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Man  and Films

THE AGE, Australia Wednesday 1 March 2000

Did you happen to notice that all five movies nominated for the best-film Oscar are overtly male-driven stories?  Several even use "man" as metaphor for the human condition.

Here are the nominations: The Insider is Michael Mann's docudrama about a man who stands up to the powerful tobacco industry - "man fights for the good of all".  The Cider House Rules is about a man who leaves the orphanage that has been his home to find his place in a complicated world - "man on a journey of self-discovery".  Then there is The Green Mile, in which Tom Hanks' prison warden character develops a friendship with an African-American sentenced to die - "men traverse the minefield of racism". The Sixth Sense is about a boy with supernatural powers and the man who teaches him to harness those powers - "man's importance as mentor".  And finally, of course, American Beauty, a film about the decay of middle America, the middle class and middle age - "man does the mid-life crisis thing".

My concern is not with any of these individual films; it is with the combined impact of their lack of representation of female-driven narratives. What does this absence suggest in a culture that reveres "the story" as a symbolic connection to a greater understanding of each other?

Cinema is a modern site for reflecting stories about ourselves back to us. Indeed, George Miller had the audacity to title his documentary celebrating a century of Australian cinema, Whitefellas Dreaming.

Hollywood (the "Dream Factory") occupies an almost uncontestable position as cinema's No.1 storyteller to the Western world.  Roughly 90 cents in every dollar spent at the movies in Australia, for example, goes to Hollywood.

As for the Oscars, well, their importance to the movie industry cannot be overestimated.  They are, supposedly, based on merit and signify, if nothing else, Hollywood's most valued contributions to the international community. This makes the nominations for best film and the lacuna they expose disconcerting to say the least.

Feminists have been drawing attention to the female absence in the male construction of reality, stories and history for more than 50 years.  As long ago as 1949, in The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir argued that man assigned himself as "subject" and women as the "other", the one that confirms the male identity. In 1979, American researcher Gaye Tuchman said that "the very under-representation of women (in Hollywood) may symbolically capture the position of women in American society - their real lack of power". This research might just as well have been conducted yesterday.

Hollywood is a multi-billion-dollar industry.  In this business, the male story is the product that produces the biggest returns.  And this reinforces dominant ideological forces - the intersection of a symbolic form (film/story) with a power base (Hollywood) maintains systemic order (male hegemony).

Hollywood does, of course, produce female-driven narratives.  But how many, how they are marketed ("chick flicks"!) and how they are valued, is the rub. Imagine a female instead of a male as the lead in any of the nominated films, or any film screening at your local multiplex today.  The story still works.

A film that comes to mind with a female lead and a huge marketing budget is The Blair Witch Project. Ironically, tellingly, the film was produced outside Hollywood, and the female lead character is a film maker.

Rick Kane is a masters student in media studies at La Trobe University.

E-mail: R.Kane@latrobe.edu.au

(reposted from the ABIGAILS-L list)