Courtesy of Sony Pictures

February 6, 2024

Modern Film Flaws: Feminism is Not One Size Fits All

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Feminism: Misunderstood, misused and undeniably important. Feminism is, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the “belief in and advocacy of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes expressed especially through organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.” And, despite centuries of effort, somehow the sexes are still not treated equally and feminism is still very much needed. While it may not be a revolutionary idea that sexism still exists in the world, it somehow always shocks me when the continued discrepancy between genders is publicly revealed, for instance, through films. Recent films and media have pulled this continuing sexism into the spotlight, and they have also brought attention to another issue: The misuse of feminism. Recently, people have been taking things too far, using feminism to turn beautiful concepts into things that are considered “bad” or “weak.” I think the continuation of these tropes would be incredibly dangerous for the next generation of young women.

First, let us look at the recent Barbie Oscar snub, where Greta Gerwig, who created one of the most talked about and critically acclaimed movies of the year, was left out of the Best Directors Category, and Margot Robbie, the star and a critical producer of the film, was left out of Best Actress. These snubs quickly sparked backlash, including from the nominated members of the cast. Ryan Gosling said, “No recognition would be possible for anyone on the film without their talent, grit and genius.” America Ferrera agreed, saying they both “deserve to be acknowledged for the history they made, for the ground they broke, for the beautiful artistry.” It is impossible to ignore the irony of this event. The entire point of Barbie was to show how women are underappreciated and the still overwhelming presence of the patriarchy in our society; nominating a man and not the main women of an incredibly successful women-focused film seems to be a clear example of exactly what Barbie was trying to bring attention to. 

Clearly, we still need feminism; we need to continue supporting strong women and speaking out against sexism and injustice. However, many feminists have also lost sight of some important ideas, and perhaps gone too far. In an effort to not pigeonhole our young girls, we have managed to do the exact same thing — backwards. In trying to teach them that they can be strong, independent women, we have taught them that it is bad to depend on other people, to ask for help or to fall in love. Somewhere along the road of trying to show that women can be strong and women can be leaders and women can be successful, it became “bad” for women to want certain things which have historically made women strong, such as falling in love and having children. This was seen clearly in the press for the Snow White remake. 

The outrage began when Snow White actress Rachel Zegler gave an interview with Variety about the reimagined Snow White movie. She spoke about how it’s “no longer 1937,” and that Snow White is, “not going to be saved by the prince” in the new movie. I enjoyed this part, I am all for women heroines saving themselves. However, Zegler then added that in the movie, Snow White is, “not going to be dreaming about true love.”

I do not hate Rachel Zegler. I’m sorry for the bad press she received, I understand how difficult it is to be a woman in the media. But I simply do not understand when it became bad or weak for women to want to fall in love. It should never be considered old-fashioned or out-of-date for a woman to dream about true love. Love is natural, love is biology and love is, in our present day, a choice. We can choose if love is a part of our dreams; we can choose if having children is going to be part of our journey. And if women choose those things, they should never be made to feel weak. Giving birth is a ridiculously difficult labor, and raising children is just as hard. It is this action which has always made women undeniably strong. Whatever each woman decides, she should never be made to feel bad about her choices. 

This was perfectly stated by another Disney princess actress, Elle Fanning. Fanning starred as Aurora in the Disney film Maleficent and its sequel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. When speaking about Aurora in an interview, Fanning stated, “Aurora is a very romantic princess — she dreams of being married and becoming a mother — and there’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t make a woman less strong because she wants that. I think that’s actually a very modern take.” 

While it may seem foolish to try and explain a serious social concept through Disney films and the media around them, this is exactly what film is all about. Films are supposed to have a message, many are meant to be a critique of society. Even films often considered to have foolish or childish messages can have incredibly important themes and are often overlooked. Fanning explained this well, saying, “What’s so beautiful is that these Disney films have such strong messages…we’re not talking down to children, which is important. The youth of today have a very strong voice and can make so much change. Our film is set in this fantastical world, and it is a fairy tale, but it’s very much grounded in the reality of serious issues going on today — like strength in diversity, the dangers of trying to separate people who are different, respect for the environment… Fairy tales are a great device to tell a bigger story.” 

So let us continue to use Disney films to see the bigger picture. Take for instance the reimagined The Little Mermaid. We are not talking here about the outrageous backlash about a black actress playing the mermaid, but instead about how the film handled the new version of this classic story. In the new film, Ariel does indeed save herself. Instead of Eric being the one to turn the ship’s wheel and thrust its point into Ursula, saving the day, Ariel does the deed herself. Amazing — she got herself into the mess, and she got herself out of it. But never once in The Little Mermaid is it implied that it is bad for Ariel to be in love; instead, the love between Ariel and Eric is further developed than it was originally. The new movie shows them bonding over their shared curiosities, enjoying sweet moments learning together and, yes, falling in love. They help each other in the film, and their love makes them stronger. 

It is dangerous to forget or ignore the past. Many public figures, such as Keira Knightly, are banning their daughters from watching old Disney films. However, I do not think that we should do away with the old films, where the women were often damsels in distress, waiting for the men to awake them from their slumber or kill the wicked sea witch. Films reflect the time period in which they are made. These movies display how women were seen in times such as the 1930s, when Snow White was released, or 1950s, when Cinderella first came to screens.  It is important to see how far we have come — feminism and social pressure have gotten us to the point where women are proudly saving themselves. It is also important to remember the Disney films from decades ago, which already understood this message. Take for instance, Mary Poppins, released in 1964, where Mrs. Banks sings about sister suffragettes and women’s rights to vote, while also loving her husband. Or Mulan, from 1998, where Mulan is very much the hero, and also falls in love. The main theme of Disney movies is not — and perhaps never has been — that women need to be rescued. The reason that these movies are universally beloved is because the main theme is always love. Yes, we needed to change a lot of those damaging themes going forward, but we also did damage when we made love something wrong, instead of beautiful. 

Let us look now at another famous Greta Gerwig film: Little Women. In the film, the protagonists, the March sisters, have big dreams: Jo dreams of being a famous author and Amy of being a famous painter in Paris. However, every door is shut to them, and these strong women are told throughout the film that they can never support their family themselves and that they should marry a rich man instead. Jo has an impassioned monologue about this towards the end of the film, saying, “women have minds and souls as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition and talent as well as just beauty. And I’m sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for.” These lines are some of the best ever written — showcasing the duality of women — being smart and strong while also being loving and beautiful. Because some women do dream of love, for instance, Jo’s older sister, Meg. When Meg is about to be married, Jo begs her to run away. She pleads with Meg, saying, “you will be bored of him in two years and we will be interesting forever.” Meg replies with an incredibly important line saying, “just because my dreams are different from yours, it doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.” Meg is completely right — dreaming of a family and dreaming of a career can be held together or separately. They are both equally as important.

It is time to once again change the narrative. We have come so far, but we need to reevaluate. We have to find a way to show young girls that they can be strong, independent leaders and career women all while falling in love, being in relationships and having children. 

Of course, this will be a difficult balance to manage. As America Ferrera highlighted in her powerful Barbie movie monologue, “It is literally impossible to be a woman…You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman but also always be looking out for other people…You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line…” I do not know exactly how we will find this balance, but I know that we need more stories like Little Women and Barbie and The Little Mermaid and all the others. We need stories about strong, powerful women, who normalize choosing to fall in love and following their aspirations. We need to teach our girls that they can truly do anything, including falling in love. 

Jenna Ledley is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].