Where Are the Women? Insidious: Chapter 3

Where Are the Women? Insidious Chapter 3

With not one female protagonist but two, this is a fine example of how stories about women appeal to wide mainstream audiences.


Is there a female protagonist? [why this matters]


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]
Is there a woman whose role could easily have been played by a man? [why this matters]


[no issues]


Is there a female character who is primarily defined by her emotional or biological relationship with a child or children? [why this matters]
Is a dead mother mentioned? [why this matters]


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

A dead mother is mentioned [why this matters], but in a way that is possible in a movie about supernatural communication and interaction with the dead, she is actually a character in the film, so the problematic aspects of this trope are negated.


IS THE FILM’S DIRECTOR FEMALE? No (does not impact scoring)

IS THE FILM’S SCREENWRITER FEMALE? No (does not impact scoring)

BOTTOM LINE: With not one female protagonist but two, and jointly engaged in a task that has nothing to do with romance or babysitting, this is a fine example of how stories about women can appeal to wide mainstream audiences and don’t have to become sermons on feminism. (Not that many do, but this seems to be the fear of those who worry about injecting women in movies where they don’t “belong.”)

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

NOTE: This is not a “review” of Insidious: Chapter 3! 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 Insidious: Chapter 3.

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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Fri, Feb 12, 2016 6:28pm

I enjoy your WotW feature. But I think your treatment of mothers is problematic.

Clearly you feel ( and I completely agree ) that there is something sexist about the Dead Mother trope. So you deduce three points. Fair enough. But if the Mother is alive, then the film LOSES five points. So you are actually penalizing films for keeping mothers alive, and rewarding them for killing mothers off.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Louisa
Fri, Feb 12, 2016 9:24pm

No, I’m penalizing films for casting women in roles in which they are nothing but adjuncts to others. A film loses five points only if a female character is *nothing but* an adjunct to children, and not a character with an arc in her own right. That arc could even be about motherhood! See my ratings of, for example, Room and Ricki and the Flash. Those films don’t lose points for female characters who are mothers.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Feb 16, 2016 9:22pm

Sorry for not being clear. I’m not talking about all mothers in all films. Obviously, the Dead Mother penalty cannot apply if the mother in question is the protagonist of the film. I’m talking about films like this one, where the protagonist is a young person, and the screenwriter has the option of giving her a living mother (-5) or a dead one (-3). At present, it seems impossible for the film not to be penalized one way or the other.

There is a distinction between a woman who “doesn’t have an arc in her own right”, and a woman who is “nothing but an adjunct to children.” If a female bit character serves somebody else’s story in the role of a doctor, lawyer, secretary, bodyguard, assassin, theater director, ticket puncher, or store clerk, then that is fine, and the movie will gain points for including her. But in “Mockingjay”, the heroine’s mother is clearly more than an “adjunct to children”; she is a highly respected herbalist and medic, actively employed as such. Yet she still loses five points. The mother in INSIDIOUS 3 is not very developed, I admit. But judging from your ratings of “Mockingjay” and “The Visit”, even if she were better developed, given a job or hobby or “issue” or back-story, it would not have helped. So we end up with a situation where the film would have scored higher if she was just plain dead; a plot trope you are evidently trying to discourage.

So the options for a screenwriter are what? 1) Kill or eliminate the protagonist’s mother, just don’t mention her (“Tomorrowland”)? 2) Make the mother a co-protagonist in a story that was should have been about the child (“Brave”), thus forcing the poor heroine to do mother-daughter relationship drama instead of action-adventure or detective work or whatever it is that both she and the audience actually want her to do? Or 3) simply kill Mom off and take the lesser penalty of three points? None of these options seem feminist to me.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Louisa
Wed, Feb 17, 2016 11:05pm

she is a highly respected herbalist and medic, actively employed as such.

Her work is not a factor in the plot of *Mockingjay.* It’s not enough to say, “Oh, and she’s a doctor.” Her work actually has to have some bearing on the story.

The best option, when it comes to female representation, is not to have a mother character who does nothing but be a mother.

reply to  Louisa
Thu, Feb 18, 2016 1:32am

Have you read MaryAnn’s review of Brave? She didn’t think the mother-daughter relationship was a distraction. It was one of the things she liked best about the movie:


For the big chunk of movie in the middle — which is spoilable, not that I’ll do that here — is groundbreaking, too, in that it revolves around a key relationship in a girl’s life that is almost universally ignored on film: that with her mother. (Another smack at Disney, whose princesses are almost always mother-orphans.) Brave gets at the love/hate push-and-pull that many girls experience with their mothers, and does it in a way that is by turns funny, scary, mysterious, fantastical, thrilling, and suspenseful.

reply to  Danielm80
Fri, Feb 19, 2016 8:06pm

I did read that review. That is why I chose “Brave” as an example of a film where a young protagonist had a breathing mother without incurring the penalty for it. I couldn’t think of an example among films with WatW ratings.

And that is my point. If “Brave” and “Tomorrowland” represent the only acceptable options, that means the mother cannot be included at all unless she takes over. Soooo . . . if one wishes the young protagonist to have the freedom to go on her own adventure, then the mother has to be gotten rid of. That attitude is exactly why the Dead Mother Trope came into being in the first place.

So Merida cannot be primarily defined as a dashing heroine and archer who saves the day. She has to be a “daughter” and her story has to be about Bickering with Mom instead of about slaying a dragon and saving a kingdom and winning honor and glory for herself. That is sexist and limiting. “Brave” isn’t so much taking a “smack” at Disney as validating their approach. My feeling is that if studio executives ever again consider doing a stirring animated fantasy adventure with a female lead, they will take one look at “Brave” and insist either that the mother be killed off, or that the story have a male hero. Most likely both.

It is “Mockingjay”, not “Brave”, that allows the mother and daughter to escape those definitions. Nobody thinks of Katniss primarily as a “daughter” any more than they think of Superman as primarily a “son” or Spidey as primarily a “nephew”. Katniss is a real heroine who slays the dragon and saves the Kingdom, and she just happens to have a living, breathing mother at the same time. THAT is groundbreaking.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Louisa
Mon, Feb 22, 2016 10:05pm

You seem to be missing the point of these ratings. A film may lose a few points for a character who is nothing other than a mother, but as long as it does well re women in other aspects, it can still can an overall positive score. But a film in which women are nothing but adjuncts to men does *not* deserve a positive score for female representation.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Fri, Feb 26, 2016 7:21pm

I thought that the point of this project was to gauge how the industry represents women onscreen. Obviously, these films can do well or poorly despite this issue, but
obviously this issue matters, or you wouldn’t have these penalties in
the first place.

If a dead mother is bad representation and a living mother is even worse representation regardless of characterization, then that means ANY film about a young person is going to be penalized one way or another, and there is nothing a filmmaker, however feminist, can do about it. I simply don’t see what that is supposed to accomplish.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Louisa
Sat, Feb 27, 2016 12:15am

I have already explained this quite adequately. Women are more than mothers. Is that so hard to grasp?

reply to  Louisa
Fri, Feb 26, 2016 9:02pm

But in Brave, Merida has adventures and has a mother, and they have an actual, complex relationship. In real life, people–both male and female–have been known to go on adventures and also have parents. The movie tries to give the mother a specific, rounded personality instead of turning her into a trope or a stereotype. She isn’t just an extension of her child. That’s what MaryAnn has been asking for. I think that, rather than ruining the adventure story, the relationship makes it much more interesting.

reply to  Danielm80
Tue, Mar 01, 2016 8:31pm

Daniel, I seem to be having a very hard time getting my point across. I appreciate that you are trying to understand me, and I will give it one more try.

You consider what Merida did to be an “adventure”. Okay. But there are other kinds of adventures. Adventures that you cannot have at home with your mother, that involve leaving all you know and love and heading off into the unknown.

Imagine if the entire plot of “Star Wars” had been about Luke arguing with Owen about whether he could go to the academy, getting into and out of a little trouble of his own making, and then ending when Owen finally said “Okay, you can go already”. It would not have been the same film, to put it mildly. Same with “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, which begins with a young witch leaving home with her parents blessing to make her own way in the world. Would it be better if she had spent the whole movie arguing with her repressive mother over whether or not she should be allowed to go? That could be a plot of a sort, even an “adventure”, if you throw in enough wacky shenanigans, but by the end she still wouldn’t have proven herself or come of age.

Like you say, people go on adventures all the time and still have parents. But they usually don’t take their parents with them. You do not, as a rule, take your parents to college, or to War, or to your workplace, or on your honeymoon. Or even to summer camp or kindergarten. A knight does not take his parents on a quest. Nor does a Plains Indian take them on his vision quest. Stories and films based around such experiences will not have parents as main characters. That doesn’t mean that the parents cease to exist or matter. Quite the contrary. And in many of our life-stories they will continue to play a role, but without actually taking over and becoming the focus of our lives. That is healthy and normal, and it is how real life works. At times, an independent grown woman with career trouble might need to ask her father for advice (Valerie Plame in “Fair Game”). But she might also need to ask her mother for advice (Veronica Guerrin), and then go away and handle the problem on her own. According to this system, it is okay to show the former in a film, but not the latter.

We don’t have to choose between “Brave” and “Kiki”, because there is room in the multiplex for both kinds of adventures. But according to MaryAnn’s system, there isn’t room for mothers in both kinds of movies. In MaryAnn’s system, ANY mother in a supporting role will be judged a mere “extension of her child”, even if she clearly ISN’T in the sense that she has a full and busy life of her own, a respected profession (“Mockingjay”), and/or an “actual complex relationship with her child” (“The Visit”). Professional women, hobby enthusiasts, and breadwinner moms are evidently judged the same as housewife-moms who actually have no life beyond caring for their families (“Inside Out”).

So, here is my actual point in all of this: MaryAnn ALSO maintains that the Disney-style elimination of mother-figures from films is unfeminist. But the fact that she has made it nearly impossible to include a mother in a small role without incurring a penalty means that in effect her system actually encourages this unfeminist practice. If she is okay with this situation, then that is her decision. But I thought it was worth pointing out, and I hope I have finally done so clearly.

reply to  Louisa
Tue, Mar 01, 2016 9:13pm

If this were a Venn diagram, it would have a whole lot of circles. You’re describing a movie that features a female lead and a mother and also puts the mother in a supporting role. Only 30% of movies even have a female lead, so the number of movies that fit all three categories is pretty tiny. For a movie to meet all those criteria, and also depict women well, is extremely rare. It’s rare to see any movie that depicts women well.
I do think it’s possible to show a mother who’s a complex character, even in a supporting role. Grandma might fit the description, and might get a positive WATW score, but I don’t believe MaryAnn ever reviewed it. (And, if you want to get technical, neither the mother nor the daughter is the main character.)
But the real goal is very simple. It’s a Venn diagram with only one circle: Depicts every woman as a complex human being. Of course, to meet that goal, the film has to include women in the first place.

reply to  Louisa
Wed, Mar 02, 2016 2:40pm

I think that MaryAnn’s system, like the Bechdel test, breaks down aspects of representation in order to discern larger cultural patterns. The Bechdel test penalizes films in which there are no women, in which women don’t talk to each other, or in which women don’t talk to each other about anything other than men. Clearly, there are a lot of excellent movies (The Godfather), and even excellent feminist movies about women (Gravity), that would fail this test. However, what the test reveals is the sheer number of films that fail to meet this relatively simple, reasonable threshold, which speaks to a larger shortcoming in the way we depict women in our stories. In a world half-populated by women, who all talk to each other about things unrelated to men, the fact that an overwhelmingly large number of films fail Bechdel means that we are failing to represent women well in that regard.

MaryAnn’s criteria do the same thing. Yes, a film is penalized if a female character functions mainly in the role of “mother.” However, the film earns points back (either through other set criteria or through her “wildcard” category) if the mother is given an arc of her own, is shown having a rich interior life, or is shown to be a complete, complicated human being in other ways. (And of course the film also earns points back if it features other women in various other non-supporting roles.) What this does is enable us to step back and see a larger pattern. If the vast majority of films she reviews depicts women not just as mothers in supporting roles but as fully fleshed-out characters in their own right, or depicts women in a diverse range of roles that includes but isn’t limited to supporting-mother roles, that would tell us one thing. But if the vast majority of the films she reviews depicts women ONLY as mothers in supporting roles, that would tell us something quite different. It’s all about the big picture and perceiving the larger trends in how we tell stories about women.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Louisa
Wed, Mar 02, 2016 8:05pm

But according to MaryAnn’s system, there isn’t room for mothers in both kinds of movies.

No. This is not about mothers. It’s about all women. It’s about balancing out all representations of women onscreen. These criteria are designed for films as they exist today. If we ever get to that glorious point at which the vast majority of women who appear onscreen in mainstream movies are NOT define SOLELY as adjuncts to men or children, then these criteria may no longer be a fair judge of how well or how badly women are represented. And even today — as I have already explained — a film can still score *very* well on these criteria even if it has a female character who is nothing but a mother IF it also has other well-rounded and fully human female characters.