Film and television

Wonder where the women are?

Katherine Bigelow's The Hurt Locker made Oscar history,
but real women's film and television still struggles to find an audience

By Geoffrey Dow
True North Perspective
Original published at Edifice Rex Online

Now that Katherine Bigelow has made history as the first woman to an Oscar for best picture, you might conclude that women have finally taken their rightful place at Hollywood's creative centre stage.

Or maybe not. Bigelow is, apparently (full-disclosure: I've seen only one of her films — the execrable Blue Steel, a distaff action-movie with less to say about women or feminism than her ex-husband's Aliens), a director known for action and horror and war movies, not romances or romantic comedies, and certainly not for pointed examination of the state of women in American society. Nevertheless, it is of some import that she has broken that glass ceiling, even if she has done so by "making movies like a man".

Pragmatically, she is probably on the right track, even if The Hurt Locker was lowest-grossing best-picture winner of all time, taking in only $16 million dollars worldwide on initial release, a number that has already changed significantly I typed the first draft of this article. A best-picture Oscar never hurt anybody's bottom-line.

Meanwhile, I'd like to talk about a couple of productions that haven't won any Oscars, one a recent Hollywood movie that did even worse box-office than did The Hurt Locker despite being released with a major publicity campaign, the other a mini-series released in Britain a few years ago which dropped a million fewers over the course of its six-episode run.

'The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard' DVD cover.
The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard
Written by Sally Wainwright
Starring Jane Horrocks
Original broadcast 2006, BBC One
DVD released October 2007
'Whip It' poster.
Whip It
Written by Shauna Cross
Directed by Drew Barrymore
Ellen Page
Released September 13, 2009
DVD release date unknown

Loosely-speaking, both the American Whip It and the British The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard are fantasies, though fantasies with nary a vampire nor zombie, nor even a strapping Hero, in sight. Indeed, men are very much in the background of both productions and there, I think, lies the secret behind the relative commercial failures that both of them were.

(I wonder how many readers stopped reading at the end of the previous paragraph; I'd be curious to know how many of you still reading were tempted to stop.)

Whip It is a coming-of-age story with twists enough to pull it above its own clichés; and The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard is a thought-provoking and emotionally engaging political fantasy which manages to convince the viewer that, yes, an ordinary, middle-class English-woman really might have led the upstart and ad hoc, nearly all-woman Purple Alliance Party to power in Whitehall in 2006.

Whip It got a lot of promotion when it was released last. Director Drew Barrymore and star Ellen Page made the rounds of talk-shows and magazine shoots, but it still tanked at the box-office, selling something like three thousand percent fewer tickets than did the about giant, transforming robots also released last year.

Considering that the movie they were selling was actually pretty good; and considering that Drew Barrymore has been a star most of her; and considering that Ellen Page (arguably the best actress to come down the pike in a very long time) had an actual hit with Juno and was, you know, Kitty Pride in the X-Men franchise — considering all that, there's something siginificant in the fact it took in a mere $13 million at the box-office. (I don't know what kind of promotional push The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard got when it first appeared on the BBC, but as I said above, it lost about one million viewers between its premiere and its conclusion.)

Whip It is the less ambitious production, a coming-of-age-through-sports story with a female twist and a gently humane sensibility.

Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page once again playing a mis-fit teenager, a role one senses she is getting tired of; a brilliant actress, this time around I sensed page was acting-by-numbers, at least a little. It's more than high time someone writes this capital-tee Talent a role she can play an actual grown-up! But I digress) is a 17 year-old student pushed by her mother into beauty-pageant after beauty pageant. Her family is striving, working-class (at least, her mother is) from a small Texas town, and Bliss wants out of both.

Her opportunity comes through a chance encounter with members of a roller-derby team during a shopping trip to the big city of Austin, Texas. Bliss takes a poster and soon finds herself attending a try-out with a roller-derby team — naturally, a lovable bunch of losers called The Hurl Scouts. As you can imagine, our Bliss is a preternatural talent and thanks to her, the Hurl Scouts repent of their losing ways and learn to play to win.

As for Bliss, she finds a skill and a passion, she makes a break for her independence and, of course, she also falls in love.

But Whip It is not a love story and Bliss' relationship — neither its soft-focus begining not its harsh termination — stays far in the background of the movie.

The emotional centre of Whip It lies with Bliss' relationships with her team-mates and her family, her mother in particular. The story isn't anti-male by any stretch of the proverbial imagination, but it isn't about men, which I suspect goes more than some ways towards explaining its commercial failure.

Whip It is well-crafted, humane mind-candy, a romantic comedy in the platonic sense. The viewer believes in Bliss and comes to care about her passion for roller-derby (the film also very briefly makes it clear how the bloody game is played, something I never had understood before!) and in her rookie's ability to lead it to victory. As with any good sports movie, we find ourselves become fans; we start to cheer for the Hurl Scouts and we by-damn want them to win that inevitable championship game! Solidly entertaining, it stands up to repeat viewings and deserves to find success on home-video that it couldn't find in theatres.

Even more deserving of a second chance is Sally Wainwright's The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard, a far more ambitious, more sophisticated and much more complex story about women which addresses feminism head-on while not being "about" feminism — Wainwright is far too good a story-teller to fall into the trap of didacticism, even as her characters discuss the ins-and-outs of, for example, budgetary policies.

And yet, I don't think it was the very realistic backroom politics nor the emphasis policy questions, which caused The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard to bleed nearly a million viewers between its first episode and its sixth.

No, besides the lousy numbers, The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard shares only one other significant element with Whip. Namely, that it too features men (and not too many of them) only in supporting roles.

The story opens in a way that, by all rights, ought to appeal to anyone who has watched Question Period or a press conference with a politician and thought or exclaimed, "I could do better than that!

Rozz Pritchard is a wife, a mother and the manager of a grocery store. She's a competent and canny boss who nevertheless is well-liked and well-respected by her employees, character facts Wainwright provides in a tightly-scripted introductory scene of only a couple of minutes duration.

So, when she confronts a pair of campaigning politicians who have come to blows outside her the store, the viewer believes her when she shouts them down and agrees with the clerk who tells her she ought to run for office.

Needless to say, she does and, by the end of the first episode, finds herself the Prime Minister-elect of Great Britain. (No more spoilers; I permitted myself that one because there really isn't a series without that early victory.)

The next five episodes explore an unrealistic conceit in a rigorously realistic fashion. Like a serious science fiction what-if story, Wainwright posits one major change to the reality we know, then explores that change's repercussions with a keen wit and (fortunately) equally keen sense of humour and of personal drama.

With the exception of then-unknown Cary Mulligan, Mrs. Pritchard is cast almost entirely of women middle-aged or older, few of whom are shaped like the women from Desperate Housewives and none of whom dress like them. To make matters worse (or "worse"), Mrs. Pritchard is also almost entirely devoid of significant male characters. Of the two in evidence, one is a callow youth involved with a much older (and much more powerful) woman, the other is Mr. Pritchard, somewhat unhappy in his unexpected role as the Prime Minister's husband, and harbouring a dangerous secret, to boot.

And, as I said above, that is the common trait the series shares with the movie: women's friendships and rivalries are the story, not how their lives interact with men. And for some reason, it seems as if even women aren't much interested in watching such stories. Which is strange (or ought to be strange), since no one seems to give a second thought to films that don't include a woman in any significant role at all — but the reverse seems to be problematic, a problem made worse by the apparent fact that women seem little more interest in stories about women than men are.

And that's a shame, because the more often such stories fail to find an audience, the harder it will be for another one to be made.

Sally Wainwright and Shauna Cross, with the collaborators, have both created entertainments that by all rights should have found broad (no pun intended) and enthusiastic audiences.

Though International Women's Day has come and gone for another year, women and men can still strike a small blow for a more inclusive world by voting for something different with their wallets. It would be a small gesture, but not an insignificant one, to hunt down and rent either the movie or the series — and a gesture you'll enjoy, too boot.

12 March 2010 — Return to cover.