Race, sexuality, and “The Women”

The Women — an updated version of the legendary 1939 film of the same name about a wealthy New Yorker who leaves her cheating husband and bonds with other society women at a resort — doesn’t open in theaters until next week, but some of the media are already releasing their reviews. So far, there’ve been positive remarks about Bette Midler‘s hilarious cameo and the “witty and warm ensemble” that includes (deep breath) Meg Ryan, Eva Mendes, Jada Pinkett Smith, Annette Bening, Debra Messing, Natasha Alam and Candice Bergen.

That’s a lot of fabulous ladies — how could this movie go wrong?

Some reviewers are taking the film to task on race issues. Specifically, they’re asking, “Why are the roles of lesbian outsider and designated home-wrecker villainess relegated to the only women of color in the film?”

Sarah Warn and I have different takes on this issue, and we thought we’d offer both of our answers below. Read them and let us know what you think in the comments!

TRISH: The Women has a colorful cast, and that’s a good thing.

While I haven’t seen the film yet (somehow I was left off the Los Angeles premiere invite list), I have to weigh being a “home-wrecker” against the perceived negativity this reporter is giving to being a lesbian. Somehow it’s insinuated that Pinkett Smith’s character being gay is so awful, they cast a black woman to make her even more of an “outsider.”

But from the previews, interviews and general press about the film, it would seem her character is very much part of the group, and actually adds some three-dimensionality to the remaining cast of affluent white women. A lesbian of color in a film, in my book, is actually a positive thing.

According to the blog Rod 2.0, Pinkett Smith tells The Advocate in their Sept. 9 issue:

I’m always trying to explore different worlds and different realities … I’ve never played a lesbian before. I thought it would be a challenge and fun. I was up for the ride.

From all the positive press surrounding the film, and the smiles on all of the ladies’ faces at the premiere when standing together, it seems like The Women is going to be a fun film with a colorful cast of personalities.

Eva Mendes might be playing a hussy, but it’s most likely not because she’s Latina — it’s because she’s scorching hot.

And Pinkett Smith? She’s a lesbian dream (especially since Set It Off, when so many wished she would just hook up with Queen Latifah and run off into the sunset together with their stolen money in tow).

So I, for one, commend the casting director. Thank you for answering so many prayers!

SARAH: The Women‘s cast isn’t colorful enough.

Obviously Trish is right that being gay shouldn’t automatically be lumped in with "home-wrecker" and other negative connotations.

But although I haven’t seen The Women yet, I do agree with critics who question why the film’s primary "insider" roles in this film are played by white women.

I know this film went through a long and difficult journey just to get made, with various actors attached over time (including Julia Roberts and Uma Thurman). Given the sexism in the industry and the number of times director Diane English was told this film couldn’t be made because it doesn’t have a single man in it, the fact that this film is even seeing the light of a day is an accomplishment.

But American filmmakers have a long history of using women of color in mainstream films to play the outsider-type roles — in negative ways (as home-wreckers, career-wreckers, killers, etc); in neutral but stereotypical ways (the maid, the neighbor, the exotic "other woman"), and occasionally in positive ways (as angels, gods, etc.).

And as much as we might wish otherwise, "lesbian" is still a type of "outsider" for many Americans, and in that way, The Women falls right in line with this pattern.

But let’s back up: The problem starts with the lack of good roles for women of any race — women are largely cast in supporting roles in most movies, and there often aren’t even very many of those to go around.

A quick glance at the box office lineup for any given week will illustrate this. The top box office movies — the movies that usually get the biggest budgets and the most marketing and promotional support — almost always fall into one of two categories:

a) Movies with mostly male casts, with one or two white women (unless they need an action hero, and then they might bring in someone like Michelle Yeoh). Tropic Thunder!, Dark Knight, Pineapple Express, and Death Race are good examples from last week’s box office.

or

b) Movies with mostly female casts, who are usually all or mostly played by white women. See Mamma Mia and The House Bunny on last week’s box-office list.

This is why indie movies revolving around members of a particular ethnic/racial group, like Tortilla Soup, Waiting to Exhale, Akeelah and the Bee, Red Doors, Bend it Like Beckham and even the dreaded (by me, anyway) Tyler Perry movies, are so necessary — they put people of color front and center in films that don’t revolve around crime or race.

Unfortunately, these kinds of films are still few and far between, and they don’t tend to make much money at the box office (with a few exceptions, like Beckham).

So if good roles for women are already scarce, guess who is going to get a crack at the best role in a film? Not the woman of color, that’s for sure! (Why? That’s a really, really long blog post for another day.)

If leading roles are almost never lesbian characters, and women of color are almost always in supporting roles, the odds that a woman of color will be cast in the lesbian role go up significantly. Which means women of color are disproportionately cast in supporting lesbian roles in mainstream films (Under the Tuscan Sun, Smokin’ Aces, Head in the Clouds, etc.), and massively underrepresented in leading roles (which are not usually gay) in mainstream films.

(Occasionally, there are leading, Oscar-worthy lesbian roles in mainstream movies, like the ones in Monster or The Hours — but those always go to white women. Whoopi Goldberg played the prominent Oscar-worthy lesbian role in The Color Purple, but there was no way to cast a white woman in that role since it was based on a book about a black family in the 1930s — not that some casting director somewhere probably didn’t try. Frida is another exception, but it was based on a true story.)

There are plenty of movies with all-white casts and token lesbian characters —The Jane Austen Book Club and Feast of Love are some recent examples — but if there’s a woman of color in a movie that has a lesbian character, there’s a pretty good chance she’s playing the lesbian role.

It’s great to see more lesbian/bi women of color in movies. But we need more women of color in movies, period, and to disproportionately cast them in supporting lesbian roles while consistently keeping them out of leading heterosexual (or lesbian) roles is both a product and reinforcement of the racism, homophobia, and sexism that continues to influence American movie-making.

In other words: there’s nothing wrong with Pinkett Smith playing a lesbian in The Women, but there is something wrong with the larger pattern this represents.

None of which means I’m not going to see The Women. I’ll be in the theater on opening weekend, both because I’m curious about the film, and to help disprove the notion that female ensemble films can’t succeed at the box office.

But I’m really looking forward to the day I can look at a ensemble female cast in a mainstream movie, point to the one (or two) woman of color in it, and not guess correctly most of the time that she’s the one playing the gay character.

Even better? The day when there are actually more than only one or two women of color in the cast.

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