Saturday, 22 February 2014

Female Bodies in Film

It is perhaps an understatement to say that Hollywood does not have the best relationship with the female body. Too often, female characters in films exist purely as bodies. There is no character development, their dialogue (should they have any) is bland or pandering to the male lead, and they contribute little to the plot. Female characters are used frequently to titillate, to act as window-dressing to the swashbuckling hero’s tale, but not to contribute to the storyline in any meaningful way. I couldn’t help put ponder this unfortunate status quo while watching Spike Jonze’s delightful Her, a film which appears to subvert the Hollywood norm by depicting a romantic and sexual relationship liberated from the female body.

In Her, Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is an emotionally stunted man who falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system, Samantha. The film is warm and funny, and the relationship between Twombly and Samantha is beautifully and organically developed; it only occasionally feels a little creepy. The film can feel a bit languorous (perhaps due to its over-abundance of Instagram-filtered montages) but the relationship between Twombly and Samantha remains consistently engaging. Samantha may not have a body but she feels real and weighty, and it seems quietly subversive for a major character in a film to consist of only a voice.

Films usually relish the opportunity to highlight female bodies and, in particular, female nudity. According to the New York Film Academy, in the top 500 films of 2007-2012, 29% of women wore sexually revealing clothes compared to just 7% of men. Similarly, 26% of women actors got partially naked compared to 9% of men. Only 31% of speaking characters were women and roughly a third of those women were shown in sexually revealing attire or partially naked. These statistics suggest a rather depressing fixation on female flesh as opposed to real, interesting, developed female characters.

In the face of this, Jonze’s film could be seen as a feminist triumph. Twombly does not pine after Samantha’s body; he does not idolize her form or fetishise her figure. His attachment to her grows through witty, insightful conversations. He values her for the emotional support she offers, not her flesh. And Samantha is a fantastically well-developed character. She is immensely curious, desperately eager to learn about the world and experience new things. She composes music, she draws, she has a charmingly dirty sense of humour. Most importantly, she grows, gaining more confidence and independence until it becomes clear that she has outgrown Twombly and their relationship.

But then, read in another way, Her and the lack of a female body seems less like a feminist victory and more like the unfortunate end result of an industry thoroughly uncomfortable with the realities of the female form. While the statistics compiled by the New York Film Academy show that Hollywood has no problem with female nudity, that doesn’t mean that Hollywood doesn’t have a problem with female bodies. The naked female bodies shown by Hollywood aren’t real bodies; they’re smooth and clean, like plastic facsimiles of the real thing.

The furor surrounding the nudity depicted in Lena Dunham’s Girls shows just how uncomfortable we are with realistic female nudity. Even now, nearly two years later, questions are still being asked about why Dunham’s less than model-esque figure is cavorting naked across our screens. It is immensely depressing that soft, rolling bodies are still shocking enough to warrant avid debate.

With this context in mind, Her’s lack of a female body seems a bit sinister. Hollywood would seemingly prefer to eradicate female bodies altogether rather than show one in all its unsightly glory: rumpled, patchy and sweaty.

It is also questionable whether Jonze really has eradicated the female body from his love story. Jonze could have chosen an unknown actor to play Samantha. Instead he chose Scarlett Johansson, a stunningly beautiful, slender female with whom the film-going audience is undoubtedly familiar. When her voice purrs from Twombly’s phone, it’s impossible not to imagine Johansson’s statuesque figure. As Manohla Dargis suggests in the New York Times, Scarlett Johansson’s “lush physicality” comes through Somantha’s voice. Samantha has a body in our minds and that body is firm and smooth and slim. Perhaps Her isn’t as subversive with regard to its depiction of female bodies as it first appears.

I don’t think Jonze removed the female figure from his romance because he’s scared of the real female body, in all its podgy, sweaty glory. Jonze is trying to provide a thought-provoking commentary on our current obsession with our smartphones and other devices. But it’s interesting to consider Her in the context of other films and their depictions of female characters. Her subverts the Hollywood norm of incessantly showing toned, naked female figures by keeping the central love interest off screen. But Her also supports the Hollywood norm by choosing the conventionally attractive Scarlett Johansson as the voice of the female lead and by excluding other, more varied female bodies.  I guess it will take more time for films like Her and tv shows like Girls to make a significant impact on how women’s bodies are treated on our screens.

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