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Femininity in Crisis: Exploring the Representation of Femininity in the Films of 2017

2017 saw some excellent female characters being presented on screen. From the likes of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, to Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird, to Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding, to Frances McDormand’s Mildred. These four characters come from different backgrounds; they are a range of different ages, belonging to different social classes and different time periods, but evidently all share the same struggle and journey to re-establish what their role is within society.

Wonder Woman, Lady Bird, I,Tonya and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri among other films, also indicate that the ideology of femininity and society’s belief in what the role of a woman is, is currently in a state of crisis and in a period of change. However, I must stress that the word ‘crisis’ isn’t something to be seen as a negative aspect; rather as something that is leading onto a change in society’s expectations of women and their responsibilities.

Saoirse Ronan

These films reflect the change that is occuring in our society; where women are gaining more independence and speaking out for themselves, especially via the use of social media with the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements gaining a huge following. Films are great indicator to what is occurring in society at the time of the film’s release, and like the period of 1990s where we saw an influx of films dealing with the topic of masculinity in crisis (Falling Down, Fight Club, American Beauty, The Usual Suspects, American Psycho and The Matrix) we are now seeing an abundance of films which are addressing the theory that traditional femininity is in crisis and is now being challenged.

Indeed the films of the 1990s that shared the theme of masculinity in crisis, opened up the topic of toxic masculinity and brought attention to the struggles that young men were experiencing whilst trying to adhere to an unrealistic expectation of being seen as a ‘real man’ now with these influx of films dealing with the idea of femininity being in crisis we are on the brink of seeing the ideology of traditional gender roles being toppled.

When discussing traditional femininity throughout this piece I shall be basing my definition of femininity on a series of traits which are considered to make up the ideology of femininity. Femininity is constructed by society, but made up of both socially-defined and biologically-created factors. Although there aren’t any universally declared feminine traits many refer to the following traits as being a representation of what we mean when we refer to femininity, these are as follows; gentleness, empathy, sensitivity, caring, sweetness, compassion, tolerance, nurturance, deference, and succorance are all traits that have traditionally been cited as feminine.

Of course, we can already see the implications on suggesting that these traits are solely belonging to the construct of “femininity” and as many feminists have declared these as belonging to a prehistoric society which treats women as second class citizens. Indeed Simone de Beauvoir declares this outdated interpretation of traditional femininity is something known as “eternal feminine” which de Beauvoir states is patriarchal myth that constructs women as a passive “erotic, birthing or nurturing body” excluded from playing the role of a subject who experiences and act. Feminist Betty Friedan also challenges the construct of traditional femininity in her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, “”The feminine mystique permits, even encourages, women to ignore the question of their identity.” and Friedan calls for the need of a “drastic reshaping of the cultural image of femininity.”

Gal Gadot

Prior to 2017, we have seen the role of women change in society, however American cinema seems quite slow to embrace the revolution of women. With society and politics being in somewhat in turmoil (with the election of President Trump, the Weinstein scandal, and the #Metoo movement) the outdated representation of women on screen is finally being overthrown. There are no more excuses for a lack of female representation in our films; and what with the increase of diversity on the small screen, the growth of social media and new methods of entrainment via video games, comic books and the likes of YouTube, female representation has evolved. 2017 has been a turning point for the representation of female characters on our big screen and has indicated that the idea of traditional femininity is in a state of chaos with many female characters being in a state of disarray in the constraints that society is trying to impose on them and forcing them to act, behave and look a certain way because of their sex.

Two of the films mentioned in my introduction were directed by women, and are perhaps our best examples of portraying what it means to be a woman in the 21st century, despite Wonder Woman being set in the 1918. Both Wonder Woman and Lady Bird don’t belong in their environments that they find themselves in, Wonder Woman doesn’t belong in an Edwardian London which is still stuck up on a Victorian approach to how women behave, this is shown by Wonder Woman being referred to as Steve Trevor’s secretary, implying that she is his ‘property’ and she is ignored in the men’s discussions of war. The character of Wonder Woman is also an outsider in her home of Themyscira, where she is restricted and feels trapped under the watchful eye of her mother who believes she knows what’s best for Diana (Wonder Woman). Upon Diana leaving, her mother (Connie Nielsen) declares “You know that if you choose to leave, you may never return.” this touching moment represents the old ideology of femininity (women only being seen as the mother/wife figure) allowing the future of female representation (Diana) to essentially fly from the nest. The character of Diana is a representation of the modern woman; she has set off into a world dominated by men to find her purpose in life knowing that she is destined for greater things. In the film’s finale Diana goes up against the God of War, Ares played by David Thewlis. Ares has been disguising himself as Sir Patrick, an uptight British politician who believes in traditional gender roles. Of course, Wonder Woman manages to defeat Ares, not by her strength or super power but by her determination as well as her compassion for humanity, which is quite an interesting decision by Director Patty Jenkins because one of the traits of traditional femininity, is compassion. I believe this decision by Jenkins is an indication that this feminine trait is actually a strength that women have over men and rather be seen as negative aspect, we should see in a positive light.

Like Diana, Christine (Lady Bird) is also trapped in her home town of Sacramento, and has confrontations with her overbearing mother (Laurie Metcalf) who believes she knows what is best for her daughter, “I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be.” Marion tells her daughter who replies back with the line, “What if this is the best version?” Lady Bird is a confused character on the brink of adulthood but still stuck in the throes of adolescence, she wants to be treated as an adult but strikes out and acts childish when she doesn’t quite gets her way. Perhaps the best example of Lady Bird’s inner turmoil to be treated as an adult with her own sense of purpose and her own capability to make decisions, is shown within the film’s opening scene, after a short and heated discussion about going to college with her mother (“I want to go where culture is like, New York, or Connecticut or New Hampshire.”) Lady Bird responds in the only way she knows how to, by jumping out of the car. Like Diana in Wonder Woman, Lady Bird is fearless and rebellious, acting against the characteristics of traditional femininity.

Lady Bird lacks some very key aspects of traditional femininity, such as empathy, sensitivity, and caring, and sees these characteristics in a negative perspective. Perhaps this is due to her mother having these qualities, something which is brought up by her ex-boyfriend who describes her mother as being “warm but scary.” which Lady Bird scoffs at, “You can’t be warm and scary.” In Lady Bird’s mind femininity is
something that her mother represents as that the only way to avoid traditional femininity is to fully reject all aspects of it. However ultimately, Lady Bird realises that she can embrace aspects of femininity and expand on them to find her own identity.

Similarly to Christine, the character of Tonya in I, Tonya is trying to escape her hometown and domineering mother but unlike Christine, Tonya’s mother is more scary than warm and as a result Tonya  is in a full crisis of femininity. When we are first introduced to Tonya as a child, she is pushed into ice skating by her mother, who berates her daughter repeatedly (“Call that a clean skate, for Christ’s sake?”).

Margot Robbie

Tonya adopts masculine traits, and becomes tough, determined and defensive as a coping mechanism, however she still strives to be seen as feminine. Tonya marries young, but isn’t satisfied by her marriage. Her husband is just as abusive as her mother despite initially idolizing and respecting her for her feminine traits. The issue with Tonya is that the character is confused about her identity and how she wishes to be seen. She openly mocks her rival Nancy Kerrigan for adopting this good girl image but knows that the snobbery of the ice-skating community will not allow her to progress unless she plays to their rules.  Tonya even returns to her husband and tries to bond with her mother to show off the wholesome American family. The problem with Tonya is that she doesn’t allow herself to be seen as a victim but ultimately she is one, in her eyes the roles of the victim is someone to be mocked at and is seen as weak.

As Inkoo Kang describes I, Tonya as “a terrifying portrayal of normalized violence.” Tonya doesn’t know any better as it’s the world she inhabits, she can’t afford to be soft and dainty, and must reject traditional femininity in order to survive, but it’s actually these traits that the judges want to see in her work. Tonya is an example of the extremity of femininity being in crisis, she is on the far end of the spectrum and it could be argued that she is a representation of toxic femininity. Like the traits associated with toxic masculinity, Tonya is aggressive (which is seen by how she throws her skate at her coach), competitive, lacks any real empathy and is obsessive in nature. The issue with the film lies in its portrayal of femininity being a weakness, perhaps this is due to the director being a man. Tonya is a victim but the film seems to skate over (excuse the pun) the abuse she encounters, making it seem like a joke. We do notreach a conclusion that shows us that Tonya has managed to adopt both feminine traits and masculine traits so we are left with a character who is still in a crisis, and this perhaps indicates the male attitude towards the shift in gender roles and shows their uncomfortability of the current situation in society?

Like I, Tonya, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has a male director at its helm. Out of the four films, this is the only one that doesn’t have a young female character at the centre of its focus. Instead we have the character of Mildred (Frances McDormand) who sets about erecting three billboards to shame the local police force who have been unable to solve the brutal rape and murder of her teenage daughter.

Whist the other three films have centred around the “daughter” character as their main focus, Three Billboards takes a difference approach and shows us what happens after the ideology of traditional femininity collapses. Mildred is a mother who has somewhat failed at her duty, and as a result her daughter has been brutally raped and murdered. Mildred has learned to adopt masculine traits in order to survive in a town full of toxicity and violence, this is shown by how she acts out violently when the local dentist brings up the billboards she responds by using his drill to drill a hole in his finger.

This is not the only example of Mildred’s adopted masculinity, when she drops her son off at school a few of his students mock him, his mother responds by kneeing both of them (a teenage male and female). Mildred is even dressed in very masculine outfits, with a blue jumpsuit and red bandanna, her face make-up free and her hair tied back. This is a woman who has endured hardship after hardship, the myth of traditional femininity is something she has come to bitterly realise.

Frances McDormand

As the narrative unfolds we understand the reasons why Mildred has rejected the ideology of femininity, firstly the male authority ( the town’s patriarchy) has failed her and Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has been unable to find her daughter’s murderer hence the reason for the billboards in the first place. Secondly she has been a victim of domestic violence at the hands of her estranged husband, Charlie (John Hawkes). Charlie now has a much younger girlfriend Penelope (Samara Weaving) but still tries to control aspects of Mildred’s life. She hits back (literally) because it’s the only way she knows how to put Charlie is his place. Mildred is ultimately a feminist icon, she doesn’t rely on men to come to her aid, she punches back and she refuses to remain silent. Unlike Tonya, she doesn’t try to play to society’s rules, Mildred doesn’t have the time or the patience to succumb to societal norms. And director Martin McDonagh is allowing us to come up with our own conclusions about the current state of femininity. Mildred may not even represent the contemporary woman, she is just a person with a story to tell.

In conclusion, I am reminded of Kristy Butler’s piece Gender in Crisis: Narratives of Masculinity, Femininity and Culture “In moments of crisis, one can see that gender and the way a society narrates both female and male identity, complicates the social fabric of a community, regardless of geography and does not exclusively affect female gender identity. Behind gender in crisis in moments of crisis, lies the true source of fear: Vulnerability.” These are uncertain and sensitive times, but we should be reassured that female representation on screen is slowly catching up and women are now becoming the main focus of the film’s narrative with audiences responding in positive ways. Femininity may be in a crisis for a short period of time, but we should be optimistic about the future.

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