Dada Masilo

Reel Equality

14 May 15 words: Harry Wilding
Chloe Cheeseman of the local feminist film club tells us about Reel Equality's ethos and what we can expect from them in the future
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It would be completely understandable if you - a member of the human race in the year 2015 - think that we have almost achieved gender equality in the UK and Western world. But despite such groups as Justice for Men and Boys making ridiculous claims that a “hostile”, “undemocratic” and “anti-male culture” has developed over the last thirty years and “must be challenged and defeated...for the sake of Britain as a civilised society”, women are actually still a long way from gender equality.

In 1985, the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel had a character in her comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, who would only see a film that passed the following criteria: it has to have at least two women in it who have names; they have to talk to each other; about anything other than a man. A film that passes or fails this test does not necessarily make it particularly feminist or a sexist, but, when applied in the aggregate, it is most informative in showing how male-centric most films are. A worryingly small amount of films pass.

Chloe gives us some statistics, “Less than one in four Hollywood films feature women in the lead role. Out of the top 100 films of 2013, men were nearly three times as likely as women to be portrayed as leaders. Women consistently make up less than a third of speaking roles, and are more than four times more likely to be shown partially naked, or in revealing clothing. The male to female ratio of filmmakers is 15:1.”

But how does all this affect everyday sexism? “The philosophy of the film club stems from the fact that many male perpetrators of domestic abuse against women think that women are worth less than men. They hold sexist beliefs about how women should behave, which are based on gender stereotypes, in which sexist messages from culture and media play an important part.”

A quick scan of Cineworld Nottingham’s post-Oscar releases (with Insurgent, Still Alice, Home, Suite Francaise, It Follows, Woman in Gold and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel having strong women protagonists, and The Voices having an Iranian female Director) shows things might be looking up? “These films are definitely a breath of fresh air after the award season full on films about white blokes,” Chloe admits. “However, 2014 actually saw a decrease in the percentage of lead roles held by women in the top-grossing Hollywood movies, which was a measly 12%. This figure has not seen an increase in the past decade. Women are still treated like second-class citizens when it comes to most Hollywood movies. Their value to a film is measured in relation to the people they sleep with, marry, or give birth to. Progress towards equality is definitely not inevitable and we need to keep making noise about the real-world impact this on-screen gender inequality has.”

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Don't be Clueless about sexism

Another of 2015’s cinema releases, Fifty Shades of Grey, was a hugely popular film, written and directed by women, with a woman lead character, and based on a hugely popular book by a woman. A terrible story for gender equality, nonetheless? “I haven’t seen the film, but at Equation we are all in agreement that the book series glamorises an abusive relationship. Christian Grey is a perpetrator, who uses BDSM as part of his controlling and coercive behaviour. If a partner or ex follows you, spies on you, tries to control you, frightens you, or refuses to respect you when you say 'no', then this is not love. It is abuse.” Are the oppressed sometimes their own worst enemies? “Unfortunately, many people of all genders have developed an unhealthy understanding of what love is, so authors and filmmakers are not immune to these misperceptions.”

“Young people are bombarded with problematic messages about relationships from advertising, music videos, porn, and all the movies (from Beauty and the Beast to Twilight) that glamorise obsessive and controlling behaviour as romantic.” Part of Equation’s work is educating children and young people about what healthy, respectful relationships look like, “Equality, respect, and consent are crucial elements. If we don’t make this kind of education compulsory, as well as challenge the glamorisation of violence against women on screen, then we’re going to continue to see our communities at greater risk of experiencing domestic violence and abuse.”

Season one of Reel Equality, which screened the likes of Ghost World and Beasts of the Southern Wild, was certainly a success, with the attendance growing over 100% and they now have thirty paid members. And, of course, men are more than welcome. “We want to reach as large and diverse an audience as possible within our local community,” says Chloe. “About a quarter of our first season attendees were men and we saw a good spread in terms of age range. We’re going to put more effort into further diversifying our audience in season two. According to anecdotal feedback we’ve had, Reel Equality has definitely opened up some people’s eyes to the ways that sexism is manifested in the film industry.”

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Season two will contain eight films from across the world. After Clueless, they will be the darkly comic Appropriate Behaviour, and then the German Hannah Arendt, about the twentieth century philosopher. Chloe adds, “We try very hard to tell stories about women from different countries and backgrounds, as well as exploring different genres. We are also planning a family-friendly screening.”         

The sexism of the past, of course, may affect the inequality in our supposedly current enlightened times. “We have the legacy of thousands of years of gender-based inequality built into the design of political systems, education, law-making, economic structures and social attitudes to blame for the institutionalised sexism and gender inequality of today’s world,” Chloe agrees.

“It’s fantastic – although long overdue - that so many people now support the principle of equality between men and women, but dismantling sexist institutions and bringing about substantive equality requires us to be more proactive. Affirmative action – like, for example, having a film club that only shows women’s stories – wouldn’t necessarily be the ideal situation in a completely equal world, but it is absolutely necessary in this world, to tip the scales towards balance and redress the injustice of the past. Reel Equality certainly won’t change Hollywood overnight, but the more that we and others speak out, the closer we’ll be to reaching the tipping point that’s needed for long-lasting change.”

Appropriate Behaviour will be showing at Broadway Cinema on Thursday 28 May 2015 at 6pm.

Reel Equality on Equation website

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