I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time in years the other night. And I realized: it’s where my lifelong issue with female portrayals in film and TV began.
I was very young when it came out. All the kids were roleplaying Star Wars whenever we played, and I always took the role of Luke. My grandmother thought it was just scandalous that I had picked a male character, but there was a very simple reason I didn’t want to identify with Leia: she was into kissing, and I so wasn’t there yet. Guess my grandmother would have preferred a seven-year-old girl to start thinking about foreplay already rather than identify with the non-gender-specific traits of a guy.
And there’s a shock #1 for filmmakers: you can’t expect prepubescent girls to want a role model who exists mainly to snog the hero. Boys still have cooties, at that point in a girl’s life. Such a simple point, and yet I only just figured it out myself. Or maybe that’s not a shock – maybe demographics suggest that pre-pubescent girls don’t drive enough family purchasing power for anyone to give a shit what they want to see.
So, along came Raiders. As soon as Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) came on the screen, I was hooked. Finally, a female character who, like me, really didn’t wear makeup. (To this day, I’ve only seen one other female actor get exactly the same makeup job as a male actor – Sigourney Weaver as Ripley.) In her first scene, Marion drinks a man under a table, then closes her bar full of men. She’s in charge, and yet she can be part of the festivities. Oh, yeah… I was hooked. This was what I wanted to be when I grew up. Except, maybe not the bar. Maybe Congress. You get the idea.
Then Indiana Jones walks in, and we begin to get some… odd backstory, the purpose of which, to this day, escapes me. Apparently, the two of them had an affair when she was “a child”, even though he claims “you knew what you were doing”, and it caused a falling out between her father and Indiana. According to the novelization, she was fifteen when this occurred. Uh, okay. Not something I really related to or even understood at that age, but… I really wanted to like this woman. I really wanted to have a role model who was female.
Later in the same scene, she punches Indy, orders him out, stands up to some Nazi brutes… I thought we were back on track. And for a few scenes, things seemed fine, as Indy took her to meet Sallah and they looked for traces of the Ark. Then the action started again, and Marion and Indy were being chased and attacked by thugs in the marketplace, and once or twice, I thought Marion yelled to Indy for help when she could plainly see he was busy fending off his own attackers. I thought that was a little whiney, but I cut her some slack as a civilian, so to speak. It was because she wasn’t used to this sort of fighting – not because she was female.
Then we get to the scene where Indy finds she’s not dead – she’s being held captive by Belloq. He kisses her, and I’m thinking, great. The kissing’s back. Can I just not avoid this stuff? It seemed if I wanted an asexual role model to get me through my prepubescent years, it was going to have to be a guy, because kissing was all women characters were for.
Then something really bizarre happened. Indy left her in the hands of Belloq to prevent Belloq from realizing he was there and working on the Ark. Betrayal was something I could relate to, so I was right back to identifying with Marion after all. From that moment, I regarded Indiana Jones as the supreme asshole of the film world. Who knew what was going to happen to her in Belloq’s care? (This, by the way, was my introduction to the fine film tradition of homoerotic male pissing contests, in which the female is a trophy to pass back and forth. And yet, sadly, I could relate to that too, having already picked up on how authority figures use their alleged concern for kids to impress each other with no real regard for the kids’ well-being.)
Belloq gives Marion the – and I’m saying this in the nicest way I can – butt-ugliest fru-fru dress from hell that ever existed. That’s what she has to wear when she’s fighting off snakes in the Well of Souls. In fact, that’s what she wears until some pirates give her a thin silk nightgown – in which she passes the rest of the film. You know, trekking through the 100+ degree desert, being tied to a pole, and whatever-you-do not looking at the ark as it zaps a bit of hellfire and brimstone into those nasty Nazis.
And while she keeps up some of her initial attitude, she’s more just scared, whiny, and dependant on the guy who left her captive to keep from losing the ark. As the clothes get sexier, she gets more pathetic – and I actually remember thinking this confirmed that having boyfriends really does give you some kind of disease. Ironic, as I’m sure that’s the last message the filmmakers intended to convey.
In the very last scene of the movie, she’s dressed like a proper American woman in the 1930’s, complete with a really god-awful shade of lipstick that no makeup artist could have thought belonged on Karen Allen. Straight skirt, hose, blouse, little stupid hat, the whole nine yards. The man-scaring wild woman of Nepal has been tamed into something Mama’s Little American Boys can handle.
That was when I realized on some level – though not in words just yet – that apparently women scare men witless, and that’s why they feel the need to tether women to them with a lack of options. Because it’s easier than trying to be strong themselves.
Is that really how men are? Or is that just what filmmakers are pandering to?