Gender balance in Television series and Hollywood film portrayal

Diversity, Equality & Authenticity in Film portrayal & representation

The Norfolk Gender & Sexuality (GAS) Discussion Group meets at the Norwich Forum Library, 6.30pm Jan 5, to debate “Gender & Sexuality, Diversity, Equality & Authenticity, in Film”. (Facebook event)

2015 has seen the female-led Hunger Games end, a black Hermione announced, along with a black stormtrooper and strong-female roles in the new Star Wars (sadly erased by Hasbro’ Action Figures). It also has a cis-male actor playing an intersex-trans woman in The Danish Girl, a film which also features a trans woman playing a cis-role. Can Doctor Who regenerate as a woman? Could James Bond be black? Do diversity and representation matter or does acting trump accuracy? Has 2015 been the year of film equality, and if so for whom?

“2015 was the year everyone called ‘a benchmark’ for women in film. Rey to Imperator Furiosa, Cinderella to Katniss Everdeen. The powerhouse performances of Carol’s Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, or Joy’s Jennifer Lawrence. 2016 – Ghostbusters: the female-fronted movie of the year” – The Independent

Thelma & Louise film poster 1991
Thelma & Louise film poster 1991

Geena Davis has had swashbuckling and assassin female roles in Cutthroat Island and The Long Kiss Goodnight, been the eponymous and iconic Thelma in Thelma & Louise and been the US President in Commander in Chief and is not a woman to be messed with if her screen roles are anything to go by. In 2005 she helped launch a venture aimed at balancing the number of male and female characters in children’s TV and movie programming and in 2007 founded The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media:

“for every one female-speaking character in family-rated films (G, PG and PG-13), there are roughly three male characters; that crowd and group scenes in these films — live-action and animated — contain only 17 percent female characters; and that the ratio of male-female characters has been exactly the same since 1946. Throw in the hypersexualization of many of the female characters that are there, even in G-rated movies, and their lack of occupations and aspirations and you get the picture.” – Geena Davis

Tomorrowland film 2015
Tomorrowland (2015)

Tomorrowland (2015) had not one but two strong female leads who talked to each other, and not about men or sex at all, easily passing the Bechdel Test – popularized by Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For, in a 1985 strip called ‘The Rule’. A test that has come in for its own criticism for failing women and feminism.

The film’s main lead was originally written as male though:

“There is a completely false perception of, “Well, our main character is interested in space travel, so it’s gotta be a boy,” but the first time I said, “Well, what if it was a young girl …

It just felt like it was exactly right for us. I also think that if you have a female lead, people suddenly go, “Oh, there has to be a romantic entanglement.” Like, if you’re doing Hunger Games, it’s not enough that you’re dropped into an arena and everyone’s trying to kill you — there has to be not one, but two romantic entanglements! So Brad and I thought, What if she doesn’t get distracted by romantic entanglements? What if her “romance” is with the future?

It’ll be nice in 10 or 15 years for this not to be a thing anymore. I think we’re now in this post–Hunger Games, post-Twilight, post-Insurgent era where these movies make tons of money, you don’t even think twice about it, and they’re great characters. But for us, it was always more interesting — particularly the energy for Frank to be pulled along, kicking and screaming, by these two young women.”

Does film give us the opportunity to experiment and fantasize? We’ve had more female Presidents of the USA in film and TV than in reality (none) and 2016’s forthcoming Independence Day sequel “Resurgence” is to portray another woman as POTUS.

Star Wars

Star Wars was one of the original gun-toting films for Sci-Fi fantasy as Princess Leia was less a princess and more an armed rebel leader, despite the other sort of fantasy scene where she is chained as a sex slave for Jabba the Hut. Well Han Solo also got encased in carbonite… The prequels Epsiodes I-III feature a strong Amidala, Queen of Naboo, despite impossible outfits to battle in, and in the latest release The Force Awakens, we have Rey, a female lead, though she has been completely erased by Hasbro action figures and the new Star Wars Monopoly set.

Meanwhile Carrie Fisher felt it was sexist that film pressure, fans, twitter and social media commented excessively on her age, beauty and weight, not on any of the returning male stars.

Jennifer Lawrence

Jennifer Lawrence has written about gendered pay equality in Hollywood, despite being the highest-paid female actor of 2015 and in the upcoming film, Passengers (2016) is paid more than her male co-star:

“When the Sony hack happened and I found out how much less I was being paid than the lucky people with dicks [in American Hustle], I didn’t get mad at Sony,” she writes. “I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early. I didn’t want to keep fighting over millions of dollars that, frankly, due to two franchises, I don’t need.”

She writes that a need “to be liked” and the fear of seeming “difficult” or “spoiled” kept her from demanding more money.

“This could be a young-person thing,” she writes. “It could be a personality thing. I’m sure it’s both. But this is an element of my personality that I’ve been working against for years, and based on the statistics, I don’t think I’m the only woman with this issue … Could there still be a lingering habit of trying to express our opinions in a certain way that doesn’t ‘offend’ or ‘scare’ men?”

Lawrence joins a long list of actors including Patricia Arquette, Cate Blanchett Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson, who have hit out about misogyny and inequality in Hollywood’s film industry.

Chris Rock has responded by suggesting they try being a black woman if they really want to experience inequality.

Can Cis Actors play Trans or Intersex Roles?

Transparent features a cis-male playing a trans woman and an older trans actress playing a cis-role. Boy Meets Girl features a trans actress playing a trans woman, hailed as a breakthrough in the UK, yet she also plays a cis-gendered female nurse in The Danish Girl – the trans/intersex lead of which is played by a cis-male actor, Eddie Redmayne – but originally offered to Nicole Kidman. Rebecca Root has shed light on the film’s consulting of trans people and casting of some in. Redmayne had played Viola in Twelfth Night before, one of several Shakespeare genderbending roles, of course, originally, all female parts in Shakespeare were played by men and boys.

Intersex activists have complained about Redmayne’s character’s historical intersex erasure as too have the trans activists!

There is a lack of opportunity for trans actors in cis and trans roles. Director, Tom Hooper, explained that:

“Lili is presented as a man for two-thirds of the movie, and her transition happens quite late on, so that played a part in coming to a decision.” Hooper also said that the production had reached out to the trans acting communities in the cities where they shot – London, Brussels and Copenhagen – and ended up casting “40 or 50 trans supporting artists” [in 2 roles]. He said: “I’m pleased we achieved what we did, but I’m sure there’s more to do.””

heteronormativity also most certainly shapes what Hooper, the film’s director, refers to as the problematic lack of “opportunity for trans actors to play cis and trans roles.””

Orange Is the New Black has featured a trans actress playing a trans role, and her brother playing her pre-transition, and has now added a non-binary genderfluid actor, Ruby Rose, to its groundbreaking cast.

Acting is acting though and ability should trump lived-experience surely, unless telling a true story, perhaps.

We don’t automatically look for disabled actors to play disabled roles, nor even gay to play gay and straight to play straight. In the past gay actors played straight roles and vice versa, but is that still acceptable now?

Can Doctor Who regenerate as a woman?

Could/should the Doctor regenerate as a woman? We’ve had a sex-change Time Lord and Master/Missy.

“In ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, the Doctor mentioned that The Corsair was sometimes a bad boy…or girl depending on his mood. Apparently Time Lords/Ladies can change their gender at will.”

Do we need a female Doctor when the companions continue to evolve into feisty intelligent scene-stealers and Missy and River Song put the Doctor in his place so easily?

Should Sherlock or Watson change sex or Moffat be more feminist?

As with Doctor Who there is much fanfic around a female and or gay Sherlock Holmes or John Watson, but we already have a female Joan Watson in Elementary.

Some people think Moffat is a ‘feminist writer’ because he writes *strong female characters*. This article…pretty much proves Moffat’s views of feminism:

“Moffat, unsurprisingly, doesn’t agree. “In the original, Irene Adler’s victory over Sherlock Holmes was to move house and run away with her husband. That’s not a feminist victory.” He says he found Jones’s argument “deeply offensive”. “Everyone else gets it that Irene wins. When Sherlock turns up to save her at the end it’s like Eliza Dolittle coming back to Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady: ‘OK, I like you, now let me hack up these terrorists with a big sword.’”

Moffat has bizarre views on what is feminist or unfeminist…”

Is Sherlock a “misogynistic throwback…you’ve got to worry when a woman [Irene Adler as dominatrix fantasy rather than female adventurer] comes off worse in 2012 than in 1891″, “In Moffat’s hands the power of Irene Adler, Sherlock Holmes’s female adversary, was sexual, not intellectual. A regressive step” – Jane Clare Jones, Guardian

Can Harry Potter’s Hermione be Black?

Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione”

“Is Hermione Granger black? This is the question prompted by the casting of a black actor, Noma Dumezweni, as Hogwarts’ cleverest pupil in an upcoming theatre production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The answer is twofold. First, why the hell not? Second, what a stupid question!

A better one to ask is whether Hermione – or indeed any fictional character – is necessarily white. The answer is no. The decision to cast Dumezweni, an Olivier-award winning actor currently performing at the Royal Court in a lead intended for Kim Cattrall, challenges our assumption that characters are white unless we’re told otherwise.”

Cf. http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2015/dec/23/hermione-is-not-black-or-white-or-any-ethnicity-harry-potter; http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/dec/24/harry-potter-race-muggles-black-hermione

Can James Bond be Black?

Could Bond be black? for example, Idris Elba, Denzel Washington or Chiwetel Ejiofor. He was only made Scottish after Sean Connery played him, whilst David Tennant dumped his Scottish accent to play an ‘English’ Doctor Who.

The reasons why and why not are a battle of story versus bottom line. The issues include those of “the power of the default” and the power of “commercial argument”.

Historically, we had blacking-up in film, now considered a no-no (despite Anthony Hopkins in Othello, 1981, and more recently Ridley Scott’s white cast in Exodus) with the range of BAME actors now available, perhaps the question should be availability of quality actors with appropriate experience, but acting skill and character research/consulting with represented people groups for better accuracy and understanding, as with The Danish Girl.

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