fredag 14 november 2014

Robin's Favorites: Girl, Interrupted (1999) as a Feminist Film

What is a "feminist film"? One interpretation of the concept could be that a film made with conscious feminist effort or ideology in mind is a feminist film. You could also say that any film that is empowering to women or exposes and criticizes cultural misogyny, regardless of the filmmakers' intentions, is feminist. The problem is, of course, that concepts such as "female empowerment" and "cultural criticism" are not easily defined, and as ideology, feminism often allows critics to highlight problematic aspects of otherwise praised characters and narratives. While, for example, Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) in Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) and Aliens (James Cameron, 1986) is often held up as one of the strongest female protagonists in science fiction, you could argue that because she isn't very feminine (the character was originally created as male), the films do not actually challenge the idea that femininity is a negative character trait in a hero. Additionally, the films do not feature many other female characters.

In this analytical review, I will discuss why Girl, Interrupted (James Mangold, 1999) is one of my favorite films and attempt to show why I consider it to be a great example of a feminist film. I will try to avoid spoiling the film for those who have not yet seen it.

The film is a drama based on Susanna Kaysen's eponymous memoir, chronicling her stay at a mental institution, and stars Winona Ryder as Susanna. Supporting actors include Angelina Jolie (who received an Academy Award for her performance), Brittany Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg and Jared Leto. The film is set in the late 1960s.

After an alleged suicide attempt, 18-year old Susanna is urged by her parents to commit herself to Claymoore Psychiatric Hospital. She is greeted by Nurse Valerie (Goldberg) and introduced to other patients, like her pathological liar roommate Georgina (Clea DuVall), the burnt and childlike Polly (Elizabeth Moss), the bulimic Daisy suffering from OCD (Murphy) and, later, the rebellious sociopath Lisa (Jolie). Susanna is very intelligent and wants to be a writer, but suffers from depression and experiences flashbacks to earlier events in her life. The films uses these flashbacks to convey Susanna's back story and it is revealed that she was the only one in her graduating class not going off to college, has an ex-boyfriend (Leto) who is afraid to get drafted, and had a one night stand with an older, married family friend. During her stay, Susanna uses a notebook to write down her thoughts and feelings about the institution, other patients and herself.

The main theme of the film is the nature of mental illness. As she befriends Lisa, Susanna begins to consider that the medical staff at Claymoore is in fact clueless about mental illness and that therapy is a waste of time as she does not consider herself crazy. As it turns out, viewing psychiatry only as an oppressive system that is more concerned with conformity than actual sanity is not a productive approach to her situation. As further discussion would require a more detailed synopsis of the film, I will now leave this issue and focus on the film as a feminist work.

While I think it is more meaningful to discuss the film as a whole, there are a few scenes with very explicit feminist commentary. In a flashback, Susanna is explaining why she isn't planning on attending college, expressing her worries about becoming a housewife like her mother, to her guidance counselor. The counselor assures her that "women today have more options", to which Susanna responds "No they don't". She is suggesting that while women have the opportunity to get an advanced education, they are still expected to marry and start a family. In another scene, she qustions being labeled "promiscuious" and asks how much casual sex a man is allowed to have before receiving the same label. This double standard, that promiscuious men and women are referred to as "studs" and "sluts" respectively, is a much discussed feminist topic.

Despite these statements, Susanna is not portrayed as a "straw feminist". She explicitly tells her guidance counselor that she is not planning on "burning [her] bra, or march on Washington"; she just wants to write, which she can do without going to college. In other words, she wants to lead her life the way she wants, as opposed to the way society dictates, whether it is being a homemaker or going to college.

However, the main reason that I consider Girl, Interrupted a great feminist film is not because of the basic feminism of Susanna's character, but rather because the film does something that is rarely seen in Hollywood; it shows female characters being characters in themselves instead of in relation to male characters. While some supporting characters are mainly characterized by their illness or profession, the leading females are definitely characters in their own right. In fact, the male characters are often defined by their relationships to our leading ladies.

I don't consider turning-the-tables progressive in itself, but this film does it so well. It does not hit us over the head with its female-heavy story; in fact, I'm fairly certain the filmmakers weren't trying to make a feminist film. They wanted to tell the story of Susanna Kaysen, but as a Hollywood drama, with the associated conventions of the medium and genre. They did however omit the cliche of the Hollywood love interest, because it didn't make sense. There are two men in the film with romantic feelings for Susanna, but she does not feel the same way; she is simply not interested. While you could argue that she doesn't want a man because she is afraid of becoming domesticated, I think the stronger feminist message is that she doesn't need one. At the hospital, her focus is on getting better and therefore her love is reserved for some staff members and other inmates, her surrogate family. It would have been easy to create drama by giving her a "secret love" or another kind of romantic interest, which would come between her and her friends. But it would have been unnecessary. They did the right thing by simply showing the drama of being institutionalized; good characters don't need love interests. As a male, I cannot definitely say that the film is empowering for women, only that it very well could be.

It is hard to discuss feminism and film without mentioning the Bechdel test. Created by Alison Bechdel, the test checks for the inclusion of female characters based on three criteria: to pass the test, a film has to have at least (I) two named female characters, that (II) have a conversation about (III) something other than a man. While it seems very simple to pass, many Hollywood films do not, and this seems very strange. It does not say anything about whether a film is feminist or not, as a film could pass the test with a single scene in which two women introduce themselves to one another and talk about shoes; it simply checks if female characters are given any screen time without men. Needless to say, Girl, Interruped passes with flying colors.

I simply love this film; from its take on mental illness to the strong leading ladies and their relationships to one another. It also serves up a wide array of emotions; it has dark, tragic and disturbing scenes that contrast well with funny and heart-warming ones. After watching it, I always think: "maybe ending up in a mental institution wouldn't be too bad?" Also, "Downtown" by Petula Clark will be permanently stuck in your head after watching.

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