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 Pier Falls is a skilful short story collection – and the glummest book I've read in years

There's no doubting Mark Haddon's talent, but if his stories are sympathetic, there's not much pity in them.

The unremitting bleakness of Mark Haddon’s first book of short stories seems to have stumped even his publishers, who have decided, in the blurb, to make the rather shell-shocked protestation that “his imagination is even darker than we had thought”. Certainly, anyone who came to Haddon’s work through The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and its Olivier Award-winning stage adaptation will get a shock from this merciless collection, which opens with a story about the death of 64 people in a seaside accident and moves on briskly to other tales featuring starvation, dismemberment, evisceration, euthanasia, suicide, amputation, shooting, poisoning and incineration.

Sunk in its amplifying gloom, I found myself thinking of a passage in Haddon’s last (also fairly grim) novel, The Red House, in which an eight-year-old passes the time on a disastrous family holiday by planning his own work of literature. “It would be called A Hundred Horrible Ways to Die,” he muses, “and it would include torture and killing but not cancer.”

There is a good deal of sympathy in these economical pieces, but not much pity. The title story, first published in this paper, sets the tone. It is told in the present tense, and describes the collapse of a pier at a fictitious British seaside resort in 1970, balancing the unfolding horror of its events with a coolly detached, observational prose that creates a mood of eerie calm. “If you look through the black haystack of planks and beams,” Haddon writes, “you can see three figures thrashing in the dark water, a fourth floating face down and a fifth folded over a weed-covered beam. The rest are trapped underwater somewhere. Up on the pier a man hurls five lifebelts one after the other into the sea.” Later stories describe lives at various extremities of pain or grief, and with similar austerity. “Bunny” is about a 30-stone man feeding himself to death, “Breathe” about a woman tending her demented mother, “The Weir” about a divorcé who saves a mentally ill young woman from drowning. All of them share a distantly compassionate, vaguely medical tone, as though the author is relating news you may not wish to hear: it’s perhaps no surprise that doctors pop up with such frequency in Haddon’s work.

Several stories pay indirect homage to mythic or literary forerunners. “The Island” offers a refracted paraphrase of the story of Ariadne on Naxos, picking up shortly after Theseus’s ship sails off into the distance. In Haddon’s version, where none of the characters is named, the Minotaur is a deformed teenager, the king a brutal murderer and Ariadne a helpless teenager incapable of surviving in the wild. In the myth, she is discovered on Naxos by Dionysus, who marries her: here, the god of wine and ecstasy is a towering monster, covered in excrement, who rapes the helpless girl and then lets his Bacchantes rip her to pieces. It is told unflinchingly, though I could never quite work out whether Haddon’s flustered prose (“He is the only man she’s ever loved, and he has dumped her like ballast . . . She is off the heart’s map and her compass is spinning”) was in imitation of a lovestruck girl’s thoughts, or a rare crack in his usually undemonstrative and practical style.

“Wodwo”, one of the longer stories, provides another twist on an existing tale, in this case the 14th-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here, too, Haddon remains silent about the inspiration, though an epigraph from Gawain lurks in forbidding Middle English at the beginning of the book. It opens on Christmas Eve at the Northamptonshire home of a retired neurosurgeon, where a session of posh family bickering is interrupted by the apparition of a gigantic stranger who demands to be blasted in the chest with a sawn-off shotgun. The subsequent humbling of its central character, who is no longer “gode Gawan” but Gavin, a blusteringly awful TV presenter, is a tale of slow decline, homelessness and eventual redemption that loses none of its weird and ghostly sheen from being dragged into a later age.

Other stories play quietly with the reader’s assumptions about their elected genres. “The Boys Who Left Home to Learn Fear” uses a setting out of H P Lovecraft or Edgar Rice Burroughs to tell its own, strangely truncated tale of loss and abandonment, as explorers in the jungle find cryptic warnings scrawled by a bottomless cave near the corpses of their predecessors. In “The Woodpecker and the Wolf”, a colonist on a remote planet contends with a string of grisly hazards – botched appendectomies, suicide by her colleagues, the abandonment of relief efforts, an unexpected pregnancy – before being rescued. As she returns with her child to a spookily idyllic Earth, however, the suspicion grows that things are not quite as comforting as we would like to believe: “There is,” Haddon writes, “something wrong with all this but she cannot put her finger on what it might be.”

That sentence might apply equally well to every story in this impressive but forbiddingly lightless collection. There’s no doubt about Haddon’s skill, but I haven’t read a glummer book in years. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster