A Look at… Women on Screen
Searching for More Than a Sex Symbol
The Washington Post
Aug 15, 1999

Last summer, there was indeed “Something about Mary”: asininity. In the Farrelly brothers’ film, the congenitally adorable Cameron Diaz played Mary, an orthopedic surgeon who was never actually shown in surgery but who was shot undressing slo-o-owly before an open window. Throughout the dog days of ’98, audiences howled at one particular scene in this comedy, in which the medical school graduate could not distinguish between semen and hair gel. Thus, thirtysome- odd years into America’s most recent social, economic and cultural revolution for women’s equality, we were offered yet another dumb blonde to laugh at. And it wasn’t just the guys who were yukking it up.

Ha. We women talk a good game: Assertiveness. Power. Take back the night. Just do it. Except even after all this time — after the fireworks, the speeches, the marches — too many of the characters I’ve gotten to know in the past decade in movies, on television and in novels are not lively or courageous spirits to reflect the times. I miss the Jane Eyres, the Hildy Johnsons of “His Girl Friday,” the Mary Richardses of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” They were my heroes, the brave dames I always admired and sometimes loved. Too many of today’s female protagonists are either ditzy or degraded. They are the tremulous, the willfully naive, the self-absorbed and self- pitying, the queens of passive aggression, neo-Betty Boops and Madame Bovarys.

Wimpettes. And too many of us accept them as blue-ribbon feminists. As no doubt you know, a wimp is the 98-pound weakling who gets sand kicked in his face by the pumped-up bully — not merely because he is a physical lightweight, but because he is a moral one as well. Instead of trying to reason with the bully, or venturing a sock in the snoot, the wimp says, in essence: Do with me what you will. Likewise, a wimpette is a woman who is weak or ineffectual because she gives in to the apparent limits imposed on her by her gender without a real fight. Wimpettes are so much with us that we often don’t see them for what they are: weak sisters. Personifications of anti-feminist propaganda. Reflections of our lesser selves, refutations of our better selves.

Sadly, in this past decade, movie heroes such as Sarah Connor in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” Ripley of “Alien{3}” and “Alien Resurrection” and Sister Helen Prejean in “Dead Man Walking” failed to capture the feminist imagination as much as the woman-as-victim did. Remember “The Piano,” the female-written-and-directed film in which the soulful musician Ada, married to a churlish hypocrite, was literally mute, unable to speak up for herself? Total victim. Besides having to put up with her husband, she was extorted by another man into a sexual relationship. And what happened? Bingo! True to the old misogynist axiom, the heroine of this “feminist” movie became a summa cum laude graduate of the All-She-Really-Needs-Is-a-Good-Roll-in-the-Hay-and-She’ll-Learn-to-Love-It school.

There were brave working-class dames of the late ’70s and early ’80s such as Norma Rae and Karen Silkwood. Too often in the ’90s they gave way to wimpettes such as Thelma and Louise, victims naturally: of slobby men, brutish men, violent men. T & L fought back, but did they fight back shrewdly? No, they behaved according to stereotype, overemotionally and ineffectually. They went on a shooting, stealing and burning spree in revenge, then drove off a cliff rather than accept the consequences of their actions.

Why the proliferation of wimpettes on the screen? Ironically, the brave dames of the past — from 19th-century fiction, from 1930s, ’40s and ’50s movies, from 1970s TV — developed in times when women were subjugated or taking their first steps beyond their picket fences. Now, however, women have far more social and political muscle. They are free (or at least freer) to exercise power and employ their talents.

So what’s the problem? How come real women don’t laugh these wimpette characters off the screen?

First, the freedom that is exhilarating to some is terrifying to others. For years women were protected, or at least confined. Suddenly they were liberated. That first peek into the existential abyss can frighten all but the most intrepid; many long to run back to where they felt safe, where men were in control. For 90 minutes or so, in the darkness of a theater, it is comforting to put aside the insecurities that come with freedom, to identify with a wimpette.

Second, it seems to me that there are so many wimpette characters simply because some artists — male and female — just can’t stand women. Their enmity seems to have grown in direct proportion to women leaving the home and entering the marketplace, to women being allowed to control their own sexuality and fecundity. These artists will not accord us full humanity.

Finally, there are writers, directors and actors who lack the imagination or the character to see past stereotypes. For all of these, what is a politically acceptable way of keeping women down on the farm, in the house, out of power? Portray them as helpless, as hurt, as living in perpetual peril. Turn them into victims.

The other phenomenon of the ’90s worth noting is the return of the ditz. Look to legal thrillers as an example of the trend. Despite smart, assertive jurists such as Sonia Klonsky in Scott Turow’s “The Laws of Our Fathers,” Reggie Love in John Grisham’s “The Client,” (played by Susan Sarandon in the movie version), Darby Shaw in Grisham’s “The Pelican Brief” (Julia Roberts in the film) and the dauntless lawyer-detectives in Linda Fairstein’s and Lisa Scottoline’s whodunits, the decade’s attorney-of-record is Ally McBeal, a litigator far longer on legs than brains. This Fox-femme is not so much feeble as ditzy, a reversion to the old equation: perfect woman = cute mindless. McBeal proves you can send the girl to Harvard Law School (Harvard should sue for slander), but not even seven years of higher education can stay her from doing what comes naturally — trying to catch a man. Juris doctor or no, the girl can’t help it.

In this long, hot summer of ’99, are we on the verge of anything better? There has been much in the media these days about actress Rene Russo in the current movie hit, “The Thomas Crown Affair,” about the bravery of a 45-year-old woman showing her breasts and buttocks. Bravery? Come on. This is not the defense of the Warsaw Ghetto but chi-chi escapism. Nonetheless, Russo has come miles since “Outbreak,” in which she and Dustin Hoffman played microbiologists. Alas, he was that film’s hero while she got to bleed by nose and mouth as she waited for him to save her (and the world) from a deadly Ebola-type virus. In “Thomas Crown,” she’s a tough, glamorous insurance investigator out to catch a thief. She’s bold, cool and smart. Does she use sex to get what she wants? Sure. Sex is but one weapon in her arsenal as it was in James Bond’s. And, like 007, she clearly loves the hunt.

On the other hand, another displayer of bare derriere, Nicole Kidman as Alice Harford in “Eyes Wide Shut,” is not so much a brave dame as a quasi-assertive one. She confesses to her physician husband, Bill, that on a vacation in Cape Cod, she was so powerfully attracted to a naval officer, a man she never actually met, that had the man asked her to sleep with him, she would have abandoned Bill and their daughter and run off. For director Stanley Kubrick, however, there seems to have been less interest in the power of Alice’s fantasy life, in her sexuality, than in an inch-by-inch exploration of Kidman’s physiognomy. Alice’s revelation serves mainly to propel her husband on a sexual odyssey. “Eyes Wide Shut” feels like sad old stuff.

In many movies, female characters certainly qualify as semi-brave dames. They do not flinch from moral challenges and physical danger. Think of Renee Zellweger playing Dorothy in “Jerry McGuire.” However, the films in which semi-brave dames appear tend to be about the lives of men. The women’s concerns have far less to do with the outside world than with the care and protection of their guys.

That’s true this summer in Spike Lee’s “Summer of Sam,” in which a wife, Dionna, played by Mira Sorvino, seeks to clear the sexual air of the marriage by venting her desires and trying to find what it is that her husband wants. Likewise, Ruby, the neighborhood slut, played by Jennifer Esposito, is a seeker, trying to find a way out of the putatively sexist universe that is Lee’s vision of 1977 Italian- American Brooklyn. This director does not subject Sorvino and Esposito to the cinematic copping of a feel the way Kubrick does with Kidman. In fact, Lee endows the women with admirable qualities of morality, common sense, backbone. Still, it is not the girls in this particular ‘hood who are of interest; they are there mainly to offer contrast and succor to its boys.

The woman who needs neither man nor child is too scary to be a mere wimpette: She is often presented as a fiend and a freak. The woman who seeks power. A hellcat. Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct” comes to mind. “The Blair Witch Project” also features such a woman — just don’t expect to see her in the lead role. The film does feature Heather, an ordinary, modern-day woman in power (to say nothing of in motion, as the dizzying movements of the hand-held camera are not for the vertiginous). No monster, Heather Donahue plays the director of the hypothetical documentary, giving orders to Josh and Mike, the two members of her crew. On the other hand, she comes close to the misogynist’s notion of the woman in charge: overbearing and somewhat incompetent. However, it is possible that it is not Heather’s incompetence (nor that of the fellows with her) that leads them into disaster but the machinations of the witch. If that is the case, then the omnipotent, vengeful evil at work in! this horrific horror film — the monster we never see — is that quintessential vengeful woman.

The best brave dame I’ve come across recently, the sort of character I’d love to see in a movie, is in a new novel. Colson Whitehead’s “The Intuitionist,” published last December, is a dazzling meditation on race and technology and imagination. Dazzling, too, is Whitehead’s hero, Lila Mae Watson, an elevator inspector. An elevator inspector? Lila Mae lives in an alternate America where she is — in the book’s language — her city’s first colored elevator inspector, and its most accurate. First by chance, then by design, civil servant Lila Mae becomes the seeker of truth and the righter of wrongs in a great city very much like New York. She faces public and private disgrace, threats from the pols, kidnapping by the mob and terrible loneliness with the steadfast commitment of the truly just. How great if there were more like her: How wonderful that at the end of this decade, we are, once again, getting such a brave dame in art.

Susan Isaacs’ most recent novel is “Red, White, and Blue” (HarperCollins). She wrote about women on page and screen in her book, “Brave Dames and Wimpettes” (Library of Contemporary Thought).
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.