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 the title of a forthcoming season dedicated to “fierce females”.

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

But a letter signed by more than 300 academics and critics argued that the title “uncritically parrots” misogyny.

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 word 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, said the women 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 said.

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, in a statement to The Telegraph, the BFI said more than half of the work was taken from source material written by women.

The spokesman 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.”

Analysis by Megha Mohan, BBC gender and identity correspondent

There’s a meme that’s recently been reblogged on tumblr. It’s of Gwen Close as Creulla De Vil in the 1996 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 cartoon-ish traits that further perpetuates gender-based stereotypes.

A prime example? An ambitious woman is a bitch. Capital B.

Critics to the BFI season take exception to this word and the connotations around it. The BFI say 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, Ironman and Captain America), we still aren’t quite there with appreciating a female hero – or a “bitch”.

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