Thursday, May 7, 2015

THE CANAL, JOSS WHEDON, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and the Importance of Not Alienating the Female Audience

Recently, the Irish ghost film THE CANAL popped up on Netflix instant watch and horror journalists immediately began singing the film's praises and recommending it on social media platforms.  Last year, THE CANAL made it on a number of "Best Of" lists and it's reception since hitting Netflix has been incredibly strong.  Film critic John Squires his review of THE CANAL at Halloween Love spoke highly of the film going as far as saying: "There’s no 2014 horror film that was more critically acclaimed than 'The Babadook,' which used tragedy-induced madness as the springboard for a truly effective horror story. It’s a shame that so few seem to have seen it, because 'The Canal' does much the same thing, and is every bit as impressive as last year’s horror darling." Comparing THE CANAL to the juggernaut that is THE BABADOOK is a bold claim to make, but one that Squires isn't alone in making.  On a few episodes of the podcast Killer POV, guests and co-hosts alike praised THE CANAL.  However, co-host Rebekah McKendry, expressed her dislike for the film in calling the film "misogynist."  More often than not, when a female horror fan refers to a horror film as misogynist, male filmgoers will either attempt to dispute the comment or claim to "not have seen the film that way."  This article isn't to slam THE CANAL as a film (it's actually pretty awesome), but to discuss the importance of not alienating the female audience.

For those playing at home, women officially make up the majority of horror film attendees.  Even though women are consuming more horror than men, horror films are still having a problem relating to its female audiences.  Using THE CANAL as an example, the film has two major female characters...and they both suck. The wife character is discovered to be cheating on her husband and the only other female character is one that clearly idolizes our male lead and delivers overt flirtation knowing that he's a married man. The rest of the women are murder victims shown in nightmares/flashbacks/film reels.  Representation is extremely important in media, and it's baffling that despite all of the evidence and statistics proving that representation = ticket sales, films are still alienating the female audience.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow

After the ongoing debates regarding Joss Whedon's representation of Black Widow in THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, io9 posted an insightful article titled "Black Widow: This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things." In the article,  writers Meredith Woerner and Katharine Trendacosta take a very mature approach to the debate of feminist representation in male dominated genres. If you read the comments section of this article, there are dozens of men responding that they cannot "understand" this argument or interpretation of the film. Art is subjective, and our life experiences influence the way we interpret the world around us. For women, we are going to see a film like THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON differently than our male counterparts, in the same sense that we will immediately take notice of the portrayal of female characters in THE CANAL.  This isn't to say that women are more "sensitive" or anything of such a sexist nature, but simply that we as humans are going to notice things quicker about the people we identify with than the ones they do not. This mentality can be applied to everything from white people not understanding why #BlackLivesMatter or non-millennials not understanding the "bored" reactions of the young teens in IT FOLLOWS. We're humans, and we all do it. The important thing is to accept and understand that it's impossible for us to understand how something will be interpreted from all angles, and be proactive about its creation.

Adult film star Jeanne Silver

An easier way to make this palatable is to look at the pornography industry.  The success of pornography is largely in the way it labels and categorizes individuals.  Ebony, BBW, Milf, Teen, Twink, Bear, etc. are all some of the more popular ways of saying, "Women of color, overweight women, women over 30, women under 25, thin gay men, bearded and 'thicker' gay men." Adult film star Jeanne Silver was notorious for using the stump of her amputated leg as a tool of penetration for her adult partners.  While the average viewer will see this as "handicapped porn," to those that have physical disabilities, this is just "porn." In the same way, white men who watch black pornography see it as "black porn," while black men will just view this as "porn."  Now, take this idea of "categorizing" to non-pornographic films.  Black Widow isn't just a "female superhero" to women, she's a superhero. The female characters in THE CANAL are not "female characters" to women, they're "characters." Obviously, we're speaking in sweeping generalizations, but the best way to understand something is to focus on the rule, and not the exception.


It was recently made known that the creative team behind MAD MAX: FURY ROAD brought on Eve Ensler, the creator of The Vagina Monologues as a consultant. In an interview with Esquire, Actress Rosie Huntington-Whiteley said of the experience:
We were so lucky that George arranged for Eve Ensler, who wrote the Vagina Monologues, to fly in and work with us girls for about a week. We did extensive research with her. Eve herself has had a very intense life. She’s spent time in the Congo working with rape victims and women who have had unthinkable things happen to them through the power of men’s hands. We were able to pick her brain for a week. She told us the most tragic stories I’ve ever heard in my life, which gave us so much background to our characters. We really wanted to kind of showcase that. It was a privilege to have her around to make these characters something more then just five beautiful girls.
As io9 said in their article about the consultation,
Ensler’s participation also hints that Miller’s not just going for titillation but real pathos. And that he recognized that he was out of his depth and called in a real expert. Which makes us want to see how all these extra steps translate to the screen.
The fact that this sort of attention to detail isn't common practice among film sets is astounding.  This isn't to say that every film needs to consult someone as famed as Eve Ensler to make sure their film passes The Bechdel test, but the fact there are so many people working and writing about people they cannot identify with as if they truly "understand" them, is a problem.  Aspiring screenwriters, take note. If you're a male writing about the struggle of a female final girl, let a trusted female read your script. If you're a white female writing about women of color, consult an actual woman of color. If we just take the moment to realize that the best way to write about something is to be educated on the topic, this simple notion could greatly change the overall interpretation of a film to audiences at large.

1 comment(s):

Unknown said...

Your thoughts remind me of the way I felt when watching the interview portion on the Heavy Metal DVD. One of the creators stated (paraquote) that "in a perverse way, Tarnaa could be seen as an ideal for women." In other words it was "perverse" that a woman should want to be a heroine, to be independent, to be anything but a damsel in distress. I wanted to reach through my TV screen and slap the fool making this inane and misogynistic assertion.
I've always been sensitive to the frustrations of women around me when they're being told that they "shouldn't" want equality, that they can't want to be the protagonists in their own story, that they should not only accept being relegated to a supporting role, they should be actively choosing to do such. In high school I listened to the thoughts of my sister, to the girl who I married almost right out of high school and to whom I'm still married more than 30 years later, and to my platonic female friends. In some ways I think that it inspired me to become a high school counselor. I wanted to help all kids see that they had choices, but I particularly wanted to let girls know that they could choose careers where they were the "star," not just a "supporting role." In other words, a girl could dream of becoming a doctor or aspire to being a leader in the business world. She didn't have to choose a support profession such as nurse or secretary, unless that is what she wanted to do.
As a counterpoint, nursing is hella hard work. My wife eventually became a nurse. She works at a low-income clinic, and what she deals with on a daily basis amazes me.
I have three daughters and I always raised them to believe that they could pursue any career they wanted, that they didn't need a man to support them. It frustrates me that even in the twenty-first century women's voices are still being silenced. It seems to me that in the entertainment industry, the boys want their toys, and they refuse to examine their sometimes heinous behavior when it comes to women.
I applaud your writing this piece. I'm sorry that it still needs to be written. WE haven't come far enough. There is still much more work to be done.
Sorry about the length of this. Your writing is truly inspiring.

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