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I watched the Oscar hopefuls and every film is full of men, men and more bloody men

Oh, and moaning women. These are the films of the year, the ones that we think best capture the tenor of the times. Yet they are only interested in one half of the human tableau.

It happens that my wife and I have been preparing for the arrival of our second child during Oscar season. A lot of sophisticated, well-reviewed films have been jostling for the attention of adult cinema-goers, and given that everyone tells me that the second child marks the end of leisure, I’ve been frantically trying to see as many as possible before my cinematic experience becomes confined to one endless Frozen.

So far I’ve caught Boyhood, American Sniper, Birdman, Whiplash, and Foxcatcher. Though it’s a motley collection of themes and styles, I’ve been struck by what they have in common. They are all emphatically, relentlessly male. These are stories of male maturation, male courage, male ego, male creativity, and male madness. The males make stuff happen, and the males compel our attention. It’s the male motivations that intrigue and puzzle us. It is the male face, in all its exquisite ecstasies and agonies, that commands our gaze.

The females exist on the edges of the stories. With few exceptions, they have little of interest to say, and we can easily read their minds from limited range of expressions they’re allowed to enact. Their main role is to moan to, or about, the males. None of the movies pass the Bechdel test: not once do I recall two women talking to each other about something other than a man. There was, come to think of it, a brief sighting of that rare bird in Birdman, but the conversation quickly became a lesbian facesucking session, which is, as I understand it, the invariable outcome when women get together without men.

Whiplash: drumming men

Whiplash, over which the (mainly male) critics showered saliva, is a movie about men made up of other movies about men. Like every other cop or war movie you’ve seen, it revolves around the clash of an idealistic and talented young man and an evil father-figure. Whiplash’s variation on this flea-bitten trope is to set it in a music school, and vérité be damned. J K Simmons plays a tautly muscled jazz teacher who gets the best of out his (male) students by bullying, scorning and humiliating them. You know the type. Whiplash is a fundamentally silly film, but the worst of it is its desultory attempt at a female character. The girlfriend of our young hero – I forget her name – is beautiful, beguiling, and, inevitably, sacrificed to the manly pursuit of the perfect paradiddle. Melissa Benoist does her impressive best, but her character’s development arc can be adequately summarised in three words: enter, whinge, exit.

American Sniper: fighting men. 

Whingeing is pretty much all that women do in all these movies. In American Sniper, there are two female characters, both girlfriends of our hero, Chris Kyle. The first appears only briefly and without clothes, after screwing another man. Even she manages to get in some moaning before we take leave of her. Then there is Taya, played by Sienna Miller. Taya starts off sassy, cynical and wisecracking. As has been well established by other movies, however, sassy and wisecracking women are desperately sad inside. Our hero quickly intuits that this is true of Taya after he sees her sitting alone at a bar (another sign of emotional turmoil).

Kyle seduces Taya by hinting at a bottomless capacity for violence; she rewards him with a baby and by ceasing to be interesting. Before long she is bending his ear endlessly and tediously about being a responsible father while he tries to kill savages on behalf of America and pursue the movie’s real love interest, a hotshot called Mustafa. In Whiplash and American Sniper, we are ostensibly invited to sympathise with the women but actually to want them to shut up so that we can get back to the man-on-man action.

Boyhood: ageing men

Boyhood too suffers from the curse of the moaning woman. Patricia Arquette has rightly been lauded for her bravery for allowing herself to be seen ageing on screen. But her character is crabbed, joyless and incapable of taking delight in life, or satisfaction in her achievements. This film does contain an exception to the general rule, however. Samantha, sister of Mason, the central character, is so fully alive that she effortlessly outshines her likeable but bland brother and makes you wish that Linklater had made Girlhood (Samantha is played by Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei).

Foxcatcher: wrestling men

Foxcatcher doesn’t pretend to be about anything other than men, and its interrogation of the male psyche is so bleakly unforgiving that it would be impossible to call it chauvinistic. And yet it is clear who is to blame for John Du Pont’s broken soul: his mother, played, with a magnificently evil eye, by Vanessa Redgrave. The other female character, Dave Schultz’s wife (Sienna Miller again), is an adjunct to the action, a piece of narrative furniture who doesn’t rate a mention in Wikipedia’s plot summary until its end.

Birdman: acting men

Sexism in Hollywood is an old story, but it still has the power to astonish. These are the films of the year, the ones that we think best capture the tenor of the times. Yet they are only interested in one half of the human tableau. Even our most intelligent movie-makers have pushed women to the side of their stories, denying them volition, depth, vitality. Why is that? I understand that movies reflect, rather than shape, our interests; their job is to paint what we are, not what we hope to be. But women aren’t the least interesting people in the rooms I’ve been in. Perhaps a brute commercial logic is at work: are movie-goers only interested in men? I don’t buy it. Women go to the cinema as much as men, and I think women are quite interested in women. I even know some men who are interested in women, and not just in that way. Apparently they’re not making movies.

What we seem to have here is a collective failure of imagination, one that’s creatively self-limiting, not to mention unforgivably lazy. Perhaps when I re-emerge into the world of grown-up entertainment, things will have changed. Oh well – at least Frozen has a female hero.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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