Special Double Review of Recha Jungmann's Renate
By Christina Schultz and Romina Leiding
It’s been a few months since the fabulous Frankfurter Frauen Film Tage and I don’t know about you, but I certainly miss attending the film screenings, listening to the inspiring talks, meeting the incredible organizers, guests and attendees and, perhaps most importantly, being included in a supportive community of film scholars, feminists and human rights activists. So I thought it only right to post a review of one of the films I saw at the festival that made a lasting impression on me; but this time, in the true spirit of the feminist movement - solidarity, empowerment, encouragement - this is not only my review, but a double review with one of the festival assistants, Romina Leiding, who I had the pleasure of getting to know during the festival.
We watched the film together in the theater, discussed it quite passionately after the screening, expressed interest in writing a double review and voilà!
Before reading our reviews, meet Romina...
Romina Leiding is a board member of Kinophil [Cinephile], an organization dedicated to promoting and preserving film culture. Her main interests are the history of film and the societal aspect of film. Since receiving her degree in Germanic Studies and History at the University of Duisburg-Essen, she has been working freelance as an assistant director, for various film festivals (like Remake. Frankfurter Frauen Film Tage) and educational trips.
We would like to warmly welcome her to our FemFilmFam!
RBG: Feminism, Activism and Jurisprudence
By Christian Berger
While The National Board of Review has chosen RBG as the Best Documentary Film of 2018, Ruth Bader Ginsburg proved once again that she actually is a real life hero. From her hospital bed, she participated in a recent U.S. Supreme Court 5-4 decision to prevent the Trump Administration from immediately enforcing its new policy of denying asylum to immigrants who illegally cross the Mexican border. The Justice is expected to make a full recovery and return to the bench “full steam.”
The documentary film RBG, directed and produced by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, portrays Bader Ginsburg not only as a pop icon, but also as an iconic feminist legal scholar and activist. In a partisan yet – like Ginsburg herself – rather serious and dignified manner, the film tells Bader Ginsburg’s story through a collection of interviews, audio and archival material and recordings of public appearances, highlighting her quiet temperament, intellectual ambition and devotion to the law. It presents the ethos and idealism of first and second generation of Jewish immigrants, the many difficulties of being taken seriously as a woman in the academic and legal sphere and some of her more precious relationships. Especially to her late husband Martin Ginsburg, a tax lawyer who was the first boy she dated who cared that she “had a brain”; he supported and promoted her all her life.
Despite her public perception as a judge, the film not only chronicles her notorious dissents regarding voting, workers and reproductive rights, it also traces landmark cases like United States v. Virginia, where Ginsburg’s majority opinion struck down the last male-only admission policy of a university in the United States. Moreover, it throws light upon the legal reality of the 20th century, which reflected that men were meant to be breadwinners and were women meant to be caregivers. For example, women were not assigned to jury duty or not allowed to administer an estate and widowers who were caring for minors were denied special survivor benefits. In six such U.S. Supreme Court cases in the 1970s, Ginsburg successfully argued that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution applies to the status and rights of women (and men) and protects them from discrimination in situations where there is no rational basis for discrimination. The basic idea was that women are equal citizens. She won five of these six cases and laid the foundation for gender equality legislation.
For feminist activists, especially legal activists and feminist lawyers, RBG, as a tribute to Ginsberg’s life, shows that it does not have to be a contradiction to be politically engaged and a legal professional. Quite the opposite: the subsumption of social situations and facts under legal norms is always a political activity, because norms cannot be interpreted from an ahistorical and neutral point of view simply because there is no such thing as an ahistorical and neutral point of view. There will always be a critical need for self-reflection, well-argued partisanship in jurisprudence. The more dynamic and concrete one interprets and applies constitutional principles such as equality, the more probable it becomes that social relations, which are based on inequalities - sexism, racism, economic dependencies, etc. - will be influenced by the law and related exclusions must be changed. To this extent, even the law can be an instrument for social change.
The Power of Female Resilience
An entrancing tour de force, Vox Lux grips the viewer/listener from start to finish. From emerging director/writer, Brady Corbet (The Childhood of a Leader), this film captures the power of female resilience in the form of a seemingly delicate young woman, Celeste, portrayed by the captivating Raffey Cassidy (young Celeste), and the ingenious Natalie Portman (adult Celeste). The illusion of delicacy doesn't last long, as Corbet takes us through each chapter of her journey, repeatedly using lingering, close-range shots to highlight the strength and resilience of both Celeste and the women around her.
As the protagonist begins her transformation from mundane teenager to striking pop star, the viewer/listener is consistently left with a feeling of disquiet--verging on discomfort--with the monstrous aspects of our society that she must endure, aided in no small part by the poignant score (Scott Walker and Sia). Yet at every juncture--whether dealing with violence, invasion of privacy, deception, or manipulation--Celeste carries herself with unapologetic hope and magnanimity. Her monologues (delivered with biting self-assurance by both Cassidy and Portman) serve to bring a voice to women who often feel victimized by male violence, dominance, and presumption. Even Celeste's manager, deftly portrayed by Jude Law, seems more easily derailed than his client. That's not to say that Celeste suppresses her emotions; there are several pivotal moments where she unleashes her fury and despair with the selfish, mean-spirited nature of our society. These reactions are shown to be justified, as they are in response to those who detract from her ultimate goal: to provide her audience and the world with a positive atmosphere, where pain is effortlessly eliminated, and all they have to do is focus on her voice.
From the Latin, meaning "light voice," Corbet's Vox Lux provides exactly that: a gritty, yet seamless look at the hope and triumph that arise when the dark underbelly of our society is struck with a beam of light in the shape of a woman's voice.
13 of Witchcraft Horror’s Most Iconic Heroines
Female occultism, in particular the concept of ‘witches’ appears to be having a bit of a resurgence in pop culture at the moment. From American Horror Story to I Am Not a Witch (click to read Christina's review) to Witches Of East End to Jenji Kohan’s series about the Salem Witch Trials, the magical woman is undergoing a renaissance cultural moment — and also gaining new respect as an enduring feminist symbol.
“Young women in particular are looking for an archetype outside the tired virgin/whore binary that we’re offered, and the witch can do just that,” Kristen Korvette, who created a new course at The New School called "The Legacy of the Witch."
Occultist women portrayed in films are inherently connected to the irrational fear of females and their biological bonds to the natural world. They can also be explicit critiques of the modern world — and a much needed form of assertion. Bearing this in mind, get ready to enrich your scary movie diet with some progressive feminism.
But first, get on with reading Natalie's list and watching these scenes of bad ass witchcraft feminism!
1. Thomasin, The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)
This already cult status film takes us back to New England in the 1630s, a few decades before the Salem witch trials, unfolding the story of a teenage girl trapped somewhere between the ambiguity of religious fervor, the eventual relinquishment of religious shame, and eventual sexual abandonment… and above all else the certainty of true evil.
2. Carrie, Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)
‘’Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power, but also what men fear about women and women’s sexuality. Writing the book in 1973 and only three years out of college, I was fully aware of what Women’s Liberation implied for me and others of my sex. Carrie is woman feeling her powers for the first time and, like Samson, pulling down the temple on everyone in sight at the end of the book.’’
Stephen King’s Carrie focuses mainly on the male fear of powerful women that inspired the film, with the anti-Carrie camp signifying her death as the defeat of the “monstrous feminine” and therefore a triumph of sexism. But Stephen King’s states that the inspiration for his 1973 book, is as much a realization of a feminist nightmare as it is a patriarchal one, with neither party winning.
The rise of Second Wave feminism in the seventies posed serious threats to the patriarchal order certainly, but even for those who think change is not only necessary but good, change can be pretty scary. This, also disconcertingly taps into the shared universal fear of being victimized, something most of us can relate to at one point in our lives, and is one of the reasons Carrie still scares everyone.
3. Nancy, The Craft (Andrew Fleming, 1996)
The Craft is a teenage tale of witchcraft in the American high school. Sarah (Robin Tunney) is a troubled girl who just moved to Los Angeles. She meets three school outcasts rumored to dabble in witchcraft – Bonnie (Neve Campbell), Nancy (Fairuza Balk) and Rochelle (Rachel True). Sarah joins their coven and, as a result, four teenagers gain access to dark powers, and after Nancy is struck by lightening in the initiation, she lacks empathy and becomes power obsessed.
At first, they use them in a most teenage way possible, from unleashing revenge to attracting school hunk Chris (Skeet Ulrich). But things take a darker turn as people start dying, spells backfire and the coven’s leader, Nancy, becomes more and more of an unhinged bad girl as the film progresses.
4. Jay, It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014)
Forgetting the whole “teenagers who have sex die” exhausted tradition of the horror film for a second. In this film, the characters have to have sex in order to survive a deadly curse. Annie is a new kind of final girl, who has to break the rules of the genre and the adult world to stay alive. This is a refreshingly powerful depiction of adolescence, which culminates in an uplifting (literally) scene of personal fulfillment and ecstasy.
5. Rosemary, Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)
This is one of those cases in which you want to separate the director from his work—I would never call Roman Polanski a feminist, but I would argue that this film is. Rosemary’s Baby is a surprisingly honest and intimate portrayal of the expectations, disappointments, and even horrors that can accompany pregnancy. And the lullaby that begins and ends the film will haunt you for a long time (it’s my ringtone).
6. 'The Girl,' A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)
A mysterious female vampire stalks an Iranian town and, in the process, exposes its secrets. This dreamy, beautifully filmed Persian-American flick draws from both the horror and Spaghetti Western traditions, and immediately became an inspiration for independent horror filmmakers.
7. Countess Marya Zaleska, Dracula's Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, 1936)
Dracula’s Daughter is an all too often overlooked Universal Studios monster gem. Gloria Holden stars as Countess Marya Zaleska, a hypnotic vampire who is forced to bear her father’s legacy. She also demonstrates a strong attraction to women, thereby initiating the cinematic trend of the lesbian vampire.
8. Asa Vajda, Black Sunday (Mario Bava, 1960)
Black Sunday, also known as The Mask of Satan and Revenge of the Vampire, is a 1960 Italian gothic horror film directed by Mario Bava. Burned at the stake, a vampire witch princess (Barbara Steele) wakes up centuries later with her undead henchman.
To this Bava now added a direct approach to historical misogyny and warped religious concepts of femininity and virtue, subjects rarely tackled before except by Carl Dreyer, one of intelligent horror’s strongest influences, in films like The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927) and Day of Wrath (1943).
9. Amelia, The Babadook (Jennifer Dent, 2014)
Six years after the violent death of her husband, Amelia (Essie Davis) is at a loss. The Babadook (2014) punctures this myth of the new feminized laborer — a perky, independent professional, free from housewifery and inequality. Instead, we are faced with Amelia, a clearly intelligent, capable woman, who lives in a careworn haze of fatigue and depletion, only emerging periodically to rally herself to tenderness or descend into demonic fury. An amazing depiction of the burdens of being a single mother, and a terrifying watch.
10. Willow, The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)
When fervently Christian detective Sergeant Howie visits a remote island in the Hebrides to investigate a young girl’s disappearance, he finds a community celebrating May Day with pagan rituals. Whilst visiting, he stays at the local inn where he meets Willow, the innkeeper’s daughter, who attempts to sway him from his Christian path. Willow’s responsibility for demonstrating the loose morals of the Summerisle heathens (and testing Howie’s purity) is exhibited with a bizarre bawdiness – but Britt Ekland’s Bond-girl, pouting sexuality marked her (and her role as Willow) as an iconic figure of seduction within horror
11. Elaine, Love Witch (Anna Biller, 2016)
Witches have been portrayed onscreen as evil, hideous hags (Hocus Pocus), as eccentric but kind neighbors (Practical Magic), as rebellious teens in Hot Topic clothing (The Craft). In The Love Witch, Elaine (Samantha Robinson) – despite being a homage to all these vintage vixens, is a different archetype from the ones we’re used to seeing — she’s a seductive woman whose primary goal in life is to find a man who adores her, which she attempts using methods of seduction and spellwork
12. Gwen, The Witches (Cyril Frankell, 1966)
Following a deeply disturbing experience with the occult in Africa, a schoolteacher moves to a small English village, only to discover that black magic resides there as well.
This film was a pet project of Joan Fontaine, based on a novel by Peter Curtis. It was her last feature film. Fontaine stars as the fearlessly strong teacher Gwen Mayfield, who is in charge of a missionary school in Africa. A witch doctor puts a curse on her, causing a nervous breakdown.
Returning to England, she takes a job running a small rural school. In the village, there is an active voodoo cult. They have targeted a young woman named Linda (Ingrid Brett), whom they plan to offer as a virgin sacrifice. The cult members are led by journalist Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh), whom Mayfield discovers is the head witch. So much female sass for one movie, decades ahead!
13. Suzy, Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)
Dario Argento’s avant-garde and beautifully shot giallo movie follows the journey of an American dancer, as she enrolls in a prestigious German dance school, only to find it’s run by masochistic witches. Argento’s technical stylings are always a wonder to behold and Suspiria, with its use of mind blowing colors, and a spectacular score by prog-rock band Goblin. Not to mention a bizarre mystery at the heart of it all, is one of his, and Italian cinema’s, most thrilling works. It is definitely a film critic’s film, and remains as influential as it does unnerving.
So what do you think about Natalie's list? Have you seen any of the films she included? Let us know in the comments!
You can follow Natalie on Instagram (@nataliemariawardle) and be sure to check out her site tarredandfeatheredofficial.com, where you can find the original version of the above list. It was slightly edited for Femfilmfans.
And if you haven't followed us yet, please do so! We are on Facebook and Instagram (links below). You can also do us a favor and like your favorite posts, use the comment submission form below or email us with your feedback. Thanks! 😊
(Note: Our editor Christina translated the text from German into English.
The original German version can be found here --> Time is Up for Irony: Notes on Hannah Gadsbys Nanette)
Cynicism is easy. It it a way to get involved in something without getting involved in something. In male-dominated stand up comedy, punchlines and ironic distance to the subject have become essential genre conventions. Actress and comedian Hannah Gadsby, known for her lesbian “gender not-normal” perspective in the Australian television dramedy Please Like Me, completely does away with these conventions in her show Nanette and in doing so, criticizes central mechanisms of the culture industry and the patriarchy.
Hannah Gadsby recalls how she was confronted with homophobic and sexist violence at a bus stop at the age of 17, however; a man assumed that she was a man - albeit a “faggot” - and was hitting on his girlfriend. She mentions this at first just for the punchline: the man apologizes to her when he realizes she is a woman - he doesn’t hit women. The audience laughs. She then delivers several other punchlines that have to do with her past: with her coming out; with the omnipresent and until 1997 legally backed homophobia she faced growing up in her small hometown in Tasmania; with her deep-seated dissatisfaction, her depression, her isolation and her shame. It appears to be a self-deprecating coming to terms with the past. But Gadsby has had enough of not telling her story and her memories to the end. She has had enough of jokes about women and lesbians, even if they are ironic. In the middle of her show, she radically questions all of this and her profession itself: “I have built a career out of self-deprecating humor and I don’t want to do that anymore. Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it come from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility, it’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak, and I simply will not do that anymore, not to myself or anybody who identifies with me. If that means that my comedy career is over, then, so be it.”
Gadsby is through with self-deprecation, cynicism and humiliating and retraumatizing punchlines. She thus tells one memory vividly to the end. The man who let her have it at the bus stop returns, “he beat the shit out of me and nobody stopped him,” precisely because she is a lesbian woman and does correspond to the dominant gender norms. And because of these dominant gender norms, she did not turn to the law enforcement authorities: “I thought that was all I was worth. And I didn’t take myself to hospital. And I should have. But I didn’t, because that’s all I thought I was worth. I am ‘incorrect’ and that is a punishable offense.”
Like a successful drag performance, Gadsby’s show is mimetic. Mimesis involves imitating, deconstructing and reassembling someone different from us (but this process can also apply to societal practices) with aesthetic intention so that the individual pieces no longer belong to a whole in a hierarchical relationship. In Hannah Gadsby’s case, this applies to narrative modes and gender norms that are de- and reconstructed. They are placed in new relations to stand up comedy as a genre and to the masculine as an idealized norm. In comedy, life stories and societal shortcomings are commodities; what counts are the punchlines that pay off, ones with a high short-term rate of return. Aesthetics and ethics only have a functional significance. Stories are then told to the end if it pays off. But “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” (Joan Didion); to tell our stories first gives history and meaning to our lives and makes it possible to orient ourselves morally in the world.
The time is up for irony.
Great news: Hannah Gadsby says she's no longer quitting comedy (click to read full article by Broede Carmody)
Deconstructing the Stigma of Witchery
By Christina Schultz
Zambian-Welsh director Rungano Nyoni’s award-winning debut film I Am Not a Witch poignantly thematizes the stigma of being a witch in her home country Zambia, a place steeped in tradition. However, the traditions might appear more like odd superstitions comically amplified to viewers from the Western World.
This absurd contrast between reality and possible fiction comes to life as the patriarchal society firmly in place in Zambia and the general authority of men are undermined and even threatened by a tight-knit matriarchal community of “witches,” who are kept like animals in the zoo by the government. Once accused and confirmed as witches, the women are bound to servitude in both the literal and metaphorical sense: the witches must wear white ribbons attached to mounted spools, allowing them to go only so far. When moved, the large spools and the mounts allude to a penetrating phallus, which seems to be no coincidence on the part of the director. The symbolism makes us think the women are beholden to their male keepers but relatively early on in the film, we, the feminist-minded viewers, realize the witches have the power to (figuratively) screw the men and not vice versa.
The male government official, Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), wants to exploit the witches for his own benefit but depends on their cooperation. They are, among other things, an integral part of the justice system as they determine whether someone is guilty of committing a crime. They also perform manual labor, mainly fieldwork, which turns into profit. They are even put on display for tourists, resulting in one of the film’s funniest scenes. Without the witches’ cooperation, Zambia would certainly be worse off, so the film suggests.
The star of the film, an incredibly terse but bright eight-year-old orphan named Shula - played by Maggie Mulubwa with a poignancy seldom seen in children on screen - causes enough trouble to lead the townspeople to suspect she is a witch. All it takes to be accused is to be at the wrong place at the wrong time or to make people uncomfortable by doing the unexpected, which is not actual witchcraft, as far as am I concerned. Shula, whose name appropriately means “to be uprooted,” appears ungendered or unidentified when we first meet her. The prepubescent child wears neutral clothes (although one tragicomical camera shot reveals her in a shirt brandishing the phrase #bootycall) and has not yet found, or chooses not to use her voice. Her presence unsettles the townspeople and quickly she is coaxed into joining the witch community because otherwise she will become a goat, so she is warned.
Shula, while at first unhappy, quickly adjusts to her new life as a witch and lives happily among her matriarchal society. And even though being a witch is a decidedly female occupation, if you could call it that, she maintains her gender neutrality and much of her freedom. She becomes part of a family, gains respect and has opportunities she otherwise would not have had. Mr. Banda’s wife (Nancy Murilo), however, shows how deeply ingrained the hatred of witches, i.e. strong, emancipated kweens, and traditional gender roles are in society. She tells Shula that she herself was once a witch but she gained “respectability” through marriage, which set her free, allowing her to live a relatively lavish lifestyle with her husband. In other words, if witches change their “evil” ways and do as they are told, they can be released from their ribbons and their lifelong servitude. But aren’t they just exchanging one type of servitude for another? Is not the ribbon merely a physical limitation, a trifling nuisance, and the bonds of marriage and societal shackles placed on women a much worse kind of servitude?
It would seem that the answer is the stuff of Kindergarten because even eight-year-old Shula could not be hoodwinked by the glamor or the promise of “freedom.” Sure the witches might be persecuted or ridiculed, as witches have been throughout history in just about every part of the world, but they are free in a different way. Their independence is their strength. They are not repentant for their “non-conformist” behavior, they are not adherent to traditional female roles, they are not seeking out “respectability.” Shula is clearly happiest with her family, the people who embrace her for who she is. And that family, that group of people are all women. Women who care deeply for one another, who stick together through thick and thin, who embrace new members with open arms and would (more or less) prefer to live by different rules than the ones society expects of women. I would say the film’s message couldn’t get much more feminist. Yet the feminism on display here is not blatant; it is incredibly subtle, albeit undeniably present. It’s the kind of feminism that causes you to think about what is worth fighting for and what “freedom” really means. And in this aesthetically beautiful, narratively creative, emotionally moving film, it is quite freeing to be a “witch.”
The Phantom Menace
Han Solo, accurately recreated by Alden Ehrenreich, and Lando Calrissian, expertly portrayed by Donald Glover, have never been feminist icons, nor should they be. They are chauvinistic, self-absorbed scoundrels, the lovable, but flawed products of the seedy underbelly of the Star Wars universe. Yet behind the women, weapons, and card games, the viewer is always aware of their hidden loyalty and compassion. Han and Lando’s bravado undoubtedly makes up part of their identities, but it can still be easily punctured by the wit and gaze of the late great, and hopefully still around in Jedi-ghost form, Carrie Fisher. “I love you,” says the princess. “I know,” answers the smuggler, while allowing himself to be frozen in carbonite. An act of compassion, which displays what his words cannot. Overall, the characters Han and Lando don’t exude aggressive masculinity, but perform it rather obviously. This performance was made legible through their actions, failures to perform, and most importantly, the strength (physically, mentally, and politically) of Princess Leia as a balance in the force.
The Princess Strikes Back
Leia is of course imperfect. Subordinate to Han and Luke, she only succeeds in (accurately) criticizing their plans, not changing them. But it was the 70’s and one had to start somewhere. Unfortunately, years and years in the future in a film not really that far away, the balance she provided back then, however imperfect, is wholly missing from the new Han Solo story. Unlike Leia, Khaleesi the…wait, I mean, Qi’ra the love interest and presumed counterweight to Han’s hubris in Solo, portrayed by the talented Emilia Clarke, is complicit in, rather than skeptical of the arrogant criminal that young Han wants to perform.
Where Leia calls Han’s bluff with cutting sarcasm and political rank, Qi’ra lacks power and cunning. She is not a senator, but the assistant to mob boss, Dryden Vos. Rather than rejecting Han’s attempted outlaw routine, she is wooed by his antics and can’t talk with L3 about anything other than love. Although she does have some pretty awesome sword moves in her brief fight with Vos and ultimately assumes his powerful role in Crimson Dawn next to robot-legs Darth Maul, her action-hero abilities are never explored. Even her decision to abandon Han for a promising career in crime comes across not as agency involving forethought, planning and execution, but rather as betrayal and opportunism, both old tropes about strong women. Ultimately, Qi’ra serves to reinforce rather than resist Han’s machismo, creating the mess that Princess Leia will have to clean up later.
A New Hope?
One could ask: Maybe the balance in the gender side of the force doesn’t come from a human at all, but a robot!? One could ask, but one would be wrong. L3, Lando’s droid co-pilot, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is a noticeably activist figure, so much so that it comes across as parody and farce. When confronted with the injustice of robot-fighting at Lando’s hideout, L3 attempts to incite the droids to rise up and resist their oppression. Her powerlessness to affect the situation is obvious and allows the scene to function as comic relief, rather than having an empowering edge. The moment is awkward enough that Lando, embarrassed by his droid/partner/crush?, guides her away like a child. Thus, the fight for equal rights, equal representation and equal voice for droids, Banthans, workers, women, POC, LGBTQ and many more, becomes nothing more than a silly distraction and one that ultimately costs L3 not only her voice, but her life. While leading a failed revolt, she is hit by a laser blast. Her hard drive is then integrated into the Falcon and permanently made part of the ship’s system, never to be heard again. With L3’s assimilation, Qi’ra’s weaker character, Val’s early death, and the narrative unimportance and limited screen time of Enfys, Solo falls short in leveling out Han and Lando’s bravado. Without this counterbalance, there is little artifice to their arrogance and even less reason for introspection in the viewer.
An Actual New Hope
It feels like it’s time for something more positive. There’s always a lot one can find wrong and too seldom suggestions for what can be done better. To the credit of director Ron Howard and the film team of Solo, the film is very Star Wars and there are interesting, subtle moments that challenge the observations above. Also to their credit, it would have only taken one simple suggestion to return balance to the force of the movie: to have Val (Thandie Newton), super smuggler villainess (she, I assume, would also then be entitled to a last name), keep Han in check. In many ways, it is Tobias Beckett (played by Woody Harrelson), Val’s lover, who takes on role of Han's mentor and counterpoint. He is strong, but self-serving, wise, but untrustworthy. Had Val taken on Beckett's role, the story remains the same, except she would provide the strong, clever, complex, influential and indeed longer living character that would have given Solo all the Leia-esque female counterweight it needed to check Han’s brash bravado exterior. But in Yoda’s words “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Solo provides all the camp, action, intrigue, and adventure one loves in a Star Wars story. Han and Lando are their scoundrel selves, and the viewer is sucked along to seedy depths of the galaxy and the enticing debauchery of the smuggler lifestyle. Solo captures much of what there is to love about a Star Wars film from the 70’s. Unfortunately, it brought with it the many problems of representation in a space western from the 70’s.
By Elisabeth Granzow
With the introduction of many streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Sky, the consumption of TV shows has become easier than ever. Unfortunately, however, picking the right program to watch has become much harder with the vast selection of scripted television. Another challenge for a critical viewer like myself is to find a show that transgresses common stereotypes of race, gender and class among others and includes complex marginalized and underrepresented characters and viewpoints. Many programs on television still revolve around straight white men and do not even pass the Bechdel Test, which already sets a low bar for the quality of female representation.
This is why I compiled a list of my top 5 current TV series that can be watched on Netflix and Co. Of course this is just my personal selection and does not constitute an exhaustive list. It should be noted that even the best shows can have problematic characters and storylines and could do a better job in some areas. Yet the programs that have made it into this list present complex and complicated female characters, are often partially written and produced by women and include important storylines that feature empowered women.
Please feel free to comment about your opinions of these shows and offer your own recommendations!
The Handmaid’s Tale (2016-, Hulu)
This widely acclaimed Hulu original might not be watchable for everyone. The drama is set in a near dystopian future, where a stark decrease in the fertility rate has resulted in a theocratic revolution in the U.S. In this world, women are oppressed and assigned certain roles for specific purposes, such as housewives who support their husbands or house servants called “Marthas.” The protagonist June/Offred (played by Elisabeth Moss) serves an infertile rich powerful couple as a “handmaid.” Her duty? To become pregnant by the husband in a cringeworthy religious ritual that involves the wife as well.
Season One is based on the novel by Margaret Atwood. The series was created by Bruce Miller, but has a number of female producers and writers. The drama also has a fantastic female cast (Elisabeth Moss, Samira Wiley, Yvonne Strahovski, Ann Dowd among others) and gives the viewer a chilling outlook of the dangers of uncontrolled systems of oppression. I highly recommend this show for fans of thrilling, suspenseful dramas and dystopian fiction. The show presents highly artistic cinematography and depicts the resilience and empowerment of complex female characters in a world that treats them as subhumans. However, I also should warn viewers about the graphic depictions of rape, violence and torture, which makes this drama not for everyone. In addition, the Handmaid’s Tale has been criticized for not addressing race in this world, but rather using a colorblind approach in its treatment of its characters of color. The show does, however, include a number of actors of color, such as Samira Wiley.
Westworld (2016-, HBO)
This big-budget HBO drama blends the Western and Sci-Fi genres into a thought-provoking product that delves into philosophical questions, such as what makes humans human and whether violence and oppression against AI robots is ethical. In this futuristic world, Westworld is a theme park reminiscent of the Wild West, in which rich people can interact with intelligent robots called hosts that resemble humans so much that they can hardly be distinguished from the human guests. As a result, most park guests live out their darkest fantasies, which includes violence against the hosts, whose memory is wiped out after each violent death.
As the first season progresses, the hosts slowly start to rebel, although it is not always clear whether they were programmed that way of whether they have found “consciousness” and therefore their own agency. The drama is created by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan. Having a woman co-create such a popular show is still rather rare in the industry. In addition, women take on the most important roles in the typically male worlds of Westerns and Sci-Fi with very strong performances by Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Bloom. They play the female hosts Maeve and Dolores, the first to realize they are not human and to fight back against their male/human oppressors. The particular abuse of female hosts therefore serves as a metaphor for violence against women in our present world. Yet one can raise the question whether gender even exists for robots. I argue that the programming of the hosts’ gender parallels the construction of gender in humans. Both in terms of human gender and race, the world outside of the Westworld park seems egalitarian with many women and people of color in positions of power within the companies that are involved with the park such as Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), an executive director of one of these companies. Westworld is a compelling drama with fantastic performances by the many female lead characters and a variety of plot lines centered around female protagonists.
Dear White People (2017-, Netflix)
This Netflix comedy is based on the 2014 indie film Dear White People. Both the film and the series were created by Justin Simien and follow a number of (mostly) black students at a fictional, predominantly white Ivy League college. The title Dear White People refers to the name of a campus radio show by Samantha White (Logan Browning), who uses her program to address racism and share the experiences of black people in the privileged environment on campus. Each episode follows one main character, shows their unique perspectives and interweaves their storylines into one coherent plot. Thus, this satire of campus life is not only witty and smartly written, but also includes many complex male and female black characters with different backgrounds and sexualities - such as biracial Samantha, Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton), Coco Conners (Antoinette Robertson) and Joelle Brooks (Ashley Blaine Featherson) - as well as political and social viewpoints. Throughout its two seasons, it tackles relevant and urgent topics including debates around activism and protests against racism, internet trolling, abortion, racism and police brutality. The intelligent writing combined with compelling characters and great performances by the cast presents the viewer with an entertaining dramedy and insights into the diversity of black life in the privileged setting of an Ivy League school.
One Day at a Time (2017-, Netflix)
This Netflix sitcom was created by Gloria Calderon and Mike Royce and depicts the life of a working class, Cuban-American household. The family includes three generations of women with single working mother Penelope (Justina Machado), her mother Lydia (the fantastic Rita Moreno) and her daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez), as well as her son Alex (Marcel Ruiz). The comedy includes many important topics around identity into its storylines, such as sexuality and Cuban American identity. Furthermore, One Day at at Time tackles the everyday struggles of working class, veteran and immigrant families. While these are serious topics, One Day skillfully manages to combine social and political commentary with the lightheartedness and comic elements of the sitcom genre and shows that sitcoms can also be thought provoking.
My full review of One Day at a Time can be found in the review section of our Femfilmfans website.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-, The CW)
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a quirky, intelligent musical dramedy created by two incredibly talented women, namely Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom. Bloom also plays the main character, the successful Manhattan lawyer Rebecca Bunch. Rebecca decides to move to the California hometown of her summer camp love Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) on a whim. While the title and premise suggests problematic stereotypes of the crazy and romance-obsessed woman, the show is actually quite self-aware of sexist stereotypes and adds complexity and nuance to them by thoughtfully depicting Rebecca’s mental illness and its stigmatization. Despite this serious topic, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend includes incredibly hilarious yet thought-provoking musical numbers and a coherent narrative, which will be wrapped up in its fourth and final season. I can truly recommend this show to everyone for its freshness, wit and many extraordinary female characters.
For my full review of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, please check out the Femfilmfans review section.
By Christina Schultz
Jan Henrik Stahlberg’s Fikkefuchs, released in Germany in November of 2017, did not make a lot of money at the box office, nor did it gain a lot of attention. Perhaps because it was overshadowed by the blockbuster German comedy Fack ju Göhte 3, released three weeks prior on October 26, 2017, and other big studio pictures. Or perhaps because the topic just doesn’t seem that interesting: a fallen, albeit self-proclaimed, sex God finds out he has a son and the two form an odd relationship while they embark on a quest to get chicks. It gets better, though. The 50s-something father, Richard “Rocky” Ockers (played by none other than director Stahlberg himself), is a misogynist and his son shows that the apple, his son Thorben (whom he calls Thorsten, which hilariously highlights Rocky's stubborn ignorance), not only doesn’t fall far from the proverbial tree, but that it has taken root and grown into an even bigger, more misogynistic tree. The son winds up in a psychiatry clinic for sexually assaulting a cashier at a grocery store. Whereas the father once could charm his way into women’s pants, or so he claims, the son has not an ounce of charm and in his delusion thinks all women are DTF.
The only redeeming things about this movie in my opinion are the truly excellent acting performances of Stahlberg and Franz Rogowski (Victoria, In den Gängen). The two leads are uncompromising in their commitment to the wretchedness of the characters. The characters themselves, however, do not redeem themselves at all, except for Thorben/Thorsten. Maybe. But not really. He pulls through for his dying father, but I just don’t think he transforms into a better person by the end of the film. He has intercourse with a Greek woman who luckily can’t understand what he’s saying and somehow the attraction is mutual - although he still speaks to her like they are in a bad porno, so in a sleazy, objectifying way. So I’m not convinced he has learned his lesson and will treat women better after his consensual sexual encounter on the Greek beach. The fact the woman he connects with is not German seems to be the key to his “success,” not his new-found respect for women. German-speaking women, such as the cashier he assaults or the other women he verbally accosts, would be able to understand his misogynistic and aggressive language and behavior and thus reject him, which suggests that the cycle of his violence can only be broken abroad. However, the films concludes in Germany. Rocky succumbs to cancer and after the funeral, Thorben abandons his father’s dog and walks off into the unknown. Not exactly commendable behavior. Not exactly rehabilitated characters. Rocky dies and Thorben never has his epiphany. Stahlberg lets them get off easy (pun somewhat intended).
Stahlberg also lets his male characters be presented as victims. We, society, should pity men because we place too many, and ofttimes contradictory, expectations on them. They should be excellent lovers, the main breadwinners, physically fit, sensitive but tough, etc. etc. While it may be true that men feel pressured and insecure - and I’d like to add we should be respectful of everyone and their feelings (except maybe for rapists - personal thing, #sorrynotsorry) - it is highly troubling that the film fails to shake the father-son duo’s hubris. It is equally troubling that the “c-word,” or Fotze in German, which I take issue with enough on its own, is thrown around with reckless abandon like the dice at a Vegas casino. While the certainly has its funny moments, and some really gross and uncomfortable ones, it is more provocative than anything else. I think it is meant to be a (poor) response to the growing number of people, myself included, supporting the Time’s Up, #MeToo and Equal Pay movements because, you know, men have to defend themselves from the threat of liberals and feminists!* Whatever side you’re on (but hopefully not on the a$$hole side), Fikkefuchs ultimately tries to sell the idea that male insecurities somehow excuse misogyny and rather than teach the two wretches a lesson, they can either die or walk away from the sexual crimes unscathed. Nope. Sorry. That's just not good enough anymore. The times they are a-changin. And one thing’s for sure: time is definitely up.
*Please note the sarcasm here: the author is what most people would consider a liberal and a feminist, if you’re into labels.
**Other side note: I find it striking that the film was reviewed almost exclusively by males, although as Beatrice Behn pointed out in our interview, the world of film criticism, like so many other professions, is dominated by white males. I would be curious to read what other female audience members and reviewers think of this film. Please feel free to post your respectful comments! I’m certainly glad that the male reviewers generally found the film disgusting and even mentioned the #MeToo debate. Here is one example, in German, written by Oliver Kaever: http://www.zeit.de/kultur/film/2017-11/fikkefuchs-film-jan-henrik-stahlberg-sexismusdebatte/komplettansicht
By Marina Brafa
The stakes are high: In the third edition of their introduction to film history, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell promise no less than an overview about dates, names and developments in the history of film not only in the U.S. but worldwide. How can a book possibly cover such an amount of information? Indeed, the volume contains close to 800 pages with only a few stills or illustrations and the authors provide a flood of facts. Fortunately, they do so in a very structured way so that it is easy to follow their argumentation. Basically, Thompson and Bordwell assume and admit that several inventions and events took place more or less simultaneously worldwide and that one has to consider continuities as well as differences between times and spaces. They come to the conclusion that most occurrences are somehow related. This conclusion is a common thread throughout the rest of their book.
The book is divided in six parts, each covering a certain time period, e.g. Part Two: The Late Silent Era 1919-1929, or Part Five: The Contemporary Cinema Since the 1960s. They chose the periods wisely as the starting points of each are marked by a turning point. However, the authors do not suggest that movements, techniques etc. introduced in one era would stop existing in another but show how they might have been changed, replaced or continued to exist.
Each large chapter is subdivided into smaller ones that focus on specific topics or national cinemas. This structure helps to clearly connect or contrast developments in the film industries on a national or international level. For instance, writing about the era of early cinema - when “cinema” still had to be defined - the authors manage to capture the many relations between technical innovation, audience demand and business foundations in the U.S., France or England. Often, the competition among production companies would force them to be more innovative than others or would cause them to work together on certain areas whilst cutting each other out of other markets. Moreover, Thompson and Bordwell point out decisions that persist in today’s cinema such as editing standards and take a brief look at film markets outside the U.S. or Europe, e.g. early cinema in Japan.
Each chapter introduces not only historical facts and developments but also film terminology that emerged along with technical inventions or events in film history, thus contextualizing and historicizing specific terms that are still of importance in today’s film production. How and why did the “shot/reverse shot” standard form? Where does the word “nickelodeon” stem from? The answers can be found in the book as well as many more explanations of – nowadays - common cinema terminology.
Finally, the book is accessible for film scholars and newbies because of its practical nature. Thompson and Bordwell’s language is concrete and developments and events are never isolated but incorporated into a bigger picture of film industry. Drawing on movies from each era and the people “behind” the stories and history of film, the abstract subject is personalized and thus rendered more traceable and understandable, especially to people without much or any previous knowledge.
However, the authors could have problematized national cinemas from a race and gender point of view in each of the chapters to raise awareness of such questions, especially for a non-academic audience. The book definitely lacks a conscious discussion of important theories from gender studies, queer studies and postcolonial studies in film. This could be addressed in a further edition of the book.
Still, Film History: An Introduction is worth having on your bookshelf or to use in your classroom. It would be impossible to to memorize all the facts and figures provided in this book. The book can serve as an encyclopedia of quick information about a certain type or era of cinema, and it is a relatively short, easy-to-read insight into a comprehensive subject. And most importantly, it makes readers understand that no development is an island!
*Note: There is now a brand new 4th edition of Film History: An Introduction that just came out on March 1, 2018. See how to get a copy of the book here --> from the publisher McGraw-Hill or here --> from Amazon