Gender politics: a breakthrough from Hollywood

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I wasn’t keen on The Bourne Supremacy, but I was impressed by the performance of Joan Allen who manages with a few minutes of screen time to solve a problem that has been vexing Hollywood and the rest of us for some time now.

In a feminist era, women have power and they exercise it in the world. Hollywood has hustled to catch up by giving us portrayals of powerful women on the screen. We have had some good performances (Sigourney Weaver in Alien, for instance and Holly Hunter in anything) but more often we have bad ones. Women on cop shows are especially bad at assuming the symbolism of power.

Terry Hatcher is a particular case in point. It’s not just that Terry is a bad actress (though she probably is that). It’s that power has traditionally been a male idiom. Most women have not grown up with the opportunity to watch older women with power. Generally speaking, they have been obliged to learn the symbolism of power from men.

Here’s where the problem comes in. When you are observing from a cultural distance, and you do not know the code, you are inclined only to see the most obvious markers of power. And who is most likely to show these off? Men who are not altogether persuaded of their right to power, men, that is, who are inclined to swagger and bluster. Terry imitated the wrong men, the pretender men.

The problem is a necessary one, call it the problem of cultural proximity. The farther we are from a social type, the more crudely we imitate it. Here, the problem of cultural proximity means that women end up imitating men who are in effect imitating other men. It is not very surprising that they are unconvincing. They are at two removes from the real performance, doing a bad imitation of a bad imitation, as it were. (To be fair, some may be doing a good imitation of a bad imitation, but the original “signal” is still corrupted.)

Naturally, feminism has enjoyed some success inventing a new language of power, one that is peculiarly female, and not borrowed from men at all. In the late 80s I saw this happening at the New York office of Saatchi and Saatchi. The most powerful woman in the room, also the most powerful person in the room, sat extremely low in her chair. In fact, she virtually lounged. “Weird,” I thought, “is this a power signature?” And sure enough, the moment she left the room, the newly most powerful woman in the room slid down to assume the power position. I don’t think this ‘took” as a cultural innovation, and a good thing too. But there is stuff happening here and I don’t mean to suggest otherwise.

Back to Joan Allen in The Bourne Supremacy. Her character is an executive of some standing in the CIA (or maybe it’s the FBI). She has power and she is called upon to exercise it. Nothing in this performance is forced or imitative. We “get” that she holds power as a simple, defining attribute of her personality. There is no trace of effort or show, and no compromise of her femaleness. We see that she has power the way we notice the color of her eyes. It is just something she has, someone she is.

We know that one of the early handbooks of power symbolism was Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier and we know that one of the chief pieces of advice here was the notion of sprezzatura, the art of concealing art. Here in the Renaissance beginnings of male power symbolism was a note of caution. Adopt the language of power, but then render subtle and discrete. Many men, especially pretender men, have evidently not read their Castiglione. (Too busy beating up kids at school, possibly?) They believe they can show power only by overstating it. For a moment in the history of feminism, the sprezzatura rule was ignored by women as well.

Thank goodness for Joan Allen. Great actresses don’t just import from life, with performances like this one, they export as well. This does our culture sometimes invent itself, on the screen.


Castiglione, Baldassarre. 1967. The book of the courtier from the Italian, done into English by Sir Thomas Hoby, anno 1561, with an introd. by Walter Raleigh. Tudor Translations, 23. New York: AMS Press.

6 thoughts on “Gender politics: a breakthrough from Hollywood

  1. Tom

    Power + film + sprezzatura = Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone…one of the 20th century’s most powerful figures portraying one of the 20th century’s most powerful characters with a whisper, a gesture, a glance. The antithesis of gangsta excess.

    Looking foward to seeing Joan Allen in Bourne…remembering her amazing Pat Nixon, seething beneath all that iciness.

  2. Grant

    Tom, nice one, who will be the first woman to do the equivalent of Elizabeth I on screen? Will check out Nixon. Haven’t seen. Best, Grant

  3. Grant

    Liz, thank you! Martin Amis has some interesting thoughts on invisibility and aging men. But you are right, it’s not symmetrical. Is this because, in a sexist society, women are noticed for being and men for doing? But this is changing I think. This is what the Chanel suit is for, I’m told. It says youth may have fled but power continues. Thanks. Grant
    p.s., interesting question, that, why did slouching not “take?”

  4. LK


    i feel somewhat responsible for the great sprezzaturra comeback of 2004, having sprinkled some of it into the ‘driving in montreal’ post a while back and see it has since made more than 1 guest appearance on the cultureby blog. not unlike sandra bernhard’s repeat performances on roseanne it may well become the hit of the season.

    at any rate, re the gender question and issues of quiet power one canadian who comes to mind is moses znaimer…his power was in the pregnant pause, the gesture that replaced the phrase, the often overly contemplated phrase.

    re women getting noted for being and men for doing…perhaps feminism has a small win to post as women can get noted for doing but generally it helps if they are also ‘commercially attractive’ to a certain extent…note how many of the female CNN reporters/anchors are also fairly “hot”.

    does anyone remember the promo that ran when paula zahn moved from fox to CNN? the male announcer said something like “Where can you find a morning news anchor who’s provocative, super-smart, oh yeah, and just a little sexy?” The word sexy was backed by what sounded like a zipper unzipping. women’s power, intelligence, and sex appeal are a bundle. separate them and each becomes less. (except for the sex appeal, which stands on its own in a society that always have time for youthful beauty).

    with women in power it seems to be a ‘hot or not issue’ largely. pretty binary. either you have sex and sizzle to go with your steak or you are a caricature…think minnie pearl, sinead o’connor, dr. ruth (i really just wanted to mention them all in the same sentence).

    interesting also that what is considered by many to be the ultimate book on power is machiavelli’s prince. note: no power manual called ‘the princess”. or was that the unofficial title of “the rules”.

  5. Adam Khan

    When Judi Dench was cast as M, the relationship with James Bond became more antagonistic and also more personal. M is a position, mind you, not an individual, so the character is (obviously) not the same person that Bernard Lee played. But she is 007’s boss so it’s a nice archetypal example for this discussion, seems to me.

    I find the Dench M to be mostly unpleasant, in that she thinks she can dislike what Bond stands for (“a sexist, mysogenist dinosaur”) but feel affection for him as a person.

    Interestingly, she’s called the Queen of Numbers, suggesting to me a wink to those dinosaur years, ie, that hiring women is merely part of a bureacratization of the intelligence service (her numbers are predictably wrong and serve as a foil to 007’s correct intuitions).

    What I did like though is her retort to the fellow who made the Queen of Numbers quip when he thought she was out of earshot. “If I want sarcasm I’ll talk to my children,” she says. I love that! I think it was a nice way of expressing woman power: it suggests that unlike the M of yore she can never retreat for hours into an armchair and sherry at the club; she’s always got to be balancing authoritativeness with nurturing, even at home.

    What I’m getting at is that it portrays women as being better able to generate the parent-child dynamic in the workplace, in which the children, the subordinates, presume that the parent, the boss, loves them and wants the best for them, thereby, to put it bluntly, enhancing productivity.

    I don’t think I’ve seen this in real life though. More often than not, from what little I’ve seen, women don’t want to contaminate their beloved children and family with the nasty workplace, and struggle to keep at bay any motherliness.

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