08 August 2005

Getting what she deserves....

I've been thinking a lot about my screenplay and fully realized female characters in both literature and movies. Has anyone else noticed that women characters, once they reach a certain self-realization, have to be punished? Thelma & Louise springs to mind (although I have spoken with Callie Khouri and it wasn't her intention to make a statement, she was just trying to make a Butch & Sundance for women) - intended or not, the ending goes right along with Anna Karenina throwing herself under a train, Holly Hunter's character in The Piano losing a finger, Million Dollar Baby losing her ability to fight and then her life (sorry if you haven't seen it and I just spoiled it for you). The thing is, often in literature and certainly in the movies, once a woman becomes mentally, emotionally, physically (sexually) realized, they off her or punish her in some way. An exception to this and one of my favorite plays in college, although at the time, I didn't know why, was A Doll's House because Nora finally sees her way clear and decides to stand on her own. Of course, she has to give up her children to do it so perhaps there is punishment there as well.

Anyway, I am struggling with female characters and against the conditioning that there are consequences to being a strong female. Does anyone else have thoughts on this? Understand that I grew up before and after the women's movement (ah, yes, another hint at my age) and struggle with whether or not I am too reactive to certain stimuli. Would love to hear your comments.

20 comments:

Neil said...

I think the answer is pretty obvious. Most screenwriters are still men. In novels, this punishment thing isn't true.

Sanora said...

Well, actually, Million Dollar Baby was a novel first (Rope Burns by FX Toole who yes, was a man) and The Piano was written by Jane Campion so as easy as it is to say it's because of male screenwriters, I think the cultural psychology goes deeper than that.

David Kopp said...

I think it comes from religion. Eve the 1st woman was the one that couldn't resists the temptation of the forbidden fruit. So from then on she apparently needs to be punished for what she did then.

Sanora said...

David, truly interesting point and not one I'd taken into consideration...let me chew on that for a while.

Buq-Buq said...

Punishment? Hmmm, interesting. A movie that I enjoy — with a strong female lead (who quite frankly owns the film) — is the remake of "The Thomas Crown Affair". Renee Russo presents a strong female character that undergoes the transformation in the film . . . and I believe is NOT punished for her self-realization (which is of a mental, emotional and physical nature). Might it not — in some cases — come down to a simple question of dramatic action? It's been a while since I've seen "The Piano", so I might be a bit rusty in my example (correct me if I'm in error).

Doesn't the dramatic action of "The Piano" go something like this . . . ?

Woman in stifling relationship experiments with alternatives

Woman is punishes for experimenting

Woman leaves stifling relationship

The loss of the finger therefore serves as the fulcrum on which the main character pivots — the event that triggers her change — and therefore serves a deeper purpose than 'punishment'. I suppose that she would have eventually left her stifling relationship . . . but for some reason, Ms. Campion choose not to tell her story that way. "A Doll's House" has similar structure and outcome. "Thelma & Louise"? Well, I don't know what to do with that. It's been WAY too long since I've seen it. "Million Dollar Baby"? Maybe it comes down to whether the woman boxer is who the movie is really about (title notwithstanding). Who changes in the film? Isn't it the trainer? So, if it is the trainer's movie, all that happens to others is consequential only in how it effects the main character. Events, punishment, death of other characters, these are all merely devices acting on the main character — propelling the character forward, transforming the character.

Not to entirely change what this post is about, but apparently what I'm proposing here is that the only thing that matters is what happens to the main character; how what happens affects . . . transforms . . . the main character. If what happens is punishment, or love, or separation, or joy, or whatever, it serves to forward the dramatic action.

Can you think of other films/plays/stories where this does not hold true?

Sanora said...

All valid points Buq-Buq - the problem is that it is always the woman who is physically punished, maimed, killed, whatever. In MDB, whether or not the trainer is the main character, the self-actualized chick is the one who takes the hit and my point is, everyone accepts this as okay, normal. And my point is that there are a lot of dramas out there where the chick physically is punished and where she goes with it is sort of beside the point. In The Piano she is not "experimenting with alternatives" she is selling her body in order to buy the piano back from the New Zealander and through that, she does discover a sensual physicality (which is interesting in and of itself - woman sells her body against her will but now she's hot and bothered, don't even get me started on that). Why does she have to lose a finger (graphically) as a piano player in order to leave stifling relationship? Of course, it is action and a plot point moving a story forward, but let's look at where it comes from..
Why is it so prevelant? That's all I'm sayin'...

Buq-Buq said...

Obviously my memory of "The Piano" is fuzzier than yours!

:-)

That having been said, however, I don't think that my fuzzy memory changes the path of the dramatic action of the film. The main character is changed by her experience. If she weren't — or if the amputation of the finger did not occur — then what would happen with the story? Loss of the finger IS action and a plot point moving the story forward . . . and it probably comes from a need within the author to have something interesting happen.

Here, try this: let's inflict that damage to a man in the story. So, the husband gets a finger cut off. This would result in a change in the stifled wife of what sort? . . . OK, different one . . . her lover gets his finger cut off. Probably more motivating to the story-line, but again, not nearly as poetic as the pianist loosing her finger, now is it?

Are you sure that you're not just being extremely selective in your view? Surely there are men who are physically punished, maimed, killed in films as well. I would think that for every woman that is punished in films that you can name I can probably name a man who is punished.

That is why I tried to make the point about the main character (which I did not fully flesh out or explain): an author is attempting to tell a story, and inherently, most authors want their stories to be interesting. And normally, the laws of dramatic action require the main character to change. Why do they change? Because things happen to them. That is why punishment of women & men in films is prevalent.

Sanora said...

Like I said, I'm a woman who grew up during the women's movement, I might be overly sensitive to women's side of it....
thanks for your comments...

Sanora said...

You know I have been thinking about Buq-Buq's points all evening but the thing is - he's missing one of mine. The stories I'm thinking about are specifically about women - and yes, I think MDB is actually about the female character, nevermind that Clint played the trainer, it's about a woman coming from nothing, trying to be something and she gets there and then is punished for it. Now, of course, in the story, it's not punishment, but in the psychological intake of the story, it is. That's my point, that's my beef. Maybe, it's not every female story, but it's enough of them. And I want you to name some movies about a guy trying to be all he can be and losing everything. (And don't name Rockie, because he cries for Adrienne and she comes.)

David Kopp said...

There is other stories where the woman is suffering at the beginning of the storie and everything turn out to be just fabulous for her at the end: Snowwhite, Cenderella, Rapunzale and more recently Barbie is definitely not punished she's got Ken. And I think these stories tell little girls and boys that a woman can be happy at the end as long as it is with a man. The handsome Prince comes to deliver the beautiful, suffering princess: he is the only way to happiness.

Sometime both male and female character are punished: Romeo and Juliet ( But Juliet killed herself last). Tristan and Iseult ( same as R+J).

Sanora said...

Ah, yes, David, you're right, fairy tales have a tendency to put women in danger and/or unhappy situations and only a man can save her and yes, this is what Disney released and re-released throughout the years. At least they finally started hearing the public and began making movies like Mulan, where the chick is as tough and resourceful as the guys. But, of course, this is off point and probably should be a whole new post!

p.s. As for R&J and T&I, I consider these classic tragedies where everyone takes a hit and so don't put them in the same category as "women be punished" for self-actualization. I think it's fun that you're exploring all these examples though!

Buq-Buq said...

"a guy trying to be all he can be and losing everything"

I'll try to keep this short, and limited to only what I can come up with in a brief time — and also attempting to keep to movies that I've actually seen. A few of these might be stretches, but if the terms are interpreted loosely, I think they all qualify. These are not all lead characters, based on the fact that I see the woman boxer in Million Dollar Baby (our baseline film, the one from whence the entire analogy is drawn) as being secondary to the trainer character (again, my choice being based on the fact that his is the character that changes in the film).

From the AFI 100 Best American Films list:

Citizen Kane; Casablanca; All Quiet on the Western Front; Wuthering Heights; Frankenstein; Sunset Boulevard; The Bridge on the River Kwai; Lawrence of Arabia; West Side Story; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; The Wild Bunch; One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; Apocalypse Now; Amadeus; Unforgiven.

Alphabetically, off my shelf . . .

American Beauty; Barton Fink; Being John Malkovich; Big Fish; Cross of Iron; Dangerous Liaisons; DragonSlayer; In and Out; Independence Day; Jurassic Park; Life as a House; Of Mice and Men; Planet of the Apes; Reign of Fire; Romeo and Juliet; The Cowboys; The Great Santini; The Odessa File; The Shootist; The Sixth Sense; The Thirteenth Warrior; The Unbearable Lightness of Being; Truly, Madly, Deeply.

Of the top of my head, for fun . . .

Spartacus; Ace in the Hole; the Strange Love of Martha Ivers; In Harm's Way — hell, any movie with Kirk Douglas in it, except for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; oh, wait — 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Captain Nemo); The Black Hole; Always; Downfall; Cold Mountain; Beneath the Planet of the Apes . . .

I imagine that we could go on. And on.

I think that my point really is that "punishment" in films is put there to make us go see the film. Things have to happen in them to engage us, to create empathy for the characters. The same could be said of romances. What kind of movie would "When Harry Met Sally" be if they got together in the first reel? The reason that they didn't, is because Mr. Reiner wanted us to have something to sink our teeth into. It's all about dramatic action, and that is why we go to movie and read books . . . to be entertained.

Sanora said...

If I say "huh?" I've seen it but have no idea what you're getting at by including the title.

Citizen Kane - no, he does not get punished for his being a fully evolved human being, he dies at the end after being a son of a bitch all his life:
Casablanca, again, we end up admiring him and he is not "punished" for loving Ilsa (don't forget she was married and it was written in 1945)

All Quiet on the Western Front, war movies never count
Wuthering Heights, this falls into R&J category, tragic lovers
Frankenstein, messes with God's work and mortality, of course he's going to be punished
Sunset Boulevard, I may give you this one
The Bridge on the River Kwai, I am now deleting all war movies and will not address them
Lawrence of Arabia, true story
West Side Story, IT IS ROMEO AND JULIET
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, their criminals, they're supposed to be punished
The Wild Bunch, haven't seen it
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, need to think about it
Apocalypse Now, delete
Amadeus, in what way is who punished?
Unforgiven, he's an ex-killer, gunfighter...

Alphabetically, off my shelf . . .

American Beauty, good point
Barton Fink, huh?
Being John Malkovich, good point
Big Fish, huh?
Cross of Iron - delete
Dangerous Liaisons, they are despicible people who use others for their amusement, they're supposed to be punished, note that one of the people they use who is good and a woman, dies (of course, the boy doesn't)
DragonSlayer - haven't seen it
In and Out, huh?
Independence Day, huh?
Jurassic Park, huh?
Life as a House, haven't seen it
Of Mice and Men, these guys are fully actualized?
Planet of the Apes, huh?
Reign of Fire, haven't seen it
Romeo and Juliet, doesn't count

The Cowboys; The Great Santini; The Odessa File; haven't seen these

The Shootist, again, he's an ex-killer, gunfighter
The Sixth Sense, huh?
The Thirteenth Warrior, haven't seen it
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, huh?
Truly, Madly, Deeply - no punishment that I can see and actually lifts people up thru love

Of the top of my head, for fun . . .

Spartacus, huh?
Ace in the Hole, huh?
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, they're all twisted characters and they're all punished in their way
In Harm's Way — hell, any movie with Kirk Douglas in it, except for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; oh, wait — 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Captain Nemo - again twisted f*&* with a "God" complex); The Black Hole; Always; Downfall; Cold Mountain; Beneath the Planet of the Apes . .

oh, please I just realized that I won't respond to these because you have gotten way off the point, go write your own blog or stick to the point that I'm trying to make which is this:

And I am now spelling it out -
if the movie is about a woman's evolution as a woman, at some point she is going to be punished for finding herself - 20,000 Leagues? Beneath the Planet of the Apes? These are related to my point how?

Sanora said...

Buq-Buq - you're randomly naming movies where bad things happen to the lead characters which isn't my point. Out of all of them, I'll give you American Beauty because, yes, he's specifically trying to wake up and be a fully actualized human being and he gets offed for it.

I was talking about movies that are specifically about evolution of person. Not about war, not about tragic love triangles, not adventures, but specifically about a person evolving

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Buq-Buq said...

Why ask for comments if you really don't want to hear what someone has to say?

I would go through and defend each of my (entirely valid) examples — except for the war movies, because of course, war movies never count (Where did that come from? I don't remember war being excluded from your statement "a guy trying to be all he can be and losing everything") — but you don't want me to do that. You want me to start my own blog.

Why ask for comments if you really don't want to hear what I have to say?

Sanora said...

I do want to hear what you have to say Buq-Buq - it's just that your commentary was so long, it would lend itself to you doing your own blog, I didn't mean it to come out so snippy - I guess what I was looking for was a specific kind of movie. In war, everyone gets hurt, that's a gimme, thus, not the point I was making or wondering about.

I do think your answer of American Beauty is completely valid and I stand corrected. That's a movie specifically about a normal joe character (guy) who's trying to break out of a rut physically, emotionally, intellectually and yes, he gets killed.

That's what I'm talking about, characters who are actually trying to self-actualize and in the end get "punished" for it.

The rest of the examples you gave don't fit the mold of the point I was asking about. That's it. I don't count 20,000 Leagues or Frankenstein because they are about types of characters who mess with the universe on a power level.

I apologize for not being clearer about the specific character/situation I was looking for....

Kris said...

You are spot on. If they aren't punished physically, they are forced to endure some misery or emotional trial. Then again, that is many times like real life . . .

I would love to see a writer step out of the box. To write about a woman who happens to be overweight, but doesn't let it color her entire life. About a woman who manages mental illness but is not consumed by it. Now that would be real.

Sanora said...

Thanks Kris, it's funny though, I think you do have to look at the situation from a female perspective (without losing all sense of proportion regarding "dramatic action" which I think Buq-Buq has made salient points about). The thing is, stories about women work differently, are written differently than stories about men and I'm wondering if I can make a difference and find a new outcome. In any event, wish me luck.

Jack's Shack said...

interesting post.