This is not a movie review, but a general complaint. Is it possible we're living in the 21st century? Not judging by the stories we're telling, which recycle the same staid gender roles. I'm taking about the summer blockbuster movies Superman and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
I was pretty disappointed with the characters written for women in both films. This is not an indictment of either Kate Bosworth or Keira Knightley (Superman and Pirates, respectively). I'm sure both actors were doing the best they could with the material they had. But have you ever seen a worse Lois Lane? I didn't feel she was a crack reporter, driven to nail a story down - she seemed to be there as the damsel in distress. Yes, Margot Kidder fulfilled the same role in the Superman film of 1978, but at least there were gestures towards her career: the balcony scene where she gets out her pad and pencil for the scoop on Superman, and the general indication that she had drives and desires, and led an autonomous life.
In fact, having recently viewed Superman: The Movie, I was stunned by a scene I'd forgotten: there's a long sequence where Superman and Lois Lane fly above Metropolis at night, just after the balcony scene mentioned above. The audience gain access to Lane's thoughts during an unrushed monologue where she muses on what is unfolding before her. This places the whole audience in sympathy with Lane, and places our subjectivity squarely on a female character's shoulders.
I got the sense from the 2006 Superman script that it could've cared less what Kate Boswell's thoughts were, or what drove her, besides the socially sanctioned love for her child. Speaking of child - how boring is it to have her kid be male? For God's sake, at least take a bit of a risk and make the child female - that way we would've had more interesting ideas raised about gender and the whole "superman" mythology. But, no - they had to keep that whole Christian Father/Son thing chugging along.
In Pirates, there's a wonderful moment where Keira Knightly, as Elizabeth Swann, is aiming a gun at some barrels of gunpowder. You think - yes! - they've given her some action, something interesting to do. But the inclusion of her fiance on the barrels, along with a swaying boat which, in her female incompetence, she is unable to contend with, means that the satisfaction of blasting the Kraken's tentacles is left to the ever-shaky Johnny Depp. Yawn, sigh. Well, what was I thinking - they'd let the female character actually do something?
The Pirates script even has a promising set-up where Swann has to disguise herself as a sailor and work on a ship incognito. The writers could've taken this in any number of interesting ways, having fun with the role reversal, undermining gender expectations, etc. But her passing as a male member of crew is left largely unexplored. Disappointing.
Am I too optimistic about gender roles crumbling in this new century? Hollywood seems stuck in reverse with its unexamined assumptions about men and women, endlessly recycling the same old stories…
Blur penned these lyrics in 1995:
This is the next century
Where the universal's free
You can find it anywhere
Yes, the future's been sold
Every night we're gone
And to karaoke songs
How we like to sing along,
Though the words are wrong
It really really really could happen
Yes it really really really could happen
When the days they seem to fall through you
Well just let them go
I share Blur's thinly-veiled skepticism. Chances are, the plum roles will continue to be written with men in mind, until more women move into directing and producing. Then maybe we'll have a fighting chance of having complex, interesting leading ladies: in short, humans, not cardboard characters.
It really really really could happen.
Lyrics: Blur, "The Universal", The Great Escape