Feminist Movie Review! Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

 

            This movie was, in a word, horrible.  Admittedly it starts from a fairy tale that plays heavily on an archetype of older women that portrays them as evil. The existence of witches in fairy tales show society’s uselessness for the aging woman, it’s fear of the single woman, and it’s demonization of feminine sexuality. So, why any self-respecting filmmaker would create a movie based on such a feminist abomination in the first place is beyond me.

 

            To look beyond the obvious lack of character development, and then the cookie-cutter ending, I shall focus my feminist analysis by looking mainly at Gretel, as well as other female characters.

 

            Gretel in particular lacks any sort of development. She abides by liberal feminist standards of possessing male traits, and succeeding in a patriarchal structure. For example, she is physically strong, and fights the “bad guys” with all sorts of weaponry and force. In classic masculine style, she shoots first and talks later. This same structure forces her to step aside and be saved by men, whether this saviour came in the form of a troll, the geeky sidekick, or her brother. Needless to say, Gretel conforms to sexual expectations for her, by dressing in tight-fitting leather. Gratuitious shots of her cleavage and legs abound. She comes across as a particularly shell-like creation, more of a Mary-Sue than a heroine.

 

            The other female characters don’t fare much better. Both of the “good witches” perish. Joy is taken in slaying women, and one woman is falsely accused of being a witch. The female characters aren’t friends. Witches are either old hags, or hyper-sexualized. Even Mina the White Witch ends up getting it on with Hansel. It is worth noting that she helps to save Hansel several times, making her a bit of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s whimsical, eccentric, and serves the purpose of furthering our hero in his journey, dying once he’s finished. The final fight scene is absolutely rife with racial stereotypes: kung fu witches from Japan being the main offensive example.

 

            It is worth mentioning that the movie passes the Bechdel Test, as Gretel interrogates and speaks to several witches. Although Hansel is heavily involved in the conversations, and they are clearly on different sides, Bechdel’s law stands.

 

            The story is an uncritical, made-to-sell version that refuses to analyze the forces at work in creating the characters in the original fairy tale. Old widowed women portrayed as witches who steal children is inherently problematic, and plays on fears of single women that should be evident to anyone writing a script based off of the classic fairytale. I think it’s obvious by now that I was not a fan of Hansel & Gretel, a movie that I will not mince words for. The fact that the ending set up for a sequel is just the icing on the (remarkably sexist) cake. 

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Bintou, a play by Koffi Kwahulé

Gender plays a very important role in this play. SPOILER ALERT! It’s about FGM (female genital mutilation). Bintou, the main character, is a leader of the gang called the “Wild Dogs”, living with her mother and ever absent father. The story details her rebellious existence, and results in the climactic mutilation of her genitals by a woman trained in such things, and her subsequent death. This all takes place in a ghetto, from what I can discern, in a Western country.

Gender touches many aspects of this story by the very nature of it’s subject matter. For the purpose of my brief analysis, gender will be taken to mean the socialized binary between male and female. A female character existing in a sexist culture, outside of the norms expected of her will create conflict. Bintou does this in several ways.

The first indication of conflicts about her gender is her interactions with her Uncle Drissa. A story told by Bintou tells of him assaulting her. He talks to her about how the way she dresses will attract sick people on the streets, and how she should wear a bra. His close attention to her clothing shows two things. The first is that Bintou exists in a society that victim blames. What she wears is used to shift the blame of sexual assault back onto her, as though she were asking for it. Furthermore, the dynamics between an unscrupulous and predatory uncle and his thirteen year old niece show a distinct power imbalance. Bintou uses her switchblade to chase him off the first time, but further in the play he strikes her, and forces her to remove her clothes for the mutilation to take place. In a patriarchal society, women are often forced to either go along with the will of their oppressors, or defend themselves through drastic means.

Secondly, Bintou’s leadership of her gang shows a female in power, but who possesses masculine traits. This is often how women get positions of power in a patriarchal society. Bintou is street-hardened, and merciless, a complex character who doesn’t wear panties and thrills at the killing of a man staring at her by one of her Wild Dogs. She asserts power through her sexuality – a powerful sedative of male force. She doesn’t wear panties, and often her gang members speak of seeing between her legs under her short skirts. They are eager to please, competing with the member who killed the man staring at her for her affections. The men she reigns over do not question her, despite being older. Her boyfriend is white, arguably holding even more privilege over the black gang members, and still he submits to her whims, which I found very interesting. She exists outside the world she lives in, acting as she pleases, and this is attractive to her gang members. Her outspoken and charismatic character evokes masculinity, yet she is still intriguing in a sexual way through her laid-backness, and her young body. The complexity of her character is reflected in her traditionally female vulnerability, and her masculine outspokenness and power.

Thirdly, the obvious gendered aspect of this story is the attempt to curb Bintou’s lustfulness through female genital mutilation. The kind of FGM depicted in the story is the removal of the clitoris, performed by an “expert”. Bintou’s uncle pays to have her kidnapped, and then have her held down while she is cut by her own switchblade. This act reflects more on the unnamed society that her family comes from, than on Bintou herself. She is subject to the demonizing of female sexuality, and it kills her.

FGM is an interesting issue, in that it is argued in the feminist context frequently from both sides. This story shows a heinous act done to a girl who is barely a teenager because her parents find her to be out of control. There is no question that this is a violation of her human rights. It is also done to a Western black girl, not someone submersed in an African culture that promotes the virtues of FGM. But many feminists argue that stopping societies from performing FGM is a form of colonialism. Many girls wish to have the operation done as they will otherwise not be able to find a husband, or will be outcasts. Simply outlawing FGM is not enough, it requires a change of society’s mindset and views surrounding it. To our Western eyes, the gut reaction is disgust and repulsion, and classing the society’s committing FGM as savages. Arguments have been made to request a thoughtful approach to FGM, rather than one built on emotion. There is no question that it is bad for girls and women, but the society must change the root cause rather than simply changing the legality of the process.

Though this play was remarkably hard to read (the part depicting Bintou’s mutilation made me feel dizzy), it was an interesting look at the demise of a woman who tried to exist outside of her the patriarchal constructs surrounding how she should act. It perhaps serves as a cautionary tale for the girls who aren’t angelic, the girls who are foul-mouthed and evil, the girls who don’t wear panties and who rule men. Eventually people tire of the “trouble”, of the stretching of their gendered categories, and they lash out. Society cannot handle a woman like Bintou, and so she was killed.

A Comment on Ottawa’s Attitude towards the LGBTQ Community, from the Perspective of an Ally

Last night, I attended an event at Babylon called “Zombie Strippers”. This annual Halloween show is put on by Rockalily Burlesque, a sex-positive group established in Ottawa in 2006. The event was pretty much what it sounds like: burlesque performers doing halloween themed performances, preceded by a band and sponsored by some local business, such as Auntie Loo’s (why yes, I did eat two of her delicious vegan cupcakes!) and Venus Envy (a really great women-positive sex shop). All proceeds from the cupcakes or merchandise sold at the show (including some fancy sequinned pasties) went to Pink Triangle Services. PTS is a great community organization around Ottawa that offers counselling, parenting help, and lots of other programs touching topics like creating safe spaces, or queer health. All this said, with all this positivity surrounding sex, identity and individuality, I overheard a few comments that really made me sick.

Situation #1: One dude looks around the room, and lists off all the costumes he sees that are slutty to his friend. Problematic on SO many levels. For one thing, you came to a burlesque performance… did you not expect to see women dressed in skimpy outfits? Another thing, who the hell gave him the right to sit on his patriarchal high horse and judge each and every woman in the vicinity? Prime example of a raging virgin/whore complex.

Situation #2: The harsh judging of an LGBTQ man who did a hula hooping routine. Claiming he didn’t have a talent, speculation on his sexual preferences and just plain old laughing at him abounded from the men behind me. The same goes for any performer who didn’t fit conventional beauty standards, although for this example I found them particularly vocal.

Situation #3: My shorter friend and I asked if we could squeeze in at the front. The man beside us said there was no room for him to move, but he would let us go in front of him since he can see over our heads. There was a condition, though: he had to be able to put his drinks on the banister, and reach for them every now and then when he wanted a sip. But ladies, beware! His hand has a mind of it’s own! Yes, he told us that. My friend and I laughed politely, as women are wont to do, and I stood their awkwardly wondering if she heard what he said, and if I should have done something differently. But at the risk of causing a scene? Maybe not.

Yes, my feminist buzz kill side is showing. All these things seem like common, minor, perhaps “faux pas”s. Or maybe to some people, they aren’t even a problem. But they reflect the need for events like Zombie Strippers, or organizations like PTS. They show a culture in Ottawa that fosters misogyny and discrimination. I look forward to the next show the lovely ladies and men of Rockalily will be putting on, and keep on working Ottawa! We can always think critically about what happens around us, and try to be as inclusive as possible. Ottawa’s awesome LGBTQ community is part of what makes it a wonderful city to live in.

Feminist Movie Review: The Invisible War

Today, I post my first ever feminist movie review! I’m starting out with an easy one. This movie takes a fairly blatantly liberal feminist standpoint. The Invisible War is a documentary about rape and sexual assault of female (and male) soldiers in the American military. The trailer for the film can be found here:

The Invisible War: Sundance Trailer

Firstly, I’d like to commend filmmaker Kirby Dick on tackling such a complex and insidious problem. Director Kirby Dick approaches the story from various angles, cover a vast amount of problems encountered by the victims. For example, women and one man give their stories in order to illustrate the issues for viewers. The aftershock of the assault is depicted in a legal, emotional, familial, medical way… but the list goes on, really. Each woman’s story is different.

Within a masculine institution such as the military, every systemic disadvantage is forced on those who come forward to confront the patriarchy. For example, women who have come forward have been charged with adultery, when they weren’t married… their perpetrator was. Covering problems like this, that are often invisible to other people, is part of the allure of the film.

Secondly, I felt as though the format of the film was very appropriate and effective. By interviewing individuals, and playing it into the legal and social issues surrounding sexual abuse in the military, I felt like Dick allowed viewers a personalized view into the effect of a sexual assault in the military, while not losing sight of the bigger picture.

Now, for a bit of a critique. My critique focuses on Dick’s theoretical approach to the subject matter of his film. What I just couldn’t agree with was the glorification of war. Patriotism to the point of wanting to kill other people, or risk one’s own life, has never sat well with me. That is a massive oversimplification of what the U.S. military does, but it is definitely a problematic institution, and not only because of the sexual assault rates.

Realist theory would imply that no one state can disarm itself, or it would risk upsetting the current balance of power. Being the dominant theory in the Western world, this does make sense to me. I do not expect, or want, an instant disarmament of any country. But the tactics being used to draw people into the military include inducing a feeling of extreme patriotism. Fighting for your country is seen as a duty. In the film, most of the women felt disillusioned following their sexual assault and subsequent despicable treatment by the military institutions. Often their spouses or partners also leave the military, or suffer a sort of psychological conflict between their previously held beliefs, and the reassessing after the sexual assault.

Furthermore, the participation of women in a traditionally (and still) masculine institution was not addressed at all. The women who succeed in the military are those who embody masculine traits, masculine ideals. War is masculine. It would have been very interesting to look more into how the patriarchal culture and the emphasis on brotherhood played into sexual assault and it’s prevalence in the U.S. army.

I greatly enjoyed the movie. I found it to be informative and well-structured. It got across the message effectively, and the message given was a very important one. Of course, it must be said, that the film was mostly in line with my own ideals… perhaps contributing to my enjoyment of it! Despite the glorification of war, and unaddressed conflicts between the feminine and masculine, I would give it three and a half stars out of five stars. Go see it, and tell me what you think!

As an aside, here’s some books by authors who were interviewed as a part of the movie. Worth checking out:

Porcelain on Steel by Donna McAleer

The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq by Helen Benedict

Women on Waves in Morocco & Abortion

The issue I’d like to address in this blog post is the recent news featuring the Dutch organization that has sailed a ship off the coast of Morocco offering abortions, and a hotline regarding abortion information. A general news article on the story can be found here:

Dutch group offering abortions on boat escorted from Moroccan harbour

I’ll sum up this gist of the story, using a few sources including the link provided above. In Morocco, abortion and the distribution of information regarding abortion is illegal. The exception (which is described as “rare” in the article) is if a woman’s life is threatened. The Dutch organization called Women on Waves used a boat with an abortion hotline written on the side to hand out informational fliers to bystanders. The group claims that the boat was fully equipped to provide safe abortions to women who wanted them. Furthermore, they planned to show women how to safely abort using an inducement drug, as well as discuss abortion in Morocco. The abortion services were considered safe up to six and a half weeks of pregnancy (source).

Naturally, many protestors were present. Some protestors stated that the Dutch group did not provide services in line with their Moroccan values. In addition to this, abortions are illegal in Morocco, and prohibited in Islam. However, Rebecca Gomberts, the group’s leader states that they were invited by a youth group called Alternative Movement for Individual Freedoms, implying that some people in Morocco are receptive to Women on Waves’ message. The health ministry stated that the ship would not be allowed into harbour, and the marina was closed. But the group had feared this response, and had parked their vessel a few days earlier. They sailed out of the port, but were escorted out of the marina, as the ministry stated they were not authorized to provide these services to Moroccans (sourcesourcesource).

So, what exactly is Women on Waves’ message? Their website provides this description of their core message:

Women on Waves aims to prevent unsafe abortions and empower women to exercise their human rights to physical and mental autonomy. We trust that women can do a medical abortion themselves and make sure that women have access to medical abortion and information through innovative strategies. But ultimately it is about giving women the tools to resist repressive cultures and laws.

The group has also been on various other missions to Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Poland. The Moroccan expedition is the first attempt to provide their services in a Muslim country. They attempt to provide safe abortions where they are illegal. They also do art projects, provide safe abortion hotlines, as well as projects within their native Netherlands. They possess a license under Dutch law to provide abortions aboard their mobile facility, but only within a 25 km radius of the Stotervaart Hospital for first trimester abortions. Because abortions by pill up to 6.5 weeks are not regulated in the Netherlands, the group can provide these with no regulations.

From a liberal legal standpoint, what Women on Waves is doing is wrong on all levels. They’re exercising complete disregard for state sovereignty, the cornerstone of liberal international law. Without state sovereignty, the entire system is toppled. Although, this is more of an ideal than a reality. One has to look no further than the United States’ international relations to realize that sovereignty may be enshrined in words, but not in actions.

When looking at this from a critical legal studies perspective, one approach would be to look at how well the Moroccan law fits Moroccan society. Judging by the articles on the case, citizens are generally happy with the law prohibiting abortion. They do not wish for a change, despite the fact that a minority of people do wish for discussion regarding the abortion laws in their country. Women who can afford it do go for abortions in other countries, though other poor women have unsafe abortions in their home country.

From a liberal feminist perspective, the law prohibiting abortions in Morocco, as well as the information regarding abortions is inherently wrong. It denies women rights that they inherently possess regarding the use of their bodies. Feminism is nearly always pro-choice, and it is my believe that the label feminism automatically means pro-choice.

But because of my (not so well-hidden) feminist standpoint, can I argue that what Women on Waves is doing is “right”? Not necessarily. I do believe that providing this sort of triage is a very useful service to scared women in Morocco, who would like to terminate their pregnancy, but are faced with risk with every option. I also believe that Moroccan women should be able to abort if they so choose. But how relevant are my views to these women? Am I another white, upper-middle class, straight, able-bodied feminist, imposing her opinion on a situation she doesn’t truly understand? In short, yes.

Things can be ideologically right without being suitable for the place or time. Nothing is always 100% right for every situation. I applaud these Dutch women for their convictions, their initiative, and their reaching out to women without their same privilege. Missions such as this may be the first step in educating the society, and providing the ground for social change, leading to legal change in Morocco. But women in Morocco have to want this in order for the change to take place. They have to believe abortion should be legal and available. At the current time, every article on the subject is very clear that most people in Morocco are not in favour of a pro-abortion law.

Although women such as myself are firmly convinced that EVERY woman should have access to abortions, this isn’t always the right or available choice. It’s easy to have a gut reaction to an issue such as the Women on Waves mission to Morocco, especially as someone who holds women’s right issues near to their heart. But it’s useful to remind ourselves that there are many social, legal, and political barriers at play, which must be taken into consideration when finding a fit for Moroccan society. Hopefully ultimately women will experience full control over their bodies, but in the mean time, we must be creative in how we approach the issue of abortion in Morocco and other countries.

Femmephobia and SMNTY

Today, I listened to an excellent and thoughtful podcast by the charming and witty ladies at Stuff Mom Never Told You. The topic of this week’s podcast is was femmephobia, particularly interesting to a feminist such as myself. The podcast can be found here (as well as on iTunes):

Stuff Mom Never Told You on How Stuff Works

Femmephobia: the devaluation, fear, and hatred of the feminine. This is the definition read by Caroline at the start of the podcast, which sums up what will be discussed in the following blog post.

This definition immediately caught my attention. In many of my political theory classes, activists were seen as less effective, less “feminist” if they possessed what were considered feminine characteristics. One student said she noticed a difference to how receptive the activist community was to her when she had short hair; compared to when her hair was long. Another had been blatantly told that while she was buying into patriarchal beauty ideals, she couldn’t be a “real” lesbian. All these experiences seemed to point to two different points of view: either the feminine should be accepted as a reality and a legitimate preference, or the feminine is a patriarchal structure and detracts from one’s legitimacy in the feminist community.

First we must define what is considered feminine. In the podcast, Caroline and Cristen mention things like the colour pink, the soft, and the emotional. Anything that is traditionally feminine, like baking, ponies, even Hello Kitty, is criticized by femmephobia as being “unserious”. It’s ok for women to be tomboys, but being a sissy is a horrible thing for men. The podcast emphasizes that femmephobia is particularly insidious because it’s easier to not recognize it as sexism. It’s not as blatant, and often goes unrecognized.

Naturally, the manic pixie dream girl enters the picture. For those who don’t know, the manic pixie dream girl is an archetype portrayed in film of a woman who exists solely for the maturation and healing of a male character. Her fun-loving, childlike and whimsical ways lead him out of a funk to the new him, often with no character development of her own. Zooey Deschanel is a prime example. Though I’m not a huge Zooey fan, I am definitely a fan of the cutesy, the polka-dotted, and the fuzzy. I believe that the theoretically offensive part of the manic pixie dream girl is the pliability of the woman to suit the man’s developmental needs of the time. Though the obsession with pink and fuzziness may be irritating to some, it can hardly be called unfeminist. However, some believe that the infantilizing aspect of an interest in things like ponies and cupcakes is simply not setting a good example of the female half of the population. Being a “non-threatening girl woman” is more pleasing to men, and is likened to pretending to be bad at academics, as cited by SMNTY.

Femmephobia runs deeper than this infantilizing issue, however. The problem is that the feminine is perceived as negative, for either gender. The problem is that women are expected to represent the entire gender with their interests and bodies. The problem is that women who are interested in topics such as these are not taken seriously, or are viewed as unimportant. The issue of femmephobia is so deeply ingrained that women criticize women, that it’s not recognized as sexism, and it’s harder to call out.

Caroline and Cristen come to the conclusion that this sort of femmephobia is a waste of time. Why are women nitpicking at other women for their interests? Why does it matter if I want to paint my room pink (which I did) and partook in horseback riding and dance lessons into my teens (which I also did)? Femmephobia is a part of a much deeper web of prejudices and discrimnation associated with gender, race and ableism, and perhaps as well dealing with economic status and age.

For now, women, let’s not pick away at each other’s choices. Whether or not the feminine is a patriarchal structure is irrelevant. We cannot step outside of society completely, which is profoundly patriarchal. So if you like make up and long hair, go ahead and enjoy it. I’m currently sitting at a café with my pink iPhone, flower-printed top, and eye make up. Though I recognize that this isn’t me in my entirety, it is certainly a part of me, and I refuse to be ashamed of it. I refuse to give up my feminine side, or my feminist side. They do not clash.

Thanks for a spectacular podcast SMNTY! Check out more from Caroline and Cristen, including topics such as uterine prolapses, Pussy riot, and body dysmorphic disorder, and read their blog here: Stuff Mom Never Told You Podcast Page

Now, I’m off to look for recipes on Pinterest for an afternoon of baking spent with a good friend. Pumpkin recipes, here I come!

It’s a Girl!

It’s a Girl – An ad by the Canadian Women’s Foundation

My post today examines an ad I saw on the television not too long ago. This ad was put out by the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

For those who chose not to watch the video, I’ll sum it up for you: women are shown at a baby shower for a girl (denoted by pink balloons saying “It’s a Girl”. The mother-to-be opens gifts, guests sip tea. All is well until she opens a box which contains a black whistle. The gift-giver says “It’s a rape whistle.” The video provides the startling statistic that 1 in 2 girls will be sexually or physically assaulted growing up in Canada.

I have a few comments on this video.

The first thing that I noticed was the incredibly high amount of “dislikes” that this video has received on Youtube. One commenter even complains that the video is “a bit of a downer”. I find this response a little surprising. Of course it’s a downer, it’s about the rape and assault of women! One commenter debates the veracity of the statistic using Wikipedia as their reference. Although I knew women’s rights were not primary on most people’s agendas, I did not expect the amount of backlash a simple t.v. commercial would receive.

Secondly, this video excludes many groups. It makes no mention of trans individuals who identify as female, or of how the risk of sexual or physical assault increases depending on the race of the woman in question. I recognize that this wasn’t the point of the video. You can’t revolutionize society, especially not through a commercial. But trans individuals are consistently excluded in feminist circles. If the general public is to be more aware of their struggles, them and their own struggles should be depicted in the media.

My final observation is that although commercials are a succinct and far-reaching way to raise awareness, it is perhaps not the most effective method for getting across important issues in the realm of women’s issues. Women’s issues are complex, and this simplifies the statistics, and shows a very narrow view of gender roles and identities. Again my theoretical preference rears it’s ugly head – the reality is so much more complex than can be easily consumed by the public.