On ‘3 Billboards’, the #MeToo & #TimesUp movement(s), and women’s rage on screen

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Some thoughts I had recently, after the Oscars (2018), upon finally watching the film – a feminist’s perspective…

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So, I saw the ‘3 Billboards’ film recently…I can’t say I enjoyed it. To be fair to the film-makers, crew, actors, etc – I think many of my issues and my guttural response to it stem from the media and Oscars-hype following the release of the film. I’m thinking particularly of the claims that this film was some kind of timely and incredible response to the recent (2016/17-18) events in Hollywood, post-Weinstein, and the impact on other sections of society. It is important to note, the writer and film-maker previously created ‘comedy’, ‘soap-opera’ style, films which tend to focus on hijinx and crime capers. In hindsight, this was perhaps not a suitable choice as institutional response to the feminist protest movements against sexual abuse, abusive workplace practices and inequality. It almost feels as misjudged as if ‘One’ was to make a formal complaint about harrassment in the workplace to HR, and in response the company’s HR chooses to ‘educate’ the workforce by screening a ‘Benny Hill’ or one of the many ‘Carry On’ films…!

Spoilers Ahead!

The film is based on a real life case and mother, who is yet to receive justice. One of many, if we take the issue at the heart of the plot literally.

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An IFJP2018 presentation on violence & Feminist Methodologies, University of San Francisco, 2nd April, 2018. See #IFJP2018 on Twitter for more.

Fun Fact: Did you know, Missouri is well known to be a popular ‘Teen Bride’ destination, as one of only a few U.S. states where the practice is still legal.

The fact that this ‘comedy caper’ was lauded by the academy as the ultimate ‘#MeToo‘ acknowledgement baffles me. Yes, the acting was generally good or better. Yes, somewhat unusually, a woman was seen being violent throughout – ultraviolent at that.

RAPED WHILE DYING
AND STILL NO ARRESTS?
HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?

But, the storyline and delivery was highly problematic. The film was also largely populated by men, it maintained a focus on their perspective, their crude and immature humour, and made a film which claimed to be about a woman’s rage (over her daughter’s brutal rape and murder) into a buddy-movie pastiche about a man’s convenient redemption – where our lead somehow conveniently finds forgiveness and becomes a guy’s ‘plus one’ on a potentially murderous road-trip. We, the viewers, are ultimately expected to accept this ultimate side-lining of our anti-hero(ine). Though, having sat through the rest of the film up to that point, this marginalizing (or minimalizing) is to be expected, I guess. Any ‘agency’ McDormand’s mother character gains through her behaviour and unwavering opposition to the patriarchy in her small-town bubble, is ultimately smashed to bits with such an ending, or at the very least renders them hollow victories.

The US has one of the highest rates of death by firearm in the developed world, according to World Health Organization data.

Also, what does it mean that one of the key characters (played by Sam Rockwell), who spends the majority of the film being a vile, racist, misogynist, violent bully – gets to be ‘redeemed’ by being set on fire, getting beat up by a rapist, and a small act of kindness from one of his victims. All of which resulting in a very unsatisfying ending with him and the lead (McDormand) on their ‘ride-along’. I mean, the guy even threatens to shoot his mother dead, to her face, and is even seen caressing a shotgun while she sleeps!

Given recent events in the U.S., this would appear very poorly judged – especially as we are encouraged to view this behaviour as comedy, laughing off what is essentially a dire testament to toxic masculinity and the crisis in masculinity we experience with such everyday domestic violence and ‘gun-culture‘. Not to mention the critiques on the way race is addressed here. I was not amused, I did not laugh…I am still not laughing.

Why was it necessary to depict and give way to ‘white male anger‘, in a film which we are told is the story of a woman’s righteous anger…? Other films, I have suggested here, did not need to ‘balance’ things in such a way in order to tell the story. As viewers, we are very familiar with toxic masculinity and gendered (and racialised!) violence on our screens – if the film was what the Academy and the wider media claims it is, shouldn’t we have seen that depicted in the film without qualifications?

The ‘tone’ of this film was way off, and the fact that we are offered a simplistic: ‘yay for female anger on-screen’ as a response to ‘#MeToo‘ and ‘#TimesUp‘ is irritating.

This is not the first or only film to depict female anger, rage, or retribution…a few spring to mind. For example, ‘Female Agents‘, a great film based, somewhat, on the SOE programme. The DVD copy I have includes a documentary on the SOE, in fact, and is well worth watching too. It manages to base the plot/storyline around the lead’s rage and retribution narrative over her husband’s death…but it also manages to do so without falling into pastiche or ‘quirkiness’. Nor is it the first or only time women and girls have been marginalized, ‘decapitated‘, or disappeared entirely from film and related advertising.

Some more fun facts, from the Geena Davis Institute:

  • Advertisements feature twice as many male characters as female characters: The Gender Bias in Advertising study also found that 25% of ads had only men versus 5% featuring just women. Unless a quarter of all ads are about Viagra or testicle cream, something is wrong with this picture.
  • In movies, male characters received twice as much screen time and spoke twice as often compared to female characters: This was based on analyses performed by the Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient (GD-IQ) Software Tool, developed by the Geena Davis Institute and a team from the University of Southern California (led by Dr. Shri Narayanan). The GD-IQ software can scan a movie and automatically measure different characters’ screen and speaking time. Lack of a voice on the screen can lead to a lack of a voice (or at least the perception of a lack of voice) in real life.
  • Positive female role models in the media can help women become more ambitious and assertive and even help them leave abusive relationships: As described in a 2016 press release, this was based on a survey of 4,300 women in nine countries (Brazil, China, India Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Russia, Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.). Over half of respondents (58%) related that female role models inspired them to be more ambitious or assertive with one-in-nine (one-in-four in Brazil) indicating that positive female role models had given them the courage to leave an abusive relationship.
  • Many female characters have unrealistic bodies and behaviors: Unrealistic unless you are Jessica Rabbit. Four studies reviewed the appearance and presentation of women on a variety of shows, animated and live action and found lots of big chests, small waists, and generally unrealistic bodies. Such images may be good for some plastic surgeons but can’t be good for the body image, self-confidence (unless you are Jessica Rabbit), eating habits, and other behaviors of girls and women.
  • A lack of women playing leaders or characters with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) careers: An analysis of 11,927 speaking characters from movies and television showed that only a small percentage of C-suite executives (3.4%) and high-level politician characters (4.5%) in “family films” were women. And the percentages of editors-in-chiefs, investors, developers, and chief justice characters who were female? Zero (which ironically rhymes with hero). And less than one sixth (16.3%) in family films and slightly over one-fifth (21.1%) of STEM characters were women. What people see in movies and television can influence the careers they choose and acceptance of people in certain roles.

In summary, I’m really disappointed with this film, I feel short-changed by false-advertising, but more so in the media around it. Without the hackneyed push to make this a response to the ‘#MeToo’ and wider feminist crowd, this film may have been an entertaining indie twist on the ‘lone ranger’-style Western of old. A wise-cracking outsider and contender for ‘wildcard’ Oscars winner. Having watched it after all the media and the Oscars win, and considering it in light of the way it has ultimately been packaged – it falls far short for this feminist, but perhaps the failure lies more with the Oscars institution, Hollywood, and society at large.

Consider, a similar film based on a true story, told from the point of view of the ‘accuser’ – it too won an Oscar, in the 80s, compare the handling of both – which is the better, more considered response to the problem of sexual violence, harrassment and abuse in society?

STANLEY JAFFE (producer) It was a story that disturbed us all, and we wanted to tell it. It wasn’t meant to preach — but it was entertainment with a message.

I’ll end with this thought…

How different would ‘3 billboards’ have been, if it not only starred a female lead – but was also written by a woman and/or directed by a woman?

Some alternatives to watch:

BOUDICA

Joan of Arc

One could even make a case for Ulrike Meinhof in this film: The Baader Meinhof Complex

V for Vendetta

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum

Alien (Franchise)

Thelma and Louise

How about, The Brave One or The Accused?

Time’s Top 12 Female Revenge Films

BFI Women in War films list, though for these purposes I would quibble with how well they address the issues above about women’s rage and retribution.

Will this do better – Flower?

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