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Rebels with a Cause: a â€¦
John laforge and bonnie Urfer
Q & A
War & Peace
Henry A. Giroux
Jennifer baumgardner and amy Richards
Slippin' & Slidin'
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Feminism and Hollywood
No one these days thinks that there is one brand of feminism—pure as Ivory Snow—and nowhere else is this brought to the fore than in how Hollywood manufactures and produces feminisms and how the media (and critics) interpret and repackage them. The days of the “simple” feminist Hollywood film are over. Movies like Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Women Under the Influence, Norma Rae, and Julia feel nostalgic now because they came out of what (at the time) seemed to be a far less complicated set of circumstances: sexism existed, women had fewer social and economic options than men, women were discriminated against.
Not that any of that is not true now—although there have been major shifts in how we now view gender, sexuality, family, marriage, work space, and the role of violence in everyday life—but as a culture we also have a far more complicated understanding of how gender and sex function in society as well as individual lives. While films like The Accused, in which Jodi Foster played a rape victim whose sexual history is used against her in the courtroom and Thelma and Louise explored the complexity of women's choices, actions, and sexualities in a more sophisticated way than popular entertainment had attained previously, other films such as Fatal Attraction, The Mirror Has Two Faces, and You've Got Mail played out traditional Hollywood anti-feminist messages in both clear and more ambiguous fashions.
But in the past two years Hollywood has been touted as producing and promoting more enlightened films about women. (No one in or outside of the industry would every use the “F” word: as an articulated political concept feminism has been banned from the mainstream media.) No doubt this is due, to large degree, to the fact that a handful of women—Goldie Hawn, Barbara Streisand, Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock—have attained enough clout to make major decisions as producers and directors. But this reshaping of gender-power in the industry has not always produced more feminist films—The Mirror Has Two Faces and You've Got Mail were produced respectively by Streisand and Ryan—and often films that are touted as more enlightened about women's lives are a curiously mixed bag.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by Ang Lee has been lauded by both mainstream and some feminist critics for its portrayals of women characters. A sometimes thrilling mixture of Chinese legend, martial arts, and magical realism, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has the surface look of a great feminist action romance/thriller—a genre that has hardly had much life.
Written by Hui-Ling Wang from the novel by Du Lu Wang, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon tells the double romance of Li Mu Bai (Yun-Fat Chow) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), two warriors so advanced in their art that they can gracefully defy gravity and leap, fly, and twirl in the air as they fight their evil opponents. While very much in love they have never declared themselves to one another out of a sense of propriety. Their story is contrasted with that of Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang), the not-very dutiful daughter of wealthy Governor Yu (Fazeng Li), and her love affair with Lo (Chen Chang), a sexy young bandit who roams the desert attacking and looting caravans.
Wang's plotting is leisurely, if sometimes plodding: Li Mu Bai, removing himself from the world of fighting, gives up his magical sword to Sir Te (Sihung Lung). The sword is stolen and Yu Shu Lien suspects the young Jen Yu, who is obviously discontent with her life as a pampered young women of privilege and rebellious against being married off to a stranger for political reasons. Indeed, Jen Yu has a secret life as a warrior and fighter—a skill she has learned from her seemingly over-protective nurse-maid—who, as the notorious bandit Jade Fox (Pei-pei Cheng), has been terrorizing the province. As the plot unfolds, Jen Yu returns the sword, but on her way to be married is “ambushed” by Lo. She goes with him to reclaim a stolen comb, but he ends up tying her up and giving her a bath in his mountain hideaway where she falls in love with him. Meanwhile Jade Fox is plotting revenge against Li Mu Bai for past wrongs and planning to use Jen Yu to extract her revenge.
Ang Lee moves this along with dexterity and some of the magical fight scenes are thrilling, but the problem with the film—despite its portrayals of strong, fighting women—is that it is otherwise wedded to the most traditional ideas about women and gender. Shu Lien lives in a permanent state of renunciation and, while she excels as a swordsperson and diplomat, she is essentially a stereotype of the professional woman who cannot (for any number of reasons) incorporate love in her life.
Jen Yu, on the other hand, wants adventure, true love, and excitement, but because of her lack of moral conviction and her insistence on doing whatever she wants, she ruins her own life, as well as everyone else's. The crucial character here is, of course, the wily and dangerous Jade Fox. An older woman who is portrayed as unattractive and embittered, Jade Fox is determined to wreak her revenge on others through Jen Yu. This older woman with a neurotic/erotic attachment to a beautiful young woman is a staple of Hollywood and romance novels—Rebecca's Mrs. Danvers is a prime example. It is very telling that in the highly gendered world of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon female outlaws are old, unattractive, bitter, and predatory and male outlaws are young, sexy, fun, and promise wonderful alternatives to the burdens of everyday living.
In his relatively short career Ang Lee has turned out some interesting and intelligent films— Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman. He has proved that he can integrate complex material with an increasingly masterful visual approach. Truly Crouching Tiger has some incredible cinematography and stunning sets. But Lee has done much better with his female characters in the past—The Ice Storm gave us a series of complex portraits of younger and older women grappling with the complications of sexuality in their lives and Sense and Sensibility provided an honest and gripping modern translation of Jane Austin's hard-edged observations on love, marriage, and heterosexual relationships. While it might be argued that Lee is portraying a certain period of Chinese history, the film's basic premise and style —magical realism and fantasy—would have allowed him to take liberties with his characters and their relationships.
The popular media's repeated praise of the film in feminist terms is also depressing. It is true that the women characters have agency and physical power—curiously almost all the men in the film are passive and incapable of making any determinant moves or actions—but that quality alone cannot be divorced from the rest of their characterizations or the effects of their agency. It is Jen Yu's inability to use her agency wisely that causes the death of some of the characters and her own final disappointments. To a large degree women in current Hollywood films have been reduced to such ciphers—a few exceptions spring to mind: Joan Allen in The Contender, among others—that giving them the nerve, determination, and physical abilities looks like a huge improvement.
The largeness of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon looks even smaller when placed next to the routine Hollywood comedy, Miss Congeniality. Directed by Donald Petrie and written by Katie Ford it is a showcase for Sandra Bullock (who also produced it) as Gracie Hart, a schleppy FBI agent who has to undergo a complete makeover to enter the Miss USA pageant in order to expose a mad bomber who has made threats against the pageant. Aside from some fun performances—Michael Caine as a gay man who supervises Hart's make-over from mess to beauty queen and Candice Bergen as the doyan who runs the contest—the film has little to offer except a few hearty, if mindless, laughs.
What is interesting, however, is how Miss Congeniality consciously takes on the project of being all feminisms to all people. Gracie Hart is not criticized for wanting to be a highly competent professional woman and not caring enough about her appearance. At first it looks as though the Miss USA Pageant is going to be attacked for promoting a mindless view of women as just physical objects—which is Hart's original point of view. But the film goes out of its way to show that all of the other contestants are real women with real feelings and abilities and by the end of the film even Miss USA becomes a place where women can become “liberated”—as Gracie Hart finally admits. It is clear that all involved with Miss Congeniality see themselves as presenting new, untraditional images and ways of thinking about women in mainstream culture. The problem is that they want to be so inclusive, so embracing of all the choices that women make, that in the end it becomes impossible to make any real comments about how women live in the actual world. Gracie gets the fellow agent she has a crush on, the Miss USA Pageant ends up looking pretty good, Gracie proves that even a highly competent woman can be “beautiful,” the other contestants prove that “beautiful” women are not dumb and vacant, and all we need to do is to understand one another more. But next to the encoded anti-feminist messages of Crouch- ing Tiger, Hidden Dragon this looks pretty good. Z
Michael Bronski is a journalist, culture critic, political commentator, and lecturer.