2017: The Year of the Pop-Culture Female Gaze
For most of the history of cinema and television, women’s place in the canon – as creators, as directors, as subjects, as viewers, as ratings and box office draws – was defined by its rarity. Men were the default: the default audience, the default protagonists, the default creative leaders.
But 2017 – in many ways a hellish year, in other ways a hell of a year, for women – has witnessed a sea change in the assumed standard point of view. This is the year that stories for, by and about women have begun to achieve a critical mass on TV, with established series continuing to thrive and a bumper crop of new shows filling the airwaves both on streaming services and traditional TV. Meanwhile, at the movies, women-helmed and -centric films from Wonder Woman to Lady Bird to Girls Trip have smashed critical and popular expectations.
It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the year of the Women’s March, the year of the #MeToo movement, the year that those in charge of our government have made no bones about their dedication to eroding women’s rights, is also the year that the female point of view has been reflected in a growing number of shows and movies. The patriarchy may still hold all the cards, but the stories we’re telling ourselves as a society are beginning to shift away from that myopic, male-dominated viewpoint, reflecting and magnifying a moment when the culture is becoming ever more aware of its own biases.
Though of course, we’ve still got a long way to go. As Salma Hayek pointed out in a recent New York Times piece that detailed her own painful encounters with Harvey Weinstein and other male Hollywood moguls, only 4 percent of movie directors were female between 2007 and 2016. And late last year, Amazon unceremoniously canceled Dana Calvo’s feminist period drama, Good Girls Revolt, after one season. But in the wake of Amazon Studio head Roy Price’s resignation amid allegations of sexual harassment (which one of the show’s actors called “horribly meta”), there have been calls to bring the show back from its early demise.
Back in 1975, feminist film critic Laura Mulvey coined the term “male gaze” to describe the heterosexual male point of view that was the default in most pop culture of the time (and – let’s face it – most of today’s, too). Mulvey used the phrase to draw attention to the idea that most mainstream movies – produced, written and directed by men, with male heroes – implicitly adopt that point of view too, regardless of who’s actually doing the watching. Female characters, by extension, are engaged with insofar as they relate to men, which usually means they’re either eroticized or shunted to the sidelines.
And now, it seems like we’re finally witnessing the ascendance of the female gaze, a hard-to-pin-down term that has come to encompass much more than its opposite suggests. Whereas Mulvey stuck a pin in the male gaze to draw attention to a viewpoint that was presumed to be universal but was anything but, the term “female gaze” attempts to throw a lasso around a burgeoning and multifaceted aesthetic, and it’s as different as the multitude of women’s viewpoints that are coming to be shared.
Obviously the female gaze has been around long before this year, in the films of influential directors like Catherine Breillat, Jane Campion, Sally Potter, Ava Duvernay and Kathryn Bigelow, to name just a few. On the small screen, creators like Issa Rae (Insecure), Jenji Kohan (Weeds, Orange Is the New Black), Lena Dunham (Girls), Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) and Jennie Snyder Urman (Jane the Virgin) have been carving out a voice for women’s stories — not to mention Shonda Rhimes’s veritable empire on ABC (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder). But it was 2017 when films and TV shows with women viewers in mind have finally, so late in history, become the rule rather than the exception to it.
The female gaze in 2017 is less about female desire, though that is one part of it. It’s about spaces that belong to women, whether real or interior. It’s about the angle of both the camera and the storytelling. It’s about creating an aesthetic not so much in opposition to the male gaze, but rather unburdened by it. It’s about – to borrow a phrase from 2017 political icon Maxine Waters – women reclaiming their time. Here’s a rundown of just some of the bumper crop of women-centric movies and television shows that debuted in the past year.
A Wonder Woman movie spent decades languishing in development hell before it finally landed in the hands of Monster director Patty Jenkins – and she turned out to be just the filmmaker for the job. In stark contrast to Zack Snyder’s brooding, testosterone-jacked Superman movies, Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg brought a light and earnest touch to her take on the DC Comics’ top Amazon, all while sacrificing none of the character’s heroic gravitas. In a genre where female characters are frequently filmed in a way that emphasizes their sexuality rather than their ass-kicking abilities, Wonder Woman‘s action scenes are remarkable. Witness the way Jenkins films the Amazons’ training sequence on Themyscira: a sea of powerful women battling in a way that emphasizes their skill and power, not shying away from showing the ripple of muscles or the wrinkle of age lines. Or the film’s most iconic sequence, in which Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince strides across a World War I battlefield, framed powerfully in the center of the shot as she deflects a hail of bullets. Female moviegoers turned out to see Wonder Woman in droves, and it’s easy to see why: The film gave us a heroine who’s strong, witty and gives no fucks about what the dudes around her think. As she famously declares when her sidekick/love interest Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) tries to stop her from putting herself in danger: “What I do is not up to you.”
Coming-of-age movies seem to be a rite of passage for first-time filmmakers, but one a great one comes along, it can reach down into our emotional core like nothing else. Such is the case with Greta Gerwig’s remarkable directorial debut, about a Sacramento teen’s senior year of high school circa 2002. Lady Bird feels deeply personal and specific, while at the same time capturing something universal about the precipitous tipping point between girlhood and womanhood. As she explained to Rolling Stone: “I just don’t feel like I’ve seen very many movies about 17-year-old girls where the question is not, ‘Will she find the right guy’ or ‘Will he find her?'” Gerwig says. “The question should be: ‘Is she going to occupy her personhood?’ Because I think we’re very unused to seeing female characters, particularly young female characters, as people.” And that’s precisely what the film does, giving generous amounts of space and air to exploring the shifting gradations in how Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) views herself in relation to those around her – particularly in her thorny but loving relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf).
Anyone who’s still operating under the delusion that female-driven comedies don’t sell need look no further than the box office numbers for Girls Trip, which had the highest gross of any comedy in 2017. Co-written by Tracy Oliver and Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, Girls Trip is a raunchy buddy-vacation comedy in the vein of The Hangover, except so much better than The Hangover. Featuring a powerhouse cast of African-American actors (Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith and Tiffany Haddish), it’s a breezy frozen cocktail of a movie that balances an empowering message with unapologetically raunchy humor. As a self-help guru’s book is titled in the movie, You Can Have It All – and in this case, “it all” includes both a rousing speech about black feminism and a scene in which Haddish’s character gleefully demonstrates a bizarre sex act with a grapefruit and a banana. Something that Hollywood is only just starting to realize: Women like dirty jokes too – and we pretty much always have.
The Handmaid’s Tale
As dystopias go, few feel like they’re breathing more intensely down our necks than Margaret Atwood’s Gilead, a near-future American theocracy in which women have been stripped of all their rights and some forced into sexual slavery. Bruce Miller’s adaptation of the seminal (or ovulary?) 1985 novel couldn’t have come at a more apropos time in our nation’s history. Eight out of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s 10 episodes were directed by women – and it shows in the series’ patient, intimate, unsettling aesthetic. Handmaid Offred’s (Elisabeth Moss, in a devastating performance) life is charted in a series of elegant, painterly shots that range from her enduring both the boredom and the horror of her cloistered, degrading existence – the world as viewed by a woman literally blindered by the bonnet she’s forced to wear.
“Money is a woman’s only power in this world,” brothel owner Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) counsels her daughters in the first episode of this period piece, about prostitutes and madams surviving – and sometimes thriving – in the underworld of 18th-century London. Alison Newman and Moira Buffini’s ITV/Hulu series is remarkable in that it’s made by a large, entirely female creative team – a conscious choice by the showrunners, who aimed to present “a whore’s-eye view” of sex and power. The result is a stylish drama that’s by turns witty, salacious and devastating, in which women are heroes, villains and everything in between — and manipulating the men who believe they themselves hold the power is the means by which they climb. There’s plenty of sex here, in many shades of gray; but unlike so many prostitution stories, the women who sell their bodies are the subjects rather than objects.
It’s been a banner year for Margaret Atwood adaptations. And though it’s gotten less buzz than The Handmaid’s Tale, the CBC/Netflix miniseries based on Atwood’s 1996 historical novel – based on the true story of a 19th-century servant accused of a double homicide – is its own kind of earth-shattering. Written by Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron (American Psycho), Alias Grace follows a series of interviews between Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) and the incarcerated Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) as he tries to determine whether she’s innocent or guilty. As Grace walks him through her life story – one filled with men trying to exert their power over her – she hides as much as she reveals, observing the ways in which Dr. Jordan observes her. “Just because you pestered me to know everything is no reason for me to tell you,” she reflects privately. Harron reveals Grace’s past in impressionistic jolts of memory, in which both the beauty and the violence of life for a lower-class woman in the 1800s is revealed in tiny details and moments.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s long-anticipated return to TV (we’re not counting the iffy GG revival, sorry) has come in the form this buoyant, razor-sharp Amazon comedy set in midcentury Manhattan. It follows the rise, fall and rise again of Miriam Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), an affluent Jewish housewife who stumbles into the boys’ club of stand-up comedy with help from her unflappable agent, Susie (Alex Borstein). With Palladino’s signature rapid-fire dialogue, Mrs. Maisel paints a compelling portrait of a woman giving 200-percent in both of her worlds, gradually awakening to the absurdity of the narrow boxes 1950s women were shoved into. “Men don’t want to laugh at you; they want to fuck you,” another woman comedian advises her, mirroring a reality that’s sadly all too real for ladies in stand-up today.
I Love Dick
Perhaps no show before or since has so self-consciously been about the female gaze as I Love Dick, Sarah Gubbins and Jill Soloway’s (Transparent) highly stylized exploration of women’s erotic eye. Based on Chris Kraus’s 1997 novel, I Love Dick charts filmmaker Chris’s (Kathryn Hahn) obsession with Dick (Kevin Bacon, perfectly cast), an alpha-male cowboy artist who turns her on even as she as repelled by him. The series’ all-female directing team render Dick as an intricate lust object, becoming Chris’s muse even as she relentlessly questions what it means to be a female artist in a male-dominated world. I Love Dick is also deliciously and unflinchingly twisted, transforming abstraction and theory into bizarre, memorable imagery.
Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch created the purgative feminist binge-comedy of 2017 with this throwback exploration of the world of women’s wrestling circa 1985. It offers the pleasures of any great underdog making-the-band story, as a motley group of struggling actors and athletes come together to create a female wrestling show out of whole cloth (really shiny spandex cloth, in fact). Starring Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, Marc Maron and a large, diverse ensemble, GLOW is about women taking a form of entertainment meant to exploit women’s bodies and transforming it into something empowering. The lady wrestlers of GLOW are on display in the ring, but they’re also at the height of their power.
The Bold Type
“Cool twentysomething lady who works at a magazine” is a tried-and-true rom-com trope, but showrunner Sarah Watson effectively blows the dust off it in this Freeform series inspired by the life of former Cosmo editor Joanna Coles. The Bold Type follows three up-and-comers (Katie Stevens, Aisha Dee and Meghann Fahy) at a magazine called Scarlet, but turns the usual stories about female journalists on their head. For one, their boss (Melora Hardin) is a supportive role model rather than a The Devil Wears Prada-style uberbitch. For another, the women are just as interested in their careers and their friendships as they are in the love interests that pass through their lives.
The latest deep-dive ensemble series from The
Wire‘s David Simon and George Pelecanos is a 360-degree take on the world
of prostitution and porn in
1970s New York City.
And in the hands of directors like Michelle MacLaren and Uta Briesewitz, it
turns what could easily have been exploitative into an empathetic, unflinching
probe into the lives of the women caught in the gears of the sex industry as
well as the pimps and johns that keep them spinning. Key to this is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s
(who’s also a producer) turn as Candy, a sex worker making her own way in the
system who’s also trying to juggle a life outside of it. The types of sex
that’s shown in The Deuce varies vastly, but more often than
not it’s the men who fade into the background. In one memorable scene, Candy
rolls away from her lover to give herself the orgasm that he couldn’t.
“That was different,” he remarks. “For you, maybe,” she