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Race, Gender, Sex in Hollywood Film

In: Film and Music

Submitted By vivekrao549
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FTVS 598: TAKE HOME FINAL ESSAY.

By Vivek Nipani

1. In Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) what qualities does Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) project or possess that make her seem so tough? How or where does her femininity figure in her toughness? According to Sherrie A. Inness in “Lady Killers, Tough Enough?” what are two ways that Hollywood cinema undermines and punishes tough or powerful women? How is this twice demonstrated in Elizabeth (Shekhar Kapur,1998)? And how does Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) re-assess her gender to secure lasting power? Finally, in what way can she be considered according to Inness’s formulation, “pseudo-tough?”

It is interesting to note that women in Hollywood are not considered tough even when they play characters that can break and haunt a male protagonist in the film. Sherrie A. Inness in her chapter, “Women warriors and wonder women in popular culture,” mentions that, all women in Hollywood are not as tough as they seem. They repeatedly show the tough and masculine killer nature is nothing but all women or feminine underneath. They are made and designed to be desirable by men, even if they are found in the middle of an intense battle, they show no signs of breaking a sweat, with their beautiful hair flowing in high speed shots and are lithe stylistically to make them look like an Amazon warrior with a ton of sexuality. I found this analogy true and very interesting as we were shown the clip from the Ridley Scot film, Alien. Here we see Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, as tough commanding officer of the ship, Nostromo, who is a women (a very distinctive choice among the many science fiction film where most of the lead characters are males) taking a break and relaxing. As the scene settles in, we see Ripley undressing and revealing her body which is very sexually stimulating. We are reminded as an audience that even though Ripley is a “bad-ass” who can fight aliens in close combat, is just another woman who is venerable and delicate as she reveals her body. Now let’s consider a male protagonist in comparison to Ripley such as Rambo. Both characters are soldiers and worriers alike, but when we see Rambo take off his shirt, the audience are introduced to his scarred body which immediately reminds the audience of his past as soldier, who was a victim to several torture’s and punishments; but still survives to tell his story. But this is not the case for Ripley; she has a toned and well maintained figure, no scars or bruises from her past and almost suggesting as if she was a model and not of a warrior. The way the filmmaker projected her via the camera angles, the coverage and the wardrobe that she’s in, also added to the sensuality; almost as if, to lure the male audiences.
And this is exactly what Hollywood is trying to achieve. I came across a perfect example from Inness’s chapter stating that, “Producers might want to attract broader audiences, but they also don’t want to stray away from the stereotypes that have served them well in the past. Women might be killers but they are still attractive to men therefore by making them sexually desirable and stressing that they are attracted to men, the film assures that they are sexual objects.” He cites an example form the film, “Mortal Kombat,” a popular video game from the 1990’s. A character named Sonia is introduced as a tough independent and no nonsense individual who can handle her own in the midst of the tough male counter parts, but as the film advances, she is kidnapped by main villain and also falls in love with one of the male counterparts in her film. So where did the tough independent woman disappear. Hollywood does not allow its women to have such an image for the women in the industry. This motif is quite recurring in Hollywood cinema. Coming back to our exploration of the Alien; we see in a scene that Ripley is under attack by the alien. Her fright with the creature has her panicking and scarred. She hide’s in an enclosed area away from the sight of the beast, but as soon as she puts on her space suit we notice a complete change in her character. She becomes tough, resilient and fights back. Although one can argue that the reason she puts on her suit, is only so that she can open the air lock and push the Alien out of the space ship. But I would consider looking at her space suit as a metaphor of wearing the skin of a masculine and strong male warrior.
Analyzing Cate Blanchette’s role in Elizabeth, we are introduced to this character who is a young woman, unaware of the politics and treachery that she is about to enter into. Just as any woman in the kingdom who dreams of a wonderful life as a princess, she is madly in love with her prince charming, who she hopes to marry soon. After the demise of her half-sister, the queen, Elizabeth is first imprisoned on allegations of plotting to kill the queen. Shortly after her pardon from imprisonment, the queen dies and Elizabeth steps on to the throne. The movie plays to us showing, how she as a woman, battles through a monarch state, usually ruled by men and the challenges she faces to win the respect and approval of the men in her country. Elizabeth faces troubles often, due to her gender and someone who is not taken seriously. This pattern changes towards the end, as she grows tougher and principled and sets examples on what happens to men who do not follow her command. She kill’s all the men who planned to over throw her and take control of the kingdom and by this way she establishes fear among the men in her court.
As she puts on this masquerade of toughness we as an audiences subjectively notice in several moments in towards the end, as to, how her masculine figure is eating her alive from the inside, constantly reminding us that her emotional state of being is a result of her womanliness and all the things feminine about her and in this order she sacrifices all her wants as a woman. A visual metaphor that one can notice in the film is the heavy pale make-up she puts on in the end, giving us an idea that, Elizabeth had let go of her colorful lifestyles and is now a pale emotionless ruler. In return for the power that she has acquired, she is punished by being married to the country and the state, revamping her identity as the virgin mother to the country. This is how the filmmakers chose to punish her character reminding our audience that, “Women are punished either by ending up in prison or being killed.,” and here we can deduce that Elizabeth is locked up inside the wall of her palace, never again to experience love, joy or friendship, for she is feared by all man-kind. Therefore from the chapter we understand that, “films serve up to shore by warming women that adopting tough attributes is still unacceptable male Paranoia; tough women are basically psychotic and must be punished in order to uphold socities conventions about how women should act in the society.”

2. According to media critic Larry Gross in “Hollywood Under Pressure” what is one major strategy used by filmmakers and TV producers when representing the American AIDS crisis in 1980s and 1990s mass media? How is this tendency also present in Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme, 1993) as it attempts to humanize the AIDS epidemic? As Gross critiques the glaring invisibility of gays and lesbians in 1990s popular media how does Philadelphia problematize gay visibility to give AIDS a sympathetic face, meaning why does the film ultimately obscure so many aspects of gay male culture, when it argues for citizenship for its gay white male protagonist? Finally, what are two reasons The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986) is used as an AIDS metaphor by some viewers upon its release?

As Larry Gross rightly mentioned in his chapter, “Up from invisibility: Lesbians, gay men and the media in America,” The American population is described as a society of Mass media consumers and states that, the world is becoming one giant living organism and telecommunication is at its central nervous system. This society heavily depends on the information that the nervous system supplies and their knowledge of the world beyond their reach, is heavily based of what information that they receive from this organism. In this way the mass media brings together audiences that previously have lived separate lives. Therefore what information handed down by the producers and directors of such TV shows and movies need to be properly assessed before they hurt the sentiments of the people. But regardless of the precaution, one is bound to offend the masses if they are to speak about sensitive issues such as AIDS, LGBTQ community and race. The producers’ were not entirely confident on how to portray victims of AIDS, how much is too much? So in the 1980’s the first made-for-TV movie “An Early Frost” was aired on NBC with several scenes that were modified for their viewership. Aiden Quinn starred in this feature as a young hunk stricken with the AIDS who comes from a heterosexual family and their response to the gay person in their midst carefully avoiding any sentimental conflict to the gay and lesbian community. Although the film has a scene which had an intimate moment between the gay characters, it was later edited out and supplemented by a more affectionate moment between Aiden Quinn and his grandmother. After this movie, much criticism followed and it took the network about six years before they could come back boldly with another such film. He also mentions that the programs that are less family centric are more likely to portray the disease as a villain that’s affected an innocent victim and his struggle battling the disease. Many a time the programmers avoid the more important aspect of abandonment of the AIDS victim be it by the public or by the family. He says that these are truly the dramatic and the most important AIDS stories that are never shown or even reflected upon in TV dramas. What programmers fail to achieve is to educate the people about the ill effect of such a disease that many of the gay communities strive for to see in such programs. The consistent story of all TV and feature programming is to concentrate on the emotional journey of the individual suffering from AIDS and if the story is broadened, then it will include the members of the family, possibly the lover and one or two friends who will be more likely straight than gay’s.
The film Philadelphia portrays the likes of what I have just mentioned. The story revolves around the life of a closeted white upper middle class lawyer (Tom Hanks’) whose orientation is kept a secret, although not to his family, but to the members of the law firm where he works. They find out about his disease after noticing a liaison on his forehead and eventually fire him on the grounds of negligence. The film is based on an emotional level where we see the main protagonist as a family man who is loved by his family and has the whole support from his parents as well. At this juncture notice that Tom Hanks’ character is not abandoned at the time of his sickness as he battles for his rights as a human being with the Law firm via the help of a homophobic lawyer who Tom hank’s approaches to represent him.
The film shows us several contrasting images and scenes to give the audience a sense of realism. One of the many scenes that stood out to me as an audience and also something that is mentioned in the book is; the filmmakers choose to intercut the gay demonstrators outside the courthouse with a group of anti-gay fundamentalist. The producers’ also made important choices by dressing up the film to be family safe with no explicit scenes of sexuality between Tom hanks’ and his lover played by Antonio Banderas. The most that we see is an intimate hug between the two characters when they are dancing during a party. This party scene was also very controversial in terms of gay representation as the filmmakers creatively disguised several moments with the help of wardrobe and production design as one would feel embarrassed watching such moments causing an nostalgic experience to anti-gay audiences watching this film.
The film treads lightly on the social issue at hand and instead, focuses our attention towards an emotional journey of a one man who is not the protagonist but the anti-gay lawyer who learns to accept and understand as he get involved closely into the life of a hapless victim. The movie works on many levels on an emotional journey, but at its core does not do justice for the gay community as many real stories and life experiences of the queer community do not have the acceptance that the characters in this film have portrayed. A film called “Family fundamentals” a documentary by filmmaker Arthur Dong, talks about a man who hails from a conservative Christian Catholic family who is abandoned due to his orientation as they consider it a sin to be gay and in the end the protagonist is seen with his “family of choice,” with an LGBTQ group that accepts him as to who he is.
The two ways that I think that the movie The Fly correlates as AIDS metaphor is when Gina Davis’s character finds out about her pregnancy with her lover Seth brindle, played by Jeff Goldblum, and she decides to abort her child fearing that her baby could turn out to be a creature of some scientific experiment, not knowing if her pregnancy was before or after Seth’s failed teleportation attempt. This scene of Gina Davis’s character not wanting to bear a child that is a “freak” of nature relates to the ideology where families face the same dilemma of denial of one’s sexual orientation where one’s family does not want to be associated with them. Another metaphor that places us in this situation is; Jeff Goldbums realizing his condition and locking himself up in his laboratory fearing his ultimate demise knowing that the society will not accept his appearance. These metaphors can be righty be related by the Gay community as they face such similar issues in the society. But on research I learned that the director never intended to bring in such metaphors and mentions in an interview, “The Fly story that was much more universal to me: aging and death- something all of us have to deal with.”

3. How does theorist bell hooks define “eating the other”? Specifically, how is this term a reference to British slang and why? How do variations of eating the other anchor the representations of Africa as a white playground in Out of Africa (Sydney Pollack, 1985) and The Last King of Scotland (Kevin Macdonald, 2006)? How are these fictional images of Kenya in the 1910s and Uganda in the 1970s examples of western imperialist nostalgia for Africa after the end of large scale, official colonialism of the continent in the 1960s?

In her book, Black Looks: Race and Representation, Bell Hooks discusses the politics of representation of black men and women in a white supremacist culture. In this particular chapter, "Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance," Hooks defines the term “Eating the other” as, “From a standpoint of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, the hope is that desires for the primitive or the fantasies about the other can be continually exploited, and that such exploitation will occur in a manner that rein-scribes and maintains the status quo.” This term is a reference to the British slang, evoking the phrase of getting a “bit of the other,” as a way to speak about sexual encounters in great Britain. Hook exclaims that, in one of her experiences as a professor at Yale, she learnt about how White males confronted people of the other. She said that, on one of the poorer streets in downtown, where racist dominations by the white males were contested by physically pushing colored men off the street was a way of a contest and dominance. She also learnt that these males “shopped” for females of various races, Black, Native American, and Asian alike, as if they shopped for classes at Yale. This was the case of engaging in sexual encounter with non-white females as a ritual of transcendence and a moment out in the world of difference that would transform an acceptable rite of passage.
This Neo-Colonial strategy of reaping the benefits of the “others body” as opposed to the old concept of exploiting the “others country” is a way that white males can seek to gain some sort of inner transformation through the contact with “primitive groups.” We see this motif in the two films shown to us in class, Out of Africa and the Last King of Scotland. Here we have two white males who come to these native lands, trying to savor a newer experience, a change of scenery from their monotonous lifestyles in these exotic lands. Furthermore, Hook states that, "The direct objective was not simply to sexually possess the other; it was to be changed in some way by the encounter" because "[white men] believe their desire for contact represents a progressive change in white attitudes towards non-whites."
James McAvoy who plays Dr. Nicholas Garrigan in the film, The Last King of Scotland, is a Scottish medical practitioner who moves to Uganda in the 1970’s during the dictator’s Idi Amin’s (Forest Whitaker) regime. We notice how this character, portrays the concept of “Eating the Other” as soon as he land in the country. He begins his sexual encounters with the native women who he meets in the bus, and immediately is see fornicating with her. A white male who does not wish to impose colonial rule of such sorts; but one, who wishes to merely window shop. We are again introduced to his nostalgia when he begins his affair with the wife of Idi Amin, who is later punished for condemning such an act. We see how these colonist share their sense of imperialist nostalgia in these film, wherein, Sydney Pollack’s film, Out of Africa, we notice how Robert Redford dominates the screen even though the story is about the African continent. The ‘others’ are insignificant as per the story goes. The scene where Robert and Meryl Streep are seated in front of the bonfire talking about the wonders of Africa as a land and how unique his life is. Just like the author’s explanation of the “Tweeds catalogue,” of a white male holding an Egyptian child in his arms talking about their brand of clothing as something that is rediscovered in a different context and not of the generic representation of Egypt. Here we notice the author also mentioning that the natives of the country are out of focus with the backgrounds not showing us the true images of Egypt as a modern city but that of one which is represented in by its exotic grandeur to a white race as rightly mentioned in Hook’s chapter, ‘This commodification of otherness entails the colonization of the black body, as white males seek to defy the status quo by using the black body as the vehicle.”

Bibliography

1. Black Looks: Race and Representation by Bell Hooks. [1992] 2. Film Theory and Criticism: Colonialism, Racism and Representation by Robert Stam & Louis Spence 3. Up From Invisibility: Lesbian’s Gay men and the Media in America;
Hollywood Under Pressure by Larry Gross 4. Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture. Lady Killers, Tough Enough by Sherrie A. Inness 5. Race Gender and Class in the United States: An Integrated study.

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