Kate Elliott January 23rd, 2007
Warning:Â Spoilers for ROME, the recent HBO miniseries
One of the ways I rate my enjoyment of books and filmic-visual fiction is in how the roles of women are approached by the writers and/or directors.Â Certain conventions are sure to minimize my enjoyment of a narrative, and chief among them is the narrowing of womenâ€™s roles to those related to reproduction and/or Relationship to the Male.Â In such cases, women are portrayed either as wombs (mother, surrogate mother, or wife) or vaginas (of sexual interest to male characters without having any other real narrative function);Â that is, a female character has no existence beyond her relationship to men via sex and/or reproduction.
I quite liked the first five or six episodes of ROME (well, all right, maybe I quite liked the male frontal nudity in the person of the attractive James Purefoy playing Mark Antony, but letâ€™s not quibble).Â I felt the story took a turn for the worse via the transition in Egypt.Â The characters who were most interesting (Mark Antony, the ruthless young Octavian and his wicked old harpy of a mother, Atia, and Julius Caesar in his gambling, risk-taking phase together with his clever personal slave) faded into the background while the boring Servilia and her hapless and uselessly passive son Brutus plodded their way onto center stage together with an increasingly melodramatic sturm und drang revolving around the two soldiers (one virtuous and one not so virtuous) who are meant to underpin the narrative of the fall of the Republic.
With the possible exception of Atia, whose role as an active participant in the goings-on collapses in the second half of the show, the female characters end up mired in the womb/vagina morass (in my opinion, anyway, and naturally you are to understand that this is merely my opinion;Â yours may differ).
The story of the virtuous soldierâ€™s wife is really solely wrapped up in the question of whether he will discover that she bore a child to another man while he was in Gaul, and since the question is brought up, you know, as a viewer, that the other shoe will eventually drop, as it does.Â Nothing else about her matters, when all is said and done.Â Nor does her depiction ever truly round into that of a human being.Â She exists in the plot solely as adjunct to his plot.
The Roman matron Servilia, presumably a woman of intelligence, charm, and interest because she is the long-time lover of Julius Caesar who is portrayed as a man of intelligence and vision, is written in the end as fomenting the plot to kill him because he has chosen for political reasons to end their affair.Â A woman scorned – nothing else.Â She is that shallow a portrayal.
A slave woman becomes the reward for the less-than-virtuous soldier, even though she is never given a personality and has very few speaking lines.Â After a rushed sequence of events we are expected to believe that she forgives him for murdering the slave she had intended to marry because he (the soldier) is sorry for what he did and doesnâ€™t blame her for hating him.Â But since she has no actual personality, this decision on her part has only to do with his role in the narrative, nothing to do with her as a person;Â as a character, she is merely a mechanism.
Let us accept as a given that women had a limited sphere in Roman society, although naturally what was going on in the lower classes was rather different than the upper classes, as it always has been because of the economic necessity for lower class women to be engaged in a larger variety of work and the widening layers of independence that work inevitably brings.Â Let us also recognize that under Roman law the master of the house theoretically had complete control of life and death over those under his rule.Â He could kill his wife or children or slaves with impunity, and had the right to do so if any of them violated the moral code of conduct;Â under these circumstances a wife could be protected if she had family who cared about what was happening to her, which presumably gave some protection to upper class women who were born to prominent families.Â In addition, let us remember that women, especially the upper class women about whom we tend to know most because of the nature of the sources, were often and even usually pawns in economic and political alliances, handed from their fathers or brothers to their husbands, and that often their worth depended on their ability to produce sons.
Be that as it may.
Even so, even within limited and constrained lives, human beings still have character and personality beyond their reproductive and sexual role, and that character and personality can be displayed and utilized in a work of fiction IF a writer chooses to reveal it, or – perhaps more pertinently – if a writer is able to see it and thus reveal it.
In such cases where the female role remains restricted to womb or vagina, it strikes me that either
1) the writer simply cannot see women in any role beyond the narrow one that relates directly and only to the life of Men.Â Which reminds me of the famous comment made by the famous anthropologist who did extensive ethnographic research among the Yanamamo in South America;Â when asked by a filmmaker who was down there working with him if he didnâ€™t want to film some of the womenâ€™s activities, the anthropologist said – and I paraphrase – â€œthe women have no activities.â€
2)Â the writer is uninterested in women as human beings and/or characters except as mechanisms to illuminate the lives of the interesting and important characters, that is, the male ones.
Now, indeed, any character can suffer from being a mechanism, that is, a chess piece being moved around to further the plot.Â Mechanisms do not discriminate, nor do I want to suggest that this only happens to female characters, because it does not.
But just by way of showing alternatives, I want to contrast briefly the main female character in the recent movie BLOOD DIAMOND (with Djimon Hounsou, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Jennifer Connelly).Â I thought this a decent movie, although not a great one, memorable because of its subject matter and because of strong acting (although, alas, no full frontal male nudity on the part of either Hounsou or DiCaprio), although Hounsou, a fabulous actor, is hampered and to some extent trivialized by the stereotypical Noble Black Man Who Will Be Saved By A White Man role to which the script limits him (thatâ€™s a topic for another rant, but not today).
There are almost no female characters in the film, which is about the endemic violence in West Africa and which focuses on particular on the illegal diamond trade and how the Westâ€™s desire for diamond fuels these civil wars.Â Hounsou is shown as having a wife and two daughters (and a son, who is crucial to the plot) but these three females are in essence mechanisms (see above) to further his narrative arc as he endeavors to reunite his family, which has been torn apart in the civil war.
Connellyâ€™s journalist character has a two-fold existence:Â she is a love interest for DiCaprioâ€™s character, and she is a â€˜voice of conscienceâ€™ (by which we might suggest she stands in for white liberal guilt).Â Yes, she indeed gets the preachy speeches.Â But those speeches aside, she functions as an autonomous person;Â she has her own life; she deals with upheaval and shooting and fear as an adult.Â What particularly interested me was the unfolding of the relationship between her and DiCaprio (although I should note that DiCaprio and Hounsouâ€™s characters form the main dyad;Â Connelly has the secondary role here).Â She is an adult, who is sexually attracted to the DiCaprio character, who recognizes the sexual nature of the attraction and understands (at the beginning) that it may or may not work out because of their utterly different backgrounds and goals, and who can live with that, however it works out.
It would have been easy to write Connellyâ€™s character as merely a mechanism for the menâ€™s story (one reason I didnâ€™t like the movie HELLBOY was that the female character had no real purpose except as the Love Interest, and for that matter this is also why I did not like the first SPIDERMAN movie and never saw the second one).Â However, the writer didnâ€™t write the character and story that way, and Connelly as an actress was also able to bring additional weight to the role.
Now it may be that my perception of which female characters in movies have character and which are mechanisms is, to say the least, idiosyncratic.Â My experience of a realistic and interesting portrayal may be your clichÃ© of the month.
For example, we recently re-watched one of my guilty pleasures, THE 13TH WARRIOR (love them Vikings!Â and Antonioâ€™s not bad either).Â While the female characters in this movie are very much secondary characters, the queen (a mother) and the slave (a sexual object) strike me as people who, when they walk off the screen, still exist.Â Despite their few speaking lines, they have motive and function and existence that goes beyond the way they relate to the main (male) characters with their wombs and vaginas.
Perhaps in the end that is the defining difference between character as mechanism and character as, well, character.
Mechanisms donâ€™t move when theyâ€™re not in motion, that is, being driven by the plot.Â Like puppets, they sprawl limp on the floor while off page or screen because they only matter as they relate to the main character.Â That there are people who conceive of women in general in this way is depressing, but not untrue.
Characters – whatever role they have in their society – have other things to accomplish while the storytellerâ€™s eye is directed elsewhere.Â They exist nevertheless, in a manner of speaking.
In either case, the ultimate test is that of humanity.Â Treat a character as if her or his reproductive and sexual status is what matters most (or is the only thing that matters) about him or her, and that character will shrink to become something less than an imitation of human personality.Â Treat a character as a human being first, regardless of gender, and it is likely she or he will live as a character with personality, with the appearance of being true and real.