If you’re excited for the upcoming Wonder Woman movie and have been keeping a close eye on on the press, like me, then you may know that a bunch of people have their boxer briefs in a twist because of an upcoming women-only showing of the film.
Alamo Drafthouse is a popular movie theater chain in Texas, and one location in Austin has recently announced a planned showing for June 6 in which only women (and people who identify as women) are allowed to attend. On top of that, the theater released a statement saying, “Everyone working at this screening — venue staff, projectionist, and culinary team — will be female.”
So of course, men flipped their shit.
People have been calling the event sexist and threatening to boycott the film and the theater. None of these threats had much effect, however. The Alamo Drafthouse defended their event, offered a second women-only showing, and made plans to expand the event across the country.
While it’s satisfying to sip a cup of male tears, I want to put snarkery aside for a moment and actually think about this whole situation. People (mostly white men) have been trying to make the argument that if the tables were turned in any way, the situation would not be seen as positively. How would a showing of Black Panther for African Americans-only go over? What about a men-only showing of any film?
They’re right in one regard – a men-only showing of a film would definitely not be the same. But why? The answer, I’d argue, has to do with purpose and privilege.
Blogs and news outlets who have covered this story have rightly brought up the point that women have had noticeably bad representation in movies lately – especially in action and superhero films. Wonder Woman is the first female to lead a superhero film since Elektra. Peter Holley of The Washington Post had this to say about the phenomenon:
Though women have been consistently featured in superhero roles on screen over the past decade, female protagonists make up a much smaller portion of the top grossing films each year, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.
A recent reported produced by the center found that women comprised 29 percent of protagonists among the top 100 films of 2016, a “historical high” and an increase of seven percentage points from a year earlier.
“However, the percentage of female characters in speaking roles (major and minor) was 32 percent, down 1 percentage point from 2015,” the report, “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World,” concluded. “Overall, these results indicate that while audiences were more than twice as likely to see male characters as female characters on screen, females fared better as protagonists and major characters last year.”
To many, the women-only screening could look like payback for exclusion from a wildly popular film genre: you men don’t like being excluded from one theater for one night? Now you know how it feels!
But I’d argue that there’s more to this story than simple payback. Revenge comes from a place of hostility and the desire to right a (perceived) wrong, and the purpose of the women-only screening doesn’t feel like revenge to me. The advertisement from the Alamo Drafthouse reads thus: “So lasso your geeky girlfriends together and grab your tickets to this celebration of one of the most enduring and inspiring characters ever created.” There’s nothing in there that suggests this showing is pure malice against men. It’s a celebration of women finally seeing themselves as protagonists in a superhero film since 2005 (which, quite frankly, sucked).
To expand on that, I want to explore why creating a women-only showing is not sexist by throwing in a bit of social theory about space. Critics of the Alamo Drafthouse like to argue that for a place to be truly equal, both sexes need to have access to it – and that’s generally true. The problem is that’s now how our world works.
Space and Gender
Spaces – both physical and social – are largely designed with straight white men in mind because they are the ones who have social power and privilege. Linda McDowell explores the dynamic between gender and place in her book Gender, Identity, and Place: Understanding Feminist Geographies and the binary that dictates the way we organize the world. Men are associated with public spaces, independence, power, and production while women are associated with private spaces (like the home), and dependence or lack of power. As a result, public spaces are overwhelmingly masculine: as McDowell writes, “in the labor market, in particular, it is assumed that women are able to fit themselves in slots designed for men” (177). We can see this easily in discussions about maternity leave: women are expected to take as little time off as possible if they want to excel in a career, and men are expected to take little or no time off at all – even if the option is available to them. True, we can attribute all this to capitalism, but there is a gendered effect as well: men, who do not bear children, don’t need to take time off of work because childcare exists in the realm of the feminine. Women who call attention to family needs and responsibility are injecting the masculine realm with their femininity and are thus punished.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Virginia Woolf notes in her essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” that women need access to spaces (though her analysis pertains to writing fiction):
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved… At the thought of all those women working year after year and finding it hard to get two thousand pounds together, and as much as they could do to get thirty thousand pounds, we burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex. What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? Looking in at shop windows? Flaunting in the sun at Monte Carlo? There were some photographs on the mantelpiece. Mary’s mother—if that was her picture—may have been a wastrel in her spare time (she had thirteen children by a minister of the church), but if so her gay and dissipated life had left too few traces of its pleasures on her face. She was a homely body; an old lady in a plaid shawl which was fastened by a large cameo; and she sat in a basket-chair, encouraging a spaniel to look at the camera, with the amused, yet strained expression of one who is sure that the dog will move directly the bulb is pressed. Now if she had gone into business; had become a manufacturer of artificial silk or a magnate on the Stock Exchange; if she had left two or three hundred thousand pounds to Fernham, we could have been sitting at our ease tonight and the subject of our talk might have been archaeology, botany, anthropology, physics, the nature of the atom, mathematics, astronomy, relativity, geography. If only Mrs Seton and her mother and her mother before her had learnt the great art of making money and had left their money, like their fathers and their grandfathers before them, to found fellowships and lectureships and prizes and scholarships appropriated to the use of their own sex, we might have dined very tolerably up here alone off a bird and a bottle of wine; we might have looked forward without undue confidence to a pleasant and honourable lifetime spent in the shelter of one of the liberally endowed professions. We might have been exploring or writing; mooning about the venerable places of the earth; sitting contemplative on the steps of the Parthenon, or going at ten to an office and coming home comfortably at half-past four to write a little poetry.”
Overall, Woolf argues that women must have spaces of their own in order to create fiction, and in order to have those spaces, they must have money (since money allows for the time to devote to writing instead of working, and money also allows for larger living spaces to be built/rented). However, money is denied to women because they are routinely barred from social spheres designed for men. It could be inferred from this essay that similar arguments apply to all spaces: in order to produce something, women must be given their own spaces. Women must be given opportunities designed uniquely for them, not expected to navigate a man’s world. Thus, creating women-only spaces have a positive effect, not because gender-segregation is beneficial, but because those who are typically powerless (in this case, women) have the opportunity to realize their potential.
We can apply similar mentalities to abstract spaces, like genre. While the conversation has been changing, “traditional” views of action and superhero films have located these genres squarely in the realm of the masculine. Yann Roblou argues in “Complex Masculinites: The Superhero in Modern American Movies” that “in the present context of superhero movies, this definition of masculinity (the man who is “superior”) is supported by the fact that the fictional figures under analysis are overwhelmingly non-feminine, straight and white” (77). Women are outsiders to this genre, as seen whenever any film features female (or people of color) as its protagonist. Part of the reason can be traced back to geekery and nerdom being a sort of “haven” for men who were themselves excluded from public/social spaces. As Jonathan McIntost writes for The Independent:
Back before The Avengers were household names, superheroes were the domain of geekdom, and particularly “geek guys” who, to some degree, felt personally ostracised and disillusioned by the ideals of stereotypical tough-guy manhood in mainstream culture. Despite being made to feel subordinate to concepts of hypermasculinity, many geek guys have nonetheless embraced superheroes that embody hypermasculine traits and values. They tend to idolise those ideals despite being alienated from them as individuals. This self-identification with hypermasculinity is no doubt one of the factors in the rampant misogyny that plagues the comic book industry and community.
The particular brand of superhero masculinity represents a popular conception of what it means to be a “real man,” a conception that is not relegated solely to the realms of fantasy. Hypermasculinity manifests everywhere in our culture and can be seen reflected in politics, international conflict, municipal policing, domestic violence and interpersonal relationships. All you have to do is look at global leaders who routinely pound their chests while advocating for the use of deadly force as a solution to complex social problems, as if they aren’t talking about delicate matters of international diplomacy but rather boasting about taking down a super villain like Ultron.
I want to point out that women have always been enjoying nerd stuff (look at the audience for the original Star Trek, for god’s sake), but that doesn’t negate the fact that men have frequently perceived nerdom as a very masculine space. Likewise, McIntosh brilliantly illustrates the way masculinity transfers from the relatively small sphere of nerdom to the larger public sphere of politics and social relations. I mean, just look at the image of masculinity Trump is putting out (and his supporters celebrate him for). Masculinity is idolized no matter what space a person inhabits, and when a female character or person of color comes along and inserts themselves into those spaces, they exhibit qualities that are traditionally seen as “weak” or “inferior,” prompting a huge backlash.
Those people suck, of course.
Making Space for Women (and POC)
Because so many spaces are constructed as masculine, backlash against a women-only showing of Wonder Woman is partly backlash against privilege being denied. For one, movie theaters are a public space – men are not used to being denied access to public spaces because they are squarely in the realm of the masculine. Of course, few people have that direct mentality: I don’t think a lot of people would say “movie theaters are for men” or “women shouldn’t be allowed in public,” but the fact remains that men aren’t used to public spaces being restricted for them. Women (and people of color), on the other hand, are much more attuned to recognizing hostile environments. We can’t even safely walk down the street while men don’t give it a second thought.
When a theater creates a gender-specific event, the effect of excluding men may seem like an act of discrimination, but it actually reads more like creating a safe space. Women are being provided with a temporary space in which to see a film whose genre is usually situated in the masculine. The film is not being restricted to women across the country or even within the same theater: men still have access to this film, just not in one moment in one locale. Giving space to people who are typically discriminated against, oppressed, or under-represented isn’t an act of discrimination itself – it’s a way to empower those populations.
Critics point out that a men-only showing of a film would be different: yes, it would, in part because men hold positions of power and are already idolized, celebrated, and held up as a standard in both our social environments and our movie genres. The only way I could see a men-only showing being successful would be if it were for a film that challenges the ideals of masculinity (say, a men-only showing of Moonlight?). Yes, equality is dependent on both sexes having access to a space, but until that’s applicable to all spaces, I don’t see how providing a haven or safe space for women to celebrate a female character is an act of discrimination. If a man wants to claim he identifies as female and buys a ticket to an event like this in order to harass female movie-goers and proclaim a big “fuck you” to the theater – that in itself proves the need for spaces designed solely for women. That proves that men are aggressively entitled to all public spaces.
The biggest takeaway from this event, in my view, is to reflect on ways in which spaces (social and physical) are restricted. Marginalized populations (women, people of color, lgbt+ people) experience space differently than straight white men, and nerdom, particularly, is in need of an overhaul.
If we insist on idolizing masculinity and enabling spaces where that masculinity can flourish, the result is a level of toxicity that hurts society as a whole rather than projecting images of strength. Luckily, we’re in an age where support for women, people of color, and lgbt+ people is increasing, and the Alamo Drafthouse has sold out their event (plus gathered a defensive squad online). But until we reach true equality, providing spaces for marginalized populations to celebrate their values will never be an act of discrimination.