Invisible Women

Shantella Y. Sherman | 11/23/2010, 8:17 a.m.
An ironic thought came to mind on the drive home from a double feature of...
Roles for Black actresses as tough, but also feminine, like Angela Bassett's portrayal of Loretta 'Mace' Mason in the 1998 action film Strange Days, are few and far between Courtesy Photo

An ironic thought came to mind on the drive home from a double feature of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, and Red, recently. In spite of constant attempts at presenting American women as moral dimwits, sexual deviants, and emotional cripples, popular culture has produced a handful of outstanding exceptions. Popular culture reflects society; however warped. One of its more sinister functions is to instruct viewers on issues pertaining to gender and race. Where do you belong? Who belongs beside you? Who do you love, resent, hate? Who are your criminals, your vixens, and your terrorists?

Few Americans understand what they consume through media, but there is a reason why television commercials that depict loud, Black women peddling household cleaners and (wait for it), chicken as modern-day Mammies have returned. It is against a backdrop of statistics that Black women are graduating with advanced degrees and opting for children without marriage to Black men, that Mammy, and a host of doppelganger images has evolved. During my drive home it became clear that the Black Women's Club movement had moved on. Where in the world is bell hooks? The social critic knows that it is not the images of Black people that create the discourse, but our interpretations of those images.

Films about women beating the odds are not new, but our interpretations are shifting.

Noomi Rapace gives a powerhouse performance as Lisbeth Salander in the film The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest. The Millennium trilogy epitomizes resilient female characters. Courtesy Photo
Lisbeth Salander

Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, ("The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", "The Girl Who Played with Fire", and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest"), masterfully made the leap from print to film. The series follows Lisbeth Salander, a computer hacker through a series of interactions with Millennium magazine publisher Mikael Blomkvist. Salander, played by actress, Noomi Rapace, is unassuming and knowing, yet reserved. A victim of sexual assault as both a child and adult, Salander is haunted, but not bitter. The Lisbeth character embodies the cunning resolve of young people around the globe who have found themselves preyed upon by family, society, and the institutional systems designed to aid them. Rapace is captivating as the 80-pound heroine, who relentlessly attempts to uncover a series of mysteries that surround her and a group of powerful underworld figures.

Lisbeth is White, Swedish, and her story is translated through subtitles onto movie screens, but she is Celie, from Alice Walker's 1982 book, "The Color Purple" and Precious, from the 1996 novel, "Push" by Sapphire. The storylines cross both racial and cultural spaces, demanding that the issues themselves be brought into dialogue. While society may ask: Who would rape an "unattractive" woman? Such films make it clear that with millions of girls each year being forced into sexual servitude, no female is off limits. Lisbeth appears to be an unlikely victim in the minds of the people around her - so much so -- that rape and persecution would have to be figments of her imagination.

She is taunted, called a liar, and threatened with commitment into an asylum for her claims. Like Precious before her, the incestuous root of her abuse is overshadowed by her physical appearance. What Lisbeth's character does that the others do not is unapologetically seek revenge. How would Precious or Celie have looked trying to avenge their attacks? I won't give away the story, but it is certainly worth seeing.

Another beautiful sidebar to the Millennium Trilogy is the silence it has created among White men. Every man who torments Lisbeth is White; still there are no forums and discourses on how White women love to tear down White men. No one has written about how White women's nagging leads White men to shoot up heroin or start smoking Meth. No one questioned the racial loyalty White women have to White men or the manner in which some White men are portrayed. (Message!) Some movies are about encouraging and uplifting women by giving them a mirror image. If you cannot celebrate with them, if it's not your story; then please, just hold your tongues.

Helen Mirren rips up the screen in the film RED (Retired, Extremely Dangerous) as an ex-CIA agent who is as vibrant as she is treacherous. Courtesy Photo
Victoria Winslow

Helen Mirren. That's it! Enough said. The idea of using films to showcase aging actors is not new. RED, which is an abbreviation for Retired, Extremely Dangerous, depicts Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malchavich, and Helen Mirren as ex-CIA agents being hunted down by the CIA in order to keep them from telling old secrets. Mirren plays a one-woman killing machine, Victoria Winslow. The men respect her, recognize her sex appeal, and, yet, are prepared to "come to her rescue." Her wardrobe was phenomenal, and Mirren easily overshadows her co-stars. Not since Angela Bassett kicked butt as Loretta 'Mace' Mason in the sleeper film "Strange Days" has a woman taken over an action film so definitively. The role was reminiscent of her character Rose in an odd duck of a film, Shadowboxer, directed by Lee Daniel (Precious). Watch Shadowboxer and RED in a close examination of the roles, but also pay strict attention to the characters portrayed by Macy Gray and Mo'Nique. One character is a crack head, the other... Well, the verdict is still out on what was going on with Gray's character.

Black Girls DO Rock!

Though it hit the small screen instead of movie theaters, BET's Black Girls Rock special celebrating the vibrancy and resilience of Black females, is not to be missed. Honorees of the show included KeKe Palmer ("Akeelah and the Bee", Nickelodeon's "True Jackson"), Major General Marcelite J. Harris, and our national treasure, Ruby Dee who received the Living Legend Award. Beverly Bond, the founder of the Black Girls Rock organization often spoke about the very limited images of women of color in mass media. She said the organization was founded so young Black girls could "know that the world is not limited to them."

The idea of stepping out of stereotypes came to life with stellar performances by a host of artists, including Kelly Price, Marsha Ambrosius, Jill Scott, and Ledisi who set Nina Simone's Four Women afire! BET gets kudos for a show that honored all the right folks and embraced both the young and elders alike. Probably the most pivotal moment of the show was the tribute to Ruby Dee.

Lynn Whitfield complimented the acclaimed actress.

"She represents the soul and consciousness of a sometimes hollow Hollywood. She is an unshakeable woman. She stands by her man and stands up for her people. She didn't just wait for someone to give her a role, she created them for herself."

Popular Culture Acknowledges Outstanding Women in Film