Girls can be just as ‘dumb and stupid’ as boys, so why can’t they be minions?

First published by The Independent, 16th July 2015

The minions are taking over. Advertisements for the upcoming film are plastered across the side of every bus in Manchester. Minion merchandise is rampant. There are minion make-up tutorials on YouTube. I was even in a tattoo parlour and a man came in to ask the artist working on me if he could have one of the diminutive yellow creatures inked on his wrist.

The new film is set to pull in more than $100 million over its opening weekend, which means that a whole lot of people are going to see it. Roughly half of them will be female. However, all the title characters in Minions are male and voiced by male actors.

Pierre Coffin, the French animator who created the minions and co-directed the new film with Kyle Balda, told The Wrap that “seeing how dumb and stupid they often are, I just couldn’t imagine Minions being girls”.

To me, this sounds like another poor Hollywood excuse for excluding women, disguised as a compliment. Girls are just as likely to be “dumb and stupid” as boys, so that reasoning doesn’t exactly ring true. Coffin has essentially taken a bunch of jobs away from female voice actors and been insulting about boys in the same breath.

I think the reason so many children (and adults) have fallen in love with the little yellow henchmen is that they’re silly and childlike and joyful. They’re always getting into slapstick scrapes, and giggling and jabbering excitedly. None of these characteristics or actions are inherently male or female. The minions didn’t really need to be assigned a gender at all, and if they were to be gendered, there’s no reason why there couldn’t be as many female minions as male ones.

It might seem trivial to write about the gender of made-up yellow characters, but pop culture – in all its guises – reveals a lot about society. Stereotyped or non-existent portrayals of women reinforce to female viewers that they are the “other” in a world where men function as “standard”.

The minions are essentially children, and children can and do play in natural groups without being separated along gender lines. Children have no inbuilt gender prejudices. They have no natural prejudices at all. It’s a shame that the legions of little girls who will flock with their parents and grandparents and siblings to watch Minions on July 26 won’t see themselves reflected in a single bouncing yellow being.

One thing’s for certain; Minions certainly won’t be passing the Bechdel Test.

 

‘Carrie’ is back in cinemas today. But horror is still being let down by films that hate women

Innovative horror is meant to push boundaries. Too much falls back on misogyny.

First published in The Independent Voices 29th November 2013

I love horror. I love the jumps, the winces, the rush of adrenaline that accompanies a satisfying scare. There are lots of laudable things about the genre that are often overlooked, such as its ability to explore social fears in a way that other types of film do not. What happens when the good guys don’t win or when the rule of law is subverted or made irrelevant? What happens when the familiar (the home, our children, our partners) becomes unfamiliar or invaded by outside forces (hauntings, home invasions, possessions, abductions, psychosis)? Good, innovative horror is meant to push boundaries and challenge audiences, to shake them out of cinematic torpor and force them to really think. A horror film can allow a build-up and release of extreme emotion that will be cathartically left behind when one exits the cinema.

As Kimberly Pierce’s remake of the Stephen King classic Carrie opens in the UK today, I find myself wondering why horror claims so few female directors and so few films with female villains. The ABCs of Death 2 launched a competition in August, searching for the 26th director to be included in their feature length collaboration. According to badassdigest.com only seven of the 78 entries to date have been from female filmmakers. The Carrie remake is both directed by a woman and populated largely by female characters with varied motivations and personalities, none of whom represent the standard Final Girl seen in male-directed, big budget slasher flicks.However, there is a subcategory within horror that substantiates uncomfortable claims of misogyny within the genre.  This is a strand of horror that seems to really hate women. It revolves solely around the rape and torture of female characters, with little in the way of plot, script, or motive. Examples of this include The Bunny Game (2012, Adam Rehmeier) where a prostitute is tortured and sexually abused for a grim 76 minutes, Murder Set Pieces (2004, Nick Palumbo) that shows ‘The Photographer’ hacking his way through a collection of prostitutes, Scrapbook (2000, Eric Stanze) that involves the kidnap, repeated rape and torture of a young woman and August Underground (2001, Fred Vogel) that opens with a nude, bound women who has had her nipple cut off and proceeds to endure having her face smeared with human excrement before she is killed. I’m also going to add Lucifer Valentine’s Slaughtered Vomit Dolls (2006) to this list because, puking fetish awfulness aside, all the women are naked, all the women are prostitutes, and all but one of them (she is required to star in the equally repellent sequels) are murdered by a male character.

My point here is not that rape and torture have no place on celluloid or that their inclusion in a film cannot make a legitimate artistic or political statement. Rather, that the films detailed above and those like them, are not saying anything. They seem to merely represent a plotless, pointless mass of ugly misogyny that does nothing to challenge its own sheer unpleasantness. (I guess a plotline or some non-victimised female characters would be too much to ask for.)

The Bunny Game is banned from being legally distributed in the UK and the BBFC states that “the lack of explanation of the events depicted, and the stylistic treatment, may encourage some viewers to enjoy and share in the man’s callousness”. It is this indolent lack of explanation and absence of motive that makes me certain that this subgenre of material presents sexual degradation and torture for its own sake.  The only questions I came away with post-viewing were regarding who the hell the target audience was supposed to be, and where I could find some strong soap to wash my eyes with. Far be it from me to use the phrase ‘artistically worthless’, but the boot certainly seems to fit.
More disturbingly, there are virtually no examples of gender reversal within this subgenre. Female killers are simply not as common as their male counterparts and when they do exist, they seem to at least have some kind of motive or backstory behind them, for example Misery’s Annie Wilkes. Even within the rape/revenge category, when the revenge bit occurs and the female protagonist regains agency by torturing and killing those who have wronged her, it is because of her victim status for the first 50/60 minutes of film. It is not random. Moreover, sexual violence in horror films is rarely perpetrated by female characters but no other genre seems to toss around scenes of violent rape enacted on female bodies so frequently.

Horror is being let down by these unpleasant fringe elements, by films that are at best sloppy, poorly written and unimaginative, and at worst, revel in violence against female bodies like pigs in shit. I’d like to see more female directors being successful in horror and for fans of indie horror to take a stand, through their choices of purchases and downloads, against films that lightly and lazily portray female degradation and powerlessness, in the wake of male violence. They are not welcome. They give the genre a bad name.

My favourite horror films, directed by women:

American Mary (Jen and Sylvia Soska, 2012) – A struggling medical student decides to eschew her course in favour of performing extreme body modifications and niche surgeries. Lashings of gross-out moments and asks some important questions about self-expression, femininity and the status of medical professionals.
Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001) – Cannibalism, desire and obsession. Part of the New French Extremity movement, which boasts some of the cleverest and bloodiest titles in modern horror.
In My Skin (Marina de Van, 2002) – After suffering a disfiguring accident, a woman becomes obsessed with mutilating her own body. Another New French Extremity film, exploring the disassociation women often feel towards their own physicality.
American Pyscho (Mary Harron, 2000) – If you haven’t already seen this adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis’ horrifying masterpiece, I suggest you do so, and fast! Shallowness, narcissism, pop-culture and murderous rampages all come together in this biting 21st century satire.

Aesthetica short film festival to turn York’s historic spaces into cinemas

Film festivals may take place all over the UK, but not many are able to engage quite so seamlessly with the natural surroundings as the Aesthetica short film festival in York.

First published in The Guardian 9th October 2013

Film festivals may take place all over the UK, but not many are able to engage quite so seamlessly with the natural surroundings as the Aesthetica short film festival in York.

The festival’s 15 unexpected screening sites have been chosen to allow filmgoers to experience the rich, medieval history of York while taking in the best of contemporary short film.
Cherie Federico, Aestheica’s director, says the festival is a chance to “turn a city into a cinema”. Locations include the medieval King’s Manor buildings, which was the seat of government for Tudors and Stuarts and is now home to the University of York’s archaeology department.
Thirteen Thirty One, a quirky gastro-pub in York’s Latin Quarter, has its own cinema, complete with reclining seats and table service, and is also one of the venues.
Aesthetica is tapping into the market of film buffs who want more than the standard Cineworld or Odeon experience. Innovative new ways to screen films are becoming increasingly popular, demonstrated by Secret Cinema events and the pop-up Hot Tub Cinema projects.
Federico says the decision to allow screenings to cover all corners of York “gives festival-goers the opportunity to experience some of the best independent film while discovering the distinct and rich setting”.
  
There are 300 short films from 30 different countries, all of which are being shown on each day of the festival, so ticket holders have the chance to see as much as they can. Weekend tickets are priced at £30, but there are other options available from www.asff.co.uk.
There will also be a wealth of networking opportunities, with representatives from Channel 4, Film 4 and Bafta. Networking events are priced at £7 and masterclasses with industry talents including Alice Lowe, Cowboy Films and Raindance’s Chris Thomas are £8.50.

Harriet’s film picks

Victor Orozco Ramirez’s Reality 2.0, an animated documentary about drug-related violence in Mexico.
Jassim Al Nofaly’s Panda, a drama from Kuwait following a young man on the eve of his wedding.
Muriel d’Ansemboug’s Good Night, a coming-of-age short featuring two 14-year-old girls who want to explore their newly discovered sexuality while out on the town.
Eamonn O’Neill’s I’m Fine Thanks, an animated tale of a young man struggling with the inadequacies present in his daily life.

 

Why are French Horror Films so Good?

Out of the seething mass of horror films I have both endured and absorbed over the last four years, it is the French titles that stand out most in my mind. They refuse to be ignored. They are visceral, shocking and innovative and they stay with me long after the final credits are over.

First published in The Huffington Post 30th April 2013

Out of the seething mass of horror films I have both endured and absorbed over the last four years, it is the French titles that stand out most in my mind. They refuse to be ignored. They are visceral, shocking and innovative and they stay with me long after the final credits are over.

This is not to suggest that other countries don’t make excellent horror films or that there are no poor French horror flicks in circulation, but that the French have hit on something that makes their offering so unlike the lazy and repetitive gore of standard horror fare. The best examples of the New French Extremity movement in horror are Haute Tension (2003, dir. Alexandre Aja), Inside (2007, dir. Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo) and Martyrs (2008, dir. Pascal Laugier).All three films come with my recommendation, but perhaps not on a night when you’re feeling a bit emotionally fragile or are in need of a pleasant ending. The New French Extremity movement is associated with a diverse group of directors who represent a reworking of the horror genre, infusing transgressive content (sexual decadence, psychosis and eye-watering violence) with social and political themes. Academic Tim Palmer describes the New French Extremity movement as offering incisive social critiques, and “portraying contemporary society as isolating, unpredictably horrific and threatening”.

Disappointing performances and indolent stereotyping do not occur in these films. They seem to grab the viewer by the throat whilst still retaining a kind of artistry rarely seen in the horror genre. The aforementioned three films, while bloody enough to satisfy fans of exploitation horror, don’t excite a level of bland disgust in the way that something like The Human Centipede: Full Sequence (2011, dir. Tom Six) does. I wanted to scrub my eyes with bleach after seeing Mr Six’s latest film, as it provided little in the way or plot or script, lacked both tension and basic innovation, and was not even partially redeemed by the censor-driven move to monochrome.

In contrast, the originality of Martyrs forces the viewer to consider the purpose of pain and the transcendence of it, from within a cocoon of emotional rawness and liberal sprayings of blood. The film defies genre pigeon-holing as the storyline continually jackknifes back upon itself, leaving the audience vulnerable and disorientated, much like Lucie and Anna in the ugly world of manufactured martyrdom. Inside provides the most genuinely frightening and unrelenting take on the home-invasion subgenre I’ve seen to date and exploits a very human terror of childbirth and the changes that occur to the body during pregnancy, most famously exposed in Rosemary’s Baby (1968, dir. Roman Polanski). Every shot is beautifully constructed, great attention is paid to detail, seen in the patterns of blood spatter that characterize the bathroom scenes and directorial focus on the female body and point of view at no point descends into tits and arse voyeurism or dull helplessness.

These French productions are also particularly valuable because they are not afraid to address the socio-political origins of our fears, to raise fundamental questions and to prompt real ‘body responses’ during viewing. Threatened pregnancy, psychological displacement and the torture of young women are not new concepts within horror, but they are presented in such a way that emotional distance or disinterest is hardly possible. Horror films should not exclude creativity and beauty as characteristics in their pursuit of the cold sweat of an audience. Martyrs, Haute Tension and Inside embrace these qualities and it very much pays off.

The British and American horror markets could be refreshed by a move away from lazy characterization and unfocussed plot and scripting, because providing an audience with 90 minutes of banal blonde in bloodbath (usually with a lot of screaming and a masked killer) insults the intelligence. Directors Laugier, Aja, Maury and Bustillo appear to have hit upon a winning formula, keeping it graphic, bloody, tense, well-constructed and pretty damn clever.