As a teacher – it is my duty to introduce my students to films they have not seen, or in some cases may not want to see. As a teacher – I believe it is also my duty to watch the films my students watch, whether I want to see them or not.
Watching the films that get my student’s attention has proven to be an exciting adventure and many of their recommendations find their way into my lectures. Over the past ten years I have been noticing a trend that first perplexed me and now has captured my full attention. This trend is what I am calling, in non-academic terms, the “you go girl!” film. This genre includes Aeon Flux 2005, Twilight 2008, Jennifer’s Body 2009, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 2011, Hanna 2011, Beasts of the Southern Wild 2012, Divergent 2014 and The Hunger Games 2015 among others.
I began this conversation publicly in 2008 with a colleague Jocelyn Gonzales on “Studio 360.” The show was called “Girls on Film” and I was convinced at the time that I would eventually incorporate some of the ideas into a lecture for my “Anatomy of Difference” class. I thought the entry on the syllabus would probably look like this – Topic: The Female Other: A close look at deviations from the accepted “norm.” We would of course pursue an examination of the female character defined as “different” – which would not necessarily be based on her gender, race, ethnicity, or religion. She would be different because of her circumstances, the challenges she faced in the narrative. The film references (or list of clips) would probably include the films named above as well as some of my older favorites to show a history of similar formulations of female other in classical Hollywood and independent cinema. That list would include films like Joseph L Mankiewicz’s film from the Tennessee Williams’ play Suddenly Last Summer (1959), Stanley Kubrick’s controversial Lolita (1962), Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1985) from Alice Walker’s novel of the same name, Luc Besson’s Le Femme Nikita (1990), Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala (1991) and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) to name a few.
The goal of the course is to lead students on an exploration that helps them identify how difference is constructed in films. I use movies that may be conventional or commercial in form, yet in content challenge accepted notions. I show films that resist the usual formulations of other and focus mainly on story, character, and the invented cinematic space. In this case I would also argue that these recent films resist traditional gender expectations and offer us different formulations of the female. I would also point out the embedded cultural analysis albeit in subtext given the explosive nature of these narratives. Twilight for example, gives new meaning to a young girl’s decision about who to date; Jennifer’s Body ratchet’s up the notion of good-girl-gone-bad; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo takes us on a victim-to-victor journey; Hanna proves to us that looks can be deceiving; and films like The Hunger Games and Divergent both examine how and when women choose to use violence.
For some time I was most interested in The Hunger Games because it took place in a world constructed with elements from our collective past and identifiable challenges in our present and sewed them together to construct a future. This future, not that different from our present, is about the 1%, power, surveillance, stardom, and my favorite elements, spectatorship and the reality show genre. In some bizarre way it also brought back notions of the “snuff film” and not in the “private” ways explored in films like Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) or Joel Schumacher’s 8mm (1999). In this future, barbaric ideas like human sacrifice are mixed with visually stunning forms of ritual and pageantry for all to see. A futuristic rendition of public hanging. Drilling even deeper into the narrative one can also find notions of the dysfunctional family, sycophants, a love triangle, and elements of real humanity. But, this was not the film I eventually selected.
In the end it was Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2010) that made the cut and I’m pleased to say that it even passed the Bechdel Test which has these 3 criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. This was one of Jennifer Lawrence’s earlier films in the shift from TV to features and before the Hunger Games franchise began in 2012. Set against the cold and grey Ozark Mountains of Missouri, an unfriendly community and unresponsive family, this story is about a young girl thrust into adulthood to keep her family together after the disappearance of her father.
I have to confess that I have always thoroughly enjoyed action adventure films and have historically been dependent on the male perspective to fully partake of the genre. I am now very conscious of the fact that this has of course changed, not only for me but I presume many younger females as well. These young women, or girls, that have been relegated to the “outsider’s” role are exploding on the big screen with some consistency. Whether by personal choice, accident, unfortunate circumstances, or someone’s design, these young women are finding themselves in complex and often dangerous or life threatening situations and are taking charge of their destiny in very dramatic, physical, and yes, even non-sexual ways.