“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?

Wonder Women.

March was Women’s History Month and in Manchester there were tons of events to celebrate it and International Women’s Day on March 8th 2016. Similarly to last year, Wonder Women festival was held across the city featuring film screenings, art exhibitions and special events. There was also the annual Reclaim The Night march through the streets of Manchester in late February.

 I finally had the chance to visit the Pankhurst centre (which is a little hard to find,  as it is in the middle of the Manchester Royal Infirmary & is only open on Thursdays). The centre is the former home of Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters and is the location of the first meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union and the birthplace of the Suffragette movement. It’s a really interesting museum and acts as a women’s community centre continuing the legacy of the building. I also attended the art exhibition What IS She Wearing at Manchester Art Gallery by Instigate Arts which explored the relationship between fashion and how it is used to explore gender, sexuality and identity, this was really interesting and included performances, sculptures and installations around the gallery.

I also attended Reclaim The Night on the 25th of February, chanting and singing down the streets of Manchester, it started in Owens Park, Fallowfield and finished at the Manchester University Student Union on Oxford Road. Over 3500 people attended. This was the first Reclaim The Night I’ve attended and I absolutely loved it, the atmosphere was full of such energy, noise and a passion for what we were doing. If you don’t know, Reclaim The Night is a protest movement against street harassment, victim blaming and rape culture. As we walked through the streets we faced both support and backlash from local residents and drivers, some revving their engines to try and drown us out but that was definitely a minority of the people we encountered. Overall, it was a really great experience and I would love to attend next year.

Work Update: “Zinester” and “Lunch Date”

ZineDoc.Still002

I am currently working on a short documentary called Zinester about the feminist Zine community in Manchester. I have already finished shooting it and I am currently in post-production and should be finishing it early next week. I am directing, filming and editing the project and it features Zine makers such as Ingrid Boring, Cherry Styles, Seleena Daye and Natalie Bradbury.

The other project I am working on is Lunch Date (Working Title) on which I am the producer. We finished shooting the short narrative film last week and we are in post-production with the project.

It has been great working on both projects and to practice the skills I will need for the graduate film in 2016.

Suffragette (2015) Review.

Finally, I was able to see the film I have been excited for since mid-2014 when I stumbled upon them filming outside the Houses of Parliament. Suffragette Directed by Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane, This Little Life) and starring Carey Mulligan (An Education, Far From the Madding Crowd, The Great Gatsby), Helena Bonham Carter (The King’s Speech, Sweeny Todd, Les Misérables) and briefly Meryl Streep (Into the Woods, The Hours, Sophie’s Choice).

Suffragette followed Mulligan’s character Maud as she slowly starts to fight back against the systematic oppression of women. The film is definitely a slow burner and I think it does a good job of building up the tension and anger felt by the protagonist as well as developing her character with Mulligan’s terrific performance. I also really enjoyed Helena Bonham Carter’s character as well as Anne Marie-Duff’s (Before I go to Sleep, Nowhere Boy).  They were really great believable supporting characters that added depth to the story.

The film does play out as more of a history lesson and I feel that it fails in some ways to stir up emotion especially if you are already familiar with the Suffragette movement. Nothing was particularly surprising or shocking to me, in fact the most heart wrenching moments were about the life of the ficticious Maud rather than the more historically based areas of the film. However, I think that to someone new to the history that it would be very educational despite being a fictional story because I know that I personally, knew nothing of the suffragettes until my optional GCSE History classes at school meaning that a lot of people that see this film may be shocked by some of the treatment of the suffragettes.

I do feel that perhaps the cast was a bit too small sometimes, you didn’t really feel the scale of the movement. However, I really loved the ending in which they blend the film with real life footage of the suffragettes, it’s the only time in the film it feels like the movement is bigger than the few on screen. I did however, have an issue with the rolling list of dates that stated when suffrage was won for women in different countries right before the credits of the film, because it stated that it was 1920 for the U.S.A. which is forgetting the fact that black women were not able to vote until 1965, I think it’s a shame that they did not clarify this.

I think the film does a good job of telling an important story without glamourising the struggle for women in Britain to get the vote, it also does a good job of not making you feel like the fight for women’s rights is over. I did really enjoy the film and definitely recommend you give it a watch!

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014) Review.

On Friday the 21st of August I attended a screening of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry at the London Feminist Film Festival in the Rio Cinema. Directed by Mary Dore, this documentary celebrates the almost forgotten history of the women’s liberation movement from 1966-1971.

Shes-Beautiful-When-Shes-Angry-Screenshot

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is a mix  of modern day interviews weaved together with archival footage of protests, meetings and political speeches. Whilst it mostly focuses on gender it also touches on the intersectionality of race and lesbianism and the conflicts that did arise through these issues within the feminist movement and continue to today. The best thing about this documentary is that it encapsulates the spirit of the 1960s-70s without romanticising the time period, it is both funny, infuriating and heartbreaking at times, particularly when discussing the illegal Jane Collective who helped thousands of women have safe abortions. I found the film particularly interesting as most of what was shown was completely knew to me, it’s scary really how much of women’s history can be lost.

The film is both exhilarating in energy and poignant about highlighting these issues in a modern context and even points out that some rights gained during this time period are now being taken away in the USA (for example, reproductive rights).  As discussed in the panel after the screening the film did have some problematic elements, barely covering racial tensions in the feminist movement and leaving out trans women altogether. I do sympathise however, as this was a huge topic to cover in a feature length film.

Overall, I very much enjoyed the film and hope it gets a UK distributor so more people can see it!

“Sybil”- Short Work Update.

I am currently working on a short fiction film with the working title “Sybil”. I went to Lyme Park in Stockport earlier today to do some test & preliminary shots for the film which we are shooting next week.sybilblogupdate copy

The film is based on an old English folktale called “Bearnshaw tower and Lady Sybil”. I look forward to sharing it with you!

The Feminist Takeover.

Tomorrow on the 5th of March there will be a feminist takeover of Manchester art gallery as part of the launch of Wonder Woman week. I helped organise this event with a group of feminists and artists and will be there filming it tomorrow night! We’ve got a huge range of art from women mainly based in the North West.

feministtakeoversmall

Taken from the Press Release:

From suffragette smashing windows in the gallery to a breathtaking exhibition of female surrealists, Manchester has a rich heritage of stereotype-smashing women. Yet society, and the art world, is still dominated by men. ‘In Emergency Break Glass’ brings together the North’s best emerging female contemporary artists, performers & creatives to challenge the male-dominated artistic canon, respond to the gallery’s artworks and inspire attendees. Curated by The Feminist Takeover team (made up of feminist artists, curators, writers and researchers, protagonists from No More Page 3, For Book’s Sake, Mighty Heart Theatre and Stirred Poetry),

This Thursday Late will run from 5.30-8, with events beginning in the Atrium at 6pm. Audiences are invited to tour the new contemporary exhibition that we have installed within the permanent collection. Live performances are scheduled all evening throughout the gallery and within the Feminist Takeover hub in the Atrium, and audiences are welcomed to explore the issues for themselves via the interactive arts & artist discussions that will be occurring throughout the evening in the Atrium.

By giving self-identified women a voice in the context of Manchester Art Gallery we aim to encourage discussion and explore the issues around the representation of women within the gallery, the art world and the wider society.

If any of my followers are based in Manchester, this will be a great event and I hope you attend!

The facebook event can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1374843142834105/

Women in the Film Industry.

This is a subject I’ve been wanted to discuss for a while now. Recently the Geena Davis study into women in film  had it’s results published. The study showed that only 21% of filmmakers are female. There have been several studies into women in the film industry, the documentary Miss Representation stated in 2011 that only 16% of all Directors, Producers, Cinematographers and Editors are women. Furthermore, Stephen Follows investigated the percentage of women in film crews in July 2014, discovering that the number of women in a film crew has actually DECLINED in the last 20 years.

Now as an aspiring female filmmaker these statistics are incredibly disheartening, especially noting that just under half of the people on my filmmaking course are female so, it’s not as if  the vast majority of people studying the subject are men.  However, this has made me reflect on the work that I’ve done and been a part of, very few people I’ve worked with in a filmmaking environment are women. So these statistics makes a lot of sense.

Full info graphic can be found here: http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2014/9/infographic-on-gender-bias-in-media

It is quite frustrating knowing that women, who make up half the world’s population are not represented in this industry which is only of the most widely accessible and widely consumed art form and media outlet along with Photography and Graphic Design. It is incredibly important that women break into this industry because currently mainstream film is full of very male dominated stories, and the stories that do feature a prominent female character are still often controlled by male filmmakers.

So there is still a lot of progress to be made and I think it’s important that these issues are discussed.

An article from Little White Lies magazine:

http://www.littlewhitelies.co.uk/features/articles/how-women-can-improve-their-lot-in-the-film-industry-28135

Here is a great video from youtuber Rosianna Halse Rojas discussing the Stephen Follows report on the gender of film crews: