The Trinity Syndrome and The Ripley Factor: measuring the portrayal of women in films

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I have three key concerns when writing my reviews. First of all I care about whether a film is good or not but then I always look at its suitability for a younger audience and the way in which it portrays women.

It is this last one that I find trickiest but I have a wife and three daughters and I care about equal representations of the genders. Ideally it would not be necessary to address this as it would be a non-issue but, while there have been some improvements in recent years, there is clearly still an imbalance.

Of course, mine can only ever be a male point of view. While I don’t think this is necessarily flawed it is certainly different and there is a reason why none of the great feminist writers are men. My wife and I have spent a long time ‘discussing’ whether having Sandra Bullock floating around in her pants in Gravity undermines the feminist value of that film. I concede that it isn’t necessary for her to have her legs on show but I don’t think she is being objectified. This may well be a guy thing.

Initially I was assessing the films I looked at against the Bechdel Test but while this establishes a low benchmark that an alarming amount of films fail to meet (is there more than one female character, do they talk to one another, is that conversation about something other than men?) it is limited in its application. It doesn’t consider the roles women play in each film and movies like the aforementioned Gravity, Avengers, Avatar and the last Harry Potter all fail the test despite having strong female characters. Of course, there may be other problems with some of those films but we’ll come to that later.

To be fair to Alison Bechdel she never set her idea up as some great film theory and she did make a very good point. Nonetheless, I moved away from this, wanting to find better criteria by which to measure women in film.

For a while now I have been using a test of my own devising but I’ve never been properly satisfied with it. In its original incarnation it was known as the If She Was Your Daughter Test and looked at the levels of pride you might have in the actions of any female character if she were related to you in the suggested manner.

One web commenter actually said the test was anti-feminist which clearly isn’t what I was going for. Whether this is fair or not the particular relationship you would have with a daughter (especially as a man) was limiting. I changed it to the If She Was Your Sister (ISWYS) Test and settled on three questions:

1. Is there a female lead?
2. Do that character’s actions deserve respect?
3. Are those actions morally sound and worthy of being widely shared?

This test still puts too much weight on the moral judgements of the person applying it and is reductive so I am ready to abandon it.

It was perhaps a little arrogant of me to try and use my own test in the first place when there are already a number of excellent theories out there to be explored and utilised.

One of the earliest essays on women in film was Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema published in 1975. Mulvey argued that classic Hollywood cinema put the audience in the position of the masculine voyeur and the women on the screen were there to merely be an object of desire and subject of the ‘male gaze’.

Often, she suggested, the narrative is broken just to stop and look at a woman. Certainly things aren’t as bad as they used to be and her theories may be forty years old but you only have to go back half that time to find plenty of films that prove her point. Think of Sin City, The Mask, Star Trek Into Darkness and True Lies. In that last film, from director James Cameron, the action literally stops and has Jamie Lee Curtis do a striptease for the most spurious of reasons. It’s textbook Mulvey.

Then there is The Smurfette Principle, originated by poet and cultural observer Katha Pollitt. This one is so perfectly titled as to tell you what it’s about straight away. It clearly refers to single females in a group of men. It refers to tokenism and the problems with celebrating women who are allowed to exist in a man’s world. Star Wars and Avengers are guilty of this as is Cameron’s Avatar, twice, with Michelle Rodriquez among the humans and Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri surrounded by the boy Na’vi. I mean, this last character is even blue for goodness sake! It’s like James Cameron is doing it on purpose.

Natalie Portman made some interesting points in an interview with UK Elle Magazine. Portman, incidentally, is the only actress under 60 to have more than one performance cited in TotalFilm’s 100 Greatest Female Characters. (The others were Faye Dunaway, Bette Davis, Glenn Close and Kathleen Turner.)

Portman spoke of a fallacy in cinema that a feminist story is one where the woman kicks ass and wins. That isn’t feminist, she said, that’s macho. What we want is films about real women you can emphasise with, not those that take on typically male characteristics. Sorry Charlie’s Angels, you are out. As are you Catwoman and Lara Croft and regrettably, you too Buffy.

The best article on this I have read recently is a piece called ‘We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters to the Trinity Syndrome’ by Tasha Robinson. The title refers to Carrie-Anne Moss’ heroine from The Matrix but the article concentrates initially on the forthcoming How To Train Your Dragon 2.

Robinson astutely points out that too many movies have female characters who are set up, at great length, as strong, powerful, wise and principled only to be marginalised and given nothing else to do once the male hero is involved and on top of his game. Roles like this pretend to redress the balance but fail. The other films cited are The Lego Movie, The Desolation of Smaug and Riddick. The one movie Robinson says gets it right is Edge of Tomorrow, which echoes what I said about the film so while I wish I had written something as smart as the Trinity article, I can take some solace from the fact that I had already called that.

A succinct test by which to assess this stuff is always going to over simplify things then but there are good questions to ask. Robinson finishes with a few including ‘Is she so strong and capable that she’s never needed rescuing before but once the plot kicks into gear, she’s suddenly captured or threatened and needs the hero’s intervention?’ and ‘Could your strong female character be seamlessly replaced with a floor lamp with some useful information written on it to help the male hero?’.

It seems that what we are looking for is the opposite of The Trinity Syndrome and in the need for something easy to refer to let’s call that The Ripley Factor.

Ellen Ripley is obviously the hero of Ridley Scott’s Alien. She is initially a fairly ordinary woman but copes remarkably in some unimaginably extreme circumstances. She is vulnerable but resourceful and brave and prevails without the help of anyone, least of all a man. At no point is the character compromised and stays strong throughout the three sequels. (Including, of course, one by James Cameron – that guy is so inconsistent.)

I thought about using ‘The Katniss Factor’ and while that would work just as well it would have looked like a clumsy attempt on my part to be down with the kids.

From here on in then I shall be looking for films to show The Ripley Factor and will be considering, among other things:

– Do the female characters exist only to define or motivate men?

– Are the women in the film believable as real people?

– Are women objectified in a way that does not balance with the treatment of men in the film? (This is the Lust Caution Vs Wolf of Wall Street consideration. I have no problem with nudity in films if the story demands it and it is even between the sexes.)

– Does the inclusion of the women in the film feel like tokenism?

Alright cinema, I’m ready for you again. Let’s see what you’ve got.

Links:

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laura_Mulvey

http://www.nytimes.com/1991/04/07/magazine/hers-the-smurfette-principle.html

http://m.totalfilm.com/features/the-100-greatest-female-characters

http://m.elleuk.com/star-style/news/elle-uk-november-2013-natalie-portman-tom-hiddleston#yes

http://thedissolve.com/features/exposition/618-were-losing-all-our-strong-female-characters-to-tr/

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6 thoughts on “The Trinity Syndrome and The Ripley Factor: measuring the portrayal of women in films

  1. Great article! While I understood the motivation behind the “If she was your daughter/sister” test, I thought the moral aspect of it was a little limiting. Certainly for a female role to be empowering and inspirational, that moral aspect is extremely important, but in terms of portrayal of women on film it ruled out villainous characters or morally dubious characters. Lady Macbeth certainly would not have qualified.
    However, the Ripley Factor I can totally get behind. It’s interesting, though, considering the gratuitous shots of Sigourney Weaver in her underwear in the first film, which seemingly exist for no reason. Yet despite that, Ripley rises above as a great archetype for not only a “strong female character” but also for a “strongly written female character”. It’s not enough for a woman to simply be a badass in a film, because we should be to a point where everyone should accept that women are badasses. Your four criteria do a great job in highlighting how Ripley was different and the things we should strive towards. Believable characters, who don’t exist simply to define the male characters, who are not objectified disproportionately with the male characters, and who are not simply tokens. It’s perfect. I know the next time I see a film I’m going to consider the Ripley factor when I look at how it portrays women.
    Great job!

  2. Thank you. You’ll know from conversations we’ve had before that I trust your opinion on film so your endorsement is gratifying and greatly appreciated.

    I’d kind of forgotten about Ripley’s little pants, perhaps I should have gone for the ‘Katnis Factor’ instead. It just seemed to demonstrate a very short term view of films.

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