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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Where Are the Women? The Dressmaker

Where Are the Women? The Dressmaker

The female protagonist’s story is all about beauty as a metaphor for women’s power and confidence, without ever reducing her to a decorative object.

Warning! Some of the details in the Wildcard section may constitute minor spoilers for those not familiar with the story.

BASIC REPRESENTATION SCORE: +25

+25
Is there a female protagonist? [why this matters]

FEMALE AGENCY/POWER/AUTHORITY SCORE: +15

+5
Is there a female character (either a protagonist or a supporting character with significant screen time) in a position of authority (politics, law, medicine, etc.)? [why this matters]


+10
Is there a female villain or antagonist? [why this matters]

THE MALE GAZE SCORE: 0

[no issues]

GENDER/SEXUALITY SCORE: -20

-5
Is femininity used as a joke (ie, a man crossdressing for humorous intent) in passing? [why this matters]


-5
Is there a female character whose primary goal is romantic (to get married, enter into a longterm relationship with a man, etc)? [why this matters]


-5
Is there a female character who is primarily defined by her emotional and/or sexual relationship with a man or men? [why this matters]


-5
Is there a female character who is primarily defined by her emotional or biological relationship with a child or children*? (*in this case, an adult child) [why this matters]

WILDCARD SCORE: +10

Is there anything either positive or negative in the film’s representation of women not already accounted for here? (points will vary)

+2
Kate Winslet (age 40) is romantically paired with Liam Hemsworth (age 25). Either she is meant to be playing a character younger than her actual age, or he is meant to be playing older, or both, because his character mentions remembering hers as a child, which would be impossible. (She was sent away at age eight, which, if they were playing their actual ages, would be before he was even born.) But the important thing here is that the fact that she is so much older than him was not an issue in casting, just as it never is when the genders are reversed and a male protagonist is much older than his leading lady. It also matters because we’ve heard of cases where a 15-years-younger actress is considered too old to be plausible as a romantic partner for a man nearly old enough to be her father.
+3
The “femininity used as a joke” issue mentioned elsewhere refers to Hugo Weaving’s small-town police officer who is secretly a transvestite and/or perhaps gay; it’s never clear which, though it’s not relevant: the thing he cannot let his fellow citizens know is that he is different in a way a man is not supposed to be different. We first see this expressed in a scene clearly intended to be funny in which this very masculine man is preening in a mirror dressed in a big hat and feather boa. I’m giving some points back because his predicament itself is not treated as a joke, and the later crossdressing he engages in is not presented as a visual joke but as an honest expression of his character and not something we’re meant to be shocked into laughing at. (I’m not giving all the points back because our introduction to his secret could have been handled more sensitively.)
+5
The journey the female protagonist takes — and what it reveals about life in her small hometown — is overtly about the abuses women face in simply trying to go about their lives; about the limitations gendered expectations place on women (i.e., you deserve to be punished if you have unapproved-of sex); and about the inadequate means that women often have of overcoming those limitations.

TOTAL SCORE: +30

IS THE FILM’S DIRECTOR FEMALE? Yes (Jocelyn Moorhouse) (does not impact scoring)

IS THE FILM’S SCREENWRITER FEMALE? Yes, one of two credited (Jocelyn Moorhouse) (does not impact scoring)

BOTTOM LINE: A female protagonist is always a good thing. A female protagonist whose story is all about directly confronting what it means to be a woman in our world is even better. Best of all, the female director here is able to tell her story, which uses fashion and beauty as a metaphor for women’s power and confidence, in a way that does not reduce the many women onscreen to decorative objects. While women dressing less appropriately for the environment than the men with them onscreen is often a problem — in that it allows for women to half naked while men remain fully clothed — here, in the form of women dressed impractically in haute-couture glam in a small dusty rural town, it becomes a tragicomic expression of frustration with the smallness of their lives, of reclaiming power that has been taken from them, and of looking good for their own pleasure, not for that of men. This is a wonderful example of women onscreen and behind the camera reclaiming a kind of femininity that has been co-opted — particularly by Hollywood — for men’s purposes.


Click here for the ongoing ranking of 2015’s films for female representation.

NOTE: This is not a “review” of The Dressmaker! It is simply an examination of how well or how poorly it represents women. (A movie that represents women well can still be a terrible film; a movie that represents women poorly can still be a great film.) Read my review of The Dressmaker.

See the full rating criteria. (Criteria that do not apply to this film have been deleted in this rating for maximum readability.)


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