Damsels in Distress: Contrary to Popular Opinion

A fuss has been raised about this year’s Academy Award nominations, primarily with respect to this year’s glaring lack of racial diversity. It’s also been noted, however, that there are also very few films that feature women as protagonists being pushed to the forefront of the awards conversation. Not that we’re saying the 2014 films Oscar-nominated for Best Picture are simply filled with stereotypical damsels in distress.

No, no, no…after all, we’ve come so far from those bygone days when women were only good for batting their eyelashes or being tied to railroad tracks. That’s how it was back then, yes?

I’m happy to lend this slot in my schedule, where I might ordinarily have posted a video of my own, to Fritzi Kramer of Movies Silently, who just co-hosted the Contrary to Popular Opinion Blogathon that involved my piece about Spencer Tracy’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. She does a really enjoyable job here of disabusing movie fans of the common wisdom that the leading ladies of the silent era were all just a bunch of Paulines in Peril:


Quick: How many of the Best Picture Oscar nominees this year have a female character in the lead?

If you said “none,” you’d be right. American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash (many of which you can already enjoy on DVD and Blu-ray) are all male-centric tales. All of the nominated directors this year, as is almost always 100% the case, are men. (There is one female director among the Best Picture nominees this year; her nomination would have made Oscar history, but she was not nominated) All of the nominated screenplays? Written by men. The cinematography nominations all belong to men. Ditto the nominated musical scores.

Apart from costuming, makeup, or production design, we need to reach the Documentary category to find a female filmmaker, in Citizenfour’s Laura Poitras. Perhaps a win for her will go a little ways towards making up for the fact that she’s been placed on the Department of Homeland Security’s “watch list”—and that’s not a “thumbs-up” shorthand term for them saying they’re interested in making sure you see her movies.

It’s also fair to say there are at least two or three strong female characters represented in the casts of the nominated features; the Stephen Hawking biopic, one of my Top 10 Movies of the Year, is drawn from Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir about her marriage to the world-renowned physicist; Patricia Arquette is a strong presence in Boyhood; and Keira Knightley’s character proves to be a key “support” to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing as he works to invent the machine that will crack the Nazi Enigma code. felicity-jones-theory-of-everything-patricia-arquette-boyhood-keira-knightley-imitation-game If you’d want to suggest, however, that the modern era of movies is positively bursting with generous representations of women on the screen that defy the kind of stereotypes we think of as characterizing the “good old days,” then I would say that the media, and the Academy, and conversations about movies in general, are doing a very good job of hiding it. Or am I wrong? Will we need to look back on these years decades hence, with the same kind of retrospective offered by Movies Silently about silent movie heroines, to see the current picture more clearly? Is there, even now, an untold story of female empowerment in cinema taking place right under our noses?

Or is that story really only taking place on TV, as suggested by the notoriety and success of contemporary series hits spawned by small-screen trailblazers like Lena Dunham, Jenji Kohan, and Mindy Kaling? Is the notion of “women making movies” still to be regarded as a “radical act”?

I started my new year off, as I mentioned here, seeing two highly-regarded 2014 films directed by women, with female protagonists at the center of the action. Both fine achievements, they were and will remain “under the radar” picks destined to be more greatly appreciated in the years to come.

To borrow a popular phrase and offer a heartening sentiment: The arc of cinema history is long, but it has a tendency to bend towards justice.

But are there others we’re missing right now, besides Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken and Ava DuVernay’s Selma? (Leaving DuVernay out of the directing nominations, I believe, will go down in history as one of the Academy’s more unfortunate and foolish snubs) Can you think of female filmmakers worthy of discussion besides Ida Lupino, Jane Campion, or Leni Riefenstahl? Are there strong female characters from current movies worthy of recognition…besides the “gone girl”? I’d love to be shown that the current landscape of movies isn’t as monolithic as it has been labeled, and indeed, as it now seems.

Anyone got something to offer that’s…contrary to popular opinion?