There was a brilliant 10-minute short film that went viral a couple of times in social media. It was made back in 2018 and is entitled “Leading Lady Parts”, written and directed by Jessica Swale, produced by Rebel Park Productions, starring a number of female celebrities including Catherine Tate, Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey, and Florence Pugh, to name a few. As the title implies, the film is set in an audition room where several actresses come in for a script read in front of the casting director and crew who, in turn, dictate what they want from each actress in terms of both emotion and physicality. In one of the earlier scenes where they ask an auditionee what they thought of the character, she replies with “I think she’s pretty”, to which the panel sighs in relief, but is eventually disappointed when the auditionee meant to say “pretty clever”. The panel responds, “Clever’s not really something we want or care about, at all, actually. You do realize this is the leading lady part?”. The film went on to show extremely unrealistic demands of the casting panel, such as in an instance when they were talking about making the character cry, to which they emphasized, “She could cry, but not like ugly cry. More like sensual sexy crying, like wet, in a shower of crying…and smiling.” Lastly, the panel also went to the extremes, discriminating auditionees of color, as well as those who are not of the “ideal” body type as dictated by the highly unrealistic standards of society. The most notable quote of the film from the panel is when they asked Florence Pugh to lose weight, saying:
“Could you just be a bit thinner? We really saw her as thin, like a twiglet. You know, feminine, vulnerable, delicate, thin, but with a great rack! Stick thin with boobs and hips, but not big hips not, you know, “baby bearing” hips…It’s not rocket science darling, we’re just asking you to be thin and curvy, sexy and innocent…Just you know, “leading lady”.”– from Leading Lady Parts (Swale, 2018)
The film ended with the panel ultimately casting Tom Hiddleston for the leading lady part, without even letting him read lines from the script. It was, overall, a brilliant criticism of the ridiculous expectations from women in the industry, as opposed to men who can just choose and get the parts that they want simply because they are men. It was a stab at the dominant sexism and racism towards women which, unfortunately, go beyond the boundaries of the film industry. In this discussion about the expectations from women, it is also important to tackle their public portrayal in film that is the root of these expectations. Throughout the history of cinema, they have been shown as many things, five of which I will highlight in the succeeding paragraphs.
“The determining male gaze projects its phantasy onto the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.”(Mulvey, p.11, 1975)
First, and arguably the most common one, is that women are usually shown as objects of pleasure. They appear on screen for the sole purpose of being looked at. Everything, from their head to toe must be conventionally attractive because it is their job to attract, not only the leading men, but also the audience. Mainstream film has been structured to direct attention to the female human form. She is admired, fantasized on, examined and, as I would like to put it, visually stripped and harassed. The gaze towards her, no matter how innocently it begins, eventually turns erotic, as it is designed to be developed in that manner. Most especially in early cinema, the female character never drives the plot, but rather freezes it as she turns all attention towards her. She is both an attraction and a distraction. She never gives too much emotion or action, so as not to drive too much attention away from her physicality. Mulvey perfectly captures this in her essay, saying:
“…her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation…As Budd Boetticher has put it: ‘ What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.’”(Mulvey, p.11, 1975)
Second, in the evolution of cinema, women have been given a wider scope in their roles. They are now given the freedom to execute one important gesture of emotion that they were trained so well to do—cry. And it is with all the intensity of sarcasm that I intend to say that it is extremely delightful that women were also given the chance to play between being scared, sad, angry, and vulnerable. It just proves how well they give the “distressed” part to the role of “damsel-in-distress”.
“Obviously their emotions have overpowered their reason, and they can’t control themselves.”– Plato’s view of the soul and body (Spelman, p.115, 1982)
Turning away from film a little bit, there are countless times wherein women would not get elected for a government position because people would argue that they are so hormonal, they could “start a war within 10 seconds”. But then again, just as a journalist pointed out, weren’t all wars started by men? In the context of cinema, it was established previously that women were intended to pause the narrative to gain attention for themselves. That would mean that the male characters, down to the viewers, are overfilled with their erotic desires that they literally freeze to look at that which captivates them. This implies that it is the men, not the women, who appear to have no control over their emotions. They are the ones whose reasoning is overpowered by their desire. Such emotional triumph over thinking not only limits the narrative, but also limits the art in the perspective of the viewer, who cannot help but reduce it to merely satisfy a visual pleasure.
Third, women are treated as lower beings. Spelman mentions that “slaves, free laborers, children and animals are put in their place on almost the same grounds as women are” (Spelman, p.118, 1982). This brings about oddity, as one would not typically fetishize over something they look down on. Fetishism is usually a product of admiration, not of hatred or classism. In relation to this, women are also treated as possessions. The clash between fetishism and discrimination is ultimately bridged by possession, which is an act of trying to own and grasp things which you cannot understand. Since it has been difficult to understand women, emotionally and physically, because of their difference to men, they are being admired and oppressed at the same time. It mirrors the urge to possess and give meaning to art so that its transcendence may be brought down to something more reachable to the common man.
Fourth, women are used to represent and embody men’s insecurities. They are everything which a man cannot and should not be. A man ought not to dwell on his emotions, according to society. He should be a thinker, not a household laborer. His physicality and disposition should neither be equated to weakness and femininity. He can only give out reasoning, not empathy, discourse, not compassion. The image of a woman as a castrated man enrages the male because the absence denotes the void in his being, as well as his limitations.
“Woman’s body is slashed and mutilated, not only to signify her own castrated state, but also the possibility of castration for the male. In the guise of a ‘madman’ he enacts on her body the one act he most fears for himself, transforming her entire body into a bleeding wound.”(Creed, p.52, 1986)
Lastly, women are portrayed as bridges in a man’s story. They are passersby, never heroes. The woman neither brings questions, nor answers. She is simply there to stop by and leave for the narrative to go on. She becomes the subject of the story when she is looked upon, but as soon as the gaze reaches an end, she has to vanish, for her existence will only hold back the man from fulfilling his purpose. The man, by all means, has to succeed. He has to move on and reach the epitome of his being and purpose, and he has to do it in the absence of that which represents everything that he cannot be. As Creed directly puts it:
“She is no longer the subject of the narrative; she has become the object of the narrative of the male hero. After he has solved her riddle, she will destroy herself.”(Creed, p.61, 1986)
Given all these primitive standards of portrayal that continue to exist for women, it would be unfair to say that cinema has not progressed after all these years. Women are continuously on the way to getting the respect and place that they deserve in society. With the rise of feminism, they have been given main roles, roles that defy the typical “feminine” character, and even roles that highlight their womanhood as strengths, not weaknesses. Throughout the years, women became warriors, bosses and heroes, while being mothers, wives, and sisters. However, as prevalent in the short film mentioned in the introduction, women are still not completely free from the double standards of society. To this, I would like to raise an argument that the concept of female liberation will only be possible through the death of the body.
Plato, in all his misogynistic views, mentioned that “when one is released from the body one can finally get down to the real business of life, for this real business of life is the business of the soul” (Spelman, p.111, 1982). In the context of cinema, for the art of the film to transcend, the fixation on the human body should cease. Voyeurism, as an extremely male tendency, would be difficult to eliminate because, after all, cinema exists partly for pleasure. However, if one wishes to appreciate art in its entirety, one must suspend her/his bodily tendencies and allow the art to be experienced in its absolute form. In watching and telling a story, both the viewer and the artist should aspire for the “death of the body” so as to get to the core of the soul of the art. Something about the body distracts us, and this is the mortal beauty that it is attached to. Plato further argues that,
“Yes, there are beautiful things, but they only are entitled to be described that way because they partake in the form of Beauty, which itself is not found in the material world.”(Spelman, p.111, 1982)
Cinema has always been fixated on the beauty of the woman. This trickles down to a certain obsession on youth that has led to further discrimination when women reach a certain age. Meryl Streep even said in an interview that by the time she turned forty, she kept being offered witch roles, and this is already coming from one of the industry’s most decorated actresses of her generation. The industry praises men for aging well and applauds them for being “versatile” when they play less physical and more dramatic work as they grow old. Meanwhile, women are seen at a “downfall” in their acting career the minute they begin playing mother roles. Plato mentioned that “to have more concern for your body than your soul is to act just like a woman” (Spelman, p.115, 1982). It is absolutely incorrect to assume that women do not value their souls as much as they value their physicality. However, it is true that they put a great effort to beautify themselves, but this is only because they are told to do so because they are not free. Women have to be beautiful because beauty is all society ever sees value in. They are still slaves to patriarchal standards that they are fighting really hard to break. This brings us to the subject of female liberation. In her essay, Spelman quotes Friedan,
“…men have done more important things, the mental things; women have been relegated in the past to the less important human tasks involving bodily functions, and their liberation will come when they are allowed and encouraged to do the more important things in life. Her (Friedan’s) solution to what she referred to as the “problem that has no name” is for women to leave (though not entirely) women’s sphere and ascend into man’s.”(Spelman, p.122, 1982)
In my opinion, “liberation” is too much of a word. Women are not to be liberated by becoming thinkers because they already are thinkers. They are philosophers as much as they are mothers. They are scientists and astronomers as much as they are household helpers and laborers. To isolate liberation to the idea of having no room for labor, is to only focus on the upper class. Women work for a living just like men. All people are subjected to labor because they have to survive. That does not mean that they are any less thinkers. To use the term “liberation” is to imply that women, once again, are damsels-in-distress who need to be saved. They are oppressed, yes. But they are more than capable of saving themselves. Their sole existence, as they are, regardless of their function in society, so long as they are not being held back by patriarchal standards, is freedom, itself, beyond the concept of liberation. Women are free. We have reached the point in society where women can be who they are and express how they feel. We, the viewers and consumers of art, are the ones who are not free. We are still trapped in the standards of voyeurism and fetishism that we, ourselves, set. And so long as we keep choosing to be enslaved by the visual prison we have made, we will continue to be deprived of seeing art, and women, in their absolute freedom and transcendence.
- Creed, B. (1986). Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection. Screen, 27(1), 44-71.
- Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen.
- Rebel Park Productions. (2018). Leading Lady Parts [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEdJ4PIGad4
- Spelman, E. (1982). Woman as Body: Ancient and Contemporary Views. Feminist Studies, 8(1), 109.