10 May 2012

Gender Imagery in Film, Pt. 2

Generally speaking, major motion picture films originating in the U.S. tend to follow a template which varies only slightly based on the genre and intended audience. The template ensures that most American films feature white, middle class, heterosexual relationships and families, and often reference morality through the Christian faith. Even when breaking out of the "White America" template, such as many films aimed at black subcultures, the tendency to mimic the standard middle-class, white, suburban template is present – take, for instance, any of the many Tyler Perry Why Did I… films, only substituting black actors into the same cookie cutter roles. The templates can apply to films of all types and distinctions. There are even Biblical quotations and pseudo-quotations, sprinkled throughout many popular action films – films that have a rather violent nature – such as the presence of the “Our Father” prayer and the mention of Latin words Veritas and Aequitas (truth and justice) in The Boondock Saints[1] or the infamous scene in the 1994 cult classic film Pulp Fiction[2], where Jules Winnfield, played by Samuel L. Jackson, references Ezekiel 25:17, culminating in this gem: “And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you,” [note: writer-director Quentin Tarantino rewrote the verse for the film, thus the line that Jules utters is not an actual Biblical quote]. 

Women and gay (or effeminate) men typically represent frail characters, leaving the stronger hero-types to the macho male stars. Also, women often get cast as supporting characters rather than in a film’s protagonist leading roles, although there may be evidence to the contrary in recent years, or, at the very least, an increase in women as the leading character. In many films, not only are women depicted as minor characters, but at the same time as troublemakers or firebrands, often seducing the male hero away from his intended goal, thus creating the tension required for the film to grasp viewers’ attention. Even Comedian George Carlin commented on the tendency toward violence in male characters, as he wrote, “A long time ago in England a guy named Thomas Culpepper was hanged, beheaded, quartered, and disemboweled. Why do I have the impression women were not involved in these activities?”[3]. Historically, most atrocities have been committed by men – yet it is women who are considered less intelligent, less moral, and more malignant. This emphasis on the role of the woman as the bringer of disorder has strong Christian roots, which can be traced back to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve.

This standardization, this mass production (and subsequent mass consumption), of recycled plot lines is a strong indication of the acceptance of subpar and unoriginal artistic expression. Does this suggest that a viewer would have a discomfort with film that challenges the viewer’s morale standing? If so, is this an indication of a problem with the film, or with the viewer? One would assume that a viewer strong in his convictions would stand unmoved regardless of the message that a film’s images described. Perhaps more influential than the viewer’s morale code is a fear of the unknown – a fear that is ensconced into him as a child, perpetrated by the church, for the purpose of controlling his actions and molding him into the productive, unquestioning member of society that he is. Film, as a social discourse, in its current state, is being used to reinforce the same values that are being presented to the viewer in most, perhaps even all, aspects of life: his dominance as a male, her subordination to the male, his heterosexuality, his role as a provider for his family, her role as homemaker, his and her adherence to the law, his strong work ethic, her strong family ethic, his and her spirituality, his and her morality, etc. As a result, film enforces, or reinforces, existing prejudices and vanities.

The effects of male dominance for centuries may have roots that go back further than the Bible, yet, as today’s western society is primarily a Christian society, it is to the Bible that we must look for evidence. From the New Testament, Ephesians 5:23-24 establishes the husband as the governing body in a marriage, as “the husband is the head of the wife… wives should submit to their husbands in everything,” while 1 Peter 3:7 pronounces women as “the weaker partner.” 1 Corinthians 11:9-10 even states that woman was created for man, and should wear the mark of his authority on her head, read she shall wear her hair long. Women’s actions are also limited by the scriptures, wherein 1 Corinthians 14:34 asserts that women are not allowed to speak in church; 1 Timothy 2:12 subjects women to be silent in usurping a man’s authority and does not allow women to be teachers; 1 Timothy 5:11-15 assumes that any young woman who has been widowed is lustful and thus sinful, turning away to evil; Leviticus 12:1-5 and 15:19-32 regulate the actions of both men and women during the woman’s afterbirth period and monthly periods[4]. These are but a few examples from the Bible of the lessons to be learned about the role that women should play in the social order. These, and other passages, have led many church officials to lead the charge in the control, victimization, and persecution of women for a variety of reasons throughout history. 

In short, the misogynistic basis of many Biblical verses has translated into misogyny in practice. Though today we may learn from the images that we see more than the words we read, particularly words from religious texts, there is a definite connection between the two in relation to imagery. People making films and movies are influenced by the religious and cultural texts of their childhoods. The Bible, in the same way as poetry and creative writing, paints images through words–while we read words on paper, our brain pictures scenes, as if viewing them in person. These "word images," like regular images, can be a vigorous means of conveying a particular position, be it social, political, religious, or otherwise. Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright share the viewpoint that “images can both exert power and act as instruments of power,”[5] and, in reference to the Michel Foucault concept of the Panopticon, they stress that “power is most effective when it is invisible and unverifiable.”[6] What more effective way to exercise power and authority than to infuse words and images of an angry, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent supernatural being, who embodies very male characteristics and who is terribly unfavorable towards woman, into the public psyche?

Today, in a post-civil rights, post-women’s rights, and active gay rights, world, an overwhelming majority still cling to the fear-driven, barbaric concepts of female subordination and restriction as put forth hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago by Bedouin sheep herding tribes. Just as Jews have been persecuted by Christians for centuries as “Christ-killers,” so have women been demoralized and bastardized as the destroyers of paradise. The link between misogyny and homophobia can be contributed to the connection between what is female, what is feminine, and what is effeminate. With so much negativity throughout history against women, it follows that men who are considered to favor femininity and portray feminine qualities, would also be treated disapprovingly. The Apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus (also known as Sirach) states that “any iniquity is small compared to a woman’s iniquity”[7] and that “from a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die”[8]

The pattern of creating female characters in art, literature, film, and life that must be saved from themselves or are otherwise the main disseminators of sin, madness, evil, or whatever you may choose to call it, surely has ties to early religious depictions of women. Women who did not subscribe to the accepted socio-religious norm in the late 17th century were often labeled witches, hunted down, and burned alive. Less than one-third of the captured and convicted “witches” at the Salem Witch Trials were men[9]–a disproportionate number, indeed. The emphasis on what is good and what is evil and the need to classify and quantify, caused much more harm and discord than allowing original socio-political dissent to exist. I leave you with the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, who, in relation to the attitude of believing some particular to be inherently evil, wrote, “wherever this conception of good and evil rules, the ruination of individuals, their tribes and races, is near”[10].

[1] The Boondock Saints, dir. Troy Duffy, perf. Willem Defoe, Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus, DVD, Franchise Pictures, 1999.
[2] Pulp Fiction, dir. Quentin Tarantino, perf. Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, John Travolta, and Bruce Willis, DVD, A Band Apart, 1994.
[3] Carlin, George. Napalm & Silly Putty. (New York: Hyperion, 2001), 101.
[4] The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1989.
[5] Sturken, Marita and Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking: an Introduction to Visual Culture, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 93.
[6] Sturken and Cartwright, 99.
[7] HarperCollins. Ecclesiasticus 25:19
[8] HarperCollins. Ecclesiasticus 25:24
[9] Donna M. Campbell, "The Salem Witch Trials," Literary Movements. 21 Mar. 2010. Web. <http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/witch.htm>, 17 Apr. 2010.
[10] Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All-Too-Human, trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: The Modern Library, 1967), 147.

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