We love movies about women in peril. From “Gaslight” to “King Kong” to Jennifer Lopez with a ridiculous haircut in “Enough,” audiences will almost always pay to watch a woman stare helplessly as a doorknob slowly turns, or hold her breath as a shadow looms next to where she is hiding.
But as much as we like these movies, we have also been asking for a couple decades now, is it OK that we like these movies? Is it insensitive or exploitative? Is it actually entertaining to watch a woman character be tortured or murdered just to give her pretend spy or superhero husband something to do?
The international conversation around the #MeToo movement has amplified these questions. As women and men have told their stories of surviving violence in the workplace, in their homes, on college campuses, and on the streets, there has been a call for these stories to be listened to and taken seriously. And that which enters the discourse, also appears on our screens, and a bevy of tales seek to speak to this urgent moment.
So are these new ones better than the old ones? Many of the new crop have women directors, writers and producers attached, and they center their stories around the experiences of the women, rather than using their suffering to tell us something about the male characters around them. These stories should be better. And yet.
I asked myself, as I watched the girl being chased by a literal manifestation of the patriarchy armed with a bow and arrow in the horror movie “Black Christmas,” “Do I feel like my experiences of violence and harassment are being accurately represented here?” I asked myself, as the music swelled behind our beautiful heroine right after she murdered her stalker in “The Invisible Man,” “Do I feel empowered yet?”
These films create an easy division between two types of female protagonist: the pure victim and the strong heroine. Or, a third version, where the pure victim is transformed into the strong heroine by being exposed to violent experiences). These types are not necessarily any more complex than the women tied up in tank tops in the lair of the terrorist or supervillain.
In the indie “The Assistant,” our heroine is so blank I watched it twice without ever catching her name; according to the internet, it’s Jane. She moves passively through the frame as she cleans up after her sexual predator of a boss, sponging up fluids from his couch, picking up stray earrings and hair pins, running interference with his wife. She is not harassed herself, but she stands idly by as her boss preys on the women around her. Her complicity then is portrayed as an almost complete absence of free will.
Riley in “Black Christmas” and Cecilia in the blockbuster “Invisible Man” are characterized through their traumas — in Riley’s case a date rape, and in Cecilia’s an abusive relationship. They don’t have personalities, they have PTSD. In the filmmakers’ efforts to take trauma seriously, they have wiped out anything distinctive about these women, turning them into trembling masses until they inevitably must fight back and become bad-asses.
The men are likewise flat. The boss in “The Assistant” is nothing more than a menacing voice on the other end of a phone. In “Black Christmas” the enemy is literally a marble bust of the founder of the college.. In “Invisible Man,” the ex is a super bro-y blank, looking like he would spend too much time drinking beer out of a plastic cup to build the tech empire the movie says he did.
Put those two characters together and that leaves one story left to tell: that of predator and prey. The inevitable result of which is a conclusion of kill or be killed. Never mind that the American prison system is full of women who felt pushed into that exact scenario, and rather than go brunching the next day with their gal pals as Nicole Kidman in “Big Little Lies,” they were arrested and charged.
Some new films look to flip this formula on its head. “Promising Young Woman” debuted
at the Sundance Film Festival, where viewers flocked to see Carey Mulligan’s character looks to avenge some wrongs. That includes posing as drunk in bars and seeing what men bear ill intentions.
Entertainment is under no obligation to hew closely to real life, and yet the gap between how these things go in movies and how they go in real life are as wide apart as ever. Recently Plan B bought the rights to Miriam Toews’ hit novel “Women Talking,” about women in an orthodox religious community who, after discovering they had been drugged and raped repeatedly for years by the men they lived amongst, must decide whether to stay and forgive, or leave and start over.
This is the era of the Strong Female Character, so of course in the novel, they leave. Despite not knowing the language of the country in which they live, despite having no education or job skills, they leave together, storming off to create a better, fairer world. Except that in the real-life version of events that the book is based on, the women decided to stay. The novel’s ending is easy; it practically writes itself. But that other, more complicated and realistic story of pressure and fear and indoctrination, now that is a story worth tackling.
Jessa Crispin is the host of the podcast Public Intellectual and the author of “Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto.