I’m excited: the premiere of a film by a director I love, starring an actress I adore. It’s a big score for me, cause it’s a female protagonist in a project that seems really up my alley. I get ready to go see it, excited in the days and weeks leading up to it: this is going to be my favorite movie of the year. I just know it.
And then, inevitably, it happens. Somewhere in the movie – it could be the opening scene, the midpoint, the conclusion. Somewhere. Somehow. She – our protagonist – will end up in heels. A skirt or dress. Obvious make-up. And, in that moment, somewhere, my subconscious goes from empathizing with the character to sympathizing with her.
There’s a subtle but important divide. I no longer see myself in that person. I see an image of what Hollywood thinks a woman is. I see the trappings of femininity. Things I never – ever – ever – in a million years would wear myself. Things most women in the Western world wear. Things that make me feel isolated, wrong, NOT me. So, I leave the film, having enjoyed it, but not loved it. Having felt there was something missing. Deciding – next time, I’ll just wait to rent it. I won’t go to the theater anymore.
This isn’t a rarity for me. It’s hard to come up with films where the lead woman or major female characters don’t wear make-up, a skirt, heels at SOME POINT during the movie. I’ve seen complaints from other women who feel that their tomboy dynamic – sometimes dressing up, sometimes dressing down – also isn’t shown enough on-screen. For me, I almost never see my style reflected in the attire of these actresses. Now, studies show about 17% of women in the US don’t wear makeup. Studies by the American Podiatric Medical Association show 49% of women wear high heels. That’s a much larger percentage of the population avoiding these feminizing accoutrements than even I, in my makeup-eschewing ways, would imagine. But that’s a percentage that isn’t seeing themselves reflected on-screen. Looking for stats on women in skirts/dresses turned up nothing, but even if only make-up and heels were analyzed, that would knock out the majority of Western films.
When I tell people I love about 1 film every 5-10 years, they look at me like I’m crazy. But it’s that line – between sympathy and empathy – that I find impossible to cross in the majority of films. To many, it may be “just” high heels, “just” make-up, “just” skirts; so, if it’s not that big a deal to you, why should it be one to me? Well, I turn that question back around – if it isn’ that big a deal, why not change it up once in a while? We have no shortage of films with these elements at hand, ready to overtly feminize women starting from family-aimed movies onward. So, what’s the problem with a film or two each year that doesn’t do this? We all saw (and many of us laughed at) the Jurassic World heels fiasco. For me, though, it’s not about any one film. It’s about all films crafting an image of feminism that isn’t wholly representative of the filmgoing audience. And when you leave your audience out of the picture, you leave money on the table.
This statement will garner anger from some who feel their skirts and heels are being attacked. Believe me when I say: that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve only ever been attracted to women who are on the more feminine end of the spectrum. I’ve dated them. I married one. It’s not a matter of lack of love for the heels and make-up. It’s a matter of not seeing my own physicality represented on-screen. That doesn’t mean I can’t sympathize with or enjoy Vivian’s journey in Pretty Woman or Dottie’s journey in A League of Their Own (one of a few films that straddles the line) or Jess’s journey in Bend It Like Beckham. It just adds that little bit of distance into the viewing process that makes it harder to feel that I’m seeing me on-screen. Seeing someone I could really be. A character whose mind I can get inside of, not just appreciate from the outside.
So, when I come across a film like Winter’s Bone or Meadowland, yes, five years apart, I feel like the luckiest person around. No obvious make-up. Attire that feels functional, not purely (or primarily) fashionable. No need for sexualization. Real people doing real things in jeans and boots and sneakers – the way a good portion of the world’s women do, on a daily basis.
I’ve been to the theater three times this year; out of all the films that I could have seen, might have even wanted to see a decade ago – I’ve avoided the vast majority of them. Because I know what to expect. And I know that I won’t see women I empathize with. I won’t see women who spend their days the way I do, not from Hollywood studios. This may not matter to you, and that’s fine. However, to me, to bring me into the theater more, in all the talk of diversity on-screen and behind the scenes, this is a small but worthwhile representation issue that isn’t being addressed.