Made in Dagenham

2010

Dir. Nigel Cole

By Callum Hughes

What came first, political or social sexism? Do we live under a patriarchal society because of the capitalist system or is it a sexist system because of the influence of wider society? There is only one film I can claim to have seen that asks this question; the excellent Made In Dagenham. A feel good British comedy drama that is rarely subtle but often profoundly moving and gives a populist but never compromising face to the feminist movement.

That face comes in the form of Sally Hawkins, for my money one of the most underrated actors currently working in film and television,  playing Rita; a working class mother, she’s not overtly political but she speaks her mind. For me what makes Hawkins’ performance such a powerhouse is that Rita is obviously influenced by her emotions; her frustration at the sexism she faces is often at the forefront but she rarely lets her emotions cloud her judgement. It is easy to relate to the experience of being belittled like Rita is and the anger and humiliation that drives her. There’s an excellent scene early in the film where Rita gives a teacher a very justified piece of her mind for hitting her son, only to be left speechless by his patronising dismissal of her. Rita’s uncontrollable anger, resulting in her telling her boss’ wife to fuck off, is entirely understandable as is how one things leads to another and the eventual strike she leads, not only for better pay but equal pay. It might seem like a simple concept but the film’s power comes in showing how quietly revolutionary these women were.

In this sense the film could be seen to be as much about socialism as it is about feminism; it makes clear that the Ford Workers Union represent working men but not working women, clearly seeing women’s rights as a separate issue. Yet, the film suggests the two can and should go hand in hand, pointing out that Marx only believed true equality and power to the workers could be achieved if women were equal. The film addresses intelligent issues then, but never in a way that is dry or preachy, ultimately this remains Rita’s story; her feminist and socialist principles included.

There’s a  flaw and strength with the film in the representation of male allies. The sneaky, undermining character of Monty is beautifully put down by Rita and the other workers but there’s something faintly uncomfortable about the character of Albert who first gives Rita the idea to fight for equal pay, encouraging her a bit like you might encourage a puppy to pee in the garden. Of course this may be an accurate depiction of how the events actually transpired, but it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed by the way the clearly intelligent and capable Rita is prodded along by these somewhat patronising old white men, the very class of people they are ultimately rebelling against.  When it gets it right though the film soars. There’s a great moment where Rita’s husband tells her she should give him a break for never hitting her and basically being a good guy; “Jesus Eddie,” she replies “that’s how it should be”. Her anger and emotion is once again at the forefront but always as a benefit to her character; “Rights not privileges.” She tells him, “It’s that easy. It really blood is.”

Fortunately, the film’s best moments are saved for the people that really matter. Lisa, played by Rosamund Pike is one of the most interesting characters, even if she is a little under explored, and she’s given one of the film’s best scenes. Originally she helps Rita with the campaign against their children’s awful teacher but more of her character is revealed as the story progresses; she is the boss’ wife but she is entirely on Rita’s side;  “I’m Lisa Burnett, I’m 31 years old and I have a first class honours degree from one of the finest universities in the world, and my husband treats me like I’m a fool”. Some might dispute her character, pondering the fact that a middle class woman has to be included in what would appear to be a story about working class rights, but what her character shows is how sexism affects all women and that Rita and her co-workers were fighting for all of them.

Which is why this is still Rita’s story and the story of the women around her. At heart this is an underdog story, as basic as you can get, fighting the corporate machine. Some might not see Rita and her friends as feminists, it’s perhaps a flaw of the film that the word is never openly used, but it’s exactly what they are; knocked down by men, capitalism and the status quo. Rita sees how unfair the world is, like she sees a dark  cloud that no one else sees. It is her and the machinists that changed the world for the better, not the unions or the government they finally influenced. That’s what makes Rita in particular such an uncompromising, relatable and inspiring character, she is a human being who believes all human beings should be equal.  I can think of no better face for feminism than that.

Callum is a screenwriter and essayist who studied film at the University of East Anglia. He is the editor of the Feminist Film Blog.

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RIP Joan Fontaine

Joan Fontaine sadly passed away earlier this week but it wasn’t just the death of Peter O’Toole overshadowing her.

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By Callum Hughes

On the 6th August 1962 the New York Daily Mirror, which seems to boast more than a passing resemblance to the similarly titled British paper, had what would become an iconic and infamous headline on its front cover; ‘Marilyn Monroe Kills Self’ it exclaimed, revealing to the public that morning the tragic death of one of the greatest film stars in history. Yet her career was far from the focus of this attention grabbing headline, instead what lay just below were the words ‘found nude in bed’, preceding even the fact that pills were believed to be responsible. Apparently the fact that Marilyn was naked was the single most important aspect of her death. It was a tragically ironic way for her death to be reported, since it was this misogyny that had hounded Monroe throughout her career and had at least partially lead to the depression from which she never recovered.

Of course it’s unlikely any paper would get away with that now, although it’s hard not to wonder how similar tabloids would react should such an iconic, sexualised star die tomorrow. Celebrities are of course still hugely objectified in modern media; the reaction to the leaked pictures of Scarlett Johansson and the holiday pictures of Kate Middleton have proved that. Yet there’s a sense, I like to think, that Marilyn would have been more recognised for her talent and what she achieved rather than the focus being squarely on her lack of clothes.

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I noticed something though yesterday which while a million miles from the New York Daily Mirror’s horrific front page seemed a rather sad reminder of how far we still have to go.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock you probably heard the sad news of the death of Peter O’Toole at the weekend; an actor from the same generation as Marilyn Monroe and nearly as iconic for his role in Lawrence of Arabia. Only a day later it was announced that Joan Fontaine, who gave an astonishing performance as the lead in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca had died. Saddened by the news of both deaths I read the obituaries of both in the Guardian and was rather disappointed to see the different perspectives of the two iconic figures. “Actor who shot to fame in David Lean’s 1962 masterpiece and received eight Oscar nominations has died in hospital in London” was how O’Toole’s began, compare that with Fontaine’s introduction; “Fontaine, who died aged 96 only hours after Peter O’Toole, was the prototype ‘Hitchcock blonde’ – attractive, malleable, neurotic”.

The focus for O’Toole was clearly on his achievements in the acting world, impressive as they were, with his most important and iconic performance singled out. Yet we introduced to Fontaine, firstly as someone who died only a day after O’Toole, then as a prototype for a male image of the ‘Hitchcock blonde’, only just preceding the fact that she was attractive. I would never perceive myself as a Fontaine expert but I can’t help feeling the artist who gave us that performance in Rebecca and the Oscar winning performance in 1941’s Suspicion deserves something more.

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In fact of the nine paragraphs in Andrew Pulver’s article only two mention her career; one to tell us about Rebecca, the other to tell us that her career floundered afterwards. Much of the rest of the article discusses her feud with her sister and even goes as far as quoting a tabloid from the era telling us that the two didn’t get on. I imagine this wasn’t how Fontaine, her friends or her family wanted her to be remembered.

No, Fontaine wasn’t as well known as O’Toole, her career didn’t last as long but at least part of that must be down to the lack of roles for older women. Yes, there are interesting aspects to her feud with her sister, in fact I’d happily read more about it but what these obituaries show is that the personal life of women in the spotlight is still seen to be as important if not more so than their achievements in their medium of choice. Inevitably we have interests in what the rich and famous do with their fame and fortune but the best of these are famous for a reason, and it’s a reason that should be appreciated; they’re artists.

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So here’s my own mini obituary of Joan Fontaine; an artist and performer who gave some extraordinary performances and helped create some of the most iconic films and roles of the 40s. Maybe in the next few days you’d like to do what I’ll be doing, watching Rebecca and mourning the death of Joan Fontaine as one the great stars of the golden age of Hollywood because of what she achieved, not because of what or who she was.

Callum is a screenwriter and essayist who studied film at the University of East Anglia. He is the editor of the Feminist Film Blog

Ruby Sparks

2012

Dir. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

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By Callum Hughes

What makes a film feminist? If there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing this blog it’s that there’s no clear answer to that question. That might seem like an obvious thing to say but sexism is so ingrained in our society that as a white, middle class man I miss things that I know I should spot, that pass over me. So perhaps any readers of this blog could help me with a particular conundrum in the form of Ruby Sparks; a film that I adore, that I had pinned down as an interesting feminist work when I first saw it but that on subsequent viewings has left me less sure of my snap decision. Keep in mind this will contain spoilers so if you haven’t seen the film maybe go watch it first, it’s worth seeing.

 

I always saw it as a deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl. The title character is played by Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the screenplay. That, in itself is an interesting and unusual feature, how many other romantic comedies are there written by the female lead? Paul Dano plays Calvin, a young and acclaimed writer who hasn’t written anything in years. It’s only when he starts coming up with Ruby, his new character that he really starts writing again, obsessing over her, apparently falling in love.

 

“Ruby can’t drive. She doesn’t own a computer. She hates her middle name, which is Tiffany. She always, always roots for the underdog. She’s complicated. That’s what I like…” 

 

Calvin, of course is writing a romantic ideal, not a real person; she’s kooky, has alternative tastes but is ultimately just a pretty girl who’s into the same strange stuff that Calvin is into; it’s hard not to be reminded of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character falling for Zoey Deschanel’s character in 500 Days of Summer because she’s into the same ‘weird shit’ that he likes.

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Then Ruby becomes real, exactly as Calvin described her. Calvin is initially blown away, doesn’t believe it, and then accepts it and starts enjoying his seemingly perfect relationship. In reality though Ruby is more complicated, she wants to live her own life, she and Calvin fight, she wants to spend time apart. Calvin though, need only change his description of Ruby and she’s obsessively clingy and unable to be apart from him.For me this is where the film goes from being a smart, very funny idea to something genuinely interesting. As Calvin starts attempting to control Ruby’s behaviour she becomes deeply depressed, dangerously happy and then manic depressive. The film takes a dark turn here, eventually ending up with Calvin proving he can control her by sitting at his typewriter making her dance and jump around.

It always struck me as a deeply intelligent and perceptive criticism of the manic pixie dream girl trope; showing just how unrealistic and sexist that depiction is. Even as an invented character Ruby is real, her problems aren’t the simple problems Calvin described when he first created her, instead she is a human being with human problems, the film goes to great and powerful lengths to show the difference.

 

So far so feminist as far as I can see but there’s problems with this film. To start the film would fail the bechdel test, something I admit to my shame I only noticed upon my recent viewing. Apart from Ruby the only speaking characters are Calvin’s mother, his brother’s wife and his ex-girlfriend. Yes, the film has a small cast but the fact that these are the only female characters and they only really talk about Calvin seems a little troubling.

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The second problem is that Calvin is potentially just a misogynist character, yet he is the focus of the plot. As three dimensional as Ruby may be she is still just a ploy to help him learn more about himself and his perception of women. A good lesson learned maybe, but should we really care about or relate to this character when he occasionally treats Ruby in such a bad way?

 

From this point of view the ending is particularly troubling. Ruby now exists as an individual; she has no memory of being created by Calvin and has a separate life away from him. Yet the film ends with the two of them meeting again and potentially starting another romantic affair. Apart from fulfilling the got-the-girl trope of romantic comedies that this film seemed to be satirising, is there not also something a bit iffy about this guy starting a relationship with a girl he’s already been with, and which she has no memory of?

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Maybe these problems I’m seeing aren’t so bad; at the same time maybe what I’m seeing as clever, perceptive ideas are flawed too. Feminism is important to me, but ultimately I’m still an outsider looking in. I love Ruby Sparks but is that because it fills the traits that so many films aimed at white middle class men like me fulfils? I have to keep on and keep trying to gain a better understanding of the world outside my place of privilege. Whether Ruby Sparks has helped I’m still not sure.

Callum is a screenwriter and essayist who studied film at the University of East Anglia. He is the editor of the Feminist Film Blog.

The Virgin Suicides

1999

Dir. Sofia Coppola 

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By Callum Hughes

Do you know how many women have been nominated for best director at the Oscars? 4. How many have won? 1. Some of the great women who have never even been nominated include Miranda July, Mary Harron, Lynne Ramsay and Lisa Cholodenko. Despite all being responsible for excellent, critically acclaimed films, the simple fact that they’re women seems to have gained their films a reputation for being too left field for recognition by the old white men who make the decisions of the academy.

Generally unless the category is dedicated exclusively to women men tend to dominate; this is also the case in writing, only three women have ever won individually, Jane Campion in 1993, Sofia Coppola ten years later and Diablo Cody in 2007.

It might seem like a trivial thing to consider, the Oscars don’t mean much anyway. But it represents the way the Hollywood establishment feels about women; they don’t fit in.

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And if anyone was going to fit in you’d think it would be Sofia Coppola. Her father directed The Godfather; her cousins are actors Nicholas Cage and Jason Schwartzman, she comes from one of the most prestigious families in filmmaking history but being a woman, this has appeared to be more of a curse than a blessing. She is inevitably her father’s daughter in articles and reviews, unfairly compared despite being a very different filmmaker and criticised for being given opportunities not awarded to other young filmmakers.

Such a criticism might be fair if she wasn’t brilliant, but to me she stands alongside Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson as the most consistent and innovative director of her time.

Her films have sometimes been disregarded as ‘poor little rich girl’ stories. That’s a pretty sexist statement in itself, nobody seems to criticise Batman as the ‘poor little rich boy’, but find a woman unhappy in her environment and outcome the slew of complaints.

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The Virgin Suicides is her first film as director; it’s based on Jeffrey Eugenides excellent debut novel. But for me where the novel studied the reaction of the boys, how they obsessed over stories and details, instead Coppola’s film focuses more on the Lisbon sisters and what drives them to tragedy. They are manipulated and controlled by their parents, by the dream boy Trip Fontaine and by how the world sees them. They are disregarded as ‘dreamers’ and ‘out of touch with reality’ for no other reason than their wish to escape. The more they struggle to get out the more they are confined and trapped in.

If there’s one thing Coppola can do it’s isolation; all her films have a sense of that, of dislocation, but it’s rarely more claustrophobic than it is here. There are very few exterior shots and most of those are of the girl’s front garden. Any others are dreamlike or dark and dangerous. The house meanwhile is obsessively clean and soulless, the girls often seem boxed in together, and they’re slow, cold and robotic in front of their parents.

This gives the clearest indication of what The Virgin Suicides is saying; that the girls’ situation is not about protection, it is about control. The girls are meant to fit a certain image, to play certain roles but they want to be something different. They are punished for any misbehaviour; sex, pop music, any kind of individual expression. There’s no escape, however hard they try they will be trapped by the world around them.

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It could be unrelentingly depressing but perhaps the most remarkable thing about Coppola’s film is how funny and occasionally life affirming it is. Those little freedoms are seen as the most beautiful thing in the world, there’s optimism in making the normal seem remarkable. Even if the ending is profoundly sad, it offers a strange sense of release and resolution.

The film offers a strongly feminist message about the way that the image of women as passive and submissive controls and destroys the lives of young girls. It also offers a metaphor for women in Hollywood, as iffy as it may sound for Coppola to compare herself to the girls in the film (which she never expressly has, I’m doing that for her), there’s a sense of similarity between women in Hollywood and the Lisbon sisters. They are made to fill certain roles, to tick certain boxes, to go along quietly with being romantic foils to leading men or muses to great filmmakers and having no voice or expression of their own.

The Virgin Suicides shows it’s not easy being a woman in Hollywood, it shows the world is against you, you’ll always be at worse nothing but an image, at best a quirky left field choice. But it also shows you can ignore the critics, ignore those trying to bring you down to how they see the world and create something extraordinary and beautiful on your own terms. Hollywood belongs to great filmmakers like Sofia Coppola, even if half of Hollywood doesn’t see it.

Callum is a screenwriter and essayist who studied film at the University of East Anglia. He is the editor of the Feminist Film Blog.

Kiki’s Delivery Service

1989

Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

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By Callum Hughes

If you ever find yourself for whatever reason wandering the streets of Cambridge let me make a recommendation. Just down the road from the Grande Arcade, past Emmanuel College is a large and depressing looking Wetherspoon’s pub called The Regal, to the side is a door that leads to the building above. This is the Arts Picturehouse Cinema; it was previously in a much larger location ten minutes down the road and is now in danger of being removed all together. If that was to happen I would be losing a part of my childhood, I have seen some incredible films there, and can remember the entire cinematic experience of watching Pan’s Labyrinth, The Assassination of Jesse James and Inception, amongst others in front of those screens. Perhaps the reason it is closest to my heart though is that it’s the cinema that introduced me to Hayao Miyazaki.

Miyazaki is my favourite film-maker, only Woody Allen and Sofia Coppolla compete for my affections. That’s not an all that original statement to make, most people over a certain age with an interest in animation are Miyazaki fans but it still remains the case that almost no filmmaker comes close in consistency in making moving, sweet, funny, engaging films with some of the best female characters ever committed to cinema.

I could have written about more or less any of Miyazaki’s films, My Neighbour Totoro, perhaps my favourite of his films, is a brilliant depiction of being a young girl and a sister, Nausicaa and Princess Monoke have two of the best, and most rounded women warriors in cinema and Spirited Away is a near perfect feminist coming of age fable.  Excellent films all, but I’m going to focus on Kiki’s Delivery Service; one of his most directly and clearly feminist narratives. Addressing as Miyazaki says “the gulf that exists between independence and reliance in Japanese teenage girls”.

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The film is an adaptation of a novel by Eiko Kadono; an initial screenplay by a different writer was disregarded by Miyazaki for not properly addressing the novel’s themes and his replacement screenplay is one of his best; perfectly paced, with brilliant drawn characters who we find ourselves attached to within moments of them being on screen.

Disney’s release of the film in 1998, nearly ten years after the Japanese version should be commended for not watering down any of the themes or ideas addressed (there’s also another English language version that was released in the early nineties, I haven’t seen it but both the Disney version and original Japanese are excellent). Although the film was protested against by the group Concerned Women for America, suggesting the film had a negative influence. Clearly concerned the US might be overcome by young women attempting to deliver packages and help out in bakeries.

It’s the most noticeable aspect of Kiki; she’s really really nice to people, people aren’t always nice to her but she’s never anything but polite and sweet (except with Tombo, but then to be fair they haven’t been properly introduced) Kiki insists on helping an elderly woman to bake a pie, then helps with household tasks and then is astonished at the prospect of being paid more, and nearly cries after she then has a caked baked for her (to be fair, it looks like a hell of a cake). Kiki has clearly led a sheltered life in the country away from the bustle and intolerance of the big city. Still, from the very beginning of the film Kiki is confident in herself; later she worries that city girls have nicer clothes and seem to talk about things that are a mystery to her and that her being a witch will stop her from fitting in but other characters admire her for her uniqueness. Her character develops not in discovering a new version of herself but in discovering she was right all along; she has every right to be confident in who she is, her uniqueness and her differences is what makes the other characters so impressed and charmed by her and more importantly gives her confidence to like and be herself.

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The other female major female characters are brilliant too. Osono, the bakery owner, cares for Kiki but is no nonsense, constantly reminding Kiki that there is nothing wrong with her but that only she has the ability to realise that. Similarly Ursula, the painter who lives in the woods is an inspirational figure for Kiki; profoundly confident, independent, no interest in what other people think; “We each need to find our own inspiration, Kiki. Sometimes it’s not easy”. Kiki’s relationship with Tombo is also interesting, there’s never any clear indication of a romantic attachment, rather Tombo is astonished and fascinated by Kiki because of who she is and because of what she can do.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is a wonderful introduction to feminism for any child watching, telling them they have a right to be whoever they want to be and should be confident in that person. You can dress how you want, talk how you want, believe what you want to believe, love what and who you want to love and no-one can tell you you’re wrong. Yet, the film is never patronising, it is simply presenting a perfect character study of a girl who wants to be herself and the journey she takes to realise people should accept her for who she is.

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“Maybe I can stay and find some other nice people who will like me and accept me for who I am.”

Callum is a screenwriter and essayist who studied film at the University of East Anglia. He is the editor of the Feminist Film Blog.

Bridesmaids

2011

Dir. Paul Feig

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By Callum Hughes

“Women aren’t funny” is one of the most common misogynist comments thrown about by apparently thinking people these days. These comments seem to be based in as much evidence as noticing that the members of both Monty Python and the Two Ronnies were exclusively male. Not to put those old establishments down, but they’re hardly the be all and end all of hilarity. When great comedy is written about women are almost always ignored; in the UK alone Linda Smith, Victoria Wood and Josie Long, to name but a few, are some of the great comedians who have been widely ignored by a highly sexist press outlook. So a far more accurate comment, with far more evidence to support it, would be “comedy hates women”. The rise of rape joke culture, shock comedians and the continuing undermining of women in comedy is evidence to anyone who’s spent any time outside of a cave in the past ten years.

Stand up and television both have a long way to go, but film still seems like the medium most stuck in the dark ages. The enormous success of gross out comedies, mostly involving a plot in which men are pursuing little more than sexual satisfaction from attractive women apparently both amused and hugely attracted to their obsession with sexual organs, has held things back somewhat. Comedies where women are actual three dimensional characters are often at best reduced to the rather disparaging status of ‘cult favourites’ or worse are patronisingly disregarded as ‘chick flicks’.

Sometimes though, they get away with it, usually by playing the critics at their own game. ‘Juno’ was a good example of this; it was given an incredibly small distribution as a kooky indie film then became Fox Searchlight’s biggest success ever by pulling off the neat trick of being really good.

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Bridesmaid though took it one step further. A big budget gross out comedy that featured women in the main roles, it caused a huge stir by not only being genuinely hilarious but being considerably more successful than any other original comedy released that year.

It wasn’t an easy ride though. The main criticism of the film was pointed at Kristen Wiig’s character Annie, who makes a series of catastrophic and embarrassing mistakes and generally does some very silly things over the course of the film. It’s easy to wonder whether such critics would have had the same problem with a male character behaving in the same way. The praise heaped on countless films of that type suggests perhaps not.

Bridesmaids beat the system by not only being more successful but also considerably funnier than most of the male-driven films it was compared to. Thanks mostly to Wiig and Annie Mumulo’s highly acclaimed screenplay. Every central character is both very funny and hugely likeable. The constantly angry and foul mouthed Rita (“there is semen all over everything. Disgusting. I cracked a BLANKET in half”) and the wonderfully polite and optimistic Becca (“You smell like pine needles, and have a face like sunshine!”) are brilliantly memorable supporting characters. If the film has a single not-so-secret weapon though it’s Melissa McCarthy’s perfectly in your face and abrasive Megan (“I’m glad he’s single because I’m going to climb that like a tree”), McCarthy’s since deservedly become Hollywood’s golden comedy ticket seller. It’s a remarkable performance, a character that is not uncommon in distinctly less likeable male forms; McCarthy makes her not only one of the funniest film characters in recent memory but also one of the most likeable.

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It’s certainly not just a copy of other American comedies with women instead of men though, one of the greatest achievements of the film is its distinctness and originality, and there are comparisons but nothing quite like it. Part of that is being uncompromising in its perspective; it makes no excuses for being funny on its own terms. It gets away with moments that are brilliant in the context of the film but it’s hard to imagine them working elsewhere. Annie drunk on the plane is a good example of this, you can imagine it being somewhat stale and annoying in other films but the script and Wiig’s performance delivers something genuinely hilarious

Annie: What kind of a name is ‘Stove’ anyway?

Flight Attendant Steve: That’s not a name. My name is Steve

Annie: Are you an appliance?

Flight Attendant Steve: No I am a man, and my name is Steve

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Bridesmaids, for me, is distinctly feminist. It passes the Bechdel test with flying colours, offering likeable, relatable women, more importantly though it is just about the funniest film of the past few years in a way that both twists the formula and creates something entirely its own and entirely on its own terms. This is populist feminism showing what it can do, showing that audiences don’t just want gross out teenage boy comedies; they want films that are funny. Beyond anything else Bridesmaids is hilarious, evidence for anyone who says otherwise that there is a world beyond their depressingly narrow minded views where women are playing comedy in the big leagues and are very very funny indeed.

Callum is a screenwriter and essayist who studied film at the University of East Anglia. He is the editor of the Feminist Film Blog.

Chicken Run

2000

Dir. Peter Lord and Nick Park

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By Callum Hughes

The new century meant very little to me, other than my first glass of champagne as the clock struck midnight. Despite, or perhaps because of this I remember very little about that night as a nine year old boy. But I remember I was supposed to be excited, that we entering a new world as I sat on my father’s shoulders, most likely a little drunk and very tired, only to find that the next day was exactly the same as the ones that came before. Nothing happens when you’re nine; you’re not that cute anymore, the horrors of teenage years are still to come and you’re at that strange mid-place where life is something you drift through. Still nine had its significant moments for me, I became a vegetarian around that time, realised for some reason that it was, at least in theory, better that Labour were in government than the Tories and for the first time started questioning why I couldn’t play with girls.

Girl power died that year, lest we forget, as the Spice Girls split, of course the group were hardly the most interesting or musically gifted group of women to emerge in the 90s but they popularised a version of feminism that even young girls (and boys) could understand.

Feminism comes in many forms, it is a word that has been used for great things but also used far too often as an insult, a put down. It is a label that many have avoided and many have embraced. At its basis the movement addresses the society we live in, a society where women are still treated as the underclass yet are seen as equal by far too many commentators. Many allegories have been used to describe women in society and I can think of few greater than chickens in a farm. Locked away, expected to produce quietly in a society that looks down on them, expects them to underperform. Feathers must be ruffled.

So as the Spice Girls split, as I started thinking about the world around me Chicken Run arrived.

As odd as it might seem to begin a blog on feminist filmmaking with a family film about a highly organised band of chickens, there are a dedicated group within my circle of friends, who I am inclined to agree with, who would list Chicken Run as one of the most strongly feminist films ever made. I should probably say from the off that I love Chicken Run; I would list it as Aardman’s best work to date. I love the fact that it’s a funny, family film that directly deals with dark, adult themes, without it ever seeming forced or jarring. It is, let us be clear about this, beyond anything else an extraordinary film, beautifully constructed, wonderfully written, still as beautiful, funny and engaging 13 years later. I first saw it when I was just 9 years old in the cinema and have seen it a dozen or so times since then. It never fails to hit me with both its humour and its powerful, emotional message.

So where’s the feminism? Most obviously the central characters are a group of strong, independently minded female characters. Ginger, the films protagonist, is a character fighting to escape the confides of Mrs. Tweedy’s farm, which bares more than a passing resemblance to a prisoner of war camp, and where their inevitable fate is to become chicken pies. The films central message then, is escape from a life of entrapment and routine, to a life of freedom and independence. If that’s not a feminist message, I don’t know what is.

The film is filled with feminist characters. At the film’s heart is Ginger, one of the finest feminist characters ever committed to film; free thinking, determined, unwavering in her beliefs and her ambitions. Ginger is shown from the opening scene to have a fierce dedication to her own freedom and independence, as well as being a brave, heroic central character. She commands respect from her fellow chickens and more importantly from Rocky, the male romantic interest. There is also Mac, the intelligent scientific mind of the group and Bunty, the cynical, uncompromising member of the group.

Chicken Run places female characters in what could be seen as typically male roles. The film is partly a parody of The Great Escape, and it turns that most macho of films on its head; placing chickens in the role of the British soldiers in a prisoners of war camp; tough, hardened characters, making the most of harsh pasts. Yet the film makes no apologies about placing those characters in those roles, they are uncompromising in their femininity but they are three dimensional. They are tough but emotionally vulnerable, likeable but flawed. In other words they reach the standards that male characters seem to reach very frequently in even the most sub standard of films yet are so rarely reached by female characters.

chicken run ginger

It is perhaps a drawback, yet also one of the films biggest strengths, that it is never open about its feminist ideals. It is the sad state of affairs the film industry was in then, and remains in now, that labelling any film feminist is likely to reduce its box office potential. Still, maybe it is to the films benefit, since the wider audience may not know it, but may be influenced by what they are seeing on the screen. They can relate to these characters, understand and sympathise, and maybe it’ll stick in their minds and change something about the way they live their lives day to day, a bit like it did with me.

The film’s best and most moving moments are the most direct. Early on in the film Ginger talks passionately about the world outside, free of the confides of the farm, with green grass, wide spaces and most importantly no farmer telling them what they can and cannot do. It could come across as unsubtle, even patronising, but the film addresses these ideas with the character’s sense of hopelessness. Ginger is seen as a dreamer, with unrealistic expectations. Bunty tells her it is better to keep her head down, lay eggs and try and make the most of it. It is the film’s most powerful aspect that it portrays feminism not as something cynical or bitter, but something hopeful and optimistic. Ginger dreams of something better and nothing will stop her flying away.

Of course some would argue this is a reading that goes too deeply into what Chicken Run is trying to say. Ultimately these characters are Chickens, and the film is perhaps trying to say more about cruelty to animals than the patriarchy.

chicken run

Still, beauty lies in the eye of the beholder; freedom means different things to different people. Chicken Run is at its heart  a film about freedom and the need for no living thing to be confined or controlled. For any feminist watching the film this will speak to them but also anyone who sees Ginger and her friends as a microcosm, as depictions of real people. Those people will see that they live in an unfair, deeply troubled society, but they will see hope from this film and no matter how high the fence seems, there’s still a way of flying over it.

Callum is a screenwriter and essayist who studied film at the University of East Anglia. He is the editor of the Feminist Film Blog.