Sunday, February 22, 2015

How Are Fathers Being Portrayed In Movies? [VIDEO]

A couple things I didn't know until recently:
  • Pope Francis gives a speech every Wednesday morning. He devoted a few recent talks to the topic of fatherhood. 
  • There's an Internet news show for Catholics called EWTN News Nightly. EWTN stands for Eternal World Television Network.
  • The producers of this show will email a Jewish-raised, atheist non-expert to be interviewed on the show, if said non-expert has been filmed giving a speech with the word "TED" on a sign behind him in which he mentioned being a dad.
Hence, I have now offered my views on recent portrayals of fathers in movies to folks who want their news to connect back to their church affiliation.

Of course the first thing I did was tell them to read what the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has published.

Then I tried to bring it back to what I think is the big issue in storytelling: patriarchal values. Figuring that that wouldn't be a great phrase to drop at the beginning of a Catholic news show, I spelled it out a little differently.

If, as I've argued in my talks (and many others have argued more vividly), the standard story of a Hollywood film is of a guy who fights other guys, then it's not surprising that fatherhood is rarely central. Fatherhood, after all, requires connection and intimacy with other people (quite frequently women, and always children).

As long as the Hollywood Hero Journey template is focused on individual conquest and achievement, parenthood and family and community will all be pushed to the side.

When protagonists are dads, writers use that status to motivate the competitive heroism that the Hero's Journey requires. Sometimes it seems nice, like the way Ben Stiller needs to earn the title of dad by winning some kind of adventure/job in Night at the Museum. 

Sometimes it's a justification for extravagant violence, like the dad of vengeance that is Liam Neeson.

More frequently, fathers are parts of the plot architecture, much as love interests or sidekicks are. Dads are goofballs who offer simple wisdom, or symbols of unconditional love who die, or antagonists--men whose love is the prize that the hero needs to win, or whose disapproval is an obstacle that needs to be overcome.

Goofballs with simple wisdom
Symbols of unconditional love lost
Disapproval as obstacle
This last trope had a big influence on me, actually. Seeing how many times writers created vivid, grief-stricken portraits of the damage done by failed fathers made me want to avoid being that guy to my children.

This year's Oscar front-runners both show fatherhood as central to their stories. Birdman uses the "fathers must earn their child's respect through professional achievement" trope. Emma Stone gets to articulate the "dad, you ruined my life" point of view, but it is her adoring gaze after his artistic triumph that redeems the hero at the end.

A better observed movie would show the truth: a child does not love her dad more for achieving success. That's the patriarchy talking. She loves her dad more when he loves her more.

Boyhood, meanwhile, has one of my favorite portrayals of fatherhood in years. (Since, maybe, The Fantastic Mr. Fox?) I loved seeing Ethan Hawke draw more and more fulfillment and joy from spending time with his children.

He goes from thinking he owe his children "success" to understanding he owes them himself--his interest, his support, his advice (with a grain of salt), his respect. And thus fatherhood becomes for him not a competition but an investment that pays back, a source of renewable energy. His character's arc climaxes when he thanks his ex-wife for her selfless parenting.

In some circles, the Pope talking about fatherhood is big. It happened to coincide with something big in my circles: the stories told by advertisers in their most visible forum. If the trends that emerged from the Super Bowl commercials are suggestive, then the idea that fatherhood is a central part of masculinity may be moving into the mainstream.

Dadvertising on Madison Avenue may point the way for Hollywood to recalibrate the Hero's Journey. Include some more arcs beyond competition, and some more characters beyond dudes frowning and making fists.

Linked in this piece:

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Climbing the Walls of Evidence

Sometimes you build a wall of evidence. Then you climb on top of that wall and start screaming.

Dr. Stacy L. Smith and her colleagues at USC have released yet another report, supported by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media. As they have every few months in recent years, they go to the trouble of watching hundreds of movies and take notes, and then tell us what we've been seeing.

Today I read Soraya Chemaly's fierce piece in the Huffington Post, "20 Facts Everyone Should Know About Gender Bias in Movies." She reports, and tries to process, Smith's latest findings, which sample the most popular films from all over the world. The infographics scroll on and on, slicing the stories we take in (and take our children to) from dozens of angles, then holding those slices up to the light.

We see, quantitatively, our bias.

We see our presumption that female voices are about half as relevant as male ones. Men take up about 70% of the dialogue we hear in popular movies worldwide.

We see our presumption that the men who are speaking are professionals. They wear clothes. The women who get a word in don't work for a living--though they do show off their skinny bodies, prompting appreciation from those male voices.

Chemaly's list piles up. Every now and then she looks up in shock:
Just three female characters were represented as political leaders with power. One didn't speak. One was an elephant. The last was Margaret Thatcher.
I first read about Dr. Smith's analyses a few years ago, and they inspired me to give a talk about how I wanted to block these biases from my children, if I could. Some things have changed: we've gone to see movies with female heroes in the center, and we've gone again and again. Feminism is back, and the familiar backlash with it. That's how you know you're winning, maybe.

But still, the numbers tell us that movies are still, collectively, lying to us. Not just being annoyingly stereotypical. Skewed gender representation isn't bad because it's a bummer for little girls who don't like pink. It's bad because, as Chemaly knows, it's teaching another generation how to oppress each other and themselves.
Media is how we train girls and women to have low expectations and train boys to have high ones...These biased portrayals contribute to inhumane, unrealistic stereotypes about masculinity based on control, violence, dominance and the active erasure of empathy as an acceptable emotion. A narrow, frequently violent, power-over-others male heroism comes at a very high price for everyone.
As filmmaker Abigail Disney...asked, "Where are the men who solve problems by thinking?"
Yes, thanks to Dr. Smith's team and Geena Davis' team, the wall of evidence has gotten really high. And every day someone like Chemaly, or Emma Watson at the United Nations, or Margot Magowan on her Reel Girl blog, lays the bricks on one another once more, and then stands on top of them and cries out for action.
There is no excuse for not having this information and using it.
Men with influence and the ability to raise these questions and do something about them probably strive, as individuals, to be good parents to their kids and make sure their daughters are healthy, happy, educated and ambitious.
Not doing anything about this problem, from an institutional perspective, undoes all of that effort. The argument that there is some kind of benign "neutral" position is misguided.
Same goes for parents.

Read Soraya Chemaly's "20 Facts Everyone Should Know About Gender Bias in Movies" at the Huffington Post.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Why the female quest is so radical

Novelist Vanessa Veselka wrote an essay for American Reader called Green Screen: The Lack of Female Road Narratives and Why it Matters that blew my mind. (HT to Shaula Evans at The Black Board once again.) Drawing on her own experience hitch-hiking and her research into murdered women at truck stops--as well as piercing readings of classic novels of men on the road--she compares the way our culture experiences men and women journeying by themselves:
Often, I was asked why was I travelling. But over time, I came to understand that the question was not “why,” but “how.” As in, how could I have left? How bad was it? How could this have come to pass?
These are very different questions from “why.” “How” is about events, as in “how did it happen?” Whereas “why” points to individuality and agency. Why did you go that way? Why do you like Gouda and hate Swiss? Why do you think that this is a good idea? The difference between “how” and “why” marks a fundamental divide between the male and female road experience.
...A man with a quest, internal or external, makes the choice at every stage about whether to endure the consequences or turn back, and that choice is imbued with heroism.
Women, however, are restricted to a single tragic or fatal choice. We trace all of their failures, as well as the dangers that befall them, back to this foundational moment of sin or tragedy, instead of linking these encounters and moments in a narrative of exploration that allows for an outcome which can unite these individual choices in any heroic way.
 ...A man on the road is solitary. A woman on the road is alone. This is not cute wordplay, but a radically different social experience.
These projections are true at truck stops on Earth, and they're true in our books and at the movies and in galaxies far, far away.
True quest is about agency, and the capacity to be driven past one’s limits in pursuit of something greater. It’s about desire that extends beyond what we may know about who we are. It’s a test of mettle, a destiny.
...Power and patriarchy can’t afford women the possibility of quest, because within these structures women are valued as agents of social preservation and not agents of social change. You can go on a quest to save your father, dress like a man and get discovered upon injury, get martyred and raped, but God forbid you go out the door just to see what’s out there. And these are the tales of rape and death that get handed down to us.
Thus, every story we create that gives women (and others who are marginalized) a "why" and not a "how"--either by writing it, sharing it, or living it--is an act of narrative revolution.
...There is no way to snap one’s fingers and make mythology. There is no way to pry open a national narrative and insert an entire population. But we do get glimpses. One day, in a book or a film, a new woman appears, and she feels real. Not contrived or reactionary, she transcends the page or the screen.
Read the whole essay, and ponder. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Enough With The Hero's Journey Already

Shaula Evans at The Black Board came up with a much better title than I did for my second TED talk, though she was using it in reaction to my first one. I thank her for that, and I'm considering that an excuse to share it again.
I have been thinking more about the myth of the White Male Hero and what the stories say he is destined for, in light of current events (read Amanda Hess and Soraya Chemaly and Margot Magowan and Ta-Nahisi Coates, now and always).

When this talk was recorded in the fall of 2013, the Oscar race was heating up and 12 Years A Slave was already predicted to win its important victory. Frozen had just come out, totally fulfilling my request in my first talk for a story about female leaders inspiring people to come together and be their best selves. (Thanks!)

Since then, the fall season ended up bringing more fresh heroes. From the non-white-males who carried Catching Fire and Gravity and Frozen to global domination to the interesting white males of Dallas Buyers Club to the interesting white supporting females of Skyfall to the interesting white quartet of American Hustle, the year ended up bringing a cadre of movies I enjoyed.

(I didn't care too much for the white males of Her or Despicable Me 2, and I didn't go see the white males of Captain Phillips or Nebraska or Inside Llewyn Davis or The Wolf of Wall Street.)

Sadly, some of the smaller films anchored by African-American heroes had faded from memory by the time the Oscars nodded their gold heads. (Oprah was robbed.)

But the good news is that the summer superhero spectacles I was reacting to in the talk have been forgotten as well. (It's like Oz the Great and Powerful never happened. Right?)

And 2014 is off to a strong start. The LEGO Movie may be one of the best movies of the decade...totally fulfilling my request in this talk for a deconstructed Hero's Journey. (Thanks!)

And this summer's crazy smart Marvel movies are making comic books seem like Joseph-Campbell-worthy myths after all.

Though, as intelligent as Captain America: The Winter Soldier is, it's still a movie about how the world is redeemed by an omnipotent, innocent, universally adored white man whose name is "America."

So, yeah.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Girl Scouts and Lean In Team Up To "Ban Bossy"

I'm so proud to be a part of the new campaign "Ban Bossy," organized by the Girl Scouts of the USA and I personally would be nowhere without the many take-charge women I love, some of whom I must confess I have called "bossy" over the years. (Sorry mom. Sorry honey.) 

As Sheryl Sandberg and Girl Scouts USA CEO Anna Maria Chavez summarize in their recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, the word pops into our heads when girls and women show leadership qualities. That's not because we're all sexist jerks. It's because we've been trained to think that way, and the word is one way we get that training:
The word "bossy" has carried both a negative and a female connotation for more than a century. The first citation of "bossy" in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to an 1882 article in Harper's Magazine, which declared: "There was a lady manager who was dreadfully bossy." A Google Ngram analysis of digitized books over the past 100 years found that the use of "bossy" to describe women first peaked in the Depression-era 1930s, when popular sentiment held that a woman should not "steal" a job from a man, and reached its highest point in the mid-1970s as the women's movement ramped up and more women entered the workforce.
Most dictionary entries for "bossy" provide a sentence showing its proper use, and nearly all focus on women. Examples range from the Oxford Dictionaries' "bossy, meddling woman" to Urban Dictionary's "She is bossy, and probably has a pair down there to produce all the testosterone." Ngram shows that in 2008 (the most recent year available), the word appeared in books four times more often to refer to females than to males.
Culture, including language, teaches each generation what to value and what to believe. As parents, we have a crucial role to play in helping our children filter the culture in a way that reflects the values we hold. So, if you want your children to believe that women and men can both be leaders, try not to signify through what you say and do that really, little girl, it's kind of annoying when you raise your hand and have ideas and stuff.

As Sandberg and Chavez put it, "How are we supposed to level the playing field for girls and women if we discourage the very traits that get them there?"

Their teams have put together a fun website with tools for girls, parents, teachers, managers, and troop leaders. There's also a highlights section called "Things We Love," and I'm so delighted that my TED talk on "How Movies Teach Manhood" is featured. In fact, the talk has inspired an entire activity for parents!

"Leadership Tips for Parents" (PDF) looks to me like an excellent handbook on how to ban bossy in your household (while cultivating the strong, brave, and compassionate children we want to lead the next generation). Girls Leadership Institute co-founder Rachel Simmons and the Girl Scout Research Institute have compiled 10 tips:
  1. Encourage Girls and Boys Equally to Lead
  2. Be Conscious of the Ways You and She Talk
  3. Make Your Home an Equal Household
  4. Teach Her to Respect Her Feelings
  5. Moms and Grandmoms: Model Assertive Behavior (not a problem in my house)
  6. Dads and Granddads: Know Your Influence
  7. Seize the Power of Organized Sports and Activities
  8. Get Media Literate--Together (hey, this looks familiar)
  9. Let Her Solve Problems on Her Own
  10. Encourage Her to Step Outside Her Comfort Zone
I helped design the movie-watching activity on page 10 that will help you introduce great media criticism into your regular movie nights. Yes, the Bechdel Test figures prominently. 

Note: Please read Alison Bechdel's work for its own brilliance--her legacy goes far beyond this 30-year-old throwaway joke that her friend Liz Wallace actually made up

THAT'S NOT ALL. From pages 15 to 20 are worksheets you can use to facilitate the discussion and charts you can print out and put on your fridge. It sounds like homework, but I think they've designed it so colorfully that it will go down easily. (Plus, it's still basically watching a movie you like and talking about it, pretty much my favorite thing to do in my life.)

If you print all this out and organize your family to do this activity, I promise you two things. First, you will model assertiveness and possibly inspire critical thinking about media for your children's lifetimes. Second, even though it might run through your family's mind, I will not call you "bossy."

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Hero's Journey Led Me Astray: Further Reading

Here are some of the things I read about before, and refer to in, my TEDxBeaconStreet talk on the Hero's Journey. You should definitely read them and follow these writers.

The Hero's Journey

Joseph Campbell's work is beloved by most. It certainly has become the blueprint for screenwriting, through teachers like Robert McKee and Christopher Vogler. I found a few compelling counterpoints, though, ranging from the hilarious to the academic to the provocative:

"Hulk Explains Why We Should Just Stop It With The Hero Journey Shit" by Film Crit Hulk
"The Problem of Woman As Hero In The Work of Joseph Campbell" by Sarah Nicholson
"The Heroine With A Thousand Friends" by Elizabeth Lyon
"Forget the Hero's Journey. Women Want An Antagonist's Tale" by Robin Childs
"The Heroine's Journey: How Campbell's Model Doesn't Fit" by B. J. Priester

2013 movies about race

I'm not the first to notice the unusual abundance, prominence, and success (both artistic and commercial) of movies featuring African Americans in 2013. Much more will be said as the Oscar race proceeds.

"In Hollywood, Black Is The New Black" by Bilge Ebiri
"How Did Racism Get To Be So Popular?" by Stephen Marche

White people's relationship to movies about race

Like boys watching movies about female characters, white people supposedly won't go see movies featuring mostly Black casts. This is a curious by-product, or way of expressing, privilege: marginal groups are expected to enjoy stories of the dominant group--they do it every day! But the dominant group does not need to empathize with the marginal group. Unless they have an "audience surrogate."

"The White-Savior Industrial Complex" by Teju Cole
"Why White People Don't Like Black Movies" by Andre Seewood
"Oscar Loves A White Savior" by David Sirota

What about those statistics, huh?

It wouldn't be a TED talk without some numbers and studies. I got mine from these sources:

TV-watching and self-esteem "Racial and Gender Differences in the Relationship Between Children's Television Use and Self-Esteem" by Nicole Martins & Kristen Harrison

Racial make-up of 2012 movies and movie-goers MPAA Theatrical Market Statistics 2012, p. 13
"Race/Ethnicity In 500 Popular Films" by Dr. Stacy Smith, Marc Choueiti, & Dr. Katherine Pieper

Heroes of color in all time top 100 Top 100 Worldwide:
Independence Day (39)
Hancock (72)
Men In Black 3 (73)
Life of Pi (79) (Not Will Smith.)
Men In Black (84)
I Am Legend (88)
Puss In Boots (96) (I was generous.)
Plus, to be even more generous, I counted Beverly Hills Cop, which is #41 on the Top 100 Domestic Adjusted for Inflation.

Bias studies "Everyone Is Biased: Harvard professor's work reveals we barely know our own minds" by Carolyn Y. Johnson
Science Faculty's Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students" by Corinne Moss-Racusin, John Dovidio, Victoria Brescoll, Mark Graham & Jo Handelsman
"Lack of Female Sources in NY Times Front-Page Stories" by Alexi Layton and Alicia Chepard

What other articles, talks, and research have you found about these topics?