“She Breathes Through Her Skin”- The Costume Design For The Strong Female Character.

Originally written for and posted on Film Inquiry.

I remember walking into the living room one day around Christmas time, my sister was sat on the sofa playing video games. One character, in particular, caught my eye. She stood out because she was wearing a bikini top and ripped trousers next to several men dressed for heavy combat. My sister told me that her name was Quiet, she couldn’t speak. Probably guessing that I was going to question the costume design for this character she told me that the reason was “she breathes through her skin.” Now, although this is a video game which is a whole other ball game in terms of discussing sexism in character design, this is something prevalent in the films we watch at the cinema, mostly action/adventure films.

What is a “Strong Female Character”?

A term that is tossed around  a lot in terms of the women in these films is that they are a “strong female character” But what does this mean? What is not my definition of a strong female character is throwing together an overly sexualised outfit for a female actress and giving her a gun and some one-liners and then declaring that “sexism is over”. It’s such a broad term, in fact, that it’s thrown around constantly in film reviews when a female character appears to have her own mind

It’s often said that the representation of women on-screen is far better than it used to be. We have seen recent films such as Mad Max: Fury Road depict women as equals, strong and capable without the need to sexualise them or degrade them in any way. The titular character becomes secondary to Charlize Theron’s fierce Furiosa and her mission to protect the women she has saved from the villain in the film. Similarly, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens no female characters are subjected to impractical or sexualised costumes. Daisy Ridley’s character Rey’s costume is fully designed with functionality in mind. The tan-colour lets her blend into the desert surroundings, the design of her trousers and boots that make her look like a capable character who isn’t restricted by unnecessarily tight clothing. The belt, the one thing that adds a “feminine” curved shape to the outfit is also practical and is used by the character at points in the film. Everything the character does in the film – fighting, running, jumping – is more than believable due to the design of her clothing.

Sexual Empowerment vs Sex Appeal

But this is where it gets confusing. There has been a surge in female superheroes on our screens in the past few years from Halle Berry’s portrayal of Catwoman, to more recently, Scarlett Johansen’s portrayal of Black Widow across the Marvel cinematic universe, such as in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers , and while that’s great, it wrongly suggests that the representation of women on screen in these genres is no longer an issue.

"She Breathes Through Her Skin": The Clothing Design Of The So-Called Strong Female Character
Avengers: Age of Ultron 2015) – source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Often, women appear to be empowered: they are the protagonist or antagonist, carry great strength and dialogue. However, although the actress appears to be acting on her own terms, i.e. owning her sexuality, in reality, her movements, particularly while fighting, are sexualised, and the camera will pan up and down her body, focusing on aspects of her tight fitting or revealing costume that are pleasing to the heterosexual male viewer. It caters to the male gaze; a term coined by Laura Mulvey in her 1973 essay titled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, in which she explains that in film, women are typically the objects, of gaze rather than the possessors of it. This is due to both the choice of the typically male filmmaker and the assumption of heterosexual men as the default target audience for most film genres.

This concept, when applied to these action/adventure characters was summed up by Caroline Heldman in the documentary Miss Representation, in which she explains “When you peel back a layer or two you discover it’s not really about their agency, I call this archetype the fighting fuck toy because although she is doing things supposedly on her own terms she very much is objectified and exists for the male viewer”. This takes away much of the appeal of these characters because when you build a character on the basis of appearance and sex appeal there is little left for the audience to empathise, creating a dynamic in which the audience objectifies rather than sees this character as a human.

Looking to the Future

The most recent example of ridiculous costume for a woman in an action/adventure film, a promotional image released from the upcoming Jumanji in which actress Karen Gillian stands in tight, skimpy clothes inappropriate for her surroundings with three fully clothed men (much like Wonder Woman with the rest of the Justice League at the top of this article). After backlash to the image, she took to Twitter to say “Yes I’m wearing child-sized clothes and YES there is a reason! The payoff is worth it, I promise!”

"She Breathes Through Her Skin": The Clothing Design Of The So-Called Strong Female Character
Jumanji (2017) – source: Sony Pictures Entertainment

However, I’m not so convinced, it’s  likely another “She Breathes Through Her Skin” or “She Owns Her Sexuality” style excuse but time will tell on this occasion. The main problem with these costumes on these women in these films is that it sells an idea of what a strong female character is whilst also selling her short. Giving less to character development and less to showcasing an actresses performance in order to focus on looks and sexual appeal.

Because at the end of the day, when I see a film, I don’t want to see a strong female character. I want to see a human character. Someone who is multifaceted and relatable whilst also able to hold her own in an action/adventure story and due to costume choices and choices made by the directors of these characters are being sold short and I believe they can do better.

What do you think about the promotional image released for Jumanji?

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Ocean Studios- Jock Mooney, ‘WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU WANT’

Yesterday, I went along to Ocean Studios  in Plymouth to see the most recent exhibition by Jock Mooney. This was my second visit to the beautiful little gallery at Royal William Yard.img_4032blog

“Referencing the edible tableaux associated with various religious festivals, Mooney displays these ideas in large cake-like forms: a two-faced Janus cat head, a torso with multiple sexual characteristics, the severed head of Marie Antoinette. These grotesques are in part inspired by eighteenth-century gingerbread biscuits produced for Saint’s Days in many European countries. Coloured brown and beige – the colours of gingerbread, cake, chocolate, or excrement – these votive figures are held aloft on highly coloured pompoms, garish bespoke fabric and gaudy domestic furniture.”

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The exhibition is very colourful and there are lots of strange and interesting components to view including grotesque, detailed sculptures/ pen on paper drawings of faces as well as fun brightly coloured patterned rugs. It’s entertaining and different but I would definitely pick up the exhibition guide for a bit of background and explanation!

The Exhibition runs from the 23rd of September to the 20th of November.

Film Review Round Up Vol. 4

Queen of Katwe (2016)- Directed by Mira Nair

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Based on a true story, Disney’s Queen of Katwe follows Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), a young girl living in Uganda with her mother (Lupita Nyong’0). Her world completely changes when she is introduced to the game of chess by a youth worker (David Oyelowo) the film follows her rags-to-riches esque story as she fights through prejudice, self-doubt, and poverty to strive for her dream of being a chess champion. It’s a feel good film overall but definitely an emotional rollercoaster you can be laughing one minute and on the verge of tears another. I absolutely loved this film, the performances by all the cast are fantastic and it has a brilliant credit sequence at the end. Definitely go and support this film while it is out in cinemas!

Fan (2016)- Directed by Mannish Sharma

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I was intrigued to watch this film after watching Mark Kermode’s favourite films of the year so far video on youtube. I was mostly interested because I saw the film starred Shah Rukh Khan who I’d previously seen in the 2001 film Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham playing both the older and the younger characters in the film. The CGI alone in this is great, both characters are believably different ages whilst also looking identical, which is impressive to pull off. Shah Rukh Khan is fantastic playing two completely different characters, both the obsessive stalking fan and the idol. The film is a bit silly, traveling all over the world (who knew you could get a train from Kings Cross, London directly to Dubrovnik, Croatia?) and featuring crazy action sequences. It doesn’t really say anything new with its analysis of fan culture but it’s definitely an enjoyable watch.

The Lovers and The Despot (2016)- Directed by Ross Adam and Robert Cannan 

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I was interested in the idea of this documentary after watching the trailer, it seemed like such an absurd story especially to be one that is based on real events. The basic premise is that using secretly recorded tapes of Kim Jong-il as well as interviews with some of the people involved. The documentary recounts the story of how in 1978, South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and her ex-husband, filmmaker Shin Sang-ok were independently kidnapped by film-lover North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and were forced to make films in order to improve the North Korean film industry. The film has you hooked throughout like a real-life thriller, It explains their brainwashing, their lives as prisoners for 7 years and their amazing escape from North Korea. It is terrifying and fascinating to watch.

What have you been watching lately?

The Fight For Freedom of Expression: Sonita and Female Empowerment Through Music

Originally Commissioned by The Time is Now and posted here.

“Let me scream I am tired of the silence” raps Sonita in her internationally viewed music video filmed as part of the new documentary Sonita by documentary filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami. The subject of the documentary; her name self-defined in the film as a “swallow, a migrant bird.” Afghan-born, Sonita fled to Iran as a child with part of her family to escape the Taliban. She works in a refugee community centre as a cleaner and studies there with a group of other girls. Sonita is a talented young rapper inspired by western influences such as Rihanna. When she is 15, her mother visits her in Iran to tell her that she is being sold as a bride for $9,000 in order for her brother to pay for a bride of his own. The relationship between self-expression and female empowerment here is incredibly important, Sonita raps around poverty, women’s rights and her own struggles as an Afghan refugee.queensofsyria

This is similar to documentary Queens of Syria by Yasmin Fedda as both films use a personal filmmaking approach that ends up exploring the relationship between the female filmmaker and the subject. In Sonita, the filmmaker is constantly encouraging her to use her voice and to express how she is feeling and blurs the line between a passive filmmaker and an active participant in the events that unfold. Both in Sonita and Queens of Syria women share their experiences through performance. In Queens of Syria, a group of refugee women in Jordan rehearse and perform a modified version of the Euripides’ play Trojan Women, to tell their stories and empower each other by standing together in the face of all the pain they have gone through. “I have a scream I want the whole world to hear…But I wonder if it will be heard?” However, throughout Queens of Syria, many women drop out of the play and are reluctant to take part due to their faith, culture and community pressures that don’t wish them to express themselves in this way as women, as it is seen as detrimental to their family lives. However, in many ways, Sonita is the opposite. She often happily rebels against her society and her gender role through her rap music and questions the norms of her culture asking “what will happen if I sing?” when told by family it is indecent for a woman to do so. She is not ashamed nor does she shy away from writing and performing songs about uncomfortable subjects such as poverty and the Afghan tradition of selling women as brides.

Similarly to the protagonist in animated memoir Persepolis (2007); also set in Iran, Sonitadocuments a struggle for identity. Both Sonita and the protagonist, Marjane in Persepolisare fiercely spirited and outspoken as well as in their youth using music to both escape their reality and confront it. Both using music to challenge their societies and their gender roles as Islamic women in Iran. However, Persepolis is set much earlier than Sonita. In the 1980s/90s, the young Marjane uses punk – even wearing an iconic handmade jacket with the slogan “punk is not dead” in the streets of Iran, as her medium of expressing herself. She risks her life and freedom purchasing western music tapes on the black market to feel a sense of identity in a society that oppresses her. These tapes are described as “symbols of Western decadence”, which is something that in Sonita, the young rapper aspires to. She spends time scrapbooking her perfect life and superimposing her face on images of Rihanna. However, for Marjane, music has its limits. It is not the saviour of her identity struggles or a full escape from her current life. Her punk music only works as a young girl in Iran, once she is sent away to Europe she no longer finds the need to rebel or seek out empowerment through music.

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Sonita takes a very different approach to using music to express yourself and empower yourself as a woman in comparison to more western films about this subject. Ladies & Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains made in 1982 at the height of the punk movement but before the Riot Grrrl movement took off, shows a teenage female punk band fronted by Corinne Burns, an angry, disillusioned girl using music to deal with her emotions surrounding her mother’s death. Throughout the film, girls thank her for speaking what they were thinking or what they were afraid to say. In a rant after a poorly received show she says to the women “be yourselves, These guys laugh at you. They’ve got such big plans for the world. but they don’t include us!” She spends the film carving out a place for her and her band in the music scene ignoring the patronising advice of the male bands she is touring with and empowers herself and the women around her expressing herself her own way.

Similarly, Swedish film We Are the Best! also set in the 1980s but made in 2013, follows a band of misfit young girls who form a punk rock band (with no experience in playing music) as a means of escape from their lives and to express their feelings and identities. They are androgynous and reject their femininity but are often taunted –  sarcastically called the “prettiest girls in town”. Music gives them an outlet against a world that makes them feel like they don’t belong. This is not a world away from Sonita, who uses her rap music to get her voice heard and by doing so uplifts the voices of the silent and the abused. Whilst Sonita’s struggles include seeking justice against sexist traditions and laws by wanting to stay in school and rap; which is illegal for her to do in Iran both Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains and We Are The Best! do the opposite – rejecting certain privileges such as school and supportive peers due to angst and disillusionment with their lives. These films are also set in a different era, where punk is the method of expressing these emotions. Sonita is a much more contemporary way of looking at female empowerment through music using rap/hip-hop arguably the modern protest music form to express herself and empower women.

Something the protagonists share in all these films is a need for female self-expression. Wanting to share their experiences through music and uplift the women around them. Sonita is a fantastic modern tale of this and gives a voice to the women she wishes to empower through her music.

Sonita is in UK cinemas from 21st October.

“Bloom” Book Launch 

A few weeks ago I attended a free event at the Waterstones on Tottenham Court Road in London which was the launch event of the book Bloom by Estée Lalonde which included the author (a well known youtuber and blogger) in attendance doing a live Q&A in conversation with blogger Emma Gannon.

I was in London that day anyway for the London Film Festival and since I have been watching her videos for a few years (as well as enjoying the book CTRL ALT DELETE: How I Grew Up Online by Emma Gannon) it seemed like the perfect opportunity! The atmosphere was very friendly there were around 30 people there (mostly female) and everyone was a similar age.

I really enjoyed the Q&A it was warm and funny and I got to meet Estée afterwards for her to sign my book.

I recently finished reading it, it only took a few hours due to the spaced-out magazine style of the book filled with loads of gorgeous photos. I definitely enjoyed the first half the most, in which Estée is the most personal talking about her past, relationships, and mental health. The second half is very much focused on fashion, lifestyle, and beauty most of which is similar to things you can find on her youtube channel or blog. I think you could classify it as a coffee table read as it’s very dip-in-dip-out and visually pleasing. Overall, I enjoyed the book and would recommend to anyone who enjoys her online content.

 

A Day at the London Film Festival.

On the 6th of October I jumped on the train to attend the BFI London Film Festival, I’d never attended before and was excited to see how it would compare to similar scale festivals I’ve been to previously. I had tickets to see 2 films I’ve been excited about months Amma Assante’s A United Kingdom and the first Non-Japanese collaboration from Studio Ghibli The Red Turtle both of which were conveniently screening at the big Odeon Cinema in Leicester Square. I got there ridiculously early (which won’t surprise anyone who knows me). My first screening of the day was at 11:30am, it happened to be the Gala Screening of the night before and they were packing up the rest of the red carpet and wall when I got there. So I waited outside the box office, picked up my tickets and was ready to begin.

A United Kingdomaunitedkingdom2

Set in the 1940s and starring David Oyelowo (Selma, Queen of Katwe) and Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, Pride and Prejudice). A United Kingdom tells the story of the real-life marriage between Seretse Khama, Prince of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) and British office clerk Ruth Williams and the international uproar their union caused. I absolutely loved this film. It was emotional, funny and heartbreaking in places. It tackles feelings of identity, love, and prejudice from both countries involved. The film’s score compliments the sweeping romance of the film whilst the cinematography captures the two very different countries perfectly using colour and framing. This feels like a triumphant and culturally relevant film. Definitely, recommend!

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This wordless animation follows a man stranded on a desert island who is prevented from leaving by a mysterious giant red turtle. As I said previously, this is a collaboration with Studio Ghibli and french director Michael Dubok de Wit. For me, seeing the familiar logo of the studio at the start of the film filled me with emotion immediately. This is a very different animation style to the Japanese films made at the studio and Michael Dubok de Wit described the creative freedom he had working with them during the Q&A as an “adventure” for the both of them. The film itself was beautiful animated and simplistic which made up for it being slightly predictable in its story.

When asked at the Q&A why he chose for the film to have no dialogue he explained that he didn’t want the audience to know the nationality or cultural background of the character allowing him to be a blank canvas for the audience to project on. I think this worked perfectly in the context of the film and I really hope that Studio Ghibli does more collaborations in the future.

Overall, I have a great time and would love to go back next year for longer!  Did you attend the BFI London Film Festival? If so, what did you see?

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) Review.

It’s no secret that I absolutely adore stop-motion animation and Laika Studios (Coraline, The Box Trolls)  is in my opinion the best out there at this style. Kubo and the Two Strings, follows young one-eyed Japanese boy named Kubo who is hunted from birth by his grandfather, known as the  Moon King. Armed with a shamisen Kubo is forced to flee the home he shares with his mother and winds up on a scavenger trail-esque adventure with a talking monkey and a samurai beetle.

The film has a fantastic balance of comedy, emotional scenes and genuinely scary moments throughout (that probably would have terrified me as a child!) and it definitely had surprising moments that emotionally cut you right to your core. The animation was fantastic as expected, and even exceeded my expectations. Laika Studios really seem to be pushing what is possible with this medium and it’s absolutely fantastic to watch.kubopuppet

If that hasn’t sold you yet the film features what is believed to be the largest stop motion puppet ever made (pictured above, it’s 16 feet tall!)

Overall, if you haven’t seen this magical adventure film yet please do go buy a ticket to support this amazing animation studio who just keep getting better and better with their storytelling style and I can’t wait to see what they do next!

The Hard Stop (2015) Review.

Directed by George Amponsah; and opening with the quote “A riot is the language of the unheard”- Martin Luther King Jr, The Hard Stop documents the events leading up to and the aftermath of the killing of Mark Duggan by London police in 2011 which sparked the huge unprecedented riots across the country.

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Filming over 28 months, the film shows an insider look into the  lives of the people in London where young black people feel permanently persecuted by the police. Marcus Knox- Hooke who was blamed for instigating the riots and Kurtis Henville, childhood friends of Mark Duggan are the eyes and voice of this film describing the anger and frustration felt by them and their community at what they feel is an injustice to them. Henville is a big-talker, expressive and a hard worker whereas Knox-Hooke comes across as quieter but bitterly angry about what has happened. They are first shown in The Hard Stop as they drive through Tottenham, near the Broadwater Farm estate where Knox-Hooke, Henville and Duggan grew up. they neighbourhood is most well known for the death of a police officer during earlier London riots in 1985, which were also sparked by anger at police brutality against the black community. There is purposefully no attempt to show the side of the police officers involved in Mark Duggan’s death as this is a film about a very particular perspective, one which we are rarely shown in the media.

The Hard Stop is an important film in the time of the movement Black Lives Matter against Police Brutality. The film closes with a statistic stating that despite approximately 1,500 U.K. deaths following contact with the police since since 1990, not a single officer has been charged in any of these cases.It’s an emotionally charged film but an incredibly current analysis of racial politics in the UK.

On The Stage: A Streetcar Named Desire

I remember studying A Streetcar Named Desire; the 1947 play by Tennessee Williams, in depth during my English Literature A-Level at school. Then watching the 1951 film adaptation starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando and loving them both. So, when I discovered a few months ago that tickets were going on sale for a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester starring none other than Maxine Peake, who I’d seen perform as Hamlet previously in a recording of the production at the Cornerhouse I couldn’t stop myself from buying tickets.

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I’d never been to the Royal Exchange before and it’s such a fantastic venue, it’s in the round and I was lucky enough to be stage side so you could see everything up close and personal. The set was incredibly minimalist featuring 2 mattresses, a fridge, a fold-down table and a bathtub separated by a clear screen. Although the set has been criticised for being too simplistic I think it gave a stronger focus on the performance by the actors and the set with the brilliant lighting filled in the backdrop and atmosphere where needed. Throughout the play, Blanche is haunted by 3 personified versions of her inner demons and I found the use of sound and light to showcase this very interesting. Maxine Peake was incredible, capturing both the flirty funny side of the play as well as the dark, complicated side of her character, Blanche DuBois. I also thought the performances by Sharon Duncan-Brewster who played Stella and Ben Batt who played Stanley very strong also. They had fantastic chemistry throughout the play.

Overall, the show was fantastic I absolutely loved it and the venue. I would definitely go back if given the opportunity and if you have managed to get tickets for this show (I’ve heard it’s completely sold out) let me know what you think!

TV Shows I’ve Been Loving- Summer 2016

Stranger Things (2016-)

The Netflix original show that no one can seem to stop talking about is obviously on this list. Starring Winona Ryder and David Harbour along with a brilliant cast of children Stranger Things is a homage to the 1980s films we all grew up with such as ET, The Goonies and Stand By Me. The story, set in a small town in Indiana follows the hunt for a child that goes missing. I don’t want to give any spoilers so I won’t say more than that. I knew nothing going in and I think that was a good idea. So if you haven’t already watched this on Netflix I would highly recommend.

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The Bridge (2011-)

My Mum has been trying to get me to watch this for months, when I finally gave in I was very pleased that I had. This Swedish/Danish Crime Drama is set under the premise that when a body is found on the bridge between Denmark and Sweden, right on the border, Danish inspector Martin Rohde and Swedish Saga Norén have to share jurisdiction and work together to find the killer. What follows is a series of psychopathic incidents that Saga and Martin must find the perpetrator of. I think it’s a fantastic idea for a series and executed wonderfully. I’ve only seen season 1, there are 2 more seasons on Netflix and more on the way so I look forward to continuing this series.

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Good Morning Call (2016)

Good Morning Call (another Netflix Original) is a Japanese romantic-comedy series based on a Manga of the same name. This was recommended by my friend Morayo (her blog can be found here)  The story starts when protagonist Nao accidentally ends up renting a flat with the most popular boy at her school.I watched this at the very beginning of the summer and adored it. It’s very silly and cheesy but really fun to watch and much lighter hearted than anything else on this list.

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Well that’s the Television Shows I’ve been enjoying this summer, what have you been watching?

I’d love to hear any recommendations!