Posted on Tuesday, August 31st, 2010 by Adam Quigley
With Inception, The Prestige and each of his Batman films, Christopher Nolan has firmly established himself as one of the rare filmmakers working today who can not only produce complex, character-driven entertainment on the studio’s dime, but can command an audience while doing it.
Women viewers, though, would be forgiven for dismissing themselves from that audience, for reasons that likely hadn’t even occurred to Nolan’s male fanbase.
A piece from Oh No They Didn’t!—titled “Does Christopher Nolan have a woman problem?”—has been circulating the web recently, and it details the questionable use of female characters in Nolan’s films. The article asserts that Nolan “fridges” the women in his films, meaning he kills them off “solely for the purpose of giving the story’s main male hero a reason to angst”. The women who aren’t killed off, meanwhile, are often depicted by way of the “Madonna-Whore complex“, meaning he “divides women into ultra-”pure” Madonnas who can never be sullied with sexual intimacy, and dirty, dirty Whores who can never possibly be wives or mothers”. The article does however acknowledge that Nolan has had at least a couple of strong female characters, such as Ellie Burr (played by Hilary Swank) in Insomnia.
Oddly, the article describes the character of Ariadne (played by Ellen Page) in Inception to be Christopher Nolan’s best female character, while I would argue that it’s his worst. Ariadne was the only time I walked away from a Nolan film feeling like a character was strictly a screenwriting construct, introduced as a means of communicating exposition to the audience, or to state aloud Cobb’s current emotional state.
In response to the piece, I’d postulate that though Nolan fares worse with female characters than most renowned filmmakers, the problem does not lie specifically with him. Rather, the issue is that there just aren’t nearly enough female screenwriters and directors out there.
As a contrasting example on the female side, look at the big indie hit of the year, The Kids Are All Right, which was co-written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Out of the five main characters in that film, the three women are by far the most well-defined, while the two male characters are either cast aside without much resolution or barely given anything substantive to do. Is this unfair? Not at all; it just means the film is likely to play better to a female audience than a male one.
For reasons that should be obvious, men are more capable at examining the psychological states of male characters, and conversely, women are more capable at examining the psychological states of female characters. It comes with the territory; people write what they know, and they know their own gender better than the other. Acknowledging this, it’s only natural that a male filmmaker would relate stories around male protagonists. As for Nolan’s persistent “fridging”, it may just be a matter of unimaginative character work. Emotional strife is often generated by conflicts in relationships, so as trite as it may be, using the most extreme example of that is the easiest way to imbue your character with impassioned rage or sadness.
Again, the real problem is, there aren’t nearly enough women filmmakers, so the balance is too often tipped in favor of the male perspective.
If you’re looking for strong female characters in something other than a drama, your options are disappointingly limited. Outside of Joss Whedon and Quentin Tarantino, are there really too many male filmmakers that have proven themselves capable of writing them?