This past weekend, The Help (in its second week in wide release) moved to the top of the U.S. box office. While much of the discussion about the film has focused on its race problems, I've been bothered by it's characterization in many reviews as a "woman's film." (Note: I haven't seen The Help.) Because its main characters are women, and it seems to be about empowering women (though I suspect it's more about empowering white women than black women), it must be a film about and, thus, for women.
Isn't that the problem? I don't want to get too far into using The Help as an example (I repeat, I haven't seen it), but branding a film about women and civil rights in the South (however problematic its depiction) as a "woman's film" just seems absurd. Have we gone at all beyond Molly Haskell's 1974 discussion of "The Woman's Film?"
What more damning comment on the relations between men and women in America than the very notion of something called the 'woman's film'? And what more telling sign of critical and sexual priorities than the low caste it has among the highbrows. Held at arm's length, it is, indeed, the untouchable of film genres [...]
Among the Anglo-American critical brotherhood (and a few of their sisters as well), the term 'woman's film' is used disparagingly to conjure up the image of the pinched-virgin or little-old-lady writer, spilling out her secret longings in wish fulfillment or glorious martyrdom, and transmitting these fantasies to the frustrated housewife. The final image is one of wet, wasted afternoons. And if strong men have also cried their share of tears over the weepies, that is all the more reason (goes the argument) we should be suspicious, be on our guard against the flood of 'unearned' feelings released by these assaults, unerringly accurate, on our emotional soft spots.
As a term of critical opprobrium, 'woman's film' carries the implication that women, and therefore women's emotional problems, are of minor significance. A film that focuses on male relationships is not pejoratively dubbed a 'man's film' (indeed, this term, when it is used, confers--like 'a man's man'--an image of brute strength), but a 'psychological drama.'
Here's a thought experiment. If The Help were about a plucky young white man who wanted to interview black male workers, how would we be talking about the film?