The problem with Jane Campion’s white feminism
The director’s thoughtless remark to Venus and Serena Williams at the 27th Critics’ Choice Awards last weekend was an offensive whitewashing of the female experience, says Hanna Flint
Friday 18 March 2022 By Hanna Flint
There’s an awesome quote in The Dark Knight delivered by DA Harvey Dent as he defends the vigilantism of Batman. ‘You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain,’ he says in a brilliant bit of foreshadowing of his own villainous trajectory. Why are you talking about Batman again, Hanna? Well, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this brilliant line this week, as it’s a somewhat fitting metaphor for the dramatic rise and fall in public opinion of Jane Campion. One minute she is the people’s champ, the next she’s been knocked out by her own carelessness all in the space of 36 hours. So what happened? Glad you asked.
Campion has been a firm fixture this awards season thanks to her latest cinematic endeavour, The Power Of The Dog. It’s a powerfully conceived psychodrama set against the backdrop of the American West and based on the 1967 novel of the same name by Thomas Savage. There’s barely an awards body in the English-speaking world that hasn’t recognised this movie; it has 12 Oscar® nominations, including best director, making the New Zealand filmmaker the first woman ever to be nominated in this category twice. But famous western star, Sam Elliott, was not a fan of the film, which has been praised for its depiction of a type of masculinity warped by repressed homosexual desires.
Last month, on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Elliot went off. ‘Yeah, you wanna talk about that piece of s**t?’ he said. ‘There was a f**king full page ad out in the LA Times, and there was a clip, and it talked about the evisceration of the American myth. And I thought, “What the f**k? What the f**k?” This is the guy that’s done westerns forever. The evisceration of the American west? They made it look like – what are all those dancers, those guys in New York that wear bow ties and not much else? Remember them from back in the day?’
‘That’s what all these f**king cowboys in that movie looked like,’ he continued. ‘Running around in chaps and no shirts. There were all these allusions to homosexuality throughout the f**king movie.’ Hmm. Maybe he should reach out to Sean Penn and start a support group for Hollywood homophobes.
Of course, everyone had been waiting for a response from Campion and my girl didn’t disappoint. On Saturday, at the Directors Guild of America Awards in Los Angeles, where she won the award for outstanding directorial achievement in a theatrical feature film, she dropped this epic sound bite during a red-carpet interview with Variety. ‘I’m sorry, [Sam] was being a little bit of a B-I-T-C-H,’ she smiled. ‘I’m sorry to say it but he’s not a cowboy, he’s an actor. The west is a mythic space and there’s a lot of room on the range. I think it’s a little bit sexist.
‘When you think about the number of amazing westerns made in Spain by [director] Sergio Leone. I consider myself a creator. I think he thinks of me as a woman or something lesser first, and I don’t appreciate that.’
Neither did the world, Jane. Everyone came out in support of her words and condemnation of the sort of misogynist attitude that has kept female directors excluded from certain areas of film that their male counterparts dominate. It was a feminist point well made. And then she ruined it.
A day later, in her best director acceptance speech at the Critics’ Choice Awards, maybe high off the win and the social media support of her Sam Elliott slapdown, Campion attempted another feminist statement, but this time two Black women were caught in the crosshairs.
After acknowledging her all-male, fellow nominees – ‘I’d also just like to give my love out to my fellow – the guys’ – she turned to Venus and Serena Williams, who were attending as executive producers for their film King Richard, and dropped this jaw-dropping statement: ‘And Serena and Venus, you are such marvels. However, you do not play against the guys like I have to.’
I winced when I saw the clip. The white feminism jumped out and slapped the faces of the two brilliant Black women who’ve faced sexism, classism, misogyny and racism in order to become two of the most celebrated tennis players in the history of the game, if not the most.
Campion’s career, on the other hand. While of course she has battled gender inequality, as a white woman she has systemically benefited more than women of colour striving for the same opportunities. She also came from extreme wealth and nepotism: her mother Edith Campion was an heiress and actress, her father Richard M. Campion was a theatre and opera director, and even her daughter Alice Englert has enjoyed a foot in the door because of her mother’s position.
To try and compare her struggle to that of the Williams sisters is not only a false equivalence, but extremely poor taste and offensive. I want to believe Campion didn’t mean it in bad faith. That it was more the heat of the moment had garbled her brain, and I’m glad she’s apologised. But the decision to make that sort of statement is endemic of a type of feminism that tries to white-wash the female experience and ignore the intersectional experience of women of colour.
Jane, you’re a phenomenal filmmaker who has made a massive impact on the cinematic landscape for the better. But if you could stop looking at the treatment of women through your white-tinted glasses that would be great.
On the nose
In an interview with Vogue magazine, Bella Hadid admitted to having a nose job when she was 14 and regretting the decision. ‘I wish I had kept the nose of my ancestors,’ she said, referring to her dad Mohamed Hadid’s Palestinian descent. ‘I think I would have grown into it.’
We’ve all had those youthful feelings of inadequacy about our looks. I used to hate the shape of my aquiline nose that I inherited from my Tunisian father. Then I realised I didn’t need to erase my Arabness in order to adhere to a European beauty ideal. I’m just glad I had parents who never encouraged that sort of physical change to my face. My mum didn’t even let me get my ears pierced until I was 16, so there was no chance she would agree to a nose job. At 14 years old, no less.
Anyone who watched her mother, Yolanda Hadid, on The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills will remember how obsessed she was over her biracial daughters’ appearances, often describing Gigi as the all-American girl while Bella is the ‘darker and exotic’. Nothing like using Orientalist language to ‘other’ your own daughter, Yolanda.
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