BFI female film season sparks misogyny row

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Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn’s Death Becomes Her is among the films on the bill

The British Film Institute (BFI) is facing accusations of misogyny over a season dedicated to “fierce females”.

The programme includes films featuring “some of the most wickedly compelling female characters on screen”.

In December, more than 330 academics and critics signed a letter warning that it risked “uncritically parroting” the misogyny of Hollywood.

The Playing the Bitch season was programmed by Anna Bogutskaya, who said she hoped to “start a conversation”.

In a blog explaining the project, Ms Bogutskaya said she realised the title had “powerful connotations” that made it “offensive to many”.

She wrote: “My intention is not to provoke but to pose a question I can’t answer by myself: what makes a screen ‘bitch’?”

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Films starring Rosamund Pike and Nicole Kidman will also be screened

The protest letter, led by Dr Erika Balsom and Dr Elena Gorfinkel, senior lecturers in film studies at King’s College London, was sent after an outline of the season, then simply titled Bitches, was announced.

They said the characters in question “do not subvert gender norms, they inhabit stereotypes”. In this context, they said the word was “insulting, not empowering”.

The season also reinforced a “woeful status quo” by featuring “male representations of crazy, damaged, spiteful women”, they wrote.

Dr Balsom and Dr Gorfinkel met the BFI in January to discuss their complaints, and the full line-up was announced on 1 May.

On Friday, the pair told BBC News: “It appears the only change they made was altering the title slightly.

“The BFI has failed to listen to over 330 scholars, film-makers, curators, artists, critics, etc, who expressed doubts about their season with ample time for them to reflect on their choices.”

The film screenings and panel discussions will take place in June.

Portrayals on the bill include

  • Bette Davis as a malevolent Southern aristocrat in The Little Foxes
  • Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn as sworn enemies in Death Becomes Her
  • Nicole Kidman as an ambitious weather presenter in To Die For
  • Rosamund Pike as the anti-heroine in Gone Girl

The season is advertised as a “thought provoking analysis” of “tough, difficult women” that aims to celebrate “self-determining, independent, defiant, but always charismatic anti-heroines”.

All the films featured were made by male directors, but the BFI said more than half of the work was taken from source material written by women, and that the point of the season is to celebrate female actors.

A BFI statement said: “We thought very hard about using the word ‘bitch’ for the programme and appreciate that it is a provocative term, infused with different meaning by people from different genders, generations, backgrounds and cultures.

“This is a really interesting and important conversation, and we are going to directly address the word and its meaning in this season through our events programme.”

A BFI spokeswoman also pointed to a wider programme of screenings, events and releases exploring the work of women in front of and behind the camera.

Analysis by Megha Mohan, BBC gender and identity correspondent

There’s a meme that’s recently been reblogged on Tumblr. It’s of Glenn Close as Cruella De Vil in the 1996 film 101 Dalmatians.

She says: “More good women have been lost to marriage than to war, famine, disease, and disaster. You have talent, darling. Don’t squander it.” A comment underneath says: “Patriarchy is that they gave this line to a villain.”

It’s a conversation that film students have had for decades – does the male gaze result in one-dimensional women on the screen? Particularly the heartless, icy woman who assumes cartoonish traits that further perpetuate gender-based stereotypes?

A prime example? An ambitious woman is a bitch. Critics of the BFI season take exception to this word and the connotations around it.

The BFI says the word is a vehicle to explore female characters. But in an age where social media users criticised Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel role by telling her to “smile more” (to which she responded by Photoshopping smiles onto Superman, Iron Man and Captain America), we still aren’t quite there with appreciating a female hero – or a “bitch”.

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