Movies that have feminist themes (or LGBTQI+), at least in pop culture, are usually not well worked out, just as they are not well received. But why? If the struggle in the political field is so valid, and gains so much visibility, why is it that when they enter in pop culture something is lost along the way? Of course, there are obvious cases of boycott and pure intolerance by sexist, racist, and homophobic groups, but we cannot reduce the performance of a movie in this way, since several other ingredients contribute to this cake recipe. My hypothesis follows an aesthetic path, involving the internal elements of the work of art itself, that is, the concrete contours that define its plot and the movie as a whole.
Movies like Charlie’s Angels, directed by Elizabeth Banks, Captain Marvel, directed by Anna Boden, or even the re-adaptation of Ghostbusters (2016), directed by Paul Feig, were completely massacred by critics and the public. Their evaluations on the Rotten Tomatoes website, one of the biggest movie critic sites in the world, are as follows: Captain Marvel (48%), Ghostbusters – Re- adaptation (50%) and Charlie’s Angels (52%). Although there are so many sexist reactions, and no one can deny this, there are also three major problems in those movies, three problems that can be identified in the structure of the plot itself and its cinematic features.
1 THE AESTHETIC PROBLEM: The left-wing approach, and its values, are not normally used as an element that enhances the plot, but on the contrary, being a huge matrix where everything is subordinated. This means that instead of the movie using politics as an ingredient in the construction of the plot, what we see is the movie being used by politics. “But what is the difference?” you ask. If the movie is used only as a pretext, since the protagonism would be on the political agenda it brings, the consequence is kind of obvious: characters with no depth, being only representations of groups or ideas, and nothing beyond. Besides that, we can see poor and underdeveloped scenes and scenarios too. And, mainly, predictable plots, without any originality or creativity. In other words, politics devours aesthetics, subordinating art within a rigid matrix of meaning. Of course, politics matters, and must be considered, but only as an additional element, as a spontaneous trait that increases the creativity of the plot, and not the other way around. When Luchino Visconti directed The Earth Trembles (1948), one of the most famous movies in Italian neorealism, his political approach, although obvious, did not suffocate the aesthetic contours of his work, serving much more as a complement. Thus, the movie was not an object within a left-wing political attitude, but on the contrary, i.e, his political attitude was an ingredient within the movie. This implies complex characters, as well as a captivating plot, even when traumatic. This means that his work of art is not two-dimensional, shallow, hollow or abstract, but dense, complex and beautiful. Of course, Ntoni, one of the central characters in the plot, is a representative of the working class, but he does not lose his personality, much less his unique and original traits. We know who he is, what he wants and how he is defined. Other examples of Italian neorealism, such as Bicycle Thieves (DeSica) , Rome, Open City and Germany, Year Zero (Rosselini ), Rocco and his brothers (Luchino Visconti), also follow this model by refusing the cannibalism of the aesthetic universe, using politics, on the contrary, as an interesting and effective ingredient and not as an authoritarian matrix where everything is reduced.
2- THE PRACTICAL PROBLEM: The movies on the left, at least those in pop culture, do not understand well how ideology works. They forget that the ideological structure is best applied when it is not felt, when it is subtle. They forget, for example, that the secret of sexism is its invisibility, that is, the way it offers its values without creating caricatures or other forms of distortion. The problem with left-wing movies in pop culture is that they are too explicit, too obvious, communicating their messages without any polishing or caution. What does not happen, for example, with left-wing movies in more alternative and classics circuits. We can compare three movies about racism: Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins, and Get Out and Us, directed by Jordan Peele. What do they have in common? They all use the critique of racism as a building block of the plot, but in a completely original, subtle, but no less impactful way. Subtlety does not take away from the movie its effectiveness, quite the contrary. Usually very unpolished and explicit movies and series end up being a little inefficient and powerless. At the end of the day, they present only two possibilities a) they either please those who already support their values or b) they irritate those who already disagree with these values. In other words, this unpolished, explicit and amateurish form produces no practical consequences, no kind of transformation. The movie leaves the world as it found it, without anything new or any changing of mind.
3 THE EMOTIONAL PROBLEM. The message behind the scenes, because of its lack of caution (point 2), is almost always resentful, aggressive. The movie not only becomes a pretext within a political arrangement (point 1), but becomes a resentful weapon for directors like Elizabeth Banks (Charlie’s Angels). Upon learning of her movie’s failure, her answer was simple and direct: “Men don’t like watching movies with women protagonists”. Of course, this argument makes sense, and I agree with it completely, but that does not justify the failure of her movie in particular. Her main characters were simple vague representations of a woman’s ideal, just as her male characters were also representations, that is, figures without any depth. The setting, in the same way, was just a simple pretext, a way to justify the conflict between the two types of representation (women and men). Instead of using feminism as an element of her movie, Elizabeth Banks used rather the movie as an element of feminism. Political movies in pop culture need to learn more from classic and left-wing movies. They need to learn that aesthetics cannot be a simple object within a greater demand. As Bourdieu said before in his Symbolic Power, the aesthetics universe has its own functioning, although there are influences on it. The political agenda is important, no doubt about it, but only as an element in the plot, an ingredient that highlights the story, and not a rigid matrix that organizes everything around it. Aesthetics cannot be subordinated to ethics, since they are different spheres. Even if they dialogue with each other, it is necessary to respect the autonomy that each one of them offers. The best example of this was the Oscar-winner (2020) Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-Ho. His movie was political, for sure, especially when discussing themes like class struggle, poverty, capitalism, and so on, but the aesthetics of the movie was not subordinated or destroyed because of the political message that Bong was trying to convey. The politics was an important ingredient, but only an ingredient. The aesthetics autonomy was respected as we can see in the best movies ever created. If the left invades the pop culture, it needs to understand that this space has its own rules and rhythm. It is necessary to have humility in the process, especially when failures occur. To say that a movie has failed because people are sexist or racist is once again to reduce the aesthetic universe to the ethical dimension, reducing art to politics, thus not recognizing that these two spheres operate in different ways, even if there are intersecting points. Of course, boycotts exist, besides the misogyny of many idiots out there, but most of the time this is not the criterion for failure in certain movies. Elizabeth Banks failed not because she was a woman, but because she was not a good director, because she did not work feminism the way it should be worked. Her failure was not ethical, but aesthetical, involving the use of movie language in a superficial and even amateurish way.