Words About Sexual Differences in Filmwatching.

No, this post is not about what you think. Nothing exciting, nothing to see here, move on… Numbers and facts, speculations and conclusions without any firm foundation is what you’ll find here. You are hereby warned. Welcome to Thunderdome for weaklings.

I have the utmost respect for women (pardon the term; they seem to prefer to be called girls these days). For one thing, I married one. However, this year has scared me a bit when it comes to their collective cineastic choices. Let me hastily add that these choices involve practically none of the women I know, and certainly not my wife, who I’ve indoctrinated to the best of my abilities (I would make Kim Il-Jung proud) and to the point that we are watching John Wayne Westerns every other night. I guess the group I’m talking about must be “the other half”; the one we never get to see but somehow know is out there, like the FrP-voter (Norwegian far right party with surprisingly – or unsurprisingly – many followers. I’ve never to my knowledge met one in the flesh).

There have always been films that have more or less aimed for a female audience (just as there are films that aim for the male counterpart). The Melodrama of classical Hollywood and the Romantic Comedy have usually been considered “women’s pictures”. Still, I’ve never considered this problematic. If a film is good it is suitable for both sexes, independent of which focus group the film studio had in mind while producing it. Even though the idea of a date film seems silly to me, I understand that romantic comedies and horror films traditionally have been considered the best date genres (which should be strange, since, generally speaking, I imagine that fewer women than men would see a horror on their own, and likewise fewer men go to see a romantic comedy alone. But somehow both genres are often perfectly acceptable to see together for both parties). No matter the practical uses a genrefilm has, if it has quality it will find an audience across the sexual divide – although with a dominating percentage of one of the sexes.

This year, though, has offered two films so far that I can’t imagine any sane and more or less heterosexual man would venture to expose himself to: Sex and the City and Mamma Mia. The former was the first out of the block, and if this had been the only oestrogen bomb of the year, I would dismiss the occurrence as akin to, let’s say, the first Star Wars film (for a while called Star Wars: A New Hope, now I guess it’s Star Wars IV or some such), that was very much a boy’s own film in its time (1977), and still is. I see that of the 200.000 grown up votes it has on IMDB, 175.000 of those are by males. This is not a real or accurate measure of the actual viewing percentage, as women tend to vote on the internet much more seldom as a rule. Even Sex and the City has a higher number of male voters, but in that case it’s much closer – 17100 to 12300. One can speculate that a large number of males have voted as a form of protest – their rating has an average of 4.7, while the female average is 7.3 – but this is hard to prove. One sees, though, that it is a film that is very polarizing: 22.5% give it a 10-rating, while 21.9% give it a 1.

The reason I mention the film at all is that I think it has marked a new tendency in the movie-going public, or rather, the female part of it. The film has apprehended many of the characteristics of a cult film from the get go. Like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, people went in masses or large groups to the film, making it serve as a kind of partystarter, and aperitif of the evening out. Rocky Horror, though, cemented its position as a camp classic over the years, and is a regular fixture in cineaste circles because it’s “so bad it’s good”. (I don’t agree. I think it’s a tremendous bore, but then again, so would most people describe me).

Sex and the City managed to draw a built in audience (of the TV-series), but also, judging by the sales, many new to the concept. This I must assume is because of a larger degree of peer pressure among women, or peer influence, to use a more positive, albeit invented, term; a wanting not to be left out, not to miss anything. It would be a royal folly for me to intend to analyze the wherefores without more data, and although I’m not averse to unfounded speculation I shall try to temper myself. I will say, though, that I personally find the concept of Sex and the City reprehensible. It celebrates one of the worst traits of modern society; blind and excessive consumerism, it disguises stupidity as feminism and, while it might be cleverly made, is so empty of meaningful insights that I can find little reason to forgive its existence, much less its success. I’ll readily admit this is more of a gut reaction on my part than a thorough and well founded analysis, but I don’t think it deserves one. So, for me, the female stampede to the cinema screens in this case is a lamentable matter.

Other films have been made of TV-series that have not approximated the commercial success of Sex and the City (Mission Impossible is an exception): Charlie’s Angels, Starsky and Hutch, X-Files, The Brady Bunch, Lassie, The Untouchables (that were made into a TV-series again after the success of the film), The Naked Gun films (based on the niche series From the Files of Police Squad), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Serenity (an underperforming film based on a TV-series – Firefly – that did not sell well by itself, but by far the best of these together with the Lynch-film), to mention some. I could add Hulk, The Lone Ranger, the Superman– and Batman-films, which were first TV-series, but these I consider to be based on a literary antecedent. (Often films become TV-series as well: Terminator (The Sarah Connor Chronicles), Peyton Place and The Thin Man, to mention examples from different eras). Even though some of these series had many times over the viewing numbers of the TV-version of Sex and the City, and managed intermittently solid sales in their movie incarnations, they evidently lacked the ingredient that would unite women – or men – all over the western world and beyond.

The case of Sex and the City shrinks into insignificance, though, when held up against the year’s other female hit: Mamma Mia. Many of the same instant cult features I mentioned in regard to that film are doubly relevant to the Abba-spectacle. The cinemas are even arranging special karaoke-passes for the film. While Mamma Mia’s earnings have not yet superseded Sex and the City in USA, overseas it has more than doubled the revenue of the shoe shoppers. Just here in Norway, it has sold more than 1 million tickets, meaning that about 25% of the Norwegians have seen the film, unless someone has been crazy enough to return for second helpings, which I’m afraid I can’t completely disregard. While I understand that the highest rating of the film is given by women/girls under 18 years (8.5), the scary thing is that the 8000 women or so that has bothered to vote has given it a median of 8 – against the 6.6 rating of the males.

I won’t say too much about Mamma Mia, as I think again the concept speaks for itself. One readily accepts that people like musicals (many of my favourite films are musicals; Singing in the Rain, of course, Yankee Doodle Dandy, An American in Paris, Moulin Rouge!, Dancer in the Dark, The Bandwagon, even the Sound of Music I can appreciate), but why on earth musicals that are about nothing? The term “empty of meaning” rears its head here as well. I can’t imagine a sane person would look at an Abba-lyric and say to himself: Hmm, this should be a film! (If that person is a visionary, I would be loath to be a part of the future he sees). One can be obdurate, but there are limits…

Maybe I should be threading carefully and not concatenate what are so far merely two examples of bad films with a large and dominantly female audience. And, after all, many people evidently like these films, so I shouldn’t be too quick to pass judgment, although quantity of followers and quality seldom go well together when it comes to art. Neither am I so naïve as to think that the cinema going public primarily visit the premises in order to broaden their horizons. If these films had been along the lines of Grease or Dirty Dancing (that is, harmless, not very good, but entertaining in their way), I would have no insuperable problem with their successes. However, as I think that Sex and the City is taken too seriously by many of its viewers as something positively instructing, I think the problem that arises is close to be downright of an ideological nature. Mamma Mia also seems to me to celebrate vacuousness, bad storytelling and a particular inanity that is scary by its popularity. Probably this says something about our society, but I don’t like to think about that too much (pun almost intended).

One can, of course, interject that God and Man both know that the last 90 years have produced their share of very bad films intended for a predominantly male viewing. For one thing, that is no excuse; one can’t, after all, set one’s sights on the worst examples of the form. Then, there is the flock instinct that seems to have overcome the ladies in these instances. If one by oneself decides that these are films one genuinely wants to see; fine. I know there are women who feel Sex and the City is a fine example of a film, two of them are even friends of mine. But the practice of going together some 20 or 30 in order to participate in a secular mass for female empowerment scares me. (Feminists would have a field day with that sentence!! – And, I fear, with the rest of this article…) I don’t mean that I’m afraid of the communal aspects of this, but rather the lack of personal choice and reflection it entails. Oh, well, people are different after all, and if someone’s idea of a good time is to sit in a cinema and sing Abba-songs – or not sing, as the case may be – I certainly would be amiss to belittle them this pleasure. (Even though belittling is what I do best…)

I initially thought that I could make a case for the male equivalents to these films to be Sin City and 300 (both based on comics by Frank Miller). Maybe that’s wrong, as these films have a somewhat younger core audience (both films are best liked by the under 18 years olds). But in terms of saying little about the world and appealing mainly to one sex, they do have something in common. Both these films, though, seem much better than the “female” films. (Of course I would say that, I’m male, one might protest). They may not at first glance say much about the contemporary world, but that isn’t to say that they don’t mean anything. Whereas the “female” films mentioned here to a large degree tell the story they have to tell – in a very safe and unadventurous way – and little beyond that, I think Miller’s work – and its cinematic reproduction – is definitely multifaceted.

This has to do with several things. Sin City is a pastiche, and as such comments upon a certain tradition as well as taking the noir trope of light and shadow to stark conclusions; it is also a formal experiment in reproducing another medium, and thus brings a level of innovation to Film itself. It is, however, not very clever when it comes to content outside its historical self-reflection. 300, though, has more narrative and hermeneutic possibilities, maybe because of its compact/minimal story. It is clearly bigger than life, and, being based on a part of history that has been aggrandized into myth, this is as it should be. Also the genre seems suited for contemporary readings (and it has been read as everything from a Republican tract to the complete other side of the political spectrum). While Miller can come off as bombastic and limited in his political understanding, knowing all of Miller’s work, I would venture that one has to look at the film more in terms of concepts like honour, destiny (whether one is born with it or shaped by social forces) and its inescapability, and the warrior’s code (Miller has an extreme interest in all things Japanese, it seems; his graphic novel Ronin is drawn in a style akin to Japanese woodblock printing). I could write an entire post about these films, but that is hardly the point.

If there is a point, it is in the vicinity of a general worry about how this possible trend of womencentric films will be interpreted by the studios and financiers of new projects. If they now see a new market group and decide that this is the kind of films they prefer, I’m afraid that the balancing quality that women’s pictures traditionally have had will be gone. Instead one will see a further sexual polarization at the movies based on rather low measures of quality. For every bad Mark Steven Johnson– or Jerry Bruckheimer-film aimed for the male teenager, there will be a pink hued nightmare about shopping disasters or shoe hunting for the middle aged woman of all ages, maybe with songs. What is the High School Musical-phenomenon if not an admission of marketing’s grip on young girls (catch them at an age before any kind of quality control comes into play)? And don’t get me started on Desperate Housewives or Bridget Jones; the original and in all her international permutations!

This post is by no means a call for not making woman’s pictures. On the contrary, I’m upset about the low esteem producers hold women in, of the low standards they think women will fall prey to if they just are told by marketing and commercials that this is what women should like. The current crop of women’s films reminds me of the commercials of the fifties aimed at women: how they tried to give housewives an illusion of control of their destinies by “giving them control in the kitchen” (with this new oven, you are now master of your domain!”; “With the Double Toaster you’ll keep your Man happy – doubly!”). Or the evergreen call for women’s attention; the always smiling women in shampoo or chocolate commercials; as if they have the time of their lives in the showers or while nibbling a dark chocolate of sorts (it always is dark chocolate for women…). And just imagine their happy faces when a new fabric softener makes junior’s shirts feel as new! I’m also reminded of female magazines of the time, whose ludicrous articles are by closer inspection not that different to what one finds today.

There was a time when women’s pictures were a sign of quality. Maybe there were grumps like me, complaining about the state of affairs with the release of George Cukor’s wonderful all-women ensemble film The Women in 1939, or sighs of exasperation at the thought of yet another Douglas Sirk film? What should one bother to see Joseph Mankiewitcz’s A Letter to Three Wives for, or any Bette Davis film for that matter, or a Joan Crawford-vehicle like Mildred Pierce? No matter the critical voices of the time, many of these were and are masterpieces. I know it’s futile and perhaps unfair to hold the recent films up to these earlier classics, but it is at least indicative that while the Woman’s situation was less than ideal in terms of liberty and personal freedom some decades back, one at least managed to make films that did not insult her intelligence. If film studios think that the concerns of women these days are what shoes to buy, what luxury handbags to collect or what Abba-singing ex-lover to choose, isn’t that a little bit derogatory? And if women fall for this, I can’t think other than that western civilization has reached is pinnacle and now the decline is slouching towards Bethlehem to rapidly spring from infancy.

But it’s all just a bit of harmless fun!, one might protest. If boys of all ages have their superhero films, can’t girls have their shoe shopping cosmopolitan-swillers or neurotic dancing baby-watchers? The sensible thing (apart from taking the fifth or ask for the word harmless to be stricken from the record) would be for me to sigh and say, yes, I guess so. That would indeed be the sensible thing.

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