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Week 12: A Time to Talk

In 1997, the famous Ms. Universe pageant asked, then candidate, Sushmita Sen a question that would trigger discussion all over the world. She was asked, “What is the essence of a woman?” To this, she replied,

“Just being a woman is God’s gift. The origin of a child is a mother, a woman. She shows a man what sharing, caring, and loving is all about. That is the essence of a woman.”

(Sen, 1997)

Although her answer highlighted the caring and nurturing qualities of a woman, it also put a spotlight on motherhood. And, while the whole world was discussing what should be the answer to this question, most were agreeing that to be able to give birth or to mother a child is the essence of being a woman. This, in itself, is troublesome because it puts aside women who are unable to produce children because of medical reasons. It also disregards women who choose not to have children, or could not adopt, or could not afford surrogacy, and so much more. Pinpointing the essence of a woman to just her ability to reproduce is locking her purpose into a society-given task which, if she fails to do it, would decrease or even eliminate her value as a person. Sen’s answer, as heartfelt as it is, highlighted “sharing, caring, and loving” as women’s traits, despite the fact that these qualities should be present in all types of people. As a matter of fact, in any way one looks at the question, there could never be a correct answer because the question, itself, is what is problematic. To look for the essence of a particular person is to basically ask what differentiates her/him from anyone else. It’s a question of identity, and it’s troublesome because it cages and reduces that person into a certain trait or quality. It is a question that does not seek to explain, but rather seeks to impose a definition, as a means of exerting power. The fact that this question was asked to a woman, in the most prestigious pageant in the world where she is supposed to reign, just shows how the world belittles a woman’s glory and tries in any way possible to take her away from her rightful pedestal. I, for one, would argue that the essence of a person lies in their sense of identity and the strength and determination that goes with assuming this identity. But with a world so obsessed with defining someone’s identity, this “identity” becomes a task, an element to be proven and questioned, rather than what one ought to live by. For people to live out their respective identities, they must face the challenge of getting out of society’s definition of them. This is exactly the unnecessary challenge imposed on members of the community, most particularly on the LGBTQ+ community.

With the rise of the LGBTQ+ empowerment, the world is determined to better understand their identity, but in the process of doing so, we are once again falling into the pithole of putting stereotypes. These stereotypes, not only serve as limiting entities, but rather they instill certain impressions on these groups of people in order to generate further hatred and avoidance geared towards that which they do not understand. It is only common, after all, to fear what one does not understand. 

“It is the ideological function of the lesbian body to warn the ‘normal’ woman about the dangers of undoing or rejecting her own bodily socialization. This is why the culture points with most hypocritical concern at the mannish lesbian, the butch lesbian, while deliberately ignoring the femme lesbian, the woman whose body in no way presents itself to the straight world as different and deviant.”

(Creed, p. 101, 1995)

The lesbian community, for example, have been stereotyped for being the “tomboy” persona, a woman who typically dressed and acted like a man out of her desire to be a man. This stereotype puts the “essence” of the community in the way they dress and behave. This also completely sets aside lesbians who are society’s definition of “feminine” in action and appearance. In the context of film, along with the butch lesbian is typically the comedic gay character, who acts “feminine” and dresses in women’s clothing. They are also typically shown in beauty parlors, as well as comedy bars. Do not get me wrong, some of these stereotypes are truthful. There are such people as butch lesbians and comedic gays in parlors, but there is an outrage for such representation in the media because it limits people’s image of them to just those. Such images are what people get used to, and when they end up being shown something else, they react negatively and shocked because, to them, what they are seeing is not anymore Queer Cinema, but misrepresented people who are “bad” examples. The danger is in idealizing a kind of queer because it marginalizes and, therefore oppresses, everyone else outside that limited definition.

 “…the politics of representation is still the method of choice in the popular gay press, where it has devolved into movie-star interviews that let us know which actors are out of the closet, and brief film reviews that help us to locate “positive” or “liberating” images of gay people.”

(Hanson, p.6, 1999)

The world is so curious and invested in people coming out of the closet. Whenever a celebrity does it, it’s always all over the news. A person’s sexuality is always a big deal to the point that people are bombarded with questions the minute there is a speculation about their sexuality. Someone’s sexuality is none of anybody’s business, whether the person chooses to hide it or not. It should be celebrated but it is not for another person to pry on. The dream is to live in a society where people don’t have to come out anymore because being queer is normal. Technically speaking, “coming out” is at the service of the heterosexual, as much as it is a celebration of the identity of the person coming out. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where sexuality is a huge part of gossip culture because to be queer is to be “unnatural”.

“We have been compelled in our bodies and in our minds to correspond, feature by feature, with the idea of nature that has been established for us. Distorted to such an extent that our deformed body is what they call “natural,” what is supposed to exist as such before oppression. Distorted to such an extent that in the end oppression seems to be a consequence of this “nature” within ourselves (a nature which is only an idea).”

(Wittig, p.9, 1992)

By this definition of Wittig, during oppression, that is, in the state of queerness, one exists as an “unnatural”. She furthers by saying that “One is not born, but becomes a woman” (Wittig, p.10, 1992). I definitely agree that it is nurture and culture which forms the identity, and not biological factors. However, the use of the word “unnatural” is problematic for the masses. To say that being a lesbian, for example, is “unnatural” because women are formed and are not born by “nature” just makes it easy for society to tweak this and put on a negative connotation to being queer. We are arguing that gender due to nature does not exist and it is extremely ironic that nature, particularly biology, is also the primary argument for the discrimination of the queer community. People who take pride in discriminating genders would just argue that being “unnatural” connotes a problem, psychological perhaps. The challenge in this case is, therefore, how to translate the cultural contribution to one’s identity in a way that could be understood well by the masses and not be an added factor to further discrimination.

“To refuse to be a woman, however, does not mean that one has to become a man…For a lesbian this goes further than the refusal of the role “woman.” It is the refusal of the economic, ideological, and political power of a man.”

(Wittig, p.13, 1992)

This beautifully put quote from Wittig further emphasizes that things are not just black and white. It was never about being just either a female or a male. There is a wider spectrum between the male and the female that people have to understand. And the breaking of these black and white definitions goes beyond furthering into the borders of masculinity and femininity. It also involves the refusal of an ideology and an economic and political assertion of power. To deny the dualist stereotype is to deny power to a system that placed dualism as a dominant structure in the first place. This is why the call for a progressive representation, not just in media, is important because it goes beyond dualism and tries its hardest to explore and understand the marginalized communities. But what is, in fact, a progressive representation?

“Instead of psychological complexity, we find predictable types and cardboard role- models. Instead of intellectual depth, we find a political slogan disguised as a narrative. Instead of aesthetic ingenuity, we find a stilted form of social realism. Instead of “accurate” or “positive” images of the gay community, we find an anodyne fantasy of the gay community.”

(Hanson, p.8, 1999)

“I was troubled by a pronounced audience tendency: the desire for something predictable and familiar up there on screen.”

(Rich, xxii, 2013)

As previously mentioned, it is very likely for society to keep falling into the trap of stereotypes, especially because queerness is attached to capitalism because it is linked to what is marketable and what the audience will like. We cannot change the tendency that the audience will want to look for a familiar stereotype or something that they are used to. However, we can try to change that which they are used to. 

“Instead of being politically correct about what we see, we are asked to be politically correct about how we desire.”

(Hanson, p.13, 1999)

We need to examine our own desires as much as we need to examine what is being desired. It is important to call out misrepresentations, but it is equally as important to look into our own tendencies and, therefore, our own standards because, more often than not, these standards are highly influenced by the power in play in the society. A progressive representation is that which is inclusive, therefore, our standards have to be inclusive, as well. All representation matters because, the moment you put people in a box, you oppress them. Queer people, just like any other character in a film, have to be able to be everything, from heroes to villains. Their representation should not be limited only to what is “politically correct” because this is, yet, another definition that may be limiting. When there are limitations, chances are, you remove their possibilities. 

In order to promote inclusivity in forming queer characters in cinema, there has to be enough discourse. Another danger to this is the bias against emotional discourse. Wittig describes it as “the one which says: you do not have the right to speech because your discourse is not scientific and not theoretical“ (Wittig, p.26, 1992). It is, in essence, a wrongfully put assumption that you do not know what you are talking about because of your biological limitations characterized by your emotions. For example, people feel strongly about their sexuality as being queer, but this identity is invalidated by society because they assume that it is based on emotion and not scientific facts. The society nowadays, being in an age of exploration and new discovery is, fortunately, more open to discourse. However, in this discourse, a common mistake is to engage in conversation for the mere purpose of generating yet another definition. Society should stop trying to define. It seeks to get a glimpse of queerness, for example, just so it could be put on a canvas. It’s effort to understand is equated with the effort to produce something marketable and definable. This way, cinema is not progressive in its totality, but performative because, more than trying to market queer, it is also still sanitizing it to fit a certain definition. Current cinema, in this sense, is still a barrier to progressive representation.

Lastly, just as with the argument that nothing is ever natural and that culture prevails, we have internalized everything, including homophobia and biased judgment towards the queer community. We were not born politically correct and incorrect. Rather, it is us who decided which aspects of culture we will allow ourselves to be instilled with. This is why discourse is extremely important. We need to keep talking about these things because they matter in as far as people are actually being oppressed. The moment we stop talking about something, it ceases to matter. So we need to keep discussing progressive representation, especially in the media, which is highly influential. And in doing so, we need to ask the right questions, and not keep questioning the essence of things, seeking to define a scope which is immeasurable in the first place because, at the end of the day, the essence of a person is not what matters, but rather her/his freedom to assume fully the person that s/he is born to be.

References:

  • Creed, B. (1995). Lesbian Bodies: Tribades, Tomboys and Tarts (1st ed.). London: Routledge.
  • Hanson, E. (1999). Introduction. In E. Hanson, Out Takes. Duke University Press.
  • Rich, B. (2013). Introduction. In B. Rich, New Queer Cinema. Duke University Press.
  • Wittig, M. (1992). One is not born a woman, The Straight Mind. In M. Wittig, The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Beacon Press.
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Film 270 Post

Week 11: Visual Transcendence

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)
A screen caption 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. 

References:

  • Creed, B. (1986). Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection. Screen27(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 Studies8(1), 109.