Monday, October 4, 2010

The Social Network: A Ladybrain Review

When trailers for The Social Network started playing in theatres over the summer, it was unclear whether what is better known colloquially as “the Facebook movie” would glorify the famously young billionaire Mark Zuckerberg or indict him for the misogynistic origins of his ubiquitous invention. From a feminist standpoint, sitting through asshole apologia would have been too much to bear.

So it’s a good thing that throughout The Social Network Zuckerberg’s character—as brilliantly played by the formerly nice-guy typecasted Jesse Eisenberg—invokes only disgust and pity, heavily weighted toward the former. The Social Network tells the story of Zuckerberg, a smart but absurdly arrogant Harvard College student with a hell of an inferiority complex. After his girlfriend Erica dumps him in the opening scene, Zuckerberg invents Facebook’s precursor website while drunkenly nursing a broken…um…sense that Erica should have tolerated him. That first website was Face Mash—what became known as the “Hot or Not” of Harvard, a site where young men could rate their women classmates' hotness. Charmingly, Zuckerberg figures that all women should pay and be “treated like farm animals” because he got justifiably dumped.

Herding, taming and acquiring women in reality and online emerges as a disturbing trend throughout Facebook’s history—from its origins in Face Mash to school-expansion choices to the inevitable groupies that emerge once the site hits big. Even Zuckerberg’s loser hero Sean Parker (a completely watchable Justin Timberlake) confesses that he founded Napster to attract the attention of a crush. Along the way, Zuckerberg enjoys mostly self-loathing (hey, I hate you, too buddy) and a little sex in a bathroom, but still pines away for ex-girlfriend Erica. But it’s not the loss of love and companionship he's lamenting; it’s the absence of a target for verbal abuse, and that she can't be conquered or won over regardless of his accomplishments. They don’t overshadow the fact that he’s an insufferable asshole.

These themes about women are surely troubling. That they play out with drug use and sometimes with girls under the age of consent is even more so. But although these themes are present, for the most part they’re clearly associated with poor behavior and bad people. Zuckerberg clearly hates women and so does Parker, but at least these two douchebags are the bad guys.

Aside from the many, many abhorrent examples of Zuckerberg’s misogyny, he’s also just a weasel in general. The film follows Facebook from its origins to its inevitable lawsuits, since Zuckerberg arguably took the idea from his classmates and then screwed over his only friend (and primary investor) when Facebook got its big financial break—all this in less than a year.

What’s really amazing about The Social Network is that the person we spend the most time with—the main character—is the bad guy. He’s not an anti-hero, he’s just a villain. Writer Alan Sorkin manages to tell a dialogue-heavy story starring a pathetic, hateful character. And although this is a fictionalized account, time stamps and flashbacks from legal arbitrations balance beautifully creating a sense of photojournalism on one hand and artful cinematography on the other.

This film is fascinating and well executed and, let’s face it, it’s fun to watch Zuckerberg be lampooned. In the end, it’s arguable whether he got what he deserved (after all, he’s still absurdly rich). But at least his reputation will be deservedly hammered.

Go see The Social Network, especially if you’re on Facebook. It’s important to see an origin story for a medium so many of us use, even if it’s an admittedly exaggerated account. If even half of this stuff is true, it should make us sick that we’re helping make this piece of crap a billionaire.

Also, bonus points for awesome rowing footage and a truly bizarre set of twins.

Bechdel Grade: F

Feminist Grade: C

Overall Movie Grade: A

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Other Guys: A Ladybrain Review

Adam McKay is one of a million: a writer and director who can put together a great trailer. Too bad the feature presentation of The Other Guys is so long and boring that it chokes on its own machismo.

The underwhelming tragedy of The Other Guys is that Saturday Night Live veteran McKay is the same fellow behind the hilarious Funny or Die short The Landlord and Anchorman. Then again, he’s also the guy behind other Will Ferrell flops like [Talladega Nights and Step Brothers.] Clearly, the McKay and Ferrell duo is destined to be hit-or-miss.

The Other Guys starts off promising. Two over-the-top cop heroes (Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson) barrel through New York City chasing teenagers who are in possession of a negligible amount of marijuana. They destroy millions of dollars of property and endanger dozens of lives, but they do it to the soundtrack of their own gunfire and acerbic quips. These two men get the glory—and of course, the trophy sex-with-women that goes along with it. The other dozen New York Police Department detectives—they get the paperwork.

This film is the story of two NYPD “other guys.” Desk-ridden detective partners Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg) and Allen Gamble (Ferrell) don’t get out from behind their computers much, because one accidentally shot someone and the other craves safety. These two uncover a fishy financial deal, but for reasons completely unexplained (there’s no corruption involved) the police chief and district attorney thwart Hoitz and Gamble’s every move to investigate.

What follows is 107 minutes that will seem like an eternity of you’re-like-a-woman-and-that’s-bad jokes. Because, you see, there are apparently no women in this film’s NYPD (aside from a counselor), and the men basically only insult each other about being effeminate. What defines lady-like in The Other Guys? The way one’s urine sounds hitting a urinal, talking about shooting someone without bragging or driving a Prius (bonus points for equating environmentalism with emasculation). And what defines manhood? Learning to dance just to make fun of homos, lamenting the fact that your son is bisexual or saying the word “bitch” ad nauseam. And the thing is, you don’t particularly care if Gamble and Hoitz catch the bad guy (Steve Coogan), because Gamble is an accountant at heart, and Hoitz is just an unrelenting asshole. The bad guy is much more entertaining.

But even if you were following the plot, the barrage of woman-hating language and themes in this film is hugely distracting, although frankly there’s not much to distract from. Aside from the language, there’s the classic (and somehow never not endearing in the world of film) side plot about a girlfriend who went from restraining order to marriage vows in about 15 minutes since, really, stalking is flattering in romantic courtship.

And then there’s the whole Gamble’s ugly wife joke. The twist here is that his wife (Eva Mendes) is objectively hot, if you’re into the whole American-beauty-standards ideal. Ferrell’s character spends the whole film lamenting, to her and to others, that she’s an ugly duckling and sucks at cooking. The ways he seems dissatisfied are the things that are traditionally valued in women—beauty and domestic aptitude. Hoitz and the audience wonder throughout the film: What’s the reason for Gamble’s odd point of view? Well, Gamble later confesses that he doesn’t feel he deserves such a wonderful, beautiful wife so he understates her attributes (to say the least) to keep her from leaving him. How sweet, and how unlike real-life domestic violence.

Hands down, the best part of this dud is the credits, which graphically show how a Ponzi scheme works (I guess all of a sudden this film considers itself to mostly be about finance?). These credits will cool you down from being pissed that you heard the best jokes a month ago when you saw the trailer before Inception. You’ll realize while watching the credits that the inexplicable narration voice you were trying to place is Law & Order’s Ice-T. You’ll also realize you should have lobbied harder to see The Kids Are All Right earlier that evening.

Please, stay away from this drivel. Even the above examples don’t fully capture the constant onslaught of absurd fodder this film gives even the most casual feminist (or person who thinks that women are full humans). Let’s wrap this piece of crap up with a few words of wisdom, courtesy of The Other Guys: “She overreacted… she’s a woman.”

Bechdel Grade: Fail

Feminist Grade: F

Overall Movie Grade: F

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Speaking in Tongues: A Ladybrain Review

Watch out for the new documentary Speaking in Tongues, playing on PBS and at film festivals. Fair warning: You will see the error of English-only legislation, and you'll want to move to San Francisco if you plan on having children.

Check out Smalls' review over at our favorite like-minded review site.

SPEAKING IN TONGUES TRAILER from PatchWorks Films on Vimeo.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Is Cheerleading a Sport?

On Wednesday a federal judge ruled that a Connecticut university couldn't replace women's volleyball with a competitive cheer squad without violating Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination in school activities. The rule most often applies to sports opportunities.

Schools sometimes use cheerleading programs as an excuse to boost their women's athletics opportunities, instead of developing NCAA-recognized sports teams.

Given that cheerleading is, by it's nature, a sport that was meant to play a supportive role to men's athletic teams, this news fell on cynical and unsympathetic ears. All three of the authors here at Ladybrain were high school and college athletes. None were the cheerleading type. We'll support women's athletics in whatever form women choose to participate, but this ruling seems right on. Until competitive cheerleading is an organized, independent NCAA-recognized sport, volleyball and rugby teams shouldn't be axed in favor of a cheaper (an incidentally, more ladylike) team.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Toy Story 3: A Ladybrain Review

Pixar, how do you manage to reveal our most embarrassing selves—the ones that cheer for robot love and burst into tears at the prospect of toy incineration?

The writers and animators at Pixar must have collectively sold their souls to Satan, because against all sequels-usually-suck odds, they’ve done it again.

The Toy Story franchise began back in 1995, following the adventures of a group of toys lovingly owned by a boy named Andy (John Harris—fun fact: Harris voiced Andy in all three films). Their misadventures with cool-toy-rivalry, a sadistic pyromaniac and, later, an evil collector’s toy in 1999’s Toy Story 2 center around Woody the cowboy (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and later, Jessie the cowgirl (Joan Cusack), in addition to a slinky-dog and Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head among others.

Eleven years later, Toy Story 3 picks up where toy-owner Andy would be in real life: leaving for college. The toy gang has dwindled—old favorites like Bo Peep and Etch-A-Sketch have been lost along the way—and only the cream of the crop remain stashed in Andy’s toy trunk. He hasn’t opened the trunk in years, preferring more age-appropriate toys like electric guitar and a computer. The toys prepare themselves for a comfortable existence in the attic, but through a series of mistakes, they end up at a daycare center that promises endless cadres of kids who want to play with the toys. But the daycare, ruled by a mangy, strawberry-scented bear, might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

Through some harrowing and often hilarious misadventures, the toys find their way to Andy, who has to make a choice about whether he can part with all of his old friends.

From the feminist view, there’s a lot of positive fodder to work with. Toy Story 3 does pass the Bechdel test. Female characters don’t have lengthy discussions with one another, but then again, this is a movie about toys getting from one place to another, so there’s not much in the way of philosophizing among the male characters, either.

Of the female toy characters, Barbie plays a funny and pretty awesome role, especially given the beauty standards and vapidity that are usually associated with the toy. Mrs. Potato head’s talent for removable organs sure comes in handy, and a creepy, mutinous baby plays a major role in the toys’ success. Jessie the cowgirl, known for her chutzpah and cunning, disappointingly doesn’t play as big of a role in the adventure portion, making way for a less-interesting but humorous romantic subplot involving her and Buzz.

While the moms in Toy Story 3 stereotypically do all of the nurturing, it seems that Andy’s father isn’t in the picture, literally—implied by a photo of Andy at his high school graduation with his mom and sister at his side. Thus, mom is the one doing the nurturing because she’s a single parent. And though Andy’s mom and sister are only in supporting roles, new character Bonnie co-stars as the delightful new incarnation of loving toy owner Andy. She’s just as imaginative and kind as her predecessor, and she just might be the best person to give his old companions a second wind.

Bechdel Test: Pass

Feminist Grade: B

Overall Movie Grade: A

Toy Story 3 dares you not to laugh out loud, or cry, or both. Watch the trailer here.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Anti-Rape Condom Debuts in South Africa

A South African doctor has invented an anti-rape female condom dubbed Rape-axe, which debuted at the World Cup this week in a country that boasts the highest HIV rate in the world, and where one-quarter of men are admitted rapists.

On the first read, this product seems amazing in the sense that rapists certainly deserve to have teeth-like hooks lodged in their penises, and that this evidence--only removable by a doctor--would hopefully lead to more rape convictions. But, as ever, the Shakesville community brings insight and realism into the discussion. Read what they're saying.

The sad fact is, no weaponized female condom is a panacea for stopping rape. For one thing, it's yet another way that the onus is placed on the victims of rape. We're all unfortunately familiar with the canards that women ask for rape, based on clothing choice or daring to have a drink or walk down the street. Women are supposed to constantly be on guard: carry pepper spray, take self-defense classes, don't go to frat parties and now perhaps wear a weaponized condom.

Realistically, there are many downsides to consider with this invention, as Melissa McEwan describes: violent retaliation, threats of death to remove the condom, increased risk for HIV transmission if the rapist is bleeding, and the rapist resorting to other forms of sexual assault among other issues.

All of that is secondary to the awful truth that, in order for Rape-axe to work properly as a weapon or a rape deterrent, at least a few women still must be raped.

It's amazing that a product like this has debuted, but let's not kid ourselves thinking that this solves the problem. To combat this issue, people need to stop raping other people. And make no mistake: most rapists are men. When 99 percent of female victims and 85 percent of male victims were raped by men, it sure seems like the responsibility for stopping rape should fall on the sex that's overwhelmingly more likely to rape.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Mabel Normand Film Discovered Intact

A treasure trove of American silent films from the 1910s and 1920s have been discovered in a vault in Australia.

Among them is the film Won in a Closet (Keystone Film Company, 1914), the first surviving movie directed by and starring Mabel Normand.

Normand was an American silent film comedian and actress and is noted as one of the film industry's first female screenwriters, producers, and directors. Onscreen she co-starred in commercially successful films with Charlie Chaplin and Roscow Arbuckle, occasionally writing and directing movies featuring Chaplin. At the height of her career in the late 1910s and early 1920s, Normand had her own movie studio and production company.

There's treasure everywhere!

Apocalypse Now: A Ladybrain Review

There comes a time in every feminist’s life when she (or he or zie) turns that critical feminist lens on her old favorite films, books and music: the classics. These are pieces of art that ushered us through our angsty teenage years, comforted us on rainy days and provided invaluable shared experiences with family and friends.

But at some point, one revisits those works as an adult person. It isn’t always pleasant. You suddenly see the rape apologia and racism in wholesome old comedies. Homophobia, classism, sexism, ableism—it’s all there. So before you wax poetic about how Full Metal Jacket is your favorite movie, take another look at what you’re promoting.

Thus began a series of Ladybrain Reviews: Smalls’ favorite films of all time.

By the time Apocalypse Now hit theatres in 1979, Francis Ford Coppola was already one of the most famous writers and directors in Hollywood. With hits like The Godfather (plus its sequel) and The Conversation under his belt, he hardly needed to prove himself with an artsy war epic. Written and developed over the course of a few years, Apocalypse Now seemed more and more like a pet project by the time Coppola took the helm as director. At that point, several directors (including Steven Spielberg and George Lucas) had declined to take on the project, even at Coppola’s behest. The production itself was fraught with major delays, set-destroying storms, excessive spending, a heart attack and an unexpectedly overweight Marlon Brando.

Since the press had a field day with the years-long disaster of a production process, Apocalypse Now already had a bad reputation when it started screening, in various unfinished iterations. The turning point was its screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979, where it won the Palm d’Or, setting the stage for critical praise and awards nominations later that year.

Thirty years later, Apocalypse Now is widely considered one of the best films ever made, certainly topping other Vietnam films and most war films in general. It is the story of special forces Capt. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen)—an intense and focused soldier already too disturbed by war to function in civilization—and his mission to terminate the command of Col. Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), for war crimes. Kurtz is camped upriver in Cambodia, installing himself as a sort of murderous, philosophizing demigod ruling over the local Cambodian highlanders. Willard’s orders are to terminate Kurtz’s command and, in one of the coolest lines in modern cinema—“terminate, with extreme prejudice” the colonel himself.

Apocalypse Now hits a nerve as a war film, and as a commentary on the barbaric and uncontrollable nature of war and of human cruelty. Kurtz philosophizes that strategically, to win wars, soldiers have to be capable of horrific, inhuman violence. And within that landscape, it’s impossible to really tell the good guys from the bad. Willard’s superiors send him on a mission to kill one of their own soldiers—a highly decorated war hero—for murder, in the middle of a war zone. As Willard points out, charging someone for murder in Vietnam was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.

The fact is, there are atrocities on all sides of war. Collateral damage is a given, and we’ve reduced all of those warriors and enemies and civilians to nameless, faceless statistics. At best, they’re rows and rows and rows of white gravestones in Arlington National Cemetery—and justification for more war hawking. Apocalypse Now should make us think about how senseless and chaotic and cruel war inevitably is.

And that’s exactly what this film does, to the tune of “The End” by The Doors and a truly creepy, evolving synth score. Coppola edited the over 1 million feet of film footage expertly—what remains are excellent overlays to bookend the film and foreshadow Willard’s dilemma. Scenes of Willard's escorts, the PBR crew, dancing to the Rolling Stones and water-skiing en route upriver and Robert Duvall’s character (Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore, of “napalm in the morning” and “Ride of the Valkyries” fame) lend dark humor. Shots of Willard slowly rising up above the steaming, muddy river’s surface, and of a darkly shadowed Kurtz, along with expertly written and delivered dialogue and voice-over, set this film apart as a deliberate and disturbing work of art. Expertly crafted, fraught in most ways film production can go wrong, it was a struggle and a work in progress, but in the end it was a magnum opus.

From the feminist perspective, though, the first thing one might notice is that there are almost no women in this film.

Women, in this narrative, have no place in war. Although American women have served in the military in official and unofficial positions since the American Revolution, they’ve never been technically allowed in combat (though the conditions of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are certainly blurring the lines). Women don’t serve alongside soldiers like Capt. Willard, or the crew of the PBR Street Gang. American women are spared that horror. Wives and mothers are safe in the states, left behind after their sons and husbands are killed or emotionally ruined from war. American women are spared the jungle horrors of Vietnam, except for the soldiers' sex objects.

Two Playboy Bunnies have the honor of the only speaking roles for women in the original Apocalypse Now release. Three bunnies helicopter in for a USO-sponsored entertainment tour deep in the warzone. Soon after they start the show, the hundreds of rowdy soldiers start rushing the stage after screaming things like, “take it off, you bitch.” The only lines the girls have are flirtatious and sexual, and in direct response to the men’s jeers. After the men bombard the stage, the women flee with their male escort in a helicopter, which several soldiers cling to even after it launches.

These three women came to the warzone to entertain their war-ravaged countrymen. Granted, it was as sexual objects, but nevertheless their mission was in line with usual USO tours, to liven soldiers’ spirits when they’re far from home. But the men that greet the bunnies in Vietnam aren’t the brothers, fathers and friends these women remember from home—they’re savage and hateful animals. And while war can’t be blamed for the association sexual objectification has with misogyny, it certainly seems to augment it in this narrative. The soldiers want the bunnies sexually, but also feel the need to insult and demean them. By rushing the stage, there’s a strong implication that the soldiers will start assaulting the bunnies. The women need to be suddenly evacuated, for protection from their own countrymen.

The Vietnamese and Cambodian characters get even less screen time and no dialogue. The first Vietnamese woman onscreen is a Viet Cong fighter, who throws her hat into an American helicopter when Lt. Col. Kilgore and his troops attack her village—to secure it for safe surfing, of all reasons. Another helicopter guns her down, while Kilgore calls her a savage.

Later, when the PBR crew stops to do a “routine check” of a random sampan, a crew member opens fire and kills everyone but a severely wounded Vietnamese woman, whose sudden movement prompted the gunfire. As it turns out, her sudden movement was an attempt to get to her puppy, which was hidden in a basket. After pumping her with bullets, the PBR crew chief wants to bring her to a hospital since she’s still breathing. Not wanting to delay his mission, Willard kills the woman. He likens the situation to splitting someone in half and then offering her a Band-Aid.

The last female character is a Cambodian mountain highlander, one of the dozens of people living under the part cult, part reign of terror that Kurtz leads in a Buddhist temple beyond most of the warfare. This woman has no lines. Though there’s a vague implication that she might be Kurtz’s lover—she’s often in the background for Kurtz’s harangues, and looks on with presumably lament during and before his murder. But considering Kurtz’s ruling style—dead bodies strewn and strung up everywhere, presumably as warning signs to dissenters—it’s hard to imagine that this woman has an equal partnership with Kurtz, if they’re involved. Therefore, the implication that she’s more a combination of slave and concubine seems reasonable.

The roles of the Playboy Bunnies and an offscreen French woman are expanded in the Redux, but since the original film is the version that is most widely recognized, that extra footage won't be addressed here. For the most part, the women of Apocalypse Now take a back seat for the film's entire 153 minutes. When they do appear, they're as collatoral damage, enemies, supposed sluts or uncomprehending wives left behind.

From what movies and history tell us, we should all be spared from war. But within war zones, let's not pretend that women don't fight bravely or get caught in the crossfire.

Bechdel Test: Fail

Feminist Grade: F

Overall Movie Grade: A

Ouch, these letters look so ugly next to each other.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

An all-women professional conference

Can you imagine an all women professional conference? There's a big conference in a serious professional field and it's all women! You show up, you give talks, you listen, you take notes, you hardly notice that there are no men. Or maybe there are two or three, but they're easy to ignore, because in this very serious field, the opinions of men aren't very well respected.

Ok, such a conference doesn't exist. But men get to do this all the time. I'm currently working a temporary job that involves handing out credentials to various crew members of the memorial day concert at a desk in a hotel lobby downtown. Today, about 60 people, all of them men, asked me how to get to the Army Corps of Engineers meeting being held downstairs.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Why Messages Matter

Messages matter. You already know that from our well-placed blog header. But now you're certain, because UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro is preaching the good word.

Migiro is calling on international media outlets to stop stereotyping gender roles, saying that sterotyping fosters gender discriminiation, which is "the root cause of violence against women and girls."

It's a tall order, and as Migiro points out, it's not something that legislation can necessarily fix. It'll take good faith effort on the news media's part, and a hell of a lot of watchdogging on ours. Thank goodness Shakesville and to a less-searchable extent, Media Matters and other online outlets already document sexism in news and advertising.

Check out Melissa McEwan's sexist advertising chronicles. While you're at Shakes Manor, see the Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin sexism watches.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Today in Why I'm Not a Catholic

In more lamentable news from our home state, a nun at St. Joseph's hospital was rebuked and excommunicated for allowing an abortion for a woman who probably would have died during pregnancy. The nun--an administrator at the Catholic hospital--made the life-or-death decision along with an ethics committee, doctors and the patient.

According to the medical directives that the hospital follows, abortion is defined as the directly intended termination of pregnancy, and it is not permitted under any circumstances - even to save the life of the mother.

...James J. Walter, professor of bioethics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, a Catholic university, said that is a tough argument to make. He said a pregnancy may be terminated only in limited, indirect circumstances, such as uterine cancer, in which the cancer treatment takes the life of the fetus. Catholic teaching, he said, is that a pregnancy cannot be terminated as a means to an end of saving the life of a mother who is suffering from a different condition. Asked if the church position prefers the mother and child to die, rather than sparing the life of one of them, Walters said the hope is that both would survive.

No, pregnancy isn't the condition this woman is suffering from, but when it exacerbates her condition to the point of, uh, DEATH then you have some serious thinking to do. Which life is worthy of more respect? Catholic doctrine clearly chooses the fetus. I clearly choose the woman.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ironman 2: A Ladybrain Review

Before Ironman hit theatres in 2008, most of us thought of Jon Favreau as the guy who was so money, baby--and he didn't even know it. Critics and audiences expected little from yet another Marvel Comic inspired film. So when director Favreau delivered an entertaining film with tons of personality (mostly in the form of the amazing Robert Downey Jr.), it was an underdog smash.

And what should logically follow an over performing film (or an under performing one, for that matter) but a sequel.

Ironman 2 reintroduces weapons contractor and physicist extraordinaire Tony Stark as the unmasked Ironman, combating politicians who want Stark to share his Ironman technology with the U.S. government for security. There's plenty to glean about private property rights and government corruption in this conflict, but you'll have to visit some other blog to satisfy your government paranoia.

While Stark tries to keep his intellectual property out of U.S. government and military hands, he's also contending with an old, Russian grudgeholder (Mickey Rourke), a suspicious but ogle-worthy new executive assistant (Scarlett Johansson) and his ever-nagging, inexplicable love interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). All the while, he's scrambling to find the combination of elements that will power his suit and his heart without slowly poisoning his blood.

There are plenty of feminist elements at play here. First, we deal with the Pepper problem. The original film featured the bland and nagging, yet doggedly loyal Pepper Pots in her supportive role to the womanizing and sarcastic Tony. The only thing that really distinguished her was that she slut-shames the women Tony sleeps with, and that she looks bad in bangs. In the sequel, Tony promotes her to CEO of his company on a whim. Although she faces major scrutiny for her complete lack of experience, she deftly handles the company's affairs in a turbulent time. Unfortunately, Pepper's main purpose here is to glare at all the women Tony wants to sleep with--including hurling yet more insults at the reporter Tony slept with in the first film (Leslie Bibb), whose investigation played a key role in the plot. Her other competition in Ironman 2 is Natalie Rushman, whom Tony hires as his new assistant essentially just to look at her. After he meets Natalie for the first time, he declares, "I want one."

For her part, Natalie could have been the classic femme fatale. And although she has another identity, her character is smart, accomplished, all business and completely badass. She's an excellent employee, and although Tony attempts to play Pepper and Natalie off each other in a competition of feminine wiles, Natalie doesn't seem interested in anything but getting the job done, even with Tony's constant sexual harassment. These two women do briefly talk to each other about something other than a man a time or two, so Ironman 2 does (barely) pass the Bechdel test.

Within this context, these characters faced some sexist issues individually, in addition to some general woman-hating, in the following scenes.

At one point, the leader of the secret good-guys club (Samuel L. Jackson) uses the fact that Tony "made a girl your CEO" to prove that he is going off the deep end. The other reason was that he got drunk and basically destroyed his house with his Ironman suit. The problem isn't that Pepper has no experience, or that she doesn't have the leadership style. It's that she's a "girl" (Paltrow is 38-years-old, by the way, hardly a girl. Pepper's age isn't specified). And it's just as stupid to hire a girl to be a CEO as it is to basically drunk-drive a weaponized suit around dozens of party guests.

In another scene, creepy contractor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) asks his colleagues to get "these bitches out of here" when Pepper and Natalie take over the reins of a weapons demonstration that turned deadly. Luckily for my temper, Natalie puts him in a headlock moments later, and the two women clean up his mess before Pepper has him arrested.

And in a well-trodden cheap shot at married women (oh, what ball-busting harpies we are), Hammer describes the utter devastation potential of a missile he's selling to the U.S. Air Force. What does he dub this harbinger of death? The Ex-Wife.

There's more to say, especially about Pepper and Tony's fraught and completely uninteresting flirtation (I know how to shut her up--I'll kiss her), but we've hit on the main points: slut-shaming, sexual harassment, girls are stupid, girls are bitches, marriage sucks the life out of you because of its association with a wife. Thanks for making analysis so simple, Ironman 2.

Bechdel Test: Pass

Feminist Grade: D

Overall Movie Grade: B

Yes, it's possible to like a movie and still deplore its messaging on women. Be aware of what you're watching.

[EDIT: Also posted at Feminist Review!]

Friday, April 30, 2010

Closing the Title IX Loophole

Last week, the Obama administration announced that the Department of Education will close an enforcement loophole to the law known as Title IX. The 2005 loophole allowed schools to use surveys to gague female students' interest in sports, and interpreted a lack of response as a lack of interest.

Passed in 1972, Title IX forbids any schools that receive federal funding from discriminating against anyone based on gender. Title IX is best known for its impact on collegiate athletics, basically mandating that women have the same access to varsity athletics that men do, based on enrollment. To comply, many schools reappropriated funding from their plethora of men's teams to offer more opportunities for women.

Some men don't like this. It means that they don't have as many opportunities as they had before. They don't have the vast majority of funding anymore (assuming Title IX is even enforced at their school). Maybe, like a classmate of mine at ASU once lamented, they cut the men's gymnastics team to create a women's rowing program. He had to look that much harder to find a funded, men's gymnastics program. He had to compete for fewer spots on fewer teams. He even had to be truly exceptional to participate, or receive a scholarship. I guess now he knows how millions of women, myself included, felt when they were looking for college athletic programs.

Women's athletic opportunities is an issue near and dear to our hearts. KB, Liz and Smalls became fast friends while competing in high school club rowing in Arizona, and all three participated in Division I athletics in college. None of this would have been possible without Title IX.

I'd also like to point out that, although we have legal protection from discrimination in schools, Title IX enforcement is an entirely different issue. The 2005 loophole patently allowed non-compliance, essentially blaming women for their own lack of opportunity and funding. My favorite Title IX enforcement story is that of the Yale women's rowing team, whose members had to wait in a freezing bus after practice while the men's crew showered and dressed in off-campus locker rooms. Title IX had been passed four years earlier. The crew, led by future olympian Cris Ernst and accompanied by a New York Times reporter, stormed the athletic director's office and stripped. They had written Title IX on their bare chests and backs.

You can learn more about that incident in the documentary A Hero For Daisy.

That story makes me want to do 50 push-ups.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Glee: An Exercise in Pop Culture Feminism

Have you ever seen a primetime show reference the gender wage gap?

If you hadn't joined the Glee bandwagon already, Tuesday's Madonna-themed episode is a good place to start. This feel-good musical comedy about high-school outcasts is a joy to watch anyway, but its more subversive political themes make it all the more interesting. Glee features one of the first coming-out plots for a teenage character in primetime and frequently checks itself for tokenism of the aforementioned gay character and its black female vocal powerhouse. In Tuesday's episode, the girls stick up for themselves sexually and otherwise, and the boys end up learning a lesson in empathy while considering ideas like "for a boy to look like a girl is degrading/Because you think being a girl is degrading."

This episode doesn't portray a feminist utopia. Trust me, I could find plenty wrong in an analysis. But all told, this is the most feminist piece of media I've ever seen in primetime, and it's damn entertaining.

See The Power of Madonna episode of Glee on Hulu as soon as is humanly possible.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Case for Global Feminism

If ever you wonder why global feminism has emerged as one of the defining characteristics of modern feminism, the proof is in the morning paper.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

No Time to Say: Hello, Goodbye

Hello all you feminazis. I wanted to post a brief excuse as to why our contributing ladybrains have been silent for the past week or two. Smalls, Liz and KB have all been juggling graduate school applications and trips. So bear with us. Although sexism never rests, we ladybrains must. That is, in between working full-time and trying to keep up a blog analyzing the exhausting hegemony of sexism in politics and popular culture.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Review Revue

The film and media review website Pajiba is a favorite among we ladybrains. The site's tagline says it all: Scathing Reviews for Bitchy People. What's not to love? Their reviews are required weekly reading: well-written, punchy and usually quote-worthy. Remember the Twilight review? As it turns out, vampires don't explode in sunlight, they turn into Ziggy Motherf*cking Stardust.

But Pajiba's Monday review of The Runaways was stuffed to the gills with gross, demeaning descriptions of the women onscreen, replete with and bitch-and-whore bombs, almost unreadable past author Brian Prisco's gendered insults. He argues that the film could have, and should have, treated the band members of The Runaways more seriously in the context of women in rock, a good and fair point. But I can barely distill that above the liberal use of words and descriptions that are so hatefully loaded for women.

It's not a coincidence that Prisco also authored the only other Pajiba review that has ever inspired similar ire with we me. In last year's review of Sin Nombre, Prisco writes that a gang leader attempts to rape the film's protagonist because he finds her "alluring." Ah, the rape as a compliment canard. For anyone who hasn't seen the film, in this scene the gang leader is trying to assert his authority on a train packed with terrified immigrants. His attempted rape is a power play. The main character is a pretty girl, but her allure had nothing to do with the attempted assault. The fact that the same gang leader attempts to rape another girl earlier in the film, also to assert his authority over another gang member, makes this statement even more bizarre and incorrect.

Ugly women get raped. Fat women get raped. Old women get raped. Frumpy women get raped. Disabled women get raped. Any woman who isn't considered traditionally beautiful in the very, very narrow American standard--they get raped, too. So do men of all descriptions. And it's not because they flirted or dressed slutty or drank. It's because some dudes didn't treat them like humans.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Equality Myth

This Newsweek story about women journalists filing a class-action lawsuit against, yes, Newsweek, for gender discrimination has enthralled this ladybrain all morning. They hooked me by featuring an amazing picture of the women's lawyer--D.C.'s own Eleanor Holmes Norton.

In the feature, three young Newsweek writers explore what has changed for women in the workplace since 1970, and what has stayed the same. They do a great job capturing the subtlety of sexism in the workplace--suffocated by legal ramifications, the sexism we deal with is more insidious and harder to punish.

The authors have set up their own blog. I'm especially interested to read an essay from one of the authors about her parents' "failed experiment in gender neutrality."

Also, I have no idea why I now receive Newsweek. It started showing up in my mailbox last month, with my married name on it. Thank you mystery magazine-sponsor.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Guess what's on the rise in our "post-feminist" world?

The slaughter of babies, for being born female. As a note, where's the "pro-life" outrage on this subject? Absent, naturally, because they're actually just all about uterus control.

Monday, March 15, 2010

potency, passivity and the performance of gender

So I read two really great articles today, from two different locations in the feminist blogosphere.

One was this one, from Elle, at Shakesville, on the ways in which human reproductive processes are gendered. She makes some really excellent points about the ways in which sperm are anthropomorhised, expressed as active and even lionized, while the egg is described as the passive recipient of sperm and a prize to be won; the female reproductive system as a whole is expressed as landscape to be feared but ultimately conquered.

The other was an article by Amanda Hess of Washington City Paper's The Sexist about the dangers of *always* defending "choice" specifically the "choice" of women to "vajazzle" (google it if you must), without considering the wider sexist culture that constrains the choices that women can make without consequences. especially regarding our appearance.

The quote, from Hess' piece, that got me thinking about these two things together was this:

When it comes to personal appearance, it’s no coincidence that femininity is marked by performance, while masculinity is just as often defined by men not performing things. Shaving your body hair is feminine; not shaving is masculine. Plucking, waxing, or bleaching stray facial hairs is feminine; growing a few days of stubble is masculine. Applying makeup is feminine; not painting your face is masculine. Dying, styling, blow-drying, and curling your hair is feminine; keeping a low-maintenance hair cut is masculine.

Funny, that. In most cases, men are portrayed as active and women as passive. Men DO. Women wait, watch, motivate, receive action, etc. The one exception to this is the performance of gender. In this realm, women DO and it is masculine to NOT DO.

My thought on it is that it goes something like this: women, "the fairer sex" are bombarded by the images associated with their ideal form as perceived by the makers of messages and images: men. So they achieve that ideal form by any means necessary because of the rewards that can come with compliance with the ideals, fleeting though they may be. As Hess points out, there are punishments for women who don't conform and perform. Social construction has taken things that are human (like having eyebrows and under arm hair) and made them masculine. So in order to perform her "natural" gender, a women must alter her natural state.

In this way we're at a point where (mostly, there are exceptions in the particulars) women are the ones who must perform their gender in time consuming rituals. Women perform gender, while men just HAVE it, by virtue of being the default human (except trans men, in the cultural reasoning at large-- trans men must perform masculinity, regardless of what the trans men themselves may think. And I'd love to hear that, since I lack the perspective to deal with that issue in any complete or compelling way).

This is all part of the idea that masculinity is defined in hierarchical contradistinction to femininity, and the problems that causes.

Just musing.

ill doctrine

Jay Smooth, who is rad, has a great video up about racism in pop culture and how -- while it's interesting and can be an enlightening discussion to have -- it distracts us from looking at the broader, more structural and systemic race issues. Incidentally, I think some of his points carry quite nicely to sexism. Check it out.

F_ck Sh_t Stack

Reggie Watts: Innovative, freethinking, funny, and so musically talented I can barely stand it. In possibly the coolest video of 2010, if not the next decade, Watts effortlessly dismisses all the bullshit deeply entrenched in popular music. Numerous issues surrender to his smooth flow, but the most satisfying is his slam on the objectivity of women.

LOOSEWORLD x Waverly Films: Reggie Watts in F_CK SH_T STACK from LOOSEWORLD on Vimeo.

Reggie Watts will be opening for Conan O'Brien's Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour, starting this April.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

and K-big's movie didn't even follow THE FORMULA

The formula as stated in this trailer, that is.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Kathryn Bigelow Takes Top Honors at the Oscars

By Jove, she's done it! Sunday night, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director. The film for which she earned the honor, The Hurt Locker, also took home the award for Best Picture, restoring this ladybrain's faith in the film industry (besting alternately mediocre and just plain awful films like Avatar and A Serious Man).

Watch her acceptance speech here, and see more analysis from our go-to hollywood blog.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Serious Man: A Ladybrain Review

When this ladybrain first attempted, under duress, to catch A Serious Man at the local indie theater, she narrowly escaped seeing the wrong film, the similarly titled A Single Man. This mixup--which tragically ended with a viewing of the God-awful Flags of Our Fathers at the AFI--is telling, in that the new Cohen brothers film A Serious Man is yet another completely forgettable film about a white guy who hates his life in the suburbs.

The poor guy. He's up for tenure at his university. He's got a stay-at-home wife, of whose state of mind he is so oblivious he has no idea she's involved with another man and preparing to divorce him. His kids are assholes who walk all over him, because he lets them. His rabbis are alternately dismissive or moon-faced. His lawyers are expensive. His brother is a loaf. His name is Larry.

A Serious Man opens with a puzzling vignette that takes place in an Eastern European shtetl, telling a several-minute tale in Yiddish about a married couple who may or may not have come across a dybbuk, or a possessed corpse. This boring Cohen-brothers-fabricated folktale has admittedly nothing to do with the rest of the film, and yet it is the first thing the audience has to sit through.

Thus, after the atmosphere of ennui is sufficiently set, we enter a Midwest suburb to see just how suck-tackular life is for Larry in the suburbs, and how much worse it can progressively get. Larry endures and endures without managing to learn anything or prove himself along the way, and then receives some more bad news before a ridiculous and abrupt in medias res ending. For this ladybrain, the ending made the film even more infuriatingly bad. Thus, audiences spend the entire film in frustration.

And Larry's life is frustrating, it's hard not to pity the guy. But what is more frustrating than his family, friends, colleagues and congregation is the fact that Larry is a lilly-livered worm of a human. He takes it all lying down. He does nothing to help himself.

Some have said this story is supposed to be a modern-day parallel to Job. By that comparison Larry's plights are even more eye-roll inducing. Does anyone remember what happened to Job? His entire family was murdered. He had painful boils. He didn't have a neighbor who conveniently sunbathed naked.

If it wasn't clear already, women don't play a particularly positive role in Larry's life. In fact, they're right at the front of the pack making Larry miserable. His wife Judith is a cheater and a manipulator, who steam rolls and intimidates Larry with condescension and taunting. His daughter Sarah is a vapid ingrate and a thief, whose only joys in life are washing her hair and saving up for a nose job. The only women who don't lead to Larry's downfall either encourage him to seek advice from ultimately counter-productive rabbis or get him stoned and provide naked-fantasy-material.

But ultimately, his family and friends can't be held responsible for Larry's fate. If he'd grow a backbone, maybe we'd care more about his trials and tribulations. If only this film had a fraction of the insight or humor of other Cohen brothers films, which are some of this ladybrain's favorite films of all time.

Feminist grade: F

The few women who are in this film are by turns malicious, vapid, selfish or just fodder for sex dreams. Since this movie is all about Larry, it fails the Bechdel test.

Moviegoer grade: D-

That this film was among the 10 nominees for Best Picture is a complete joke.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Hurt Locker: A Ladybrain Review

"War is a drug."--Chris Hedges, journalist and war correspondent

And so aptly begins one of the most talked about movies of the season, The Hurt Locker, directed by filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow. This film has generally been accepted by the public as “the kickass war movie directed by a woman” but to any Ladybrain, such glib assessments are markedly deficient. In truth, the movie is not about war at all. It’s a complex and cavernous character study of men facing oblivion.

Set around 2004, Sgt. 1st Class William James (Jeremy Renner) assumes responsibility as bomb disposal specialist in Iraq with Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) comprising the rest of Bravo Company, which is currently stationed in Baghdad with 39 days left of deployment. It’s a slow and agonizing countdown of days as these three men of contrasting mentalities are all too aware that they must work together or die. Sandborn is as precise as the playbook he follows; believing his only chance of survival is to follow the rules. Eldridge is young, panicky, and ashamed of his own fear. But their new team leader James plunges headfirst into his bomb disposal duties with a cool and efficient intensity that alarms the rest of his unit. They don’t know that James is an artist, a genius, a connoisseur with eyes only for his craft. As the movie develops, it becomes apparent that, for the same reason the painter paints or the writer writes, James reaps an intangible fulfillment with each explosive he deactivates, sometimes at the expense and safety of his team. And so, the spellbinding heart of The Hurt Locker lies not in the explosiveness of war, but in the precise unraveling of these men as they exist in terrible danger; the exposure of human nature.

Now, that’s not to say that this film isn’t kickass (a technical term). The Hurt Locker is expertly executed, with exceptional combat sequences and explosions. Indeed, watching the pebbles fly during a super slow motion explosion makes this Ladybrain’s hair stand up on end, even on repeated viewings. Jeremy Renner is completely deserving of his Best Actor recognition as he expressly and seemingly effortlessly conveys an indefinable character. The steady and genuine pacing creates actual suspense that is a real treat compared to the hysterical exaggeration, false alarms, and trickery of recent cinema. The photography is stylistic and yet hyperrealistic, and coupled with the intimate portraits of the characters, involves the audience as if they, too, are in terrible danger as the fourth member of the U.S. Army’s Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit. Ultimately, The Hurt Locker is a profound and beautiful film, well beyond a simple exercise in craft by reaching new heights of cinema and human expression.

And it was directed by a woman, Kathryn Bigelow. Bigelow recently became the first woman to win Best Director in the Director’s Guild of America Awards earlier this year, and she could be the first woman to win Best Director at the Academy Awards in two days. There have only been three previous women nominated for Best Director in the history of the Academy: Lina Wertmuller for 1976's Seven Beauties, Jane Campion for 1993's The Piano, and Sofia Coppola for 2003's Lost In Translation. But just because a film is directed by a woman, does that mean it is inherently feminist? This Ladybrain thinks not. The Hurt Locker fails the Bechdel Test, as it is specifically about the human nature of three men. The only woman in the film (besides screaming bystanders) is James’s wife, who he resents for supposedly shackling him into a life of fatherhood and domesticity. Somehow this Ladybrain doesn’t think it was all his wife's fault.

But is it because there was a woman at the helm that this film, that it surpasses many others in the exploration of the human condition? Would a male filmmaker take the same material and inadvertently generate a more “kickass” rendition of The Hurt Locker with less of the complexity of humanity and more of the violence and war? While interesting to think about, these questions are generally unanswerable. Defining a filmmaking style by the filmmaker’s gender is a decades-old prejudice that is the reason why there are not so many prominent female directors out there today. It’s simply thus: Bigelow has made great strides for female artists out there, and certainly not in the “women can make war movies, too” sort of way. But rather, would The Hurt Locker have the severe impact it does without the direction of dedicated artist Kathryn Bigelow?

Absolutely not.

Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director at the 2010 Academy Awards!

Feminist grade: C

It fails the Bechdel test but is a huge boon for female filmmakers.

Moviegoer grade: A

An excellent example of the artistry of cinema.

Up in the Air: A Ladybrain Review

One of the risks of doubling the number of films in the Best Picture category is that some of the 10 films, at least in this year's crop, start to seem mighty familiar.

Such is the case, as alluded to in previous reviews, with Jason Reitman's Up in the Air. Based on books set decades apart, it's unfortunate that two films up for the Best Picture Oscar in the same year are so similar. Without giving too much away, try not to see this film and An Education in the same weekend.

Up in the Air follows the story of corporate axe man Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), who travels over 300 days a year to do the dirty work in company layoffs. A whiz at his job, Bingham revels in the distance his lifestyle gives him from relationships. So entrenched is he in his at-an-arms-length way of life, Bingham even gives motivational talks encouraging people not to weigh themselves down with people and possessions. But his streamlined swagger stalls when two women enter his life: fellow frequent flyer Alex (Vera Farmiga) and enthusiastic young coworker Natalie (Anna Kendrick).

When his boss assigns Ryan to bring ambitious but uptight Natalie along on his next round of firings to learn the ropes, she soon finds out she has little experience to back up her industry-changing ideas, specifically video-conference firing. While Natalie starts to learn about the personal, ugly side of the business, Ryan starts to question his aversion to settling down as he falls hard for his fellow road junkie Alex.

Thus, Reitman sets the stage for an often frustrating front-row seat into one travelling man's mid-life crisis. What is he running from on the road? Why is he estranged from his family? The problem with these questions is that Ryan as a character is that, until the very end, there's not much about him that is redeeming. He's got a smarmy way about him that allows him to be very successful at firing people, and apparently loses no sleep at night over it. We're supposed to think his travelling-man quirks, like racial profiling, are cute peccadilloes, but instead they come off as yet more chips on some repressed white guy's shoulder. Oh, how sad that this man who makes a living firing people is a commitment-phobe. He creates his own issues and isolates himself. He lives out of a carry-on, and then he's surprised when the women he's involved with move on, or when they don't see him as settling-down material, or when his siblings resent him. For much of the film, Ryan's character is one that the audience isn't necessarily sympathetic with. He's a professional smarm who avoids commitment and responsibility. His lonely life is a chosen one, so what's to pity?

The only thing that really redeems Ryan's character is his relationship with his young co-worker, Natalie. Although he first views her as a dangerous innovator that threatens to disrupt his free-flying lifestyle, the two serve as catalysts in each other's lives, each mentoring the other to important next steps professionally and personally.

But given that Ryan is such a lukewarm character, it's remarkable how Up in the Air keeps the audience caring. Much of the credit for that should go to the actors, who pulled out amazing performances, especially relative newcomer Kendrick, who up until now has been relegated to roles like the catty friend in the Twilight films.

Now let's look at the feminist issues at play here. Up in the Air does pass the Bechdel test, but not with flying colors. The two main female characters, Alex and Natalie, independent career women though they may be, still serve only as catalysts in the overall experience of Ryan, and have very little contact with each other, and nearly none that doesn't directly involve Ryan and talk of the perfect man.

Natalie's plot path follows some of the familiar themes of reining in assertive women and putting them in their place (see Taming of the Shrew or any number of John Hughes films). In this theme, uptight women need to be humiliated and taken down a peg so they can let loose, which is what they want to do anyway. As a highly-educated newcomer with innovative ideas about how to streamline layoffs with digital options, Natalie makes a huge splash at Ryan's office, but he soon teaches her that there's more to the industry than theory. When Natalie can't stomach the dark nature of the job, unable to remove herself emotionally, she quits. These are typical assumptions about women and work--they're too emotional or weak to do certain things. This would seem especially troubling, except for the fact that Natalie never wanted to do this job. She followed her boyfriend to Omaha and took a job that she was overqualified for and uninterested in, and she regrets the decision. But she's talented and ambitious enough to get out of Omaha and on to bigger things once she faces the truth about her job and her relationship.

But Natalie's career path could have easily mirrored Ryan's and even Alex's. In Alex's case, she's even found a way to feed her love for travelling and also have a strong sense of home, much as the oblivious Ryan finds that inconceivable because of his own personal failures. Although she breaks Ryan's heart, Alex also shows him what is possible--to have your cake and eat it, too. And although some, like this ladybrain, would take moral issue with her approach to on-the-road relationships, this film doesn't demonize her for her sexual decisions.

Feminist grade: C-

It barely passes the Bechdel test but does promote women's career independence.

Moviegoer grade: C

This has been the most boring review to write of the Oscar season, and we haven't even gotten to A Serious Man.