A new era for heroines

by Jagoda Marinic

Heroes (Issue II/2018)

I'm sitting in the living room of a flat-share and we are chatting about our cinema heroes. It is 2003. "Kill Bill" has just started with a blood-splattered, revenge-seeking Uma Thurman stealing the show. Ever since "Pulp Fiction" she had adorned the wall of every other flat-share kitchen, and sometimes also hung above the young men's beds. Her film role emerged as the symbol for a new female empowerment. "Kill Bill" also generated a new category of cinematic heroine: "the muscle-bound blonde in combat uniform," a woman who fights back. But when conversations got going about this film, and not only that evening in that flat-share living room, they would swiftly move on to Tarantino. It was Tarantino's megalomania which fascinated and erotically aroused people, especially young men. Thurman was the perfect object, allowing herself to be shaped by the god-like figure of Tarantino, shaping her to fit men's dreams. He managed to market an icon of female empowerment, and in such a way that she was generally seen as a masturbatory aid.

On the red carpet Thurman resembled the muse of a devil-like film genius, the fairy in his magic hands. As if even in the 21st century the highest praise for talented woman was to be a worthy male fantasy. A man was needed to elevate a woman to heroine status. That was how power worked in Hollywood. For me, Thurman was over, even while she was being dubbed a heroine. She allowed herself to be shaped by Tarantino's misogynistic wishes, to create his image of a heroine.

Move on 15 years: #MeToo. As Weinstein made "Kill Bill" many were curious about Uma Thurman's story. But she first delayed, saying she still had to deal with her anger. But when she broke her silence over Weinstein in a New York Times interview, she wanted an additional Hollywood hero to fall: Quentin Tarantino. He had diced with her health and her life, all for the sake of that scene where his film heroine smashes a car into a tree. Rather than using a film double for the shoot, he apparently loosened the screws on the car seat. Unwittingly, Thurman sat in the car, drove against the tree and injured herself, badly. He wanted Thurman, his fighting film heroine to be defenceless in his hands.

It was only 15 years later that Thurman was given the film footage which supported her claims. Her knee and neck have never recovered from the accident. Back then she didn't let her director hero down but rather felt like "a broken tool". After all, where would Thurman be without Tarantino? He could have made anyone big. In the front guard of filmmakers he used male fantasies to smash women against the windscreen in a hundred ways, like blue bottles. And it made him successful. With Uma Thurman he wanted to free women from the role of victim - and let himself be celebrated as a hero. He made women who were desirable. He made Salma Hayek an international star. His genius was unique, while women were a means to an end. That's also how the men in the flat share talked. Beautiful women would do anything he wanted, to play the part of female empowerment, as defined by Tarantino.

Now it is 2018. One man after another steps down, recently the star director James Levine who was alleged to have abused young men. In the U.S. names are circulating, but as yet, the accused are losing their jobs rather than facing courts. In Germany people are still hesitant with names and stories. It is as if we are holding #MeToo against women, out of fear it could make "the man" insecure.

When one hero topples, the whole system rattles with complicity: his fans and enablers, his euphoric critics. If Hollywood largely knew about and tolerated the Weinstein system, what does that say about the values underpinning this so-called civilised society? The next case: Woody Allen. One of the few men whose female leads were also loved by women. Diane Keaton – Annie Hall. But Allen's most recent film flopped because it revealed a director who didn't take any notice of #MeToo. What's today seen as his lewd gaze is no longer ok. Just as it's no longer ok that an eighty-year-old director wants to be seen as vital and present a new film every year, while limiting a forty-something Kate Winslet to the role of a frustrated aging woman. It doesn't work like it used to, when such men used to proffer themselves as heroes. The audiences won't mirror their hero status back any more.

Today heroes fall because they are too strong to show weakness, because their insistence on a one dimensional hero role no longer fits our age. They no longer have a position of authority in telling the narratives of our world. The times are over of Odysseus, who went on great adventures while Penelope waited for him. She doesn't want to wait any more for the man who will explain the world to her.

For a long time the arts, whether music, art or literature, have been content to rely on the male perspective. And, in this way, men have secured themselves a historic heroic advantage in the public sphere. Some are now ensnared by their hero status, because they abused the power it gave them. And maybe this arrogance can only end when they go into free-fall. And their fall is steep - and awful for all those who saw the natural world order as having those male heroes centre stage.

All of a sudden it is not about the perspective of these powerful, potent men. It is no longer enough to see yourself as part of the creation process. It is now heroic to let other people participate. To really see them. Of course, for the world of fiction, which lives from inventing and compressing stories, that is far from easy. Fiction doesn't need social realism, many people would say. Only one suddenly realises how much this old fashioned display of heroes and their muses was a type of social realism: It was the world of powerful men. A world where many - men as well as women - said that their success depended on whether they put themselves into the hands of the powerful men and were prepared to give them everything they wanted to grab.

During the photo shoot for the New York Times interview, Uma Thurman showed her injured face, a fallen heroine with parallels to her revenge-seeking character in "Kill Bill". But she doesn't see herself just as a victim. Rather she blames the system. And she regrets that by cooperating and keeping silent she contributed to the illusion that young women could trust these powerful individuals. It wasn't until she was nearing the end of her forties that she realised that people who are mean to you aren't ‘in love’ with you, adding that's "the sort of era that we need to evolve out of”.

But not everyone wants to move on. A few will have to. Trump is building a new idea of heroicism which is more dangerous than that of Hollywood. With every fallen hero the picture gets clearer: they were cruel heroes. Now, centuries later, women are finding their way back to heroism with tales of their vulnerability. That could spark optimism if this empowerment, which, at last, is truly female is, didn't trigger fear in many men. In an era of self promotion and the permanent threat of a social media shit storm, being a hero is a fragile state of affairs. One hashtag is enough to recreate the role of women in Hollywood. One hashtag is also enough to send someone into free fall. These are hard times for heroism. 

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