Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: Sexism and Damsels in Distress

I was reading Entertainment Weekly last week and there was a feature in there about Angelina Jolie's new movie Salt. Originally, the action film was set to star Tom Cruise as a CIA agent who gets accused of being a Russian sleeper spy. When Cruise dropped out, the role was rewritten as a woman to accommodate the casting of Angelina Jolie.

There's an interesting part of the article where they discuss how this caused a domino effect in how the rest of the script was rewritten. Director Philip Noyce says, "In the original script, there was a huge sequence where Edwin Salt saves his wife, who's in danger. And what we found was when Evelyn Salt saved her husband in the new script, it seemed to castrate his character a little, so we had to change the nature of that relationship."

Interesting that it wasn't considered degrading for a woman to be rescued as a damsel in distress, but the instant a man was put in that part the whole attitude changed. I know I have a fair number of female readers, so I put it to you - is that sexist of the creators? If it was okay to have a less than heroic wife as the victim, why did the husband need to be rewritten as more assertive?


  1. I agree that it was a sexist rewrite. Angelina Jolie tends to play strong women and they work for her. In Mr. and Mrs. Smith she was the more accomplished, more professional character of the couple and it didn't emasculate Brad Pitt's character at all. The only way to get past the sexism is to stop making these kinds of exceptions for it. Sometimes guys need to be saved too, and why not by a strong woman?

  2. By definition, something is sexist if it can not be equally applied to both genders. Those who felt the need to rewrite this particular aspect of the script were not only sexists but short-sighted in terms of how the male portion of the audience would react to a strong gal rescuing a man.

  3. Gina Davis saved her husband in The Long Kiss Goodnight and I didn't think he was a wussy face.

    Producers are so damn paranoid. It really is one of the ways we're handicapped when we write.

    And yes, it is sexist.

  4. I read the (male lead) Salt script on ScriptShadow and was wondering what changes they'd make for a female lead. I agree that it's sexist and I'd like to live in a world where it's just as acceptable for a woman to save a man as vice versa. But I live in the real world and I still think a movie like Salt, with a kick-ass woman protagonist, will probably be a good thing overall for female imagery. This is a commercial Hollywood film, so I don't have high expectations to begin with for it being culturally progressive. I think Hollywood's made great strides in their portrayal of women. What I'd like to see them work on more is breaking up the association of good=young and beautiful, while bad=ugly and old.

  5. Yeah definitely sexist. But I can understand why producers would be afraid to shake up the system. I know guys that didn't like Tarantino's Death Race just because the girls kicked Kurt Russell's ass in the end. I thought it was genius and abstract just because of that.

    Guess baby steps have to be taken with the american public to get anywhere.

  6. Totally sexist. A man being saved by a woman doesn't make him a wimp any more than a woman being saved by a man makes her weak. It's a shame action movies can't progress beyond outdated stereotypes. Women can be strong in them... but not *too* strong.

    Great article--I really enjoy your site!

  7. I don't care if it's sexist, it sounds like the right decision. What people seem to be missing here is the most important thing is that this imaginary couple needs to be somewhat believable to the viewers. So, in that way if Angelina Jolie needs to save a weak man, then the whole mystique of Angelina Jolie being this tough chick is destroyed. In that case, the audience would immediately disengage from the fantasy and ask "What the heck is she doing with that Rick Moranis looking guy?"

    If it's a strong male character, we don't ask much of the damsel he saves other than that she looks good. Sexist? I guess. But think of this scenario: Johnny Depp swoops in to save Kathy Bates. Love Kathy Bates and she's a great actress, but who's going to really believe Johnny Depp and Kathy Bates are couple? No one (outside of John Waters). It immediately takes the viewer out of the film's reality.

  8. Risking her life to save the husband could have been very cool. There is a subtle, selfless, profound strength in femininity I rarely see glorified. The characters in movies like “Kill Bill” or “Sex in the City” are men with female facades (written by men). Many women love these characters. Masculinity is the definition of cool. I love the character Trinity because she was created with a subtle difference. If I was a good writer, I could explain it better 

  9. I would love to see a strong female character rescue her man. I don't see how that is emasculating unless you deliberately want to see it that way. We're all just human, we all need help sometimes - needing to be "saved" doesn't necessarily make someone weak, just the weaker at that particular point in time.

    Seeing movie after movie show a strong male rescue a relatively weaker woman does get a little old.

  10. Without having seen each version of the script, I can't say. Yes, it's sexist, but not necessarily sexism on the part of the producers.

    Here's the thing: a female in this culture does have the right to be an utter wimp. She can grow up an utter and complete damsel without ever having anyone challenge her for it. A guy, on the other hand, cannot get through childhood without having faced the issue of being a wimp.

    Same with the relationship between husband and wife. A non-stereotypical relationship is going to have more about it that is conscious and acknowledged than a stereotypical one.

    Now, that doesn't have to mean he can't be rescued without being emasculated - that would depend on his character, and her character and their relationship, and the nature of the rescue - but it does mean that rescuing him is going to say something different about each of the characters. Or you are going to have to handle it differently to get the same meaning across.

  11. Absolutely sexist. But it's a (generally) sexist genre. Likely they were already afraid that having a female action protagonist would alienate male viewers and they assumed having her rescue her husband would just put the nail in the coffin. I would LOVE to see a strong female character in a mainstream film save her male counterpart outright, but the sad reality is that I'm just going be glad if she doesn't end up as a 'back-door victim' at some point.

    A good, careful writer can craft a male character such that he can be rescued by a woman without being emasculated. Maybe these filmmakers just weren't up to the challenge?

  12. Totally sexist and stupid too. If her husband is a strong and able chracter, having her saving him from a situation where she's more expert and able only empowers the female character without "demasculating" her husband.
    If they're both secret agents kind of people, maybe he could be a good strategist but not the action guy, while she's both.

  13. Isn't it true that in an early draft of Star Wars, Princess Leia was the character trying to rescue her brother from the Death Star? Then Lucas made Luke the hero instead. Film makers are not sure how to do strong women without making the men appear wimps. It's easier if a strong woman rescues another woman, eg Clarice in Silence of the Lambs. I'm hard pushed to think of a successful "woman rescues a man" (in a physical sense instead of an emotional one) film. Perhaps we're all still cavemen at heart.

  14. OK, I can see that a scene like that as originally written might have been seen as emasculating. But I think it could have been tweaked to still work, without totally getting rid of it.

    I mean come on, men get into sticky situations. They get captured and tortured. It happens in lots of movies. So what if a girl does the rescuing?

    I remember an early episode of Alias, where Sydney rescues her friend Will. I didn't see that as emasculating.

    It's all in how it's written.

  15. True, but Will wasn't presented as a viable love interest for Sydney and he absolutely wasn't at that point in the series. If Vaughn had been the damesel in distress, then the analogy would hold.

    I'm aware that Will and Sydney did sleep together when the character returned later, but that was in a one-off episode and wasn't part of a story that tried to present him as a serious love interest.

    (Also, it seems that there weren't many people clamoring for him to get together with Sydney, and the character was somewhat unpopular for a while. His following on the internet was largely made up of female viewers, and apparently wasn't representive of how general viewers not on message boards reacted to him. Most male viewers disliked him - partly because he was two steps behind the audience and because he was pining for Sydney.)

  16. 'Risking her life to save the husband could have been very cool. There is a subtle, selfless, profound strength in femininity I rarely see glorified. The characters in movies like “Kill Bill” or “Sex in the City” are men with female facades (written by men). Many women love these characters. Masculinity is the definition of cool. I love the character Trinity because she was created with a subtle difference. If I was a good writer, I could explain it better '

    I think you put it perfectly Sean!

  17. I see what you're saying about the "Alias" example, BSR, though I do still think that TV is light-years ahead of film in regard to this issue. Look at "Chuck" -- there's a male protagonist who has often been rescued by his tough, super-hot female counterpart and there *is* a romantic spark between the two, and I don't think he's emasculated (though I recognize that there's a difference between, say, nerdy Chuck and chiseled Vaughn).
    This is also a common occurrence in the new show "Castle," with Beckett frequently rescuing the bumbling Castle from harm.

    I think Julie!'s right on the money in saying that this Salt thing is sexist, but it's also unfortunately unsurprising, as it is a generally sexist movie genre. I do appreciate that Angelina Jolie has done some interesting things in that genre, though she is an exception: a very hot lady who is also a capable action star.