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Here come the gender police! Oops, I mean the film critics.

July 19, 2010

The first two paragraphs of this post contain a short summary of my opinion on Inception, including very slight spoilers. Feel free to skip them if you have not seen the film.

This past weekend, I went to see Inception. I enjoyed it very much, and have recommended it to many of my friends. It is a science fiction action film that is not quite as mind-bending as Memento, which is all well and good because I don’t believe that was what Nolan was trying to accomplish. The film is both highly intelligent and a lot of fun – featuring a very ambitious use of nested narratives that raised even my literary little eyebrows. The cinematography was excellent, and Nolan sticks to his realistic methods and avoidance of non-essential CGI. Obviously the film features a lot of computer-generated special effects to accomplish the impossible, but where it could be done in real life, it was. Remember how they really flipped an 18-wheeler in The Dark Knight? One of my favourite scenes in Inception is when Joseph Gordon-Levitt has to navigate and fight in a hotel with shifting gravity. To film this, Nolan put him in a set that rotated 360 degrees, at eight revolutions per minute. And it looks super cool.

My only criticism would be that the core group of dreamwalkers (or psychonauts, whatever you want to call them) was perhaps too large – it made for little to no character development of the supporting cast members, which featured some wonderful actors. Don’t get me wrong; I think the majority of Leonardo DiCaprio’s work is brilliant and I very much enjoy seeing him in movies. Provided he isn’t haunted by a dead, mentally ill wife in his next film (as he is in Inception and Shutter Island), I will continue to happily pay to watch him on the silver screen. I’m still hoping the Akira rumours come to fruition. So that is my only real beef with the film: characters played by stupendous actors such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe, Tom Hardy and Ellen Page didn’t get enough expansion.

Speaking of Ellen Page, isn’t she great? Well, according to Salon film critic Andrew O’Hehir, she’s genderless. Um, what? Yeah.

I enjoy reading reviews that take a position very different than my own. In this case, O’Hehir thought Inception was a disappointment. His review is thoughtfully critical and well-written; I was cruising through happily until I hit the last two paragraphs. Apparently O’Hehir and I disagree on more than the quality of Nolan’s latest cinematic romp.

In discussing the highly technically nature of some of Inception’s dialogue, O’Hehir refers to Ellen Page’s character Ariadne as a “genderless geek-girl”. He then goes on to contrast her character with that of Marion Cotillard, who he refers to as “one of the foxiest actresses alive”. On the one hand, we have “a smoldering temptress who embodies all the female, erotic energy absent from this universe”, and on the other hand, we have Page’s “prim androgyne”.

Those of you who have not seen Inception may be wondering what makes Page appear so androgynous in the film. Well, I am wondering the same thing. So let’s discuss it a bit. Page’s character is studying architecture at a university in France, and is recruited to be part of DiCaprio’s team. She spends the film in variations of two looks: the casual student look (slacks or jeans, brown heeled boots, loose top and a jacket or sweater, with her hair down in tousled curls) and the professional look (pale grey dress suit, fancy blouse, sensible black pumps, with her hair in a tight bun). It’s worth noting that her hair was styled this way in order to keep things organized during the zero-gravity scenes.  She also briefly dons arctic-camouflaged military-style snow gear.

So is it her clothing that makes O’Hehir consider Page androgynous? Tying a woman’s hair up and putting her in professional or functional attire erases her gender? It is a little more complicated than that, it seems. I think the key here is the contrast O’Hehir establishes with Cotillard’s character. I thought it was very astute of O’Hehir to point out that Cotillard’s character embodies the old femme fatale stereotype, which showcases expressions of female sexuality as threatening, even dangerous. This is a sexist trend you see in films all the time: a woman is overtly sexual on her own terms, not controlled by a man, so said woman is dangerous and/or insane. I was going to start listing other films that do this, but it would be a very long list. The moral of the story is: watch out for sex weapons, boys. So props to O’Hehir for pointing out that Inception creates a sexual female character, and then locks her up because she’s scary… but then oh nooo she’s invading our minds with her sexy powers ahhhhh!

But unfortunately, in making this very good observation, O’Hehir also reveals the root of his gender policing of Ellen Page. Basically, O’Hehir’s framework runs something like the following. Marion Cotillard: fits his definition of attractive, wears revealing clothing, is sexually expressive, is defined as a wife, spends her time pursuing a man… is female. Ellen Page: perhaps does not fit his definition of attractive, wears non-revealing clothing, does not express sexual desire, is defined as an architect, spends her time working… is androgynous.

Basically, it seems to say that because Page’s character remains professional, ties her hair up and is not sexually affiliated with anyone, she is less feminine – genderless, in fact. Even if Page’s character had actively subverted typical notions of masculinity and femininity, it would not make her without gender. Gender is not an Option A or Option B kind of game. Unless someone self-identifies as non-gendered, it is offensive to label them as such. Besides, I have to wonder if O’Hehir makes the same observation about any of the male characters? After all, they dress according to the situation and – with the exception of DiCaprio’s tormented character – do not express themselves romantically or sexually, and remain on task throughout the film, minus one minor flirtation by Gordon-Levitt’s character. Professionalism? Androgyny!

Oh no wait, I forgot. Dressing functionally and staying on task are masculine things. Wearing your hair in a manageable style is a masculine thing. If you are a woman who does these things, you are not really a woman, because without reference to your sexual capacity you might as well be genderless. Right?

Wrong, Mr. O’Hehir, very wrong. Now, I have no problem with androgyny in fashion, film, and everyday life. As any genderqueer individual proves, there is beauty in ambiguity. But I do have a problem with conflating androgynous with not conventionally feminine or not sexual enough. Tilda Swinton as the angel Gabriel in Constantine? That was perhaps androgyny: casting a female to play a male role, binding her chest, emphasizing gender and sexual ambiguity. Very well done, I might add, and totally hot. I love Tilda Swinton. Ellen Page as genderless? Not so much.

I have blogged before (at The Snarky Optimist) about how dumb and potentially harmful it is to clump people into a gender binary. It is offensive to all individuals across the gender spectrum, whether you are male, female, transgender, genderqueer, or whatever.

In my mind, O’Hehir spoiled an otherwise great review by arguing that if you are not sexy, you’re not female. And that is more disappointing than he considers Inception.

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From → Movies

2 Comments
  1. “little to no character development of the supporting cast members” – to some extent, the setup requires this – if there’s to be ambiguity about whether team members are NPCs (or “projections” in the film’s terminology) then their characters can’t be too developed

  2. Ah, you raise a very good point, Richard. Objection withdrawn.

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