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4 February 2015updated 23 Feb 2015 9:58am

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.

By Ian Leslie

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.

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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.

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