Suffragette Cinema

a feminist look at films and the media surrounding them


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12 Years a Slave; a white narrative?

12 Years a Slave is not an easy movie to swallow through its brutal honesty in the depiction of slavery. It is memorable because of it’s candid view of what you would imagine it was like in the US during slavery. It is a movie that makes you think, that warrants silence after seeing it, and a lot of reflection.

Something that specifically stuck out to me, however, was the seemingly random and rushed ending. Within the last twenty minutes, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) approaches Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt) and has him agree to send a letter to the north, hoping to finally be released and to rightfully return home. And, a few scenes later, Northup’s wish has come true- he is proved a free man and taken back to New York. While there is nothing exactly wrong with this ending, as Daniel Jose Older stated, “Did we really need yet another white savior narrative?”

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup.

I recognize that 12 Years a Slave is based on a true story, where this type of scenario did play out, however, an article from The Atlantic explains, “when every major film representation of slavery hinges on venerating the noble sacrifices of honorable whites- well, let’s just say that as a challenge to white supremacy, it leaves something to be desired.”

A movie poster for 12 Years a Slave in Italy.

A movie poster for 12 Years a Slave in Italy.

This type of narrative is not uncommon in movies that have come out in the last few years about race. When a movie comes out that is about race and racial issues, there is almost always a white savior counterpart. For instance, some notable titles that have come out in the last few years that exhibit this include Lincoln, The Help, The Blind Side, Hairspray, and Freedom Writers. These are some of the movies where the white majority is somehow oppressing communities of color and in the end; it is other white characters that solve the issue at hand. This ultimately takes away a lot of the spotlight from the people of color and places it on the white characters. It takes a story that is about racial struggles and makes it about white triumph and heroics. This is displayed in the image above, where in Italy movie posters of 12 Years a Slave display Bass as the main image, with Northup, the true main character, in the bottom corner.

Ultimately, it is interesting to see which narratives show up within movies and whose stories we decide to value- and at what cost.

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MPAA Chooses Women’s Pain over Pleasure

Charlie Countryman is a film about a young man, Charlie (Shia LeBeouf), who has recently lost his mother and decides to travel to Bucharest, Romania. Almost immediately, Charlie meets a woman, Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood), and quickly finds himself falling in love with her, despite her troubled past. Quickly, Charlie finds himself wrapped up into Gabi’s world and eventually finds himself the target of Nigel (Mads Mikkelson), Gabi’s vicious gangster ex-husband.

There are plenty of reasons to give this complicated film a higher rating advising against children to see it, between the relationship manipulation and violence between Gabi and Nigel, graphic death and fight scenes, and drug use, it is not a child friendly film. However, the films original rating of NC- 17 given by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) was due to a scene where the female lead, Gabi, receives oral sex from Charlie. Director, Fredrik Bond, was able to secure an R rating once taking out this scene.

Image of Charlie and Gabi from AIDY Reviews

Image of Charlie and Gabi from AIDY Reviews

 It is a sign of a broken system when it is deemed more acceptable for scenes to include a character being brutally beaten, suffocated with a plastic bag, and having a gun forced into his mouth, than the act of pleasuring a woman through oral sex; when violence and death is on a lower rank than cunnilingus between two consensual adults. There is something about female pleasure that unnerves society. Majority of films today are directed and made predominantly by males and thus represents experiences through that of a male gaze. This then creates a culture that is used to seeing sex through the perspective of a man and, we are thus not used to seeing a woman being pleasured without a man experiencing the same and when we do, it creates a great deal of discomfort for many.

Actress, Evan Rachel Wood, upon seeing the cut scenes posted on Twitter:

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Unfortunately, this is not the first, nor the last incident of blatant sexism within the movie rating system. As Wood stated in her tweets, it is far more likely for a scene to pass through the rating system than for a woman who is experiencing pleasure. For instance, in April 2013, the new Evil Dead adaptation included a graphic tree- rape scene in which Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) runs from the cabin she is staying in, is held down and choked by possessed tree branches, has her clothing ripped, and a slimy, black, branch is seen slithering up her leg and inside of her as she screams for help. When asked by Bitch Magazine why he decided to keep that scene in for the remake, film director, Fede Alvaraz stated he “needed to keep the well- known tree-rape scene in the film for the fans.” Despite this explicit violence and assault, the film secured a stable R rated movie for language, sexual content, and violence.

*Trigger Warning*

However, when in 2010, film Blue Valentine came out it was originally given a rating of NC-17 for what was deemed a too graphic depiction of an oral sex scene between Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling). In response, Ryan Gosling, in an interview with Danielle Henderson, stated:

“You have to question a cinematic culture which preaches artistic expression, and yet would support a decision that is clearly a product of a patriarchy-dominant society, which tries to control how women are depicted on screen. The MPAA is okay supporting scenes that portray women in scenarios of sexual torture and violence for entertainment purposes, but they are trying to force us to look away from a scene that shows a woman in a sexual scenario, which is both complicit and complex. It’s misogynistic in nature to try and control a woman’s sexual presentation of self. I consider this an issue that is bigger than this film.”


The fact that in the movie world it is more acceptable for acts of violence to occur than it is for a female to experience oral sex is deploring and infuriating.The MPAA is furthering rape culture and allowing for violence against women to become normalized through their biased and sexist rating system. And ultimately, this system is furthering a culture that says it is acceptable for women to be beaten, raped, and sexually assaulted.


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Fueling the Flame in Catching Fire

When the second installment of the The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, was released, the consumer market exploded. Dozens of figurines, t- shirts, iconic Mockingjay pins, party favors, tote bags, mugs, and more sprung up across the country. Magazine articles sprouted up with headlines screaming in large, bold letters about exclusive interviews with the main cast members, including Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen) , Liam Hensworth (Peeta Mellark), and Josh Hutcherson (Gale Hawthorne), the infamous members of the love triangle the media has come to dote on.

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Here are some magazines that have covered the love triangle within Catching Fire, from Cineplex, Seventeen, and People magazines.

One of the most common things asked in these interviews, is on the rivalry that the media has fed upon between ‘Team Peeta’ and ‘Team Gale.’

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Here are two examples of Peeta and Gale shirts, found for sale in Hot Topic.

However, this discussion of the love triangle (which, in reality, barely exists within the first movie and is touched upon briefly in the first half of the second), is not what the movies overall take away was designed to be. In one memorable scene of Catching Fire, Haymitch tells Katniss and Peeta, “From now on your job is to be a distraction so people forget what the real problems are.” The huge market of The Hunger Games apparel, the discussion of who Katniss ought to choose, are all distractions from the main point of the film. The media’s response and hype of the movie has most accurately paralleled that of the capitol- focusing on the love story and not of what is really going on.

I wish that there would be more discussion from these magazines about the social commentary that the movie is fixating on in regard to class. How the elite are getting rich at the expense and exploitation of the poor, as is seen today in the US. In Catching Fire, those who live in the capitol, symbolizing the upper middle through upper class, have tonics they take to make themselves sick so they may eat even more food, while Katniss and Peeta come from an area where starvation is a common experience. In 2012, according to Feeding America, 46.5 million people in the US were in poverty, with 49 million living in food insecure households. The experience of many living in the nation of Panema parallels that of living within the US.

Donald Sutherland, who plays President Snow in Catching Fire, wants to see people take action. In an interview with The Guardian, he states, “I hope that they will take action because it’s getting drastic in this nation.” He goes on to discuss the prevalent issues of racism, hunger, tax dodging, and many other issues that need to be addressed. “Hopefully,” he states, “they will see this film and the next film and the next film and then maybe organize. Stand up.”

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Donald Sutherland as President Snow in Catching Fire, image found from Hypeable.

Ultimately, I believe that Catching Fire is a great film and has the potential to be revolutionary. It targets the young adult population and calls out to them about issues that are occurring today within the United States. It takes gender roles and flips them on their head, as Katniss is seen as a symbol of strength, her sister Prim is the no- nonsense doctor, Johanna turns her anger and confidence into one of her greatest attributes, Cinna as a parental figure to Katniss. And it is because of these men and women and these messages that am frustrated with the media and how they have portrayed the stories within Catching Fire. There is the potential to pull out so much more than choosing between who Katniss ought to date- but, as Haymitch stated in the movie, this is a distraction.