Female vs. Female in Film

Victoria Villamil

A few weeks ago, over jazz and a nice cocktail, a friend of mine admitted she had had an affair. Well, not an affair exactly (by her definition) but she did sleep with a former coworker who was in a serious relationship. It was only one time, she assured me, and it happened on a trip to Vegas (as if that somehow made it ok). She then asked me if it would be in bad form to attend his upcoming wedding since, you know, he was still such a great friend. I didn’t know what to say. I was pretty floored her dilemma revolved on whether it would be awkward to attend (UM YES) as opposed to feeling any sort of remorse. Well, I’m not the one who cheated, she said to me later, so I don’t feel bad.

Huh. I didn’t judge my friend for what she did (because we are all human) but I did criticise her complete lack of empathy for the woman wronged. Interestingly, my friend believes in very progressive, pro-woman policies both in the workplace and in the private sphere. She’s climbed the ladder at a well known tech company, she’s attended good universities, and has traveled the world. But being a modern woman isn't just about espousing equal pay; it's about equal regard. And too often today women come into conflict with other women, often over frivolous reasons. I’m reminded of the many films which subtly and not so subtly pit woman against each other. In fact, there is a troubling abundance of movies which present women as utterly narcissistic and selfish, with zero compassion for fellow females, endlessly knocking each other down, usually (let’s admit it) over a penis. In most of these films, the man in question is a good hearted guy whilst his wife, ex, or current girlfriend is evil and controlling. Pitting women against each other in this way so frequently is infuriating and fuels a very much sexist and selfish worldview that can permeate from screen to suburb. What’s behind this exploited narrative? And how, in today’s times, is this still a thing?

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Female catfights over a male mouse have been around since the black and white era. One of the most iconic examples is the infamous dressing room scene in George Cukor’s The Women (1939), when the mistress, played by Joan Crawford, brawls with the wife, played by Norma Shearer. Norma scoffs at Joan saying, “I know Steven couldn’t love a girl like you” to which Joan responds, “You noble wives and mothers bore the brains out of me. I bet you bore your husbands too.” Seriously Joan, does a bored man appeal to you that much? And Norma, should you really be touting about Steven’s love capacity? But this sort of backwards thinking isn’t limited to the 40s and 50s. In When Harry Met Sally (1989), Carrie Fisher’s sassy character bemoans how her married lover still pays attention to his wife whining, “They just bought a dining room table...He is never going to leave her.” Ashley Judd’s character in Someone Like You (2001) is far more narcissistic. After engaging in a passionate affair with a man she knew was in a relationship, she turns neurotic when her lover (played by the mopey Greg Kinnear) decides to break things off. After discovering his girlfriend is her co-worker, Judd is wholly surprised but not the least bit sorry. In all these films, the women do not show even a sliver of solidarity with their female counterparts and almost thrive on their sex symbol status. It’s all quite cliche really; the mistress is selfish while the missus is stupid. And the man bears no ill will. It’s she vs she, female vs female in the war of the roses over an average bloke sheepishly caught in the middle.

But surely more modern adaptations are different...err, think again. The 2009 remake of The Women is basically unaltered, showcasing a similar dressing room scene with a new villainous mistress (Eva Mendes) and a new defensive wife (Meg Ryan), who tells Mendes that her husband is “way too smart to take someone like you seriously.” Not surprisingly, the ending stays true to the original 1939 version; Ryan wins back her cheating husband, banishing the evil Mendes for good (Girl power!). Many critics, including Roger Ebert, praised The Women for being entertaining and for having an all-female cast, as the men are only casually mentioned. But this is a distraction that impedes audiences from noticing how excruciatingly dependent the women are to the silent fellas on the sidelines, emphasizing a quiet but ever present patriarchal world. This excessive female bickering continues with recent rom coms and thrillers like Obsessed (2009), The Romantics (2010), Black Swan (2010), and most recently, Unforgettable (2017). The female characters in these films are increasingly vicious to one another, revealing their enormous egos and an incredibly self-involved outlook on life.

“Steven is a very smart man, way too smart to take someone like you seriously.” You go girl?

Women bickering aimlessly is annoying but women competing over a man is just far more exhausting. In the 2011 film The Other Woman, Natalie Portman plays Emilia, a lawyer having an affair with a handsome law partner who leaves his shrill wife, played brilliantly by Lisa Kudrow. Although the film never completely warms to Portman, Kudrow’s character suffers a much greater disservice. Abandoned and now a single mother, her character is a cold-hearted and mean-spirited woman, lashing out inexplicably throughout the film. Her ex-husband, though? He is, of course, a gentle soul. In one early scene, he delicately explains to Emilia why their extramarital arrangement is not easy on him pleading,“I have a son...He’s lonely. It’s bad when your kid is lonely.” Seriously, who buys this BS?! Are we really led to believe, in this day and age, that a cheater is an upstanding father figure whilst the mother at home is a witch? And Portman’s sensual Emilia, who hails from Harvard, mirrors the sad stereotype of the young and ambitious shark, callously shoving her way inside a law firm and a marriage. Ironically, the audience later discovers that Emilia harbours a deep resentment towards her own father for betraying her mother, which serves to reiterate the narcissistic notion that morality only applies when you’re the one negatively affected.

While these stories might be disregarded as “one-off” scenarios in fictional films, we must remember that art imitates life. Indeed, reality shows like The Bachelor, Jersey Shore, and Real Housewives more than encourage female aggression, which is nothing in comparison to daytime soaps. Writer Claire Warner admits that “onscreen representation of female friendships are indicative of a larger trend... Women are taught to compete against each other for, well, everything: Grades, jobs, motherhood, and above all, men.” Time magazine writer Erika Cristakis believes that female dynamics continue to be problematic onscreen because we embrace “highly sexualized, frivolous and demeaning portrayals of women in everything from popular movies to recent congressional debates.” ( Care to chime in, Robin Thicke?) But female to female aggression, according to New York Times writer Emily Gordon, can be traced to evolutionary psychology. Gordon claims that it is a woman's biological instinct to, “protect themselves from physical harm, so indirect aggression keeps us safe while lowering the stock of other women.” Hmmm...that may be true but it doesn’t sit well in my stomach. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg does not buy this explanation entirely insisting that, “women aren’t any meaner to women than men are to one another.” Perhaps, in the past, women were more mindful and suspicious but this isn’t necessarily (and shouldn’t be!) the case today. Gordon essentially agrees, stating, “We aren’t competing with other women, ultimately, but with ourselves — with how we think of ourselves.”

An actress who plays a horrible woman reads quotes by actual horrible women.

Thankfully, there are somewhat better portrayals of female dynamics on television as writers are able to delve into characters intimately through a course of seasons.In HBO’s Sex and the City, the main character Carrie is embarrassed when her friend Charlotte discovers Carrie’s been sleeping with her married ex-boyfriend. Carrie is clearly unhappy with herself, as she proved in a previous episode when she laments how pathetic she feels next to her ex’s wife Natasha. But Charlotte is adamant in her defense of Natasha, despite not knowing her, and exposes her friend’s selfishness saying, “You don’t think about her. She’s just the idiot wife. You don’t know anything about her.” Carrie does eventually show regret and the show is wise to not uphold her actions nor vilify them in the process. But Charlotte’s strong stance is admirable for she supports not her good friend but all womankind. This is particularly telling as Charlotte was frequently teased for being “the naive one” yet proves to be more enlightened (and dare I say, more progressive) than her high-rolling friends.

Another far superior example is AMC’s Mad Men, a show laden with strong female characters living in a very male dominated world. The beautiful and complex character of Betty particularly stands out, as she could be both bitter and mean but also gentle. But what’s interesting about this show is how female viewers reacted to these characters, specifically to Betty. Betty received a rather harsh backlash from women, many of whom preferred self-entitled men like Don or Roger. Critic Roger Friedman even declared her the “worst mother in TV history” (a ridiculous claim for anyone familiar with Lucille Bluth). It’s curious that contemporary viewers would feel such disgust for Betty who, despite her flaws, was a victim of circumstance and was constantly berated and betrayed by Don, her domineering husband. Actress January Jones, who played Betty, believed viewers unfairly held her to a higher standard compared to the more “charismatic” men on the show, exhibiting a similar type of undue aggression we see in films; the cheating husband gets a pass but the wife is undeserving. Writer Emily Nussbaum also noticed this double standard, exclaiming how strange it was that, “Don Draper is our hot antihero and we root for him to change with the times.” Sandberg warns that this sort of behaviour occurs too frequently and advises, “it’s time for all of us to stop judging the same behavior more harshly when it comes from a woman rather than a man.” Ironically, Mad Men’s writers handed Betty the most blows of any main character: a dying parent, a cheating husband, a rebellious daughter, and a terminal illness. Would it be so impossible for women to put themselves in another woman’s shoes?

“I’m here and then you come home and get to be the hero.”- Betty, 5. Don, 0.

While television shows do a more convincing job of illustrating female dynamics, there are some films which explore the consequences of competition and aggression in a real way. Love Actually shows a scorned wife’s heartbreak, Mona Lisa Smile presents opposing points of view, and Something Borrowed, an otherwise crappy movie, exposes the ramifications of a friend’s betrayal. It would also be a good idea for films to showcase females working together to achieve specific ends, such as in the celebrated Hidden Figures and The Help. The recent and highly acclaimed Wonder Woman, for example, does a fine job of demonstrating the unique benevolence and grace a female leader can bring to the table, especially when compared to an arrogant and brash superhero like, say, Batman. Director Patty Jenkins even recounted meeting female viewers who told her they cried in a particularly galavanting scene of Amazonian women rallying together, a response not surprising in the least. Too rarely do modern audiences experience films that showcase strong females at the center, devoid of being romantic pursuits, sex objects or callous bitches.

I can get behind this kind of female fighting

When reviewing The Women reboot, critic Lindy Keffer wrote, “Almost 70 years after their big screen debut, the women are back, still gossiping, still backstabbing, and still torn between their men and their sense of self.” Sadly, this description still applies to many female-centric films and television shows today. For characters to evolve, women need to rally for female characters that diss petty competition and deal with pain and disillusionment in a truer way. And those in the film and television industry would be wise to help. If we continue to visually portray women as jealous and self-serving, we run the risk that younger generations will also grow up degrading other women in a brawl over a man’s whims. (Just look at the 2016 US presidential female candidate, whose husband's former mistresses paraded in front of her during a televised debate). Sadly, many females still actively engage in these types of petty bullying tactics, damaging the path feminists have of ending the vicious cycle of miscognity and sexism once and for all. But there is hope. Little by little, more and more people engage in open conversations and dialogues concerning feminism, masculinity, bigotry, and chauvinism. And who knows? One day, one woman might come across this little Sceal on the internet and she might reconsider how she behaves towards her fellow females.

We can’t all be Wonder Woman but shouldn’t we strive to be a bit more wonderful?

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