OTI Online
winter 1992

Reel Feminism vs. Real Feminism, Feminist Film in the '90s
by Leora Tanenbaum

Two types of heroines predominate Hollywood film in the 1990s: On one side is the evil, murderous female of movies from "Basic Instinct" and "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle" to "Final Analysis" and "Single White Female." On the other is the justice-seeking warrior woman made famous by the film "Thelma and Louise." Though the dangerous femme fatale is an historic film figure, the hard-bodied fighting woman is a new turn in the representation of women in film, and she is a figure for feminists to appraise.

On The Issues Magazine - Linda Hamilton, who whittled her padded body of the first Terminator film to boyish, taut, asexual contours
"Terminator 2," which featured the single minded freedom-fighter Sarah Connor

She appeared most vividly in the much-discussed 1990 film "Silence of the Lambs." As she accepted an Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Clarice Starling, Jodie Foster said: "Thanks to the Academy for embracing such an incredibly strong and beautiful feminist hero that I'm so proud of." Foster portrayed a smart and accomplished woman who not only succeeds in catching a serial killer before any of her male FBI colleagues, but matches wits with a brilliant and dangerous cannibalistic male psychiatrist. In fact, the National Organization for Women publicly supported director Jonathan Demme, and screenwriter Anna Hamilton Phelan ("Mask" and "Gorillas in the Mist") told the Los Angeles Times, "I saw this movie as very pro-female, one in which the horror of violence against women is brilliantly balanced by the presence of well-drawn female characters."

Next came the less-hyped "Terminator 2," which featured the single minded freedom-fighter Sarah Connor. Played by Linda Hamilton, who whittled her padded body of the first Terminator film to boyish, taut, asexual contours, Connor is a muscled machine engaged in a battle against evil Terminators who intend to wipe out the human race. She snarls and fights and kills like an animal, actively changing the course of history to prevent a horrible future.

What's distinctive about these new Hollywood heroines is that, contrary to the dominant cultural logic of gender categorization, they appear at times to be androgynous. It's frustrating to encounter a person who defies easy gender labeling - and it's no surprise that film and television sometimes employ the gender-confused figure as a tool for narrative suspense. But gender confusion can be a catalyst for feminist change: These fighting women are heroic powerhouses whose strength comes from their refusal to adhere to the myth of femininity. Their androgyny illustrates that gender roles are cultural constructions - thereby proving that women are not naturally better nurturers and men are not inherently superior reasoners.

While these new heroines inaugurate a post-gender trend in filmic representation of women (the post-gender man is still too threatening a figure for male audiences, not withstanding Arnold Schwartzenegger's nurturing tendencies in "T2"), their gender-bending is still in its formative stages. For now at least, it is only skin-deep.

On The Issues Magazine - Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling
1990 film "Silence of the Lambs" earned Jodie Foster an Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Clarice Starling

For instance, in "Silence," Starling is clearly seen as inferior to her colleagues because she is a woman. It's impossible to forget that she's a woman among men. Her superior excludes her from a discussion with the sheriff because "this type of sex crime has certain aspects I'd just as soon discuss in private." A prisoner throws a gob of semen into her face and snarls, "I can smell your cunt." In her dealings with Dr. Hannibal Lecter, she is without a doubt positioned as a subordinate - as a woman, patient, daughter and student. At the close of the movie, it is unclear whether Starling will even be able to solve future cases without Lecter's guidance.

The same backlash underpinnings are evident in "T2." Sarah Connor's ultimate value is that of mother to John Connor, leader of the post-holocaust Resistance Against the Terminators. Her "femininity" erupts at a crucial moment - when she has the opportunity to murder Dyson, the man who spearheads the technology leading to the nuclear holocaust. Connor is about to pump bullets into his body when.. .she cries. She can't bring herself to do it. She is comforted only by her son's embrace. Though Connor does not live by the stereotypical regulations of femininity, she can still be seen to embody mythic femininity. Not only is she a mother, she is a Mother; it is her son who will save humanity.

Or, consider "A League of Their Own," which gives a cursory nod toward subverting immutable gender categories. Director Penny Marshall's chronicle of the mid-1940s' All American Girls Professional Baseball League demonstrates that women can pitch a fastball and earn runs-batted-in as well as any tobacco-spitting man. But the movie is rife with sexist jokes at the expense of a player considered ugly and masculine. And the team star absconds to domestic bliss after one season, when her husband returns from the war.

What, exactly, is a "feminist" film? Definitions are as wide-ranging as the theories of feminists themselves. This is because, contrary to popular opinion, feminism is not a monolith. Many people believe that a feminist film is one that need only present women in a "positive" light. Since women are so often positioned in subordinate roles - as wife, mother, or girlfriend - it's refreshing to watch them lead the action. Some feminists argue that positive representations can change the way women are perceived and perceive themselves.

But we shouldn't congratulate films simply because women capture the leading roles. For one thing, who is to say definitively what is a "positive" representation? "Thelma and Louise" has been hailed as a "positive" film for women. But the runaways do not channel their anger into a fight for reform. They kill themselves, leaving a system of sexism behind them. Are these really proper role models for feminist activists?

On The Issues Magazine - In Terminator 2, Connor is a muscled machine engaged in a battle against evil Terminators who intend to wipe out the human race.
In Terminator 2, Connor is a muscled machine engaged in a battle against evil Terminators who intend to wipe out the human race.

The positive imagery question is dizzyingly complicated, and it has been debated not only among feminists, but among African-Americans as well. In order to simultaneously raise morale among African-American audiences, and to disprove racist ideology for the benefit of white audiences, many antiracist filmmakers simply reverse racist cultural formulas. But as feminist critic Michele Wallace points out: "Because racism provides an already complete and satisfying comprehension of Black identity (which is why it persists), one that is presumably continuous with and essential to the rest of the viewer's ideological framework,a temporary reversal of terms - like a media version of Sadie Hawkins Day - not only doesn't challenge racism but may in fact corroborate it." Does "The Cosby Show" expose racism - or just foster white complacency? Is "A League of Their Own" an effective subversion of patriarchy - or merely a seventh-inning stretch?

Stereotype reversal may feel good, but it can never plumb the ideology of prejudice. This is because it is predicated on the dualistic notion that there is a natural, "essential" core of Blackness or femininity. Liberal feminists, who are concerned with obtaining equal rights with men, have been the first to praise the appearance of strong female characters who seamlessly blend into traditionally male domains.

But this praise can easily slide into "post-feminism," the belief that women can be anything they want - muscled cops, bald space-fighters, briefcase-toting execs, or just old-fashioned, apron wearing moms. Post-feminism is the
sexist version of white complacency. Heralds of post-feminism say that the battle for equality is largely won. But like feminism, feminist film must strive for more. It must promote gender confusion. It must break away from the old time dualisms of feminine and masculine, positive and negative, CEO and full-time homemaker.

Post-feminism/post-gender conflict erupts in the Ellen Ripley character (Sigourney Weaver) of the trilogy "Alien" (1979), "Aliens" (1986), and "Alien 3" (1992). This chronicle, which spans over a decade, reflects a complacency towards women's rights and the emergence of a backlash mentality. In "Alien," Ripley is a space fighter who remains in control in the face of painful decision making and whips her crew into shape when they confront horrifying monsters. Not only does Ripley eschew stereotypical "feminine" roles, but her gender is inconsequential to her character. As with "Silence of the Lambs" and "T2," "Alien" lacks sexual activity since Ripley is nearly asexual. In a final scene, she is practically naked, wearing bikini underwear and a skimpy undershirt. But her physiology seems incidental; the camera barely notices, and certainly doesn't linger upon, her nudity.

But Ripley's androgyny is sucked out of her in each subsequent sequel. In the second installment, "Aliens," Ripley's physical strength and steadfast determination to wipe out the alien creatures can only be expressed through her strong maternal feelings for a young orphaned girl, Newt. Ripley soothes the scared and dirty Newt, offers her hot chocolate, and tucks her into bed. It's clear that when Ripley fights the biggest alien one-on-one, displaying superhuman strength, it's more for the sake of Newt's life than for her own. Ripley is not Wonder woman - she's Supermom.

On The Issues Magazine - Hard bodied fighting woman is a new turn for how women are portrayed in film.

In "Alien 3," Ripley shaves her head and swaggers in khaki fatigues, though her former glory days as an androgynous soldier are gone. Now her gender is a constant marker, a persistent flag that delineates her from the men surrounding her. Ripley as Woman cannot be ignored, because she is on a planet inhabited by former sex criminals. There is an attempted gang rape, from which Ripley is rescued. For the first time, she has a love interest, and her status as a single woman is highlighted. It is mentioned, more than once, that if she can survive this final ordeal, she'll be able to live a happy and reproductive life ("You should get married and have kids;" "You can still have a life, children.") The jail master says, "That's a good girl" as he escorts her to quarantine.

As the "Alien" trilogy progresses, the androgynous heroine slips back into the trenches of essentialist dualisms. By the third movie, Ripley reinforces traditional gender roles, despite her initial gender-bending actions. While feminist criticism may have progressed beyond basic binaries, film heroines are being stalled, even regressed, by the post-feminist discourse that says we can have it all. In fact, the reactionary argument of the "Alien" trilogy is that a heroine must have it all - Ripley cannot be a warrior without also being a lover, and most importantly, a mother.

Date rape and harassment trials, feminist literature on the bestseller list, well-publicized abortion battles, and the unprecedented number of women who've recently run for office - these recent consciousness-raising events can push the half-formed androgynous heroine over the edge.

The '90s' proto-feminist movies are off to a propitious start: They all contain an anti-establishment premise. "Thelma and Louise" exposes the weaknesses of our legal system. "Silence of the Lambs" brutally lays bare the failures of our law enforcement system (after all, to capture a serial killer, the FBI colludes with a cannibalistic murderer.) "Terminator 2" carries an obvious anti-nuclear message. And the "Alien'' movies pit space crew members against "the company" - a government/ military apparatus that does not care about them and that deems their lives "expendable."

Clearly, these movies reflect a serious, widely held dissatisfaction with the way men treat women and institutions treat people in general. However, seemingly rebellious films cannot continue to rely upon deeply embedded, tacitly accepted versions of how men and women should act. Otherwise, the subversion of gender will end as audiences leave the theaters.

Leora Tanenbaum is a freelance critic who lives in New York City.


Follow us on:

Choices Women's Medical Center Banner Ad
Print page      Bookmark site      Rss Feed RSS Feed


1983 - 2015 On The Issues Magazine; No Reuse without permission. • Complete Table of ContentsPrivacyLinks of Feminist and Progressive Interest