“When you say Man,” said Oedipus, “you include women too. Everyone knows that.” She said, “That’s what you think.”
‘She’ is the Sphinx. When I first encountered Muriel Rukeyser’s poem Myth it was 1987 and I was conscious of being part of an ongoing fight to challenge sexist assumptions. Stewart Lee and a bunch of male students had set up a feminist men’s group in my college alongside the women’s soc, proving some young men in my generation were rejecting uni’s nasty jock culture.
In two-and-a-half hours they couldn’t find space to give better representation to 50 per cent of the population?
Madonna’s stardom and films such as Working Girl, in which Melanie Griffith battled class and sexual harassment on Wall Street with humour and Harrison Ford on her side, gave me hope that things were changing.
But Hollywood – it’s been 30 years and we need to talk. Again. Because this time it’s about the films that are supposedly hip and which highbrow critics are acclaiming as sophisticated works of modern genius.
Let’s start with a disclaimer. I’m all for all-male line-ups where it’s right. Russell Crowe and his sailors in Master and Commander. I totally buy that.
So m’lud, if I may proceed with the sorry matter that inspired this column. Exhibit A: War for the Planet of the Apes, a film full of technical marvel and self-important Biblical imagery about the future of species that has only one notable female part in a cast of hundreds of apes and humans.
She is a mute child [above]. I refer the court to the earlier case of Ahmed Vs The Nice Guys, whereby pre-sexual girls, but never adult women, are allowed screen time alongside male leads. Russell Crowe was in that one too and no, that is not OK. See also Logan.
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And don’t give me the ‘realistic animal behaviour’ defence. Not only do the naked apes in these films have NO genitalia but they can talk. An unexpected bonus of reading science journalist Angela Saini’s new book Inferior is knowing how much primate research proves many female apes are more dominant and promiscuous than males – but male human scientists have chosen to ignore that evidence, perpetuating the mainstream myth of the ‘natural’ order of male promiscuity and female subservience.
I’m not asking the producers to have researched the latest on bonobo female aggression – but in two-and-a-half hours they couldn’t find space to give better representation to 50 per cent of the population? Remember, even the 1960s Planet of the Apes films had a prominent female ape scientist.
Exhibit B is at first glance much better. Spider-Man: Homecoming [above] is funny and charming. Perhaps the success of Wonder Woman [below] made you lower your guard. But look again. Amid the cute 1980s teen references are, at first glance, four significant female roles. There’s the beautiful but mostly silent dream girl that Peter Parker adores. OK, forget her. Wait, there’s Tyne Daley (Lacey from Cagney & Lacey! How cool is that?)
But after one opening scene, she disappears. The wise-cracking female classmate has too few lines. And Marisa Tomei’s sexy Aunt May is pretty much restricted to teaching Peter how to dance for the Prom in a mostly wordless montage. Again, a two hours-plus running time but no time for the women to have anything useful to do.
Which brings us to exhibit C. Baby Driver [below] shouldn’t have these problems. It’s made by the talented Brit director Edgar Wright, who did such fun things with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. But it does, starting with the ’70s-style retro poster.
It wasn’t until I saw the film that I realised what looks like the same woman in two different poses is actually supposed to be two different women. It was with hindsight a warning that the female roles were cut-outs.
All those breathtaking musical scenes but no one thought to make the women more than the shallowest of stereotypes?
Lily James pours every ounce of her Guildhall training into trying to create depth in the thankless cliche of her sweet diner waitress, while Jon Hamm (yes, even Jon Hamm can’t distract me here) is paired with a sexy Latina, Eiza González, 20 years his junior.
All that technical energy on choreographing the breathtaking musical scenes but no one thought to make the women more than the shallowest of stereotypes? Go back and look at the obvious inspiration of Tarantino. You’ll find he created excellent female leads in Jackie Brown and Kill Bill.
This cannot be allowed to become the new normal. As the Sphinx would affirm, Men, whether in Greek myth or modern films, do not represent all of humankind.