Thursday, February 24, 2011

Thoughts on gender roles

There's something I've been realizing more of late, and it's an answer to a question I've had for many years. Why do I tend to like women's roles so much less than mens? The answer, I think, is pretty well exemplified by the nominees this year.

The lead actors are nearly all men of power or at the top of their craft. Javier Bardem's character had a certain amount of power but almost falls out of this. Other than that, we have a billionaire, a king, one of the best U.S. Marshalls and an exceptional outdoorsman. I think it's fairly common for men's roles to be about their craft or an adventure they embark on (Bridges and Franco here as well). Despite this commonality in character, I don't feel like their craft defines them. Firth was a million things more than a King. He was a man with a stutter. Franco and Bardem were men facing death hoping to console their families.

The women on the other hand are almost exclusively maternal. With the exception of Portman, they are all defined by their maternity and family roles. Benning is a mom and a spouse of a cheating partner. Lawrence is a stand-in mother trying to save her home so her family has something. Kidman is trying to come to grips with the loss of her child. Even Williams is trying to manage a family with an abusive husband. Portman has that family wrinkle, but that's all it is - a wrinkle. Her role is about her craft, much like the aforementioned male roles. Portman, though, is defined more by her craft than the men tend to be.

I think this generally holds less true with supporting positions. Even still, for the actors you have Renner, Rush and Bale as craftsmen. For the actresses Weaver, Carter and Leo are career family women.

While the men are characters defined by different things but wrinkled by their craft, the women are people defined by their families and wrinkled by different things. The male characters are different. They have that similar wrinkle, but that's all it is. The female characters are more human, and thus probably more relateable, but I feel like there are only so many ways the motherhood role can be wrinkled and kept interesting. I think this is definitely partly why Portman and Steinfeld were strong runners up for me in each of their categories.

This is by no means to say that motherhood is uninteresting or to say that women are bad at acting. I think that had Hailee Steinfeld's character been a wife instead of a daughter and played by Kidman or Williams, it would have been out of the park. Jacki Weaver as a mother was out of the park. I just think that you can only revisit and twist the same basic role so many times. I also have concern with the fact that I honestly liked Aaron Ekhart (opposite Kidman) and Ryan Gosling (opposite Williams) at least as much as I did the actresses in their respective films. I almost feel like instead of the magic negro, we have a similarly tired role in the maternal woman. Lucky for her, she's getting nominated for Academy Awards.


  1. I know that feminist issues are a common discussion in the Moore household, but do you think the reason why you have noticed this reinforcement of gender roles (men = power and women = family) is because that is what our society is comfortable viewing? Gender stereotypes are still around for a reason - we're comfortable with them and they're reinforced in our daily lives. Do you think that roles that deviate from these norms would necessarily be nominated? I would argue no. People in general don't want to see women as power figures, and they definitely do not want to see "weak" or family men. But I really like it when we see strong character performances in film that don't necessarily fit those typical roles.

  2. P.S. I had to Google "magic negro" because I was unfamiliar with the term and was really, really hoping you were not just using inflammatory language on purpose. (Although, that's not something I've ever known you to do, haha) Thanks for the info, Wikipedia!

  3. I think a lot of it has to do with society's obsession with women as all mothers or pre-mothers, and I'd like to say that there can be some deeper, more theoretical or profound meaning, but I just don't think that there is. I think that in order for a women to be considered a woman - matured, not a girl - she has to be moved into a stage where she confronts motherhood. I definitely don't think that this is right, and it's something that I struggle with on a daily basis because I am happily sterilized and have no children.

  4. Very insightful. My inclination is to think the traditional man's roles as hunter/gatherer/protector can simply manifest in a greater variety of ways that fit easily in the scriptwriter's hand. The traditional woman's roles simply aren't as extensible without straining the writer's creativity.

    You mentioned craftswomen- perhaps a neglected dimension of femininity. It's easy to forget that women always tended to be a significant minority in many male-dominated trades long before the feminist movement. As long as it's not another story about a woman making her way in a MAN's world (gag me), I'd enjoy seeing those stories.

    Even better would be watching the dynamic between both roles of traditional woman/professional woman. Just off the top of my head: why not revisit the intriguing story of Marie Curie?

  5. Claire, I think to a degree these roles are based on gender stereotypes. Like Nick said (welcome Nick!), I think the hunter/gatherer fits the storytelling mold better, or perhaps is just easier for men to write. Like I said, I thought Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine and Aaron Eckhart in Rabbit hole were both very good. Some people thought they got snubbed. I can't disagree with them, but the best actor field was simply stacked. That said, they both deviated from the hunter/gatherer form and were portrayed nearly exclusively as they related to their family. On the other end, Hailee Steinfeld and in a sense Jacki Weaver were women of their craft who held a certain amount of power. They were both fantastic in their performances. Those roles exist, and people enjoy them, but I do think that traditional roles might get preferential treatment. Then again, it may just seem that way as there are certainly more roles that fit the stereotype and ones that don't may get lost in the noise.

    AJ (welcome as well!), I think you've definitely hit on something here. In my experience, a woman is viewed as beginning to mature with menstruation (pre-mother) and has finished when she gives birth. Men, on the other hand, in many societies become men when they undertake a big task or adventure. Sometimes it's killing a wolf; sometimes it's landing a real job and getting a house. It is perhaps in this light that we could view the role of each gender. The "best" roles are those in which the character becomes or displays their "adulthood," and for men that is simply their great adventure while for women it is their maternal skill.

    Nick, funny, Claire and I were just discussing Marie Curie the other day. I think you're right, though, that the hunter/gatherer archetype is more flexible. I think that was what I was trying to get at when I talked about how roles were defined, but you put it more succinctly. There are a bajillion roles that are hunter/gatherer, but the motherhood roles seem to be more limited. Even then, a number of them are written as reactionary to the male hunter/gatherer role.

    Too bad you don't want to see another mid-century film about women donning pants because that's not tired at all. One role that immediately came to mind when you mentioned that dynamic was Harriet Tubman as masterminding escape, but yet she is doing a very protective, almost motherly act. Then again, I hardly know the story. Maybe that will be my black history month reading since I haven't actually started Malcom X's autobiography yet.