If you’re in Manchester this weekend come and see the launch of my first film programming venture Cine-Sister!
Support female filmmakers and some fantastic charities (MASH, Women’s Aid, & Shelter) and there’s loads of other great stuff happening at the event. The screening starts at 2pm on the 4th of March 2017 in at Texture,67 Lever St, Manchester.
Cine-Sister will be launching with a short film screening featuring 7 female directed/produced films. The films in this screening deal with themes of gender, race, religion, body and identity. There is a mixture of drama, comedy, animation and documentary short films so there is something for everyone to enjoy and learn from.
I remember walking into the living room one day around Christmas time, my sister was sat on the sofa playing video games. One character, in particular, caught my eye. She stood out because she was wearing a bikini top and ripped trousers next to several men dressed for heavy combat. My sister told me that her name was Quiet, she couldn’t speak. Probably guessing that I was going to question the costume design for this character she told me that the reason was “she breathes through her skin.” Now, although this is a video game which is a whole other ball game in terms of discussing sexism in character design, this is something prevalent in the films we watch at the cinema, mostly action/adventure films.
What is a “Strong Female Character”?
A term that is tossed around a lot in terms of the women in these films is that they are a “strong female character” But what does this mean? What is not my definition of a strong female character is throwing together an overly sexualised outfit for a female actress and giving her a gun and some one-liners and then declaring that “sexism is over”. It’s such a broad term, in fact, that it’s thrown around constantly in film reviews when a female character appears to have her own mind
Sexual Empowerment vs Sex Appeal
But this is where it gets confusing. There has been a surge in female superheroes on our screens in the past few years from Halle Berry’s portrayal of Catwoman, to more recently, Scarlett Johansen’s portrayal of Black Widow across the Marvel cinematic universe, such as in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers , and while that’s great, it wrongly suggests that the representation of women on screen in these genres is no longer an issue.
Often, women appear to be empowered: they are the protagonist or antagonist, carry great strength and dialogue. However, although the actress appears to be acting on her own terms, i.e. owning her sexuality, in reality, her movements, particularly while fighting, are sexualised, and the camera will pan up and down her body, focusing on aspects of her tight fitting or revealing costume that are pleasing to the heterosexual male viewer. It caters to the male gaze; a term coined by Laura Mulvey in her 1973 essay titled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, in which she explains that in film, women are typically the objects, of gaze rather than the possessors of it. This is due to both the choice of the typically male filmmaker and the assumption of heterosexual men as the default target audience for most film genres.
This concept, when applied to these action/adventure characters was summed up by Caroline Heldman in the documentary Miss Representation, in which she explains “When you peel back a layer or two you discover it’s not really about their agency, I call this archetype the fighting fuck toy because although she is doing things supposedly on her own terms she very much is objectified and exists for the male viewer”. This takes away much of the appeal of these characters because when you build a character on the basis of appearance and sex appeal there is little left for the audience to empathise, creating a dynamic in which the audience objectifies rather than sees this character as a human.
Looking to the Future
The most recent example of ridiculous costume for a woman in an action/adventure film, a promotional image released from the upcoming Jumanji, in which actress Karen Gillian stands in tight, skimpy clothes inappropriate for her surroundings with three fully clothed men (much like Wonder Woman with the rest of the Justice League at the top of this article). After backlash to the image, she took to Twitter to say “Yes I’m wearing child-sized clothes and YES there is a reason! The payoff is worth it, I promise!”
However, I’m not so convinced, it’s likely another “She Breathes Through Her Skin” or “She Owns Her Sexuality” style excuse but time will tell on this occasion. The main problem with these costumes on these women in these films is that it sells an idea of what a strong female character is whilst also selling her short. Giving less to character development and less to showcasing an actresses performance in order to focus on looks and sexual appeal.
Because at the end of the day, when I see a film, I don’t want to see a strong female character. I want to see a human character. Someone who is multifaceted and relatable whilst also able to hold her own in an action/adventure story and due to costume choices and choices made by the directors of these characters are being sold short and I believe they can do better.
What do you think about the promotional image released for Jumanji?
“Let me scream I am tired of the silence” raps Sonita in her internationally viewed music video filmed as part of the new documentary Sonita by documentary filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami. The subject of the documentary; her name self-defined in the film as a “swallow, a migrant bird.” Afghan-born, Sonita fled to Iran as a child with part of her family to escape the Taliban. She works in a refugee community centre as a cleaner and studies there with a group of other girls. Sonita is a talented young rapper inspired by western influences such as Rihanna. When she is 15, her mother visits her in Iran to tell her that she is being sold as a bride for $9,000 in order for her brother to pay for a bride of his own. The relationship between self-expression and female empowerment here is incredibly important, Sonita raps around poverty, women’s rights and her own struggles as an Afghan refugee.
This is similar to documentary Queens of Syria by Yasmin Fedda as both films use a personal filmmaking approach that ends up exploring the relationship between the female filmmaker and the subject. In Sonita, the filmmaker is constantly encouraging her to use her voice and to express how she is feeling and blurs the line between a passive filmmaker and an active participant in the events that unfold. Both in Sonita and Queens of Syria women share their experiences through performance. In Queens of Syria, a group of refugee women in Jordan rehearse and perform a modified version of the Euripides’ play Trojan Women, to tell their stories and empower each other by standing together in the face of all the pain they have gone through. “I have a scream I want the whole world to hear…But I wonder if it will be heard?” However, throughout Queens of Syria, many women drop out of the play and are reluctant to take part due to their faith, culture and community pressures that don’t wish them to express themselves in this way as women, as it is seen as detrimental to their family lives. However, in many ways, Sonita is the opposite. She often happily rebels against her society and her gender role through her rap music and questions the norms of her culture asking “what will happen if I sing?” when told by family it is indecent for a woman to do so. She is not ashamed nor does she shy away from writing and performing songs about uncomfortable subjects such as poverty and the Afghan tradition of selling women as brides.
Similarly to the protagonist in animated memoir Persepolis (2007); also set in Iran, Sonitadocuments a struggle for identity. Both Sonita and the protagonist, Marjane in Persepolisare fiercely spirited and outspoken as well as in their youth using music to both escape their reality and confront it. Both using music to challenge their societies and their gender roles as Islamic women in Iran. However, Persepolis is set much earlier than Sonita. In the 1980s/90s, the young Marjane uses punk – even wearing an iconic handmade jacket with the slogan “punk is not dead” in the streets of Iran, as her medium of expressing herself. She risks her life and freedom purchasing western music tapes on the black market to feel a sense of identity in a society that oppresses her. These tapes are described as “symbols of Western decadence”, which is something that in Sonita, the young rapper aspires to. She spends time scrapbooking her perfect life and superimposing her face on images of Rihanna. However, for Marjane, music has its limits. It is not the saviour of her identity struggles or a full escape from her current life. Her punk music only works as a young girl in Iran, once she is sent away to Europe she no longer finds the need to rebel or seek out empowerment through music.
Sonita takes a very different approach to using music to express yourself and empower yourself as a woman in comparison to more western films about this subject. Ladies & Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains made in 1982 at the height of the punk movement but before the Riot Grrrl movement took off, shows a teenage female punk band fronted by Corinne Burns, an angry, disillusioned girl using music to deal with her emotions surrounding her mother’s death. Throughout the film, girls thank her for speaking what they were thinking or what they were afraid to say. In a rant after a poorly received show she says to the women “be yourselves, These guys laugh at you. They’ve got such big plans for the world. but they don’t include us!” She spends the film carving out a place for her and her band in the music scene ignoring the patronising advice of the male bands she is touring with and empowers herself and the women around her expressing herself her own way.
Similarly, Swedish film We Are the Best! also set in the 1980s but made in 2013, follows a band of misfit young girls who form a punk rock band (with no experience in playing music) as a means of escape from their lives and to express their feelings and identities. They are androgynous and reject their femininity but are often taunted – sarcastically called the “prettiest girls in town”. Music gives them an outlet against a world that makes them feel like they don’t belong. This is not a world away from Sonita, who uses her rap music to get her voice heard and by doing so uplifts the voices of the silent and the abused. Whilst Sonita’s struggles include seeking justice against sexist traditions and laws by wanting to stay in school and rap; which is illegal for her to do in Iran both Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains and We Are The Best! do the opposite – rejecting certain privileges such as school and supportive peers due to angst and disillusionment with their lives. These films are also set in a different era, where punk is the method of expressing these emotions. Sonita is a much more contemporary way of looking at female empowerment through music using rap/hip-hop arguably the modern protest music form to express herself and empower women.
Something the protagonists share in all these films is a need for female self-expression. Wanting to share their experiences through music and uplift the women around them. Sonita is a fantastic modern tale of this and gives a voice to the women she wishes to empower through her music.
March was Women’s History Month and in Manchester there were tons of events to celebrate it and International Women’s Day on March 8th 2016. Similarly to last year, Wonder Women festival was held across the city featuring film screenings, art exhibitions and special events. There was also the annual Reclaim The Night march through the streets of Manchester in late February.
Reclaim The Night Manchester 2016
What IS She Wearing Exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery
The Pankhurst Centre
What IS She Wearing Exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery
Reclaim The Night Manchester 2016
I finally had the chance to visit the Pankhurst centre (which is a little hard to find, as it is in the middle of the Manchester Royal Infirmary & is only open on Thursdays). The centre is the former home of Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters and is the location of the first meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union and the birthplace of the Suffragette movement. It’s a really interesting museum and acts as a women’s community centre continuing the legacy of the building. I also attended the art exhibition What IS She Wearing at Manchester Art Gallery by Instigate Arts which explored the relationship between fashion and how it is used to explore gender, sexuality and identity, this was really interesting and included performances, sculptures and installations around the gallery.
I also attended Reclaim The Night on the 25th of February, chanting and singing down the streets of Manchester, it started in Owens Park, Fallowfield and finished at the Manchester University Student Union on Oxford Road. Over 3500 people attended. This was the first Reclaim The Night I’ve attended and I absolutely loved it, the atmosphere was full of such energy, noise and a passion for what we were doing. If you don’t know, Reclaim The Night is a protest movement against street harassment, victim blaming and rape culture. As we walked through the streets we faced both support and backlash from local residents and drivers, some revving their engines to try and drown us out but that was definitely a minority of the people we encountered. Overall, it was a really great experience and I would love to attend next year.
On the 29th of October there was a special screening at HOME in Manchester of the BFI’s Make More Noise! Suffragettes in Silent Film with a live piano accompaniment by Lillian Henley as part of Britain on Film. Make More Noise! inspired by the words of Emmeline Pankhurst featured 20 short silent films that were a mix of newsreel footage (Including the death of Emily Wilding Davison at the 1913 Derby) and comedic shorts from the time period. There was a brief description of the clip before it played giving some context and history to what we were about to view, the newsreel footage playing chronologically depicting suffragettes meeting in 1910 right through to women munition workers in 1917.
Although, not always picturing suffragettes explicitly the funny short silent films broke up what could have been a long series of factual information. My personal favourites were the funny Tilly shorts which pictured two mischievous sisters and were released between 1910-1915 (One of which can be partly seen below).
I really enjoyed this event! Lillian Henley’s live piano soundtrack was great, and if you get the chance to see this whilst it is touring you should check it out.
Finally, I was able to see the film I have been excited for since mid-2014 when I stumbled upon them filming outside the Houses of Parliament. Suffragette Directed by Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane, This Little Life) and starring Carey Mulligan (An Education, Far From the Madding Crowd, The Great Gatsby), Helena Bonham Carter (The King’s Speech, Sweeny Todd, Les Misérables) and briefly Meryl Streep (Into the Woods, The Hours, Sophie’s Choice).
Suffragette followed Mulligan’s character Maud as she slowly starts to fight back against the systematic oppression of women. The film is definitely a slow burner and I think it does a good job of building up the tension and anger felt by the protagonist as well as developing her character with Mulligan’s terrific performance. I also really enjoyed Helena Bonham Carter’s character as well as Anne Marie-Duff’s (Before I go to Sleep, Nowhere Boy). They were really great believable supporting characters that added depth to the story.
The film does play out as more of a history lesson and I feel that it fails in some ways to stir up emotion especially if you are already familiar with the Suffragette movement. Nothing was particularly surprising or shocking to me, in fact the most heart wrenching moments were about the life of the ficticious Maud rather than the more historically based areas of the film. However, I think that to someone new to the history that it would be very educational despite being a fictional story because I know that I personally, knew nothing of the suffragettes until my optional GCSE History classes at school meaning that a lot of people that see this film may be shocked by some of the treatment of the suffragettes.
I do feel that perhaps the cast was a bit too small sometimes, you didn’t really feel the scale of the movement. However, I really loved the ending in which they blend the film with real life footage of the suffragettes, it’s the only time in the film it feels like the movement is bigger than the few on screen. I did however, have an issue with the rolling list of dates that stated when suffrage was won for women in different countries right before the credits of the film, because it stated that it was 1920 for the U.S.A. which is forgetting the fact that black women were not able to vote until 1965, I think it’s a shame that they did not clarify this.
I think the film does a good job of telling an important story without glamourising the struggle for women in Britain to get the vote, it also does a good job of not making you feel like the fight for women’s rights is over. I did really enjoy the film and definitely recommend you give it a watch!
On Friday the 21st of August I attended a screening of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry at the London Feminist Film Festival in the Rio Cinema. Directed by Mary Dore, this documentary celebrates the almost forgotten history of the women’s liberation movement from 1966-1971.
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is a mix of modern day interviews weaved together with archival footage of protests, meetings and political speeches. Whilst it mostly focuses on gender it also touches on the intersectionality of race and lesbianism and the conflicts that did arise through these issues within the feminist movement and continue to today. The best thing about this documentary is that it encapsulates the spirit of the 1960s-70s without romanticising the time period, it is both funny, infuriating and heartbreaking at times, particularly when discussing the illegal Jane Collective who helped thousands of women have safe abortions. I found the film particularly interesting as most of what was shown was completely knew to me, it’s scary really how much of women’s history can be lost.
The film is both exhilarating in energy and poignant about highlighting these issues in a modern context and even points out that some rights gained during this time period are now being taken away in the USA (for example, reproductive rights). As discussed in the panel after the screening the film did have some problematic elements, barely covering racial tensions in the feminist movement and leaving out trans women altogether. I do sympathise however, as this was a huge topic to cover in a feature length film.
Overall, I very much enjoyed the film and hope it gets a UK distributor so more people can see it!
Tomorrow on the 5th of March there will be a feminist takeover of Manchester art gallery as part of the launch of Wonder Woman week. I helped organise this event with a group of feminists and artists and will be there filming it tomorrow night! We’ve got a huge range of art from women mainly based in the North West.
Taken from the Press Release:
From suffragette smashing windows in the gallery to a breathtaking exhibition of female surrealists, Manchester has a rich heritage of stereotype-smashing women. Yet society, and the art world, is still dominated by men. ‘In Emergency Break Glass’ brings together the North’s best emerging female contemporary artists, performers & creatives to challenge the male-dominated artistic canon, respond to the gallery’s artworks and inspire attendees. Curated by The Feminist Takeover team (made up of feminist artists, curators, writers and researchers, protagonists from No More Page 3, For Book’s Sake, Mighty Heart Theatre and Stirred Poetry),
This Thursday Late will run from 5.30-8, with events beginning in the Atrium at 6pm. Audiences are invited to tour the new contemporary exhibition that we have installed within the permanent collection. Live performances are scheduled all evening throughout the gallery and within the Feminist Takeover hub in the Atrium, and audiences are welcomed to explore the issues for themselves via the interactive arts & artist discussions that will be occurring throughout the evening in the Atrium.
By giving self-identified women a voice in the context of Manchester Art Gallery we aim to encourage discussion and explore the issues around the representation of women within the gallery, the art world and the wider society.
If any of my followers are based in Manchester, this will be a great event and I hope you attend!
The facebook event can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1374843142834105/
Last night I attended “The Naked Debate” which discussed the issues surrounding Page 3 in The Sun newspaper. The debate was about whether this page consisting of topless women should be allowed to still be printed in this day and age. The founder of the “No More Page Three” campaign; Lucy Holmes was present to give her argument against the use of Page 3.
The night consisted of four people; Phil Ives, a writer for “The Knowledge” and Charlie Green, the Vice President of the SU for Plymouth University giving their argument in favour of Page 3 followed by the Women’s Rep for Plymouth University (Jessica Horner) and Lucy Holmes giving the opposite view. Lucy Holmes’ speech was a particular highlight as she was particularly articulate and passionate on the subject (as you would expect from the founder!). Upon entering the debate you had the opportunity to mark whether you were for or against page 3, this was repeated at the end to see if the debate had changed anyone’s minds. I, however am 100% against Page 3 and my mind did not change throughout the process. The results will be posted online within the week, it will be interesting to see the results. All in all, “The Naked Debate” was incredibly interesting and though provoking whilst being a great platform to see both sides of the argument.
Interestingly, the same night the documentary “Blurred Lines” was aired on BBC Two. (It’s still on iplayer if you’re interested!) The documentary hosted by Kirsty Wark explores our culture showing how acceptable it is to show women in a sexually explicit and often abusive way in the media and whether the internet has made this behaviour more socially acceptable by blurring the lines of what is “casual banter” and what is serious sexism and misogyny posing as a joke. Throughout the hour Kirsty Wark covered a lot of issues surround this topic, often not having an in depth discussion about each of the areas but I feel that the point of this was to show a much broader view of how wide spread this issue is in our culture. The angle of the documentary was very much about how our culture says “anything goes” and if you’re offended you simply don’t have a sense of humour. The documentary raised a lot of interesting points on both sides of the argument in relation to online and offline misogyny and it worth a watch if you can.