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VIDEO ESSAY: Electric Sheep: How Female Power Is Limited By Consumer Culture

VIDEO ESSAY: Electric Sheep: How Female Power Is Limited By Consumer Culture

[The script for the video essay follows.]

In the opening montage to Do The Right Thing, Tina, played by Rosie Perez, dances to “Fight
The Power,” the only figure in an otherwise empty urban landscape. In this opening sequence, Tina symbolizes
everything we associate with female power: a delicate body in a kung fu pose,
her big beautiful eyes coupled with tight fists. In the world of the “strong
female character,” sex is a snarl, fingers are clenched and punches are thrown,
even though the camera zooms in and lingers on curves.

In the opening credits Tina seems active and empowered, In
the actual film, Tina is house-bound. We see moments of her talking to Mookie,
begging him to come home or lecturing him about being a man. However, we don’t
have any scenes of interiority, where Tina is established as a character, with
her own hopes and dreams. 

Her existence in Do
The Right Thing
is less about unpacking the world that women of color live
in than showing a sexy female figure in a poor urban landscape. After that
opening sequence, Tina is actively disempowered. Her role goes from
revolutionary to mere eye candy. Tina’s big moment in a film about individuals
making hard choices is when Mookie finally shows up and rolls an ice cube over
her segmented body.

The image of the female revolutionary has often been adapted
to fit different time periods. In the 1928 film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, we see close ups of Joan’s face
crying. In a ’48 version we see Joan in full armor leading the charge, as well
as images of her bound and crying. In
the 1999 film, The Messenger, Joan’s
hair is shorn, her eyes looking intently, her lip curled into a snarl. Is Joan
of Arc’s strength from her religious conviction, or her prowess on the
battlefield? 

We focus less on the substance of icons of female strength
than we do on their image. We worry about what Wonder Woman is going to wear
when she fights evil. We get concerned about whether Super Girl’s breasts look
fake. We cheer when Beyonce dresses up as Rosie The Riveter; her curled bicep
is lauded as a powerful statement about female empowerment. We care less about
what celebrities actually do to help women than whether or not they are
willing and proud to proclaim themselves feminists. We want the quick sound byte,
the 3:00 minute Upworthy video, the clever meme.

We don’t want women to be objects, but we sure as hell want
them to be symbols. 

The powerful woman is defined first by how she looks and how
she holds her body. The “strong female lead” is always beautiful and fierce,
sexy and tough. She has a tragic back-story and a yearning for justice as solid
and strong as any male action hero. In today’s world, Xena, Buffy, The Bride,
and Lara Croft, as well as superheroes like Wonder Woman and Super Girl, are read
as powerful because of their physical prowess. Often their power is meant to
surprise us precisely because, despite their physical strength, they appear
pretty, delicate, and sweet.

The ubiquity of these images of female strength and power is
exacerbated in a world of Instagram images and constantly generated GIFs.
Beyonce’s allusion to Rosie the Riveter is one part homage and one part
marketing initiative. It’s a beautiful, brazen and, above all, familiar image,
a picture of feminism that we generally don’t question, an idea about power we
all agree we can get behind.

Beyonce and Janelle Monae are two artists at the forefront
of today’s feminist movement. Beyonce is deeply invested in claiming space for
female experience in a man’s world and insists on a woman’s right to “have
it all.” In contrast, Monae demands change. Monae doesn’t want us to “ban
bossy” or “lean in”, she wants us to open our minds. To embrace creativity,
queerness, sensuality.

There’s a reason Beyonce can be heralded as both a feminist
icon, and also have her lyrics used to support a mainstream film like Fifty Shades of Grey, which is less
about S&M than a relationship that meets all the criteria for abuse. In
reality, Queen Bey isn’t worried about power dynamics as long as she gets to
call the shots, which is why her rallying call of “bow down bitches!” is less a
call for female revolution than an assertion that she wants a seat in the boys
club.

Beyonce’s feminist message, though visible and important,
does not actively disrupt the mainstream. In contrast, Janelle Monae is an
R&B artist who is actually deeply invested in dismantling the way we think
about power. In her debut studio album, The
ArchAndroid
, Monae plays the character Cindi Mayweather, an android who
time travels to save a civilization from forces trying to suppress freedom and
love. In her recently released Q.U.E.E.N.,
Monae also calls for revolution. She encourages solidarity amongst the
disenfranchised, the wacky and the just plain weird. Women in Monae’s videos
don’t bump and grind, objects for the camera, the way they do in almost every
single music video. They smile, they dance, they play records, they sing.  While Beyonce croons slow ballads about
yearning to be an object of allure for her husband, Monae tells a male lover on
“Prime Time,” “I don’t want to be mysterious with you.”

In a world where female sexuality and power is
still often obscured, rendered strange, unintelligible, or made to exist to
fulfill a male fantasy, Monae’s insistence on being seen as a full person is
far more radical than any power pose you can copy and share on Facebook or
Instagram. While Beyonce’s brand of feminism might be a more attractive model
for consumer culture, it’s artists like Monae, who insist on questioning the
ways we are labeled, that will ultimately help us do what Tina in Do The Right Thing strives for in her
opening dance, but never ultimately achieves: get a chance to actually fight the
power.

Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
The
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
contests
. She is currently writing her first book.


Serena Bramble is a film editor whose
montage skills are an end result of accumulated years of movie-watching
and loving. Serena is a graduate from the Teledramatic Arts and
Technology department at Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing,
she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.

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