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Sep 09 2013

At least one

So Elysium is a movie about social inequality, yet it’s almost all-male. Oops. Funny how they just can’t get that right, isn’t it. Well no not funny. That’s not the word.

Just one question then, isn’t it ironic that a film about segregation contains only one fully-rounded female character, and even that role was originally written as male?

Ironic? No, not really, not at this point. By now it’s just abjectly contemptible. Catch the fuck on, will you?

Blomkamp set out to write a film with “at least one central female character”, not an overly revolutionary aspiration in a film about equality. Elysium has a central unromanticised female character, but one that was only switched to female when “it suddenly occurred to him the character could be a woman”. Like the heroines of Salt and Flightplan, this role is strong partly because it was written to be a character before it was rewritten to be female.

Ripley in Alien is another (and then she was made more womany, that is more conventional, in the sequels). If they write them as women they seem to think they have to make them specifically woman-like, whereas men are just people. This drives me batty.

This is a film that sets out to teach an anti-segregation message and still failed the Bechdel test, which checks that at least two women in a film talk to each other about anything other than a man. We’re used to seeing films with only token female characters, and tests like the Bechdel help alert us to what we’ve stopped noticing, if not when we stopped noticing them.

Notice. Notice notice notice. It’s so fatally easy not to.

Whether it is done as intentionally as in Elysium or not, films and TV series form part of a lens that shows us distorted refractions of our world, that shapes the way we think, that reinforces and ideally challenges our values. If I’m shown a world with one central woman in it, I should notice. I should be surprised. I should not be impressed, I should be disappointed. As Pryor said, perhaps it is time we got on with making our own movies. Then we’d be in them.

And we’d be people. Just people. Like anyone.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    Jason Dick

    I guess I feel that what some writers should start doing, at least as a way to train themselves, would be to first write the story they want to write, and then flip a coin to select the gender for each main character after the parts are all written.

  2. 2
    Raging Bee

    And here’s another kinda-related question: if a woman like Katheryn Bigelow, who gave us “The Hurt Locker,” had written a movie like “Elysium,” would she have got the same level of backing as Bloomkamp got?

  3. 3
    Bjarte Foshaug

    Anita Sarkeesian’s videos have been very educational to me when it comes to noticing the systematic sexism in movies and other popular media. One of her videos inspired me to try the Bechdel test on my own movie collection, and to my horror only one movie (Thelma & Louise) out for more than I care to count clearly passed the test. I was also inspired to look for common tropes like The Damsel in Distress, Women in Refrigerators, The Smurfette Principle etc., and the result is, let’s say, not flattering… :-/

  4. 4
    jenl

    Small quibble, but didn’t the SecDef (Jody Foster) exchange a sentence or two with the mom near the end?

  5. 5
    Rabidtreeweasel

    The film has serious race issues as well. Why Matt Damon? Why is he the only white person on earth and why is he, the white male, the savior?

  6. 6
    Charles Sullivan

    Slightly off topic, Ophelia, but I was wondering if you’ve ever seen the Japanese film The Life of Oharu, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. I was quite impressed that a film made in 1952 could critically examine a woman’s life within an oppressive society.

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