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Looking for Girls in All the Boys' Places

Article by Stephanie Rosenfeld, appeared in issue Issue #2; published in 1996; filed under Film; tagged Catwoman, gender bending, gender roles, heroines, Hollywood, superheroes, superheroines.
An Unlikely Feminist Film Fest

Wish there were more kick-ass female characters in the movies? Enough with The Piano-esqe mute-is-powerful bullshit. Sometimes you can find feminism in the most unlikely places, like action movies and Freaky Friday-like comedies.

Batman II

Why isn't this movie called Catwoman?In a classic reduction of any women's issue—the lack of great film roles for women—into a petty disagreement, the media paid more attention to the catfight among Hollywood's top actresses over who would play Catwoman than to why the role was worth fighting over. Batman II is more about Catwoman's inner conflict over her own gendered identity than that sulky bat guy. Catwoman struggles with two ideas of herself: is she the naive secretary Selina Kile who waits for her fairy-tale prince to rescue her, and whose dead-end job gets her knocked out the window of a tall building by her boss, the evil Max Shreck? Or is she Catwoman—standing up for herself, protecting other women, delivering justice, and scorning Selina's weaknesses in herself and other women?

Catwoman's first act is to save a young woman from sexual assault. Afterwards she sneers, "You make it so easy, don't you, always waiting for some Batman to save you. I am Catwoman, hear me roar." For Catwoman, women are not just innocent victims; she holds them responsible for not using their power to defend themselves. It's not a blame-the-victim thang—her words are an encouragement to women to take an active role in their own defense, and an indication of the potential of female power.

In keeping with this rejection of dependence and emphasis on agency, Catwoman/Selina Kile is ambivalent about her relationship with Batman/Bruce Wayne, who wants to be her knight in shining black armor. Early in the movie, her Selina Kile side says, "He makes me feel the way I hope I really am." But later, after she has come to more power through her Catwoman persona, she tells him, "It seems that every woman you save ends up dead or deeply resentful. Maybe you should retire." This outright criticism challenges the damsel-in-distress trope that no superhero plotline is ever without.

Catwoman's inner conflict comes to a head when she must choose between living a fairy-tale life with Batman, or being true to her sense of justice and new-found personal power. The ending does not disappoint. Warning—I'm about to give it away, so if you want to see the movie and be surprised, you'll have to skip this part. In the final scene, Batman and Catwoman confront Shreck, the ruthless tycoon whose plan to build a huge power plant—one that would secretly drain instead of generate electricity—has brought mayhem to Gotham. Batman wants to take Shreck to jail. But Catwoman distrusts the justice system and wants to take care of him herself.

Batman: Why are you doing this? Let's just take him to the police. Then we can go home, together. Selina, don't you see, we're the same, we're the same, split right down the center. Selina, please.
Catwoman: Batman, I would love to live with you in your castle forever just like in the fairy tale. I just couldn't live with myself. So don't pretend this is a happy ending.
Shreck: Selina Kile, you're fired.

But it is a happy ending. Selina Kile is fired—that naive dependence is gone forever. Catwoman administers her own justice, giving Shreck the kiss of death as she grabs a power cable and fries him to a crisp. Then she takes off, leaving Batman and his fairy-tale desires behind. Go girl!
So where's Catwoman II?

Lethal Weapon III

Lethal Weapon III is one of the more progressive shoot-em-up buddy-cop flicks. Sgt. Murtaugh, one of LA's finest, kills a gangbanger in a shoot-out. It turns out he knows the kid, a friend of his son. When the father of the dead boy tells him, "You want to do something, Sgt. Murtaugh? You find the man who put the gun in my son's hand," Murtaugh takes the gun and works his way back up the ladder. In doing so he makes a few points about young black drug-dealing men being small-fry victims of larger powers that be:

Murtaugh: Where did this gun come from, motherfucker, huh?
Perpetrator: Fuck you.
Murtaugh: You ever heard of genocide? You stupid motherfuckers. You ever heard of genocide? You fools are killing yourselves. You're killing us. And I'm tired of it.

Murtaugh traces the gun back to a dirty ex-cop who steals automatic weapons confiscated by the LAPD, and sells them to drug lords and gangbangers in communities of color in Los Angeles.

Enter our heroine, Sgt. Lorna Cole from Internal Affairs, hot on the trail of the crooked ex-cop. A martial arts expert who wields a computer as well as a gun, she doesn't hesitate to take on five men at a time in pursuit of truth and justice. Unlike many intelligent women in the movies, devotion to her job does not make her sexless and undesirable. When Sgt. Cole single-handedly subdues a garage full of armed men, romantic interest and fellow cop Martin Riggs doesn't jump in to help or rescue her. He turns to Murtaugh and says, "I want you to see something. Watch. She has a gift." He looks on in awe saying, "That's my girl." When all the bad guys are unconscious on the ground, she plays with popular perceptions of feminine anger and quips, "This pms, it's murder."

Not everything about the movie is this fab, of course. The comic use of excessive violence by our heroes on the force isn't quite as funny as I guess it was supposed to be before Rodney King. ("We're LAPD. We're just doing some routine inquiries. Have you been checked for lungs lately?" "You better tell me where this gun is from or I'll shoot your motherfucking brains out.") On the up side, the movie hints at a larger societal context and acknowledges the role that white-dominated power structures, as well as individual white men, play in that violence. On the down side, this point is tempered by the one-rotten-apple fallacy: the bad guy is an ex-cop, because oh yes, we all know that there's no systematic abuse of power at the LAPD.

And our heroine's character doesn't evolve much. But who cares? It's an action movie—we want explosions, not character development. And explosions and car chases are what we get. When the dust clears, we're left with some surprising political messages—like Murtaugh's daughter's "Pro-Choice NARAL" t-shirt. And, of course, the kick-ass Lorna Cole.

Switch

Switch is about Steve Brooks, a male chauvinist pig and ad exec who is invited to jacuzzi with three of his ex-girlfriends.

Steve: I don't believe it, I'm sitting here with three beautiful women who said they hated me. I must be dreaming.
Margo: We still hate you.
Felicia: We decided you should be punished for the way you treat women.
Liz: Oh yeah, men like you just have to be stopped.
Steve: How're you going to stop me?
Liz: We're going to kill you.
Steve: What a way to die...

And they drown him in the jacuzzi, hog-tied with their silk stockings. Steve arrives in purgatory to find that—tee-hee—men who don't respect women go to hell. But in this case, God—played by two voices: one male, one female—gives Steve a chance to redeem himself. He must find one female who loves him. To prevent him from simply sweet-talking some woman, he is returned to earth in the body of blond bombshell Amanda. And then this gender bender gets interesting.

Steve/Amanda shows us how a person very unused to being insulted would react to those everyday experiences of sexism that those of us who've spent our entire lives inhabiting female bodies know all too well. It's a treat to see such self-confident responses, as Steve/Amanda pauses to react to offenses so commonplace that women usually ignore them. A sample: "I'll tell you why I'm so pissed off, buddy boy—I'm sick and tired of being treated like a piece of meat." And unlike so many women—even those with stereotypically "perfect" bodies—Steve/Amanda is in love with his/her new body, and keeps feeling him/herself up on camera. Even though this action is spurred by a male consciousness and so is kind of a breast envy thang, the spectacle (and it is one) of a woman fascinated with the beauty (as opposed to the excess or unruliness) of her own body, touching herself in a pleasure-filled and quasi-sexual way, is transgressive and empowering.

Between the one-liners and the slapstick (Steve/Amanda's inability to walk in high heels gets old quick), the movie raises some questions you don't expect from light comedy: How do men and women talk about desire? Is there anything essentially male or female? How much choice do we have over our gender identities? When Steve/Amanda makes sexual comments to Walter, Steve's best friend, and Walter finds it strange, Steve/Amanda asks him, "So women aren't supposed to feel the same things a man feels?... It's ok for a man to say, 'I'm horny, I'd like to get laid.' This is not ok for a woman to say?" In another key scene, Steve/Amanda wakes up to find that while passed out from drinking, he/she was date raped by Walter. He/she smacks Walter in the jaw, and when he insists that she loved it, he/she sets him straight. "Don't you give me that macho self-serving crap. I was unconscious, buddy boy. I didn't love anything."

Also unusual for a mainstream movie is the lesbian subplot. Steve/Amanda hits on Sheila, the CEO of a cosmetics company, because he/she wants to win her advertising account. In some ways, it's positive: the physical image of two women embracing and dancing romantically is very daring (not to mention fun to watch). And the film does acknowledge Steve's homophobia, when Margo explains Steve/Amanda's inability to consummate anything with Sheila: "Gay, male or female, scares the hell out of you." But the subplot gets dropped and the film never explores the possibility of Steve getting to heaven through a relationship with Sheila.

Now, the end of the movie is weird and convoluted at best—yes, I'm giving it away again—Steve/Amanda bears Walter's child and, because this baby is a female and loves her mother, Steve gains entrance to heaven while simultaneously abandoning the child to single-parent Walter. Not the most satisfying ending. But how could there be one? The joy of this film lies not with any sort of resolution, but instead with watching a very male consciousness inside a very female body: we can see and analyze the differences.

We may love these movies, but that doesn't mean they're perfect—as their individual flaws demonstrate. And even though Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), Lorna Cole (Renée Russo), and Amanda (Ellen Barkin) certainly aren't dumb blondes, all three perpetuate the usual beauty images. It's still Hollywood, after all, and I don't think we're likely to see many leading women who are anything but drop-dead gorgeous anytime soon. Yet overall, there is more to like than dislike; all three movies give us surprisingly powerful female characters and hip social commentary. Put these movies—and others—to your own test: do you feel more kick-ass after you see them?

Stephanie Rosenfeld is a research associate at the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First) by day, and a feminist film critic by night.

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