Orientalism & the White Male Savior Complex in Dune (2021)

In the recent film adaptation of Dune by Frank Herbert, directed by Denis Villenueve, the young son of a powerful family lands on a foreign desert planet and faces many challenges. The plot follows him becoming one of the Fremen local population on the planet and changing his entire worldview. Dune is a story of environmentalism, prophecy, coming of age, adventure, and fate, but Dune also perpetuates harmful stereotypes. Within the desert planet setting, there is rampant orientalism and harmful othering stereotypes that draw from thinly veiled Islamic stereotypes. At the same time, the protagonist himself is a techno-colonist, just a future version of the White Male Savior trope that audiences have seen time and time again. Dune also fails to represent female characters in empowering ways, leaving little dialogue or agency for the women of the story. 

Image 1: White Male Savior Paul Atriedes 

Paul Atriedes Proves His Worth By Winning a Fight with a Fremen 

Movietime (Youtube)

In sci fi & fantasy, the genre conventions include a classic white male savior who saves or leads a foreign population vaguely reminiscent of a non-white group of our world in some way. Outside of sci-fi and fantasy, the white male savior trope is when a “white messianic character saves a lower- or working-class non white character from a sad fate” (Denzin, 1, 2008). Typically, the white male savior is smarter, stronger, braver, or more masculine than natives, which leads to his credibility in being the “special one” of this universe. The white male savior tends to become a leader of a foreign people, either being chosen or by force, which validates the white male conquest of other lands. In Dune (2021), the protagonist, Paul Atriedes, is the typical white male crusader, saving the world and leading foreign (xenophobically based) armies. 

Paul Atriedes enters the planet as a part of an outsider government body, knowing little to nothing about his environment and the people who live there. However, due to a divine given right and visions, he feels that he must rule this planet and that he knows better than the locals.  In another context, this is simply colonization. In this image, Paul Atriedes proves his worth and skill in a hand-to-hand combat challenge against a man of the local population, the Fremen. This fight scene is the climax and end of the movie, showing Atriedes becoming accepted as a powerful leader among the Fremen, even though he is an ignorant young man from another planet. 

Jamis Appears in Paul’s Vision as a Guide

Dune News Net

    Prior to their fight, Paul has a vision of the Fremen he killed who guides him in his assimilation into the Fremen people. This is a common trope and repeat of history having the Native people of a land aid and care for their oppressors by showing them the ways of their land. Dune repeats this trope by having Jamis, who we now know is physically weaker than Paul, be the one to show Paul the ways of the desert. This vision does not come true, so it proves unnecessary to the plot of the film. Of course, someone needs to help him assimilate, but curious that it is the one he bests and kills. 

    The character of Jamis also presents the comparatively primitive actions of the Fremen. He proposes the fight and taunts Paul before their fight to the death. In their fight, Jamis yells after being bested repeatedly by Paul, who resists killing him because he has never killed a man. His taunts and yells only during their fight, and despite being a great fighter, is bested by the young boy who is new to their lands. Through the power Paul receives after their fight, and the stereotypes that Jamis’ character represents and perpetuates, Dune repeats history in film and colonization. This is not new to American history with colonists and Native Americans in the 16th century. 

Image 2: Orientalism in the Environment of planet Dune

Lady Jessica Attends a Formal Event on Dune 

USAtoday.com

    Orientalist tropes, which refer to colonizers making exaggerated amalgamations of Arab and Asian cultures, often show “Eastern mystery…backwardness… and exoticness” (Kelly, 2014, pp. 412). The concept of Orientalism was defined in the 1970s by Edward Saïd, who pointed out the abundance of racist, inaccurate, and harmful images of “the East” that colonizer cultures were obsessed with producing (Demerdash, 2022). In many movies and films, orientalism is still very obvious with depictions of “foreign worlds,” especially as can be seen in Dune (2021). 

In this image, Paul Atriedes’s mother and the effective Queen of the land on Dune is shown wearing formal attire for a government event on Dune. Lady Jessica is clearly wearing a stylized version of a hijab, the traditional clothing for Muslim women. The planet Dune is characterized as a desert planet, similar to the Arabian desert, and all people dwelling on Dune wear loose, long clothing similar to garments worn by people in Saudi Arabia. Additionally, Fremen people on Dune speak a language with words that draw directly Arabic, such as Shai-hulud, which refers to the sandworms in the movie. By using elements from an existing culture to portray a foreign, uninhabitable, planet with native people who are characterized in the movie as dangerous, unreliable, and brutal, Dune contributes to the othering and dehumanization of that culture.  

Gurney Halleck Spars with Paul Atreides

Dune News Net 

In his preparation for their arrival to Arrakis, Paul begins to study the Fremen through recordings and books, and all of them speak of the Fremen as what I would describe as animals and spiritual beings who respect the spice of their land. They are not spoken of as a reasonable people like the family of Atreides. The House Atreides are expected to bring peace to Arrakis, similarly spoken by colonists that would domesticate “primitive” people, as seen in the 16th century and 19th century in the Americas and Africa. They are described as “dangerous and unreliable”, and throughout the first act of the film, this is the common rhetoric of the native throughout the court. 

    Paul’s preparation is interrupted by Gurney Halleck, his trainer who prompts an impromptu sparring session. Paul appears to not take it seriously until Halleck yells “They’re not human, they’re brutal”. There is a purpose to having this rhetoric surround the chosen one who is meant to be the change for House Atreides after his father’s death. This setup of having him be more than those who are not accepting of the native people, is to set him apart as The One. Paul is a character of reason, even in the face of his own people and the Fremen. As the one who will save the Fremen people, he is more reasonable than his own people and stronger than the natives. 

Image 3: The Role of the Bene Gesserit

Paul Atriedes faces a test of the Bene Gesserit

polygon.com

    In the Dune universe, the Bene Gesserit are an elite group of women, only women, that have been around for thousands of years, existing beyond any nationalities or laws. The women are warriors, trained from birth in fighting, history, and various mystical powers such as “the Voice,” similar to Jedi from Star Wars. However, the Bene Gesserit and all of their training have one goal: to produce a single male heir that will lead the world. The women of the Bene Gesserit have spent thousands of years selectively breeding and acting as the best mother and wives in the universe with the hopes of slowly creating this heir. 

    It seems comical, and even absurd, that this group of women, considered the most powerful in the universe, are written as to have the one purpose to be mothers and wives. This one true heir is supposed to be the one true heir because it will be a male who has all of the powers of a Bene Gesserit, for no other reason than because that is the prophecy. In this image, Paul Atriedes is undergoing a test that all Bene Gesserit have to go through in order to use their powers. He is undergoing this test because they think he may be the chosen one who has Bene Gesserit powers. It is so frustrating that these really cool female characters cannot simply be the ones to change the world, they instead must be perfect subservient wives and wait for a man to do it for them, with their own tools. 

Paul Atreides and His Mother, Lady Jessica in the Desert

Polygon.com

    It is also strange that despite growing up learning the ways of the Bene Gesserit, Paul does not have respect or even the knowledge of the Reverind Mother. This is common throughout the film by many male characters. This powerful group of women are simply referred to as “witches” or are ignored and lied to. How and why is this group treated with such little respect, even after it was stated that they have held power in space for centuries. This would be a direct reflection of how these characters are viewed by the creators of the film. 

    Through the power they wield, the Bene Gesserit work in the shadows, an act that is looked down upon in the film, even by other groups such as the Harkonnens who do the exact same thing. Having this group of powerful women only work in the shadows, simply perpetuates gender stereotypes of women being manipulative and secretive. 

Image 4: Chani & the lack of female agency in the 2021 movie adaptation

Zendaya as Chani in Dune

Dazeddigital.com

    Zendaya, the young actress who plays the female love interest in Dune (2021), was featured heavily in every trailer, promo, poster, and advertising effort for the film. However, when the movie actually came out, her character had little to no lines and was only actually in the 155 minute movie for seven minutes. This is frustrating because yet again a movie drew viewers in for a female character, only to give that character nearly no screen time compared to male counterparts, just like Margot Robbie in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. 

In the novel version of Dune, Chani is the powerful daughter of the Fremen leader on Dune, and a main character in the story. In the movie, Chani is more of a prop or symbol of power that Paul Atriedes needs to save. She has no agency, despite being the daughter of the Fremen leader, and visually is portrayed more like a model selling exotic perfume randomly throughout the movie than a powerful warrior woman. Chani’s depiction plays into tired tropes of women being weak prizes that men win, just in a sci-fi/fantasy dressing. 

Opening Sequence of Chani’s Narration

Inverse.com

It is especially frustrating when the lines Chani does have in the beginning of the film are to establish the oppression the Fremen have been under with the Harkonnens. Her speech of imperialism and overview of how their lives were ruined, is simply a narration that states her awareness of her situation. Through this, not only does Paul see her as someone to save in his visions, now so does the audience, especially when it is the very first sequence of the film. Even with that, the treatment of her character presents her as a damsel who needs to be saved, even with the resources and knowledge to do it herself. There is no agency in her character, even when faced with danger. 

In the end of the sequence, she asks “Who will our next oppressors be?”, then it ends with the film title and a shot of Paul Atreides. This visual choice is interesting in that it creates the question of whether Paul Atreides is truly going to save or oppress the Fremen. Based on history and tropes in this genre, it is most likely going to be the latter. 

Works Cited

Denzin, N. (2008). The Savior Trope and the Modern Meanings of Whiteness. Temple

 University, Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://tupress.temple.edu/up

loads/book/excerpt/2263_ch1.pdf.

Demerdash, N. (2022). Orientalism (article). Khan Academy. Retrieved July 1, 2022, from

https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/becoming-modern/introduction-becoming-mod

ern/issues-in-19th-century-art/a/orientalism. 

Kelly, Casey Ryan. (2014). Feminine Purity and Masculine Revenge-Seeking In

Taken (2008), Feminist Media Studies, 14:3, 403-418, DOI: 10.108

0/14680777.2012.740062.

Negative connotations associated with hyper-femininity and the adaptability of masculinity in Miss Congeniality, Terminator, and Legally Blonde

As Murnen & Byrne have defined it, hyper-femininity is an “exaggerated adherence to a stereotypic feminine gender role” (Murnen & Byrne, 1991, as cited in McKelvie & Gold, 1993). The trope of the hyper-feminine female character in films has been made out of negative attributes. These characters are perceived as weak, unintelligent, submissive servers of men who cannot accomplish anything without using their looks, even when this is farther from the truth. In this essay, we’ll analyze the main female characters in Miss Congeniality (2000), Terminator (1984, 1991), and Legally Blonde (2001). We argue that each of these characters illustrates the negative connotations of hyper-femininity while also proving how wrong those assumptions are. And how at the same time, some of them adopt masculine behavior to get rid of the negative implications linked to their imposed hyper-feminine personality that limit their abilities.

During the second wave of the feminist movement, women were fighting against gender roles to have a place in the workforce instead of just staying home. To be taken seriously, women began denouncing “feminine” things such as makeup, bras, magazines, curlers, and more and started favoring things stereotypically associated with men (Rhode, 2016). With this came the negative connotation that is now associated with hyper-femininity and the separation of hyper-femininity from feminism.

The picture above shows Gracie Hart, an FBI agent played by Sandra Bullock, in the film Miss Congeniality (2000). As seen in this image, Gracie is on the total opposite side of the femininity spectrum. Here we see her drinking beer (a drink often associated with men), with undone hair, no makeup, and loose-fitting clothes. She embodies more masculine qualities, which are not only part of her personality and non-conforming gender expression but could also be seen as a way to fit in with her male coworkers. Furthermore, she “exemplifies the stereotype of the woman working in the male-dominated world of law enforcement. She is geeky, snorts when she laughs and has a poorly kept appearance” (Ezzedeen, 2015). But still, Gracie is seen as intelligent, strong, and strategic. 

With an agent needing to go undercover for the Miss United States Beauty pageant to catch a killer, the FBI begins to scout for agents for the mission. Gracie expresses her distaste for beauty pageants and believes that the women who willingly participate and who conform to the patriarchal expectations of their gender are “airhead bimbos,” to which her coworkers agree (Donald Petrie, 2001). Her association with hyper-femininity and the lack of capabilities of these women clearly show the negative connotations of hyper-femininity she internalized, which can be traced back to the second wave of feminism.

Eventually, this mission gets assigned to Gracie, but her looks are seen as an apparent problem with an urgent need for solving. The FBI recruits a team to perform a makeover on Gracie for that reason. The picture above is the result after lots of training, a change of clothes, with hair and makeup done. Gracie is wearing a tight-fitting purple mini-dress, heels (out of frame), and is carrying a mini-bag. She is now conforming to the expectations of what her gender should look like. What’s interesting in this sequence is that one of Gracie’s fellow agents, Matthews, begins to find her attractive even though he had previously mentioned that he clearly doesn’t see her that way. His recent interest implies that only gender-conforming women can be seen as attractive by heterosexual men, but this comes at a cost because feminine women are considered less capable.

Cheryl, Miss Rhode Island, was one of the first five finalists to be announced. During the announcement, it comes out that Cheryl is “a science major. Her field is nuclear fission with a minor in elementary particles” (Donald Petrie, 2001). The picture above shows Miss Rhode Island with one of the hosts, and the text says, “major in nuclear fission, minor in elementary particles.” Although the text in the picture mistakenly points out that Cheryl’s major is nuclear fission, this image is referencing her area and interests. Cheryl is portrayed as the stereotypical pageant contestant throughout the film, which is hyper-feminine, bland, unintelligent, and submissive. But during her time at the pageant, Gracie sees that Cheryl and the other contestants are more than just pretty faces; instead, they are intelligent individuals with strong personalities. Cheryl is the perfect example of how women can be hyper-feminine and gender-conforming while still being three-dimensional.

Image obtained from tumblr.com

On the contrary, the character of Sarah O’Connor in the Terminator (1984) film begins with hyper-femininity, which should also be noted that at that time it was different from what is shown today. The image shows a white woman, well-groomed, with make-up, and with a docile personality. During her character development, Sara is a supporting character for the lead male actor. She is personified as the weak, inexperienced, fragile, indecisive, not smart, fearful woman who needs a man to protect her at all times. These characteristics align with Dr. McClearen’s book, “femininity has long been characterized as physically powerless and in need of patriarchal assistance and protection.” (McClearen, 1970) In addition, Baczynski’s dissertation mentions that, “an expanded definition of hyper-femininity is proposed including the components of traditional values, emotionality, superficiality, manipulation, and attraction to masculinity.” (Baczynski, 2016) In other words, Sarah is the character that represents the gender role that is socially acceptable towards women.

Image obtained from writeups.org

During the development of the sequels to this film, Sarah is forced to adopt a hemogenic masculine posture. She becomes tougher in order to get smarter. However, her authoritarian, muscular, dominant attitude still needs a stronger male figure for protection. She carries an image of security, toughness, determination, and bravery. This shift brings us to the association that the hyper-feminist personalities that actresses portray are negative because to develop their character, they must change to a more masculine personification to access benefits.

Image obtained from Twitter

The actresses who portray these characters show a transformation by dropping their femininity. They empower themselves by becoming stronger, making their own decisions, and above all their intelligence is not so much in question. Even so, the characters often show a patriarchal dependency, either for protection or affection. Due to that “hyper-femininity is also positively correlated with self-objectification, self-sexualizing behaviors, and both benevolent and hostile sexism (Nowatzki & Morry, 2009 as cited in Baczynski, 2016).  Keegan, a senior editor of film for The Hollywood Reporter, states that “for decades, getting the role in Hollywood has required actresses to present themselves as the kind of woman that male studio executives or directors find alluring.” (Keegan, 2019) to emphasize this statement, things will not change if the gender discrimination that exists in the film industry is not uprooted. However, some attempts can be perceived as a way of rebelling against the adoption of masculinity in women, and stereotypes of hyper-femininity, as is the example of Legally Blonde (2001).

 Legally Blonde (2001) shows Elle Woods as the epitome of hyper-femininity. With sexy outfits, socially determined colors for women, and full-on dreams of marrying the love of her life. But, her life changes abruptly when her boyfriend breaks up with her because she’s not “serious enough” or “intelligent enough,” and he can’t be with someone like that when he goes off to Harvard. Through her boyfriend’s reasoning for breaking up with her, we see the negative connotations associated with hyper-femininity. She is labeled weak, not intelligent, a barbie, and sexual due to how she decides to express herself. Elle decides that she needs the love of her life back, so it is necessary to apply to Harvard and get in. She studies religiously for weeks, which helps her accomplish this, even when her personality does not stereotypically fit this type of institution. 

In the picture above, we see Elle Woods being allowed to question the key witness in a murder case; after enduring much discrimination based on her hyper-femininity. Elle is seen wearing a bright pink dress, makeup, and styled hair. We can see how much she stands out from the crowd of people dressed in traditional professional attire, but she has added her twist to better express her personality. As you can see in this image, she stays with her ideas and hyper-femininity. She is proving that imposed stereotypes don’t weigh much when your intelligence overshadows them. Elle uses her knowledge of beauty products and hair care to get the witness to admit they committed the murder. With this, she proves that knowledge of beauty is not useless and was vital in winning their case. But even though she saves the day, her extreme hair care knowledge can also be detrimental because it points to her obsession with her appearance. Meaning that while Legally Blonde (2001) defies many of the conventions of hyper-feminine women, it subconsciously conforms to them.

The three films used in this essay, Miss Congeniality (2000), Terminator (1984, 1991), and Legally Blonde (2001), illustrate the negative connotations of hyper-femininity. In Miss Congeniality (2000), the main character does not conform to gender expectations and judges women who do. Still, after getting to know some of them, she realizes that hyper-feminine women are intelligent and capable too. In Terminator (1984, 1991), on the other hand, the main character is a gender-conforming, hyper-feminine woman who begins to reject her femininity and is forced to change her identity and adopt masculine traits to survive and be taken more seriously. Lastly, in Legally Blonde (2001), the main character is hyper-feminine and gender-conforming throughout the film. It proves that hyper-feminine women can be knowledgeable, determined, and capable by getting into an Ivy League university and helping win a murder case. These films show different ways in which hyper-femininity is presented, which brings the audience to form a negative opinion on the characteristics of femininity emphasized by these characters, making them think that it must be rejected by adopting traits that align more with masculinity.

References

Baczynski, H. (2016, January). Hyperfemininity As A Maladaptive Adherence To Feminine Norms: Cross-Validation Using The Personality Assessment Inventory And Personality Inventory For Dsm-5. Retrieved June 30, 2022, from https://commons.und.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2989&context=theses 

Donald Petrie, Edward Shearmur, Edward Shearmur & Steve Schnur. (2000) Miss Congeniality. USA/Australia.

Ezzedeen, S. R., (2015). “Portrayals of Career Women in Hollywood Films: Implications for the Glass Ceiling’s Persistence.” Gender in Management: An International Journal 30.3: 239-264.

Keegan, R. (2019, December 19). The power and predicament of wielding femininity: For decades, film has served up hyper-sexualized, ambitious females, but this year the amys (‘little women’), Ramonas (hustlers) and Megyns (bombshell) reclaim their narrative. in SearchWorks articles. Retrieved June 30, 2022, from https://searchworks.stanford.edu/articles/edsgac__edsgac.A610419508 

McClearen, J. (1970, January 1). Don’t be a do-nothing-bitch: Popular feminism and women’s physical empowerment in the UFC. SpringerLink. Retrieved June 30, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-72481-2_3

McKelvie, M. M., & Gold, S. R. (1993, January 1). Hyperfemininity: Further definition of the construct. Huskie Commons Home. Retrieved June 28, 2022, from https://commons.lib.niu.edu/handle/10843/15311?show=full 

Murnen, S. K. & Byrne, D. (1991). Hyper-femininity: Measurement and initial validation of the construct. Journal of Sex Research, 28(3), 479-489. 

Rhode, D. L., (2016). Appearance as a Feminist Issue, 69 SMU L. REV. 697 https://scholar.smu.edu/smulr/vol69/iss4/2 

9 Decades of Queer Coding in Film: Representation or Exploitation?

Maren Bennett & Nicolas Newburn

Throughout the decades, queer representation in film has heavily reflected the state of the time’s attitudes and opinions on sexual orientation and the expression of those identities. Dating back to the 1930’s, this photo essay explores themes of queer representation and exploitation as American cinema progressed through the era of the Hays Code, new-wave feminism and LGBTQ+ acceptance and allyship, crude, slapstick comedy tropes, and is currently nestled in the “yassified” attitudes we see today. This photo essay serves to represent the growth and at times regression, of LGBTQ+ representation in major cinematic projects throughout the decades. We’ve chosen a myriad of movies that highlight different sexualities, genders, and identities to convey the different attitudes of society at the time towards different marginalized groups. Not all of these movies were explicitly made for the purpose of being an LGBTQ+ story, and nor at times are some of these representations tasteful, but this close analysis proves that the community, frankly, has a sense of humor and tend to reclaim characters, couples, and themes that may have been aimed to make fun of or exploit the community to begin with. As movies grew to become as financially profitable and major as they are today, we chose to analyze these themes of representation or exploitation within film to understand the impact of society upon these multi-million dollar films and the effects that these movies have on us.

Dracula’s Daughter (1936) dir. Lambert Hillyer

Queerness emerges in horror through many lenses, often through othering, sensationalizing, or fetishizing, and almost always as a product of male fantasy. The lesbian vampire trope is one of the earliest instances of on-screen queerness. In Dracula’s Daughter (1936), Marya Zaleska is a young Hungarian countess with a bloody secret. Marya almost solely preys on other women to satiate her thirst. The renderings of vampirism in the film are sensual. Lustful. As we see in the still image above, Marya gazes upon her demure, sleeping victims with a certain tenderness and even though she’s never blatantly intimate with prey, the imagery speaks for itself. Marya’s sexuality is tightly coded with her vampirism; when she refers to the secret she keeps from the other characters in the film, it’s evident that her queerness is a facet of her being a “monster.” Hillyer’s depiction of homosexual deviancy through the palatable medium of white, able-bodied, conventionally attractive women is textbook queer coding. Marya’s secret life is egregious and she is ashamed of it, and as long as that is morally clear to audiences, cis-hetero people are still able to enjoy the sultry delight of the lesbian vampire narrative. 

The Maltese Falcon (1941) dir. John Huston

The Maltese Falcon premiered in the midst of the Hays Code and was an adaptation of the 1929 detective novel by the same name. A symbolic interpretation of the titular relic, the Maltese Falcon, is masculinity and pride. Something that protagonist Sam Spade has in abundance. Spade exhibits all the traits of dominant masculinity; he is sharp, a womanizer, and emotionally distant. The antagonists of the film juxtapose Spade and his brimming ego; they are feminine and frail, and their contextual queerness is the punchline of jokes aplenty. While the Hays Code barred on-screen depictions of “sexual deviancy,” exceptions were made for queer-bashing as we see with the reference image above. As Spade beats fruity antagonist Joel Cairo in the scene, he tells him “when you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.” An abundance of subtext bubbles up about hegemonic masculine power dynamics, and some of it is even homoerotic. While director John Huston certainly didn’t mean to cast macho man Sam Spade in a rainbow-tinted light, Spade being a longtime bachelor who has troubled relationships with women but no problem physically dominating and teasing gay men doesn’t make a compelling case for his heterosexuality. In any case, The Maltese Falcon is the premiere instance of the classic schemey, well-dressed, queer-coded villain.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) dir. Richard Brooks

In the height of the 50’s, the Hays Code has no better example of its cultural reductionism through such censorship than the 1958 film Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, based on the play of the same name by Tennnesee Williams. Williams sought to critique the time’s resentfulness to queerness and its obsession with a picket-fence heteronormative lifestyle. Ex-athlete Brick, the epitome of the masculine, macho American man, struggles throughout the film with his homosexual feelings for his deceased friend Skipper. His inner turmoil and drunken state causes him to become reclusive within himself, resulting in his marriage with Maggie to deteriorate into lovelessness. Ironically, the symbol of the times for manliness, Paul Newman, delivers a thought-provoking performance whilst his character grapples with his own internalized homophobia and society’s cookie-cutter expectations for men and marriage. Comforted by his wife in the image above, it’s evident that Brick is neither present nor very open to Maggie’s embrace, and, comforted more by alcohol, wishes to convince himself otherwise. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a story of what a seemingly normal family grapples with behind closed doors, and in turn serves as a satire and allegory of the 50’s and the repressive society that enforced the Hays Code to begin with. Whilst the terminology and attitude towards the gay community displayed in this film may be outdated, this film serves to represent gay men in a way to be seen, understood, and relate in an oppressive patriarchal America.

The Gay Deceivers (1969) dir. Bruce Kessler

The plot of The Gay Deceivers centers around young, all-American men Danny and Elliot dodging the draft by pretending to be homosexuals. When the ruthless army recruiter catches on to their plans, the men must convince the world by “living as homosexuals:” moving into a gay area of town and truly living the lifestyle. The reference image for this film is of Danny and Elliot’s neighbors, and a friendly but incredibly nosy couple. In the photo, we can see the flamboyance and drama that Kessler attributes with queer presentation. Both men have on an entire face of makeup, live in bright pink homes, and wear striking ensembles. Even though the portrayal in this photo is fabulously camp, there’s a sense that the aim of the film is to show the outlandish and morally irreheprensible nature of being a gay person. Compounding this with the fact that Bruce Kessler cast a large group of LGBTQ people to be made fun of in the film they’re starring in, The Gay Deceivers is notably exploitative.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) dir. Jim Sharman

The Rocky Horror Picture Show approached queer representation with a somewhat amibugous angle despite how flashy the film is at a glance. The overarching notion of queerness is that of pleasure-seeking. Most of the characters have both homo and heterosexual affairs within the narrative and one of the finale numbers had the momentum to turn into an orgy. This idea of fluidity in gender presentation and sexual orientation was extremely punk for its time. The film breaks down heteronormative relationship standards and societal obsessions with virginity. With this image, we see the subversive visual contrast between Frank-N-Furter and innocent Brad and Janet. Rocky Horror with all its fringe brings up an important discourse about representation. Frank-N-Furter is an evil scientist, cannibal, and general pervert. So is the film good representation? Is it accurate? The answer is in most cases no but perhaps the sheer act of having a genuine queer character on screen is revolutionary enough to outshine all of this. The Rocky Horror Picture Show was the first film to square up against the symbolic annihilation of queer people on screen. 

Caravaggio (1986) dir. Derek Jarman

The films of Derek Jarman are instances of queer coding under the most unique circumstances. Jarman queers history. Highlighting the innate homoerotics of the historical representation of certain figures, he empowers the audiences to consider that queer ontology is so much more deep and rich than we could imagine. Caravaggio explores the life of the prolific Italian renaissance painter. Jarman’s utilization of gaze in the film is profound. The camera lingers on the bodies of Caravaggio’s painting subjects (who Jarman accuses of being male prostitutes) gratuitously. This is reverse male gaze. In the reference photo from the film, Caravaggio is about to slit the throat of a model he’s been working with. The murder of the model is highly abstract. We see that despite having a knife to his throat, he is calm. Caravaggio has his arms squeezed tightly around his body, having finally given in to the “temptation” of the model whose beauty he has been capturing on canvas. This portrayal of carnal desire is a powerful interpretation of the highly homoerotic nature of renaissance-age art and how painters chose to capture/obsess over the male physique.

Mulan (1998) dir. Tony Bancroft & Barry Cook

Disney’s 1998 film Mulan sought to represent and appeal to fans of Asian descent, Mulan became an accidental hero and now iconic character for the LGBTQ+ community. This screenshot from Mulan’s musical number, “Reflection,” objectively illustrates Mulan’s struggle with her feminine obligation to her family to marry for familial duty. Her struggle between her obligation yet true aspirations of self-expression of both he masculine and feminine energies heavily resonated with members of the LGBTQ+ community and their own journeys to self-discovery and expression. Whilst the film dabbles in the question of whether Mulan or Shang, her love interest, were bisexual due to Mulan’s gender-bent appearance throughout the film, the concept of her undergoing that physical change also highlights the character arc’s similarities to the body dysmorphia and gender dysphoria that transgender people face. Mulan’s internal struggle as well as her fear of shaming her family and being her family’s shame also reflects the same anxieties faced by members of the LGBTQ+ community when discovering their gender or sexual identities and their subsequent struggle to come out to their families. Mulan is a story of doing the right thing for oneself and the internal and external consequences that follow that decision, whether that is embracing both the masculine and feminine energies within, accepting their sexual identities, or deciding to present as the gender they identify as.

Night at the Museum (2006) dir. Shawn Levy

The 2000’s largely embraced the “bromance” trope we commonly see in comedies produced by Judd Apatow and other slap-stick comedy moviemakers. The Night at the Museum combines this with the “enemies-to-lovers” (typically a straight plot line, e.g. Stockholm syndrome) storyline to create an “enemies-to-bro’s” relationship between Jedediah, the cowboy, and Octavius, the Roman soldier, who transform from hard-headed rivals into inseparable and borderline affectionate best friends. This photo features the two men in a celebratory embrace after triumph against mutual enemies, ending in a tongue-in-cheek quip about their manliness and lingering eye contact that teases the audience’s perception of their relationship. The lack of confirmation, nevermind acknowledgment, of the pair’s homosexual tendencies or feelings yet a seemingly never-ending plethora of jokes making fun of the possibility of their romance seems like a weak attempt of a turn-of-the-century metrosexual portrayal of men and comes across as more of a cheap attempt for laughs at the thought that men could be gay. Although the gay community today regards the pair as a bromance for the books and have taken on their own interpretation of the two, it’s clear that the Night at the Museum franchise is not an attempt at accurately representing or celebrating the LGBTQ+ community, but rather dangles the bait before audience’s faces to be used as the butt of a joke made by the hegemonic majority of Hollywood. 

Pitch Perfect (2012) dir. Jason Moore

The 2012 film Pitch Perfect is a quick-witted film that embodies the crude state of comedy in films of the 2010s, but in an era of a rise of representation for the LGBTQ+ community in media, this movie chooses to queer-code some characters, but overall refuses to let go of the previous decade’s subversion towards gay people. Particularly, as exhibited in this scene, the “predatory lesbian” trope, which frames lesbians as manipulative, “dangerous, violent, deviant seducers of “innocent” heterosexual girls,” runs rampant in this trilogy, in which queer-coded female characters seem to enjoy overstepping boundaries with other women and make them, and subsequently the audience, uncomfortable (Murray). Whilst Anna Kendrick’s character (right) attempts to cover herself with her towel after Brittany Snow’s character (left) walks into her shower, Snow appears unphased at Kendrick’s discomfort and compliments her body, her eyes lingering as Kendrick attempts to avert her eyes. This scene, like many others in this trilogy and other films of the 2010s, stands as a cheap shot at lesbian representation that comes across as merely another butt-of-the-joke cop-out and harmful jab to the LGBTQ+ community in exchange for some uncomfortable laughs and a reinforced subversion to lesbians.

The Prom (2020) dir. Ryan Murphy

The 2020 film The Prom sought to serve as a caveat for new wave activism and representation for LGBTQ+ youth in a brightly lit, musical adaptation of the play of the same name. With its major themes of overcoming adversity and self-expression of identity, Hollywood could have created a staple for the gay community with the opportunity to thoughtfully represent this story and relate to queer youth across the world. However, like any product of their time represents their societal norms, this movie was heavily influenced by the rise of  “rainbow capitalism,” a concept that has become its own market in the last decade. The Prom, seen above, features two openly gay actors portraying a young couple not allowed to attend their senior prom, yet their gilded dresses and pressed pantsuits have little to no weight once they are put up against this movie’s downfall, the casting (Smialek). Rather than fill the cast with other queer actors to represent and tell this originally heartfelt story, The Prom has a bolstered supporting cast of some of Hollywood’s biggest names, like Meryl Streep, James Corden, and more, who unfortunately only serve to steal the show in a movie aimed to cater to LGBTQ+ youth. Whilst these big names draw in viewership, it seems that rainbow capitalism has opted to bring in big money at the box office rather than being central to queer storytelling. James Corden, a straight man, depicts a struggling gay man who had been disowned and put on the street after a messy coming out to his family. While this storyline is all too familiar for queer youth, the weight of the message is lost in its casting that reinforces the 2020’s resistance to truly creating something for the LGBTQ+ community, not to just earn their money. Yaaaaaaaas, Queen!

Bibliography 

  1. Murray, J. (2013). Stereotypes and subversions: Reading queer representations in two contemporary South African novels. English in Africa, 40(1). https://doi.org/10.4314/eia.v40i1.6
  2. Smialek, E. (2021). Who needs to calm down? Taylor Swift and rainbow capitalism. Contemporary Music Review, 40(1), 99–119. https://doi.org/10.1080/07494467.2021.1956270
  3. Ellis. (2014). Renaissance Things: Objects, Ethics, and Temporalities in Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986) and Modern Nature (1991). Shakespeare Bulletin, 32(3), 375–392. https://doi.org/10.1353/shb.2014.0052
  4. Gates. (2008). The Three Sam Spades: The Shifting Model of American Masculinity in the Three Films of “The Maltese Falcon.” Framework, 49(1), 7–26. https://doi.org/10.1353/frm.0.0008

The Double Standard Revolving Around Taylor Swift and Her Relationships

By Angela Garcia and Savanah Hinajosa

Image: Teenvogue

Taylor Swift is well known for her groundbreaking lyricism and ability to connect with her fans through music. Swift taps into her country roots, which is where she got her start, in order to tell a lively story that transforms the audience within just a few minutes. Yet, despite winning 11 grammy’s, selling more than 13 million albums, and being one of the most talented songwriters there ever was, she is better known for all the negative press surrounding her. At the 2009 MTV Music Awards, Swift was interrupted during her acceptance speech for Best Female Video by Kanye West, who proclaimed Beyonce deserved the award. Even at such an embarrassing moment, while also being dominated by a man at such a young age, Swift held her composure and accepted the win. However, she continued to face scrutiny throughout her career, from having another ongoing conflict with Kanye West to being accused of not writing her own music. Most importantly, Swift is always being criticized for her relationships, as she has had multiple boyfriends in the course of her public life. Some lasted years, other months, but nonetheless, she was talked down upon for the amount of men she had dated. However, men, such as Leonardo Dicaprio, are not condemned for their relationship track history. Additionally, this led to more scrutiny for Swift as whenever she should express her feelings and her thoughts into songs, critics claimed she could only write about heartbreak and only has a career due to the fact she could exploit her past relationships in the form of music. Above it all, Taylor Swift held her head high, graciously and with pride, as she, along with women across the world, know the reason she is being targeted is because she is a women and men believe women gain their success at the expense of men while also instilling the belief that women who have healthy dating patterns are sluts and desperate for male attention.

Image: Teenvogue

One of Swift’s first highly publicized relationships was when she was with John Mayer. Swift and Mayer began dating in 2009 when she was 19 and he was 32. They grew close as the pair worked on Mayer’s single, “Half of My Heart.” However, the relationship only lasted a few months, to which Swift responded with the breathtakingly, heartbreaking song, “Dear John.” In this song, Swift writes,” Dear John, I see it all, now it was wrong / Don’t you think 19 is too young / To be played by your dark twisted games, when I loved you so? / I should’ve known,” which fans quickly connected the dots and knew it was about Mayer. However, Mayer was not too fond of the song as he went on to say in a Rolling Times article that the song had cheap songwriting and he was embarrassed by it. This began Swift’s infamous reputation of implementing her heartbreak and emotion into songs as an outlet for not only herself, but her fans who were experiencing the same things. Moreover, there was little to no talk in the media at the time surrounding the age gap between the couple as she was barely an adult and he was a grown man, which made it very easy for him to take advantage of her. One of Swift’s first highly publicized relationships was when she was with John Mayer. Swift and Mayer began dating in 2009 when she was 19 and he was 32. They grew close as the pair worked on Mayer’s single, “Half of My Heart.” However, the relationship only lasted a few months, to which Swift responded with the breathtakingly, heartbreaking song, “Dear John.” In this song, Swift writes,” Dear John, I see it all, now it was wrong / Don’t you think 19 is too young / To be played by your dark twisted games, when I loved you so? / I should’ve known,” which fans quickly connected the dots and knew it was about Mayer. However, Mayer was not too fond of the song as he went on to say in a Rolling Times article that the song had cheap songwriting and he was embarrassed by it. This began Swift’s infamous reputation of implementing her heartbreak and emotion into songs as an outlet for not only herself, but her fans who were experiencing the same things. Moreover, there was little to no talk in the media at the time surrounding the age gap between the couple as she was barely an adult and he was a grown man, which made it very easy for him to take advantage of her. 

Image: Eonline

Ever since Taylor Swift decided to re-record her old work, after her masters were sold off to Scooter Braun, in order to gain control over her music, but better yet, her life. In 2021, Swift re-recorder her Red album, which got fans hyped as she planned to release the ten minute version of the song “All Too Well,” which is about ex-boyfriend Jake Gyllenhaal, along with the rest of the album. Swift and Gyllenhaal began dating in 2010 when she was 20 and he was 29. After paparazzi pictures came out, fans were excited to see the duo together as they seemed infatuated with each other. However, their romance simmered away quickly after just a few short months. Through her music, fans were able to feel how heartbroken Swift was and mourn alongside her. The most notable songs from the album stemmed around breakups and the drive to find oneself again, such as “I Knew You Were Trouble,” and “We Are Never Getting Back Together.” However, as stated before, fans were eager to hear the ten minute version of All Too Well when the re-recordings came out in 2021, allowing Swift to put together a short film version of the song along with pushing the re-recorded album to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, almost ten years since the original album was released. In the ten minute version, Swift sings, “And I was never good at telling jokes, but the punch line goes “I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age,” poking at how Gyllenhaal tends to only date women who are in their twenties, even as he grows older. This sentence in particular caused a lot of commotion within her fan base as Swift is, in a way, reversing the criticism she received about her dating life onto another, especially a man. However, the album did bring up unsettled feelings from fans as they took out their anger of Gyllenhaal and attacked him viscously online. Additionally, Swift released some songs from the vault, meaning songs she originally wrote for the album but decided not to go with. One song in particular stood out amongst the rest. “I Bet You Think About Me,” in which she sings, “I bet you think about me when you say ‘Oh my god, she’s insane, she wrote a song about me’,” which she uses to get back at the criticism she receives for writing songs about her past relationships. The media was quick to call out how destructive Swift and her fan base were towards Gyllenhaal, even calling it “frightening” to how cruel the fan base can be, as her music reinforces the belief that Gynllenhaal was a jerk during their relationship. Additionally, the media and critics felt “sorry” for Gynllenhaal and even applauded him for how mature he was about the whole situation. Had the roles been reversed, people would have told Swift she was being dramatic and move on from the situation as she would have been just using it for attention. It is clear how sexist the media is towards women and how their express their emotions.

Image: Glamour

To this day, fans still long after Taylor Swift and Harry Styles relationship, oftentimes calling them their divorced parents. Even after their split in 2012 when she was 23 and he was 18, Swift and Styles have always cheered each other from the sidelines. When Styles won his first grammy, Swift was seen clapping and congratulating him. However, even if they did end on good terms, it did not bar her from writing songs about him. In her 1989 album, there is a song called “Style,” which fans noticed right away to be about Harry. They were both at the top of their careers at the time, Swift moving into the pop scene and Styles reaching critical success with One Direction. To fans, it seemed like a match made in heaven. Yet, their relationship did not last long. It was at this point in her career that Swift began being attacked by the media for her relationships as many claimed they were short lived and she would jump from one man to another. Additionally, she saw how men who had been in the same amount, or more, relationships that she had were not being critically analyzed and frowned upon. Instead of keeping quiet and allowing the media to continue to attack her, Swift decided to take the power back and respond in her own way.

Image: Genius

In order to regain control of the situation, Taylor Swift used the hurtful words the media was using against her and made money off of it. Blank Space, from her 1989 album, reached massive success as it became reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 along with being certified 8x Platinum. However, in the song, Swift openly sings about her “long list of her ex-lovers,” and how after they break up, they go on to say not so nice things about her in the press, like that she is insane. Not only is it incredibly hurtful for someone you care for deeply to speak badly upon you, but to also join the bandwagon is even worse. Additionally, Swift makes it known that she is aware of what people say about her, but does not let it affect her. Instead, she decided to monopolize the hurtful things that she has to hear about herself and use it to make a catchy song that stays in peoples heads, even if they are tired of it. Also, this song became a commercial hit as many people used quotes from the song, such as, “Darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream,” in their instagram caption, which kept the song alive and present.

Image: Genius

Swift did not stop capitalizing over what her haters say in just one song, instead, she kept it present within her work to add a little fun back into her music. Shake It Off was a song to her fans, along with her haters, stating that anything people try to throw her way, she is just going to shake it off. Swift realized no matter what she said, people are always going to talk and she cannot let it wear her down. Instead, as the song says, she just gonna keep moving and continue doing what makes her happy, not what others want. Additionally, Swift makes it known she is aware of how she is perceived, such as a serial dater, and does not let it define her. She, along with her fans, know that the media will say just about anything to make a quick buck, but also that they are very sexist and do not believe that women can live their lives however they please. Instead, the media likes to scrutinize women for their actions as a way to keep them in check and conform to the patriarchy that puts men at the top and women at the bottom.

Image: Ranker

 As Taylor Swift was loving herself from within and blocking out the negativity, it did not stop memes from circulating on social media. Oftentimes, memes surrounding Taylor Swift always brought up her past relationships. They would include those who she actually dates, and some who she was rumored to have dated, in order to make it look like a long list. Social media became very crucial in shaping public opinion about Taylor Swift as she became known as the love obsessed singer who would write a song about you if you treated her wrong. Additionally, social media has grown to be extremely hurtful towards anyone and everyone due to the fact people can bully people anonymously without any consequence and Taylor Swift has definitely had her share of bullying on social media. While most memes are in good faith, they instill the belief that women cannot have the same dating habits that men have, such as going on a few dates before realizing the person might not be right for you. Women are expected not to jump into relationship after another and instead wait for their prince charming whereas men can sleep around time and be seen as a god by other men.

Image: Me.me

People on social media also like to poke fun at how they believe Taylor Swift is incapable of writing something that does not pertain to men or her past relationships. They like to joke that if she stopped dating, she would have nothing to write about. In reality, over the years, Swift has grown tremendously in her songwriting skills and has been able to develop plot lines in her head and write songs that fall inline with what she has imagined. Additionally, in her two most recent albums, Folklore and Evermore, Swift returns to her country roots in order to tell clear and concise stories in her music and that she is more than capable of writing songs that do not pertain her past relationships.

Image: Ranker

All in all, Taylor Swift is one of the most successful songwriters in history, being nominated for over 500 awards and influencing the new generation of songwriters, such as Olivia Rodrigo. Fans have rallied behind her and created memes, such as the one above, to back up someone they resonate with and have love for. Additionally, Taylor Swift has become the face of white feminism as she fights for women to be respected in the music industry and highlights how she would not face the same criticism if she was a man. Yet, because she is thin, white, rich, and able body, so are her close friends and the people she showcases in the majority of her music videos, she will never face the discrimination and oppression that many millions of women have to face on the daily basis. But, Taylor Swift is also the face of the double standard women face in regards to dating. Men can run around town and get with multiple women with little to no backlash, which is great as nobody should be looked down upon for how they choose to live their life, yet when women do the same thing, they are called sluts or desperate for love. Men will never have to face the scrutiny women have to deal with every day of their lives for the simple fact that they are men.

Citations

Melas, Chloe. “Harry Styles & Taylor Swift Were Never in Love with Each Other?” Hollywood Life, Hollywood Life, 5 Mar. 2013, https://hollywoodlife.com/2013/03/04/harry-styles-taylor-swift-never-in-love-relationship/.
Rindner, Grant. “Jake Gyllenhaal Is Extremely Mature about Taylor Swift’s ‘All Too Well.’” GQ, GQ, 17 Feb. 2022, https://www.gq.com/story/jake-gyllenhaal-taylor-swift-all-too-well-reaction.
Rolling Stone. “John Mayer: Taylor Swift’s ‘Dear John’ Song ‘Humiliated Me’.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 25 June 2018, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/john-mayer-taylor-swifts-dear-john-song-humiliated-me-107169/.

Brands, Body Positivity & The Movement

By Abby Tillson and Abril Palomares

Throughout history and many countless battles, the body positivity movement has fought for the acceptance of how bodies come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, skin colors/ tones, and gender. Unfortunately, societal norms and societal beauty standards have made it a tough challenge for many of those struggling to be accepted in their own body and by the outside world. With this research, we hope to further understand and shed light on many brands and big/popular celebrity names who have created brands in order to fulfill that void of many people being judged over their body image. 

Image: Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, Four star

Since then, people have found more beauty in things other than waist size and perfect skin. People have started to realize the true meaning of beauty comes from within. This belief started a movement, a movement of body positivity that involves more than just skinny white women. There’s beauty within all shapes, sizes, and colors. 

Image: The new Perfect Body, Telegraph

Due to this change in the eyes of society, brands and people in the public eye had to make a change on what “beauty” means. In November of 2019, the Victoria Secret Fashion show was officially canceled. Due to their lack of equality and realistic standards of models and women in general. 

Image: The Last Victoria Secret Fashion show, Variety

Now we have more body accepting brands and fashion shows such as the Savage X Fenti show. This brand is the start of the new image people want when it comes to beauty standards and fashion. They included all different body shapes, sizes, colors and genders into their show and agency to prove that you don’t need a certain image to be considered beautiful. 

Image: Savage X Fenti Vol. 2 show, Harpers Bazaar

This leads us to clothing lines in general. Khloe Kardashian is one of the founders of Good American- Made For Your Body. An all inclusive jeans and swim apparel that fits all. She explains that it’s a bittersweet feeling to carry so many sizes because on one hand she’s making a movement within the fashion industry, however not all department stores are on board. Khloe explains that “With Good American, you have to carry the full size range and you can’t separate them” when dealing with closed minded businesses. 

Image: Not just a brand, a movement, Insider
Image: Good American Jeans, Glamour
Image: Good American Swim size chart, In The Know

Since the backlash of the Victoria Secret runway show scandal many brands such as Dove created campaign projects in which their main focus for their products was to embody body positivity and how everyone comes in different shapes and sizes. This unique project was created in order to bring awareness and self-esteem to those who feel judged and manipulated to have to be up to beauty standards. “That’s why we are so passionate about Dove taking a leadership role on the Be Real Body Image Pledge – the time to end body image anxiety is now, and Dove is fully committed to driving change in the UK for the benefit of everyone.” (Prance-Miles, 2016) The “Be Real Image” is the name of the campaign, “Dove is very much about championing all different types of beauty,” Galvani continued. “[We’re] all about putting a picture up and saying we want to inspire you to bring out the best in you to make yourself look like the best version of yourself.” (Ilchi, 2017)

Image: Dove Campaign, Global Cosmetics
Image: Dove Bottle Shape Campaign, Washington Post

However, after Dove began to create body positivity campaigns, particularly one where they designed their products to show the different types of bodies. They came up with six distinguishable bottles that signified a few types of actual bodies found within society but soon after their product was released many saw an issue rising from this campaign. Women explained how they did not want to be reminded of the way their body was shaped when having to buy a product. “Consumers were quick to weigh in on social media, too: “Like, I just want to [use] my body wash, not be reminded that I’m pear-shaped,” a woman named Julie Daniel tweeted. “Women don’t need to be categorized all the time.” (Bhattarai, 2017)

As we continue to constantly have to fight societal norms on a day-to-day basis we as empowered women, men, and other genders have made a drastic change in how we should look at our own bodies and be proud of the people we are today and what we are creating in order to change the world. It is very upsetting that we have to live in a place where we feel judged and looked down upon for having a body that is not acceptable to society but we as a community can defeat those social norms and embody how everyone is a human being that comes in all different shapes, sizes and even the color of your skin.

Bibliography

Empowerment in media looks thin

Post-feminism and popular feminism in media continue to perpetuate emphasized femininity and its impact on body dissatisfaction across cultures and ages

Our perceptions of beauty are complex. They may vary from cultural to individual standards. We construct these ideas in different ways: nationality, society, culture, family, religion, etcetera. We also validate them with the media we consume. We internalize these ideas as we grow up, constantly comparing our reality to these constructs.

The idea of what constitutes beauty in a woman has changed over time. In the renascence, a round body was a sign of wealth and health. Perfect for bearing children and rated high in desirability. After World War II, a fuller body meant peace and prosperity, and the voluptuous body of Marilyn Monroe was the beauty standard of the 50s. In the 60s and 70s however, the opposite became true, with models like Twiggy whose sex appeal relied on her thinness. In the 80s, the obsession with health and the awareness of health risks associated with obesity were the precursors of the 90s supermodel concept. Kate Moss famously said, “nothing tastes as good as thin feels.” In the 2000s, the role of the Internet and social media has helped shape what we understand as beautiful. Globalization has erased most of the cultural expectations and promoted the western idealization of how powerful and successful women should look.

Marylin Monroe. Photo: New York Post

Post Feminist idea of successful women 

Global distribution of movies and products has shown the world what a powerful and successful woman should look like: straight, cisgender white, with an able body, and most notably thin. 

In post-feminist shows like Sex in the City, we see four such women, living their life in New York, buying excessive amounts of shoes and clothes. Regardless of their professional success, they are obsessed with their relationships with men. In a few instances, body weight is relevant because for them, being thin is granted, never bloated, and always looking perfect. Unless something terrible related to men happens: for example, Samantha, in the movie, gained five pounds because she was incredibly stressed with monogamy and buried her dissatisfaction and boredom with food. Or when Miranda signed up for Weight Watchers to lose what she gained during pregnancy. In the episode, she weighed 152 pounds, reducing her to tears to make it seem like an extraordinarily unhealthy weight.

Sex in the City. Photo: Harper’s Bazar

Ally McBeal was also iconic in the ’90s. She is a successful young lawyer, who has a promising career but focuses most of her energy on missing her ex-boyfriend. And she happens to be shockingly slim. The impact of Calista Flockhart’s body size in the show was so extreme that other actresses felt pressured and started to lose weight as well, as related by Portia de Rossi in her book. 

Ally McBeal cast. Photo: Biography

In movies like Bridget Jones or Love Actually, we see the heroine getting her man even though they are overweight, a perfect example of the Hollywood fat term, meaning a person who is fat by celebrity standards but still within a healthy weight range. In those movies, producers try to convince the audience that Bridget and Natalie are significantly obese.

Post Feminist idea of successful women 

I recently watched an interview with Fiona Hill where she related her experience testifying in the first impeachment trial of former president Trump: She was surprised when somebody asked her: What are you wearing for the hearing? What do you wear for people to believe you? as she reflects that she doesn’t think any man in the same situation has to be concerned about that. So how does girl power have to look nowadays?

The punk movement of the Riot Grrrls converted into a diluted, more socially accepted form of feminism in the Spice Girls. Girl power transformed into merchandise and narrow archetypes of womanhood based on appearance in the 90s and early 2000s. 

Spice Girls. Photo: inews

We can see how female characters like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess symbolize masculine ideas of strength and individualism. We find another type of powerful woman in characters like Kill Bill’s The Bride, who gets her power due to the abuse she suffered, justifying sexual abuse as an imperative for discovering her strength.

In more recent years, we have observed the archetype of the Girl boss, like Miranda Priestly from the Devil wears Prada. Who belittles other women to maintain her own power, transforming her into the toxic common masculine CEO type, measuring any other women into the same standard of the patriarchal system.

In actuality, we find the commercialized version of feminism everywhere, from the redesign of the image of the Disney Princesses to the superheroes of Marvel, which show a bland girl power version that has changed into a marketing success of feel-good feminism. 

But what do all these characters have in common? From Legally Blond’s Elle to Anna from Frozen to Black Widow, all these characters have one similarity: their perfect body. Nobody questions that a powerful girl has to be thin.

Black Widow. Photo: Giant Freakin Robot

The censored F-word in media is FAT

It is a normalized practice that tabloids document every pound gained or lost by female celebrities. It is commonplace for media to misrepresent the relationship between happiness and body image. Fat phobia is deeply rooted in capitalism, racism, and patriarchy.

Fat characters are usually not complex, one-dimensional, and depicted as the following types:

  • Fat villains: represent corruption, moral bankruptcy, lack of discipline, no self-control, obnoxiousness, extreme greed, and personal failure. Some examples are Ursula in the Little Mermaid, Austin Power’s Fat Bastard, The Penguin, and Jabba de Hut.
Fat Bastard. Photo: Vlipsy
  • Secondary characters such as the best friend who gives unsolicited advice, who are the cautionary tale, the sarcastic bitch, unattractive and even aggressive, for example, The Klumps on Nutty Professor, Mummy in Gone with the wind, and Brynn in Bridesmaids
Brynn in Braidsmaids Photo: Digital Spy
  • Funny fat: Also a supporting character, who makes fun of herself, an object of pity, desexualized, but at the same time, with fiery sexual appetite, defined by her weight, has self-esteem problems, accepts everyone commenting on her weight, and usually, her romantic life she has low standards in a partner. Some examples are Megan in Bridesmaids and Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect.
Megan in Bridesmaids. Photo: Rolling Stone
  • The reformed fats are characters that look perfect now but had overcome obesity in their past, therefore they are worthy of respect, professional success, and love, for example, Monica in Friends and Schmidt in New Girl.
Monica and Rachel in Friends Photo: UNILAD
  • The non-fat fat character. As I mentioned, characters such as Bridget Jones, Andrea Sachs in Devil wears Prada, or Bianca in the DUFF, try to convince the audience that they are the epitome of obesity when it is clear they are not.

It is also worth mentioning the differences between fat male and female characters. Male characters are usually portrayed as viable romantic leads, trustworthy, with morals and good people, commonly paired with beautiful thin women, for example, Albert Brennaman in Hitch. 

Allegra and Albert in Hitch. Photo:colesmithey

Body shaming in media is not a new phenomenon. Being overweight is associated with lower socioeconomic status and stigmatized as a personal failure and laziness. It has become a familiar place in media for empowered women to comment on and criticize other women based on their appearance.

The unbearable reality of not being light

Normative discontent is a term that refers to widespread body dissatisfaction in girls and women in Western Cultures. From a feminist perspective, this is problematic because it focuses on appearance, distracts the attention from resources and activities that can empower women, and makes them feel inadequate. 

It has been established in various studies (although conflict subsists on the extent) the relationship between idealized media images of women and body image disturbance. The ubiquitous and ongoing media image of the ultra-thin plays an essential role in internalizing the relationship between a slim body and attractiveness and all the cultural and social rewards that come with it.

Audiences understand that images from the media are not the reality. However, these beauty ideals have become accepted as the norm, being internalized as such and prompting comparisons. Dissatisfaction is likely the outcome, sometimes leading to low self-esteem, depression, and eating disorders, not just in girls and adolescents but frequently in middle-aged and trans women.

Hopeful futures (?)

We live in an environment that constantly bombards us with cultural ideas of beauty. Capitalism propagates the concept of attainable perfection if only we are willing to pay for it. But first, we need to understand how imperfect we are. That is the role of the media. 

The media has been a powerful ally in sustaining the patriarchal system, and Hollywood is a perfect example, as we learned in Stacy’s Smith Ted Talk and article. But I dare to think that the contrary is also possible, using the media as a powerful tool for disrupting the status quo. Not an easy task. We need diversity in front and behind the camera, telling myriads stories, understanding intersectionality, cultivating empathy, prioritizing three-dimensional characters, depicting inequities, challenging stereotypes, etcetera.

We have seen some inspiring examples of challenging the “normal” way of displaying people in media like Portray of a lady on Fire, Pose, Dumplin, Radha Blank’s the forty-year-old version, Shrill, Turning Red, to mention some. 

Shrill. Photo: Dazel Digital

Although lately we have been hit with terrible news, I chose to remain hopeful, knowing that it sounds naive and cheesy: “BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that *people of all genders, colors, sizes, and cultures* constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will change the world for real.” And I also know it will take time.

References

  1. Ravary A, Baldwin MW, Bartz JA. Shaping the Body Politic: Mass Media Fat-Shaming Affects Implicit Anti-Fat Attitudes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2019;45(11):1580-1589. doi:10.1177/0146167219838550
  2. Frith. (n.d.). The Construction of Beauty: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Women’s Magazine Advertising. Journal of Communication., 55(1), 56–70. https://doi.org/info:doi/
  3. Holmstrom. (2004). The Effects of the Media on Body Image: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media.48(2), 196–217. https://doi.org/info:doi/
  4. McRobbie. (2004). Post-feminism and popular culture. Feminist Media Studies4(3), 255–264. https://doi.org/10.1080/1468077042000309937
  5. Engeln-Maddox. (2005). Cognitive Responses to Idealized Media Images of Women: The Relationship of Social Comparison and Critical Processing to Body Image Disturbance in College Women. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology24(8), 1114–1138. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2005.24.8.1114

“Queer-Coded” LGBTQ+ Disney Characters Lacking Sufficient Representation

By Taylor West & Olivia Tovar

Disney has an extremely implicit link to sex, gender, and sexuality. When making movies for children of all ages, extreme power comes with it. While Disney is associated with innocence, magic, and childhood and has always claimed a very non-sexual, presence, Disney movies’ impact on generations has been significant. “Although many historians and biographers have consciously rein-scribed the asexual mythology of the company, Disney has consistently posited and reinforced an image of sexuality in films, television series, comic books, theme parks and countless other Disney texts: specifically, an image of American middle-class heterosexual courtship.” (Griffin) Disney’s adversity to queer representation has been apparent for years. However, there has been a phenomenon in a lot of Disney movies where they incorporate “hidden” LGBTQ+ figures. They do this through a process called “Queer-Coding”. “ To be coded gay is to be implicated as having or displaying stereotypes and behaviors that are associated (even if inaccurate) with homosexuality or queerness” (Kim). With queer-coding, the company is able to get away with no true LGBTQ+ representation. In fact rather than true representation, many Disney movies and character’s lives can be seen as a metaphor for queer people’s journey in the closet: Luca (2021), Frozen (2013), and even Beauty and the Beast (1991). According to “Deconstructing Disney”, regarding Belle and her possible metaphor, “…her inability to fit into the local culture stems from her being, […]. Her horror of being ‘his [Gaston’s] little wife’, affirms that her desires are quite different from any understood in the town: […] Disney’s desire to maintain the success of The Little Mermaid is evident in this portrayal of a girl trapped in a stifling environment and yearning for escape (in Ariel’s case helped on her way by a mercenary drag queen).” (Eleanor). There are many examples of queer-coded characters, both positive and negative, but all of these characters still do not constitute good LGBTQ+ representation.

Image: Luca and Alberto From Luca (2021)

One of the most recent examples of queer-coded characters was in Disney’s Luca (2021). This movie in general can be seen as a strong metaphor for being queer. Luca (2021) is a beautiful coming-of-age story that follows Luca as he shares an adventure with his new best friend Alberto, but both boys have a big secret. They are both actually fishlike creatures who live in the sea! Both boys struggle with their secret identities in a community that would not accept them for who they are, much like how queer people are forced to stay in the closet because the outside world may not accept them. Despite being able to read the entire movie as an analogy for being queer and queer journeys, the main focus of queer-codedness in this movie is the relationship between Luca and Alberto. Many queer people on Twitter claim the movie as their sanctuary and praise it as very LGBTQ+ positive due to the relationship between the boys. However, Enrico Casarosa, the director of Luca (2021) stated that the movie was based on his straight relationship with his best friend. In a recent interview with The Wrap, he admitted for a second that the team wondered if Luca and Alberto should be more than just friends. Casarosa stated, “I think the reason probably we didn’t talk about it as much and, to a certain degree, we’re slightly surprised by the number of people talking about romance, is that we were really focusing on friendship and so pre-romance.” (Guerrasio). Additionally, on the idea that being a sea monster is an analogy for being queer, Casrosa says, “”I love that the metaphor is reading in all these different ways” (Guerrasio). Unfortunately, this movie had a lot of potentials that got wasted. The director had a fantastic chance to make a great coming-of-age movie about two boys discovering their sexuality in a way that kids would understand, but, according to the director’s remarks, this movie also does not count as representation.

Image: Tweet from @cecedizzy regarding Li Shang from Mulan (1998) and his sexuality

Next, we will take a look at the animated film Mulan (1998). Li Shang has long been cited as bisexual by progressive fans of the movie. Mulan (1998) follows a strong female protagonist as she joins the Chinese military, though she is a young girl living under a patriarchal regime and is unqualified to serve in the military. In order to join the military, Mulan must impersonate a man, which allows her to join and train with fellow recruits. In the movie, we also get to experience the blooming romance between Li Shang and Mulan. While this romance seems basic on the surface, it brings a whole new depth to it when you realize that Li Shang fell in love with Mulan while everyone believed that she was a man. We do not find out until towards the end of the movie that Mulan is not who she claims to be and by that point, Li Shang already has a little crush on her. According to Jess Kung, author of “Disney’s Mulan and Unlocking Queer Asian-American Masculinity”, it is extremely easy to “queer the film”. “The story centers on cross-dressing, gender, and heteronormative expectations. People posit that maybe Mulan is trans, gender nonconforming, or queer in all sorts of ways. For instance, in the ABC show and licensed Disney fanfiction Once Upon a Time, Mulan is a tough warrior who experiences unrequited love for a woman. These readings are popular because Mulan is a unique Western representation; she can be claimed by multiple underrepresented groups, especially AFAB queer people.” (Kung). As Kung stated, while Li Shang might have some unidentified queerness, it is extremely accurate that queer watches are grasping at anything that can be coded as anything queer. Unfortunately, when it comes to examples like this, it still has to be considered insufficient representation. Even though Li Shang’s bisexuality would increase the amount of overall representation in the movie, its uncertain existence of it does not qualify as queer representation.

Image: Ursula from The Little Mermaid (1989) and the Drag Queen She Was Based On, Divine

Now, we will take a look at a common phenomenon in Disney films, which is the queerness of villians. Disney has a very problematic history of doing this with many of its villains. The Little Mermaid (1989) follows Ariel as she falls in love with a human prince. Ursula, an evil half-woman, half-octopus, is the queer-coded character we focus on in this film. For Ursula, The Little Mermaid (1989) villain, the character designers drew on the inspiration of drag queen, Divine. This was extremely overt queer-coding in this character and Ursula is not the only villain to experience this. “John Musker, who helped to design Ursula, explicitly stated that he “really [tried] to get some of Divine’s big, campy, overweight diva” across in the character (Brown). While queer representation is appreciated, this kind of queer representation could be very damaging because her queerness is directly linked to her villainy. In fact, there are a lot of subtle ways that Disney villainizes homosexuality in The Little Mermaid (1989), one strong example of this is Ursula’s fight to destroy the relationship between Ariel and Prince Eric. “Ursula consistently fights against the positive ideal of heterosexual romance. Near the end of the movie, she does this by donning a kind of a drag, impersonating a more feminine woman. Showing Ursula, a masculine character, don a more feminine appearance for the purpose of evil connects crossdressing and drag with evil intentions.” (Brown). Additionally when her feminine appearance falls away, she reassumes her more “masculine” presence. A bigger, masculine character emerging from a feminine dress resembles a negative perception of drag queens, and the dark lighting and horrified reactions portray the behavior as evil. (Brown). So, while Disney certainly has some positive, although hidden queer characters, we must be very aware of how this subtle, hidden representation might be harmful as well. This is considered an awful representation of the queer community. Associating LGBTQ+ stereotypes to anything evil shows that Disney might have a different agenda for representation, making this insufficient positive representation.

Image: Elsa From Frozen (2013)

Now, moving on to a character that is actually somewhat in the middle of hero and villain: Elsa.  Frozen (2013) follows Princess Anna and Queen Elsa. Elsa has ice powers that end up endangering their city and Anna must join forces with friends to save the kingdom. It has long been rumored that Elsa is queer since the 2013 film and those rumors were heightened after the release of Frozen II (2019), which ended with Elsa still not with a prince, as most Disney princesses end up with. In Frozen (2013) as in Luca (2021), parallels can be drawn between society not accepting Elsa’s powers and society’s rejection of homosexuality. However, “Unlike in previous films, Elsa’s homosexuality pertains to her status as a hero, not as a

villain. Ryan C. Robert “argues that the film has given LGBT youth a character with which toempathize” (Petersen). This sets Elsa apart from previous queer-coded characters, whose status as villains discouraged the audience from empathizing with them.” (Brown). Although Disney has not confirmed this queer-coded character as being lesbian or queer of any kind, that has not stopped fans from speculating and celebrating her- albeit potential-  sexuality. “Despite surviving to a happy ending, Elsa receives no love interest, not even a heterosexual but queer-coded one. Rob Price describes Frozen as “a timid step in the right direction,” but acknowledges that it “still sticks to plenty of societal standards” (Petersen)” (Brown). So, while in both Frozen (2013) and Frozen II (2019), Elsa is still without a partner, there is nothing more than rumors supporting her alleged lesbianism or asexuality, which means this is still not sufficent representation.

Image: Pleakley and Jumba from Lilo and Stitch

Disney’s Lilo & Stitch (2002) follows a young girl’s adventures with her newly adopted dog that she later learns is a lost experiment from a strange, alien planet. The protagonist, Lilo, strongly believes in the Hawaiian significance of ohana, the Hawaiin word for family, and accepts all the aliens she meets without judgment. The next queer-coded character we will be addressing is Pleakley, one of the aliens that Lilo encounters and allows into her ohana. Pleakley and their work partner, Jumba, are commonly seen dressing in disguise to try to hide the fact that they are aliens to the human civilians. While their relationship seems purely platonic on the surface, their choice of disguise in the entire franchise is always seen as husband and wife. Many viewers find that Pleakley is actually dressing in drag. (Perea) For example, during the movie there is a scene when Jumba catches Pleakley wearing a long-haired wig and brushing it while they were sleeping in their tent. Many interpretations believe that there is a chance that Pleakley is intended to be interpreted as trans or non-binary. (Alcorn) While we are currently drawing solely on the Lilo & Stitch (2002) movie, season 1 episode 14 of Lilo & Stitch: The Series (2003) hosted a wedding between Jumba and Pleakley that was complete with a minister and official marriage documentation. (Alcorn) While the television show’s intentions may have been more obvious, the movie’s interpretation of Pleakley and Jumba’s relationship is especially ambiguous, making it hard to definitively conclude that it has queer representation.

Image: Merida from Brave

The next queer-coded Disney character we will examine is Merida, from Disney’s Brave (2012). The movie follows the protagonist, Merida, who is the daughter of the Scottish king and queen and who is expected to marry a man in order to follow her country’s traditions and to achieve an alliance for her kingdom. Some interpret Merida to be queer-coded because she despises the thought of marrying a man so much that she goes so far as to get a magical cake from a witch that turns her mother into a bear. Many interpreters believe that because she has an obvious dissatisfaction with the thought of marrying a man, paired with the fact that the movie was released during Gay Pride Month alongside major LGBTQ+ parades. (Staff)  Some interpreters take her interest in more masculine hobbies and way of dress as furthering the ideals that Merida is queer, however, we must stop associating gender performativity with sexuality. Throughout the movie, Merida values the thought of creating her own fate, while even stating that she wishes for the “freedom to marry whomever she wants”. (Staff) While the film was released during the peak of debating about same-sex marriage and her character doesn’t meet the emphasized femininity currently seen in Disney movies, Merida is still largely ambiguous and open to further debate.

Image: Oaken from Frozen

While Disney’s Frozen (2013) portrays the main character whose sexuality is slightly less ambiguous, whom we discussed earlier, it also hosts a minor character, Oaken, who may be interpreted as being queer-coded as well. When two of the main characters, Kristoff and Anna, go traveling through the woods in search of Anna’s sister, Elsa (whom we discussed previously), they wind up entering a place called “Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post and Sauna”. (SDG) Anna and Kristoff are offered to utilize Oaken’s sauna followed by the scene very quickly changing to a group of people waving at them through the sauna window. Oaken says “yoohoo hi family” just in time for the scene to end and returns to Oaken. When able to look at the image of the family in the sauna for longer than the film allowed, one can see an adult-looking male posted in the center of the image, as well as, an adult-looking female off to the side of the window. These two adult-looking characters are surrounded by three children. Disney’s subtle queer-coding of Oaken allows for an individual to interpret him as being in a relationship with the adult-looking woman, but also allows for him to be with the adult man in the frame. Disney’s lack of definitive answers, such as this one, leads to inadequate queer representation and makes it difficult to draw queer-oriented conclusions.

Image: Ryan Evans from High School Musical

The final queer-coded Disney character we will be addressing is Ryan Evans from Disney’s High School Musical (2006). High School Musical follows the struggles and enjoyments that high school students experience, primarily during their extracurricular activities. Ryan Evans, is the twin brother of one of the other main characters and they are both heavily involved in the musical theater at their school. Ryan continuously defies hegemonic masculinity in the ways that he dresses and acts throughout the entire franchise. Because of his more “feminine” onlook on life and his choice of hobbies, viewers can’t help but suspect that Ryan Evans may be gay, although it is not explicitly stated so. However, this final character is one that viewers have actually received definitive answers from regarding his sexuality. But do not get excited, the director did not confirm or deny suspicions until approximately 14 years after the release of the movie. It wasn’t until 2020 that the director of High School Musical confirmed that Ryan was supposed to be interpreted to be queer. (Ludy) While it was fortunate for viewers everywhere to have their beliefs confirmed, it was about 14 years too late, proving that queer coding is not a sufficient form of queer representation.

Sources

Alcorn, A. (2021, June 6). [pride 2021] lilo’s two dads – Disney’s first canonically queer couple. Gayly Dreadful https://www.gaylydreadful.com/blog/pride-2021-lilos-two-dads-disneys-first-canonically-queer-couple#:~:text=Yes%2C%20Jumba%20and%20Pleakley%20are,penchant%20for%20dressing%20in%20drag

(Basel), 7(11), 225–. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci7110225

Brown, Adelia (2021). Hook, Ursula, and Elsa: Disney and Queer-coding from the 1950s to the 2010s. The Macksey Journal. Volume 2, Article 43.
Guerrasio, Jason. (2022). “’Luca’ Director Admits They ‘Talked about’ Making the Leads Gay but Decided to Focus on a ‘Pre-Romance’ Friendship.” Insider.

Eleanor Byrne, & Martin McQuillan. (1999). Deconstructing Disney. Pluto Press.

Greydanus, S. D. (n.d.). So, how Ga​y is Disney’s Frozen?: Decent films – SDG reviews. Decent Films. Retrieved July 2, 2022, from http://decentfilms.com/blog/frozen-themes

Griffin. (2000). Tinker Belles and evil queens : the Walt Disney Company from the inside out / Sean Griffin. New York University Press.

Kung, Jess (2019) “Disney’s Mulan and Unlocking Queer Asian-American Masculinity,” sprinkle: an undergraduate journal of feminist and queer studies: Vol. 12 , Article 7.

Kim, K. (2017). Queer-coded Villains (And Why You Should Care). Dialogues@ RU, 18(1), 156-165.

Perea. (2018). Touching Queerness in Disney Films Dumbo and Lilo & Stitch. Social Sciences 

Staff. (2015, January 8). Is brave’s heroine gay? The Week. Retrieved July 2, 2022, from https://theweek.com/articles/474290/braves-heroine-gayWriter. (2020, July 14).

The Effect of the Hayes Code on Disney’s LGBTQ+ Representation in Its Media

By Dana Steadtler and Shane Friesenhahn

The Walt Disney Company, one of the largest media and entertainment companies, prides itself on a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) friendly culture. But today, its reputation for tolerance and inclusivity is under scrutiny. Specifically, its lack of LGBTQ+ representation, how the media decides and works to portray certain groups or individuals in media texts (Hechavarria and Ingram, 2016), in its films and media. 

The Hays Code was in full effect during Disney’s early career, which played a significant role in who and what they could show in their media. The Hays Code forbade homosexual content, amongst other things. So as a result, movies could no longer show explicitly queer characters, but they could show characters who conformed to queer stereotypes. As a result, when Disney is inclusive with its characters, more often than not, it involves queer-coding, villainizing, and ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-it’ queer moments. Even long after its abolition, the Hays Code has historically significantly affected Disney’s LGBTQ+ representation in its media productions.

Image: TV Tropes

There used to be a set of rules that enforced guidelines for the content released by movie studios in the United States between 1934 and 1968. These rules were called the Hays Code, named after Will H. Hays, but were more formally known as the “Motion Picture Production Code.” According to Francavilla and Selby (2011), some of the rules listed in the Hays Code that were never to be shown include profanity, nudity, robberies, sexual perversions, and childbirth. Between the 1940s and 1960s, the code began to weaken as film producers found ways around the strict rules of the Hays Code. Finally, in 1968, the code was officially replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America’s film rating system (MPAA). This system is similar to the one we see today; its four ratings include G, M, R, and X.

Queer Theory itself is hard to define. However, in the context of this class and this assignment, queer theory can be thought of as an approach to analyzing/examining how society defines gender, both homosexuality and heterosexuality, gender roles, and the effects of the oppressive nature of socially dominant norms and expectations, within a form of media/text. Through this lens, we can read beyond the surface-level plot and into the hidden subtext. For a long time, the only way the LGBTQ community could be represented was within these hidden layers of subtext. Queer Theory is what allows and enables us to perceive the hidden messages and allegories within the text. 

For a company that has been making films for nearly 100 years, Disney has struggled to represent the LGBTQ+ communities. Much of this underrepresentation stems from the Hayes Code, which banned ‘any inference of sex perversion.’ Sex perversion is anything that is not heterosexuality. Although, the company has taken baby steps over the years to begin including queer characters in its media. Unfortunately, many of these representations are ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-it’ queer moments. Many Disney films feature a throwaway line that hints at or confirms a character’s LGBTQ identity, allowing them to easily censor that part or take it out to protect the film from being attacked or losing profit for having/supporting queerness. This is especially the case for international releases, so they can keep making money from less progressive countries. It’s a cop-out. They want to draw in LGBTQ audiences so they can make a profit but aren’t willing to stand by these people or call out any of the issues they face.

Here are several times Disney was celebrated for including a “first” LGBTQ+ character or character in its movies.

The first gay married couple in a Disney film was Bucky and Pronk Oryx-Antlerson, Judy Hopps two loud neighbors in Zootopia (2016). Unfortunately, many fans failed to notice this appearance until several years after the film’s release.

The first lesbian couple in a Disney film was in Finding Dory (2016), the sequel to Finding Nemo. This couple is only on screen for a brief three seconds but was still considered ‘groundbreaking’ at the time.

Image: GLAAD

Another one of Disney’s famous “first gay(s).” The first lesbian relationship on a Disney Chanel show. Although they are mostly backgrounded characters who only appear for the second last episode of the show, this is regarded as a decent queer representation by many. This is because of Disney’s humorous and somewhat progressive way of introducing this lesbian couple. The primary parents of the show, Amy and Bob, discuss a play date their daughter Charlie was on and talk about how they met Charlie’s friend’s mother. Bob and Amy both remember the mother having a different name, Cheryl and Susan. Then, when they open the door, it is revealed that this confusion stems from the girl having two moms! Bob and Amy Duncan do not react with disgust or anything and are very friendly with them. The titular line, “She has two moms,” was ingrained in me when I first saw the episode. Disney Channel made a lighthearted joke about a gay couple that wasn’t at the expense of the gay couple.

Image: Cinema Blend

Disney’s first ‘exclusively gay moment’ was featured in the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast (2017). LeFou was touted as their first gay character when it turned out that his “exclusively gay moment” was a flash of him dancing with another man in a group ballroom scene.

Image: Wookieepedia

After nine films, Star Wars finally got a same-sex kiss scene in The Rise of Skywalker (2019) when two Resistance fighters, Larma D’Acy and Wrobie Tyce, reunite and kiss after a battle had been won. Unfortunately, like the other films, this scene only lasted a few seconds.

Image: The Tempest

Disney films are notorious for queer-coding their villains. Queer-coding occurs when a character is given specific characteristics likely to reference “queerness” in the audience’s subconscious (Feminist Disney Blog). While this concept may seem innocent, it is often associated with harmful stereotypes that change with social constructs and culture over time. For example, queer-coded villains sometimes have lisps, and accents, wear fashionable clothing, are vain, or display themselves as incredibly feminine or self-centered. Most villain characteristics are seen as unfavorable. Queer-coded Disney villains include Ursula, Scar, Cruella de Ville, Jafar, and Governor Ratcliffe from Pocahontas. The queer-coding of villains served as a way to create a psychological association in people’s (children’s) minds between ‘queer’ and ‘evil.’ In addition, queer characters were often associated with immorality or the evil that the heroes need to defeat.

Image: The Tempest

During the Renaissance era of Disney, the company set out to create villains with grander personalities than in previous films; this was when queer-coding came into play. Specifically, the villain Ursula from The Little Mermaid (1989) is based on a drag queen named Divine, as shown in the photo above. Ursula is virtually the spitting image of Divine, with eyebrows and make-up that resemble a drag queen. In addition, the behavior displayed by Ursula is sexualized and uses a lower-pitched and husky voice.

Image: PinkNews

Disney made a big deal before Cruella came out about how the character Artie was gay, but the movie doesn’t mention or explore the character’s queerness. This is defended by many claiming that since he is “queer coded,” it makes it a good representation. While queer coding was, and still often is, one of the primary/only ways queer people can obtain representation and feel represented, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. This argument at times comes across as a politically correct way of saying that since the character looks and acts “faggy” or in a manner that is stereotypically associated with gay people, it automatically means it’s good LGBTQ representation. Effectively, the filmmakers are saying, “Look, this character looks, acts, and/or sounds gay!” to draw in audiences without actually delivering any queer representation in the movie itself.

Image: MovieWeb

As of June 2022, Disney and Pixar’s most recent LGBTQ+ inclusive movie involves a same-sex kiss scene in the film Lightyear (2022). Interestingly, there is a rumor that this scene was removed before being added back after the ongoing controversy between Flordia and Disney over the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. After this bill was signed, Disney released a statement vowing to work against it. “Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that,” the company said.

The future of Disney’s LGBTQ+ representation in its media is uncertain. Disney has to consider its audience when deciding whether or not to increase its queer character appearances. There seems to be a heavy divide on whether or not what Disney is doing and has done is enough. Only time will tell if we will continue to see small steps forward or if things will remain how they are now.

Due to the implementation of the Hays Code in the early 1930s, discriminatory beliefs and behaviors were socially reinforced widely. This caused a need to hide being homosexual, or simply anything that wasn’t heterosexuality, as queerness was considered a “sexual perversion.” Gay representation was reduced to ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-it’ moments, and any characters that were queer or were going to be queer had to be instead only coded as queer within the film. On top of this, the queer character had to die or be framed as immoral. This precedent has persisted well into our modern-day, and The Hays code still affects our films and society, even years after its abolishment. The damage had already been done. Although Disney has made progress, they haven’t fully delivered when it comes to honest LGBTQ representation. They need to decide between giving proper representation to the LGBTQ community and potentially losing money from anti-LGBTQ audiences or doing things the way they have been. Historically they’ve chosen to prioritize maintaining a wider audience over prioritizing diversity and representation within their movies, often ambiguously queer-coding their characters or queer-baiting their audiences to attract LGBTQ viewers instead.

Works Cited

Francavilla, J., & Selby, S. (2011). Motion Picture Production Code. In T. T. Lewis (Ed.),  The 1930s in America. Salem Press.

Hechavarria, D.M. and Ingram, A.E. (2016), “The entrepreneurial gender divide: Hegemonic masculinity, emphasized femininity and organizational forms”, International Journal of Gender and Entrepreneurship, Vol. 8(3), 242-281. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJGE-09-2014-0029

Matthews. (2000). Outtakes: Essays on Queer Theory and Film [Review of Outtakes: Essays on Queer Theory and Film]. Sight and Sound, 10(2), 35–3. Tower Publishing Services.

The Headless Women of Comedy Film Marketing in the 2000s

by Hayden Rhodes and Samantha Hussey

Beauty and the Geek Ryan Gosling

Film marketing, particularly for comedies of the 2000s, predominately targets heterosexual male audiences. This practice is showcased most notably in the “headless women of Hollywood,” a trope in which a faceless and hypersexualized woman dominates the movie poster’s frame. To engage in this practice requires a suspension on some level of the understanding that women are a viable target audience for film marketing and a simultaneous disregard for the implications that the fetishization and dehumanization of women through the male gaze have on the representation of women in cinema as a whole.

Infographic

According to a study conducted by the Inclusion Initiative at USC Annenberg, between 35 and 40 percent of characters in comedy films in the 2000s are female. It’s a rather low number, to be sure, but considerably higher than the percentage of female representation in other genres of film such as action/adventure and animation. 

There is also a strange myth that primary moviegoers are men, but as can be seen in the infographic from womeninhollywood.com, that is hardly the case. Women frequent cinemas just as much as men, so why do these films advertise for a hegemonically masculine target demographic? And why don’t these posters display the faces of the women who make up 35 to 40 percent of the film’s characters?

The Male Gaze of it All

The utilization of this trope within film posters is a result of the male gaze in cinema. The male gaze creates a narrow lens that stories are told from which requires the male characters to do the looking and the female characters to be looked at. The “headless women of Hollywood” trope that is active within the posters presented, as well a plethora of more, directly relates to one of the questions that Naomi McDougall Jones proposes in an expert from her book: “is this woman’s body part connected to her head? (McDougall Jones, 2020)”.

The “headless women in Hollywood” trope in posters reiterates this concept as the women featured on the film’s advertisement is not given an identity and is merely placed there as something for the standard heteosexual male audience member to enjoy. She is subsequently reduced to an oversexualized image for the sake of drawing in men in hopes the film gains a larger profit. 

The gaze is more overtly prevalent through this form of advertising and can provide a more sexualized context to a film as a result of this marketing ploy.

Comedic Films and Their Posters – Early Look

Porky’s

Porky’s (1981) is a raunchy comedy about a group of highschool boys seeking to lose their virginity. The characters are horrifyingly misogynistic in their pursuit of women as objects purely for their sexual gratification, so this poster feels apt. While this film came well before the male-driven comedies of the 2000s, its poster demonstrates an appeal to heterosexual men through the sexual objectification of women that remains prominent throughout the 2000s.

Comedic Films and Their Posters – into the 2000s

Click

Look at this poster for Click (2006). Awooga! Isn’t this relatable, fellas? Ladies, how are we feeling about this? Not really digging it, huh? While I do concede that this egregious example of the “headless women of Hollywood” trope was not the main poster for the film and was seldom used, they still made it. 

There’s an old adage that goes something like “sex sells,” and they really tried to sell this movie. Large swaths of Hollywood and advertising agencies have been male-dominated since their inception. The male gaze is so intrinsic that it’s inescapable, and movie posters like this one are the result of a testosterone-filled boardroom left unchecked.

As shown earlier, when women also make up such a generous share of theater-going audiences, why narrow your target demographic so severely, especially when some of these offending comedies are ultimately quite desexualized?

Hot Tub Time Machine


Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) is yet another example of the male gaze being used within marketing for a comedy film. The film itself does feature sexual content, following the lives of the four characters that have been sent back in time to the 1980s-all of which are male. This type of material is saturated with the male gaze and, again, grossly objectifies women. Allowing for these types of posters to be made only further detaches the potential female audience members and is guilty of conforming to this sexualized trend seen throughout comedy posters from the 2000s and into the 2010s. 

Mad Men Hall Pass

The trend continues into the next year as the 2011 comedy Hall Pass also has a poster that engages in the “headless women of Hollywood” trope as a means to market the movie towards a heterosexual, male audience. This means of marketing directly employs the male gaze, presenting the women on the poster as an object rather than one of the subjects of the film. It also further exemplifies the idea that “…pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female (Mulvey, 1999, p.808). 

As previously stated, women make up roughly between 35-40% of characters within the comedy genre yet this style of presentation objectifies women, making them seem less like characters that are active and important to the story and more like a prize that the male characters hope to obtain.

Comedic Films and their Posters- Recent Years

Minions

They start them young. The “headless women of Hollywood” trope is applicable to an assortment of genres as well as variously rated of films, as seen with the poster for Minions (2015). While this example is less extreme than previous ones, it is still guilty of engaging in common elements of the aforementioned trope commonly used in marketing for comedy films.  

The Minions movie is intended for a younger audience and although the core principles of this trope are subtle in this example, they still advocate that this kind of perception of women is acceptable. Sandra Bullock’s character is credited as being the main antagonist of the film yet she is not properly portrayed in the advertisement for the movie. It may seem harmless and well-intended but it retains an underlying message that is harmful to female viewers and is simply a variation of the “headless women in Hollywood” trope. It is reflective of the adaptability of this trope that should no longer be used.

Implications of these Posters

Series of Examples

The “headless women of Hollywood” trope within comedy posters may seem like an in-poor-taste marketing decision but it has severe consequences. This form of marketing leans heavily into the ideals of the male gaze and reduces the women on the posters to mere objects that are ogled at rather than being perceived as intriguing characters that deserve to be the subject of the film’s content. 

This trope worsens female representation in cinema because of its objectification and oversexualization. It does not give these women identities or any semblance of a personality. They are depicted in a way that relates to emphasized femininity: white, able-bodied, thin, women. 

It also engages in symbolic annihilation by proxy as these types of posters seem to portray the same nameless, faceless white woman. 

The content of these posters directly makes a statement on how women are perceived by the film itself and therefore greatly damages the representation of women in cinema. 

What Now?

Posters for films should focus on the characters of the films and their gender should not change the presentation of their character on advertisements. Characters are not necessary on a poster either as this marketing is meant to be creative but relative to the film. A female character within a film should not be sexualized and objectified for the sake of attracting a certain demographic. Comedic films should seek to highlight the positive aspects of their film within the poster, therefore they should not rely on “sex sells” ideals to market their movie.

Bridesmaids

Female viewers deserve greater recognition and representation and that starts with how a film is marketed. More posters should seek to depict relevant information and visuals. It may appear as if this problem is minute and unimportant in the grand scheme of things but it has a ripple effect and needs to be taken seriously in order to be properly challenged and improved.  

Citations

18 scarlet overkill ideas: Scarlet, minion movie, Scarlett Overkill. Pinterest. (2016, January 29). Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://www.pinterest.com/garcia7049/scarlet-overkill/ 

“Beauty and the geek” (2005) movie poster. “Beauty and the Geek” (2005) movie poster. (1970, January 1). Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://www.cinematerial.com/tv/beauty-and-the-geek-i460625/p/unsddro1 

Click. Click (2006) movie poster. (2006, June 23). Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://www.cinematerial.com/movies/click-i389860/p/weebrkpv 

Comedy movie poster tutorial with a free .PSD template. Filmsourcing. (2016, June 11). Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://www.filmsourcing.com/blog/how-to-create-comedy-film-poster-tutorial/ 

Hazlehurst, B. (2017, July 17). Watch a bloody Ryan Gosling wreak havoc in new “Blade Runner 2049” trailer. PAPER. Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://www.papermag.com/watch-a-bloody-ryan-gosling-wreak-havoc-in-new-blade-runner-2049-trail-2460881455.html 

Image gallery for hall pass. FilmAffinity. (n.d.). Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://www.filmaffinity.com/us/movieimage.php?imageId=262553039 

IMDb.com. (1982, March 19). Porky’s. IMDb. Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084522/ 

Infographic. Women and Hollywood. (n.d.). Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://womenandhollywood.com/resources/publications/infographics/infographic-women-and-hollywood/ 

McAllister, M. P., & DeCarvalho, L. J. (n.d.). Sexualized branded entertainment and the Male Consumer Gaze. tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society. Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/506 

McDougall Jones, N. (2019, February 20). Inside the fight to dismantle the (white) gods of Hollywood. Bitch Media. Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/the-wrong-kind-of-women-male-gaze-excerpt 

Mulvey, L. (2016). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. The Continental Philosophy of Film Reader. https://doi.org/10.5040/9781474275729.ch-062 

Sponsored, Hansford, A., Kupemba, D. N., Milton, J., & Baska, M. (2019, June 26). Headless women keep featuring on film posters and it’s not okay. PinkNews. Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2018/03/13/headless-women-keep-featuring-on-film-posters-and-its-not-okay/ 

Watch hot tub time machine online. Prime Video. (n.d.). Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://www.primevideo.com/detail/Hot-Tub-Time-Machine/0TAELFRLW70PX2XJ4QESSUEKAJ 

X but Y template. Imgflip. (n.d.). Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://imgflip.com/memetemplate/257142842/X-but-Y 

The Master’s Tools: Crossdressing in Mulan and She’s The Man

By Sophia Ansari and Kiernan McCormick

In one of her essays, Audre Lorde theorizes the struggle of freeing oneself from the historical, dominating and hegemonic structures of racism and institutional power. She argues that we cannot achieve liberation while using the master’s own tools to dismantle the master’s house (2007). Akin to the dominating presence of racism and ideas of supremacy, hegemonic gender stereotypes are something that overwhelm alternative ways of gender presentation, in effect finding gender non-conforming people misaligned with binary gender expectations. This is because the binary is the basis of measurement in this situation, against which anyone, even cisgender folks, may be found lacking. Using Lorde’s ideas, gender stereotypes are the master’s tools, and the gender binary is the master’s house. 

The films we have chosen, Mulan (1998) and She’s The Man (2006), use the cross dressing trope to undermine the hegemonic structure of gender, which is essentially the characters using the “master’s tools,” as we will demonstrate. We argue, like Lorde, that these tools cannot dismantle the authoritative structures of binary gender and stereotypical gender presentation. Subverting these stereotypes may “allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but will never enable us to bring about genuine change” (Lorde, 2007). In other words, it is the use of temporary gender subversion that allows the characters in our chosen films to level the playing field — that is, until they must inevitably return to their assigned roles, with the gender roles being reimposed on them.

We will, therefore, use images from these movies to demonstrate how gender is explored within the films and how they act as vehicles of this discussion, each following a pattern with similar results. We will begin by exploring emphasized femininity in Mulan and She’s the Man before turning to gender performativity and the male gaze in order to demonstrate how cross dressing as gender subversion simultaneously undermines and also reinforces the authority of hegemonic gender stereotypes.

Credit: Mulan

To define how gender stereotypes are explored in these films, we will first focus on emphasized femininity in Disney’s Mulan, briefly comparing this depiction to how Viola is presented in She’s the Man. Emphasized femininity is typically when certain traits are seen as essential to femininity, such as being thin, passive, caring, emotional. This term, coined by R.W. Connell, refers to the dominant image of women in the media. For instance, the very first scene of Mulan addresses this, where Mulan’s first dialogue is of her practicing for the meeting with her matchmaker. She imprints these words on herself, perhaps hoping that in doing so she will not only remember, but embody them: “Quiet and demure. Graceful. Polite. Delicate. Refined. Poised. Punctual.” A perfect woman. Meanwhile, Viola in She’s the Man is a thin, white, straight, cisgender teenage girl who is able-bodied and upper class. Women are expected to be nothing less, and Disney’s imperial China is no different (and indeed, in historical imperial China as well, as there were clearly defined roles for women while they occupied the inner quarters). In her article on Mulan as a deconstructed heroine, Lisa Brocklebank theorizes, similar to Judith Butler’s definition of gender performativity, that “gender behavior is a socially scripted role and elaborately sustained performance which sociocultural codes and regulations compel [Mulan] to enact” (2000).

Credit: Mulan
Credit: Mulan

But then, we slowly see Mulan’s distaste for these feminine practices and expectations, until eventually, she turns emphasized femininity around on its head. As Brocklebank explains, Mulan’s “transgressive behavior inverts and undermines the predominant social discourse” (2000), which refers to the emphasized femininity imposed upon her before she takes her father’s place as a soldier. The “transgressive” act of impersonating a man is where the subversion begins — when she picks up the aforementioned “master’s tools” and attempts to chip away at hegemonic masculinity. Mulan, in her crossdressing, and “illusion of ‘maleness,’ reveals the arbitrary and cultural — or fictional — nature of gender inscriptions, and the instability of related codes and categories” (Brocklebank, 2000). In other words, her subversion of gender disrupts the binary gender framework, where femininity and masculinity are distinctly defined. In her disruption, she blurs the lines. But she cannot erase them through crossdressing alone because her actions only “reverse or invert the conventional order” while still “subscribing to that order” (Brockelank, 2000). This “temporary dislocation of gender” (Brocklebank, 2000) ends with her returning to her intended roles as a woman, inevitably settling the waters that she herself had disrupted. Interpreting gender as dislocation relates back to Judith Butler and her belief that one “does” gender — that gender is inherently performative. If we view Mulan and Viola’s subversions as performance, as we will explore further in a later portion on She’s the Man, then perhaps the progression of their storylines can be seen as an allegory for the transgender experience, if we don’t consider the reversal of the subversion. We see this more distinctly in the sequence where Mulan is physically erasing and morally questioning the femininity imposed upon her, raising a question I’m sure many trans folks have asked themselves: “When will my reflection show who I am inside?” This goes to show how utterly destructive hegemonic gender structures are. 

Credit: Mulan

This relates to how gender, in being a structure, is constructed and artificial. Brocklebank theorizes that the “rituals associated with ‘womanhood,’” like the ones Mulan performs, are artificial in nature and she points to “gender itself as a construction and creation, one which often fails to mirror reality”(2000). This further reinforces the idea of gender as a performance, a tool for people to convey their inner selves — or, in some cases, to make the Huns think they’re concubines in order to save the Emperor. Crossdressing, as much as it reinforces gender, also helps to alleviate the pressure of it. And while it may mean using the master’s tools, it’s worth acknowledging that these tools can serve as a source or protection even if they won’t topple hegemonic gender ideals. For further uses of crossdressing in film, we will discuss Viola in She’s the Man, and how the film addresses emphasized femininity and the gaze in a different, more modern setting: 

Credit: FilmAffinity

The opening of She’s the Man attempts to project an underlying feminst message while objectifying the main character, Viola. She is shown playing beach soccer, in a string bikini and low-rise denim shorts, with her female friends, who are also bikini-clad. After winning the game, Viola kisses her white, cisgender, buff, soccer player boyfriend. This depiction arguably challenges emphasized femininity in the sense that Viola is not portrayed as passive, meek, or in need of protection. She excels at soccer, which disputes the belief that women are not natural or serious athletes. 

In addition to emphasized femininity, the beginning of She’s the Man demonstrates the gaze, which is Laura Mulvey’s theory that women in media are portrayed as objects of heterosexual male desire. There is an immediate emphasis on Viola’s physical appearance when she is introduced as a young, conventionally attractive female. The opening “positions the heroine as feminine and a source of heterosexual desire by presenting her thin, hairless, mostly naked body and immediately pairing her with a Hollywood version of the ideal male” (Meyer, 2011). In other words, the film’s opening uses the “master’s tools” — here, defined as emphasized femininity and the gaze — while trying to subvert stereotypical gender norms. 

Credit: Binge Society

Viola makes a direct attempt to reject and subvert these gender stereotypes by making the decision to disguise herself as her twin brother, Sebastian, at his boarding school after her school’s girls soccer team is cut and she is prohibited from trying out for the boys team. Viola’s makeover, in the scene that follows this decision, demonstrates gender performativity akin to Mulan’s transformation, which further emphasizes that one’s behavior is not reliant on the sex they were assigned at birth. For instance, Viola adopts physical traits to help her “successfully pass as masculine,” including “short hair, a flat chest, a lower voice, and a different walk” (Meyer, 2011). Viola is performing as what she views as society’s stereotypical image of a teenage boy. This is comparable to the ways in which Mulan comically alters her appearance and personality to perform as the “ideal man,” under Mushu’s guidance when she enters the army camp. 

The personality traits Viola takes on while posing as Sebastian demonstrates hegemonic masculinity — a term coined by R.W. Connell, referring to the dominant straight, white, cisgender image of men in the media. This primarily reveals itself in the way Viola as Sebastian interacts with teenage girls. In an attempt to make her masculinity more believable to her male teammates, Viola enlists the help of her male friend Paul, who assists her in orchestrating a scenario in which two girls pretend to be interested in her as Sebastian, in front of these peers. While interacting with the second girl, Viola grabs the girl’s buttocks and then grabs her own crotch, exhibiting “apparent heterosexual dating prowess and emotional detachment from sexual relationships” (Meyer, 2011). After both encounters with the girls, Viola as Sebastian is praised by her teammates and “suddenly accepted by the popular guys on the soccer team, and receives applause, admiration, and greatly improved social status at school” (Meyer, 2011). Viola tries to embody hegemonic masculinity through acting like a confident male who can physically dominate females — hence the grab of the buttocks — so she can fit in as a teenage boy. Thus, Viola disguises herself as a man in an attempt to undermine the hegemonic structure of gender, but winds up feeding into this structure by performing as the “ideal” teenage boy and objectifying girls. 

Credit: Movieclips

Viola’s confession of love for her teammate Duke further illustrates how she exhibits emphasized femininity. This confession is made on the soccer field when Viola is still disguised as Sebastian, and Duke appears confused and disgusted. Viola then reveals her true identity, removing her fake sideburns and eyebrows, as well as her wig. Duke only believes that Viola is female when she lifts up her soccer jersey and shows her breasts. In this scene, Viola leans into personal traits associated with emphasized femininity and stereotypical gender norms, such as being emotional, gentle, caring, and vulnerable. Thus, “in order to demonstrate her heterosexual affection, avoid rejection, and escape perceptions of queerness (…)Viola rejects her carefully crafted masculine personae, abandons the pursuit of her feminist goals, and re-asserts her feminity” (Meyer, 2011). Additionally, this scene sends the message that Viola’s “breasts and her desire for a male are the defining features of her femininity” (Meyer, 2011). This reinforces gender stereotypes and upholds the heterosexual matrix, as theorized by Judith Butler, with how it speaks to the idea that women must be sexually attracted to men and uphold certain beauty standards, therefore tying together sex, gender, and sexuality. While the majority of the movie focuses on Viola’s effort to combat gender norms, she ultimately exhibits some of these norms in her confession and reveal to Duke. Therefore, she is not successful in subverting the gender binary. 

Credit: Incluvie

The film’s ending sequence further demonstrates Viola’s return to gender norms while trying to frame her as somewhat feminist. After revealing her true identity, Viola is accepted by the team’s new soccer coach and is thus able to continue playing on the team. While Viola’s recognition as a serious soccer player who can compete with boys acts as an example of her defying gender stereotypes, the implication that the issue of gender discrimination is magically solved is harmful to the audience, as no responsibility is placed on systemic issues surrounding gender inequality. 

Viola’s participation in a debutante ball also proves problematic and exhibits aspects of postfeminism, a term popularized in the 1990s used to describe the belief that feminism is no longer needed because gender equality has been achieved. With Viola’s now boyfriend Duke on her arm, she is shown walking down the stage in a floor-length dress with her hair and makeup done — the picture of stereotypical femininity. This scene “builds on elitist White heteronormative traditions and celebrates Viola’s successful return to normalized and valued femininity while simultaneously erasing the earlier version of a feminist, cross-dressing soccer player.” Once again, there is no mention or recognition of the systemic issues that contribute to gender stereotypes and discrimination within the scene. This implies that there is no longer a need for feminism and “and women can achieve anything as long as they conform to the codes of femininity within the matrix of heterosexual relationships” (Meyer, 2011). Therefore, She’s the Man sets up Viola to be a feminist who strives to undermine gender stereotypes through crossdressing, yet ultimately ends up contributing to the same norms and overall system of inequality she was set on combatting, much like Mulan.

Both the protagonists of She’s the Man and Mulan, therefore, use temporary gender subversion for their own benefit to succeed in male-dominated realms. While their success is temporary, they inevitably return to their assigned gender roles. In other words, by using the master’s tools for their own gain, they reinforced the foundations of the master’s house. In order to escape the power of hegemonic structures of gender, however, we must forge our own tools and pave our way to liberation.

Sources: 

Brocklebank. (2000). Disney’s “Mulan”—the “True” Deconstructed Heroine? Marvels & Tales, 14(2), 268–283.

Disney. (1998). Mulan. United States.

Lorde. (2007). “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister outsider: essays and speeches by Audre Lorde. Crossing Press.

Meyer, E. J. (2011). CHAPTER 15: “She’s the Man”: Deconstructing the Gender and Sexuality Curriculum at “Hollywood High.” Counterpoints, 392, 231–245. 

Paramount Pictures. (2006). She’s the Man. United States.