Devil’s Advocate: The actress who cried sexism


Call me a bleeding heart liberal but I think that women are a good thing. There it is, I’ve said it.

“But Ross” you shout, “you’ve got it all wrong, it’s the 21st Century!”. Garrulous as you are, you also happen to be correct. You see by now I think all those of sound mind agree that gender equality is a bloody good idea and that society bally well should have thought of it sooner, but sometimes people seem to find sexism where there was never any to be found.

Now as a man who has seen his fair share of trashy exploitation flicks, I’ve seen my fair share of ignorance as well. As a result I am all too aware of the presence of gender politics when it comes to movie criticism, but I also think that they shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of one’s viewing experience.

To clarify, I am by no means calling the esteemed Dame Helen Mirren a rabid feminist, neither am I assuming any particular views on her part, but recently she’s said something rather silly in relation to Tomas Alfredson’s summer praise-sponge Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy:

“The secret service always had a huge number of women working for them, and they played major roles in real life. But they were ignored for this film!” Speaking to The Times, she continued: “How many women were in that? I mean, come on. There weren’t any women in the 70s?”

Now I realise the possibly throw-away nature of this comment. As far as I know she has spoken no further on the subject and hasn’t said whether she was simply being factual or expressing a (heavily implied) opinion about some form of sexism in the film’s portrayal of the Secret Service. However, the point remains that there are many more viable targets ripe for a good old kicking in the knackers than a brilliantly intelligent slice of stylised 70’s Britain.

Even if the Secret Service employed exclusively women throughout the decade this fact would do nothing to diminish the success or impact of the (admittedly male dominated) film itself. Tinker Tailor is not about women, but neither is it about the Cold War or even the Secret Service. In reality it’s a film about middle aged men with fag ash on their badly tailored suits and suspicion in their hearts. Alfredson is an intelligent male director who rather than seeking to provide an historically accurate and overtly gender progressive portrayal of Cold War espionage has instead delivered an exquisitely observed and old-fashioned meditation on the minutiae of suspicion and the numbed pain of betrayal amongst a group of unfulfilled and emotionally stifled men.

Mirren’s comment was only minor and delivered with no real accusation or malice, but within it I think there lies a valid point that I feel must be made. Films can be stupid, racist, xenophobic, crass, ridiculous, amazing, heart-warming, fickle, ironic, postmodern (which as Annie Sprinkle would eruditely – if somewhat generally – put it, means never having to say you’re sorry), hilarious, dull and sometimes downright breathtaking. Films can also most definitely be misogynist.

Male dominance has certainly been an issue in the past. The Bechdel Test for example is a litmus test of sorts for the treatment given to women by a film. First suggested by a satirical comic stip it has grown from there into something altogether more serious but nevertheless (when looking at older fare especially) oddly valid. It’s requirements are basic and it’s foundations rooted in humour but throughout cinematic history women have often been unfairly ignored. It’s a well known fact of Hollywood that once an actress reaches 40 the fight for employment begins.

However there is hope yet. As Bob Dylan almost once famously put it; the times they are a-debatedly changin’, so when it comes to the good guys, let’s not cry wolf as to the plight of women in cinema. Especially when Michael Bay’s most recent offering grossed $1.1 billion worldwide.


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