Do even anti-segregation films have no roles for women?

Whether it is done as intentionally as in <em>Elysium</em> or not, films and TV series form part of a lens that shows us distorted refractions of our world.

Elysium is excellent. As with District Nine, director Neill Blomkamp takes social inequality and shows it to be ridiculous and indefensible, while still letting you enjoy watching sci-fi. In doing so he may make as much difference as anyone striving for social change. Suddenly directors are members of the front line, part of the people that change the world. Just one question then, isn’t it ironic that a film about segregation contains only one fully-rounded female character, and even that role was originally written as male?

When I left the cinema my first thought was not “why aren’t there more well-written women?” It was how much I wish that I had written it. Yes, it’s a similar topic to his first film, yes, it’s also made from a short and that shows, but the impact of the agenda is undeniable. If he never works again, Blomkamp can retire knowing that influenced how people think about the way we live. Andrew Ellard, writer and script-editor, has written Tweetnotes on Elysium, as he does on many films (@ellardent). I knew he was critical of this one, and was looking forward to arguing, but he makes good points on the lack of depth to the world, characters, and plot, and the bolt-on nature of the love-interest heroine, Frey, and he is right. The film could have greatly benefited from his insight at a rather earlier stage than this. I still wish that I had written it. Why did it take Ellard to tell me that the character of Frey was not fully-integrated or even fully-formed? I didn’t just fail to object, I didn’t notice, and I’m a girl. I watched a film in which the second female character is a two-dimensional plot device and I just didn’t notice. I’ve seen this done so many times that I have clearly developed some dedicated neural pathways for just waving it through.

Blomkamp set out to write a film with “at least one central female character”, not an overly revolutionary aspiration in a film about equality. Elysium has a central unromanticised female character, but one that was only switched to female when “it suddenly occurred to him the character could be a woman”. Like the heroines of Salt and Flightplan, this role is strong partly because it was written to be a character before it was rewritten to be female. I don’t know why he needed to spot a character that he could gender-switch, rather than writing a decent female one from the start, and I don’t know why he felt that other characters could not be switched. I am aware that Blomkamp has taken on a role where you can never be good enough: fight normative values, and your film will always still be too normative. Even if it doesn’t contain only wealthy, white men, even when it critiques that very gated community, a film cannot avoid reflecting the wealthy, white male perspective that usually funds, supplies and distributes it. This is a film that sets out to teach an anti-segregation message and still failed the Bechdel test, which checks that at least two women in a film talk to each other about anything other than a man. We’re used to seeing films with only token female characters, and tests like the Bechdel help alert us to what we’ve stopped noticing, if not when we stopped noticing them.

It’s been a long time since comedian Richard Pryor balked at the all-white casts of films like Logan’s Run, musing that the future setting implied that “White folks ain’t planning for us to be here”. He did it so acutely and so wittily that he got people to listen. He didn’t single-handedly create a perfect and equal world, but he did start a gradual change in perceptions that got people to realise what they were acclimatised to. A similar creeping shift is gathering around Game of Thrones’ exceptional lead Peter Dinklage. It is hard for an actor who is four foot five to be remembered for his brilliant way with dialogue, but then it is hard for an actor who has to compete for screen time with zombies and dragons to be remembered at all. Dinklage’s dwarfism has nothing to do with his perfect acting, but it does dictate that the role he plays must be appropriate to his size. In the glamorous world of the on-screen, unusual physiques are disproportionately under-represented, yet Dinklage does not play a token role focussed on his stature or enabling the remaining cast. He portrays a complex and multi-faceted part, flawed, three-dimensional, award-winning, and now carrying top billing. Versions of the limited-range excuse have been used by many writers seemingly incapable of including fully-formed female characters, because women can only play women, and apparently these writers can only envisage men. Perhaps it is time to change what we envisage. We don’t need more strong representative characters, we need more characters who happen to be representative and happen to be strong. Characters who are casually short-statured, or female, or black, or transgendered, and also interesting, because of their personalities, motivations and conflicts, or anything that actually matters.

Whether it is done as intentionally as in Elysium or not, films and TV series form part of a lens that shows us distorted refractions of our world, that shapes the way we think, that reinforces and ideally challenges our values. If I’m shown a world with one central woman in it, I should notice. I should be surprised. I should not be impressed, I should be disappointed. As Pryor said, perhaps it is time we got on with making our own movies. Then we’d be in them.

A still from Neill Blomkamp's new film Elysium.
Sian Lawson is a scientist who writes about our Brave New World and being a woman in it, in the hope that with enough analysis it will start making sense.
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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage