Sunday, May 30, 2010

Faux Feminism in Film

I went to Gladiator II: Close Your Eyes and Think of England Robin Hood last night. I thought that I enjoyed it (mostly) at the time, but now that I've reflected on it in greater depth, there are a number of things about it that bother me. I liked Great Big Sea's Alan Doyle as Allan A'dayle, and the rest of the future Merry Men were quite enjoyable (and age appropriate) as well. The music was fun, the costumes were lavish, King John was delightfully cartoon-y in his essence, the last forty-five minutes ruined it for me.

History and performance are two of my research interests, so it's likely not surprising that I like watching movies that are about historic figures and events. One of my primary interests in most forms of media and culture is storytelling; I like seeing the different ways that stories are told and narratives are formed. Movies based in history can be a real treasure trove for that because they force the writers, directors, and actors to find ways to make characters and stories relevant to modern audiences. Sometimes this is successful (Elizabeth, The Tudors) but more often it isn't (King Arthur, the Clash of the Titans remake).

Robin Hood, unfortunately, falls into the category of films that don't work. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, Russell Crowe. I'm not the first to say this, and I certainly won't be the last, but he is too old here. (Cate Blanchett is too, and I adore her and would normally watch a two hour film of her reading a phone book, so that's not a criticism I make lightly.) Crowe plays Robin Hood well enough, but the Robin Hood he's playing isn't the one that the movie is about: he's about 15-20 years older. Second, remember the time that Robin Hood's dad wrote the Magna effing Carta? No? Me neither. Third, how come Robin is a mere bowman at the beginning of the film, but by the end is capable of leading a cavalry charge and directing all of John's armies?

The fourth complain is actually part of a larger problem that has ruined a number of historical films for me: the retconning of the role of women, as though women today must have an ahistorical, ass-kicking female role model on the screen or they won't enjoy the movie. Both the Clash remake and King Arthur egregiously bad/good examples of this. I was actually on board with Lady Marion throughout most of the movie: sure, she was a little more active and opinionated than a lot of women in the time period likely were, but she lived a life that required it of her. Her husband had crusaded off some ten years before; there were stables needing to be mucked out; she got shit done. (Pun not actually intended there.) My benevolence ends, though, in the final battle scene of the movie (which I will try not to spoil for you, but if you've seen a movie any time in the last fifty years, I'm sure you can figure it out).

I just don't understand this impulse to give us these false heroines--what do the women in the audience gain from that? It downplays the real oppression that women experienced historically, and it's insulting. Wouldn't it be more effective to show more realistic portrayals of the kind of things that women went through? Contrasting the obstacles that women faced throughout history with both the freedoms that we now enjoy and the problems that we still face could be an enormously affecting and effective way of creating an engrossing movie going experience, no?

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