This Year’s Movies Sold Girl Power, But I Wasn’t Buying It

Lixia Guo / BuzzFeed News; Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features; Monica Lek / Neon / Everett Collection; Barry Wetcher / Warner Bros / Everett Collection; Sandro Kopp / Amazon / Everett Collection; David Giesbrecht / Netflix / Everett Collection

I started to think I might have a problem when I found myself fuming about the Ruth Bader Ginsburg action figure that was sent to me in the mail.

It was a 6-inch-tall novelty from a company that also makes a Pope Francis, a Bernie Sanders, and a Hillary Clinton, as well as baby aviator sunglasses and a line of glitter makeup called Unicorn Snot. The action figure wasn’t doing me, or anyone else, any harm — in fact, the PR rep pitching it assured me that some fraction of the proceeds from its massively successful Kickstarter would be donated to a worthy cause. But the branding made me twitch: “Wire-rimmed glasses to see through patriarchal bullsh*t,” the manufacturer’s diagram touted, as well as “heeled loafers to stand tall against oppressors.” This marketing copy dressed up in feminist buzzwords suggested that the mere purchase of this plastic collectible was an activist achievement, progressivism in one easy installment of $19.99.

The feeling had nothing to do with Ginsburg herself. I’ve been praying the 85-year-old lives and thrives and keeps working for a thousand years; I’m better acquainted with the state of her health than I am with that of my own grandparents. But that’s also why the doll exasperated me. It’s just one among many, many instances of both Ginsburg and the broader idea of women’s equality being cutely commodified, but it was a reminder of how low my tolerance for that commodification has become. The gap between that crowdfunded tchotchke and my own desperation-tinged investment in the well-being of the real woman it represented felt almost unbearable. Would I like to talk to the CEO about this product? I would not.

The action figure wasn’t a promo, but it might as well have been; there have been two feature films about Ginsburg this year, and both take what could be described as a “collectible figurine” approach to the Supreme Court justice, treating her more as an icon than a warts-and-all person. The first, Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary RBG, became a low-key box office phenomenon when it hit theaters in May, running cheerily through Ginsburg’s illustrious career, as well as her workout routine. The documentary is uncritical about her recent memeification (“I have a mug of her in my room that says ‘Herstory in the Making’!” one interviewee breathlessly shares), but does break up the soothing hagiography to rap her across the knuckles for her comments about Trump. You can be notorious, it seems, so long as you’re polite.

The second movie, Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex, comes out on Christmas and struck me as even more innocuous, with Felicity Jones performing a Sanrio-adorable interpretation of Ginsburg as a young law student, wife, mother, and eventual professor; Armie Hammer plays her supportive spouse and co-counsel Martin.

Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features

Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On The Basis of Sex.

The film revolves around a landmark 1972 case the Ginsburgs took on, but its main motif is repeated imagery of Jones-as-Ruth walking wide-eyed into rooms of men, tightening her jaw and lifting her chin in cinematic determination after each encounter with bigotry. “Would it kill you to smile?” a colleague asks her at one point, so we can glare in his direction. The movie offers a quick sugar rush of righteous outrage over vintage sexism while essentially enshrining Ginsburg as a series of future inspirational GIFs.

2018 has been as rich with slogany, simplified women’s empowerment callouts as it has been with reasons for women to be filled with rage and dread, stretching way beyond the merch and mild cinema that’s come to surround Ginsburg. This kind of messaging has shown up all over the movies this year, and television too, from Ocean’s 8 to the Kevin Spacey-less final season of House of Cards. Some of it was sincerely meant, some of it was calculated as hell, and most of it left me in the dust.

It’s been an exhausting year: a year of watching the #MeToo movement’s momentum slow, as some accused men test the waters in preparation for a return; of tuning into the Kavanaugh hearings and being reminded that there is no victim “perfect” enough to be believed when that belief is inconvenient; of having the midterms highlight the still sizable gap between how white women vote and how women of color do (presuming they’re able to at all). It’s been a year of constant reminders that nothing is simple or easy — certainly not solidarity.

And that’s one of the reasons broad “girl power” zingers and “smash the patriarchy” applause lines ring so hollow to me. They’re too often used to proclaim common ground while brushing over the much harder work of intersectionality, and too readily co-opted by people who will, given the shelter of anonymity, talk about Time’s Up to a reporter by saying “Yap, yap — go back to your kennels.”

So I get the desire to take comfort in uplifting, streamlined messages of women’s unity and to find solace in stories of women’s cheery triumphs. I’ve just been unable to do so. Both of the Ginsburg movies are fine. Even the toy is fine. I’m as aware of the pleasure people might find in them as I am of my own detachment from it. But what I find myself craving more and more is discomfort — depictions of how messy and complicated and difficult it is to be a woman or a girl in this world. And those films were out there too — they were just, maybe unsurprisingly, deemed to be tougher sells.

Monica Lek / Neon / Everett Collection

Assassination Nation (from left): Abra, Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse.

I didn’t see Assassination Nation at Sundance in January, where it was bought for a reported $10 million, the biggest deal in a year in which the festival was reeling from the impact of #MeToo revelations. I caught up with it in September, after it bombed in theaters, failing to find an audience for its self-satisfied modern-day riff on the story of the Salem witch trials. The movie itself, a dark comedy about teen girls fighting back against the mob of men who blame them for exposing their town’s digital secrets, was nothing much — a lot of style and swagger with no real clue where to aim its satire. But the way Assassination Nation was snapped up as the most commercially viable bet out of a lineup heavy with more ambitious, interesting work from female directors — like The Tale, Shirkers, Skate Kitchen, and The Miseducation of Cameron Post — really set a tone for the year.

The head of Neon, the company that released the film later in the year, said in a statement after that disastrous opening weekend that while the numbers were disappointing, they stood by the movie’s quality: “[Director] Sam Levinson has created a bold, visionary and ultimately cathartic response to the dumpster fire that is 2018.” I wouldn’t agree, but what did seem to me to be indisputably 2018 was the way it was marketed, as a women’s anthem (#SlayEm) couched reassuringly in terms more often used to appeal to male audiences — that it was too wild, too extreme, and too real for prudes to handle. The company’s chief marketing officer did an interview with Variety to talk about how they’d had trouble placing ads for the film. “We’re making a movie about strong young women. People feel threatened because it is honest,” he said — a cynical proclamation, once you read further and learn that the ads were banned because certain shots in the trailers — a gun pointed at the camera, a girl pulling up her shirt to show her bra — violated various websites’ terms of use.

Barry Wetcher / Warner Bros / Everett Collection

Ocean’s 8 (from left): Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Awkwafina, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Sarah Paulson.

Companies repeatedly proved themselves ready to shell out money for content they could offer up as feminist, so long as it came in a context they felt at ease with — like, say, a remake of a proven hit, except this time with ladies. In June, there was Ocean’s 8, the latest of a slate of gender-flipped do-overs that have become a studio solution to the problem of how to make more female-led films while also sticking to familiar IP. As a jumping-off point, you could do a lot worse than Steven Soderbergh’s swingy, splashy heist trilogy. Warner Bros. assembled an astounding ensemble cast (Cate Blanchett! Rihanna!) and put them in a series of incredible outfits, and then, it seemed to me, stopped short of making the actual movie, which played like a rough draft, with occasional lulls that feel like they might have read “insert conflict here?” on Post-Its stuck to the script.

For weeks after seeing Ocean’s 8, I couldn’t get its unapologetic half-heartedness out of my head. Was it deliberate? Was this what a corporation thought women wanted? Was it, in fact, what women did want, to the tune of almost $300 million, and was I some sour-grapes outlier grumbling about how condescending I found the clunky ease of the whole thing, up to a twist that made the already happy ending even happier? What really got to me was the thought that a bunch of higher-ups felt it didn’t matter — that it was the mere idea of Ocean’s 8 that counted, not the actual end result, and that a hasty sketch sufficed when it came to a milestone this important. And, moneywise, they were right.

A lot of things didn’t appeal to me this year — things I thought I’d love, or things I felt like I was meant to. October brought Halloween and Suspiria, horror films that promised stories of women contending with historical and personal trauma, only to somehow end up framing them in the context of men. I’m still befuddled by how much credit Halloween, David Gordon Green’s serviceable selective sequel to the John Carpenter-created series, got for its portrayals of three generations of Strode women, as if fans were trying to will it into being a more thoughtful movie than it actually was. The film even built in critiques of characters — a pair of podcasters eager to get an interview, a psychiatrist desperate to understand his most famous patient — who found silent slasher Michael Myers far more fascinating than the survivors of his rampage. But the movie couldn’t get away from that impulse itself, starting with its famous killer and then returning repeatedly, as if smitten, to peer into his masked face, searching for hints of interiority.

Alessio Bolzoni / Amazon / Everett Collection

Tilda Swinton in Suspiria.

As for Suspiria, well, from afar Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 ballet witch saga wafted more dark feminine energy than a late set at a Womyn’s Music Festival. It was larded with references and details that seemed weighty with significance, from the Holocaust to the Red Army Faction to the way one character scolds a doctor about treating women as delusional hysterics. But I couldn’t find much there there. Worse, I couldn’t shake a full-on subreddit-worthy reading that settled into my bones as I watched it — the idea that everything on screen was some phantasmagoric projection of the guilt felt by the film’s main male character, Dr. Josef Klemperer, over the responsibility he bore for the death of his wife during the war. That Klemperer was played by Tilda Swinton (doing triple duty) in mounds of makeup felt like both proof of this idea and a preemptive apology — if this was a film about women that was actually about the suffering of a man, at least that man could be played by a woman.

Those were two of the bigger “ladies first” titles that left me cold, but they weren’t the only ones. Netflix’s new series The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (more witches!) was pleasantly rambling, but I didn’t think it ever figured out how to click together its parallel interests in Satanism and social justice in a satisfying way. The streaming service also made a show of Robin Wright inheriting the final season of House of Cards — “the reign of the middle-aged white man is over,” her character declared in the teaser, as if this were the plan all along and not a shift necessitated by the disgraced, disappeared Kevin Spacey. But while that final season showed flashes of something interesting in the way Wright’s character tried to weaponize claims of sexism once in the Oval Office, the writers weren’t able to rethink the show in any meaningful way that could free it from the shadow of the gone but far from forgotten male lead.

House of Cards creator Beau Willimon, who left the show two seasons earlier, wrote awards season hopeful Mary Queen of Scots, a period drama starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie that grafts modern-day perspectives onto its historical tale of warring queens — “Bow to No One,” one of the posters trumpeted — in a way that was supposed to be boldly woke and instead came across as hair-tearingly reductive. And Wright, Ronan, and Robbie weren’t the only actors cast in wobbly interpretations of Strong Female Characters. Alicia Vikander in the newest Tomb Raider, Claire Foy in the semi-reboot The Girl in the Spider’s Web, and Nicole Kidman in the upcoming noir detective drama Destroyer essentially make up a trinity of testaments to how the type (and I hate that it’s become a type!) can be beholden to expectations of a very masculine conception of toughness.

Destroyer broke my heart a little, coming as it did from Jennifer’s Body director Karyn Kusama, whose career I’ve followed for years. But it is so intent on proving that women can partake in the worst gritty cop cliches too, with Kidman layering on wigs and aging makeup to pistol-whip people and burst in guns-a-blazing as LAPD detective Erin Bell. Watching the movie, I felt an intense pang for something I yearn for and am still not finding as often as I’d like — art by and for and about women that doesn’t feel the need to prove it can keep up with the boys, because it doesn’t worry about what the boys think at all.

Neon / Everett Collection

Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz in Revenge.

I didn’t actually spend the year alienated from everything I saw, although I’m sure I’ve just made it sound that way. What’s funny about this litany of discontent is that some of the work I’ve found most satisfying in 2018 has a lot in common with the stuff I felt so distant from, as if there to offer some relief. For instance, a much better movie than Assassination Nation, with all its trigger warning–fronted provocations, was Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, a brutal banger of a directorial debut that also played at Sundance and that also got picked up, for a less sprawling release, by Neon.

Fargeat’s movie, like Assassination Nation, is a stylish drama about a woman (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) striking back at the men who’ve done her harm. But Revenge is so precise with its gaze, especially in how it portrays the assault and the betrayal that set the action in motion. It isn’t just an unstintingly violent thriller; it’s a movie that interrogates the whole rape revenge tradition it’s a part of, demanding that we think about why stories that are, in theory, about women reclaiming their agency have been such a regular fixture of exploitation film.

Merrick Morton / 20th Century Fox / Everett Collection; Magnolia Pictures / Everett Collection

L-R: Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo in Widows. Support The Girls (from left): Dylan Gelula, Shayna McHayle, Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, AJ Michalka.

Steve McQueen’s Widows is a much darker, higher-stakes heist film than Ocean’s 8, but I found its groundedness more appealing than the other movie’s purported escapism. It doesn’t surprise me that the studio behind it had no idea how to market it, though. It was a women-led thriller that wasn’t all easy sisterhood, with a set of characters who came from different places in terms of race and class, armed with various expectations and resentments. They don’t like each other right away, and they aren’t instantly great at crime. Why would they be? The smile Viola Davis gives one of her costars in the last act is heartstopping because it’s so hard-won, one of the few genuine expressions of warmth in the movie. This crew’s successes are all the sweeter because they’ve had to fumble through and work to find out, literally, if they can bear up under the weight of what they’re doing.

For that matter, why see Mary Queen of Scots when you can watch The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’s gleeful comedy about power struggles in Queen Anne’s court, in which the three women at its center aren’t revised into anachronistic empowerment archetypes but instead allowed to be schemers, sadists, and survivors? (Both films also happen to feature Joe Alwyn as a lord one woman isn’t sure she can be bothered to marry, but only in The Favourite is he on the receiving end of an indifferent hand job from Emma Stone.) I’d take Sharp Objects, which is really about women and inherited trauma, or Hereditary, with Toni Collette’s fearless portrayal of a maternal nightmare of a character, over the limp, mostly-for-show offerings in Halloween or Suspiria. And the first season of Killing Eve felt like a giddy retort to Strong Female obligations, falling somewhere between thriller and love story, expectations about how an agent-versus-assassin story should go misfiring gloriously all over the place.

I’d also salute Support the Girls over almost everything else that was presented as an inspiring tale of female badassery this year. Andrew Bujalski’s comedy wasn’t advertised on the strength of its feminist bona fides, maybe because it takes place in a faux-Hooters where the servers wear cutoffs and crop tops, but it’s one of the best and most bittersweet portrayals of the power and the limitations of women’s solidarity within a crushing capitalist system I’ve ever seen.

As the manager, Lisa, Regina Hall smiles her way through her never-ending struggle to protect her mostly female employees against customers who disrespect them, boyfriends who abuse them, child care that falls through, and bosses who take advantage of them or divvy up their shifts according to skin tone. She can’t protect them from themselves, though, and sometimes they’re their own worst enemies. And she is so very tired, and it’s consuming her life, but what is she going to do, give up? “I can take fucking up all day, but I can’t take not trying,” she tells the man she’s not going to be married to for much longer. It’s one of the most relatable lines of the year, and it may not offer easy uplift, but I’d listen to her say it a million times over any of the cheeriest girl power rallying cries.

I felt an intense pang for something I yearn for and am still not finding  — art by and for and about women that doesn’t feel the need to prove it can keep up with the boys.

The thing about “this was made for you” movie messaging is that there’s often an implied threat that comes with it: “and if you don’t like it, well, then it’s your fault when we stop making things we think will appeal to you.” It’s the fear underscoring so much work that comes from underrepresented creators or that features underrepresented characters. This holds true for race and sexuality as well as gender; these films or TV shows are not just bearing the burdens of representation for a whole demographic, they also have to prove how financially viable that representation is.

That’s one of the big reasons I’ve gotten so leery about girl power messaging — there’s often so little to back it up, as seen in some of the titles mentioned in this piece, but the expectations and ramifications that come with it can be immense. The box office success of Ocean’s 8 may or may not lead to more films like it, but if it had failed, some executive somewhere surely would have used it as an example for why big women-led studio productions just aren’t viable.

What I’ve been frustrated by is not just the commodification of feminism, though I find that pretty soul-crushing. It’s that packaging feminist ideas so neatly can feel, to me, like an expression of the desire to skip past so much of the significant, systemic work to be done and go straight to the commemorative T-shirt — or the cloying documentary portrait, the feel-good biopic, the star-packed remake. I can’t relate to that, and at the same time I’m tired of the idea that we need to relitigate the worth of art and entertainment by women, about women, for women, again and again.

Women aren’t a monolith, and we shouldn’t have to be called on via slogans to constantly prove our viability as a paying audience. We shouldn’t feel any niggling sense of obligation to be grateful for any representation we can get, even when it’s mediocre or reductive or just something that isn’t your cup of tea — but I do feel it, and I resent it even as I’m not able to entirely let it go. I want to “see through patriarchal bullsh*t,” and “stand tall against oppressors.” I just don’t think an action figure is going to show me how it’s done. ●