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.
©HOLBURNE MUSEUM. THE FITZWILLIAM MUSEUM, CAMBRIDGE.
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A sketchy legacy? How Pieter's sons kept Brand Bruegel going

For all his business acumen, Pieter the Younger was no original and his skill was weedy compared to the robustness of his father’s.

One of the many complications that make the Bruegels the most confusing clan in art is the letter H. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the founder of the dynasty and its greatest artist, was the painter of such celebrated works as The Hunters in the Snow (1565) and The Tower of Babel (1563). Contrary to the elegance and elevating tenets of the Italian Renaissance, he made the peasant life of the Low Countries his subject, in all its scatological, rambunctious and therefore human detail. In 1559 he dropped the H in his surname and started signing in Roman capital letters – Brueghel becoming the rather more stately Bruegel.

Bruegel had two sons, Pieter and Jan, aged four and one at the time of his death in 1569. Both became painters, too, and as their careers took off Pieter the Younger reinstated the H his father had discarded (though in later life, to add to the disorder, he reversed the order of the U and E) and it remained the moniker of the innumerable painting Brueghels who followed. Rather more confusing than this alphabet jiggery-pokery, though, is the sheer number of painters in the dynasty – some 15 blood relations over the course of 150 years, before a plethora of apprentices, collaborators and intermarriages is factored in.

It is partly to unknot this family tree that the Holburne Museum is running “Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty”, a small but choice exhibition of about thirty pictures that show the distinctiveness of the leading family members. What makes the ­early-generation Bruegels worth looking at in detail is that each was significant in a different way.

The geographer Abraham Ortelius wrote of Pieter the Elder: “That he was the most perfect painter of his age, no one – unless jealous, envious or ignorant of his art – could ever deny.” For all the earthiness of his peasant subjects and their rural pastimes, he was collected by the richest of Antwerp’s merchants, by the Spanish governor general of the Netherlands, Archduke Ernst, and by the Holy Roman emperor himself, Rudolf II in Prague. His patrons recognised that he was no mere Hieronymus Bosch derivative but a highly innovative artist (candlelit interiors, snow scenes, landscapes) whose depictions of human folly mixed the comedic with the serious, but nevertheless contained the belief that wisdom and virtue were the means for redemption.

When Bruegel died, his two sons were trained in painting by their maternal grandmother, Mayken Verhulst, an accomplished miniaturist in her own right, and came of age at a time of Bruegel mania, when there just weren’t enough of their father’s pictures left to go round. There are only three Bruegel the Elders in the whole of Britain, and the National Gallery has lent its Adoration of the Kings (1564) to the show, the first time in a century it has left Trafalgar Square.

Pieter the Younger set out to milk the market and painted large quantities of copies of his father’s most popular works by using the original preparatory cartoons – scale drawings with holes pricked around the figures, which, when dusted with charcoal, would transfer the outlines to a panel beneath. The resulting pictures were very saleable Bruegels by Brueghel: he painted 45 versions of his father’s Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap, 25 of The Peasant Lawyer, and 31 of the 100 existing versions of the riotous Wedding Dance in the Open Air. There’s a lot of Pieter the Younger about.

For all his business acumen, Pieter the Younger was no original and his skill was weedy compared to the robustness of his father’s. It was the second son, Jan “Velvet” Brueghel, who was an artistic pioneer. Nature was his topic and although he, too, repurposed his father’s peasant scenes in his work, as in A Flemish Fair (1600), he shrank the goings-on to make them merely an incident within a diaphanous landscape, rather than the main subject.

Jan painted works of great refinement in oil on copper rather than wood, and also developed the genre of pictures of vases of flowers of kaleidoscopic colour that then became such a popular strand of 17th-century Dutch art. He also frequently worked with collaborators, usually figure painters such as Rubens (who was godfather to at least one of his children), realising that a joint Brueghel-Rubens painting was worth more than one by himself alone.

To add to the mix, one of Jan’s daughters, Anna, married the Golden Age genre painter David Teniers, while another, Paschasia, married into the van Kessel family – their offspring becoming popular for their miniature paintings of insects and plants.

What emerges from this tangled genealogy is that though talent ran in the family, it did so unevenly: Pieter the Younger was a pretty competent painter, Jan a good one, but Pieter the Elder had a genius his descen­dants never got close to matching.

Runs until 4 June. More details: holburne.org

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times