Looking for Medea: Fear of Female Complexity

By Nicole Elmer

As a woman film director, I have to say that I’ve been lucky so far in the sense that I’ve never yet had to work with someone that considered my gender before my creativity or work ethic. My actors and crew have been respectful and supportive for the most part. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that I’ve worked, up to this point, outside of the studio system.

But being an “indie” filmmaker does not mean I am free from what content people expect a female director to create. I have been shocked and frustrated by what I suspect is an unconscious expectation that audiences, and grant committees, have of seeing women portrayed in an altruistic light in work created by women directors. I sometimes wonder if most women directors are expected to make Mumblecore femme arthouse pieces, rather than action or horror films, because it is assumed we know nothing about these genres.

In the world of arthouse, I understand and appreciate the efforts that must be made to get women’s roles out of the bimbo-starlet stereotypes that prevail in the tent-pole films, but strong heroines are not free from shallow representation either. It seems we are afraid to look at women as they really are, in either extremity.

I provide a case in point: in my first feature, a horror-oriented drama, I wrote a finicky female lead, a documentarian who can’t keep focused on her project. As she heads to Puerto Rico to continue her work, she fights with her husband and then cheats on him. She confesses to her new love interest that she once had murderous thoughts against her infant child because of the demands it made on her life. Yet, still, she misses this same daughter, and later makes an effort to reconcile with her husband and heal their marriage.

When screening the film to young film students, very few had problems with the fact that the woman’s husband also cheated on her, but could not accept her cheating on him. Most found it repugnant that she confessed a dark secret about her momentary frustration with her child and thus found her character reprehensible. Nothing she did later, such as telling her daughter how much she missed her and then returning home to her family, could change their perspective. “Women don’t want to kill their babies” is one comment I received from a young woman.

Cross-culturally, for 2,600 years, people have struggled with the actions of Medea, and we are all horrified when we read news articles about any parent who injures a child, but few are shocked when a father verbally expresses even violent frustrations about fatherhood. Yet among an audience of young women, mothers are given less latitude. Likewise, monogamy in a marriage is a standard that both men and women sometimes struggle with, either in thought or in action. Interestingly, when screening the same film for an audience of older women, most of them understood that parenting is a tricky and emotionally challenging experience that sometimes pushes one’s patience to extremes.

I think the expectation of seeing one-sided women characters (either saints or sluts) has a lot to do with the fact that most films that have informed us culturally over the decades have been by and about men. There has thus been a plethora of hero types, villain types, and explorations of so many of the personality ranges in between these two. When women show up in these films, they are there to serve the plot in some superficial manner (love interest, femme fatale), but too often, there is not enough screen time to really explore who these women are beyond their surfaces.

Not only is it good storytelling to present complex characters, it is also socially healthy for us to see all the various shades of human characteristics– male and female– in our films. How can we have a dialogue about things as complex and challenging as motherhood, relationships, growing up, reconciliation, maturing, and every fluctuation and change in our lives, if we don’t explore ourselves in our fictional worlds? And yes, we can create female complexity in genres not typically associated with it, like horror or action, and as it would be relatively new territory for most women directors, the world might be pleasantly surprised with what we can create.

Twitter: @Nicole_Elmer

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