Elevation of Women

Women, in most societies, have long suffered as second-class citizens. In the beginning it was due to biology, but modern cultures generally erase those differences. Paradoxically, women have historically also held a revered position (“Women and children first!”). Art, literature, and social practice, all elevate them above men, albeit selectively.

Ironically, elevation is also a problem. In at least two ways. Putting anyone on a pedestal is never a good idea. That’s a topic for another time. There is also the zero-sum version of elevation: glorifying one group while disparaging, even attacking, another. That also is never a good idea.

As it applies to movie and TV roles, it’s the topic I want to discuss here.

For the record, and to be crystal clear, I have always seen equality and sovereignty as the desired norm. It’s how I was brought up; it’s what I want for myself; it’s what I want for those I love; it’s what I want for all. (Except criminals and villains.) [What’s the difference?] (The latter aren’t in jail. Yet.)

I want a level playing field. Ideally, by elevating the low parts, but to the extent resources force us into zero-sum compromises, by leveling at the highest possible level. True equality inevitably means some loss for the privileged, some leveling downward, but if one genuinely wants equality, willing surrender of the high ground is part of that picture.

Reverse tilting the playing field is another matter, though. That has a strong whiff of revenge for past grievances. Two kinds of them: grievances regarding film and TV roles and the business of Hollywood; grievances to do with general social gender conflicts. Sadly, both often legit. (We’ve come a long way, but as I’ve said, sex and gender issues are a complex Gordian Knot.)

The thing about a desire for revenge (something the Navajo consider a mental illness) is that the original sin may have been from ignorance, social custom, error, even accident. Revenge repeats the sin with intention and knowledge. It amplifies it. Squares the evil. It comes off poorly, this business of making all the (white) men some combination of clowns, idiots, and villains. It comes off pointed.

[A storyteller can tell any story they desire, of course. It’s their story. But stories have audiences, and it should not surprise when such pointed stories find a limited one.]

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The long history of Strong Female Characters (SFCs) in movies and TV makes it quite clear such roles, themselves, not only are not a problem, but that audiences usually love well-written SFCs. They always have.

The problem now is bad writing in these pointed power-revenge Women Awesome Men Suck storylines (WAMS). Firstly, women are deemed awesome by fiat — their awesomeness is rarely earned or demonstrated in the context of the story. For example, She-Hulk, Rey Skywalker from Star Wars, and live-action Mulan.

Secondly, the pointedness in making all the male characters, at best, well-meaning pathetic weaklings. More typically they’re socially and sexually ignorant caricatures of men. Or of villains or criminals. There seems an apparent zero-sum approach that elevates women only at the expense of men.

It comes off as hatred of males or as an insecurity that women can’t shine unless men are reduced to allow it. What nonsense. Women have never been outshone by men. Going back at least to Helen of Troy and Cleopatra. Or more recently, Mata Hari and Lucille Ball. (Whom we can thank for Star Trek.)

As for venting often justified rage against men, I’m sympathetic to the desire, but it’s still a form of bigotry, and its wrong. I’m not outraged or hurt by it; I understand its wellspring. It’s just that it doesn’t make for interesting storytelling.

Something else fundamental to my upbringing was fairness. My parents went out of their way to treat me and my sister equally. It’s a core value for me. Treating anyone anytime as a caricature isn’t fair to them or the audience.

[A side thought. About the only performance medium that still treats women as objects lacking humanity, or with outright hatred, is the ugly seamy part of pornography. In a catalog, the titles alone can turn your stomach.]

§ §

The main focus this past month was on fictional characters in adaptations and how sex and race factor into casting actors in those roles. Gender complicates matters. As controversial as race swapping a character might be, gender swapping raises more questions. And there are separate questions involving objectifying women (see previous post).

It’s a big Gordian Knot. This is an on-going conversation. (Honestly, mostly old man yelling at clouds here. My sense of ought versus the global social is. My personal Weltschmerz. But venting helps. And sets me up for “I told you so!” in the future.) I’ll wind down my women in performance arts arc with a few comments about specific TV shows or movies.

§ §

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (2022). Marvel TV Series. Live-action adaptation of a comic character established in 1980. From what I understand, the comic and the show are both comedies.

My first exposure to the comic came last month with a She-Hulk collection from the library. Recent editions, so the comic is obviously still going strong. I’ve only seen clips of the show, so I can’t say how faithfully it captures the essence of the source.

Judging by how fans of the comic have been slamming the show, I’d guess not very. It fails as an adaptation (so the fans hate it) and has awful writing (so it can’t stand on its own). Based on clips and comments, the show has a militant anti-male agenda. The men are caricatures, either buffoons or villains. [Reportedly, the sole exception was a guest appearance by Daredevil. Who they still showed taking a “walk of shame” — another reverse tilted playing field.]

How bad is the writing? Well, it stars a supposedly hot-shot trial attorney, Jennifer Walters, and is ostensibly a courtroom drama. Yet the writers have openly admitted they have no experience with or understanding of that genre. And apparently have no desire to bring in any.

Commentors have also raised eyebrows at the frat-boy sexuality the writers seem to have given Walters. Female empowerment in this case means turning the lead character into a childish cartoon version of an aggressive man.

A simple truth: no writer can write above themselves. Perry Mason was good because E.S. Gardner was trained in the law. It takes capable successful writers to write capable successful people. The writers on this show seem to be airing their grievances about men rather than telling a good story.

From what I’ve heard, the show is the least successful Marvel effort so far.

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Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power (2022). Live-action adaptation of Tolkien’s more obscure text. Prequel to Lord of the Rings. Original story based on well-established character Galadriel.

This is another show that’s been widely slammed by fans of J.R.R. Tolkien and by fans of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. And by people who like good storytelling, because, for all the money Amazon reportedly sunk into the production, many are wondering exactly where it was spent. People have mocked the costumes, for instance.

The show is clearly hoping to trade on the popularity of the Jackson trilogy (“there is only one”). But they remade a major character, one well-established in both books and movies, from an ancient powerful Elven Queen into yet another instance of Conan Barbie. And by all accounts, one that seems to have learned nothing of patience, diplomacy, or wisdom, during her 1000 years of life.

Again: no writer can write above themselves. This is especially a problem when trying to write highly intelligent, extremely wise, or ancient, characters. If the writer lacks intelligence or wisdom, their characters also lack it. Same for age and experience. If the writer lacks it, so will their characters.

Issues of weak writing aside, the show runners also suffer the malaise of needing to update a medieval fantasy land for modern audiences. This, I think, deserves a post on its own, this need to revise and sanitize our past. For now, I’ll just say I think it’s better to allow the past and use it to learn from.

Ironically, in giving the ethereal and magical Galadriel swords and knives, they gave her symbolic manparts. Not Conan Barbie so much as Conan with breasts. This rather than tell a gripping tale about an ancient, powerful, feminine Elf Queen. A show like that might have been a hit.

Xena: Warrior Princess did it better over 20 years ago. Why not remake Xena as grand epic ala LotR+GoT? (The Hulu movie, Prey, is another good example of an original story.)

§ §

Charlie’s Angels (2019). Live-action adaptation of a live-action TV series. Second movie adaptation. Director, Screenplay: Elizabeth Banks.

With a box office of $73.3 million against a budget of $4855 million (about 140% return), the film is arguably a flop, if not a bomb. [I used to cite Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores, but I no longer trust those websites.]

Banks was part of an early marketing effort with the message, “Men! This movie isn’t for you!” And men took the message and stayed away. Then Banks complained that men weren’t supporting the picture. But should art be supported because it’s by and about women? (And are productions by women immune from criticism and standards of storytelling?)

We certainly should support the ability to create that art, but once created, shouldn’t art stand on its own merits? Do we treat it like our children’s “art”, give a pat on the head, “Nice job, kiddo!” and place it with honor on the fridge (even though it’s dreadful)?

Equality means a place at the table for everyone. Or in this case, a chance to speak. What you say is up to you, and don’t expect not to be judged on it. Everyone is.

And why adapt a long-running TV series — one already with a pair of movie adaptations. Revisiting that well seems a rookie move. Dangerous. Why not make a new vehicle? A different female-run PI agency? Why presume to mess with Charlie’s Angels? Why deal with the patriarchal wealthy Charlie?

And spoiler: Apparently Banks aped the first Mission: Impossible (1996) movie by making John Bosley a traitor the way that one did with Jim Phelps. That seems a slap in the face to any fan of the original. It blocked me from accepting that movie series for a long time (but Cruise is just too much fun).

For a role model, Banks should look to Kathryn Bigelow. Her movies include: Blue Steel (1990), Point Break (1991), Strange Days (1995), The Hurt Locker (2008), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). All excellent kick-ass films. Bigelow kicks ass (was married to James Cameron).

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Ghostbusters (2016). Live-action full gender-swap remake of a live-action movie. Directed: Paul Feig.

An early example of gender-swapping and fan reaction. With a box office of $229 million against a budget of $144 million (about 160% return), this was also a flop. The original film earned $295.2 million against a paltry $2530 million budget and returned over 1070% on its investment. Not a flop!

Many fans of the original were outraged by the idea of an all-female version. There was also some apparent racist backlash over Leslie Jones. I was fine with the full gender-swap premise. And there was a Black guy in the original, so I’m not sure what the fuss over Jones was all about.

The idea was obviously avant-garde and not an attempt to extend canon. It is what it is, a jazz riff on the original. (As if someone did an all-Black version of The Wizard of Oz.) I didn’t hate it. Didn’t much like it either, but I was never a big fan of the original. I always thought it was kind of a silly movie. (Sacrilege? Sorry!)

The failure here was, firstly, remaking a beloved classic (very dangerous), and secondly, doing it poorly.

§ §

CSI:Vegas (2021–2022). Live-action original TV series. Spin-off of CSI. Currently in second season. Original-ish. A continuation of canon with new characters.

The post is long, so I’ll only mention this briefly. This is a reboot of the venerable CSI (2000-2015), the show that started all the glam lab shows. This show is very female and POC centric (which is great) and seems, at least lately, to be reducing the male characters (which is less great).

I couldn’t help but notice that, in bringing back the popular Marg Helgenberger as Catherine Willows, they had a nice triumvirate: Crone (Willows), Mother (Newsome, POC), Maiden(s)/Love Interest(s) (Dhillon, Guerra, POC). The show also has a few men (Lauria, Medlin, Lee). They aren’t that important.

Here, the women are the source of knowledge, expertise, and wisdom. The guys, especially the white ones, are clowns, earnest and well-meaning but in need of a guiding (feminine) hand, or FBI agents.

§ §

The bottom line for me is twofold: Firstly, elevation good, reduction bad. This was always the case, and past grievances are a bad ingredient for good storytelling. Level to the highest possible level. Secondly, create good original roles that center on women (and allow men to play decent supporting roles). Add more chairs to the table. It’s big enough for all. Especially these days.

And at the table, let others enjoy their fare as you do yours. We don’t all enjoy the same food. We vary from herbivores to carnivores and all points between.

Really, as with so much else, it all boils down to the Golden Rule.

§

A closing thought: Strip clubs literally put women on pedestals. #justsaying

Stay grounded, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

12 responses to “Elevation of Women

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I should emphasize that I commend Prey and CSI: Vegas for being original vehicles that extend existing properties in thoughtful and reasonable ways. Their failure (with me) comes from writing badly infected with THE MESSAGE. The implied male bigotry is as wrong as historical racial and sexual bigotry has been.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Note to self: a post about the Golden Rule, its ancient history, and silliness of the “Platinum Rule”?

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    As usual – a whole lot going on in your posts. Having not watched any of the shows, nor read the source material, I can’t speak specifically. That said, I take your general point(s) and agree.

    To the question of why. Because it betters the chance of getting viewers? If the subject/object is known and been successful, people will look.

    To the question of bad writing. Hmm … because there has been a leveling. Due to lowering the bar and grade inflation. The Pygmalion effect. Therapeutic narcissism. Or, “everybody gets a trophy” syndrome”.

    Also, there are only so many stories and they’ve all been told. Well. So you change the characters. Swap them out, as you say. Maybe the setting. For sure the gadgets. But it’s forced. Doesn’t ring true.

    My two cents. Briefly. Cheers.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      From time to time, I think about how the world is now run by people who came up through that broken education system. If they can’t manage good fiction, how can they manage reality? Clearly not well.

      I quite agree about the “everybody gets a trophy” thing. Definitely a factor. We’re all special individuals, each unique like snowflakes.

      The snowflake thing is mythological, and I challenge anyone to see the unique specialness after looking closely at 1000 snowflakes. ❄❄❄❄❄❄❄❄😵😜

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Here’s a Critical Drinker video that hits the nail pretty squarely on the head:

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Here’s another good one from Critical Drinker:

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    Good takes. I subscribed – though I’m definitely not a ‘Trekie’; nor a fan of SF in general. I watched and liked the first STAR WARS movie, was it ’77? but not one sequel. Nor have I ever watched even one STAR TREK movie or TV show. So …

    The “PYGMALION effect” derives from George Bernard Shaw’s play (1913) which was redone, famously, on Broadway as MY FAIR LADY! Starring Julie Andrews. (Which I saw with my Mom in DC in 1961, maybe. Then Again as PRETTY WOMAN (1990) in Hollywodd, starring Julia Roberts.

    So it can be done – good adaptations of original, creative work.

    Couple points, briefly. 1) re BEAUTY. The actresses were considered beautiful – in and across time. (And talented.) 2) The EFFECT is an example of ‘CONCEPT CREEP’ – wherein a good idea/thing/concept is taken too far. The peasant flower girl is turned into a proper ‘lady’ by, not the strict disciplinarian professor, Higgins; but by the tender, positive expectations of his friend Pickering. Taken to the extreme it becomes “everyone gets a trophy”, everyone is “beautiful”, smart etc. and so on. And so we get force fed awful shit and told it is sweet, delicious pie.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      The Critical Drinker does focus a lot on superhero, science fiction, and fantasy, productions, but he does some videos that are more general (like these here). And he does videos about some great unregarded gems from the past. See this post, for instance. (FWIW, I also wrote this post about some SF he recommended.)

      I’m sorry, but I don’t follow you about the Pygmalion effect. I understood it to mean that high expectations lead to improved performance (something I do agree with). I can’t seem to connect the dots from that to bad modern storytelling or our cultural malaise. If you’re saying people should have higher expectations of themselves and what they do and participate in, I entirely agree with that, too! (My Fair Lady, which I, too, was taken to see as a kid, is, as you say, based on the Shaw play. That, in turn, is based on the ancient Greek mythology of Pygmalion the sculptor-king who fell so in love with a statue he made that she came to life (because Aphrodite).)

      And, yeah, I think there are multiple factors in play here. A broken education system resulting in close-minded people with bad (or no) critical thinking skills and almost no global or broadening experience. Our apparent fear of excellence, knowledge, or even facts. Our social infantilism. Spoon-fed minds besotted with social media and games and distracted by the vast glut of infotainment. Very much victims of our own success. It seems almost inevitable in civilizations: success leads to decadence which ultimately leads to collapse. And then rinse and repeat.

  • diotimasladder

    Haven’t watched those shows, but yeah, agreed on your points about fairness. My pet peeve is the ubiquitous anorexic warrior woman—as if a 95 lb. girl can really beat the crap out of, well, anyone.

    I can’t stand anachronistic casting either. I don’t see this as often as I see the man-hating bias (which is everywhere and growing), but rewriting history really gets under my skin. Honestly, I’m getting tired of being told what to think about various groups of people. Done with identity politics propaganda. It’s not even that I necessarily disagree, it’s just really boring.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah! I think, in so many ways, even though I do generally agree with them, the propaganda has gotten so overbearing that I find myself turned against what they’re saying. It’s so one-sided I feel the need for balance. And it’s so ironic that, when “woke” is supposed to mean being self-aware and sensitive to the views of others, that the self-identified “woke” crowd is often anything but. Those of us who aren’t woke have an excuse, but what’s theirs?

      I think it says something when even women are noticing and objecting to the man-hating bias that, as you say, is everywhere and growing. That CSI: Vegas show. It’s almost comic how blatant it is. And you’re not the only one who finds the 95-pound gal throws around big guys thing laughable. It’s a direct result of our love of fisticuffs in everything. Superheroes with all kinds of superpowers and magic, but their fights always boil down to fisticuffs. It’s infantile and idiotic. Better writing would have them leveraging their special abilities and women leveraging theirs — in particular, using their minds.

      But modern western entertainment is a dreadful wasteland. Far better to seek movies from India, China, Japan, and others who still know how to tell good stories.

      • diotimasladder

        “Better writing would have them leveraging their special abilities and women leveraging theirs — in particular, using their minds.”

        Exactly. Or like that scene in Tolstoy when Kitty proves herself invaluable by nursing her husband’s brother who’s dying of consumption. Tolstoy makes a big deal of her no-nonsense approach and her husband’s lack of courage in the face of death. Tolstoy’s no feminist, but you get a genuine appreciation there of what he might’ve called womanly virtues.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Heh. It’s been my experience that it’s men who are the emotional ones often surprisingly discombobulated by unexpected difficulties and challenges. Women have generally seemed the more practical pragmatic ones. With good reason, I suppose…

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