Straight Outta Compton
Straight Outta Compton

OPINION

Love films but also a feminist? This is tricky

If you’ve hummed along to Blurred Lines, berating yourself as you go, you’ll understand how Helen O’Hara feels

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By Helen O'Hara on

When I went to see Straight Outta Compton, my expectations were pretty low. I'd read articles about the film's sexism, the complete omission of Dre's history of violence against women and its almost total lack of credit to N.W.A.'s female collaborators. It’s guilty on all counts. And yet the film has a lot going for it. The music is, obviously, electric, the performances are terrific and – particularly against the backdrop of recent protests in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere – the emphasis on racial discrimination is incredibly powerful. I enjoyed it and, with a huge caveat for its treatment of women, I wrote a positive review. So, am I letting the side down?

It’s a question I have to ask myself a lot these days, both as a film journalist and as a person. At a karaoke night with some friends recently, a mate announced, “Right, we’re suspending feminism for five minutes.” She put on Blurred Lines, we all sang along and it was awesome. Sure, those lyrics are objectionable, but caring about it all the time is just exhausting. 

I try to be a person of principle, but I don't want to filter every single experience through the lens of gender discrimination. It's depressing to do so – for one, because we keep seeing the same problems. Just in film we see women objectified. Women ignored. Women in refrigerators, a name for the trope where women are killed or maimed to prompt action by a male hero. Endless gendered violence against women. 

If we only allow ourselves to enjoy stuff that’s somehow ideologically pure, we’d be denied most entertainment

Worse than that, it's limiting. If we only allow ourselves to enjoy stuff that’s somehow ideologically pure, we’d be denied most entertainment. I have a ridiculous – really, a shameful – love for the Fast & Furious movies, for example. The endlessly gyrating car groupies wiggling their underbum are so over the top that it’s hilarious rather than offensive, and the male leads are such paragons of masculinity that they cross right over into parody. At least, that’s what I tell myself so I can overlook its most obvious faults (and I at least 76 per cent believe it).

Even to pick up on every fault seems wrong. I don't want to become the sort of person who uses the word “problematic” all the time because too many things are problematic. Even if something’s A-OK by feminism, it isn’t off the hook. Straight Outta Compton is deeply sexist – but it's progressive on race, so does that balance things out? Girls nails great female characters, but doesn’t do so well on people of colour, so should I reject that? The Police Academy movies have a recurring joke about a gay bar – should I give those up? (Yes, probably!) 

I do want to stick to my principles, the ones that tell me that women’s stories are worth telling, that we are full human beings and not accessories in a man’s tale, that art should reflect us as well as men. I just don’t want to become my own thought-police and lose perspective on the situation.

So, it comes down to what I can forgive. The Wu Tang album I bought, where I loved the beats but couldn’t stomach focusing on the lyrics for more than 10 minutes? I eventually abandoned it. The Marvel Cinematic Universe? Yes, five out of six Avengers are guys, and yes, Black Widow is yet to get a solo movie. But at least those films value the female gaze; at least the female characters are vivid and complicated and funny; at least these guys treat them with respect. Perhaps I’m settling for too little, but sometimes I’ll take what I can get and call it good enough.

I don't want to be boring about this stuff, because I want people to listen when something is really egregious

I do feel responsibility as a woman and as a still-rare female voice in male-dominated film criticism. If I don't pick up on the sexism, my colleagues aren't always going to notice. It's on me to talk about the fact that, hey, all the female characters in Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes are defined entirely by the word "nurturing" and isn't that maybe a failing? I’m always going to champion Bourne over Bond because the former doesn’t consider women disposable. But I don't want that to be my only contribution to the discussion. I don't want to be boring about this stuff, because I want people to listen when something is really egregious. There have to be times when we don’t sweat the small sexism just so people don’t tune us out – which is where the outrage engine sometimes goes wrong, I think.

The good news is that things are improving. In the last couple of years, so many more people have started talking about the situation that I’m no longer the lone lady in the corner of the office yelling about Riddick or Kingsman: The Secret Service while the guys look on blankly. Actresses like Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Schumer (who are working together! Glory be!) are challenging the ridiculous notion that men are the biggest box-office draws, and Hollywood is trying to do better: look at the female leads in the upcoming Star Wars films or the all-girl Ghostbusters. 

In a few more decades, the worst art of our time period will be accompanied by the same sort of message that Warner Bros is already putting in front of some of its old Looney Tunes cartoons because we will be beyond all this bullshit. In the meantime, I’m going to try to balance my principles and my popcorn, because they both taste delicious.

@HelenLOHara

Straight Outta Compton
Tagged in:
Film
Feminism
Music

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