Sometimes I wonder if I was aware as a child of how pop culture products are artificially gendered by the mysterious powers that be– you know, the marketing agencies and television networks and movie studios and entertainment journalists that all seek to categorize and further dictate what media you should and shouldn’t consume. If I did know this, I didn’t seem to care: I consumed whatever I wanted to consume, with very little gender-coaxing from my parents. I remember making up soap operas with my Barbie dolls one moment, and action scenarios with my Legos the next, with equal enthusiasm and not an ounce of self-consciousness or confusion. My relationship with movies was no different; I never rebelled so much as remained blissfully indifferent to the “rules.” Later, I would notice these alleged rules more and more, my peers blindly abiding by them; little girls, young ladies and adult women are meant to like a certain set of genres, while little boys, young guys and adult men are meant to like another. You can’t like both kinds of movies, and you certainly can’t like the opposite gender’s genres. I don’t even have to list examples of these genres, either– if you’re reading this, they’ve already popped into your head quite vividly, didn’t they?
As everyone is probably aware by now, a major New York publication has run an article on Goodfellas, the beloved Martin Scorsese gangster movie, that takes a very gendered approach to its analysis. I’ll admit that when I was in college, I was one of only four females (out of 15 students total) in a course on Scorsese. You can’t really talk about Scorsese without considering masculinity as a theme, but I never felt like an outsider looking in on his work, at least not as a result of my gender. In fact, I fell in love with his films. Growing up, as horror, sci-fi and other violent, “masculine” genres became bigger parts of my life, I became increasingly self-aware– maybe I am the odd girl out due to my tastes, but why should that be? Who has decided my cinematic destiny for me, when I deserve the right to discover that for myself? You’d think we’ve come far enough to not indulge in such narrow, simplistic, even dangerous notions of gendered media– and yet, here we are, forever adding and experiencing new incidences of gender-stereotyping entire movie genres for no good reason.
This is a media tradition with irritating staying power. Here’s a fun fact I learned in college: did you know that Film Noir was only labeled as such by film critics and historians years after the movement’s heyday? In trade publications of the time, these films were often referred to as male melodramas. Melodrama of course has long since been considered in two ways, both of which are problematic when considered separately and only more infuriating when considered together– melodramas were considered to be women’s films, and until some other film critics and historians caught on to the playfully snarky intentions of Douglas Sirk, they were also considered to be one of the lowest genres of film on the cultural totem pole.
So let’s dissect this a bit– Film Noir is celebrated and elevated thanks to its maleness (its origins in mobster movies, its male protagonists and femme fatales, etc), with the “male” component of “male melodrama” instantly negating the feminine, negative connotations of the “melodrama” component. But why are actual melodramas (and the use of the adjective “melodramatic” to describe films even today) seen as feminine AND negative? Or maybe a better question is, why are women relegated to a lower genre? Regardless of whether women enjoyed melodramas of the 1950s or not, it isn’t quite fair that the classifications here are so stringent and limited, and it’s problematic that men are in general not as associated with emotional genres.
I’m sure we all have that instinct of wanting to forgive but not forget, under the assumption that filmmakers and movie critics have since matured, advanced, evolved. Well, the former is clearly making some progress there, at least– George Miller’s Mad Max Fury Road seems like it could function as a a cinematic F-you to the very men’s rights activists who scowled that the film is feminist propaganda masquerading as a “guys movie.” But feminism and other F-words aside for just a moment– who ever gave them the right to think that this movie should have been solely theirs? Who ever deemed this movie a “guy movie” and where is this code of conduct that Miller broke by featuring prominent female badasses? One especially great aspect of this movie is that Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa and Max actually work together– they form a bond that is not some degrading, distracting romance. Real men and women could learn from this, actually– the only way change is going to happen (in our movie industry and in society at large) is by working together, but in order to do that, we need to stop trying to sort everything into neat, discrete gender categories– quite frankly, it’s an arbitrary way of classifying anything, let alone movies!
It’s equally problematic that, if a woman does like a “guy movie” maybe she’d be considered a Cool Girl, a la Amazing Amy in Gone Girl— maybe guys love a girl that loves gore or a good chase scene. And maybe some girls would like a guy who’ll cry at a rom-com or a period piece. But here are my issues with this equally narrow and flawed theory: patriarchal society may actually be kinder to (or even wrongly glorify and come to expect) a Cool Girl than they would be to a sensitive guy. Would a guy ever freely admit to his male friends that he likes a “girly” movie? I don’t have the life experience or gender identification to say for certain of course, but I’d speculate that his friends, and society at large, would be quicker to shame this. And secondly, no male or female should like a genre to please the opposite sex anyway. We need to realize that it’s okay to like whatever kind of movie you like, if you genuinely like it for you and not for anybody else. Girls shouldn’t feel pressured to like a romantic movie simply because it’s what advertisements have convinced them is “their” genre, but they also shouldn’t feel some sense of wrongdoing for actually liking this kind of movie, either. Genres are not inherently gendered until the studios and critics make them so, but we as consumers can take the power back by simply thinking before we choose to consume a film with those built-in, easy interpretations.
So, maybe some women won’t understand some movies and some men won’t understand certain others– maybe they chose not to engage with them at all, and maybe that choice is not even a gendered one necessarily. Some movies are made with some people in mind perhaps, and maybe those people will have an easier time of relating to a given movie’s themes, plots and characters. But, then why do I like Saw and Hostel and countless other movies that seem to be for masculine audiences? Maybe there is gender-role reversal among the characters or some other identification-related concept a film theorist might want to run with… or maybe it’s simply because gender can only dictate so much, and if you go in without the conception that gender dictates anything at all, then your enjoyment and understanding of, and engagement with the film will be your own, and no film critic or director or advertisement can tell you you’re wrong– it’s out of their hands, and they cannot take that unique experience away from you.
I guess that’s why I genuinely relate to and understand Goodfellas, too– because we all engage with films on different levels and in different ways, based on socioeconomic status, age, life experience, sexual orientation and a whole slew of other factors besides (and, yes, including) gender. I shouldn’t even be asking myself if I’m allowed to or justified in enjoying something based on what kinds of films other people tell me are more suitable for my gender. Gender isn’t everything, so we have to stop letting Hollywood try to tell us that it is. They’ve been trying it for decades; it’s the most tired and lazy way of categorizing movies. So, once and for all, I say: see movies because you want to– whichever ones you want to– and don’t feel ashamed for understanding them, relating to them, or loving them just because some outdated sexist doctrine is trying to shake the dust off of itself by telling you that you can’t.
Featured Image: Goodfellas, Warner Bros.