Is Poor Things a feminist film? Is Barbie? These have become meaningless questions | Beatrice Loayza

Let’s play a game. Of all the best picture nominees from this year’s Oscars, which film is the most feminist? Is it Barbie, a family-friendly paean to our childhood’s plastic It Girl? Poor Things, a racy riff on Frankenstein that charts one woman’s process of self-emancipation? Or is it Anatomy of a Fall, about a hotshot bisexual writer accused of murdering her man?

You can make a solid case for any one of them. Conversely, a takedown of each is easy, too. Barbie’s girl power is nothing but good PR for Mattel, and besides, why did they allow Ryan Gosling to steal the show? Poor Things is a man’s manicured vision of women’s liberation. If it’s so feminist, where’s the menstrual blood? The armpit hair?

These aren’t terrible questions. But I also wonder if they’re a little beside the point. Should films about women be held up against a feminist measuring stick? And what exactly determines the scale, when the definition of feminism is fluid and its priorities variable?

The upheavals of #MeToo and efforts over the past decade to bridge the film industry’s gender divide have resulted in more films for and about women – we’ve got female superheroes in their own blockbuster vehicles (Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, Black Widow), movies that dramatise the ordeals of sexual harassment (Bombshell, The Assistant) or of trying to get an abortion (Never Sometimes Rarely Always, Call Jane). Then there are the “bad” feminist joints – Tár, I Care a Lot – that get feminist cred because they dare to show women acting in morally ambivalent ways. Is any film with a strong female character feminist?

It has reached the point where the term feels cheap. Choose a film, do a bit of rhetorical flexing, some squinting and voilà: a feminist icon! On the one hand, this speaks to the normalisation of a term once considered radical and niche – we are all feminists, or should be. On the other hand, the label of “feminist” is beginning to feel more like a subcategory on Netflix – an algorithmic signpost – than a meaningful description of art. And as a subgenre it’s so broad as to be useless – covering biopics about women’s suffragists, raunchy feminist comedies, and final-girl horror screamfests. I don’t go around looking for feminist messaging in the many films I watch, and if I find it, it’s not automatically a positive thing.

Last year’s M3gan, a campy horror flick about a demon doll, is a useful case. Allison Williams plays a tech genius whose maternal anxieties are so great that she invents a robot to care for her orphaned niece. I liked the film. Not because I approved of its feminist qualities, but because its ideas about technology and our increasing aversion to human contact felt fresh, and because its feminine preoccupations and domestic tensions vibe well with the film’s spooky satire. Reversely, Bottoms, which takes the premise of Fight Club and makes it about queer and horny teenage girls, is a bona fide nasty-gal statement piece. Yet I found it fell flat, its punchlines almost always bungled, its gags half-baked.

In the same vein, I’m not upset at a film such as Poor Things because of Emma Stone’s character’s absent period. I didn’t like the film because it plays like an emphatically mature version of a schematic Disney movie: there’s an awakening, a quirky journey, a feelgood climax, and the script feels constructed to check all the boxes of female empowerment. Then there’s the sex, which, paradoxically, begins to function as a progressive kind of virtue-signalling: see here, our sexual politics are smart and sophisticated!

Wanting to present a strong feminist vision is not an incriminating goal, and there’s good reason for such an impetus. Historically, the male-dominated film industry has profited from an excess of films that relegate women to the sidelines; that fetishise and objectify them; that make them out to be nothing more than virgins, whores, girlfriends, wives or mistresses. Cherchez la femme – look for the woman – goes the French saying, which refers to a cliche in novels and movies in which the girl is the cause of all troubles, triggering the hero’s actions, for better or worse. Her movements, her desires, only matter insofar as they affect the man’s.

The problem is the regularity of this dynamic, which spans the entirety of film history in which there have been too few female film workers and women in positions of financial and creative power. Yet portraying a strong woman is also not an inherently interesting or meaningful artistic choice.

Too many films present us with a paint-by-numbers feminism that flatters our egos, and enables them to masquerade as something much heavier and more worthy of adulation. In contemporary film culture – especially as it plays out on social media – there’s a sense that ideological battles can be meaningfully waged through politically inflected conversations about art and entertainment. A film such as Poor Things matters because it stands against an increasingly sexless pop-cultural landscape; Barbie, the highest-grossing film of 2023 worldwide, was robbed of additional Oscar nominations for sexist reasons. These assertions say little about the films themselves. Rather, they speak to what the films represent for politically frustrated audiences.

The 1970s saw the rise of feminist film-making. There were feminist film collectives that made documentaries about women’s rights issues; Hollywood started taking more chances on female directors and screenwriters; a handful of indies were released that centred the female experience in utterly novel ways (Girlfriends, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles).

The feminist movies of the past presented us with complex and invigorating new ways of thinking about sex, gender relations and domestic work, and they challenged audiences to reconsider what they took for granted. I’m not sure this spirit of contention is possible today if our understanding of feminist power is stuck on the low-hanging fruit of sex-positivity and accurate representation. Move beyond these worn-out markers, which have become questionably analogous with “good”, and you’ll find the movies are better when you’re not sure what they’ll say.

  • Beatrice Loayza is a film critic and historian based in New York

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

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