How Do You Solve A Problem Like Amelia?

Illustration for article titled How Do You Solve A Problem Like Amelia?

Well, for starters, how about having it actually be good? Oh, and throwing out "Strong Female Characters" (tm) once and for all?


It's unfortunate that we can't just talk about Amelia as a bad movie. As another unwieldy, under-characterized, over-cliched biopic trying to combine legend and humanity into one half-baked, generic panini, the kind made, inevitably, with chicken, crummy cheese and a few overwhelming hunks of roasted pepper. But when Amelia fails, it's an indictment of women's movie, of "older women's movies" (that's us ape-leaders over the magic 25) and of those with "strong female characters."

Of course, Amelia's part of a larger trend, which leads to inevitable analysis. As the NYT puts it, "For actresses, it is no longer enough to be young and beautiful onscreen, they have to be dead and famous, too - one of history's immortals." Amelia, Coco, Victoria - these are the Good Roles now, nevermind that biopics of either sex are rarely showcases for much other than scenery-chewing. (Maybe that's why a film like The Queen feels as revelatory as it did.) The WaPo piece that Hortense referenced this weekend said this:

The historical drama, about the pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart, represents a major risk in Hollywood, where studio executives have been increasingly chary of making movies about strong women. If "Amelia" earns respectable receipts, chances are it will be dismissed as a lucky break. If it fails, it will be cited as yet more proof that strong female protagonists are box office poison.

Here's something that bothers me: people seem to misunderstand what a "strong female character" is. They think it means flying planes or, James Cameron-style, wielding guns (both kinds.) Call it the "Demi Moore syndrome" in which she seemed to feel shaving her head or sexually harassing male characters functioned as acts of reclamation. "Strong women" are box-office poison? How about "underwritten characters showing they're strong by engaging in heavy-handed and essentially masculine antics?" Think about it: "strength" is defined narrowly as "defying femininity" and it's reductive and it's boring. (Alternatively, SFC's are occasionally allowed to be battered by love and tragedy and emerge singing or otherwise triumphant.) As the superbly-named Sady Doyle sagely puts it, "No matter how much you like strong female characters, this isn't interesting. And I'm reluctant to see any movie that looks this predictable and obvious out of some kind of womanly obligation. "Strength" can be just as bland as anything else – and just as limiting."

Look, no one's denying Amelia Earhart's accomplishments nor her place in history - rather, the inevitable interpretation. As the Los Angeles Times puts it, "The pilot, perhaps the most famous woman in the world in the early 1930s, has become for many a kind of two-dimensional pop-up icon, a name branded on public works and postage stamps — vaunted for her androgynous style, her lanky figure invariably adorned in breeches and a silk shirt, her hair cropped short. It's not for nothing that the Gap and Apple recycled her image for ad campaigns in the 1990s." And the film doesn't challenge that. Amelia was a crummy movie, no worse than any sweeping biographical epic. I'd forgotten it ten minutes after walking out of the theatre. But the consequences for its failure are, apparently, far more serious: it means "strong women" don't sell. Well, if that means an end to "strong women" as Hollywood defines it, frankly, I don't think that's such a tragedy. Sadly, what it probably in fact means is more Julie, less Julia. And it's really sad that, nowadays, a "women's movie" can't suck in a vacuum.

Dissecting Amelia [WomenandHollywood]
Now Starring at the Movies: Famous Dead Women] [New York Times]
Making A Private Woman Public For 'Amelia' [Los Angeles Times]
Women & Film [Washington Post]

Strong Women, Weak Box Office [Salon]
Related: Will Strong Female Characters Ever Make A Comeback On The Big Screen?



I feel inclined to put in a good word for Tarantino. I love the women in his movies. Shoshanna in Basterds, The Bride in Kill Bill, Jackie Brown, etc. They're complex and interesting and flawed and they exist without a stupid, blaring "Lady power! Hell yeah!!!" agenda.

Then there's David Lynch who not only makes crappy movies, but is also capable only of representing women as pure sex or pure hysteria. #amelia