I used to love movies.
I don’t anymore.
I stopped loving movies in the summer of 2009 when I saw Public Enemies. That tail end of the movie, in which Billie Frenchette played by the extremely talented Marion Cotillard is beaten to the point of soiling herself and then is mocked for it before being literally carried to safety, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’m not naïve. I understand it was a movie based on real-life events during a time in which overt violence was much more acceptable. I also understand tropes that place women outside of the bonds of full humanity, often exemplified as brotherhood, and upon pedestals where we are painted as needing male protection and our socially constructed differences are cast as inferiority. And I understand that this movie, full of male-on-male violence in which the point of the violence was not to break and dehumanize the male characters also married the only instance of violence directed towards a female character with her degradation and need for a male savior.
In the summer of 2009, I was one year into what would be two years of immersive study on gendered violence. Through Susan Brownmiller, Carole Sheffield, Peggy Sanday, and so many others, I learned the complex theory behind gendered violence in a hierarchical, violence-prone society. At the same time I was reading bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Jean Kilbourne, Sut Jhally, Michael Kimmel, and so many more who modeled how to build on the bare bones of that theory, deconstruct the uncomfortably commonplace, and cultivate a critical eye turned towards mass media. It was atop this enormous body of work that I finally understood that my disinterest in representations of women as primarily sexual objects, my extreme discomfort with the ways that violence was gendered in the mainstream, and my feelings of invisibility as a young woman of color were all valid. But now what? It seemed like every movie out there told white, cisgendered, middle-/upper-class, ableist stories about men which occasionally included caveats about the women they loved, saved, or raped. Even without with the increasing price of movie tickets and my poor student status, the cost was too high.
I stopped going to movies. It was one of the few ways I could protect myself. I was tired of paying good money to an industry that was nullifying my existence.
I’ve continued to stay away from mainstream movies. I love stories of overcoming and internal turmoil set against all manner of different backdrops, but I’m jarred out of suspended belief when I’m asked to envision a post-apocalyptic world with no people of color, save the neutered/villainous male Black best friend/archrival’s henchman or the ever sassy Black female compatriot. And I’m enraged and disgusted that it still seems like mainstream media uses rape and other forms of sexual violence against women as a lazy, go-to device to identify the morals of male main characters.
You and me, the people making the movies, the people going to see them, we’re better than this.
As representations of people, characters should be like real people—that is to say, more than one person’s perceptions and the things we survive. That said, this is deeper than the vanity of wanting to see someone more like me on the big screen. As the scholars I name checked earlier (and so many that I didn’t) drive home: narratives serve double-duty as scripts that shape our understanding of what is or is not possible. I mean, even in fantastic settings, on the whole and as a society, we cannot envision a world in which non-white, non-cisgendered, non-disabled, non-male, and otherwise non-hegemonically-conforming people/beings are allies, protagonists, and agents of change. Meaning that we regularly and systematically choose to support the failure to acknowledge the world as it is.
I’ll keep waiting for those movies I really want to see—movies that broaden my view, movies that reflect some of my life and the people in it, movies that aim for more than distraction and box office sales—but I’ve long stopped holding my breath. As long as mainstream cinema keeps expecting me to compromise and support a vision of a world that doesn’t even remotely look familiar, I’m happy to use my money and time elsewhere.
After all, there are cultural festivals to attend and museums to visit. There are countless books to read, and of course there are also stories to write.