If you scroll through Netflix, you will likely come across multiple movies claiming to be the next ‘feminist’ masterpiece. But don’t be fooled. Whether it’s masculinity disguised as female empowerment or corporate greed wrapped up in bubblegum pink, most modern films that claim to empower women are arguably doing them a disservice.

I would like to prove to you that the film industry has twisted the feminist movement and inadvertently promoted harmful ideals of what women should aspire to be.

Practice What You Preach

Perhaps the most recent example of a faux-feminist film is Barbie, which has had moviegoers divided since it premiered last summer. Directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Margot Robbie, the story follows the infamous doll as she travels to the real world, where she witnesses misogyny as an everyday occurrence. Gerwig claims Barbie is ‘most certainly a feminist film,’ with the protagonist making it her mission throughout the movie to inspire other women. In real life though, Barbie doesn’t exactly practice what she preaches.

The 1959 doll has become notorious for its unrealistic proportions, which deeply affected young girls’ self-esteem and led to the eventual decline in the toy’s popularity. Oddly, the film refuses to acknowledge Barbie’s troublesome history and the casting choice does nothing to dispel the negativity. I would even go as far as saying that the attempt to empower women to embrace their bodies falls through precisely because of the choice of actress. By casting Margot Robbie, someone who almost perfectly resembles the 1950s stereotype, the film reboots harmful beauty standards into the mainstream media. According to Grazia UK, ‘beach bodies’ and ‘snatched jawlines’ became TikTok trends after Barbie’s release, with users sharing tips on how to shed body fat to get the Margot Robbie physique — hardly the inspiring message Barbie claims to promote amongst its female-heavy audience.

’Unfeminsit’ to Fall in Love?

All I remember of the 2020 live-action remake of Mulan is the internet’s reaction to the absence of the heroine’s love interest, Li Shang. Producer Jason Read claimed this was to make room for Mulan’s development and cited the ‘#MeToo movement’ as a reason for dropping the character. The move outraged fans of the original film, sparking debate around whether it is ‘unfeminist’ for female protagonists to fall in love. But how can that be? Love is a universal experience that isn’t confined to romance.

Surely a feminist film ought to be capable of focusing on its protagonist’s journey while exploring familial, platonic, and romantic relationships that inevitably arise along the way? The 1998 cartoon does a much better job of showing love as having many faces. Mulan’s concern for her father, her companionship with her fellow soldiers, her budding romance with Li Shang and, potentially the most potent force in the movie, her devotion to her country are all manifestations of love. Because of this, we become emotionally invested in her story and root for her. The remake however fails to show us Mulan’s bond with other characters, so we struggle to bond with her. A female protagonist may cut down as many enemies as she likes, but if we cannot connect with her, how are we supposed to feel inspired by her?

‘An independent girl needs to know when to lean on community, and at times, that may be a romantic partner,’ says Medium’s Olachi Anya. ‘This fact doesn’t make her any less capable.’

To suggest that a feminist film cannot contain a love interest is simply wrong. The original Mulan is a testament to this.

Competing with Men

Captain Marvel, released in 2019, was Marvel’s first female-led superhero movie and follows the eponymous protagonist (a.k.a. Carol Danvers) as she attempts to end a war between two alien races. During the run-up to the film’s release, its directors spent months emphasising that Captain Marvel is a feminist figure because she is ‘the most powerful character… in a Marvel movie.’ However, Danvers’ power does not come from her resilience or ability to outwit her enemies. Brute force is what sees her victorious in the end. The result is that she spends the majority of the film glowering and punching people — hardly inspiring behaviour to a young female audience. But this display of macho-feminism is perhaps unsurprising. To compete on the same level as the male superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Danvers must act like them. This misplaced idea plagues many recent ‘feminist’ films. The female characters are necessarily curt and hostile, forced to prove their worth to others by being as unfeminine as possible. Reducing female empowerment to ‘physical toughness’ as women are ‘forced to compete with men on masculine terms’ makes it a curiously contradictory thing and another male-dominated concept.

Surprisingly, some of the most famous movies with positive female representation were made between ten and twenty years ago. Films such as The Hunger Games and Tomb Raider didn’t see femininity as a weakness. Does Elle Woods’ fondness for the colour pink make her less intelligent? Is Beatrice Prior weak because she admits to being afraid? Is Katniss Everdeen any less of a hero because she cries at the loss of a friend? These memorable characters are feminist figures because, despite their flaws, they adapt and develop to succeed. Captain Marvel, on the other hand, relies solely on the fact that its protagonist is female to be a feminist film, while simultaneously being bereft of any meaningful empowerment.

Andrijana Pejchinovska, Opinion Editor at The Gazelle, agrees: ‘Captain Marvel is not an empowering movie. It … posits traditional norms about male power as the ultimate goal women should strive to achieve; as if the only thing that is going to empower women is beating up men.’

Barbie, Mulan and Captain Marvel all claim to be ‘feminist’ movies. But one has made women self-conscious of their weight, the other boasts that to be strong is to forgo support, and the last teaches women that femininity is a curse. If the modern film industry is anything to go by, being a feminist is not about advocating for the equality of the sexes. Instead, for a character to be deemed ‘feminist’ she has to be overbearingly aggressive and fiercely independent. Oh, and skinny too.

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