Feminism is complex, it is not a monolithic movement, and this is something that Hollywood fails to realise. The fact that Hollywood is embracing strong female protagonists is excellent, in theory at least, because many depictions of feminism in Hollywood transform these extremely nuanced and complicated issues of the movement into simple girl power anthems. There is little indication that Hollywood has embraced feminism for its complexities and faults. Movies like Bombshell show us how there is a hollow feminism in the industry. The movies illustrate how women can resist the patriarchy as much as they want by fighting off the problematic men they encounter, but there is never a dismantling of the system that produces these men. Then there is the issue of creating female protagonists that are dressing up male protagonist archetypes in disguise. Feminism in Hollywood is in need of a major makeover.
I began thinking about this when I heard a friend raving about Bombshell and the plot is women sticking it to the man – again. Bombshell is based upon the accounts of the women at Fox News who aimed to expose the sexual harassment from the company’s CEO, Roger Ailes, in 2016. Ailes was ousted from his job after multiple women the network accused him of sexual harassment and died a year later. The female characters, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and completely fictional character (Margot Robbie) are shown to have made a stand against Ailes in the film in response to the hostile work environment that he created alongside sexually harassing them. The film never reaches a resolution, even though it was set up to, showcasing how the interference of the Murdochs will only help women over profits temporarily. Its conclusion makes it poignant that these films are about girl power, how women should band together, and how there is power in taking a stand. Whilst that is great, it is not how feminism works. This is just a public service announcement to women that they should stand together and speak out to take these men down. Although, we already know the problem is the harassers and those who justify their behaviour, not those who are harassed. These stories are repeated, and there is nothing wrong with that, but Hollywood makes sure that we are not urged to take down lucrative systems of business even if they are home to harassment and the exploitation of its employees.
Through a camera lens, feminism has become a hollow shell of what it should be. These production companies generate content that is supposedly feminist, or about female empowerment, but is really about serving feminism in the way they can do so with considerable ease. This formula has been tried, tested and is sometimes successful through recreating box office hits with the use of female protagonists instead. For example, Ocean’s 8 (2018) received moderate success at box office, earning $229.1 million. Remember they are not always successful, such as Ghostbusters (2016), which bombed at the box office since it earned a similar amount against larger production costs. They are not creating a meaningful change, these studios are simply creating more female-led movies, through replacing the men these roles were written for. They are producing films that are concerned with girls being able to keep up with the boys. Now, that is the problem. These are not films that are written by or represent women. They depict the fundamental dichotomy between the girls and the boys because they always need to prove one thing, that whatever the boys can do the girls can also do it.
Although, it is easy for others to criticise me for not being appreciative of these films, after all these companies have made it clear that these films were made for feminists like myself. If I do not like them, well, that is considered my problem and they have the justification they need to end the production of these films because at least they tried. The fault for the moderate or lack of success in these films is placed on the consumer. This hollowness exists in other forms of representation on the screen through race, sexuality and disability. It is not enough to feature underrepresented characters, but these movies and shows must demonstrate that they are financially successful, in turn, they have to show that feminists and people of colour are worthy of being invested in.
Are we simply being commodified in the movie industry? Is feminism a commodity to sell t-shirts, dolls and other consumer goods? Well, yes, it is. For the price of a movie ticket, for the purchase of a ‘girl power’ t-shirt and for the purchase of a body-positive doll, you can consider yourself an activist and that you have helped pave the way for more progress. Perhaps it is just me but I do not find it ‘cool’ to commodify the concept of women’s equality. There is a simplification of feminism at works here, it is being reduced to these slogans, to sell t-shirts and movies about how we are oppressed and on a quest for equality. There is nothing that follows it up, there is no encouragement to dismantle the systems that create the problems, but when you have a tote bag that says ‘feminist’ or ‘girl power’ you have apparently done enough to destroy the patriarchy. It seems that as these movements in the name of feminism begin, they quickly lose momentum; there is always a start and never an end. I know it is going to take some to dismantle these structures that are imposed on us, but the end is never going to come or be near when the bare minimum seems to be enough, something that the movie industry seems to be an avid fan of.
The commodification of feminism is not the only problem, it is the fact that feminism is a monolithic movement in the eyes of Hollywood, that is led by white women and predominantly fails to feature women of colour in the fight for equality. There are so many branches of feminism and there have been so many waves, yet none of the nuances are acknowledged, nor is any of the diversity. What has all that work amounted to? The casting of women into roles originally created for men, a biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsberg or another prominent feminist, and commemorative merchandise. Hollywood needs to remember that all women are not the same, it needs to remember that we are an audience to be valued, and it certainly needs to remember that we are not obligated to feel thankful for getting scraps of accurate representation. As it stands, feminism on-screen is okay at best, and the industry needs to move on from the reductionist portrayal of it. I think it is great that we are being encouraged to stand up and stand proud, but it is the same anthem, and mainstream movies are not about to give us insight on how we should fulfil this anthem.
This message about girl-power is shallow, they are used to find a common ground between the diverse nature of feminism, and there is not much to support it. There is nothing inherently wrong with these messages as they are perfectly fine, but that’s just it, they are just fine. I want to witness the real stories of women in mainstream cinema, being a woman is never neat and tidy, neither is feminism as a movement. I am criticising mainstream cinema because these films exist, they are just considered as worthy enough to sell commercially, therefore they are overlooked and that is not in any way surprising. These political biopics and depictions of women in leading roles are there to make the audience feel good, they are not there to make you think, it is central to the advertising that you will feel good because you are supporting women in cinema in one way or another.
These films demonstrate that being a feminist is about putting yourself on the line to take down the powerful men who can oppress you, but it is not about taking down that system, for Hollywood plays a major role in sustaining the patriarchal order. You are allowed to stand up for yourself, but you are not allowed to topple the system, even when it is rotten at its core. We are told we can change the world when we stand together. We just are not told that we will forever be changing the world by eliminating every oppressor or harasser that comes our way because nobody is ready to destroy a system that is so lucrative even if it spews out nasty residue at the same time.