Food for Thought: Re ‘Why So Many Boring Women in Indie Films’

I should not be awake.

With that non sequitur out of the way, I read this interesting article in The Atlantic by Elizabeth Freeman about female characters in indie films. Freeman writes:

…indie movies of the last decade have shown little regard for their young female protagonists as people. Blue Valentine‘s Cindy is meek and mild, with a discontent that brews steadily under the surface of her alabaster complexion. She’s cute. She’s a blank slate. As a character, she is utterly forgettable.

A number of indie movies from the past ten years have portrayed female love interests with remarkable similarity, blending them all into one smudgy portrait. Since “indie” is synonymous with counterculture, or at least alternative culture, viewers expect characters that aren’t canned. An indie romantic comedy presumes that the male and female leads will be equally realized and written. Instead, indie movies of the early 21st century contained an insidious sexism. If she was in her late teens or early twenties, she remained amorphous. All you saw was all you got.

Freeman then goes on to list a litany of indie films (or indie films just mainstream enough for a lot of people to have heard of them) that are guilty of this crime. Scarlett Johansson’s character in Lost in Translation, Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tennenbaums, Claire Danes in Shopgirl, Jennifer Anniston in The Good Girl, Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer. The list goes on and on. Freeman claims that the most convincing, intriguing female characters are children: Ree in Winter’s Bone, Hailee Steinfeld’s character in True Grit, even Ellen Page in Juno, who  “…though she’s had sexual experiences [is] almost made asexual…She’s allowed to be smart only because she’s still a child.” 

Yet, according to Freeman, studio films have (curiously) been quite successful at creating compelling female characters. There’s Eva Mendes in Hitch, who is a thriving gossip columnist and Nia Vardalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a film that  “showed a woman who didn’t fit into Hollywood’s mold of beauty, navigating her family’s traditional expectations and her own desire for love.” (Aside: I hate when writers implicitly insult actresses by talking ad nauseam about how they ‘don’t fit the Hollywood mold of beauty.’  What are you trying to say? Or rather, we know what you’re trying to say. So why not just say it?)

Although some indie films this year, most notably The Kids are Alright, have managed to do some redemption, Freeman ends her piece with a scene from Blue Valentine, reiterating the fact that Cindy (Michelle Williams) and indie female characters in general,  are just more of the same, blank archetype.

I could not disagree more.

Sometimes I think articles like this come out when a writer is starved for a topic. It can be very tempting (and easy), to have an ill-formed, generalized thought, an idea that is naturally controversial (as anything critiquing depictions of women and POCS is) and then go to town on it. That’s what Freeman does here. And while she does make some valid points, her criterion for what constitutes an interesting, compelling female character are quite subjective. It’s also unclear, ultimately, what she means by an interesting, complicated female character. Carrie Bradshaw, as depicted in the Sex and the City movies is hardly interesting or complicated. Yet Freeman cites the films as examples of ‘strong, female characters.’ Likewise Eva Mendes in Hitch, a mediocre movie and a mediocre hit, is hardly memorable in the long, contemporary cinema scheme of things.

Furthermore, whazzup with her examples of the ‘boring’ indie women? Cindy from Blue Valentine wasn’t an interesting, compelling character? Did we watch the same film? I found Cindy quite fascinating. Now, this may be in part because there were so many potential moments of character expansion that were (necessarily I would argue) left unexplored. Cindy loses her virginity at fourteen (it might have been thirteen). It’s revealed that she’s had twenty-five sexual partners and she’s only in college. What drove her to those men? How does that kind of sexual baggage affect her attitudes towards Dean and her college boyfriend?

Her dreams of becoming a doctor are stifled by immediate financial need and she becomes a nurse. Surely much of the resentment and latent anger that she harbors towards Dean stem from her own frustrations; she had potential that she had to postpone indefinitely because of her child. We can see the unique pressure that being a wife, mother and the primary breadwinner for a two parent, blue -collar household takes on her. Based off of this description, I would hardly call Cindy boring. Perhaps when played by an actress of lesser talent, but Michelle William’s virtuosity created a vivid, complicated character. I certainly left the theatre thinking more about Cindy than Dean.

Likewise, if Gwyneth Paltrow’s character in The Royal Tennenbaums is a bore, or an archetype, (which I don’t think she is) then that’s a crime Wes Anderson is responsible for committing habitually with all of his characters. Wes Anderson characters never come from the faux ‘cinema verite’ of Derek Cianfrance. They are oddball, 60s-music-soundtrack-conjurers–quirky, idiosyncratic–characters in every sense of the word.

In the case of Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) in Lost in Translation, she’s boring because  Johansson is boring; Johansson’s at best a competent actress who picks good roles for her limited capabilities.

I don’t disagree with Freeman’s inclusion of Zooey Deschanel’s character from (500) Days of Summer. Summer’s extremely limited interiority was something I immediately noted in the film and that limitation substantially weakened the movie.

Anyway, you can see that I go about refuting Freeman in a virtually case-by-case fashion. This is the way it has to be done. It’s hard to make generalizations about film characters, especially in a genre as nebulous and ambiguous as the ‘indie.’

Without defining her terms specifically enough (what is an ‘indie’? what does an interesting female character look like) it’s difficult to buy Freeman’s argument.

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