Thursday, November 17, 2011

Portrayals of Women in Fiction, part 1

Last night I made the mistake of watching the movie "Black Death." I don't characterize it as a mistake because of the violence, which was excessive, or the gory shots of plague victims. No, the movie was an awful experience because of its treatment of women.

Before anyone can roll their eyes and declare, "Chill out, Gloria Steinem!", let's make a few things clear. First, as a reader of fantasy, I am unfortunately accustomed to female love interests whose sole role in the story is to be rescued by the hero, and female leads whose idea of strength is wearing pants instead of a pretty dress. All of that just gives me an increased desire to write kick-ass female leads. Also, don't try to tell me that, "It's just portraying things historically! The middle ages were a terrible time to be a woman!" Yes, the Middle Ages were a terrible time to be a woman. But there were a couple of things in the movie that take it from historical depiction to pure condescension.

We would have brought wine, but it's too cliched as a gift

I've got to give you a quick rundown of the plot of this movie, spoilers included. Beware, spoilers abound. It's the 14th Century, and the Black Death is ravaging England. A group of men has been tasked with investigating rumors of a village that seems to be miraculously free of the plague. So Our Heroes go tromping across the land to this magical village that is indeed plague free.

But after just a few hours in the village, they find it is an almost cult-like place. In this patriarchal England, their leader is a woman in red who seems to have mystical powers. The soldiers get captured and tortured for their intentions to destroy the village. But some of the soldiers escape, prove the Woman in Red a fraud, and slaughter those villagers that resist them. And then, in a fun twist, the soldiers turn out to have brought the plague to the village, and all the surviving inhabitants die. The end!

This whole thing reminded me of the common portrayals of matriarchal societies in fantasy and science fiction – they are almost invariably portrayed as being inherently flawed or based on poor morals. And in the end, they always break down (see Melanie Rawn's Exiles series for a prime example). The portrayal of matriarchal societies is a post of its own, but it I mention it here to point out how prevalent it still is in fiction today.

Still, none of that is anywhere close to the fury part. So let's get to the point, shall we?

Also, she knits really great socks

After the bloodbath, one of the soldiers growls to a male villager, "Why did you follow her?" (referring to the Woman in Red)

And the man replies….

Wait for it….

"Because she was beautiful."

Really. REALLY?

Great! Now, not only do we have the female-lead society based on improper morals and descending into chaos, but the men weren't even in it for the non-plague non-violence part. Nor were they in it because the woman was a good leader. No, they just thought the lady was pretty!

But the worst part is yet to come. See, for some reason the director decided to tack on a sort of epilogue. The main character decides to seek vengeance on the woman in red. Apparently, killing her entire village apparently wasn't horrible enough.

So this guy who used to be a monk turns into a mercenary, and spends his days hunting down women who look like the witch and torturing them to death. Fun! And again, one could say blah blah, historical period. But at the very end, the narrator intones as the main character burns yet another woman at the stake, "Despite the grief in his heart, I hope he someday found peace."

Really? Because I kind of hope that someday the ghosts of the women he murdered come back and rip him into teeny tiny shreds and feed him to weasels.

The Point of it All

The intent of this movie is clearly to shock and horrify. The things it says about religion are also pretty terrible. But the parts about women still make me angrier. Maybe it's because their pure condescension, because those two moments seem almost casual in their inclusion. That's particularly true for the latter of the two. The first could be to show that the men of the village were terrible people too. But the second? There's really no reason for that, nothing it adds to the movie.

In trying to sum up this post, I started out asking myself why the movie made me so angry. But maybe the question is, what do I want to get from putting this into a post? If I just wanted other people to back my position, I could have complained on facebook. If I wanted to make a real, true change to the world, I'd need to do a lot more than post in a blog. But the more I think about this, I suppose I just want to understand. Why was this okay? Why did they throw that last sentence in there? Why, in every single review I found, does no one else have a problem with this?

Any thoughts?


  1. I made the mistake of BUYING this movie. I bought it because I like Sean Bean. I was SEVERELY disappointed. To be honest, I didn't notice what you did, and I don't think it was because I'm a guy--it's because the movie was MISERABLE. I forced myself to sit through it in hopes it would have SOME redeeming quality. It didn't. Even the "Villain" got away. I can't imagine the critics could have ANYTHING GOOD to say. Maybe they were, like me, too pissed off that they'd wasted their time and money to have any desire to pick it apart.


  2. First off, this sounds like a movie that would be improved by a pack of ravenous wolves! Although feeding the bad guys to weasels would work in a pinch. It seems as though we are at a "two steps back" phase in a lot of movies and TV right now. Mad Men, Pan Am, this movie, all portray women as something pretty and less than intelligent. I think part of the problem is that studio executives are by and large still men. Maybe that's a little conspiracy theory of me but it's true that a female watching this movie is probably going to pick up on what you've posted about while a guy (and this is a huge generalization, not ALL guys) will likely just see a good battle scene and some blood and guts.

  3. Well, I'll back you up, this sounds terrible. Haven't seen it, and now there's no way I will. What if the tables were turned and the only reason the villagers followed a male leader was because he was so handsome? Boy, that probably wouldn't fly. Actually, this ties in well w. a few previous posts - shallow characterization just to get to the action/gore and unfulfilled expectations because the bad guy won (it sounds like). Now I'd better go take a second look at my characters and make sure they're buff & cute (uh, deeply introspective and strong?) enough.

  4. I haven't seen the movie, and now I probably won't!

    I think that yes, it's awful to see women portrayed that way, but it also speaks to something very real. Women DO get power from their beauty. I think no matter how strong and independent and evolved they are, there is a terror that strikes women when they start to realize they are no longer in their peak years for physical attractiveness & child-bearing because they know that the world still evaluates them as objects, to some degree.

    I think there's room for both approaches: On the one hand, you want stories that show women can lead, that support all the qualities women have. On the other hand, when you see a movie like this, it reminds you how differently men see things, and how huge a hurdle women sometimes have to leap to be taken seriously. If that isn't the movie's intent, then that's an even clearer picture of what women are up against, isn't it?

    I understand feminists more as I get older. Don't know if that's good or bad.

  5. The idea of this movie reminds me of Virlomi in OSC's Ender's Shadow series. She gathers power by influencing the common people to believe she is a Goddess. Because it's a book, you can see how what Virlomi is doing is a smart thing, and that her rise to power speaks more of the common people's intelligence than of her own.

    I think the idea that someone would follow the woman in red just because she is beautiful is silly. I bet there were other woman in the village who were as beautiful.

    Now I'm not saying that she didn't get a leg up to power because of her looks. Sarah is dead right. Woman do get some power from their beauty. The fact that the guy said he followed her because of her beauty, speaks to his intelligence, and perhaps the subtly or intelligence of the woman. He only saw her beauty, but that doesn't mean that's all there was. Maybe he didn't know why he was following her, but it was because she was manipulating him so subtly.

    That's possible.

    And maybe the filmmaker meant the last line ironically. He was showing all these women dying, but still only focused on the small piece of grief that the monk carried.

    Maybe it's supposed to make you mad. Maybe that was the point.

    But I haven't seen the movie, so I could be giving the filmmaker too much credit.

    That's also possible.

  6. @ IB - actually, the movie had 71% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Apart from the main issue that bothered me, both my friend and I found the movie to be overall terrible, because of the sort of ham-fisted way it dealt with religion.

    @Jennifer: Tra la la, time to torture another woman... Hey wait, what's that in the distance? Oh no, WOLVES!!!!!!!

    @Susan: my reaction exactly, just better worded. :)

    @Sarah: I suppose it's how you define feminism, right? I define it as wanting equal rights for women and men. Some define it as spelling "women" as "wombyn." No matter how old I get, I don't think I'll understand that.

    @Sheena: Here's the thing. I agree that a movie that gets a strong reaction is better than one which leaves no impression at all. However, is it really the filmmakers intent to offend audiences so badly that they actively avoid his movies from here on out?

    I only barely mentioned the treatment of religion. That was also offensive, but the filmmakers did a good job there of getting their point about religion across. I thought their point was silly, but since it was presented as a main theme, I was able to shake my head and disagree. Does that make any sense at all? The treatment of women, on the other hand, seemed like an afterthought, and casual cruelty. That's the distinction for me.

    Clearly, though, this is my hot button issue! I hardly ever get mad about movies, so I'm surprised to still be annoyed a couple days after.

  7. Amd thanks for the great discussion, guys! I love how discussions of posts give me ideas for other posts, such as discussing strong vs weak reactions to works of art. Also, I need to explain the theory that Jennifer and I have about how adding packs of wolves would make many movies better. :)

  8. Yeah, I can see why that bothered you. It is worse that it seemed like an after thought, like it wasn't really intended just a freudian slip.

    It's amazing that it got past so many people without anyone saying anything. Kinda scary actually.

    I'm almost tempted to see the movie, almost. :)

  9. Sabrina, I didn't mean feminism as in needing to say "wombyn," lol :) Growing up in a sort of post-feminist era, after a lot of gains in women's rights, I took my equality for granted. I have had access to all the same opportunities as men, so the idea that engineering companies were eager to recruit me because I was female seemed almost silly. As I get older, I understand the more subtle inequalities much better, and I finally get why feminists aren't ready to declare the fight over in this country. (Women's rights around the world is a much bigger can of worms.)

  10. Sarah - Ah, I see what you mean. I was also lucky enough to be raised in a situation of total equality. My mom raised my sister and I alone for a while and I couldn't have asked for a better example.

    MaryAnn - well, you could always give it a go, but I want to state that the movie was terrible overall, and that the violence/gore is extreme.


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