Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Tuesday Talkback - Christopher Nolan's treatment of women

While talking about the Christopher Nolan Batman films last night on Twitter, I ended up in a long debate with a reader who asserted that "Nolan's treatment of women bothers me... just look at both Batfilms and Inception.  The women are useless devices and not characters."  This set off a long back-and-forth, during which I kept asserting that I thought Rachel was a fleshed-out character, and he asserted that she was only a plot device.

He also pointed out that she was the only [major] female character in two Bat-movies, which he equated to being a token character.  My feeling on this is that it would have been an even greater example of tokenism to make Lucius Fox or Alfred into a woman just for the sake of meeting some kind of quota.

It was also argued that Nolan "chose to write a story"  But I return to the point that Nolan's films are always incredibly focused, and like any writer, he clearly starts with the core conflict and themes and works outward from there.  In just about ALL of his films, the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist is what drives the plot.  That doesn't mean that the other characters aren't fleshed out or that they don't have significant parts to play, but they're always in concert with the larger machine of the story.

In a Nolan film, no one is there JUST for the sake of being there.  As it should be, they always have a vital service to the story, the themes or the characters.  I point this out because if you reduce Rachel's part in the story to just a plot device, then don't Alfred, Gordon and Lucius all pretty much also fall under that category?  They don't drive the story, but surely all four of those characters are fleshed out to the point where they are more than a simple plot device.

In Insomnia, the driving core is homicide cop vs. serial killer.  In The Prestige, it's two rival magicians against each other.  Batman Begins: Batman v. Ra's Al Guhl/Scarecrow/Mob.  In The Dark Knight, it's the Batman/Joker/Harvey triangle that defines the story.  In Inception, I might argue that the DiCaprio character's most important relationship is that one with his dead wife, for it's that dynamic that gives the rest of the film its emotional resonance.

It was suggested that Nolan could have brought in characters like Harley Quinn or Oracle, but I don't see what they would add to the story that he was telling about Batman's relationship to Gotham.  Nolan's Joker didn't NEED a sidekick, so he doesn't have one, nor does his Batman need an Oracle on-call to do all his detective work for him.  (Bringing in some version of Oracle might have actually undercut the story, for she might well have rendered Batman's security system obsolete.)

So what do all of you have to say about this?  Do you take issue with Nolan's treatment of women?  Or is it just a case of this being where the story has gone.  (And let's not forget that most of Nolan's works are adaptations in one form or another.)

Before we continue, I want to lay this down - as much as it's popular to whip out the Bechdel Test, I ain't having that here.  I don't subscribe to the premise that a movie is inherently bad simply because it fails the Bechdel Test. 

After all, would any of these films have been better if they DID pass the Bechdel Test? And TVTropes does a good job of addressing how this test can be misunderstood.  I also came across this article about The Problem with the Bechdel Test.

Let's talk about context - not checklists.  It would be great if we could stick to the topic of Christopher Nolan and not turn this into a discussion about the portrayal of women in Hollywood films in general. 

Believe me, I've read plenty of incredibly sexist scripts and seen plenty of sexist films - but I don't see Nolan's films as falling into that category at all.


  1. Since the Batman films are obviously about Bruce Wayne you simply aren't going to have a woman being the central character and thus open yourself up to a lack of significant female presence.

    Though with Batman Begins I'd argue that Rachel is a very important character. She has a big hand in Bruce becoming Batman. It's after her lecture to him about justice and Bruce's father that he runs off and takes his first step towards becoming Batman. I guess technically you can call that a plot device. But like you said, if that's the case then every person but Bruce is a similar plot device.

    Rachel is less of an important character in TDK in terms of developing Bruce. And technically she does serve to move certain plot points along. But her character is able to do so because she is established as someone who has a very strong moral center that attracts the likes of men who have the same attribute. It's not like she is one of the models Bruce comes out of his helicopter with.

    And I'm sure Selina Kyle will have a significant role in TDKR, which is even more likely having seen the newest trailer, which is incredible. So aside from the fact that Batman is going to lack at least some female presence simply because it's a story about a man, I don't really buy that Nolan doesn't do well with women in his Batman movies. As for the rest of his movies, I'm not sure.

  2. I'm a big fan of both Nolans, going all the way back to MEMENTO (which had a major female character -- a femme fatale!). I religiously watch PERSON OF INTEREST, and was knocked out by INCEPTION.

    That said, I would characterize Nolan's male-centric dramatis personae as a deficiency rather than a huge flaw, even in PC terms. There is a growing need for credible female protags beyond the ninja eye candy that seems to be the staple these days, but if you're looking to the Nolans to fill that need, you're probably looking in the wrong place.

    In script writing, we have to play to our strengths, because the writers whose strengths lie in the areas we're deficient in, are legion. If a writer feels the need to bulk up his or her weak areas, he or she is welcome to try. But it would probably be better simply to do what the studios do, and hire someone for rewrites to cover the weak points. Eg, if there's a need for credible female characters in a Nolan script, it should probably be written in by someone else.

    This is why I think Nolan, for all his accomplishments, is part of a ruling screenwriter triumvirate in Hollywood, and not the King. Among other things, Tarantino and Kaufman just write better women characters than he does....

  3. I've never seen Nolan as sexist, or otherwise lacking for having fewer strong female roles than some would seem to like. I agree that too many writers have token characters as it is - the token black, the 'strong' woman etc. its fake and I don't think intelligent members of the audience are checking them off approvingly. Nolan seems to have women close to the central male character in many of his films, that add an emotive component to the script, and really they probably fulfill the same role there as real life women do in many mens lives.

  4. Interestingly, I work in an office near my home - and don't really see many people on the walk there and back. Thinking over this week (average) I talk to about 20 men each day, and 2 women. All of them are Caucasian except for one Japanese guy. I probably only see a black person when I'm out every couple of weekends. I probably need a new script writer too?

  5. Thank you for bringing this up! Nolan definitely follows The Smurfette Principle and it is very frustrating to watch, especially since I'm a fan of his work otherwise.

    "My feeling on this is that it would have been an even greater example of tokenism to make Lucius Fox or Alfred into a woman just for the sake of meeting some kind of quota."

    It sounds like you're saying that all characters should be male by default and only be female if there is a very compelling reason to have a woman in the story. This is the rule that Hollywood follows. Even small characters like the postal worker who has one line are almost always male.

    People have been criticizing The Smurfette Principle for a while, and so many respond by falling over themselves trying to make excuses for each story. It would be fine if one story was mostly men, but when it becomes a rule, there is a definite problem. Batman has a pre-existing universe, but there is no reason at all why Inception needs to have only one woman in a team of six. Mal was as much of a device as you could get. She was literally a part of Cobb's mind.

    "Believe me, I've read plenty of incredibly sexist scripts and seen plenty of sexist films - but I don't see Nolan's films as falling into that category at all. "

    There are a lot of movies that are far more sexist than Nolan's films, but that doesn't let Nolan off the hook.

  6. "It sounds like you're saying that all characters should be male by default and only be female if there is a very compelling reason to have a woman in the story."

    That's not what I said at all. First, those characters are already established as male in the source medium.

    But my larger point was this: would making either of those characters female have solved the issue the other individual was complaining about?

    If so, I see two problems with my opponent's underlying statement:
    1) Rachel is no less defined than either of those characters. Thus, making Alfred a woman would only solve the problem if ALL a person cares about is a female headcount.

    2)If making Alfred a woman DOESN'T solve the problem for the very reason I just pointed out, then doesn't it pretty much prove that having major characters defined only by their relation to Bruce isn't a gender-specific issue? Thus, the attacks of sexism levied at Nolan are bull because the issue ISN'T limited only to women.

    You can play the same game by taking any of the other males in INCEPTION and making them women.

  7. I think two issues are getting intermingled.

    Issue #1: Male characters greatly outnumber female characters at all levels from the hero to the walk-on with one line. A headcount issue, as you call it.

    Issue #2: When female characters do show up, they are rarely fleshed out characters with stories of their own.

    Making Alfred female would solve Issue #1. Plenty of the cops, criminals, hospital staff and crime victims could also have been female, but they were nearly all male.

    It may be the case that solving Issue #1 would automatically solve Issue #2. It's hard to tell whether Nolan writes strong female characters when we have such a small data sample. More female characters overall would probably lead to more strong female characters.

    In any case, thank you for talking about this. It makes me happy that someone so influential in the industry is looking into the issue.

    Also, sorry if I'm being antagonistic by only commenting on this post! I usually read your posts and just nod at the sage advice. I don't comment on all those great posts because I don't feel I have anything to add to them.

  8. Ramirez, one of the turncoat cops is female. The judge, someone in a position of power is female. So to answer your question, no.

  9. I think the issue getting lost here (hi, I'm the "complaining individual" Bitter was referencing :) is that I don't think Nolan's films, as they are, should simply have genders changed on characters or women (or men!) shoehorned in where they don't fit.

    My issues is that every step along the way, Nolan makes choices about the story he wants to tell and how he's going to tell it. Talking about the source material is a cop-out (he's shown he's more than willing to change it anytime he wants), comparing it to a guy who only interacts with 20 men and 2 women every day is fallacy (random life is not pre-meditated storytelling). Women are MORE than half the population by the last census, and yet they are continually a VAST minority in all forms of media in this country. Not just from one off roles, but from major roles. And even when they DO show up, how many of them are defined by the men around them? You might think that a silly thing to ask until you turn the question around and ask how many men in our media are defined by the women around them. Rachel, be she device or character, is "Bruce's friend". Bruce is not "Rachel's friend", he's Bruce. You see what I mean?

    So the issue is that, over the course of six films (Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception) NO woman has existed outside of her relationship to the male lead, and many of them are outright plot devices and not characters in their own right.

    Maybe the source material was like that. But he CHOSE that source material, did he not? And CHOSE not to balance it, even though he's clearly fine doing his own version of pre-existing material as the Batman films have shown.

    I do not believe it is malicious. I don't necessarily believe it's even conscious. But it's a clear pattern of "the men are the characters, the men have the stories" and the women are afterthoughts who only relate to and revolve around the men.

    Having that in one or two or even half of his movies wouldn't be a big deal, because sometimes, yes, that's justified in story. But when you have six films in a row where that exact thing keeps happening, it's a pattern you pick up on.

    Yes, some men only exist to revolve around the lead too, like Lucius and Alfred. But they are not the ONLY men in the story. Some characters like that are fine, but when all of one type of person gets the same character, it's a noticeable issue.

    I am sincerely hoping Selina breaks the mold, but I'm also worried he's going to turn her into yet another woman who can't exist without a lead male to orbit. Selina is independent and smart and capable and fascinating in her own right. If she becomes just another Bat-moon, I'll be terribly disappointed.

    Nolan's also producing the Superman reboot, and if he does that to Lois Lane I may never be able to forgive him.

    It's just one of those things that happens a lot in Hollywood, and talking about it is the only way it's ever going to change. So thanks for discussing it with me on Twitter, and thanks for posting it here and opening up discussion on the topic.

  10. I kind of feel like Jeremy's comment hit the nail on the head -- that maybe there are a good many men out there who think that Nolan's portrayals actually ARE how real women function within society, and that more character work isn't needed.

    The women in Nolan's films behave in perfectly predictable and realistic ways -- through the lens of traditional society. They are serviceable characters. They are not good characters, because they have few character traits, no goals, and no character arcs of their own.

    It's not a question of lazy writing or overt sexism; it's more that nobody considered those characters to need anything more.

    I think in general this attitude about women is prevalent, because giving a female character more of an arc can be dangerous. A woman who's ambitious or driven about something is a bitch. A woman who has goals of her own is probably not a good wife and mother.

    Obviously this isn't true, but you see what I'm saying.

    This is far from being a situation where I feel there is some imaginary, unrealistic quota that's not being met, and that switching a character from male to female would easily solve a problem. It's more of a basic issue where 1) a female character isn't considered important from inception of the film or 2) a female character isn't seen as needing any kind of character arc at all to be seen as properly fleshed out.

    Women are pretty much treated this way in most traditional media. Every magazine I pick up will have advertisements with women picking up toys, doing laundry, choosing makeup, cooking, and/or caring for children -- and I guarantee you they won't be doing anything else. It's traditional and reductionist even as it's inaccurate.

    I believe that this attitude is reflected in Nolan's films, and many people don't think that's a problem at all.

    I personally think there should be a little more effort and consideration for women to be characters in their own rights, regardless of whether or not they are protagonists or antagonists. I believe talented writers can come up with meaningful arcs for every character, if they put forth the effort, and I would like to see more effort in Nolan's films in that regard.

    (And let's not reduce this to a situation where "But in THIS FILM THIS CHARACTER did this ONE THING.")

    Overall, the female characters in his films are weakly developed.

  11. I LOVE Nolan, but he does have a pretty bad pattern with fridging his female characters, explained pretty well here:


  12. Outside of Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page has the most lines and most screentime of anyone in INCEPTION. Lumping her into the same heap as the other sidekicks is inaccurate and undercuts any argument about 'sexism' in the movie.

    She is not 'one out of the six,' as if they're all equal. She is far more important than every other person except for the lead.

    Sure, she doesn't have a character arc--does anyone in the movie? Not really.

    None of the characters in any of Nolan's movies are well-developed, and they never have much of an arc, aside from the lead and maaaybe one other character. But Nolan has always been a plot-driven writer.

    In my opinion, other than ensembles, the majority of movies--even the amazing ones--don't have much of an arc or character development for anyone other than the protagonist. It's not misogyny--it's an inherent limitation of the format. You get one character to really focus on, maybe two. If you're writing an action movie about a dude who battles another dude, both those slots are automatically taken, unless your script is gonna be 200 pages.

    What Nolan does do well, and what he doesn't get nearly enough credit for, is he often makes a female the smartest character in the movie. In INCEPTION, Ellen is constantly kicking Leo's teeth in and forcing him to acknowledge all the wrong things he's doing until he realizes she's right.

    In the Batman movies, Nolan DID rewrite the history of an icon specifically to insert a female character into the most important role outside of Batman himself. Rachel Dawes didn't exist before that movie, and not only did she slap Bruce Wayne silly to trigger his entire Batman crusade, but she was the driving force for every decision he made in the sequel. Because he realized she was right. She was smarter than *him*, the "World's Greatest Detective." Did she have much of an arc? No, no one in those movies do. It's an historic, male-centric comic book franchise aimed mostly at teenage boys.

    And yet Nolan again created a "thinking person's woman" to be the second most important character of the whole thing.

  13. I'm not a huge fan of Nolan, though I do love MEMENTO and thought INCEPTION was nifty (his Bat-movies, are an entirely different story), but for me, personally, I think he don't think he merits any special distinction for his under-written female characters. You can tell that most of his attention is devoted to his male characters and their man-pain and women are secondary characters with thinly written motivations, but that's sadly not unusual or particularly worthy of comment.