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A Continued Examination of Gender/Feminism in Recent Films

Four weeks ago, I wrote about two movies, “Far From the Madding Crowd” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” – both of which prompted discussions of feminism with their strong portrayals of women, but both of which seemed to be anti-feminist to at least some extent (link to that article here). In short, while both show strong women in positions of authority in societies that don’t typically value women in such roles, both films also show men saving the day and/or providing decisions that are portrayed as being better. And both films were written by men, c.150 years apart.

I didn’t expect to find myself pondering the same issue again quite so soon – not that it’s a topic that goes away, more that I wasn’t anticipating finding a related example so quickly.

In “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” Blythe Danner plays an elderly widow who lives alone in the house she shared with her husband, the same house in which they raised their daughter. Her friends (Rhea Perlman, June Squibb, Mary Kay Place) have all moved to a senior community – not so much in-house assisted living, but a golf course environment with a clubhouse and some shared amenities. She regularly visits to play golf or bridge and, essentially, to hang out.

At home, she befriends the young man (Martin Starr) who cleans her pool and, coincidentally, she meets an older man (Sam Elliott) in a more romantic context. I’ll avoid too many other details as the film is really quite enjoyable and I don’t want to introduce too many plot-oriented spoilers.

After watching the film, I found myself sensing that this was another film written by a man – although I wouldn’t necessarily have bet on it. Despite being a film that has a lead female character and, even more unusually, an older female, it seemed like it lacked a certain something in its portrayal of female characters.

There’s an informal way of judging how positive films are towards women (and it has been applied to other media), called the Bechdel Test. Briefly, in order to pass, a film has to have two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. Sadly it’s a very low bar that’s still too high for many mainstream films. At last year’s Sacramento Film & Music Festival, we incorporated it into our local filmmaking program, the 10×10 Filmmakers Challenge, and it’s a common topic in social media and entertainment news.

I think it’s fair to say that in terms of a strictly technical interpretation of the rule, “I’ll See You in My Dreams” passes the Bechdel Test. But I’m not so sure it really passes the spirit of the test. Throughout the film, Danner’s character Carol has some fairly meaningful conversations on deep topics – but always with one or other of the two men. The conversations she has with her female friends, or with her daughter when she visits, are relatively trivial in comparison – and often about men or sex. There are two occasions when one of her female friends visits her house, for inconsequential reasons – and each time it’s a device in the screenplay that causes that friend to see a man at her house, with essentially no other plot value. The other woman is only there to witness the plot element involving the man.

Now it’s quite possible to assume that she has known her friends and her daughter for long enough to have had those conversations in the past, although the film doesn’t really make that idea very clear. Whereas, meeting people (in this case the two men) for the first time is likely to prompt more searching discussions about interests, values, and experiences. But that feels like a search for an excuse.

So we’re left with this pleasant, well made and entertaining film, with wonderful performances, that deals with the experiences of older adults as they adjust to various changes and losses in their lives – and one that is focused primarily on a female character while still managing to skew content towards two supporting male characters. (And, yes, it was written by two men and directed by one of them.)

Meanwhile, we’ve had the release of “Spy” with Melissa McCarthy as a CIA agent – a film with its own problems of portrayal (link to last week’s column). But despite perhaps being somewhat flawed (and also really quite funny), “Spy” has a lead character who is ultimately shown to be every bit the match for her male colleagues, working for an agency boss who is absolutely in charge and who is also a woman.

It’s so common to hear both actors and audiences lamenting the lack of roles for women, especially “women of a certain age” (or “of a certain size”), whereas old male actors get action-oriented lead roles and young onscreen girlfriends, that it’s seems ungrateful at some level to complain when a project like “I’ll See You in My Dreams” comes along. And it’s still worthwhile to watch it – because it’s still a good film in other ways and it’s important that the folks investing in such projects can see a film about an older woman make money. But it’s still not quite cutting it. All of which leads us to the other frequent lament – the relative lack of female writers and directors – not that it’s fair to automatically assume this particular project would have been materially different with a female writer and/or director.

At the same time it’s reassuring to find positive role models in what might seem like the unlikeliest of places – an R-rated, somewhat bawdy comedy. But it sure makes picking a movie hard if that’s what you’re looking for. Don’t judge a film by its trailer.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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