A Gender-Studies Comparative Analysis of Flashdance and Obvious Child

Paper by Caitlin Cohen. Viewed on DVD.

Since the beginning of film, the role of women on screen has shifted dramatically. Reflective of women’s political history in the US, women in the film industry have often had their voices muted and their careers hindered due to lack of equality among their male peers, in terms of both respect and rights. The subject of gender equality has been openly discussed more and more in today’s day-and-age, however it has been a long road to get to the level of representation in the media and in film that women have reached today, and I still find that it is lacking in many regards. The nineteen-eighties was a decade filled with strong female leading roles in films, driven by a sense of liberation in the narratives that helped to aid the ever-growing feminist movement. Although more and more women were being cast as independent and ambitious characters, I found that instead of featuring strong women who maintained their femininity, the characters were either hyper masculine or motivated by the goals or desires of the male characters in the films with them.

An example of a film released during the nineteen-eighties with a strong female lead is the dance inspired sensation Flashdance, which was directed by Adrian Lyne in 1983. Although often thought of as a gender-positive and liberating film for women, I take issue with certain aspects of the film and with the main character Alex. I find her character and the film altogether in many ways to fit into the structure of many typical blockbusters released, with the female lead being hyper sexualized as an object for both the male characters in the film and for the male viewers at home. In contrast, the main character Donna in the independent film Obvious Child, which was directed by Gillian Robespierre in 2014, offers a breath of authenticity in that she is a strong independent female lead who stays true to her own goals and doesn’t allow herself to be clouded by the males in her life. The two films when analyzed through a gender-studies lens are quite different. Although both are celebrated for their strong female narrative voices, one, Flashdance, seems to perpetuate certain gender norms seen commonly in film, while the other, Obvious Child, gives the audience a refreshing take on the female protagonist.

As a woman who aspires to make a career for myself in the film industry, the subject of gender equality in film (both on screen and off screen) is very important to me. Many would be surprised to learn that a woman created one of the first narrative films ever produced. Her name was Alice Guy-Blaché, and her film was called La Fée aux Choux and it was made in 1896. Although women have “been involved in all aspects of the filmmaking process since the birth of the medium,” (Williams and Hammond 299) they are commonly misrepresented in the media. The ratio of men to women who dominate the industry as a whole is staggering, as women are continuously struggling to make a name for themselves and gain the same level of respect that male filmmakers and actors have. “The question is not whether women have had the opportunity to contribute to the history of cinema, but why film historians have noticed so few of their contributions,” (Williams and Hammond 299). This quote accurately captures the essence of the inequalities faced by the woman who works hard at their careers in the film industry yet don’t receive the recognition they so often deserve.

Feminism has helped women to advocate for equality in all workplaces, and in the film industry feminism has taken many forms over the years. There have been several feminist “waves” or movements that have influenced filmmaking as a whole. Women’s studies have given female filmmakers and actors new ideas on how they can represent our gender to the best of their ability and in a way that helps to progress society towards overall gender equality in all regards. Author Claire Johnston is a feminist who helped to develop the theory that:
“Women’s cinema can function as ‘counter cinema’. Through consciousness of the means of production and opposition of sexist ideologies, films made by women have the potential to posit an alternative to traditional Hollywood films,” (133).

This quote resonates with me because I believe that as a feminist, it is important to represent my gender in all aspects of my life, and film is a powerful way to send a message to the public. Filmmakers have the opportunity to create a purposeful lasting message with their films, whether it is with the plot of the movie, the characters themselves, the dialogue, or even the setting. The traditional gender roles that are seen in most films can easily be deconstructed and reinvented by filmmakers and actors, once the decision is made to do so. A period of time in film history where many filmmakers and actors made the decision to reinvent the idea of the female lead was the 1970’s and 1980’s, due to the rise in feminism and activism for women’s rights in our political history at the time.

According to the textbook, “Women filmmakers ‘gained power from the 1970s/1980s sense of embattlement, of challenging an unjust patriarchal order and claiming what was due to women’,” (Williams and Hammond 300). With the rise in activism in society at this time it is no surprise that people began to use filmmaking as an opportunity to explore new roles for women on screen, by producing films featuring strong independent female protagonists. Author Phillip Green put it well when he stated that, “In their tentative way, these movies attempt to appeal not to a new audience of women, but rather to an audience of ‘new women’, alerted by feminism to new possibilities of spectatorship,” (158). More and more members of audiences who were unsatisfied with the typical role women played on screen, and were gravitating towards the new-age woman who is independent and ambitious, and goes after her dreams without relying on the men in her life to provide for her. This is important because it helped to pave the way for filmmakers in today’s society who are making controversial films with characters that defy social norms and gender binaries that have been relied on in filmmaking in the past. Often I find that people become uneasy when hearing the word feminism. Whether it is because they have a misconception of the movement as a whole, or they simply don’t wish to partake in a conversation that may be somewhat taboo, it is clear to me that the public does not always appreciate feminism. Even in today’s society people try to reinvent the term feminism itself, changing the terminology used to describe it in order to appeal to the masses, however if one researches the movement as a whole, especially in regards to filmmaking, they will find that the traditional ideals still hold true to this day. Karen Hollinger summarizes this idea in her novel, “Feminist Film Studies”
“Looking at feminism’s contributions to film studies will make it less likely that feminism will so easily be chucked away as a movement of the past supplanted by a new wave of neo- or postfeminism that fashions itself more in touch with traditional femininity, and maybe the desire to reject traditional feminism will be seen as less appealing,” (Hollinger 1).

The stereotypical housewife was no longer cutting it in terms of being the female leading role in film, and it was clear that filmmakers were going to need to represent the growing desire for female roles that embodied the new-age woman and all of the seemingly radical ideas that come with it.

An example of a film that features an independent female lead is Flashdance, which is about a young woman who works at a steel mill and as an exotic dancer, but who dreams of being a professional and making dance her career. The main character’s name is Alex, and she is clearly a symbol of the second wave of feminism in that she breaks many of the typical gender norms seen in films released in decades prior to the 1980s. She is not married nor does she have a male counterpart that she is trying to spend the film wooing, her character is motivated by her ambitious career goals, which is feminist-positive. However, there are many aspects of the film and of Alex’s character that do not fully embody the feminist movement, and I would even go as far as to say that Flashdance undermines the feminist movement in film in many ways.

The main issue I take with the film and with the main character of Alex Owens is that although she defies the typical gender norms for a female lead in a film, she does so by either acting hyper masculine or hyper feminine. During the day, Alex works as a welder at a steel mill, which is a very masculine profession. She wears clothing that is also very masculine, consisting mainly of suits that were popular during the eighties. Even her name, Alex Owens, is a masculine name as opposed to Alexandra, which would be the more feminine version. Although initially I liked this characteristic of the protagonist, the more I thought about it the more frustrated it made me. Alex could not simply be a strong independent female lead and hold onto her femininity at the same time. In fact, the times during the film where she is the most “girly” is at night when she works as a dancer. This was not a proper balance between the masculine qualities of the characters day job, because rather than simply being feminine and more true to typical female gender norms, she became hyper sexualized and objectified. Although her character is supposedly dancing for herself and her own happiness and even states that she forgets about the audience while she dances and simply feels it in her body, it is hard to deny the fact that she is wearing very sexualized outfits while dancing for an audience of men who are most certainly not applauding her for her bravery or independence as a woman. They are watching her dance as an object for their sexual entertainment, and this is what I find demeaning about her character as a whole. An online film critic states:

“The whole power play expressed through opposing gender-dynamics really got to me, and I found myself frustrated. Is the only way to advance in a cruel, gender-biased world through the adoption of attributes and habits of one of those genders? Is it possible to exist as an independent humyn being without advancing oneself as a “gendered” individual?” (Richard 2009).

I find this quote to be thought provoking, in that it is in fact difficult to think of a character that is strong and independent but exists this way independent of their so-called gender. It is one thing for a strong female character to use her femininity to her advantage in a respectable way in order to further her career or character goals, however using her body as a tool for the entertainment of others feels like something less liberating. Although, one could make the argument that the idea of what is “respectable” and what isn’t is subjective, and there are many who argue that women should use their bodies to their full potential and that sexual liberation is just as commendable as professional advancements. Although, as put by Kathryn Kalinak in her article, “Flashdance; The Dead End Kid,” “ It would be difficult to ignore the pornographic aspects of the photography as well as the sadomasochism implicit in the films choice of subject matter (the leather and chains dance sequence, the attack on Alex by the television set) and camera positioning. But in spite of this, the film exhilarates its female spectators.”

I find it difficult to view the goals of Alex’s character to be innovative or groundbreaking, and the message of the film is not one of original or meaningful feminist-positive themes, rather it is more a simple entertaining film about creative expression through dance, nothing more and nothing less.

Another film that I believe does a better job of capturing the spirit of the strong independent female lead is the modern indie film Obvious Child starring Jenny Slate as the main character Donna Stern. This film is not only groundbreaking for featuring a female lead who is not “conventionally beautiful,” (Andrew O’Hehir) or wealthy or famous, not only because the character is independent and has integrity as a woman, but also because the subject matter of the film is very controversial and this film does its job of sending a powerful message to the public about women and about society. This film is about a woman who gets pregnant from a one-night-stand, and chooses to have an abortion. The reason this film is so innovative is not only for touching on an already taboo subject in itself, but because the film is a romantic comedy and does a very good job of staying light-hearted throughout the story. In a society where one in three women will have an abortion, a film that takes away the negative stigma surrounding the procedure shouldn’t be as revolutionary as it is, but alas people do not seem to feel comfortable talking about the subject in their day-to-day lives, which is why a film that takes the drama out of the decision is so powerful. Donna makes the decision to have an abortion for herself, without being pressured by others and without feeling remorse or traumatized by the experience. In the few other popular films that depict abortion or themes of abortion, it is often depicted as a traumatic, violent, and regretful experience. This film, however, did an amazing job of normalizing the subject matter and making it more relatable for those watching, which is incredibly important for women’s rights.

Once people see this film and see that Donna is a strong woman who takes control of her own life and her own body, they will be more inclined to speak up on behalf of women in real life who experience similar things. It is incredibly important for people to voice their opinions on subject matters that impact them in real life, especially ones that pertain to the rights to our own bodies such as the right to have a legal and safe abortion. “Abortion was still very controversial in many western societies and feminists opposed the control of the state and the church,” (Lizzie Borden). Reproductive rights is an issue very close to the hearts of anybody who calls themselves a feminist, and therefore filmmakers who are trying to make a statement with a strong female narrative voice should allow themselves to be open to the idea of making a film about the subject matter, or at least including it in dialogue or plot somehow, because in this sense they are promoting feminism and taking the stigma out of the subject as a whole. It is for these reasons I believe Obvious Child does an amazing job of helping to aid the rise in feminism in film today, and that the main character Donna is a role model for other females in society and in film.

In summary, women have not always had an easy road getting the respect and recognition they deserve in the film industry as men historically have. The nineteen-eighties was a period of rebirth in a sense for women in film, reflecting the rise in the women’s rights movement in real life. The film Flashdance is an example of a film that features a female leading role who is strong, ambitious, and independent, making it a fine example of a feminist-positive film. Although there are flaws in the plot and in the character development, it is difficult to deny that the main character Alex Owens is a strong female narrative voice throughout the film, and one that defies certain gender norms set forth in society and in other films released prior to this one. The film Obvious Child, however, does a better job of encompassing what it truly means to create a feminist film, one that not only features an independent and strong woman as the main character, but also one that tackles the very controversial subject of abortion and helps to take the negative stereotypes and stigma out of the experience and make it more normal, which is powerful and important because so many people in real life have the procedure done and do not feel accurately represented in the media.

Works Cited
1. Hammond, Michael. Contemporary American Cinema. Maidenhead: Open UP, 2005. Print.
2. Johnston, Claire. Notes on Women’s Cinema;. London: Society for Education in Film and Television, 1973. Print.
3. Hollinger, Karen. Feminist Film Studies. London: Routledge, 2012. Print.
4. “Girls on Film: Ten Women Who’ve Made Cinematic History.” The Moviefone Blog. Web. 18 Apr. 2015. .
5. “Who You Calling Boy? Theorizing Masculinities.” : Film Review: FLASHDANCE. Web. 18 Apr. 2015. .
6. “JUMP CUTA REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA.” “Flashdance” by Kathryn Kalinak. Web. 18 Apr. 2015. .
7. “Finally, a Movie That Makes Abortion Funny.” Washington Post. The Washington Post. Web. 18 Apr. 2015. .
8. ““Obvious Child”: An Abortion Rom-com Makes History.” Saloncom RSS. Web. 18 Apr. 2015. http://www.salon.com/2014/06/05/obvious_child_an_abortion_rom_com_makes_history/
9. “Anarcha-Filmmaker: An Interview with Lizzie Borden.” Anarcha-Filmmaker: An Interview with Lizzie Borden. Web. 18 Apr. 2015. .
10. Green, Philip. Cracks in the Pedestal Ideology and Gender in Hollywood. Amherst: U of Massachusetts, 1998. Print.


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