Laura is 32 (Holliday Grainger) and has spent the last decade writing a novel, and still only achieved ten pages of content. It’s about a spider caught in its own web and the woman – one in love with the idea of being in love – who tries to rescue it. An analogy for the ages it has to be said. Laura lives with her best friend, Tyler (Alia Shawkat) who learns of her father’s death at the start of Animals (and just prior to her thirtieth birthday). While we never learn much more, it’s safe to assume there is no love lost there.
Taking its inspiration from the pages of Emma Jane Unsworth’s Manchester-based novel of the same name (she adapted her own work for the screen), the film plays out like a long extended night out complete with wraps of coke, gallons of Sauvignon and several brain-mushing hangovers. As for plot, there isn’t much of one per se as Laura and Tyler navigate their drunken, oft directionless way through life and the pressures that society places upon women (and ergo themselves) to conform to this ideal model of womanhood, i.e. successful, a wife, a mother, settled, and that darn necessity to ‘behave’.
Gladly, neither do, and what could have been a one-note comedy about women seeking love – Laura flirts with it briefly after meeting talented pianist Jim (Fra Fee) – children, marriage and ‘finding their way’ actually becomes that little bit darker. Do women have to settle for all of these things if they’re not deemed successful in a career? This film says nope, and acts instead as a celebration of women, their flaws – bad decisions and all – the complexities of female friendship and a glorious defiance against expectation.
While the novel’s location is replaced by the fair city of Dublin – Manchester is represented in the form of screenwriter Unsworth and Grainger – it loses nothing as the Irish capital is a wonderful alternative, fusing art, nightlife and creativity, and is just as inspirational as the themes it presents. It also acts as a perfect city buffer/juxtaposition to the suburbs; a place which has no sound; “they sell it as peace but really it’s death.” The recurring images of foxes and cats also fail to be seen in the suburbs – animals which nod not only to the film’s title but also act as visual representations of our leading ladies; on the prowl, sometimes feral, independent creatures surviving.
There’s a wonderful moment when Laura, Tyler and Marty the Poet (Dermot Murphy) are standing against a wall outside of a house and he asks the question: “What’s an animal’s primary need?” All three answer differently – food, sex and safety. That’s what the film is about, searching for your primary need outside of expectation, looking for shelter within yourself and longing to be exactly who you are without of all the exterior noise, whether that be ‘society’ or the unsolicited opinion of your best bud.
The film depicts loneliness and the pathos that goes with it in a compelling way; as a fight for independence and inspiration while embracing hedonism.. It’s funny and furious and led by a couple of splendid performances. Grainger proves she has more than (lovely) cheekbones and a pout to her repertoire and quite the emotional dexterity to inhabit a leading role and Shawkat, who is widely known for more comic roles brings a poignancy to Tyler’s acerbic wit. The character is a staunch feminist who refuses to acknowledge how lost she actually is, while ensuring her thoughts on everything are expressed and heard. There’s even an old Hollywood glamour to her character and her costumes (gorgeously designed by Renate Henschke), as if she is lost in time in this, a delightful depiction of modern femininity.
Animals is a breath of fresh air. It depicts fully rounded characters who are empathetic and credible in a current climate where women are having to defend their rights to choose how they live. It’s an insightful, fun and defiant celebration of female friendship and creativity (made by a largely female crew under Sophie ’52 Tuesdays’ Hyde’s direction), finding your place in the world and not settling. Emma Jane Unsworth’s next novel is called Adults. Although not a sequel, perhaps the animal phase comes after tween, coming-of-age with full maturation (allegedly) hitting at, say, 40.
It was at the 90th Academy Awards when Frances McDormand took to the stage and declared to the seated guests, industry and world at large that women have stories to tell. One such fascinating tale belongs to Ms. Hedy Lamarr.
Alexandra Dean’s Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story begins with a quote attributed to the actress: “Any girl can look glamorous, all she has to do is stand still and look stupid.” Hedy was very glamorous but far from stupid. Her beauty allegedly transforming her from an ugly duckling in youth to become the very thing she was judged solely upon. Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, ‘Hedy’ was afforded private schooling (she particularly enjoyed chemistry) and exposed to the arts from an early age. By her own admission, she was an “enfant terrible” posing nude at 16 before developing an interest in acting. Which led to Ecstasy (1933) – a Czech film that saw her skinny dip, cavort naked lakeside and feign orgasm (the film’s rarely discussed outside of these “scandalous” moments). The Pope and Hitler denounced it, the latter not for its explicitness but rather the religious beliefs of its lead actress (the Kieslers were Jewish) – before Hedy set sail for Hollywood (she would become Lamarr courtesy of Louis B. Mayer’s wife Margaret) from London after escaping her first husband. There were six marriages in all, none particularly happy yet two resulted in children with motherhood a role she appeared to mostly enjoy.
It was, however, her relationships with Howard Hughes and the composer George Entheil which would help sustain her love of invention (Hughes gave her access to his chemists and lab) and provide her with what Google animator Jennifer Hom, describes as a “perfect underdog crime-fighter-by-night-story.” Hedy would work all day and then, of an evening, experiment and in 1941 with Entheil, the self-proclaimed “bad boy of music”, she created a radio controlled torpedo, the 1942 patent of which could (and did, come The Cuban Missile Crisis) revolutionise the war effort. Instead, they were thanked for their time and Lamarr was directed to selling war bonds – she made $343 million’s worth. When MGM failed to provide suitable film roles she found them herself, producing The Strange Woman in 1946 and co-producing Dishonoured Lady a year later, a feat relatively unheard of, in Hollywood, outside of Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino.
Life was never plain sailing, there were more divorces, a nervous breakdown, the addictive ‘vitamin B’ shots from Dr. Feelgood Max Jacobsen, odd bouts of kleptomania, the botched cosmetic surgeries, the dubious autobiography and subsequent court case that she would lose costing around the $9.8 million mark, and her reclusion from the world. The lynchpin to all of this heartache, one could argue, is that patent, which today is worth $30 billion and is a technology used in wifi, bluetooth, mobile telephones, GPS and the military, and one which has effected our daily lives, and for which she was paid nothing. There was, at least, the Electronic Frontier Foundation Special Pioneer Award in 1997 and the eventual induction into the Invention Hall of Fame in 2014 (commemorating her 100th birthday) which would slowly inform the world of this genius woman who was more than just a pretty face.
In terms of documentary form, Dean’s approach is rather prosaic. From its piano-accompanied montages to the mixing of images, film clips, archival interview footage and talking-heads. These include Lamarr’s son Anthony Loder, daughter Denise Hedwig Colton, granddaughters, and a whole host of critics, biographers, historians – actress Diane Kruger also reads from personal letters. The crux of the whole film, however, rests on the lost and found audio tapes of an interview conducted in 1990 by Forbes Magazine staff writer Fleming Meeks. Hedy Lamarr gets to tell her own story and comes across as spirited and unpretentious with a wicked sense of humour; a fighter, survivor and a woman of extremes and complexity, which makes it all the more tragic that she became a media punchline and, in her later years, perhaps defined her self-worth against her ageing physical beauty.
Bombshell is an evident labour of love, passionately told (rarely sugar-coated), beautifully edited, by Dean, Penelope Falk and Lindy Jankura, and surprisingly moving. Its content and form, however conventional, is in much the same vein as Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (2015) and even the more playful Mansfield 66/67 (2017); documentaries which seek to expose the myths of these successful women, subvert assumption and conflate the notion of brains and beauty (it’s amazing, a woman can have both in spades). Hedy Lamarr was an immigrant, a feminist icon – long before the term was coined – and a trailblazer in science and technology invention; an underestimated woman who, with her beautiful brain and frequency hopping, had a hand in literally connecting us all.
Once Jayne Mansfield’s star began its descent in the 1960s, the hour-glass-figured actress continued to court publicity wherever she could get it, fast becoming a reality TV star of sorts. She would appear in the tabloids seemingly inebriated (pills and booze they claimed), and photographed during many-a wardrobe malfunction, that 40″ chest fighting for freedom and yet she continued to work – completing Single Room Furnished – before her life was tragically cut short aged 34.
A year earlier from the crash that would claim her life, Mansfield appeared in a photoshoot with Anton LaVey, the High Priest of The Church of Satan and it was soon suggested that she was now a Witch worshipping at the altar of LaVey – the Satanist who would allegedly place a curse on Sam Brody, Mansfield’s lover at the time. Brody would die in the car alongside Jayne on that fateful night on June 29 1967, and it is these last two years of the actress’ life that husband and husband filmmaking producers P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes (Dear Mom, Love Cher, Room 237) concentrate on in their documentary.
Mansfield 66/67 is far from ordinary in its form, combining dance numbers, songs and monologues (performed by students of Leeds Beckett University) intercut among the archive footage, animated reenactments, photographs, and newspaper clippings. There is a cast of adoring fans and conspiracy theorists including John Waters, Mamie Van Doren, Kenneth Anger, Cheryl Dunye, Yolanda Ross and Drag artist Peaches Christ, as well as insights from Los Angeles historian Alison Martino and academics Dr. Eileen Jones, Dr. Eve Oishi, and Dr. Barbara Hahn. It is a fascinating and visual delight with a tone befitting its subject.
While the film makes no bones about focussing on salacious scandal and rumour – there is even a disclaimer at the very beginning – it doesn’t hurt it. Just as sex sells so does conjecture and falsehood (we are living in the Fake News era after all), and amongst the knowing kitsch and farce a solid argument is made positioning Mansfield as a feminist icon. One that suggests she transcended her sexual identity, and exploited the sexist culture which, some will continue to argue, exploited her. Amidst the Pink Palace, heart-shaped pools, jewels, Chihuahuas and overtly sexualised image, this woman who spoke five languages, played the violin and piano to concert level, and mothered five children was, in fact, liberated.
This highly intelligent documentary is a wonderfully weird watch, and while dressed largely in pink and fluff, it has a lot to say about the expectations placed upon women, and doesn’t take itself too seriously, much like the woman at the heart of its soul. Mansfield 66/67 is an entertaining exploration about the lasting impact of myth and the rise of the women’s movement. A film full of fun, love and admiration for the underestimated blonde bombshell, who was original, self-reliant, determined, and fabulous, and appeared to live her short life to its fullest.
Sex and the City (SATC) came to our small screens in 1997, based upon the novel of the same name by ex-New York Observer columnist Candace Bushnell. This television series and its depiction and ‘celebration’ of women not only appealed to a mass female audience but attempted to dispel the so-called – thanks to Betty Friedan -“feminine mystique” by dismissing repressive female stereotypes which had seemingly dogged popular culture in the years before. These were (white) women talking, writing about, and more importantly, having sex (as they maintained from the very first episode) “like men”. At the heart of this series was the feminist ideology that all women have a right to sexual pleasure and live in a place of complete independence where women have ownership of the, albeit narcissistic, ‘gaze’ and men are the sex objects.
Quite simply, without second wave feminism, a show like Sex and the City would fail to exist and creator Bushnell describes the Foucaultian confessional as depicting “female choice, not female rejection […] women viewers get the naughty thrill of seeing their gender portrayed for once as sane, sentient, and decent.” With this sweeping statement there is an implication that all television and/or film texts gone before had negatively depicted women and that by seeing this positive, even verisimilar portrayal, the female population are engaging in illicit activity. Bushnell never considers the representation of women within the text or the fact that the characters have been rewritten by a man. An audience requires more than gender in order to negotiate identification and, unfortunately, for the female viewer there is little to identify with. SATC depicts women as over-consumers and seems to believe its own propaganda; that in order to be liberated and successful, a woman has to be white, heterosexual, rich, thin, and self-obsessed. Is this really what modern womanhood has been reduced to? The representation of women and the evolution of these characters have enforced further limitations and new stereotypes that women are measured against. The motion pictures which were born from the success of the series have taken the ‘sane, sentient and decent women’ with choice and replaced them with four dolls bridging the gap between feminine and sexy, artificial and empowered. It utilises the Beauty Myth and defines a woman’s sexuality against the clothes (and shoes) she wears to create a Serious/Sexual dichotomy in which liberation and promiscuity merge. A woman’s voice has now been replaced with a body, however, because these women choose sexual freedom and choose to “act like men”, we find ourselves in a culture which appears to resurrect stereotypes of female sexuality that feminism endeavoured to banish.
In a term coined by Feona Attwood (2009) Sex and the City ‘mainstreamed’ sex and used it ‘as a source of self-definition and a means of self-expression’. They were, in accordance to Rosalind Gill, sexually confident and autonomous – “knowing, active and desiring subjects” but as the series progressed the women chose their respective Mr. Rights over their independence and sexual freedom and this has, since, been repeated within the narratives of the first and second film. Despite, second wave feminism informing women that Prince Charming is a patriarchal fiction designed to render them passive and in need of rescue. It went on to furthermore state that they did not need him to define their happiness or create the so-called “happily-ever-after”. Sex and the City chose to perpetrate the myth and reinforce, as David Greven argues, “the ideology that heterosexual sex is forever [while homosexual] sex is transitory, fleeting, [and] intangible.” The filmmakers response to this was to take the two male homosexual characters and marry them off. To each other. With Liza Minnelli officiating! So, if the whole purpose of Sex and the City was to make these women sexually independent and to break stereotypes, why then do we see three out the four characters re-enforcing patriarchal ideology by getting hitched?
The last beacon of hope is Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall), who, on the surface, appears to be the exception to the ‘Mr Right’ rule, preferring to settle for ‘Mr Right-Now’ (conveniently, she is potentially too old to procreate). Her views on marriage, monogamy and sex transgress the heteronormative ideologies, she truly believes she can do anything a man can do, even experimenting with Viagra. Like most transgressive women before her she is ‘punished’ with the discovery of breast cancer. There has even been a suggestion by some critics that she transgresses the female gender altogether given that she is encoded as a homosexual, Greven writes,
[…] Samantha, most explicitly of all the women, acts, speaks and cavorts like a stereotypical gay man, her femaleness a safeguard against both homophobic retaliation and an explicit admission of a gay agenda, to use this cruelly overused phrase only to suggest that the show about sex in Manhattan has to use female characters as a cover […]
If a woman is sexually confident, even aggressive, successful, ambitious, and appears to not require a man ‘she’ of course must be a ‘he’! Once again, female sexuality is defined by patriarchy. Interestingly, Candace Bushnell, in 2001 agreed with Greven and declared that Samantha is, in fact, a gay man. So, are women getting the ‘naughty thrill’ from seeing their gender portrayed as ‘sane’ or as a gay man?
Sex and the City: The Movie saw Carrie – the woman without the bride gene – agreeing to marry ‘Big’, now known as the less phallically aggressive John. The proposal of marriage is a business transaction to ensure that, should their relationship fail, Carrie will not be left with nothing. Charlotte has the ‘; perfect’ marriage to Harry and in addition to their adopted daughter she finds herself defying medical odds and falling pregnant. Miranda is coping with Steve’s infidelity and Samantha finds she is rapidly falling out of love with Los Angeles and being in a relationship with a man whose name she says more times a day than her own. John, then jilts* Carrie on their wedding day and the girls accompany her on the honeymoon to Mexico; a suite she booked in the names of Mr and Mrs Preston – a thrill which made her forget her ‘true self’.
The Beauty Myth informs is that there is ‘no right way to look’, however, SATC (a programme that Wolf endorses as “funny, clever and thinks women are important) portrays a uniformity in women, they may have different hair-styles but essentially all the attributes they own, situations they find themselves in, men they deem attractive can be applied to just one woman; in fact one could argue that Miranda, Carrie, Charlotte and Samantha are the four (patriarchal and ideologically enforced, of course) facets of one woman; the cynic, the optimist, the Madonna and the whore. This uniformity is ever more prevalent in the racial make-up of the cast.
Carrie hires an assistant to help her ‘come back to life’ (because obviously, losing a man brings serious health risks, one is suddenly are unable to open mail, unpack, etc.) after the ‘devastation’ and ‘humiliation’ of being jilted. Louise (Jennifer Hudson) is a curvaceous black woman from St. Louis who is never legitimised with a surname, and only in her depiction as the single African-American character does the viewer realise the full extent of Sex and the City’s whiteness. She is immediately encoded as the social minority because she is a St. Louis native and subverts the whiteness/virtuousness ideology because Louise is the innocent, naïve in her pursuit of love, even crossing state lines to seek out the love of her life.
Louise starts out, albeit tenuously, with similarities to Donald Bogle’s ‘Mammy’ character; “she is sweet, jolly and good tempered” and serves Carrie, helping her complete the most basic tasks – answering letters and e-mails, replacing a mobile phone and unpacking boxes and boxes of clothes. She does, however, evolve from the stereotype – although one could argue she becomes the “Magical Negress” bringing Carrie back to life and all – and gains some autonomy just in time for her ex-boyfriend to propose marriage. She begins to show more flesh, specifically cleavage, her clothes become tighter and more streamline, slimming her down; the voice is replaced by the body. Although, her screen-time is not sufficient enough to explore the character in depth, it is hinted at that her change in physicality does have the desired effect on men (coincidentally, Hudson herself lost a substantial amount of weight and married and gave birth following her role in SATC). Louise’s curly natural hair is straightened and coloured a lighter brown, and it can be argued that she, essentially, is white(r) when she leaves New York, complete with a diamond engagement ring and Louis Vuitton handbag hanging from her wrist. Using Dyer’s model she becomes colonised; from St. Louis to Manhattan – black to white(r). Dyer writes that, “white women are [after all] constructed as the apotheosis of desirability, all that a man could want, yet nothing that can be had, nor anything that a woman can be [an] everything-and-nothing quality.”
Racial difference is also explored in the sequel, its release date in 2010 to coincide with the football World Cup – another occasion in which there is a divide the sexes; all women HATE football, obviously. Samantha is invited to a Sheik’s private hotel in Abu Dhabi on a PR trip and extends the invitation to her three friends. This trip is used as a distraction from the womens’ respective problems at home. Carrie and ‘Big’ are married (following a vomit-inducing Cinderella-alluding proposal at the end of the last film) and ‘making their own rules’ but according to Carrie, their relationship is getting ‘too Mr-and-Mrs-Married’. Charlotte is felling oppressed by the demands of motherhood and is beginning to obsessively believe that Harry is having an affair with their twenty–something Irish nanny, Erin (the girl doesn’t wear a bra so of course, she must be sleeping with her boss). Miranda, having no inclination to confront her sexist boss, quits her position at the law firm, an action which is completely inexplicable and out-of-character.
Throughout the scenes shot in Morocco (doubling for Abu Dhabi), the Americans, understandably, never fully assimilate into Middle Eastern society; their ignorance seemingly the main problem. Miranda is constantly berating Samantha for leaving her shoulders or legs bare and on display. Even after her arrest she falls foul of a group of Muslim men on their way to prayer. Her bag then bursts during an altercation and condoms are scattered at the men’s feet and then, as this is Samantha, the prophylactics are waved in the crowds’ faces and thus as Lindy West so eloquently writes in her scathing review:
Traditional Middle Eastern sexual mores are upended and sexism is stoned to death in the town square. At sexism’s funeral (which takes place in a mysterious, incense-shrouded chamber of international sisterhood), the women of Abu Dhabi remove their black [burkas] and [niqabs] to reveal – this is not a joke – the same hideous, disposable, criminally expensive shreds of cloth and feathers that hang from Carrie et al’s emaciated goblin shoulders. Muslim women, under those craaaaaaaa-zy robes, they’re just as vapid and obsessed with physical beauty and meaningless marital concerns! Feminism! Fuck yeah!
West is a Seattle-based film critic who despised the movie with every fibre of her being, it would seem. She describes SATC2 as “tak[ing] everything I hold dear as a woman and as a human […] and rapes it to death with a stiletto that costs more than my car.” A horribly violent, almost anti-feminist metaphor but she really hated it…
Georgina Isbister, on the other hand, writes, that the reason that SATC resonates with an audience is that “its narratives are dominated by the challenges faced by protagonists in achieving their ideals and the subsequent anxieties surrounding them […] trying to conform to an expectation that women can have it all. This is not so much an expectation as patriarchy rearing its ugly head again. Women are lead to believe that they can have liberation and everything that men are entitled to as long as they revert back to the patriarchal ideal of ‘wifedom’ and motherhood. SATC not only highlights the anxieties and challenges but exacerbates them.
Sex and the City has shamed women into believing that acquisition is the pathway to freedom. While the post-modern feminist text contains heroines who are much more active than the bygone eras of the 70s and 80s and, as Rosalind suggests,
[they] value autonomy and bodily integrity and the freedom to make individual choices […] [Yet] they seem compelled to use their empowered positions to make decisions that would be regarded by many feminists as problematic located as they are in normative notions of femininity.
Carrie chooses marriage with the man who treated her badly for ten years. She and Miranda changed who they were for men, the latter hell-bent on a career kept her hair short and dressed in power-suits in order to make it in a ‘man’s world’ only to fall pregnant, marry and throw her career away for a family-life. Charlotte also gave up a career and her single independence for a husband and children while Samantha maintained she had sex like a man, believing that behaving as a man provided liberation and empowerment whereas sex as a woman does not. For her trouble, she is described as channelling as ‘homosexual man’. These successful women have, over the last decade, communicated that a career, financial security, looks and ostensibly, intelligence are nothing compared to doing anything to get (and keep) a man, including compromising the essence of who you are in order to secure the man you love.
There is little doubt that SATC made a cultural impact; yet at no point is there an attempt at a realistic portrayal of a modern-day woman. She has been thwarted by product placement and shoe iconography and manipulated into thinking that because she is privileged over the male(s) in the diegesis she has been gifted with choice. The film texts, in particular, are responsible for repackaging the patriarchal ideology of normative femininity in shinier, more expensive wrapping, marketed to the richest, skinniest and whitest women; content to allow Capitalism’s oppression keep them content and submissive.
In an attempt to implore sexual freedom the text(s) reaffirms the male – female divide and this apparently gives the cast and writers’ license to incite sexism, misogyny and female chauvinism. Sex and the City appears to return to a repressed state – it is still men who rule their world. Mr. Big allows Carrie to believe that they are creating their own rules and sharing the relationship power, when, in fact, she always compromises herself and comes around to his way of thinking, in the end, even without realising it. This may be somebody’s reality but please do not attempt to use it as a form of celebrating the twenty-first century woman. She is, one would like to think, less-consumer obsessed and vacuous. Her right is not only to shoes but to a voice, freedom, power and to transgress male notions of femininity. Within the media forum would seem like the ideal vehicle for such a premier, however, given the complexities and humanity of the female gender would anybody be up to the task. Lena Dunham has taken up the mantle with Girls, a series not unlike SATC which deals with four friends and their quest for all the things that the former programme initially set out to do – a survivable place in the world. She has full creative control, stars, writes, produces, directs and while Ms. Dunham has given a voice to the younger woman, one who is not preoccupied with becoming a wife, mother or trying to ‘take over’ from men, these ladies are still white and privileged.
 SATC Season 1: Episode 1 ‘Sex and the City’ Samantha insists the girls try “Hav[ing] sex like men, you know, without feeling.” HBO, 1997-2003.
 Levy, Ariel, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Rauch Culture (Pocket Books, 2005) pp4-5. Levy suggests that not all women of this generation are imbued with the feminist agenda and “if this bawdy world of boobs and gams we have resurrected reflects how far we’ve come, or how far we have left to go.”
 Attwood, Feona, Mainstreaming Sex: The Sexualisation of Western Culture (I B Tauris, 2009).
 Gill, Rosalind, Gender and the Media (Polity Press, 2006) pg103.
 Samantha finally chooses herself over a man at the end of film one.
 Greven, D “The Museum of Unnatural History: Male Freaks and Sex and the City in Akass, Kim. & McCabe, Janet. (eds) Reading Sex and the City (I B Tauris, 2003) p42.
 Declared during an interview in The Independent, 5 February 2001.
 SATC Season 4: Episode 15 ‘Change of a Dress’.
SATC: The Movie. Samantha ends her relationship with Smith by telling him that although she loves him, “I love me more, I’ve been in a relationship with myself for 52 years and that’s the one I need to work on.”
 Ibid. “If I met myself ten years ago, I wouldn’t know me.”