Sex Goddess

Since the beginning of the women's liberation movement in the 1960s, theorists have recognized two kinds of contemporary feminist culture: Feminism Heavy and Feminism Lite. Heavy, or high, feminism includes art exhibits, academic books, PBS, foreign films by Dutch or Belgian women directors (such as Jeanne Dielmann, Chantal Akerman's interminable saga of a housewife's interminable day), the novels of Susan Sontag and Toni Morrison, and learned journals such as Signs, Genders, or Legacy. Lite, or low, feminism includes advertising, the fiction of Anita Shreve and Terry McMillan, the plays of Wendy Wasserstein, commercial television, women's magazines, and most Hollywood movies.

Indeed, the central axiom of high-feminist film theory is that the on-screen woman, however liberated or radical in her actions, is nonetheless the object of the camera's gaze--a gaze that is predatory, controlling, and metaphorically male. But this theory depends on the formal and structural analysis of film, not on studies of the responses of actual female viewers. Over the past year, a number of movies popular enough to win Oscar nominations or receive box-office hype have also tried to appeal to feminist audiences. Themes of politics and privacy in The Contender, the female condition in Bridget Jones's Diary, girl power in Charlie's Angels, and the woman warrior in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon aim to cross and blur the lines between the high and the low.

Feminist motifs recur in several of these films--women's athleticism and strength, the cost of maintaining beauty, double standards of sexuality and independence--but their success depends less on intellectual and textual analysis than on the way women spectators feel about what they see on-screen. A relatively high-minded film with a heavy feminist message like The Contender may fail to connect with its audience because of the casting of the heroine, while a mindless flick like Charlie's Angels may have some empowering qualities despite its silliness because its trio of butt-kicking babes is so appealing. Similarly, Bridget Jones's Diary, based on Helen Fielding's best-seller about a single thirty-something yearning for both love and independence, and directed by a woman with solid feminist credentials (Sharon Maguire), turns out to be a celebration of feminine incompetence, while director Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, in Mandarin with subtitles, and based on a classic Chinese novel of martial chivalry, speaks with luminous directness to the aspirations of contemporary women.

The Contender is a textbook example of a movie that purports to tell a feminist story but sends quite different messages in its appeal to the male spectator and its misunderstanding of the female spectator. Written and directed by former film critic Rod Lurie, The Contender is about a Democratic female senator, Laine Hanson, nominated to fill the vacancy left by the vice president's death and facing a confirmation-hearings committee chaired by a misogynistic and prurient Republican congressman, Shelly Runyon (played by Gary Oldman, in a wonderfully sleazy performance). The title recalls Marlon Brando's most famous line in On the Waterfront, as well as boxing, and suggests a battle against the corrupt mob--in this case, the forces of shady politics and scandalmongering. An investigator comes up with alleged photos of Hanson's involvement in a college orgy, and Runyon leaks the information to the media in order to smear her. But Hanson will not respond to the allegations and insists that since a male politician's college sex life would not be an issue, hers is irrelevant as well. She meets the attacks with calm, is polite to her enemies, and works out her anger on the basketball court and jogging track. Ultimately, she prefers to withdraw from the nomination (something the president won't allow) rather than pander to political expediency, even under pressure from her own party. Not until the very end do we finally learn that she is being falsely accused.

On one level, the film exploits recent headlines. Roger Ebert found The Contender "a veiled reference to Monicagate" (star Jeff Bridges, who plays the shrewd good-ole-boy president, commented, "I don't think it's so veiled"). There is even a Linda Tripp red-herring subplot involving a jealous friend, but it is quickly abandoned. At the hearings, Hanson explains that she herself voted to impeach President Clinton because he had allowed military men to be punished for adultery and tried to conceal his own misdeeds; but overall the film attacks the ethics of invading the privacy of candidates. Shelly Runyon poses as a caring patriot, but his motives are unclear, his methods are contemptible, and his behavior toward women, including his wife, is harassing and belligerent. As Ebert concludes, "Whether you are in sympathy with the movie may depend on which you found more disturbing: the questions of the Starr commission or Clinton's attempts to avoid answering them."

Hanson is an uncompromising ethical figure; she is also firmly pro-choice and a declared atheist who regards Congress as her church and moral center. When the credits roll, after her triumphant confirmation, the filmmakers even have an explicit line of dedication: "For our daughters." But overall, The Contender does not come across as a feminist statement. First of all, the movie wants to titillate the male audience as well as to flatter women. We not only see fragments of the gang bang but hear the male politicians discussing it. The Democrats tell Hanson that they don't care whom she fucks or whose cock she has in her mouth, as long as it doesn't hurt the party. The Republicans say, "We have to get the bitch in the belly." These opposing arias of ruthlessness come together in the film's food imagery: The president eats shark sandwiches. And in a sly scene where Hanson and Runyon are having lunch, he is gnawing on a bloody porterhouse steak while she insists on eating "the penne." By showing Hanson engaged in vigorous sex (on a desk) with her husband and exposing her as the Other Woman who broke up his previous marriage, the film also encourages us to fantasize about her in the orgy scene.

Even more problematic and contradictory is the casting of the prim and angular Joan Allen as Hanson. Allen was perfect as Pat Nixon in Oliver Stone's Nixon, and as the unhappy wife in Ang Lee's film The Ice Storm, but she is utterly unconvincing as the sexually tempestuous Hanson. Can we believe that this drab creature has stolen Mariel Hemingway's husband? Moreover, her absolutist refusal to deny the allegations (although she has plenty of proof) and her lack of on-screen emotion become increasingly unsympathetic and bizarre. How did she get elected in the first place? Has she ever been in a political campaign? Allen seems to be re-enacting her role as the rigid Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible. Why must the woman play this role of unbending ethical martyr? How about a movie where women are in politics as it is?

Two martial-arts films get closer to the emotional lift that makes them aptly called "movies." Both also speak much more directly to feminist feelings. The American version, the goofy Charlie's Angels, stars Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu in a remake of the 1970s TV "jiggle" show about three gorgeous crime-fighters who work for an unseen boss named Charlie. Directed by first-time filmmaker "McG" (Joseph McGinty Nichol, who had made his reputation with a series of irresistible dance ads for the Gap), the movie was generally panned. Mick LaSalle at the San Francisco Chronicle charged that the TV angels "look like feminist paragons next to the new trio." Yet there is some crude feminist energy on the screen. Granted, it's hard to believe that Cameron Diaz is desperate for a date; but there is something exhilarating to the female viewer in the mere spectacle of women acting resourceful and fearless. I think it would have made a real impact on me if I had seen this on-screen when I was a girl, in addition to my trusty Wonder Woman comics.

But Charlie's Angels is forgettable fluff next to Ang Lee's magnificent Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The thrilling and balletic kung-fu fighting in both of these films was actually choreographed by brothers--Yuen Cheung Yan (Charlie's Angels) and Yuen Wo Ping (Crouching Tiger). Yet Ang Lee uses the gravity-defying martial-arts stunts as a symbol of feminine strength and spiritual freedom, themes that are central to his story of two generations of warrior lovers defying class and gender conventions to express their feelings. As Michelle Yeoh, who plays the female warrior Yu Lien, explains, "These swordsmen and swordswomen were practicing the Tao. They were so unburdened that they could fly." The paradox in their lives is that emotional commitment is a kind of burden that hinders their flight; but while the male warriors reach the point where they are willing to make the sacrifice--as Yu Lien's beloved, the great warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) gives up his magic sword, the Green Destiny--the young princess, Jen (the exquisite Zhang Ziyi), cannot bring herself to surrender her freedom, her unburdened state, in exchange for love.

Director Ang Lee, whose background is Chinese (although he attended film school at New York University and worked for Spike Lee), has said that in Crouching Tiger he tried to "blend the two dominant forms of Chinese film-making, the feminine operatic melodrama ... and the martial-arts adventure, and to do it in a way that also integrates Western notions of psychological character development." Based on a 1930s wuxia novel by Wang Du Lu, the film is the Chinese equivalent of the American western or the Japanese samurai film, except that women too participate in all the fighting. In a film-watching session with The New York Times's Rick Lyman, Lee also discussed his indebtedness to a great Chinese melodrama, Li Hanxiang's Love Eternal (1963), made by the Shaw Brothers Studio. It is about a young girl who disguises herself as a boy to go to school, falls in love with another student, and tells him she has a twin sister in the hopes that in her real identity they can wed. But her parents force her to marry a rich man. The boy lover dies of consumption, and the girl is reunited with him on her wedding day by a supernatural tempest that whirls her into the heavens. The plot elements recall the gender-bending of Shakespearean comedy, and indeed, in traditional Chinese films, both the male and female romantic leads were played by women, as on the Elizabethan stage they were played by boys. Lee has also noted the correspondence to Barbra Streisand's Yentl.

Even though there are some hilariously funny scenes in Crouching Tiger, such as the one where the delicate princess Jen, disguised as a boy, one-handedly fights off a swarm of muscle-bound thugs brandishing every imaginable kind of weapon, the prevailing mood is elegiac, mythic, and melancholy. Lee is committed to the emotional aspect of filmmaking. As he told The New York Times, "How a scene is shot, that is minor to me. It is more the juice, the core emotion, how it moves us. It is whether the whole film works at a deep level." Movies he admires, from the East or the West, are those that "affect you so deeply you feel that you are a different person from the one who went into the theater." Thus, in the midst of Jen's tearoom brawl, she declares: "I am the invincible sword goddess!" Her prowess is not a trick; it is the product of her mythic journey of self-discovery and self-mastery.

In the American context, Crouching Tiger seems like a feminist fable of co-education. Wudan, the mountain retreat and graduate academy of the great warriors, will not admit women. In order to become warriors, women must practice subterfuge; but if they are denied the masters' training, they may become "poisoned dragons." Jen's governess, Jade Fox, steals the Wudan warrior manual and educates herself. But she cannot decipher all the lessons. Jen, however, goes beyond her teacher and is so gifted that Li Mu Bai thinks Wudan will waive the rules and accept her. In the end, Jen decides to follow her own path; she flies beyond the range of the male academy and its patronage. Although Crouching Tiger invokes a number of myths, from the Arabian Nights to Robin Hood, the myth of feminine autonomy is the main source of its feminist juice.

Ang Lee's films, as critic Craig S. Simpson noted in an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "explore the lives of women ... and the slim chances they have for forging their own paths in life." His adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, despite its happy ending, emphasized this awareness of the odds women face. In contrast, the film version of Bridget Jones's Diary, which plays off of Austen's Pride and Prejudice, is a charming and frothy fairy tale with no feminist consciousness whatsoever. The bright, ambitious, neurotic Bridget of Helen Fielding's novel has been turned into an adorable airhead, a pratfalling idiot, "Bridget Jones, wanton sex goddess." She is incompetent in every area of her life--work, cooking, dating, drinking. A particularly cringe-inducing scene shows her unable to make coherent conversation at a literary cocktail party attended by Salman Rushdie. In the terms of the film, this helplessness endears her to attractive, successful professional men. At the same time, effective career women are portrayed as gaunt and bitchy.

Much media attention has been paid to the heroic sacrifices actress Renée Zellweger made for the starring role. In order to perfect her British accent, she worked undercover for two weeks for publicist Camilla Ellworthy at the publishing house Picador. (Since Picador is my British publisher, and the ebullient and elegant Camilla Ellworthy is my publicist, this does not sound like martyrdom to me.) She had to wear what critic Molly Haskell calls "dowdy Marks & Spencer duds, a fashionista's nightmare." Above all, she "packed on," as the tabloids put it, 15 or 20 pounds, ballooning up to a mammoth 120 pounds in all. In accordance with the Hollywood code of dedication to one's art, this alone should entitle her to an Oscar nomination. Interestingly, Bridget weighs more in the movie than in the book. Perhaps in gesture to the American audience, the British writers (Andrew Davies and Richard Curtis) have added 10 pounds to the weight Bridget records in her diary.

Zellweger is a likable actress, and women viewers will enjoy Bridget Jones's Diary, especially because Hugh Grant, as the sexy womanizer Daniel Cleaver, runs away with the film. You will laugh; but you'll hate yourself in the morning.