By Guo Xiaolu - 1999
Translated by Cindy Carter


According to the Bible, it took God six days to create the heavens, earth, oceans, fish and fowl, insects, people and all living creatures. As the story goes, Jehovah created man in his own image, fashioning him “out of the dust of the ground” and naming him Adam. Perhaps at the time, God did not give much consideration to the problem of Adam’s gender - presumably in the same way God himself had never considered the question of His own gender.

When God discovered Adam was lonely in the Garden of Eden, he may have been moved by some spirit of chivalry. For in response, he took a rib from Adam’s chest and fashioned another human, this time a woman, and named her Eve. Being created as she was from the body of man, Eve had no real substance of her own. The story implies that Eve was not, somehow, a truly “complete” or meaningful human being in her own right.

It is said that this world in which we live is still very much “Adam’s world”, or to put it in more contemporary academic language: it’s a male-dominated world.

Were Eve to make movies, naturally, her films would be outside of the male-dominated mainstream.

Speaking for myself, as a woman who began studying films in college, I have always been deeply concerned about non-mainstream films the world over, including women’s films. My sensitivity in this regard is intrinsically related to my gender and professional interests, of course. The most important reason for my interest in this sort of film, though, would have to be my long-standing interest, or my roots, in fringe culture. I have always felt an instinctual identification with non-mainstream culture?

The reports we hear today, as we move into the twenty-first century, about non-mainstream films from every part of the globe give us cause for celebration. Sadly, however, the news about similarly fringe women’s movies is not as optimistic.

In terms of their deeper social significance and overall place in the social hierarchy, women’s films - or more generally, films concerned with women’s issues – seem to be in a state of continual decline.

Consider the jumble of images and impressions associated with women’s film, the dizzying range of themes and enormous gaps in quality from one effort to the next. From Fatal Attraction’s relatively early, in-depth examination of extramarital affairs to the visually symbolic, thoroughly feminist film The Bandits (by German director Katja von Garnier); to English-language films such as The Piano, Portrait of a Lady, The Well, Holy Smoke, and other films which have managed to overcome the Hollywood formula, we must add the flood of Hollywood “women’s issues” movies such as Fried Green Tomatoes, Thelma and Louise, The First Wives’ Club or Practical Magic. The uneven quality of these films puts commentators who would undertake to analyze the importance of these films in a rather difficult position. Any discussion of the various issues presented in these films, then, must begin from a truly feminine perspective.

My feminine perspective derives from many years of tacit acceptance and internalization of the myth of a woman’s place in post-revolutionary China, expressed in the words of Mao Zedong: “Women hold up half the sky.” Internalizing this sort of myth also meant accepting the language and discourse of a predominantly male critical canon.

But for the sober-headed, clear-thinking female intellectual who strives to distinguish her feminine voice from the rugged dynamic of the Sturm und Drang of male discourse, there is no going back. One can never again go back to that earliest, simplest, unthinking acceptance, or retire sedately to one’s flowered, curtain-bedecked study. Nor can one truly accept Virginia Wolfe’s simple assertion that all one really needs is “a room of one’s own.”

The reality is this: it is impossible to hold a strong notion of gender equality and at the same time – like the blithe hostess of some nineteenth-century drawing room salon - sit down to entertain the overwhelmingly male guests (mostly bel-esprits and so-called artists) with your elegant and ladylike rendition of classical music for the pianoforte.

For once you think to depart from the female birdcage and become an individual in your own right, with the wholly formed personality and emotional complexity this implies, you are forced to step into the foreground, step forward through the ranks of men. You must put your principles into action and, like a man, practice what you preach. In society, you must“act like a man”possessing equivalent intelligence and ability?and yet at home you must also“act like a woman,”which is to say you must study assiduously to become a “real woman,” flexible enough of body to bend in the kitchen, on the floor, by the bedside?and at the washing machine. At this time?any reasonably literate woman will discover that the gender differences implied by the phrase, “And God created man, and God created woman” are real and inescapable.

But these gender roles and gender differences, the by-products of creation, do bring with them a certain irony: by definition, any complete personality is divided into two. Because gender at the genetic level, even during the earliest stages of cell division, is an unstoppable biological force, a clear divide between the male and the female.

Yet personality is undeniably whole, cast at the time of the integration of flesh and spirit. The feminine identity, however, has been divided again by society and by family.

A woman is not at allowed to be truly home with her fundamental femaleness, either in the home or out in society. At home, womanhood often means imitating some idea of what a woman should be: “learning how to be a woman”, say, or “fulfilling a woman’s duties.” Fundamentally, “womanhood” is simply a type of gender role. But the true nature of what it means to be a woman is still open to interpretation. A woman unwilling or unable to cook and clean may be considered somehow “less than a woman”, or perhaps “not like a woman” at all. A professionally accomplished woman whose looks and personality are masculine is considered to be somehow “gender confused” or “abnormal”.

Capitalist Hollywood’s film mythology has served to strengthen and reinforce these stereotypical women’s roles. Women are put on display under the bright glare of mercury lights, dressed in low-cut strapless evening gowns, their smooth porcelain necks and arms bared to the crowds of male directors, male audience members and female audience members who have internalized these masculine tastes in entertainment.

Long necklaces, baubles and bangles, diamond rings and drop earrings become the manacles and chains binding key parts of the female lead’s very public anatomy. With her spiky high heels preventing any attempt at running, she minces lightly through champagne-soaked, bubbly cotillions, balls and banquets. She is a Garbo, a Monroe, a Bergman or a voluptuous Demi Moore. She is the global standard against which female sexuality is measured, or the epitome of taste and decorum. For some men, she is the goddess of female perfection; for others, she is an object of lust. In Hollywood films, women are invariably something to be “looked upon”, rather than observers in their own right, “looking on”. This, then, is the role of women in Hollywood film, a role that serves to gloss over the male-dominant ideology so prevalent in Hollywood.

The discussion and exploration of women’s cultural roles has long been a theme in the worlds of both literature and movies. Since movies have been in existence for over one hundred years, it stands to reason that Hollywood, occupying as it does a dominant position in the world of film, would be cognizant that there are some currents in society that disagree with or reject this brand of “Hollywood” thought.

As a result, women’s movies - or perhaps more accurately, movies dealing with issues important to women – soon began to make their appearance. However, the facile subject matter and general low quality of these movies has placed them in a rather awkward position; most have garnered neither critical acclaim nor financial success at the box office.

Examining some of the “women’s movies”, or movies focused on women’s issues, from the late eighties and early nineties (Fried Green Tomatoes, Thelma and Louise and The First Wives’ Club, to give just a few examples), one finds that they present a rather juvenile and laughable version of the female consciousness. The type of feminist ethic presented in these films ranges from the merely simplistic to the truly passé. In a word, these films cannot be said to have a truly feminist consciousness. Contrast this with the film The Piano, which explores the independent personhood and spirit of a mute woman, in all of her complexity.

The intellectual level of today’s “women’s movies” is invariably quite low, a phenomenon intrinsically linked to the male creators of these films. The typical plot structure of these films posits the following “female” logic: If you are dumped by your husband, say, or if you are raped or otherwise abused by a man, then your only option is to act like a man. Use guns or other means of deadly force to wreak your revenge. Satisfaction comes only when the man who has hurt you is cold in his grave.

In these films, the relationship between men and women is depicted, more often that not, as a sort of warfare devoid of any meaningful exchange or discussion. It is the most primitive and narrowly parochial version of “woman’s liberation”. In these films, the high-spirited and daring heroics of the female characters have virtually nothing to do with the actual feelings, spirit, or fundamental humanity of the women themselves.

In contrast, the female viewpoint depicted in nineteenth-century works such as Jane Eyre grew out of demands for greater equality and respect between the sexes. For this reason, these early works seem richer and of greater significance. By demanding the abolition of position and status and all of the other trappings of inequality, they became a powerful statement for equality.

However, as we advance into the twenty-first century, Hollywood films continue to take the intellectual low road, muddling and obscuring these themes. Of course, these “women’s movies” are generally produced and directed by men. The type of “charitable concern” and understanding these men give women and women’s issues is not at all the same as the concern and understanding that women themselves exhibit on these issues.

The concern that men show for women is rooted in the idea that a woman belongs somehow to a man, so her personal development will always be linked with the male of the species. The concern one woman shows for another woman, on the other hand, has more to do with trying to get out from under the shadow of men, and about how to gain a spiritually meaningful independence.

A case in point: The Australian film The Piano, written and directed by a female, is a truly unique “female” film. In the film, Holly Hunter plays a plain-faced and rather solemn mute woman who refuses to act in a way “pleasing” to traditional male society. Stubbornly refusing to speak, laugh or even interact in any way with the male-dominated society around her, she lives only to play her cherished piano. It is this obstinate stubbornness that lies at the heart of her tremendous, at times almost frightening, inner strength. In the end, it is out on the vast silence of the empty sea that Holly Hunter’s character finally gains her rebirth.

Though the film attracted crowds of female intellectuals, holding back tears and the intense emotion generated by the film, The Piano failed to win the most coveted prize in mainstream American cinema – the Oscar. And although there have been some films emerging from Europe and Hollywood that depict lesbian characters simply and honestly, these films have generally remained marginalized both at the box office and in society at large. These films are a type of non-mainstream voice, but one still denied access to the inner sanctum of male-dominated culture.

I believe that Jane Campion’s The Piano and Portrait of a Lady are examples of works that merit being called significant women’s films. The phenomenon of these sorts of films provides a stark contrast to the general low intellectual level of so many other so-called women’s films. Women’s films, as a rule, have yet to attain a higher common denominator of intelligence; women intellectuals have yet to become true feminists in a meaningful sense of the word, and women directors have yet to become truly original and independent directors in their own right. Because of the importance of the medium of film in today’s society, feminists cannot afford to abandon this forum, this battlefield.

A similar problem arises in the world of literature. In the early and mid nineties, the literary scene in my country saw the emergence of a new and iconoclastic group of avant-garde female authors. Their extremely personal and colorful accounts of their own life experience, and the emotionally evocative language with which they painted this experience, drew unfair criticism from some male mainland Chinese critics. These critics, viewing themselves as guardians of the literary tradition that dictates “Literature is for conveying truth”, accused the female authors of succumbing to “melodrama”, “petty emotionalism” and the impulse to dredge up every piteous detail of their private lives to work into their novels.

Even today, this sort of obstinate male critic stakes his position solidly on old-fashioned Freudian thinking. Male authors are allowed to explore, in the most colorful and explicit detail, the private lives of women in their work. In fact, the greater depth and intensity one finds in a male author’s portrayal of women’s private or sexual lives, the more likely it is the author will be perceived as a great literary or creative talent. However, if a female author attempts to describe her own female experience, or to write about the female experience with some hint of autobiographical flavor, she will be sneered at or dismissed by the predominantly male critics as a “lightweight”.

Literary works that describe a human life or explore the psyche of a certain character tend to be dismissed as “trifling” or “dealing with the world in microcosm”. On the other hand, works of literature that describe tumultuous eras in human history or chart the path of dynastic change tend to be viewed as “master works” of major literary importance. This perceptual gap is not only superficial, but also indicates a certain misanthropic view of the world. When it comes to deciding which works are loftier or more important – works dealing with a clearly delineated reality and the hard facts of our existence, or works that move beyond fact into the realm of the personal, the abstruse or the eternal – it is clear that none of us are fit to make this judgment.

In the end, the universe of the human soul and the universe of objective reality are separate realms. It is impossible and inappropriate to compare the two. In fact, individual self-examination and the search for meaning, as well as our human ability to show concern for others, are qualities often overlooked or glossed over by the powers that be. The analysis of an individual’s spirit need not be the purview of any one sex. And if it is true that women writers have tended to focus more upon writing about women’s lives or their own personal experiences, perhaps this is because women’s lives, by definition, illustrate and embody such a wealth of ideological issues and historical problems.

Here we should mention the French author Helene Cixous?an active participant in the French student protests of May 1968, and a prominent feminist critic in the world of contemporary French literature. In her 1975 essay The Laugh of the Medusa, she explored for the first time the point of view of the female author, and advocated a style of writing that would free women from the “phallocentrism of language”. In The Laugh of the Medusa, Cixous writes, “I would like to talk of women writers, to discuss their usefulness. Women must enter into the community of writers. They must write about themselves, and they must write about women…Women must write themselves into the texts in the very same way that, through their struggles, they have etched themselves upon the world and upon history.”

There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing about the world of the heart or describing the life of the individual. For these are realms in which art, philosophy or science alone cannot provide a complete answer. It is religion, instead, to which most people turn for answers to these ultimate human questions.

It will take some time before the work of female authors, writing about their own personal experiences, struggles and scars, is finally accepted into the cultural mainstream. As for women in film, theirs will be a more protracted and difficult struggle. As the early feminist Simone de Beauvoir said, “To put it bluntly, class struggle has done nothing to liberate women. I firmly believe that women must make themselves into ardent feminists, and work to solve their problems for themselves…one thing I am sure of is this: while the overthrow of capitalism will quickly create favorable conditions for the emancipation of women, we will still have a very long road to walk before we gain our true liberation.” In a similar vein, it would perhaps be fair to say that the “women’s revolution” is the longest, most protracted revolution in human history.

In conclusion, if one were to say the Bible is part of male culture, then the story of God fashioning Eve from one of Adam’s ribs is the story of two beings, one a being of substance, one simply an adjunct of another’s substance. This story has long predetermined the relationship between man and woman, the substantive and the adjunct. Perhaps it is time for the “erotic machinery” of Hollywood, which has for so long monopolized mainstream cinema and mainstream culture, to be alerted to the fact that this myth no longer holds. Feminists and female intellectuals must use all of the media outlets at their disposal to challenge and even ridicule this Hollywood system - an outdated system in which woman is looked upon as a type of “scenery” for male directors, male lead actors and the male movie-going public at large. Future societies must work to eliminate the division of the sexes into “first-class” and “second-class” citizens, and must allow Adam and Eve to live as equals in the Garden of Eden, so that Eve will never again be merely someone fashioned from Adam’s rib, but a whole person with a substance all her own.





  © 2004 - 2006 Xiaolu Guo