POSTED April 1 2012

Against Gendered Culture

Why are books and movies tagged pink or blue, like babies in a 1950s nursery?

“Equality is to sexual politics what the classless society is to Marxist theory: The hypothesis that solves the problem,” observed Phyllis Rose in Parallel Lives, her perceptive study of five Victorian marriages. In other words, gender parity was and is an elusive ideal.

How do we achieve that ideal when movies and books are tagged with blue or pink ribbons, like newborns in a 1950s nursery? How do we achieve it when the movies and books with the blue ribbons are greeted as “important” or “literary” and the ones with the pink posters and covers signal “fluff,” even when they are about the same issues?

Meg Wolitzer, the gifted novelist of This is Your Life and The Position, wrestles with these questions  in today’s New York Times Book Review. Her piece comes on the heels of the 2012 VIDA Report tracking the lopsided coverage male and female writers in magazines. (The VIDA Report was released a month after the Celluloid Ceiling figures that the percentage of women directors — five percent — had dipped to the lowest level in 13 years.) Wolitzer discusses the semiotics of book covers, how books written by men have bolder typefaces and universal symbols:  the wedding ring on the cover of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot is not attached to a female hand as it might be if it were written by a female author. By telegraphing with images of stiletto heels and pink lipstick that “this is girls’ stuff,” marketing departments bear some of the responsibility for gendered culture. But not all of it.

Is it a paradox that literature and movies by women are devalued at a time when the most profitable franchises in bookstores and at the multiplex are by women? J.K. Rowling created Harry Potter, Stephenie Meyer Twilight and Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games. When it comes to Young Adult fiction and movies, women get taken seriously. (Director Catherine Hardwicke established the Twilight franchise onscreen, the rare female filmmaker entrusted with the job.) Gone With the Wind, the most successful movie in Hollywood history, was based on publishing’s most successful young-adult novel — written by Margaret Mitchell. Something must happen when female authors deal with grownups. Because when it comes to adult commercial fiction and literature, women are marginalized in the pink ghetto.

It’s a popular belief that men won’t read a book or see a movie with a woman at the center because men can’t counteridentify with women and women can counteridentify  with men. If this is true, then women have authorial and empathic assets that men lack. Shouldn’t that make them better candidates for the gigs of authors and movie directors?




  1. It’s hard to say. I really have no feel for the state of fiction, so I can’t comment there, but as to female film directors that always has seemed to be a problem. However, it seems to me that I notice women directing a lot more dramas on television and I don’t know if that’s a product of it being easier to break into the field there or that feeling I get that more and more talents of both genders choose to go to television because they’ve got a better shot, particularly on cable, to work on quality programs than they would have making quality films in the be-safe-at-all-costs studio system who think a good idea is basing movies off board games.

    One other factor that I’ve been beating my chest against for decades is the ridiculous labeling of movies as “chick flicks” or “guy flicks.” They don’t exist. There are good movies, bad movies and those that fall in between. The labels actually do a disservice to both the movies in question as well as the genders. I think Terms of Endearment is a great movie, but people would want to label it a chick flick. I think Beaches sucks, but that must be because I’m a man. I love Die Hard and I know plenty of women who do as well, but Die Hard 2 was terrible. Labeling films as chick flicks or guy flicks assumes that all women and all men come with a monolithic mindset and must automatically like films with those labels purely by virtue of their genitalia. When I reviewed Beaches eons ago, a woman said I didn’t like it because it was a “chick flick” as if she needed to apologize for the fact it had problems as if were a special needs child who needed to get extra points because it started with a disadvantage. Same goes for “guy flicks” that I don’t automatically like. It’s also struck me as funny that the majority of these so-called chick flicks, both good and bad, tended to be written and directed by men.

  2. admin says:

    @Edward: The percentage of female directors is higher in television (and many female feature filmmakers such as Allison Anders, Darnell Martin and Susan Seidelman direct episodic TV), but shamefully it’s below 20 per cent.

  3. I really like your lead-off sentence. Unfortunately, not surprisingly, this is too big a problem to tackle, let alone solve, in a short essay and very few people wish to read long essays. However, like other, somewhat similar situations I grew up with involving race, perception of homosexuals, etc., I’ve seen change and improvement during my lifetime — frankly breathtaking change. Based on my professional experience, if you want to identify a single, most important culprit, I’d choose studio marketing departments, supported by the biases of the corporate senior executives they report to. However, to try to be “fair” to them, moviemaking is very expensive and very risky and the goal is to make as much money as quickly and profitably as possible and to try to avoid losing your shirt on projects, which is always very challenging. So when obvious (and cheap) answers present themselves (I knew one femaie senior marketing executive who was one of the toughest, most corrosive, least obviously girly individuals ever, whose solution to any problem was to add pink to the artwork), especially ones that are likely to find support in the uppermost corporate suites, they take it. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Toujours. Curtis

  4. One more thing. I sincerely wish the term “gender,” which has gotten a real workout over the last twenty years or so, would retire for the next twenty. Curtis

  5. […] Meg Wolitzer “On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women” And – Carrie Rickey Responds By Saying Women Ought To Be Hired To Direct More […]

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