Feminism and Hollywood


Bronski

No
one these days thinks that there is one brand of feminism—pure as Ivory
Snow—and nowhere else is this brought to the fore than in how Hollywood
manufactures and produces feminisms and how the media (and critics) interpret
and repackage them. The days of the “simple” feminist Hollywood film are
over. Movies like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Women Under the
Influence
, Norma Rae, and Julia feel nostalgic now because
they came out of what (at the time) seemed to be a far less complicated set of
circumstances: sexism existed, women had fewer social and economic options
than men, women were discriminated against.

Not that any of
that is not true now—although there have been major shifts in how we now
view gender, sexuality, family, marriage, work space, and the role of violence
in everyday life—but as a culture we also have a far more complicated
understanding of how gender and sex function in society as well as individual
lives. While films like The Accused, in which Jodi Foster played a rape
victim whose sexual history is used against her in the courtroom and Thelma
and Louise
explored the complexity of women’s choices, actions, and
sexualities in a more sophisticated way than popular entertainment had
attained previously, other films such as Fatal Attraction, The
Mirror Has Two Faces
, and You’ve Got Mail played out traditional
Hollywood anti-feminist messages in both clear and more ambiguous fashions.

But in the past
two years Hollywood has been touted as producing and promoting more
enlightened films about women. (No one in or outside of the industry would
every use the “F” word: as an articulated political concept feminism has
been banned from the mainstream media.) No doubt this is due, to large degree,
to the fact that a handful of women—Goldie Hawn, Barbara Streisand, Meg
Ryan, Sandra Bullock—have attained enough clout to make major decisions as
producers and directors. But this reshaping of gender-power in the industry
has not always produced more feminist films—The Mirror Has Two Faces
and You’ve Got Mail were produced respectively by Streisand and
Ryan—and often films that are touted as more enlightened about women’s
lives are a curiously mixed bag.

Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon
by Ang Lee has been lauded by both mainstream and
some feminist critics for its portrayals of women characters. A sometimes
thrilling mixture of Chinese legend, martial arts, and magical realism, Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon
has the surface look of a great feminist action
romance/thriller—a genre that has hardly had much life.

Written by Hui-Ling
Wang from the novel by Du Lu Wang, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon tells
the double romance of Li Mu Bai (Yun-Fat Chow) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh),
two warriors so advanced in their art that they can gracefully defy gravity
and leap, fly, and twirl in the air as they fight their evil opponents. While
very much in love they have never declared themselves to one another out of a
sense of propriety. Their story is contrasted with that of Jen Yu (Ziyi
Zhang), the not-very dutiful daughter of wealthy Governor Yu (Fazeng Li), and
her love affair with Lo (Chen Chang), a sexy young bandit who roams the desert
attacking and looting caravans.

Wang’s
plotting is leisurely, if sometimes plodding: Li Mu Bai, removing himself from
the world of fighting, gives up his magical sword to Sir Te (Sihung Lung). The
sword is stolen and Yu Shu Lien suspects the young Jen Yu, who is obviously
discontent with her life as a pampered young women of privilege and rebellious
against being married off to a stranger for political reasons. Indeed, Jen Yu
has a secret life as a warrior and fighter—a skill she has learned from her
seemingly over-protective nurse-maid—who, as the notorious bandit Jade Fox (Pei-pei
Cheng), has been terrorizing the province. As the plot unfolds, Jen Yu returns
the sword, but on her way to be married is “ambushed” by Lo. She goes with
him to reclaim a stolen comb, but he ends up tying her up and giving her a
bath in his mountain hideaway where she falls in love with him. Meanwhile Jade
Fox is plotting revenge against Li Mu Bai for past wrongs and planning to use
Jen Yu to extract her revenge.

Ang Lee moves
this along with dexterity and some of the magical fight scenes are thrilling,
but the problem with the film—despite its portrayals of strong, fighting
women—is that it is otherwise wedded to the most traditional ideas about
women and gender. Shu Lien lives in a permanent state of renunciation and,
while she excels as a swordsperson and diplomat, she is essentially a
stereotype of the professional woman who cannot (for any number of reasons)
incorporate love in her life.

Jen Yu, on the
other hand, wants adventure, true love, and excitement, but because of her
lack of moral conviction and her insistence on doing whatever she wants, she
ruins her own life, as well as everyone else’s. The crucial character here
is, of course, the wily and dangerous Jade Fox. An older woman who is
portrayed as unattractive and embittered, Jade Fox is determined to wreak her
revenge on others through Jen Yu. This older woman with a neurotic/erotic
attachment to a beautiful young woman is a staple of Hollywood and romance
novels—Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers is a prime example. It is very
telling that in the highly gendered world of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
female outlaws are old, unattractive, bitter, and predatory and male outlaws
are young, sexy, fun, and promise wonderful alternatives to the burdens of
everyday living.

In his
relatively short career Ang Lee has turned out some interesting and
intelligent films— Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, Eat,
Drink, Man, Woman.
He has proved that he can integrate complex material
with an increasingly masterful visual approach. Truly Crouching Tiger
has some incredible cinematography and stunning sets. But Lee has done much
better with his female characters in the past—The Ice Storm gave us a
series of complex portraits of younger and older women grappling with the
complications of sexuality in their lives and Sense and Sensibility
provided an honest and gripping modern translation of Jane Austin’s
hard-edged observations on love, marriage, and heterosexual relationships.
While it might be argued that Lee is portraying a certain period of Chinese
history, the film’s basic premise and style —magical realism and
fantasy—would have allowed him to take liberties with his characters and
their relationships.

The popular
media’s repeated praise of the film in feminist terms is also depressing. It
is true that the women characters have agency and physical power—curiously
almost all the men in the film are passive and incapable of making any
determinant moves or actions—but that quality alone cannot be divorced from
the rest of their characterizations or the effects of their agency. It is Jen
Yu’s inability to use her agency wisely that causes the death of some of the
characters and her own final disappointments. To a large degree women in
current Hollywood films have been reduced to such ciphers—a few exceptions
spring to mind: Joan Allen in The Contender, among others—that giving
them the nerve, determination, and physical abilities looks like a huge
improvement.

The largeness
of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon looks even smaller when placed next
to the routine Hollywood comedy, Miss Congeniality. Directed by Donald
Petrie and written by Katie Ford it is a showcase for Sandra Bullock (who also
produced it) as Gracie Hart, a schleppy FBI agent who has to undergo a
complete makeover to enter the Miss USA pageant in order to expose a mad
bomber who has made threats against the pageant. Aside from some fun
performances—Michael Caine as a gay man who supervises Hart’s make-over
from mess to beauty queen and Candice Bergen as the doyan who runs the
contest—the film has little to offer except a few hearty, if mindless,
laughs.

What is
interesting, however, is how Miss Congeniality consciously takes on the
project of being all feminisms to all people. Gracie Hart is not criticized
for wanting to be a highly competent professional woman and not caring enough
about her appearance. At first it looks as though the Miss USA Pageant is
going to be attacked for promoting a mindless view of women as just physical
objects—which is Hart’s original point of view. But the film goes out of
its way to show that all of the other contestants are real women with real
feelings and abilities and by the end of the film even Miss USA becomes a
place where women can become “liberated”—as Gracie Hart finally admits.
It is clear that all involved with Miss Congeniality see themselves as
presenting new, untraditional images and ways of thinking about women in
mainstream culture. The problem is that they want to be so inclusive, so
embracing of all the choices that women make, that in the end it becomes
impossible to make any real comments about how women live in the actual world.
Gracie gets the fellow agent she has a crush on, the Miss USA Pageant ends up
looking pretty good, Gracie proves that even a highly competent woman can be
“beautiful,” the other contestants prove that “beautiful” women are
not dumb and vacant, and all we need to do is to understand one another more.
But next to the encoded anti-feminist messages of Crouch- ing Tiger, Hidden
Dragon
this looks pretty good.
                 Z

Michael
Bronski is a journalist, culture critic, political commentator, and lecturer.