Feminist Film Theory

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Feminist Film Theory

  1. 1. Feminist Film Theory: Are Legally Blonde (2001) and Picture Perfect (1997) accurate examples of femininity? Name: Frankie Payne Student Number: 13022595 Module Title: Performance Research Module Code: PA0330 Module Tutor: Matt Hargrave Seminar Tutor: Dan Koczy Due Date & Time: Friday 22nd April 2016, 4pm
  2. 2. Feminist Film Theory: Are Legally Blonde (2001) and Picture Perfect (1997) accurate examples of femininity? Marjorie Rosen in her book Popcorn Venus; women, movies & the American dream (1973) suggests that “film versions of femininity speak of male cultural dominance” (Rosen, 1973, 6) Unrealistic representations of women created by male directors and producers is a subject which has been a concern ever since feminist film theory was formed and is still very much a forefront issue of twenty-first century cinema. In this essay I will explore feminist film theory, using Legally Blonde (2001) and Picture Perfect (1997) as stimulus. I will analyse how the women in these films are represented and also explore if they a true representation of women and femininity. Before I start my analysis of Legally Blonde (2001) and Picture Perfect (1997) it is important that I define what Feminist Film Theory involves and some relevant literature, Janet McCabe defines Feminist Film Theory as ‘a very particular type of theory, conceived from disciplines beyond its borders such as (post) structuralism, psychoanalysis, post-colonialism and queer theory as well as generates from inside film studies” (McCabe, 2004,1) I will use this quote as a definition when I refer to Feminist Film Theory throughout the essay. Legally Blonde (2001) is a American comedy film directed by Robert Luketic, it follows Elle Woods played by Reese Witherspoon a sorority girl on her journey through Harvard Law school. She initially applies to Law school to win back her ex-boyfriend Warner Hunington III, but soon discovers her passion and talent for law. She is faced with many challenges and preconceptions about her intelligence and appearance, however is accepted one to an internship where she thrives and wins the case, finally realising how shallow and conceited her ex boyfriend is refuses his offer of reconciliation, however in a three year time jump Elle is graduating and is engaged to someone else. Picture Perfect (1997) directed by Glenn Gordon Caron follows Kate played by Jennifer Aniston an advertising agent from New York who is struggling to get promoted at work due
  3. 3. to her lack of relationship, after her friend tells the bosses she’s actually engaged she has to fake a relationship with a man she met at a wedding days earlier, after many obstacles and a choice between her career and love she finally realises they’re not exclusive and opts for both. I will be analysing Legally Blonde(2001) and Picture Perfect(1997) in reference to psychoanalytic film theory which Laura Mulvey in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1989) explains is looking at film and analysing how “the film reflects, reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle” (Mulvey, 1988, 54) In order to analyse Legally Blonde(2001) and Picture Perfect(1997) I must look into the genre of romantic- comedy and discover the typical narrative structure of these films. In Leger Grindon’s book Hollywood’s Romantic Comedy it’s quoted that “An American Film Institute 2008 poll defined romantic comedy as ““a genre in which the development of romance leads to comic situations” (Grindon, 2011, 1) therefore I would define both Legally Blonde (2001) and Picture Perfect (1997) as romantic-comedies as they have elements of humour and both end in a romantic resolution. Grindon quotes “a distinguishing quality of the romantic comedy is the dual protagonist, the man and the woman who’s union becomes the principle quest” (Grindon, 2011, 4) therefore it could be argued that Legally Blonde (2001) is not a romantic comedy as Elle woods is the only protagonist, however I would argue that it should be considered a romantic comedy as the protagonists principle quest is her relationship with her ex-boyfriend. Femininity is not a biological occurrence; it is a set of ideals that include attributes and qualities that society associate with being female. These ideals differ around the world so the definition of what femininity includes changes dependent of the culture, as the films I am analysing are filmed and set in America I will be using western ideologies of femininity when discussing them in my essay, these ideologies can include: beauty products, clothes and behaviour. For example a woman who is caring and sympathetic could be described as
  4. 4. being ‘feminine’ also a woman who wears make up and high healed should could be stated as ‘embracing femininity’. “These stereotypical images afford female audiences little chance for authentic recognition” (Rosen, 1973, 23) Elle Woods is an exaggerated version of a feminine character and it could be argued that this makes her less likely to be relatable to a female audience. Women in film are often fit into one of two categories; Domesticity e.g. wives and mothers or Sex symbols e.g. dumb blonde and gold digger. In the opening sequence of Legally Blonde (2001) the camera focuses in on a huge stack of cosmopolitan magazines, a framed picture of her dog and a vast selection of beauty and nail products. These items are very stereotypical and suggestive of a patriarchal view on feminism. One of the first images in the opening title sequence of Legally Blonde is a shot of a brush running through perfectly curled blonde hair; this one image sets the mise-en-scene for the entire film, which is the assumption that Elle’s hair colour and appearance is linked to her intelligence. In an interview Reese Witherspoon explains how Elle is underestimated due to her appearance “she starts out as a character you would kind of discount , you wouldn’t think oh she’s so academic and intellectual because she looks kind of silly , in silly clothes and very blonde but ultimately proves everyone wrong “ (ScreenSlam, 2015) This film succeeds in showing that blondes are not stupid and fighting these stereotypes Witherspoon explains “this film dispels the myth that blondes are stupid, it really gets to the root of that America idea that blondes are not intelligent and goes to prove that you can’t judge them on the way they look” (ScreenSlam, 2015) This is evident in a scene where Elle is shopping in a boutique with her friends searching for the perfect outfit to wear for a date with her boyfriend; they are gossiping and discussing her possible engagement. A shop assistant observes the scene, picks up a dress from the sale rail, pulls of the discount sticker and attempts to sell Elle the dress for full price, she tells her fellow sales assistant “there’s nothing I love more than a dumb blonde with daddy’s plastic” (Legally Blonde, 2001) Elle plays along for a while until confronting the woman’s lies:
  5. 5. “Elle: Is that low-viscosity rayon? With a half-loop top stitching on the hem? Boutique Saleswoman: Of course. It's one of a kind. Elle: It's impossible to use a half-loop stitching on low-viscosity rayon. It would snag the fabric. And you didn't just get it in - I saw it in the June Vogue a year ago. So if you're trying to sell it to me for full price, you've picked the wrong girl.” (Legally Blonde, 2001) The dumb blonde stereotype is not a recent development; it has been a common feature in romantic comedies since the early nineteen fifties. The arrival of Marilyn Monroe “the dumb blonde Monroe so frequently played abandoned the threatening intelligence or career aspirations” (Grindon,2011, 47) brought with it a theory also known as the Seduction Cycle, society become less reserved and the films of this era challenged the double standards than men could be sexually active but women should remain virgins until marriage. Within her films Monroe’s character were labelled gold diggers and provocateurs, often searching for rich husbands instead of true love, “ Monroe’s characters generally lacked a significant job, defining history or other distinguishing personal traits” (Grindon, 2011, 48) her sexuality was her appeal not her intelligence or character traits. In Legally Blonde (2001) Warner, Elle’s boyfriend even says “if I’m going to be a senator I need to marry a Jackie not a Marilyn” (Legally Blonde, 2001) prompting Elle to shout “you’re breaking up with me because I’m too blonde?!” (Legally Blonde, 2001) this suggests that Warner believes she is not intelligent and nobody will respect him because of how Elle looks. This links to Laura Mulvey’s theory that women in film are used for an “erotic object for the characters within the screen story or as an object for the spectator within the auditorium” (Mulvey, 1989, 76) Monroe was a huge icon so her sexuality will have been exploited for the spectator within the auditorium but also within the action, many of her films include scenes in some stage of undress which have a voyeuristic element as the possible love interest is watching or interrupts. Elle’s sexuality is also used to attract the audience on the DVD back cover of Legally Blonde (2001) the film is summarised “She’s a California sorority girl who’ll do anything to keep her man. Even if it means going all the way...to law school!” this
  6. 6. suggestion of sex “going all the way” uses the stereotype of dumb blonde to attract the audience. However the femininity of the female in romantic comedies was re evaluated in nineteen fifty-nine with the arrival of Doris Day, in contrast to Monroe’s over sexualised characters Day played a moralist who Grindon describes as “a spunky respectable working professional who wants to fall in love and raise a family with a devoted husband” ( Grindon, 2011, 84) Unlike Monroe’s films with the resolution consisting of finding a man and getting married in Days films she often did not give in to the charms of her pursuer, this can be seen in Move Over Darling (1963) where Day is stranded on a desert island with a man for five years and despite his advances does not succumb as she is married. I think Day’s moralist characters are a more accurate and relatable representation of women than those of Monroe’s. This is due to Monroe’s characters being closer to male fantasy and a patriarchal view on what women should behave like. I think the character of Elle woods is a perfect combination of Monroe and Day, her blonde hair, concern over her appearance and eagerness to find a man echo that of Monroe’s most famous roles however her passion, determination and female empowerment are characteristics of Doris Day. As well as stereotyping another aspect of feminist film theory that I want to focus on is gender inequality, this theme is widely explored in both Legally Blonde (2001) and Picture Perfect (1997). Elle Woods faces many inequalities throughout the film; however one scene I want to focus on is between herself and Professor Callahan, Elle has just helped uncovered some crucial evidence that will help them win the case and her professor has asked to speak to her privately in his office where the following conversation takes place : “You know what competition is really about don’t you? Ferocity, carnage, balancing human intelligence with animal diligence, knowing exactly what you want and how far you’ll go to get it, how far will Elle go?” (He places his hand on her knee and runs it up her thigh, Elle removes his hand disgusted and stands) “Elle: Are you hitting on me? Callahan: You’re a beautiful girl
  7. 7. Elle: So everything you just said... Callahan: I’m a man who knows what he wants Elle: And I’m a law student who realised her professor is a pathetic asshole Callahan: Too bad, I thought you were a law student who wanted to be a lawyer” (Legally Blonde, 2001) The assumption in this scene that because of Elle’s appearance she will sleep with a professor in order to further her career links to Laura Mulvey’s theory on patriarchal power in Hollywood films “man controls the phantasy and emerges are representative of power” (Mulvey, 1989,63) this is evident in this scene as Callahan’s final line “Too bad, I thought you were a law student who wanted to be a lawyer” (Legally Blonde, 2001) suggests that he has the power over her career and now she has refused his advances he will not help her further. This was further explored in a deleted scene between Professor Callahan and an older student Emmett “Callahan: Keep that bitch away from me” “Emmett: She’s a bitch because she said no to you?” Callahan gave her the job based on her looks not her talent “Callahan never saw me as a lawyer just as a piece as ass” (Legally Blonde, 2001) suggesting that he wanted her to work from him because he believed he had a chance of a sexual relationship with Elle. He propositioned her as she has undermined him in the courtroom, he has dismissed her ideas and suggestions and when they proved to be correct he felt belittled ““No one is more arrogant toward women, more aggressive or scornful, than the man who is anxious about his virility.” (De Beauvoir, 1953, 30 ) However within this film the other representatives of power are all females, the morally correct Professor Stomwell who encourages Elle to go back to law school after her altercation with Professor Callahan. Stomwell played by Holland Taylor is a great example of a strong female character female audiences members can relate to, her first impression of Elle is not great as she is unprepared for the class however she is the
  8. 8. moral compass who convinces Elle that the sexist behaviour and objectification she has experienced is not okay, and to fight it “If you're going to let one stupid prick ruin your life... you're not the girl I thought you were” (Legally Blonde, 2001) The judge in the courtroom is also female, showing a woman in a position of power who is not a push over, does not show favouritism and does her job just as well as a male judge, echo’s the narrative of the entire film which is Elle fighting to show she can do just as good a job of being a lawyer as any man could. This character’s story arc never involves a man and proves that female character does not need male characters in a scene to have an interesting storyline and that a matriarchal system is just as believable in a story as a patriarchal one. In Picture Perfect (1997) gender inequality is the main obstacle the protagonist has to face, one scene in particular sums up how women in the workplace are represented in Hollywood films. Kate has single-handedly created an advertising campaign that has brought in a large company for her firm, however when a promotion is available she is not considered and asks for a meeting with the boss Mr. Mercer to explain why. He explains he likes her but she’s not reliable, whereas everyone else on the team is because “Darcy owns a home that in my opinion she can’t afford and that pleases me no end because I know she’s showing up for work tomorrow, and this guy I co-signed the loan on his Mercedes, happy to do it, he’s not going anywhere” (Picture Perfect, 1997) Mr Mercer sees Kate as unreliable as she is a single female woman, and this is seen as a negative attribute in the workplace. However then single men in his firm are not treated in the same manner, if anything they are celebrated, they have no wife to support or mortgage payments so are considered a good investment, “You’ll go far kid, you’ve nothing keeping you down”. (Picture Perfect, 1997) Another theme I want to explore in reference to feminism film theory is objectification, seeing or treating a woman as property or an object De Beauvoir says “To make oneself an object, to make oneself passive, is a very different thing from being a passive object” which suggests that having the choice and deciding to be passive is very different from being forced to be passive by a man or by society. In Legally Blonde (2001) Elle is invited to a
  9. 9. costume party but as she arrives and realises she had been lied to in order to humiliate her. This is one scene in the film that I would argue is not a good example of a positive representation of women, Elle dresses up as a bunny in pink tights, corset, heels and bunny ears. She is encouraging the stereotypes enforced upon her it could be argued that this scene is contradictory as it conflicts with the characters morals and goals, Elle wants to be taken seriously and not considered a dumb blonde “all people see when they look at me is blonde hair and big boobs no-one will take me seriously” (Legally Blonde, 2001) yet she chose to go to a costume party dressed in something that would reinforces these assumptions about her, she could have picked any costume therefore I think this scene is a unrealistic representation. However in regard to the De Beauvoir quote above Elle could be choosing to dress like this as a statement, this is how everyone sees her so at least this time it is on her own terms. This scene also links to Laura Mulvey’s suggestion that women are used in film as a sexual object “women are an object of combined gaze, of spectator and the male protagonist” (Mulvey, 1989,63) as it does not correspond with the characters morals this asks the question what was the purpose of this scene? I believe the director wanted a costume that appealed to a male audience as the rest of the film is predominantly aimed at a female audience, when the director was asked in an interview if he made the film for just women or both sexes he replied “I want to make everyone laugh” (SBS ON DEMAND, 2001) The other reason could be that Elle wanted to attract the attention of her ex-boyfriend so had to use her sexuality in order to do this as he refused to acknowledge her in any other capacity. Laura Mulvey also discusses the male gaze, which is the theory that the audience look at a woman from the perspective of a heterosexual male, using certain camera angles and effects such as slow motion this objectifies the female “the determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly” (Mulvey, 1989, 19) this is evident in Elle’s application video, she is in the swimming pool, in her swimsuit talking about her qualities, the camera pans slowly up her body focusing longer than necessary on her
  10. 10. breasts, next is a wide angled shots of six middle aged men in suits watching her application video, this shows the objectification of Elle but also reflects the male hegemony of the university and the entire professional she is embarking upon. The directors of both Legally Blonde (2001) and Picture Perfect (1997) are both males, Robert Luketic and Glenn Gordon Caron and I want to explore their influences on the representation of the women in their respective films. Robert Luketic has also directed other romantic comedies such as Monster-In-Law and The Ugly Truth, which follow the typical genre structure woman meets man and must overcome certain obstacles and resulting in relationship between the two. Brian Henderson says “There can be no romantic comedies without strong heroines” (Henderson, 1986, 320) however I wonder if the problem with romantic comedies not representing femininity realistically is the lack of strong female directors, Grindon says “the genre features strong female characters and some noteworthy women screen writers but there have been few prominent women directors though the number is growing”. One of these directors is Nancy Meyers, one of her most recent films The Intern (2015) tells the story of Jules (Anna Hathaway) and Ben (Robert de Niro) who becomes unlikely friends after Ben becomes an intern senior citizen at Jules’s company, this film is unlike other Hollywood romantic comedies as it shows the woman in the position of power instead of the man. Also Jules is having marriage issues and after many obstacles the typical Hollywood ending would be for the couple to sort out their issues and live happily ever after, however this does not happen, they stay together but acknowledge its not perfect and they will give it another go but you get the feeling neither one holds out much hope for the success of their marriage. What Nancy Meyers does here I would argue is portray a more realistic image of women and femininity, acknowledgement that their lives are not always perfect and mistakes are made but that does not make them any less of a woman. The endings of Legally Blonde (2001) and Picture Perfect (197) are where my biggest issues with these films arise, let me start with Picture Perfect, after realising she has developed feelings for the man she has been paying to be her boyfriend in order to climb the career
  11. 11. ladder Kate throws it all in to run after the man she loves. In order to comply with the traditional romantic values found within a Hollywood romantic comedy Kate seeming changes her desires, ambitions and moral compass in the name of love. At the beginning of the film Kate believed in her own talent and had such ambition to be the best she could be, but willingly gives it all up, I don’t think this is a positive representation of femininity, she is being manipulated to believe she must choose between a career and family, this old fashion value system reflected in this film is not something women can relate to and should not have to “These stereotypical images afford female audiences little chance for authentic recognition” (Rosen, 1973,7) Legally Blonde (2001) appears to end where Elle wins her case her ex boyfriend Warner approaches her trying to reunite: “Warner: I just wanted to say you were so brilliant in there and that I was wrong you are the girl for me Elle: Really? Warner: Pooh bear I love you Elle: Oh Warner I’ve waited so long to hear you say that. But if I’m going to be a partner in a law firm by the time in thirty I need a boyfriend who’s not such a complete bonehead” (Legally Blonde, 2001) She walks away from him with her head held high refusing to compromise for someone who did not deserve her love. This is a great example of a strong female character for the audience to relate to if the film had ended there, however there is a three year time jump to see Elle graduating from Harvard Law and we discovered from on screen text that she has been dating Emmett for the last two years and he is proposing to her tonight. Personally I would argue that this undermines the empowerment of women that the film worked hard to achieve throughout, this suggestion that Elle needs to have a relationship in order to validate herself Simone de B describes this as “He is the Subject, he is the Absolute, she is the Other.” (De Beauvoir, 1953, 57), the relationship was not suggested throughout the entirety
  12. 12. of the film and was thrown at the audience in the last few seconds I believe this cheapens the storyline and tries to fit into Hollywood film conventions by achieving a romantic resolution. In an interview about Legally Blonde (2001) Reese Witherspoon says “we women struggle with wanting to have successful relationships but also wanting to have successful careers” (ScreenSlam, 2015) yet in the film, the resolution reflects no struggle at all, a great boyfriend and good career prospects and no problems, clearly this is not reflective of the struggle Witherspoon explains real women go through. My argument is that a great romantic comedy film does not need a romantic resolution as they are not relatable “romantic comedies are often dismissed as formulaic stories promoting love” (Grindon, 2011, 1) and friendship can offer an alternative ending to perusing love, for example one of the greatest romantic comedies My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) ends with Julia Roberts not getting the guy and the final scene she is seen dancing with her gay best friend, laughing and having fun. Therefore I would summarise that neither Legally Blonde (2001) or Picture Perfect (1997) are not good examples of femininity, they are an ideology constructed by male directors assumptions and expectations forced on women in film. Grindon says that “romantic comedies portray the changing status of women in modern time” (Grindon, 2011, 4) therefore I would argue that these films do not offer a realistic representation of femininity as they both suggest a romantic resolution is needed in order for the character to be content, which is not a statement modern women will relate to as they can be successful and happy without male approval and validation. Word count: 4135
  13. 13. Bibliography Beauvoir, S. (1953). The second sex. New York: Knopf. Grindon, L. (2011). The Hollywood romantic comedy. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. Legally Blonde. (2001). [film] Hollywood: Robert Luketic. McCabe, J. (2004). Feminist film studies. London: Wallflower. Move Over Darling. (1963). [film] Hollywood: Michael Gordon. Mulvey, L. (1989). Visual and other pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. My Best Friend's Wedding. (1997). [film] Hollywood: P. J Hogan. Picture Perfect. (1997). [film] Hollywood: Glenn Gordon Caron. Rosen, M. (1973). Popcorn Venus; women, movies & the American dream. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan. SBS ON DEMAND, (2001). Legally Blonde : Robert Luketic. [video] Available at: http://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/11696195961/legally-blonde-robert-luketic#! [Accessed 9 Apr. 2016]. ScreenSlam, (2015). Legally Blonde: Reese Witherspoon Exclusive Interview. [video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JtNt0PtAfE [Accessed 9 Apr. 2016].
  14. 14. The Intern. (2016). [film] Hollywood: Nancy Meyers.

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