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Women and Men


Hi guys!


 Kathryn Bigelow and her film The Hurt Locker are on tap to win Oscars and make history for becoming the first woman to win best director. The largest irony is that it would be for a film that is totally devoid of any significant female characters. It is a MAN’s film, a war film. But this leads to the more pressing question. The Oscars have hardly ever embraced a film about mainly women and women’s issues for Best Picture. I went back to 1966 and in 43 years (I discount Chicago because I haven’t seen it) there is only one film able to fit this criteria and that is Terms of Endearment 1983, directed by James L. Brooks, creator of Mary Tyler Moore and The Simpsons. The film came from a novel by Larry McMurtry. 

Yes there is Shakespeare in Love 1998, Ordinary People 1980 and Annie Hall 1977, which all have stories centered around female leads, but they are seen through the viewpoint of other men (Annie Hall), the destructive force in family, separating father and son (Ordinary People) and having to dress up as a man and play muse to the greatest male writer in the English language (Shakespeare). 

Even a pass through the more illustrious films to have won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival produces only two: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days 2007 about black market abortion in Romania and fittingly The Piano 1993, directed by Jane Champion, whose Bright Star concerning John Keats failed to garner any major nominations this year (one for Costume Design). 

Bibi and Liv as bookends in Bergman's PERSONA, 1967


 Male writers and storytellers have been writing about women for ages, from the Chaucer’s Wife of Bath to Joyce’s Molly Bloom, as well as rewriting the story of some – Mary Magdelene for instance, who has gone from reviled whore and sinner to possibly the best loved apostle and wife of Jesus Christ. Projections abound, perceptions, Madonna/whore (something seen in Scorsese’s most beloved films), Ingmar Bergman portrayed Liv Ullmann as the ingenuitive one and her husband as a weak, conniving husk of a human, turning bestial in Shame 1968 as they try to get through a war-torn territory. The same can be said of The Shining, though Jack gets all the good lines. 

What does the male writer or storyteller owe to womenkind, if anything? 

So I turn the question on myself. I write about women from a male perspective. I also write about women because I know them better (when the director Michelangelo Antonioni was asked why his films mostly concerned women, he replied because he had been intimate with them and not men), I’ve had longer discussions with them about life and how we live, they’ve let me in on some secrets. This doesn’t lend me any more authority, but I feel compelled to talk about what I am more familiar with, though women remain more mysterious to me than men (a reason Cormac McCarthy gives for not writing about them often).


36 thoughts on “Women and Men

  1. I feel like these questions are too open-ended to give useful answers to.

    One thought I have, though, is that the problem isn’t necessarily when dominant groups represent non-dominant ones — as long as that’s done respectfully and intelligently and, you know, well.

    The problem is when the work by the majority-group member is always acknowledged over the work by minority-group members.

    So, when white people write novels about black people, and that’s what gets all the attention. Or when men write movies about women, when women’s movies about women can’t even get made. Etc.

    These are systemic problems that require systemic solutions. The individual author from a dominant group can’t solve the problem alone. Nor should they stop representing other groups, in my opinion, just because of this risk.

    What they can do is make sure to use their fame, at least in part, to promote works by people who are usually ignored. So if you get famous by writing about women? Maybe you could use that cachet to promote … well, whatever women you think are brilliant.

    1. Rachel,

      Yes I see this. I’m trying to think of an example. Spielberg – The Color Purple?

      On the flipside of the flipside Kelly Reichardt made Old Joy a few years ago. Again a movie about men, but without the whole ‘war’ element that is a money-maker in and of itself. Old Joy was a quiet film about two men going to a hot spring in Oregon, two friends who hadn’t seen each other in years. One is scattered, a vagabond. The other is in an unsound relationship and listens to Air America all the time.


      It’s a film about the humdrum middle class existence, but it seems we need more examinations of this rather than another gangster film or war film.

        1. The Bechdel Test remains ever-illuminating, and it’s sad that the majority of Hollywood films fail it. And that article is a good one, even though it peters out toward the end.

          But observing how THE HURT LOCKER fails the Bechdel Test (as I’ve seen some do) overlooks a lot.

          Women filmmakers can make films about anything they want–including men (time for men to find out how that feels!). To quote Godard, “The history of cinema is men looking at women.” To insist that women make films about only women is just as sexist as preventing women from making films.

          Note that I’m not claiming that anyone here is saying that. My point is that the Bechdel Test isn’t the full test of whether a film is feminist. We can imagine many films that pass it that are completely sexist, as well as the opposite. Like any test, there are realms where it doesn’t return good results.

          I think it’s obvious that a big part of Bigelow’s project in THE HURT LOCKER is to look very critically at men, and to study a particular type of masculinity. (This has long been Bigelow’s subject. Until now, too many people have taken her films at face value, as mere action pics. But she’s always been pretty subversive.)

          There’s more to that Godard quote, by the way. He went on to add: “The history of history is men *murdering* women.”

          1. It seems Godard is becoming more famous for his quotes than his films. Maybe the more apt quote would be “The history of history is men murdering every goddamn thing in sight, including themselves.”

            Men are a great subject for women (and shortly I’ll post about female writers looking at men). But I think we need more films about men in regular society with no frills lifestyles and less about war, policeman and gangsters. More like Old Joy, Ghost World, less American Gangster and Bruce Willis as “New York’s toughest cop” according to promo’s for his new film. It’s a challenge to produce something where not much happens, where the glitz is at a minimum. I want an American Ozu and she or he will be my hero.

            1. Well, Godard’s famous for both his films and his pithy sayings, I’d argue. But remember that nearly every Godard quote is actually either a steal or a paraphrase of something that someone else somewhere said. The man’s more relentless in reworking culture than Tarantino. (He’s practically the inventor of that style of working–everything’s a reference to something else, reinterpreted.)

              I agree with you 100% about the need for more movies about non-soldiers, non-cops, non-gangsters. I like those things fine as subjects, but too much is too much. And even though I wasn’t crazy about either OLD JOY or GHOST WORLD, I still appreciated what they brought to the conversation.

              Jim Jarmusch seems to have been influenced by Ozu, stylistically if not in terms of his content (maybe at one time but not any more).

        2. Thanks for linking to this, Rachel. I love how succinct the Bechdel Test is – interesting it first appeared in a comic strip.

          How telling is it that, based on the rule, the last movie that the girl in the comic says she saw was ALIEN (“The two women in it talk to each other about the monster.”)?

          See comic strip here: http://bit.ly/iLcBy

  2. ‘Citizen Ruth’ by Alexander Payne comes to mind. Laura Dern plays a troubled pregnant woman who is manipulated by activists on both sides of the abortion issue after her ‘story’ suddenly gets media attention. She’s trying to decide whether to carry her pregnancy to term, and is continually harassed by people intent on advancing their agendas. It’s funny, but not strictly a comedy. The effect is that one’s attention is drawn to the dangers involved in politicizing womanhood.

    1. Yes, and Payne also did ELECTION, but that is from a male point of view, demonizing the female lead with more conservative values, abeit very hilariously.

  3. The analysis above is useful–thanks, Greg! (You know how much I love analysis.)

    In regards to Hollywood filmmaking, women were systematically kept away from directing under the Studio System (as was anyone who wasn’t a white man). Since the end of the Studio System in the mid-60s, things have been changing, but only slowly. Kathryn Bigelow was always a loner in the New New Hollywood (as were Spike Lee and Wayne Wang).

    But things have gotten a lot better since the 1990s. January’s Sight & Sound listed four films by women in their Best of 2009 list:
    1. A PROPHET, Jacques Audiard
    =2. THE HURT LOCKER, Kathryn Bigelow
    =2. 35 SHOTS OF RUM, Claire Denis
    4. THE WHITE RIBBON, Michael Haneke
    5. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, Tomas Alfredson
    =6. UP, Pete Doctor
    =6. WHITE MATERIAL, Claire Denis
    =8. BRIGHT STAR, Jane Campion
    =8. ANTICHRIST, Lars von Trier
    10. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, Quentin Tarantino

    (And Sight & Sound has declared Claire Denis the best director at the moment.)

    Meanwhile, it’s important that film scholars continue to not just emphasize and teach male-centric films. Much (most) of Hollywood’s history between 1930 and 1964 was male-dominated, but that’s not the whole story. Women were very active as producers in the 1920s, such as Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson (I just re-watched QUEEN KELLY).

    THE HAZARDS OF HELEN series was one of the most popular film serials in the late teens. Helen Holmes not only starred (performing her own stunts), but also directed and (re-)wrote some of the episodes. These films look remarkable to us today–Helen repeatedly overcomes sexism to save the day:


    (Note that the above is more of a highlight reel than the full episode. But check out that wonderful Admiral Cigarettes commercial at the start!)

    More about THE HAZARDS OF HELEN:

    And since then, there have been numerous superb women directors: Chantal Akerman, Catherine Breillat, Liliana Cavani, Maya Deren, Germaine Dulac, Margeurite Duras, VALIE EXPORT, Barbara Loden, Ida Lupino, Yvonne Rainer, Leni Riefenstahl, Agnès Varda, Lina Wertmüller… And many more. It’s important to teach their work!

    As for the Oscars—they’re ultra-conservative, and little measure of anything other than Hollywood’s worst elements. How many black actors have won the award—any of them? How many Asians? And so on. I tend to ignore the damn things.

    Cheers, Adam

    1. Good points Adam, as always. I was thinking about John Berger denoucing the Booker Award when he received it, due to Paul’s Booker post. Then I remembered WS Merwin turned down the Pulitzer prize money in 1971.

      And then George C. Scott in 1970 and Brando in 1972 refusing the best actor Oscars. Those were the days. Would anyone do this now? They’d be raked across the coals for trying a publicity stunt. What if Bigelow refused the Oscar in the name of Hollywood’s depiction of women?

      1. Didn’t somebody in the 90s win one of the bigger awards, like Best Actor, and then not give an acceptance speech? I vaguely recall someone just taking the statue and saying, “Thanks,” and walking off? If this happened at all, then it would have been a while ago, as I think the last time I watched the Oscars was 1998. (Maybe I watched it once in the early 2000s, because a friend had a party.)

        That’s about as much “controversy” as I can remember. Except for Michael Moore’s acceptance speech. Or people not clapping for Kazan.


  4. I had the same realization about Bigelow and The Hurt Locker when I was watching the Globes. it hadn’t really hit me until then. I couldn’t remember a single female character, other than the housewife who shows up for about 15 seconds when the dude breaks into that professor’s house.

    Recently watched 4 Months, too. That movie felt like reading a great short story, where as you start getting into the meat of it you realize the significance of the title and feel the weight of it hit you. (Maybe if I’d heard what the movie was about before watching it I wouldn’t have had that moment, but that’s beside the point).

    This is an interesting thing to look at, especially, I think, on the heels of the PW best books of 2009 controversy.

    1. Yeah, I almost forgot that the guy’s wife shows up in the last few minutes, very very briefly. I liked most of the movie, except the cereal boxes, that seemed out of whack with everything that came before. My favorite moment, is when they are drunk and the sparks are flying, the antagonism too. We rarely get these scenes, you know? The competitiveness of men.

      4 Months is such a revelation isn’t it? I recently spoke to someone who grew up in Romania during that time and she said it was actually worse than what you see in the film.

      1. Wasn’t the cereal boxes scene about the freakazoidical decadent aspect of American culture? I get really disoriented when I return from the DR all the time.

        Great piece, Greg. I liked Rachel’s response, too. I will say that Cormac McCarthy’s excuse for not writing interesting female characters is probably because he doesn’t give a shit about them in life or in literature.

        Who directed Frozen River? I watched that on MOD not so long ago and thought it was quite good- good female characters.

        1. Paula,

          I guess the cereal box scene was that.

          I don’t know about that being Cormac’s reason. From reading nearly all his books, I would say the attitude is more about the Madonna/Whore complex, a very romantic view of the virgin (the teenager that the character in Suttree has a fling with by the river, for my money [what little I have] the best sequence in the book) and the unknown, beautiful woman (the Mexican in All the Pretty). I believe him when he says he doesn’t know what to make of them.

  5. Also- an aside- I liked the hurt locker eveb though it wasn’t perfect but my trainer, an ex marine, thought little of it. Interesting. He brought up the scene where he gets off the base and runs around…I thought that scene was unrealistic but still- waaay better movie than others.

    also, greg? men’s competitiveness? I think it’s called homoeroticism.

    1. I found this at the nytimes after I saw the film, a reader review by a man in that type of unit:

      Mixed Review
      Let me preface by saying that I have firsthand experience on the subject of this film. My platoon’s mission during my deployment (OIF 06-08) was to protect the EOD teams (bomb squads) in Baghdad from Sep06-Nov07. I personally completed 300 missions with these guys. My feelings on this movie are mixed. It does some things well, and others poorly.

      What it does poorly
      -The tactics are garbage. Soldiers would never split up without at least a buddy for each man, and even then they would not stray too far from the rest of their squad, platoon, etc. No sane soldier would sneak off his base alone at night to find out about a kid, no matter how much he cared for the kid. That’s how you end up on a home video in an orange jumpsuit with your head cut off.
      -EOD travels with protection, other soldiers who handle security threats. They do not do it all themselves. Their main focus is the explosives at hand. Generally, the robot handles 95% of the missions and the bombs are detonated on the spot. Only during rare and extenuating circumstances would an EOD soldier put on the bombsuit and attempt to disable a device manually.
      -Most of the bombs in this movie are comical and typical of a movie. Generally, IEDs are very simple devices that are cleverly camouflaged- no flashing lights or digital clock timers. I have seen bombs attached to human bodies, but not inside the guts. They would have never defused the car bomb, it would have been disrupted with a water charge or thermite grenade, or blown in place with robot-delivered C4.
      -Overall, this movie does a poor job of showing insurgent and American tactics.

      What it does well:
      – The scenery is surprisingly realistic.
      – For many soldiers, combat can be a euphoric rush of adrenaline if nobody on their side gets hurt. It is extremely painful when your comrades get hurt or killed.
      – There is also a sense of fear that everyone feels in these types of jobs, that is usually dealt with through morbid jokes, exercise, spar-fighting, or substance abuse, etc.)
      – Life after combat seems paradoxically mundane at times and extremely precious at others; choices back home are infintitessimally trivial by comparison.
      – There can often be tension among small unit leaders over what level of risk is acceptable. “Pissing contests” can, and often do, erupt when someone acts recklessly.
      – The interpersonal dynamic among the soldiers of the team is believable with respect to their rank, personalities, and experience.
      – The psychologist being killed on his first mission is plausible. While they generally don’t leave the FOB, many support soldiers will travel on rare and occasional missions to help gain an understanding of the combat environment to help them do their jobs assisting the warfighters.

      This is a good movie if you judge it based on the emotions of the characters themselves. Although, Renner’s character is absurdly reckless throughout. In real life, he would be relieved of his job as an EOD team leader. However, his emotions are true, despite his actions.
      This is a terrible movie if you want to see realistic engagements, and plausible tactical scenarios…For the record, they wouldn’t have bothered trying to shoot the snipers in that lone bldg in the desert. It would have been demolished with air assets or artillery. Also, most Iraqis are not good marksmen. They rely more on volume of fire than accuracy.
      – MattR, USA

      Isn’t it both competiveness and homoeroticism? That my experience talking. But this brings up some interesting questions, namely, why is it that when men are touching each other this is many times viewed as homoerotic and when women touch each other it’s much more accepted and not labeled as much, and as of late it seems it is a man’s fantasy more and more to see women being affectionate, if not sexual? I know the simplistic answers, but I’m trying to get at what’s beyond that. It seems sports and physical work is the outlet for men to smash each other and get together on that body level. But what about affection without such means? Men’s groups. I’ve belonged to some, I’ve even started some.

      I guess this all hits a nerve for me because I see and feel sometimes that if there isn’t that shield (sports, drinking) and men are being affectionate, there is something ‘weird’ occuring, when maybe there is just some affection going on. And it has nothing to do with homoeroticism and has all to do with humanism.

      1. That review was good. Thanks for sharing.

        Interesting about men’s affection. I’m very comfortable with homoerotic behavior as well as men’s affection, as I’ve spent a lot of time in countries where men kiss and hug and there is nothing sexual about it (Spain in the 80s, even Austria, which is a lot like Italy, much more touching going on). I guess I was reacting to this scene in a very “american” way. And yes, culturally men need to be all rough and sport related or beating the crap out of each other to “touch”. And on the one hand it’s strange, on the other, all the butt patting in football is considered fine which I think is rad.

        Thanks for sharing your perception of the scene and your problems with my words on it.

  6. Also, re: McCarthy, if you “don’t know what to make of” women then you must not be trying very hard. We’re not martians. If you want to understand women, usually that means you try to and then you do. It’s not at all as hard as it seems. Also- serial marriages to continually younger women isn’t the answer either. So if you don’t actually give a shit, that may be a good way to go.

    I like his writing- some of it. I wrote about NCFOM on my blog- here’s the link-


    I want to say more about homoerotic stuff and repression- but that I’ll do later…

    1. Great reading Paula. I might have put words in his mouth with “don’t know…” it was something like that. I agree (I’m no Cormac apologist), I think it is a shield and the shield might mean you’ve been burned in romance a little too much, maybe not, but don’t take one’s self so seriously, right?

      A lot of celebs do this (marrying young’ens) though, especially film directors- Salinger as well. So what it is about? Charlie Chaplin most egregiously.

      I see the young men reveling in the violence – those that loved Scorsese and the whole Clockwork Orange phenomena. It’s a phase, right?

      I ask people to explain to me all the random shootings we have in this country. One person said it was an attempt to get in touch with the pagan past and the pagan acts of the past. Bloodletting, etc. Human sacrifice.

  7. I don’t think its a shield and I don’t think it has anything with being burned in romance- everyone has been burned if you’ve lived past 16- what it is, in my mind, is selfish, obtuse behavior. If you can fuck a girl your daughters age, hey why not? Dump the menopausal woman who stood by your side the past 20 years! Yeeeha!

    Regarding the homoerotic- I”ll espand briefly on this theory for a sec. The repression of homosexual desire is still a huge problem in this country (and this has nothing to do, or little to do, with that affection that Spanish or Austrian or espeically Islamic men show for each other). I wish I could say that it’s only a problem in less sophisticated parts of the world- like, construction jobs in Arkansas- but the reality is, in the past 20 years I’ve lived in NYC and been involved with liberal arty scenes, I’ve met dozens and dozens of gay men who feel that have to marry, or have girlfriends, or pretend to not be gay. And some are quite famous. Now, the military? I think that any it must be very hard to be openly gay. I think that’s pretty clear. And I have no doubt that at least 10 percent, like the general population, is gay. So when I see some scene with a guy riding another guy, naked, like he’s riding a horse, I’m more likely to think this is a depiction of homoerotcism than say, men having problems hugging. But I could be wrong. Then again, for ages, people read Death in Venice as a man’s desire for youth and love, instead of what it really is about–which is, a middle aged man wanting to have sex with a young teenager.

  8. Paula,

    I can see that about that scene yes, but can this be reduced to sex? Or upped to sex?

    But referring to men in general, it’s not just homoeroticism. And I am saying this as a blanket statement. I’ve talked about this with other men.

    Homoeroticism certainly exists and I think the Talented Mr. Ripley failed in having the perfect opportunity to explore it, they came up just short.

  9. I like how you say “reduced” and then “upped”- sex confuses people. Is it making things more important or less? Very interesting. I think being able to express oneself as a sexual being is deeply important and that repression of our desires and in particular repression of homosexual and lesbian desires, a fact of history, and it’s still illegal- illegal! – in many countries- which is different than tempering them– is sinful and soul killing.

    I like The Talented Mr Ripley and don’t think it failed at anything and in general am a Patricia Highsmith worshipper. She lived an openly lesbian life when very little people had the balls to do so and I think she’s equally brave in her work. If you think Ripley failed at something, try reading The Price of Salt or Strangers on a Train or even better, her collected short stories. I recently read small G, her last book which is not her greatest. She was sort of at the end of her powers. But I’ll take not so great Highsmith over many other people’s best effort.

    1. For anyone who likes THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY, be sure not to miss the other Ripley adaptations, PURPLE NOON and RIPLEY’S GAME; I’d argue their both superior adaptations.



      1. Are those links working?

        For me, Malkovich, has lost his luster. In the last decade it seems he kind of sleepwalks through roles, like he’s not even trying. His yelling fits get so rehashed. I’m so afraid of Disgrace for this reason and won’t see it.

        1. I just checked the videos and links and they’re working for me. ?

          I haven’t seen much of Malkovich’s 2000s work. But he’s superb in RIPLEY’S GAME–by far my favorite interpretation of Ripley. Don’t let him keep you away from that one.

          Or from KLIMT (2006) and I’M GOING HOME (2001), which are both excellent films by masters of cinema (Raoul Ruiz and Manoel de Oliveira, respectively). I’M GOING HOME is especially good. Haven’t seen the director’s cut of KLIMT yet, just the watered-down domestic release. (Poor Ruiz.)

          I guess I also saw Malkovich in BURN AFTER READING (2008), which I don’t really remember all that well. I didn’t think much of it, I guess.

          And SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE (2000). God, I remember hating that film. Although the trailer for it was good. But I think the fault of that project lies squarely with E. Elias Merhige. Who was not the Second Coming, as was announced at the time. Well…I wasn’t surprised.

          Remember that? I remember when Marilyn Manson was going to remake BEGOTTEN (1990)! I think Nicolas Cage was also going to be in it; he produced SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE.

          But I also remember when Manson was going to be in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s sequel to EL TOPO. Which is no longer listed at the IMDb, after having been listed for like a decade. (The production year advanced every year. I was always waiting for it, fists clenched!.)

          Anyway. I hear (from a friend) that Malkovich plays chess in Boston a lot, in Harvard Square. And that he’s a very sweet guy.

  10. WHOOPS, I meant the film, sorry.

    I read some weird thing recently but didn’t get it. Did Highsmith kill somebody?

    Also to puncture Hitchcock’s fat belly, it must be stated again that his wife wrote many of the scenarios for his films. Give credit where credit is due.

    Yes – sex expression is needed, but you do get some good art out of the repression – Age of Innocence, Death in Venice

  11. I didn’t know that about Hitchcock but I know very little about film.
    Yes, books or stories about repression – great stuff. But living that way- fuck that.

    thanks for the tips on more ripley stuff! as I said, I watch few movies- too much hockey to watch- but I will check those out as I am as stated, a Highsmith fanatic!

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