to date and dismiss, primarily. In fact, the only women that Dev interacts with at all in a social setting are his mother, his dates and Denise (who is pointedly not a love interest as she is gay). 

Which brings me nicely onto the character of Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi). Dev meets Francesca when he is in Italy, learning how to make pasta in her Grandmother’s cafe. Francesca and Dev strike up a friendship and remain in contact when he goes back to the States, prompting her to get in touch when she comes over with fiance Pino for a visit. To begin with Francesca and Dev are just friends, but their relationships slowly evolves into something more. Dev develops feelings for her, and interprets every conversation and moment  with Francesca as a sign that she too is interested in pursuing a relationship. She never out-rightly says that she is unhappy with Pino, or that she wants to take things further with Dev. Eventually the tension that has built between them comes to a head and, when Francesca says that she cannot pursue anything with Dev, he accuses her of using him.

Without having any regard for her feelings or the complicity of the matter at hand, Dev explodes – telling Francesca that she simply wanted someone to experiment with, as the only man she has ever been with is Pino. It’s a cliche at best, and completely misogynistic at worst, for Dev to assume that Francesca hasn’t really explored her sexuality or her desires because she has only slept with one person. In one respect it makes her even more desirable because of her ‘virginal’ past, but it also is implied that Dev thinks he knows more about sex and relationships than she does. Dev categorically believes that he deserves this relationship with Francesca just because he is a Nice Guy,  even though she tells him no.

Even without this incredibly simplified view on relationships, Dev also reduces Francesca to an object of desire. Master of None paints her as a quirky but loveable, feminine yet ‘one of the lads’ type. Sounds suspiciously like a manic-pixie-dream-girl to me. Francesca encompasses every element of Amy’s speech in Gone Girl (even though I immensely dislike the film, it’s got a point). Francesca’s only purpose in the series is to be pretty and unattainable – basically to be the girl of Dev’s dreams, as explained over at Bustle by EJ Dickson. She dances round Dev’s kitchen to Italian music in his shirt, she’s only ever had one partner, she like classical films, she drinks beer and she’s immeasurably pretty. I can’t of a single thing about Francesca that isn’t skewed by the way that Dev objectifies her.

It’s a real shame because Ansari himself has, on numerous occasions, talked about feminism and the basic representation of women in TV. Master of None has one of the best records for diversity on TV, almost all of the characters are POC and they don’t fall back on just using white background artists like the vast majority of shows.

I suppose my dilemma is that it seems as if the show and Ansari are advocating for Dev’s behaviour. There is always a very fine line when the showrunner and creator is also playing the main character in a series – where does reality end? Is Master of None subtly critiquing Dev’s behaviour? Or is it failing to recognise Dev’s manipulative tactics? It’s difficult to know, and for that reason it’s likely that we are supposed to side with Dev, which I just cannot get on board with. Master of None has succeeded in so many areas, but more work is clearly needed here.

 

 

ps:

Perhaps this is also a very personal gripe,but I also got slightly annoyed with the complete lack of understanding of Europe and Italy – supermarkets and Tinder are a thing in Europe guys! I know it’s a tiny thing but it’s just a reminder that either no-one has bothered to check, and that Americans think no-where else in the world is as ‘sophisticated’ as them. It’s just lazy.

 

 

Broadchurch Series 3: A Lesson in Rape Culture

One of my colleagues was recently discussing Series 3 of Broadchurch, and they mentioned that they disliked the way that each suspect turned out to be a red herring. It’s true that, since it’s creation, Broadchurch has been masterful at leading us down the garden path only to find the end has been walled up and paved over. Series 3, which focuses on the rape of a local woman rather than a murder investigation like previous series, is a bit different however. These ‘red herrings’ are not simply misleading subplots, but are part of a much bigger comment on the sexism and rape culture which prevails within our society.

To recap – DI Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Coleman) head up pretty much most of the police force in the small fictional beachside town of Broadchurch. In series 1, the two investigate the murder of Danny Latimer, a young boy known to many people in the town. A roller-coaster of accusations, motivations and suspicions, series 1 leads us to all manner of dark places. In a devastating turn of events, it is revealed that Ellie Miller’s husband Joe (Matthew Gravelle) was embarking on an wildly inappropriate relationship with Danny, which resulted in Danny’s murder. Series 2 focused primarily on the trial of Joe Miller, interspersed with some backstory on Hardy’s life. Series 3 took a new approach and opened with a new case for Miller and Hardy to solve.

Miller and Hardy meet Trish, late at night, on the steps of the police station. She’s visibly shaken. She explains to them that she has been raped.

Trish is taken into the station, and the three of them go over the events of the night. It becomes clear that the attack happened two days previously, and not the same night as was assumed. Hardy becomes agitated, frustrated that they have now lost two days in their investigation. Trish is clearly still in shock, but she asks Hardy and Miller, ‘Do you believe me?’.

Trish starts out as the ‘perfect’ victim. We assume she has come straight from the attack, that it happened only hours ago. There is no mention of alcohol, or sexual history to begin with. Trish is in shock and we (like Hardy and Miller) feel for her. Over the course of the series, Trish’s ‘perfect’ victim facade falls away. She had been at a party, she had been drinking…she’d had sex the morning of the attack, with her best friend’s husband.

Now, I don’t have to link you to the innumerable articles (mostly because that would mean linking to the Daily Mail/The Sun) which paint rape victims as responsible for their own attacks. I don’t need to tell you how unlikely it is that a rapist will be prosecuted if the victim was wearing a short skirt, drinking or has any sort of sexual history. It is actually very unlikely, regardless of the above, that the defendant will be convicted anyway.  The justice system wants victims to be ‘perfect’ to even have chance at conviction. There have been countless discussions by lawmakers and politicians discussing what counts as a ‘real’ rape, and what is just ‘bad manners’. 

It could have been easy to fixate on Trish as the imperfect victim and fall prey to the ‘what was she wearing’ rhetoric,but Broadchurch is far cleverer than that. Hardy and Miller never falter in their belief of Trish, and neither do we. The crime is a fact and is not up for debate. What is up for debate is who did it.

There were roughly 56 men at the party, all of whom are now suspects as far as Hardy and Miller are considered. These include Trish’s boss, ex-husband, lover, friends and various associates. Hardy demands all of these men are investigated and DNA evidence taken from them – with all of their whereabouts and motivations listed. It turns out that the men of Broadchurch are all hiding something.

Ed, Trish’s boss, has been stalking her (under the guise of wanting to protect her) and reveals he has been obsessively in love with her for many years. Whilst he see’s his behaviour as caring, we can see the threatening nature of his obsession and his history of domestic violence doesn’t help. The local taxi driver/serial cheater Clive Lucas, who went on a date with Trish, has her photo on a keyring in his garage. Jim, Trish’s one time lover, comes across as aggressive and threatening – claiming that if he had wanted to have sex with Trish, he could have. He wouldn’t need to rape her. Ian, Trish’s estranged husband, previously installed spyware onto her laptop in order to watch her if and when he desired. The spyware in question, was put there by Leo Humphries, a student of Ians. Leo is also revealed to be the perpetrator behind the attack but not quite in the way we expect.

Additionally, Leo had also been supplying pornography to two young boys in the town – Michael and Tom (Ellie Miller’s son). Miller is furious on discovering the graphic pornography on Tom’s phone, and this is prevalent sub-plot throughout the series. The young boys seem to be obsessed by it. Hardy’s daughter Daisy is also targeted by the boys, who steal her phone and share private photos of her around the school.

Perhaps each incident alone would go unnoticed. Perhaps we could (and we do) pass them off as ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘it’s just a bit of fun’. They may be tiny micro-aggressions individually, but once added up (and on a daily basis) they start to paint a very disturbing picture of the kind of culture we are living in. Specifically, a culture of disrespect and abuse of women. A culture where rape is just something that happens. Broadchurch has done a phenomenal job of outlining where these attitudes begin, and how quickly they become ingrained. The sexism which is so prevalent within our society often feels like the norm, because it happens every day.

It begins with degrading pornography (porn itself is a complex issue for another post), leaked private photos, or watching a parent behaving in a sexist or abusive manner.  It teaches young people that women’s bodies are there to be commodified, to be objectified. To be taken if you want them.

Broadchurch also makes a point of exploring how men expect other men to stick with them on issues of sexism. Whilst interviewing potential suspects, namely Jim, Hardy seems revolted by the things he says. Jim expresses that Hardy would have done the same thing in his situation (in reference to having sex with a young waitress at his wife’s birthday party). Hardy, in his role as a DI but also as another man, rebukes this statement. Unlike the other men in the series, who all cover for each other’s secrets and indiscretions in some way, Hardy makes it clear he doesn’t condone these actions. It is telling, however, that he seems to understand the horror of Jim’s words through having a daughter. It is not through personal empathy, Hardy perceives these words through the eyes of his daughter, a young girl who he is has some sort of ownership of. It is not at dissimilar to the ‘what if it was your daughter’ adverts which sprung up a few years ago. 

It serves as a reminder that, even though Hardy is a ‘decent man’ in comparison to the potential attackers, he is not above the endemic sexism within society and that even he can’t break away fully from the idea of ownership over the women in his life.

The ending of the series has caused controversy, which is pretty justified. In the final episode we learn the identity of the rapist, and it’s more complex than we ever imagined. Leo had essentially groomed Michael, a young school-aged boy. Looking to Leo as a mentor, Michael had his first taste of alcohol, his first sexually experience and his first ideas of ‘freedom’ through Leo. The attack on Trish was instigated by Leo, claiming that it was a sort of gift for Michael.

There is a certain expectation that we should sympathise with Michael. He has been subjected to the most toxic of masculine expectations and stereotypes, and his perspectives on women are formed by the things which Leo has said and done. Leo treats women as objects, mostly for fucking. At one point, he offers his girlfriend to Michael, telling him ‘she does what I tell her to’. He’s a terrifying character. Michael, on the other hand, seems to be given some slack. He was coerced into raping Trish and he understood (on some level) what Leo was doing was wrong. Is this a reminder that men who grow up within a patriarchal society are also deeply harmed by the values that men like Leo hold? That is to say, the idea of ‘being a man’ or ‘grow some balls’, or any of the other delightful sayings completely negate men as emotional beings too.

On the other hand, it seems like a certain cop out. Broadchurch doesn’t ‘blame’ Michael, but appears to blame the culture he has bought up into. Whilst this is certainly a huge factor, the rape has a perpetrator and that perpetrator is Michael. However coerced (or forced even) he felt, he could have walked away. Perhaps it is a sign that toxic masculinity is so ingrained within our society that Michael felt he had no choice but to rape Trish – lest he feel the wrath of Leo himself.

Perhaps the biggest failure in the ending is Hardy’s comment to Miller that Leo is ‘not what men are, he is an aberration’. Calling Leo abnormal ensures that we don’t investigate the toxic culture which has created him. He is not an aberration, he is the product of sexism and rape culture – and Hardy denying it feels like Broadchurch came so close to a real breakthrough, yet missed the point by miles.

Finally, I think it’s also important to mention how Broadchurch depicted Trish and the attack. Unlike most TV shows depicting rape (yes Game of Thrones I am looking at you), we never see the attack. Trish is a three dimensional character, whose story we follow from beginning to end. We see how hard it is for her to come to terms with what happened to her. We see Beth (Jodie Whittaker) working with her and other victims to try and get justice for them. There is a terrible onus on the victims (including Trish) to put themselves in the firing line in court, to prevent their rapist from attacking again. We see Trish work through the feelings of guilt, of responsibility. She is never just a body. Although it sounds like a very small thing, it’s something that we don’t see often.

Fat Cinema: An Introduction to Fatphobia On Screen

It’s not a revelation, nor will it come as any surprise for me to tell you that representations of fat people in cinema are generally pretty awful. You can count the number of plus size female actors on one hand (the count is significantly higher for men). Naturally, the lack of fat actors stems from the lack of roles written for fat people, and the film industry’s obsession with white, cis, skinny people starring in 90% of their output.

But, we already know all of this. If there is a fat character in a mainstream film, their fatness is guaranteed to be an integral part of their character and it usually exists as a platform to bounce fat jokes off of. Characters cannot just be fat or plus-size, it has to be mentioned, talked about or jokes must come from at their expense.

There is an overriding concept in cinema that the worst thing you can possibly be as a woman, is fat*. Take the make-over movie. A whole genre spawned on the pivotal moment where a woman is ‘made over’ to become desirable to her male counterpart. Now Voyager, arguably, started this trend with the making over of it’s protagonist Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis). Charlotte is drab, wears glasses, is unattractive and overweight. She is a spinster, doomed to live under her Mother’s controlling gaze forever. Until, that is, she is examined by a doctor who basically prescribes make-up, weight loss and a cruise to cure her ailments. This will cure her of her ‘illness’ – her only illness seeming to be that she can’t find a husband.

As Charlotte Vale descends the staircase, she has looks like a new person. Gone are the glasses and the drab clothes. Also gone is any ‘excess’ weight. She is slimmer, there is less of her. Her clothes, which before had swamped her, now cling to her smaller frame. There is a strong  association between larger, more drab clothing which aims to hide the bodies flaws and fat women on screen. Charlotte is only allowed to wear her more attractive and desirable clothing once she has lost the weight.

Now, Voyager doesn’t only focus on the fat (glasses seem to be a big part of whether you are deemed attractive as a woman or not), but it certainly focuses on fatness as something that needs to be got rid of in order to be worthy of love. Gwyneth Paltrow’s character Rosemary in Shallow Hal is so “undesirable” that Hal (Jack Black) has to be hypnotized before seeing her as someone he would want to pursue a relationship with. Shallow Hal, as I am sure we all aware, is problematic on a multitude of levels (not least of the rampant ableism), but it’s important to discuss because it really exemplifies the issue for fat women on screen.

The plot device of Hal being hypnotised into seeing everyone’s inner beauty, means that the film gets away with only showing us images of stereotypically beautiful people (predominantly white, cis, straight, thin, extremely gendered etc). It doesn’t have to engage with the struggles of those people, because we (like Hal) see them as ‘beautiful’. It’s a fantastic excuse not to actually cast any fat people in the film because we only actually see Rosemary as she really looks right at the very end. Even then, it’s Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit – which is pretty comforting to an audience, because we know she isn’t really that size.

Rosemary’s weight is seen as the biggest issue of the film. The worst thing that Rosemary could possibly be is fat. The worst thing, to Hal, that a woman can be is fat (or ugly).

Similarly, there is a moment in Metin Huseyin’s British indie Anita and Me as a group of teenagers are pairing off together at a funfair. Protagonist Meena, a young Sikh girl, is devastated when the last remaining boy chooses one of Anita’s fat friends to pair off with, rather than Meena. Anita and Me is comedy-drama which explores small-town UK attitudes to race and this scene is particularly prevalent. Both Anita’s fat friend and Meena are seen as undesirable due to their size and skin colour. The film asks us to feel sympathy for Meena, because even the plus size friend can get a date over her – so strong is the racism amongst small town Britain. It’s a conflicted message which pits race against fatness and asks us to choose a side.

It seems that the only way to be acceptable on the silver screen as a fat person is to be funny. The ‘fat but funny’ trope has come into it’s own over the past few years. Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson’s (both very talented actors in their own right) careers are both intrinsically entwined with this trope. Wilson’s character, ‘Fat Amy’ in Pitch Perfect, might be confident and sassy but the comedy stems from the fact that she is not supposed to secure in herself in that way. She believes herself to be sexy and worthy of desire, and this is deemed laughable because of her fatness. It’s not overtly funny, it just comes off as absurd that someone her size could be so confident. Similarly to The Heat (and it pains me because I really loved that film), Melissa McCarthy’s Mullins is confident in her own sexuality and is secure in herself. She talks about the men she has slept with and is aware of the effect she has on them. Sandra Bullock’s Ashburn is visibly confused and taken aback by Mullins’ security in her own body – clearly because she is fat.

Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson are comedy actresses, and probably the only two fat women you are likely to see on a cinema screen. Their ability to be funny seems to be attempt to rectify what is ‘wrong’ with them (i.e. their fatness). Their size, though the punchline to many many jokes, is of less consequence because they can make us laugh. The trope of the ‘Fat Comic Relief’ is the only way that fat women can seem to get any sort of meaningful role onscreen. By meaningful, I simply mean a named role with a speaking part.

There are a few exceptions, a handful of characters who are fat but still manage to be complex characters with more going on than just their size. Mariana Chenillo’s Paraiso is narratively based in ideas about fatness and weight-loss, but also manages to retain complexity for it’s lead character Carmen. She is someone is secure in herself, her relationship and her body and only decides to start on a ‘Weight-watchers’ style diet on hearing two women talking about her in a bathroom. The film explores the pressures on a relationship in terms of fatphobia and weight loss, and fortunately the ending straightens out any doubts about its integrity in talking about fatness. Carmen throws herself wholeheartedly into a hobby which she enjoys, rediscovers herself and realises that she is happy with herself – regardless of how anyone else feels. Paraiso also has one of the only sex scenes between two fat characters, which the film opens on. It is a beautiful scene, with no mockery or judgement – just a pure expression of love between Carmen and Alberto.

Perhaps the only place for fat female characters is on television. There is a far greater list of complex, interesting fat female characters on television, and whilst numbers are not everything the list does speak for itself.  Paula (Crazy Ex Girlfriend). Sookie St James (Gilmore Girls), Boo, Taystee, Red (Orange is the New Black), Vivienne (No Offence), Donna (Parks & Rec), Rae (My Mad Fat Diary) are just a few fat female characters whose size and shape have either nothing to do with their characterisation, or it is not commented on negatively throughout their time in their respective show. This should not be an achievement, but sadly it seems to be . Cinema has yet to break the mould on casting fat actors and creating fat characters that aren’t seen as lazy slobs who exist to serve as punchlines for the skinny protagonists.

 

*Yeah, I know this the dominant view in society and it isn’t just in film. Something something, life mirrors art, something something. It’s total horse-shit either way.

++

 

Recently, I discovered Tessa Racked’s ‘Consistent Panda Bear Shape’ blog, where she discusses all manner of films and their characterisations of fat people. Not only is it one of the best named blogs I’ve ever read, it has also opened up my eyes to a world of representation and characters that I’ve been missing. Please do check it out.

A Year With Women – Identity in 4 Films

Over the past year watching one film a week by women (52 films by women), I watched a bigger range of diverse, progressive and interesting films than I have done previously in my life. So much so, I am doing the 52 Films challenge for a second year in a row.

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2017 – I’ve pulled together four of my favourite films that celebrate female identity, and explore what that means in a wider context.

Enjoy!

Movern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002)

Movern Callar is Lynne Ramsay’s second feature, after Ratcatcher. Based on the Alan Warner novel of the same name – the film opens on a tragic scene, a dead body. The body in question belongs to Morvern’s boyfriend, an aspiring novelist, who has killed himself on Christmas eve. It emerges that he has left Morvern his completed manuscript to send to publishers.

I remember that opening scene more vividly than any other film I’ve ever watched. The persistent changing of the coloured lights, constantly flashing is perfectly juxtapositioned with the pool of blood around the body in the foreground. Morvern, silent in her grief and anger, holds his hand. Morvern Callar is never loud, rather it’s strength comes from it’s moments of quiet. Morvern grieves inwardly, never expressing what has happened – even to her best friend. Her actions after the death prompt questioning, yet at the same time they make perfect sense. The anger, frustration and deep pain at her boyfriend’s death (and consequential abandonment) are all bought into play.

There is a really interesting discussion of class throughout Morvern Callar. Morvern is working class and she works at a supermarket. There is an implication that her boyfriend was not working in order to write his novel and his comfortable Glaswegian flat suggests that he was far better off than Morvern. Her decision to sell the manuscript with her name on it seems like a callous one, but is also contextualised by this exploration of class. He has no use for the money, but it would fundamentally change Morvern’s life.

Ramsay’s control of the design, camera and sound make for a truly unique film. Understated but with so much to pick apart, Morvern Callar is a film that changes and evolves with each viewing.

Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi, 2000)

A masterpiece in animation, Marjane Satrapi’s auto-biographical film Persepolis is both funny, entertaining, political and heartbreaking all at the same time.

Closely following Satrapi’s own story, Persepolis focuses on events which happened in Iran during the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s/early 1980s. The films protagonist, Marjane, is reflecting on her life as a child and teenager, and the devastating effects that the Iranian government, the uprising and destabilisation had on her and her family.

Persepolis is a bold film and, by its very nature, a political one. From a relatively peaceful childhood, to becoming separated from her family, to homelessness and clinical depression – Marji’s story is riddled with sadness and horror. Through the eyes of a child and then a teenager, the injustice and inhumanity of the Iranian government can be witnessed. Satrapi’s voice is strong and clear throughout, guiding us to identify with Marji on her journey. As Marji’s identity becomes fraught and confused, Satrapi’s directorial voice shines through. Persepolis combines the political with the personal, essentially threading together complex social issues with a coming of age story. Marji also explores how she feels that has lost parts of who she is – she is trans-national as opposed to her parents who have never left Iran.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the darkness of Persepolis, it is also a charmingly funny film. Young Marji ‘s love of communism is adorable, and her interactions with adults provide wonderful opportunities for humour – which Satrapi makes the most of.

Persepolis is engaging, thought provoking and stunning. With the refugee crisis, and the recent rejection of the Dubs amendment in UK parliament, it is also perhaps more relevant today than ever before.

 

Paraíso (Mariana Chellino, 2016)

Representing fatness in cinema has traditionally, always been an issue. Representations of fat women in cinema specifically has always been downright awful. The only fat female characters in cinema that I remember growing up were Ursula from The Little Mermaid (who was kick-ass but also incredibly evil), and Rosemary from Shallow Hal (who was imagined to be skinny because Jack Black’s character wouldn’t date fat women). Not ideal.

Mariana Chellino’s Paraíso is one of the first films I have seen which doesn’t depict fatness as a sin. Carmen, our protagonist, is a fat woman. Her partner, Alfredo, is also fat. The opening sequence depicts the two engaging in sex. It’s sensual, soft, loving and sexual  – what we see is a loving environment between two people. Their size is irrelevant.

The film focuses on the couple starting on a ‘weightwatchers’ style diet, complete with group weigh ins and diet plans. It is Carmen who initially wants to lose weight, after hearing two women talking about her in a bathroom at Alfredo’s company party. Before this, Carmen seems happy with herself, or at least does not seem insecure about her size. And why should she? This is the tipping point – and important to realise that it is not Carmen’s own insecurity that is the catalyst to lose weight, but judgement from others who don’t even know her.

Naturally, the dieting sparks confusion and misery in Carmen and Alfredo’s relationship – but Carmen remains a strong and convicted character. Though the diet is the catalyst for the conflict in the film, Carmen’s journey of rediscovering herself, food and cooking is the main event. Paraíso raises a lot of questions about food, size and  identity, especially in relationships.

 

Girlhood (Celine Sciamma, 2014)

A runaway success of 2014, Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood was released cinemas globally after a phenomenal run in France. It has often been praised as the ‘female equivalent’ to La Haine, but this is a complete oversimplification. Though it’s true that both films explore the ideas of poverty, racism and growing up – Girlhood explores uniquely female experiences and handles its characters completely differently to La Haine, which results in two almost oppositional films.

Marieme wants to be someone other than a punching bag for her brother or a carer for her sister. She sees the gang as the only real opportunity to escape her own life, the life which is full of disappointment and lacking in any kind of support. Marieme sees the girls as a symbol of hope, of happiness. The ‘diamonds’ bedroom scene is beautifully staged to explore this idea. The authenticity of the scene is breathtaking. You could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a documentary.

Rather than portraying the girl gang (incidentally, ‘Girl Gang’ is what ‘Bande des Filles’ directly translates to) as a bad decision on Marieme’s part, the embrace of friendship is shown as something to celebrate. Marieme feels happy, secure and wanted when she is with her friends – which is hugely important in the transition from child to adult.

Marieme’s gender is also huge part of her identity, and is also something which is constantly being reaffirmed throughout the film. We open on a shot of a group playing  American football, and at the end of the scene,it is revealed they are a women’s team. Likewise, the last few scenes of the film see Marieme sporting male clothing and a typically male hairstyle – leading to confusion about her gender. Pitched somewhere between childhood and adulthood, Marieme flows between ideas of femininity and masculinity throughout  and her visual style is a huge part of her identity.

Resistance is NOT futile

This is a change the scheduled programming from what this blog is usually about, but is far too important not to speak up about*. 

This blog was created to talk about women, LGBTQ and minority representation within the film and television industry. I started writing over two years ago, and what I have learnt is that progress is a slow and painful game. Some things get better, and some things get worse.

However, in the space of less than a week, Trump has managed to tear down years of progress in just a handful of executive orders. We all feel desperate, and what I have felt this past week is that I don’t know what I can do about it. In the UK we watched our country tear itself apart over Brexit in June, we watched as horrifying statements about immigrants and refugees were tossed around the mainstream media by the likes of pint-bearing ‘people’s man’ Nigel Farage. These attitudes, and the Brexit vote, has helped enormously with electing Trump and platforming racist rhetoric. Last week, Theresa May (our unelected PM) was the first leader to meet with Trump – securing the UK’s support for racism and bigotry. She then refused to condemn Trump’s ban on Muslims from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Yemen and Somalia entering the USA. I mean, what did we expect from the woman who rolled out the ‘go home’ vans just a few years ago.

Things are bad, and they aren’t going to get much better unless we all speak up. Honestly, I spent a lot of the last weekend in a hole just re-reading my twitter feed and watching the news. It didn’t help. If, like me, you are feeling lost or disillusioned (especially in the UK as it’s harder to know what exactly we can do), I’ve compiled a list of protests, events, ways to write to your MP and places to donate money to. Please let me know if there are things that can be added to this list, as I am sure there are. 

There were over 100,000 people at the Womens March on London on the 21st Jan. Let’s not make that a one off.

Resist, and stay safe x


Demo organised by Stop the War Coalition, Stand Up to Racism, Muslim Association of Britain, Muslim Engagement and Development, the Muslim Council of Britain, CND and Friends of Al-Aqsa.
Saturday 4th Feb
Starts at 11am outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, London. Sister protests are being set up across the country.
https://www.facebook.com/events/1761835547477556/

 

TONIGHT (Monday 30th Jan)
Protest outside Downing Street, 6pm – 8pm. Speakers include; Owen Jones, Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, Wail Qasim (BLM) Caroline Lucas (Green Party).
Sister protests happening across the country.
https://www.facebook.com/events/359732827741189/

 

Write to your MP and tell them how you feel about the ban and Trump’s state visit to the UK.
https://www.writetothem.com/

 

Write to Theresa May… (try not to swear too much)
https://email.number10.gov.uk/

 

There’s also several places that you can donate to to help combat the ban and help refugees:

 

UK based Hope not Hate, foundation organised by Brendan Cox (husband of MP Jo Cox who was killed in the lead up to the Brexit campaign by a right-wing Britain First supporter)
http://www.hopenothate.org.uk/

Help Refugees aim to fill the gaps where governments are not or will direct aid:
http://www.helprefugees.org.uk/

The American Civil Liberties Union have been the driving force behind getting lawyers to airports to help those who have been detained, and are working hard to reverse the ban legally.
https://www.aclu.org/

(if you really like film criticism, then consider buying a year’s subscription to Bright Wall/Dark Room, as they are currently donating all subscription income to the ACLU)

International Rescue Committee are on the ground helping refugees fleeing war torn countries.
https://www.rescue.org/

Consider getting rid of Uber, their CEO has made it clear he wants to work with Trump and they refused to join the NY taxi drivers strike for solidarity with immigrants. 

 

In fact, here is a whole list of companies to avoid – https://www.facebook.com/notes/ryan-mack/boycott-trump-list-of-of-companies-to-refuse-to-support/10150222197459365/

Boycotting can send a strong message, and is something that all of us can do that requires no monetary contribution.

 

If you can give two hours of your time to stand outside the US Embassy and protest, or just £2 to Help Refugees, it all helps.
*this post is going to be UK-centric mostly because that is where I am based and I want to encourage those in the UK to resist and protest wherever and however they can. For info on US protests, marches and donations see here, here and here

‘Year of Hell’ – How to Deal With 2017 Using ‘Star Trek: Voyager’

During season 4 of Star Trek: Voyager there is an episode called ‘Year of Hell’. It’s pretty self-explanatory; everything that can go wrong for the crew aboard the SS Voyager, does go wrong. Unimaginably so. To give a little backstory to those who have never seen Star Trek: Voyager  before: a Starfleet crew and a Maquis crew (traditional enemies) are stranded in the uncharted Delta quadrant, many lightyears from home. The two crews band together in an attempt to cross the galaxy, a journey that will take over 70 years. It’s desperate, it’s tough and (unsurprisingly) it’s pretty eventful. The crew is headed up by Captain Janeway (queen of my life) who won the hearts and minds of so many Trek fans as the first female Captain. She’s badass, she’s strong but she’s also weighed down with the massive task of bringing her people home.

‘Year of Hell’ and ‘Year of Hell Part 2’ are possibly the most desperate episodes of the series. The crew, including Janeway, lose hope of ever returning home. Things just keep going from bad to worse, to ‘let’s just give up now’. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s been a bit like this through 2016, and it’s probably going to carry on next year. Okay, we aren’t lost in a galaxy far from home and we aren’t being continually attacked by unknown alien species. However, we have had to suffer through the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the West, and the conflicts in Syria and the Middle East are just getting worse. It’s been a really tough year. What makes it worse is that all of the repercussions of Trump, Brexit etc are going to come to fruition in 2017 – meaning that we aren’t even nearly out the other side. The proverbial shit has only just hit the fan, as they say.

 For some reason, for me anyway, watching the Voyager crew struggle through their own shit, feeling helpless but overcoming the odds every single time has been…well…pretty comforting at times.

I began my re-watch of Voyager before the major shitstorms of 2016 began. Like the other Star Trek series, Voyager portrays a world where Earth is a peaceful planet. People of all races, ethnicities, countries and genders work harmoniously together. Starfleet is a organisation of space exploration, and the prime directive is not to interfere with alien species that they encounter. A far cry from Britain’s colonialist past, or the Western involvement in any country that has oil. Star Trek, as a franchise, depicts a hopeful future for humanity, and Voyager is no different. Janeway and the crew could blast their way through the galaxy, destroying anyone who stands between them and home, but they don’t. They explore, they learn and they face moral dilemmas at every turn.

Considering that Star Trek represents a unified world, free from racism, sexism, misogyny and hatred, it couldn’t be more relevant that I began re-watching it this year. The UK’s departure from the EU (which I have to keep telling myself has not happened yet), represents the complete opposite of what Star Trek hoped to achieve. Though the Federation itself has some questionable initiatives, it succeeds in uniting the entire of Earth and various alien species along with it. Brexit Britain is basically the complete opposite, and America’s President-elect has made it clear that he has no intention of uniting with other nations – unless it’s in the mutually assured process of destruction. Yippee.

Shortly before ‘Year of Hell’ and ‘Year of Hell Part 2’, Seven of Nine joins the Voyager crew. She is a former Borg, assimilated into the Borg Collective at a very young age, and whilst some of the crew have their doubts – Janeway decides that Seven should be allowed to stay with the crew and be treated as part of it. The Borg are a universally hated species, owing mostly to their tradition of assimilating or destroying every species they come into contact with.

The hatred of the Borg species is actually really interesting, because pretty much all Borg were formerly another species that has been assimilated into the Borg Collective. There are humans, Vulcans, Klingons… you name it, the Borg have probably assimilated some of them. Throughout the Delta Quadrant, whomever Voyager came into contact with – the response regarding the Borg was always the same. We hate them.

Though in many, many ways very different, there is a similar and awful feeling all over the UK since June 23rd. Of course, I am not for one second suggesting that immigrants and refugees are comparable to the Borg (UKIP are much more comparable due to their lack of empathy and general bloodlust), but the intense and widespread xenophobia that the vote revealed in society has been shocking. Instead of seeing people as individuals, the Leave campaign wanted us to see immigrants as ‘groups’ (or a collective, perhaps). They aren’t individual people who have been forced into a tragic situation, Farage and co want us to see refugees as part of a hive-mind – brainwashed and radicalised yet wholly responsible for their own situation. Seeing refugees as an ‘evil’ and dangerous collective completely dehumanises them, hence why Match of the Day received complaints when Gary Lineker dared to suggest that perhaps those fleeing war were human, and you know, might require our help?

Much the same way as Donald Trump, refusing to acknowledge refugees as individual people who need our help makes it so much easier to ignore them.

In ‘Year of Hell’, Seven of Nine proved to be one of the most valuable crew members. She continues to be an integral part of the crew right up until the series finishes. Of course we shouldn’t rank people solely based on their economic or social helpfulness, but it still proves that we should never, ever discount people based solely on their race. Or gender, or sexuality, or religion for that matter. Instead of opening our borders and enriching our society with different cultures, traditions, languages, creativity, thought and ideas, we have chosen to close them off. Instead of a future of togetherness, collaboration and unity, we are faced with a sense of impending doom. Janeway would be furious.

All we can hope is that our year of hell is not followed by ‘Year of Hell Part 2’, as it is in Voyager. If it is, I guess we will all have to try to be more like our beloved Captain Janeway…We’ll hold our heads high, be counted and stand up for what is right.