The Problem with Hollywood’s ‘Female Empowerment’ Stories

Reading movie industry press one can surmise that there’s a huge demand for women-driven stories. Hollywood, after sorting through every book with a ‘Girl’ in its title, in its newfound zeal to prove its ‘female empowerment’ bona fides, has been stamping female-lead movies by the dozens, each more mediocre than the other. In a frantically adjusted social narrative, empowerment is king and, as the stories go, it can be drawn from the following activities: salesmanship – overcoming the long odds to become a businesswoman (Joy), revenge – being a crafty cheat (Gone Girl) or a kick-ass in tight pants (too many to name), con (Ocean’s 8, The Hustle, The Kitchen) and self-discovery – leaving everything behind to eat, pray and fuck in exotic locales. All of the above are offered as acceptable avenues of female empowerment. But they are mere diversions to prevent us from considering what a real empowerment would look like.

I have long felt, when looking at social media posting of women in contrived power poses, that there was something wrong with it. Displays of power is sort of like being a lady – if you have to tell everyone you’re one… well, you know the rest. Dana Loesch posing with a gun in tight sexy clothes doesn’t have the power. NRA does. Dana is a mere cog. Also, there’s a peculiar dichotomy in the image that is lost on many: a gun is supposed to convey the ‘don’t fuck with me’ message, while sexy tight clothes simultaneously undermine that message with ‘although I’m quite fuckable.’ Or vice versa. It’s does not speak of power. It speaks of schizophrenia. If I was writing an NRA shill character, for example, I would dress her in a conservative Chanel suit, sitting behind an imposing desk in a dark, wood-paneled library, probably missing an eye or a limb. That would convey ‘gravitas’. But I digress.

Such half-baked and superficial depiction of female empowerment have found a receptive audience in various hucksters, like Ivanka, or right-wing entrepreneurs like Tomi Lahren or the above-mentioned Dana Loesch. It’s appealing to mediocre personalities because it doesn’t require much thinking or work. Tomi, Dana and Ivanka have eagerly adapted modern feminism (flawed) tactics and language and now use it to undermine true equality and, coincidentally, to peddle their wares. Liberal Hollywood, wittingly or unwittingly (although I think there were genuinely good intentions behind all those horrible movies) basically gave them a blueprint. Selling shit, cheating others, killing rivals and, in the most benign case, to go on a ‘journey of self-discovery’ are offered as possible avenues, and equated with having real power. It is an unoffensive and unthreatening way of emancipation, even when it includes cheating and murder, because it doesn’t challenge the system that created that need in the first place. We find it entertaining seeing people put in a vice and forced to go on a spree. Hey, it is merely a way to survive within the system, and we totally understand it, the way we understand Walter White. You gotta do what you gotta do.

It’s a narrative of capitulation not empowerment. But I understand the producer’s logic. The story has to be driven by tension, by drama, and in order to show that on the screen, the forces of antagonism should have a human (or a monster) face, rather than a faceless LLC or a corporation. A physical confrontation is always more preferable than a courtroom back-and-forth. It’s more cinematic. (Yes, I’m aware of Aaron Sorkin, but there’s only one Aaron Sorkin).

There are ways to write good female characters. Clarisse Starling and Ellen Ripley come to mind. What separates them from Ocean’s 8 or The Kitchen characters? They’re not driven by self-interest or revenge. They seek to save others, at high cost to themselves. They lack an empty, unearned ‘you go girl’ exuberance. They’re thoughtful, reserved, and self-possessed even when they’re sabotaged, left and right, by lesser men. But there can only be one ‘Silence of the Lambs’, and ‘Aliens’ have been sequeled to death. Another important quality that Clarisse and Ellen possess is their sense of duty. Duty is a very uncinematic quality, as I have explained above. The ‘duty’ storyline has to be wrapped in a more compelling visual of chasing a serial killer or evading a monster. It’s hard to do, without the script sliding into pandering or a sermon, which is why movies like this can be counted on one hand. But if Hollywood is really serious about women’s stories, this is where they should direct their attention and efforts, not sugar-high, feel-good, superficial ‘girl-power’ crap.

On a closing note, I’m very excited about the upcoming ‘Dune’ series, that, from what I read, are going to focus on a secretive and powerful women’s order of Bene Gesserit. Sort of like The Family. But for girls.

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