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Cross Post: Sexism in Hollywood: Where Are the Women in Argo?

Features
by Nico Lang
November 9, 2012 12:30 PM
7 Comments
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Ben Affleck’s Argo is shaping up to be this year’s biggest success story. With a near-win for the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival, stellar reviews across the board and an A+ CinemaScore rating from audiences, Argo is destined to be a huge hit at the box office and redemption for its once ostracized director. After an astounding string of critical and commercial disasters with an astounding amount of career-enders (GigliReindeer Games and Jersey Girl among them), Affleck has been quietly generating buzz as an up-and-coming director with sleeper hits like Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010). The latter pulled in almost $100 million at the box office, which Argo seems likely to best. In its third weekend, Argo topped the box office for the first time, taking in $12.4 million, and has now earned $60.8 million total. The movie is the first to do so in its third weekend since 2010’s True Grit, a huge sleeper hit that grossed $171 million stateside.

Because of the wide acclaim from audiences and critics, the movie currently stands as the front-runner on Gold Derby and Gurus of Gold’s Oscar predictions chart. These are the two most-trusted surveys of Oscar prognosticators, paid to be a breathing barometer of each year’s Oscar climate. And who can blame them for voting for predicting it?  Argo has everything going for it as a Best Picture pony. On top of the Affleck comeback story, it’s a CIA period piece about a hostage crisis that also doubles as a witty satire about Hollywood. The Oscars love movies about the movies (see: last year’s winner, The Artist); handsomely mounted movies about the past (The King’s SpeechShakespeare in LoveTitanic); and actors-turned-directors (Million Dollar BabyBraveheartDances With Wolves). It’s quickly becoming a consensus pick in a crowded race, as it has almost everything you could want in a movie.

Oh, right. Except for women.

Of the movie’s thirteen or so lead roles, three of them are played by women, and none of them are the caliber you might expect from a film that takes its female characters seriously. The two with the most screen time are the relatively unknown Kerry Bishe and late 90's lesbian icon Clea DuVall, who hasn’t been near a lead role in a major film since 2004’s The Grudge. Two of her last three efforts went almost straight-to-video and the third, the 2010 Hilary Swank drama, Conviction, she was barely in. Playing the supportive yet timid wives and girlfriends of men with larger parts, DuVall and Bishe get to stand around and look nervous, and Bishe looks forever on the edge of tears. I can’t recall either of their characters’ names or a distinct thing they actually do in the film, and the actresses get to share the scraps of lines thrown to them. (My generous estimate is 20.)

However, they get off better than poor Taylor Schilling, who plays Affleck’s estranged (yet still supportive) wife. Having acted in a major film in the last year (the Zac Efron vehicle The Lucky One), Schilling is the de-facto most famous woman in this film — which is a tallest Hobbit situation if there ever were one. Schilling’s only other big role was in the shockingly inept 2010 adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, and Bishe’s most famous work was on the last season of Scrubs, aka. Scrubs University — which no one watched. Despite her relative fame, Schilling doesn’t get any lines in the film, and you can see her face onscreen for three-ish seconds. Her job in the movie? She gets to hug Ben Affleck, a feat of acting prowess I bet she can’t wait to add to her IMDB profile.

With Schilling in the part, I imagine that her role was reduced from a larger one, and the part screams of Phantom Storyline syndrome. Throughout the film, much reference is made to Affleck’s wife and son, a device used to garner sympathy for his character, Tony Mendez. (He’s not just a tortured CIA agent; he’s a tortured CIA agent who cares.) This plot point isn’t central to the overall arc of the action, and Affleck likely whittled down its screen time to focus on the A-story, which is all about men.  In Schilling's place, Affleck is able to give roles, jobs and actual lines to no less than 10 name character actors (like Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman and Victor Garber), TV actors (Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina and Bryan Cranston) and lesser-known-but-respected vets (Richard Kind and Tate Donovan). Arkin and Goodman, who steal the film, get ample screen time to cut up and be merry. Garber and Donovan, who play smaller parts, are allowed to have a part in the narrative in a way the female characters simply are not and be played by recognizable actors the film deems worthy of our attention.

Part of the movie’s marginalization of female characters can be rationalized away by the true-life nature of the film. Because the movie is “based on a true story,” Affleck and his screenwriter, Chris Terrio, have to somewhat stick to the facts and show the story the way things happened. But unlike this year’s Compliance, which told about as accurate of an account of real-life workplace abuse possible, Argo plays fast and loose with the facts for cinematic impact — to ramp up the drama and intensity. (If you needed someone to tell you the airport chase probably didn’t happen that way, you have no idea what the definition of a movie is.) Thus, the “we-had-to-stick-to-the-facts-so-no-lines-for-womenfolk” argument doesn’t hold up. If you can make room for an airport chase, a protracted dénouement where Mendez is awarded an Intelligence Star, a speech from Jimmy Carter (that adds nothing to the film) and a gratuitous shot of Affleck’s abs, you can give one woman something to do. Anything at all.

I’m not saying they should create a new role for a woman or magically create a female spy (it’s not Alias, after all), but the women here deserve more than virtual silence. The film doesn't take place at an all-boys' school or a magical world in which all of the women have gone mute. It was the 1970's, not Spike TV. There were women who had relationships to the story, and the film's desire to marginalize them or cut them out completely shows how little modern Hollywood thinks of female narratives. Movies actually made in the 70's had better roles for women than this, and the idea that Affleck gets let off the hook for sexism because he made a period piece is insulting.

Affleck’s previous film, The Town, suffered a similar problem, where the two lead roles for women were a mumble-mouthed stripper (Blake Lively) and a nice-girl hostage with PTSD (Rebecca Hall), who mostly got to tremble, while looking fawn-like and helpless. The reliance on good girl/tragic hooker dichotomies was offensive and tired, but at least those roles were played by two of the It Girls of the moment. Lively was (and still is) a pervasive tabloid figure and the ever-terrific Hall was coming off her recent Globe nomination for Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The parts didn’t add much to the overall film (and Lively could disappear without anyone noticing), but at least Affleck’s casting choices showed he cared about those parts — rather than implicitly saying they could be played by anyone.

Argo isn’t alone in marginalizing women’s roles in film, as all but five of this year’s Top 20 films were dominated by men, and even films that feature women as leads do so in films where their gender is the minority (see: The Hunger GamesBraveSnow White and the Huntsman). Although it may be wrong to criticize Argo for doing the same thing everyone else is (just more egregiously), the film shows that even our “serious films” often do not privilege women’s narratives. Of the 10 predicted nominees on Gold Derby, only three of those can boast campaigning a Best Actress nominee (Zero Dark ThirtyBeasts of the Southern Wild and The Silver Linings Playbook). Although Jennifer Lawrence is terrific in The Silver Linings Playbook and is a lock for a Best Actress nomination, Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone argues that her role is more of a supporting one, where she “chases relentlessly after Bradley Cooper…[and] spends much of the movie in a tight danskin top bouncing up and down joyfully.”

This is indicative of an Oscar race and an industry where even the lead roles for women are really supporting, where women are “mattresses, eye-candy or ego-propper-uppers.” Of the last fifteen years, only five Best Picture winners could campaign an actress in lead and two of those roles (American Beauty and Shakespeare in Love) serve more to support the larger narrative of their male counterparts rather than serving their own arc. During that period, only 19 Best Picture nominees have boasted true lead roles, and 7 of those have been in the last three years, when the Oscars expanded their Best Picture field. None of 2005’s nominees had either a true female lead or a lead role that’s really supporting, and if you can name an actress in Munich off the top of your head, I’ll eat my shoe. (To save you the IMDB visit, the largest roles are Ayelet Zurer and Gila Almagor, who play a supportive wife/girlfriend and a mother. They are billed sixth and eighth, and the latter is simply called “Avner’s Mother.”)

Being the Oscar frontunner, Argo says a lot about what Hollywood thinks is worthy of merit and the values that our industry seeks to promote through its films. If (or when) Argo wins Best Picture, we will see yet another instance in which the lives and narratives of men are held up as being worthy of praise, at the expense of women who (like Almagor or Schilling) don’t even get names or lines. As a movie about movies, Argo wants to hold up a mirror to Hollywood and reflect the craziness of the industry, but in doing so, also perpetuates that industry's rampant and systemic sexism. If this is the system by which we create “greatness” and “success,” we need a new system.

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Nico Lang is the Associate Director of The Civil Rights Agenda, the Co-Editor of In Our Words, a graduate student in Media and Cinema Studies at DePaul University and a columnist for Thought Catalog, The Huffington Post and HEAVEMedia. Follow Nico on Twitter @Nico_Lang.

Printed with permission.

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7 Comments

  • Hmmmm | March 8, 2013 12:45 AMReply

    I didn't get the comment about Alias and creating female spies. There have been female spies since the beginning of spying. Do you not know this? So there were definitely female spies in the 70s and women were working in the institutions which were central to the story. I'm sure there was much interaction in real life between women and men during these events and there is no reason some of contacts or office personnel could not have been played by women.

  • Mildred | November 11, 2012 12:25 PMReply

    An interesting piece, but several things need clarification for its argument to be effective.

    Argo is the biggest success in what terms? The Avengers clearly dominated the 2012 box office. Is Argo a bigger or more meaningful breakthrough than Ava DuVernay's Middle of Nowhere? The Oscars are hugely important but certainly not the final word in terms of critical success or long term influence.

    Affleck quietly generating buzz? At least in the industry, it is well known that the studio has been throwing projects at Affleck. Vulture.com notes, "[Affleck and Eastwood] are in-house favorites at Warner Bros., ... Affleck's been offered all sorts of directing gigs at the studio, from Justice League to The Stand..."

    In addition to talking about Argo playing fast and loose with facts, there were also debates over Affleck casting himself rather than a Latino actor that should have been acknowledged.

    My strongest objection is to the notion that the actresses who lack stature in some way compound underdeveloped female roles. These are two very separate things. And how can the ranks of qualified or experienced female actors increase unless they are given opportunities? These were all working female actors who just like anyone else, are one role away from a breakthrough. We know nothing of their training, stage work, etc. So to say that they should in part be dismissed as tabloid fodder is problematic. The effective deployment of publicity, which sadly includes the tabloids, can be crucial to a career. Ask Brad Pitt and George Clooney.

  • Jules | November 11, 2012 9:28 AMReply

    As a woman who considers herself a feminist, I agree with the article however, the part where Jennifer Lawrence is singled out, complete with a quote from Sasha Stone is silly and shortsighted. The character that Lawrence portays is not a silly bimbo, she's a woman dealing with the aftermath of tragedy as well as a mental illness. Cooper's character is the only person Tiffany can relate to. It's worth noting that Sasha Stone has a bizzare bias when it comes to Jennifer Lawrence (gee, I wonder why) so, any opinion Stone has about Lawrence, the character of Tiffany or, the film itself, is really meaningless.

  • Daisy Mae | November 12, 2012 4:07 PM

    I didn't detect any bias against Jen Lawrence on Stone's website.

  • Budmin | November 9, 2012 9:12 PMReply

    In regards to Atals Shrugged, I don't think this site supported either movie. This disappoints me a great deal because of the strong female leads in part 1 and 2. I hasten to assume that the snubbing of Atlas shrugged was due to an anticonserative bias during election years. If I'm wrong tell me.

  • serpico | November 9, 2012 1:09 PMReply

    Here we go again. Finding ways to complain. I love America. If it helps the author's mood, I'm trying to write a screenplay that showcases a strong, independent female lead. As for "Argo", it's a fast paced international/political thriller that was well filmed for a standard 2 hr Hollywood movie. Nothing more. Women are not losing their power because of it. Besides, "Lincoln" seems to be stirring the pot. But God forbid that wins Best Picture, because Lincoln, as you know, is a male, and according to history, Mary Todd was a whiny, spoiled, and materialistic first lady. Uh oh!

  • Daisy Mae | November 12, 2012 3:50 PM

    I interpret this article as food for thought; to point out a few things that otherwise may go unnoticed, not an indictment of the film and not complaining.

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