Why Hollywood Just Can’t Get It Right When It Comes to Women

by Heather Robinson

From The New York Post

Two-thousand and eighteen was the year of the female avenger in popular culture. In a year bookended by Oprah Winfrey’s Golden Globes exhortation for greater representation of female stories and the death of comedy pioneer Penny Marshall, the first woman to gross more than $100 million as a film director, a lot of angry women lit up the silver screen.

It was a case of art imitating life.

Behind the camera, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements continued to gain momentum, felling the careers of many powerful film-industry and media abusers. As more women found the courage to come forward with accounts of harassment and abuse, Hollywood produced a number of films in which women were subjugated by evil men — and then turned the tables on their persecutors.

But were these tales actually empowering? Or did Hollywood, perhaps in a rush to greenlight projects that spoke to women’s concerns, overdo the anger and neglect stories that highlight women’s real strengths?

In “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Frances McDormand played a grieving mother seeking justice for the rape and murder of her daughter. To shame local police into action, McDormand’s character rents billboards — and goes on to freely use emotional manipulation, and even physical violence, to achieve her goal.

Similarly, in “Peppermint,” Jennifer Garner portrayed a mother seeking justice for the murder of her family. Grief and rage transform her into a vigilante killer — and torturer. In “Widows,” meanwhile, Viola Davis starred as the widow of a thief, who becomes a criminal herself, then enlists other women into criminality to survive.

Then there was “Red Sparrow,” in which a young Russian ballerina’s uncle blackmails her into life as a spy. Even before training and indoctrination at the Russian intelligence agency’s “whore school,” our spy (Jennifer Lawrence) doles out a vicious beating to a lovemaking couple that would make Jason of “Friday the 13th” infamy blush.

These stories show women whose quests for justice spill over into brutality of various kinds. Aside from “Widows,” they were also written, directed and produced almost exclusively by men.

Women have always been strong, and they don’t need to imitate men — at their worst — to prove it. It’s insulting to have such a literal take on the archetype served up to us as “empowerment,” especially at a time when women are, with good reason, fed up and seeking constructive ways to deal with it.

Art, including film, has historically reflected this truth about women’s resilience, and film history is full of examples of female characters who stand up to injustice and get ahead in life without themselves turning into abusers, criminals and sadists.

Think: Erin Brockovich, Norma Rae, Clarice Starling from “The Silence of the Lambs,” Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” and Dottie Hinson and Kit Keller, the sisters Marshall brought to screen in “A League of Their Own,” the outstanding 1992 film she directed based on the true story of a Midwestern all-women’s baseball league during World War II.

More recently, there was 2016’s “Hidden Figures,” which told the true story of the brilliant African-American women who assisted the NASA space program as mathematicians in the early 1960s. That movie provided a more authentic vision of women who found better ways than violence to overcome oppressive conditions.

And in 2017’s “Wonder Woman,” director Patty Jenkins brought us a comic book heroine of surprising dimensionality: fierce and muscular, yes, but also idealistic, sensitive and independent-thinking.

As Sabrina Dhawan, the screenwriter behind 2001’s “Monsoon Wedding,” put it: “This idea that women are these powerful,­ destructive, avenging goddesses, and on the other side . . . fragile, obsessive and needy — these are pandering and fearful” depictions. What we need, she says, are “depictions of normal women with complications.”

Perhaps more humane and rounded portraits of female characters are on the way: “On the Basis of Sex,” the biopic about US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, made its way to theaters Christmas Day. As we close a year that ended with the loss of Marshall, a great pioneer in telling women’s stories without pandering, let’s hope Hollywood in 2019 builds on, rather than discards, her legacy.