Ellen Page – Can she tell us what a Feminist is?

Academy-award nominated actor and notorious converse sneaker wearer, Ellen Page repeatedly calls herself a feminist and speaks in an informed manner about a number of feminist issues. She’s “very much…pro-choice” (thewashingtonpost.com). Gender-based socialization makes her “wanna vomit” (complex.com), and she’s frustrated that women “get paid less than men” and that their bodies are “treated like ornaments” (uncut.com). Popular Feminist blogs, magazines, and other media outlets[1] celebrate her as a representation of Feminism, on and off the screen, and in the 2007 article, “Ellen Page, Playing ‘Honest, Whole Young Women,” journalist Neda Ulaby explained that Page  “is often approached, admiringly, about her appetite for, taking on feminist roles” (npr.com). In other words, fans and interviewers perceive and interpret Page as a feminist. With this understanding of Page as representative of feminist, I’ve come to realize that an examination of Ellen Page is necessary because looking at Page allows us to define how our society represents a feminist.

Page definitely reveals kind of a feminism, one which seems to promote female empowerment gained via an assimilation of traits associated with hegemonic masculinity: emotional stoicism, self-reliance, aggression, and violence. In contrast to the current and arguably negative representations femininity, Page is framed as the subject in images and film, rather than the object, but at the same time the images of her as subject are coded as masculine and as domineering. Begging the question is hegemonic masculinity our chosen conception of the subject? In fact, examining Ellen Page requires engaging with one of most significant questions feminists face today: If not feminine, than what?  Or rather, what does it mean to be female and to be the subject? It is my contention that Page embodies an evolving space for the female, a kind of feminist gender construction, which currently fails. Page is being coded as domineering masculinity in images and cast as females who enact the domineering traits of hegemonic masculinity because we cannot seem to conceptualize the feminine beyond object. Arguably, in terms of gender we can’t seem to create representations that go beyond the dualistic nature of the patriarchal society. In other words, in an age of socially constructed genders, we’ve come to understand that gender is not linked to sex, but we continue to gender people as either hegemonic masculinity or femininity.

In Preventing Violence, a book that looks to explain and heal the violence that plagues our society, James Gilligan explicitly links the construction of hegemonic masculinity and violence, arguing, “the purpose of violence is to force respect” (35). [See him on youtube here.] He perceives violence as resulting from the “shame” that comes with living a male existence that does not meet the culturally created standard of “masculinity,” which “in the traditional, conventional stereotypical sex-role of the patriarchy, is literally defined as involving the expectation, even the requirement of violence” (Gilligan 29, 56). In other words men act violently to prove that they are powerful, that they are men. Exaggerated masculinity not only includes violence but also the elimination of all things perceived of as feminine: “tenderness, intimacy, nurturance, passivity, dependence, forgiveness and the capacity to feel anything physical or emotional…”(63). In other words, to be a real man, the ultimate example of empowerment and agency, you must be perceived as completely bled of femininity, and so to embody the subject a feminist must avoid femininity and don the robes of masculinity.

Our current conception of the feminine, of womanhood, lacks agency and is synonymous with weakness. Gilligan explains that the cultural construct of a good woman entails different codes than being a good man does. Women are praised and revered for enacting codes of weakness. Gilligan explains, “Women…are shamed for being too active or aggressive (called bitches or unfeminine) and honored for being passive and submissive” (38).  In other words, women are praised for enacting the role of object. The feminist looks to overturn this role of woman as object, to become subject. However, the gender roles are established in such a way that Gilligan’s understanding of masculinity has come to mean subject, while object equates to femininity.

Page embodies an evolving space for the female, a kind of feminist gender construction, which fails. Page is being coded as domineering masculinity in images and cast as females who enact the domineering traits of hegemonic masculinity because the media cannot seem to conceptualize the feminine beyond object. In other words, in an age of socially constructed genders, we’ve come to understand that gender is not linked to sex, but we continue to gender people as either hegemonic masculinity or femininity. Ellen Page is a representational example of the media’s feminism, a feminism that assumes and aspires towards hegemonic masculinity, interpreting it as the normative state and the ultimate goal. While, there are elements to the assumption of masculinity that allow for female empowerment, this kind of feminism is fundamentally misguided because the assumption of hegemonic masculine traits reverses but perpetuates the violence and oppressions of the patriarchal culture.
Any of you familiar with hard candy?


[1] Page is noted as feminist by Feministing, Feminism is for Everyone and the F-word, Bust Magazine, NPR, the Washington Post and others.

P.S. So I wrote a whole paper about this – if your interested you can read it here.

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4 responses

  1. Very interesting article! And disturbing film that you linked there. I just read the plot and… I can’t say it’s something I want to consume.

  2. It’s amazing! I took this article with a grain of salt at first, but once I got to the film, I totally got it! I have always loved Ellen Page’s style and attitude. I seriously dig this chick!

    • I like Ellen Page too, but I am worried about this – hegemonic masculinity as a construction (in other words not men – the idea of hegemonic dominate maleness – the alpha dog) relies on mastery over others – which can be gained through a number of sources, including violence and rape. Do we really want femiinsm to be associated with the underscoring of this as the desired norm?

      • I’d argue that Hard Candy is just another in the line of “torture porn” films (Hostel, Saw, etc.), wrapped in a different story type. The fundamental appeal — pleasure at brutality towards others — is the same, and taps into a rather frightening instinct. There’s nothing “progressive” about it.

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