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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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