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by dr andrew cousins

Film Theory with Added Punch

Dr Suzi Drexler is one of the world’s most respected film academics. She is Head of Film Studies at UCLA and her forthright opinions on representations of women in film mean that she is one of the select few who could be labelled "celebrity academics". She has written over 50 books and her latest, "The Camera as a Penis: Representations of Women in Cinema" has just been published in paperback.

AC. Do you get irritated at being called a "celebrity academic"?

SD. It’s not a label that I would give myself, I have to admit. I certainly have never sought to be a celebrity in any way. I appear on television programmes simply because I’m trying to get my ideas across to people and television is the most direct and accessible way to do that. As long as the integrity of my work remains intact then people can call me whatever they want.

AC. You say that you’ve never sought publicity but you did punch Joan Bakewell on live television. Surely you were aware of the fuss that would cause?

SD. Of course, but that’s not why I did it. She had been winding me up all through the interview and when she called my book, "The Oestrogen Auteur: A Study of Women Filmmakers", "glib" and "disturbingly superficial" then I lost my temper and planted one on her. I did the same thing many years later when I was being interviewed on Newsnight and Jeremy Paxman asked me if I was "feeling a bit hormonal".

AC. Prompting the now infamous Sun headline, "Jeremy Whacked-man"

SD. That’s right. I sold quite a few more books following that!

AC. Tell us about your current book.

SD. It’s called "The Camera as a Penis: Representations of Women in Cinema". It’s a serious study of the way that women are portrayed in film. It also looks very closely at the way that men represent themselves. Remember that most films are still made by men. The way that most movies are constructed is still very clearly designed to appeal to a male audience.

AC. You’re saying that women are still used as sex objects?

SD. Absolutely and unequivocally, yes. But what annoys me more then anything is when women just cannot see it for themselves. I saw Carrie-Ann Moss talking about her role in The Matrix recently. She was saying that the part appealed to her mainly because the character was a strong, independent woman who didn’t just play second fiddle to the men and who wasn’t just a token love interest. Well if she wasn’t a token love interest then I’ll eat my Phd. Remember that this is a film in which the whole purpose of her character is to fall in love with Keanu Reeves so that he can save the world. Not a token love interest? Balls.

It’s the same with Angelina Jolie. She was talking about her part in Gone in 60 Seconds and was describing how her character had a lot of very clear character motivations and that she wasn’t just a two-dimensional cardboard cut-out. Claptrap. All she had to do was stand behind Nic Cage and pout her enormous, bloated lips. But then again what else do you expect from Jerry Bruckheimer?

AC. You’ve often been very vocal in your criticism of Jerry Bruckheimer…

SD. It’s not just him really but the whole action movie genre has a lot to answer for. Not just for their representation of women either. In fact the way they portray men is pretty poor as well. Look at Die Hard. The entire film is basically written so that all the male characters are running round trying to prove to each other who has the largest genitals. Not literally obviously. But the sub-text is pretty clear. Also it’s treatment of the female characters is pretty poor. The token wife figure who has to be saved by her husband is a lazy plot device that you would hope would have been stamped out by now. In Die Hard it is the plot.

AC. Of course the accusation of using lazy plot devices could be levelled at many Hollywood films.

SD. Yes that’s right. It really does frustrate me. In fact I always get a small amount of satisfaction when an action film bombs at the box-office because it possibly indicates that audiences are sick of seeing the same old storylines re-mixed and re-hashed. But the fact that there are literally hundreds of the things pouring out of America year after year doesn’t help.

In many ways thing haven’t improved much since the sixties. Germaine Greer and I once organised a sit-in outside a cinema that was showing a triple bill of Carry On films. I got a very nice letter back from Barbara Windsor saying that she understood what we were trying to do but that she had a "mortgage and starving bank manager to support".

AC. You’ve never been tempted to try and change the system from within? By making your own film for example?

SD. No. I’m just not a storyteller, I’m afraid. I’m far happier working in the academic field. But as more and more women work their way into Hollywood I hope that things will begin to change. They’ll have to or they’ll have me to deal with.

AC. Suzi Drexler, thank you.

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