Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sexing up Children's Movies

I just came back from watching Bedtime Stories. While I thought the movie was okay overall, it really annoyed me that the female character Adam Sandler attempts to save in all of his fantasy stories was a Barbie-doll type blonde heiress who looks young enough to be his daughter. Her sole purpose seemed to be to appear in every scene in an extremely sexy outfit in slow motion for male satisfaction. This might not have struck me as surprising if it weren't for the fact that this was a children's movie and they could have still kept her character virtually the same (pretty, princess type) without the overt sexualization. It's as if the men taking their children/nieces/nephews to the movie, need some type of reward. It's telling that there's no male equivalent. In fact, all of the male characters are buffoons (but they all get the pretty women). At the end of the film, Sandler amazingly discovers that the slightly older, bookish brunnette type is the "fairest of them all."

What also annoyed me about this (besides the fact that the whole idea centered around who was prettiest even though what was considered pretty might have changed a tiny bit) was that it gave into the sexy, dumb blonde vixen versus the nice, smart, pretty-but-not-very-sexy brunette dichotomy. It reminded me of when I first saw Beauty and the Beast as a kid. The three blondes were overtly sexy but dumb and shallow while Belle was modest but smart and kind. And the effects aren't lost on children. The two girls I took (one seven, the other ten) were arguing after the movie over who could "be" the pretty, blonde girl, with the seven year old brunette remarking that she's was actually blonde initially but her hair was dyed in the womb. Neither cared much about anything except the fact that one was more fashionable, "prettier" and therefore cooler. This in comparison with the seven year old boy in the film calling his fourth grade crush "hot" and the way the girls I work with constantly discuss the levels of prettiness of every female possible while totally ignoring the physical appearance of all males, makes me want to bang my head against a wall. A children's film should be about entertaining children, not giving men erections or depicting women in limited ways that will begin psychologically damaging them before they hit puberty.

Francesca Casamento is an active member of Younger Women's Taskforce (NYC Metro Chapter).

Doubt and Gender

Doubt is an excellent film that portrays complex characters handeling a crisis during a time of change in one of the most male-dominated, sexist institutions in history--the Catholic Church. This film takes place during the 1960s when liberal Catholics were making progress by creating a Church that was modern in its outlook. The film portrays the different ways men and women use their power in the Church and how a conflict between a man and woman is resolved with the imbalance of power.

The priest, Father Flynn, is the character who thinks the Church needs to be more open and welcoming. The priest is the one who tries to make the sermons relevant to modern life and it is he who avoids simplistic black and white views of morality and faith. The priest is the only one who goes out of his way to build a relationship with the first black boy in school (who is gay).

The priest protects the young man from being displaced as an altar boy when he is caught drinking wine, an act of kindness and forgiveness that the tradition-favoring Sister Aloysius Beauvier does not find acceptable. The priest wants to redefine the roles of the clergy in the community and attempts to bridge the gap between the secular, modern world and the Catholic faith community. The priest passionately advocates for a church that is built on a love for humanity over one that sees itself primarily as an institution about control and discipline.

Father Flynn's demeanor and methods give credibility to the idea that men in power can be kind and understanding and still be effective leaders. He also defies stereotypical behavior for men and is not at all apologetic for it. Sister Beuvier, and others, thinks it is strange that he keeps his nails long (because it is "womanly") and for keeping pastel-colored flowers in his bible. There is definitely a fear of homosexuality present, which to some automatically implies pedophilia.

Most of his personality traits challenge the rigid way we think about gender; tellingly, this is one of the reasons he is accused of abusing the young boy. And he admirably encourages the young nun to not stop caring so much for her students, even though others may misinterpret things. But the priest is no feminist. It is he who takes the nun's seat in HER office when she invites him to a meeting to interrogate him. And he is the one who chastises her for going against the Church hierarchy by contacting a fellow nun in his previous parish instead of the parish's priest.

The movie also depicts the ways women use their roles in the Church and it is interesting to note how this could influence society's perception of women in positions of power. My father often rehashes the ways in which the nuns in his Catholic school in the 1960s would use humiliation in front of peers as a method of controlling students. Great films like The Magdalene Sisters showcase the way many nuns unfairly treated those they were given control of, often resorting to all kinds of abuse and manipulation. It is easy to stereotype them, and for some, to draw conclusions about what their behavior means about giving any power to women in general. Doubt effectively avoided playing into that stereotype by having different sisters with different personalities.

Meryl Streep gives a phenomenal performance playing an authoritarian nun who values order and tradition while simultaneously defying the Church hierarchy by independently investigating her suspicions of a priest abusing power. And while one may find flaws with Streep's unflinching character, she is still portrayed as a strong woman who isn't afraid to follow her convictions to the right thing and protect innocent children from what she perceives to be a threat.

Her strong will may ultimately be a weakness, but it is a trait that is most often associated positively with powerful men and she never attempts to abuse that power. However, it is important to question whether or not she would have been less hell-bent on being one hundred percent sure of her suspicions and may have been open to a more effective approach to dealing with every one involved in the scandal if she had more official power and room for maneuvering to begin with. She knowingly makes a comment in the beginning that she is unable to do things another way because she is a woman and will not be taken seriously.

For the vast majority of the movie she does not even admit to having the smallest doubt about what she believes because she knows that any sing of supposed weakness on her part would be used to discredit her all together. Father Flynn delivers the powerful sermon in which he declares that doubt is as strong of a bond with the divine as unflinching faith is. He is also continuously willing to take more risks with his clerical functions but his sex has given him the freedom to do so, while Beuvier must be careful out of necessity. One leaves the theatre wondering how things may change if women are given more power in the Church and society overall. Although the film was set in the 1960s, the issues it presents regarding gender and institutional power is just as relevant today as it was over forty years ago.

Francesca Casamento is an active member of Younger Women's Taskforce (NYC Metro Chapter).