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Unconventional Representations of Gender

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 3339 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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This essay will focus on an unconventional representation of gender, which goes against the femininity and masculinity stereotypes that are still instilled in our chauvinist society. This will be achieved through the analysis of two of the most remarkable films of contemporary Europe, which are Volver (Pedro Almodóvar, Sony Pictures Classic, Spain, 2006) and Skyfall (Sam Mendes, Eon Productions, UK-USA, 2012). The analysis of Almodovar’s masterpiece will point out how he was able to create a certain female identity that rebelled against the Francoist repression that oppressed women and forced them to conform to the traditional female roles of mothers and faithful wives. Through the depiction of these strong ladies, the women’s director started a new era and put an end to the repressive regime. Similarly, Mendes in his first adaption of Fleming’s novels, challenges the audience’s expectations and the stereotypical representation of the British spy, by presenting a fallible man.

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        The Seventh Art hasn’t always conferred to women their real identity, but an image altered by men’s fantasy. In fact, Todd reveals that ‘the average cinematic construction of the feminine is an effect of male-orchestrated signs, codes, and conventions […].’[1] and this is evident if we look at women in films since 1910, in which they were exclusively depicted as loving wives and mothers. Cinema in the 20th century was an agent of patriarchal reinforcement, but in Almodovar’s matriarchal world women are protagonists, because, as himself said, women make better characters since they are more spectacular.


        Volver is another of the Spanish director’s ‘feminist films’. It’s the story of a mother, Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), trying to cope with some problems, but at the same time, going through the crisis, she creates strong bonds with women surrounding her. Since the first scene, we witness an old-fashioned representation of women, based on models from the past and still anchored to strong beliefs like Catholic Spain, showing a connection with national identity and the director’s background. Setting the scene in a cemetery, Almodovar underlines the women’s strong faith to religion and to their deceased husbands. This traditional identity is reinforced by their outfits: long floral dresses and shawls covering their shoulders or their heads. However, Almodovar exalts women’s femininity, taking as a model the neo-realist body of Sophia Loren represented by Cruz: Raimunda always wears very tight clothes, that enhance her curves.[2] She embodies the Spanish woman stereotype because she is sensual and passionate. It’s surprising that this representation comes from a country with a long tradition of machismo and repression of women. Still, she is not the typical weak lady: after her daughter’s murder of Paco (Antonio de la Torre) she is shown cleaning his blood and instantly coming up with a solution. This creates a rich portrait of what a woman is willing to do for her daughter, even taking responsibility for the murder. Throughout the film further confirmation of Raimunda’s strength and boldness will be shown: when she buries her husband’s body or when we find out that she was abused by her father, giving birth to her daughter/sister Paula. As we learn from Bloom’s article, Almodovar stated that many of his characters were inspired by his mother, Francisca Caballero: ‘She had the capacity to fake things, fake things in order to solve problems’ he said, explaining that as opposed to the men in his family, the women ‘would resolve situations with the greatest naturalism, with the greatest ease, they would just fake that certain things were happening in order to protect us as children, […]’.[3] Moreover, an interesting element is that unlike American movies in which women have to sacrifice their femininity in order to be taken seriously, Almodovar’s character is powerful without forsaking her feminine identity.

          The reason why Raimunda is such a fierce female character is the women around her. Her old mother Irene (Carmen Maura), her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) and her aunt share boldness, confidence and bad luck with men. For instance, Irene’s strength is highlighted by the fact that she avenged her daughter by killing her husband, and his mistress, after founding out that he had raped Raimunda. Another example is aunt Paula: despite her old age, she is independent and still able to live on her own. All the director’s women are able to be enough for themselves.

          Almodovar exhibits a real understanding of the ways in which women relate to one another. When Raimunda asks for help, the other women in the village are ready to assist her and her neighbour Augustina (Blanca Portillo) always takes care of the aunt without any hidden agenda. At the funeral, women mourn together, while men stand outside the house. In Volver, the director underlines that the strong boundary between them is forged after painful occurrences. Examples are the multiple rapes and men’s crimes against their daughters (Paula and Raimunda), that lead to patricidal episodes that strengthened the mother-daughter connections. How is it possible that a man who grew up in a patriarchal and gender-separated fascist Spain has such a vision and knowledge of women? The answer to this question can be deduced from an interview released by Cruz. He was raised by many women, his mother, sisters, neighbours and he was always observing their bonds of sisterhood[4].

           All Volver’s women are survivors. Almodovar shows the ways in which they deal with and overcome tragedies, which always involve the men in their lives. The presence of men in Almodovar’s cinema is very limited, and this is related to his opinion regarding them: ‘I think that […] men in Spanish culture were quite corseted’ he said, with roles restricted to the Latin lover or the macho hero. [5] ‘Men are kind of the protagonist of epic stories, but what I’m more interested in are stories that deal with the ordinary’.[6] Moreover, the director believes that men are part of women’s world, but only a part and they are not at the centre. They can function well even without them. Just like the director’s mother, who raised his children without her husband’s support, who was absent.[7] Therefore, in Volver family is made of women and lacks a paternal figure. This is why his representation of men goes against any stereotype created in Franco’s misogynistic Spain: without a strong paternal figure a patriarchal society doesn’t exist. Almodovar’s men are weak, useless and marginal. An example is Paco who loses his jobs but doesn’t care and gets drunk, watches football and is extremely lazy, demonstrating little sign of any paternal instinct or virility. On the contrary, he peeks at her daughter undressing and reveals his true sickening nature.

Although displaying a celebration of women and being named the women’s director, Almodovar has frequently been attacked by feminist film critics. Most of them have found his portrayals of women to be very humiliating, leading to accusations of misogyny. [8]Some critics have judged Almodóvar’s films to rely upon stereotypical notions of womanhood, arguing that his female characters are often presented as hysterical or as suffering victims of men’s betrayals. McAlister accuses Almodovar of humiliation and fetishization of female characters, because of the many rape scenes he depicts. [9] Brownmiller argues that rape is ‘an alliance of masculine sexuality’s aggressive, violent and dominating position with disrespect to femininity’s inherent passivity’.[10] Nevertheless, to focus exclusively on these depictions is to overlook the multiplicity of female roles in the director’s cinema. Given his childhood and the solidarity that Almodovar depicts in Volver, he cannot be considered misogynous.

           Typical elements of Almodóvar’s films are striking mise-en-scene, bold colours and unusual camera angles. Every scene is filled with bright, saturated colours, from the costumes to the set design, despite the serious and dark subjects he represents. The protagonist is the colour red, for passion, danger and death. We see it from the beginning, with the opening credits, a red sweater, tomatoes, peppers until the scene in which Raimunda cleans the floor full of Paco’s blood. Furthermore, there is an overhead shot of Raimunda cleaning a bloodied knife, evoking a Hitchcock thriller. It’s brilliant the long establishing opening shot, the camera tracks in a reverse direction, going from right to left: a return. It gives us the film’s themes, which are death, women, ghosts and concludes with a close-up of the grave with the title.

          ‘One of the most striking features of masculinity in contemporary British cinema is its heterogeneity and hybridity: the range of male types is much wider than before and the types themselves more complex’.10 Indeed, since 1950s major transformations have taken place, and even the ultimate embodiment of masculinity had to be adapted to match the modern audience’s expectations. After the war, there was a return to a traditional model of masculinity. Complicit the sexist cultural politics of the 1950s, the original Fleming’s Bond is charming, tough, attractive and strong. Connery and Brosnan’s Bonds were the incarnation of the Byronic, erotic hero. He was a virile and flawless womanizer. At the beginning of Skyfall Bond’s body is shown floating down a river after having been shot. The new 007 appears to be more fragile than strong, he is battered and bruised and doesn’t pass the physical tests. He fails to fit into the male model created by his predecessors, creating a more honest version of masculinity. With Craig the vulnerable flesh under the muscle is revealed: he embodies strength and vulnerability unlike anything we have seen before in the franchise, presenting a realistic modern action hero. As Champman stated, the character has been adjusted in response to cultural changes.[11] Still, Craig’s Bond is the perfect representation of virility, which is exalted when he fights unarmed on the train or when he opens his wound and extracts the bullet’s pieces. However, in Skyfall a new side is disclosed: he can be emotionally hurt. When M dies, he cries and a new humanized and sensitive 007 is revealed.

            The 007 films have a tradition of representing women as sexual objects who could be used by Bond and then discarded as he moved on to another one. An example is the prominent Honey Rider (Ursula Andress) in Dr. No (1962). The first time we see her, she emerges from the sea with only a bikini, while Bond amused watches her. Throughout the rest of the film, she is never fully clothed. Women in cinema have been so long attached to the idea of passivity and sexualized spectacle, reinforcing Mulvey’s concept of ‘male gaze’. She argues that cinema constructs women as passive sexualised objects for the pleasure of the male spectator.[12] The previous films tended to reflect what was acceptable in society at the time, but the more recent have had to address the changing roles of women. The Bond’s girls used to be adjusted to highlight his masculine dominance, instead now they challenge it. Eve (Naomie Harris) is not another typical Bond girl who needs to be saved: she fights and shoots, showing that she is able to do anything a man can do. She breaks every stereotype, since she is strong, efficient, but at the same time attractive. This is also demonstrated by her outfits, both elegant and functional. Although she and Bond get along in a flirtatious way, her presence in the context of the chase scene undermines Bond’s masculine authority. Besides, M (Judy Dench), the head of MI6, ‘radically reframed the Bond characters, a subordinated masculinity is a rare and unusual vision in a patriarchal culture’.[13] She is a woman of authority and character, above Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) and Bond. It’s particularly interesting that she is not defined by her beauty or body image, as other female characters. A more traditional female representation in Skyfall is Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe) the femme fatale. She is attractive and seductive but weak. She is first seduced by Bond, then used in order to get to the villain, becoming a pawn in a men’s game.

             Nevertheless, Linder and other Bond scholars defined chauvinism as part of the 007 formula and Bond films had to contend with accusations of sexism responding to overtly misogynistic representation of submissive Bond Girls and femme fatales. Skyfall develops the legacy of Bond at the expense of women in the film: Moneypenny falls victim of the rules of the franchise because at the end she decides to stop being a field agent and retires, becoming a secretary for Mallory and returning to worship Bond behind a desk. M is asked to retire and is discriminated because she is a woman. Her position is then filled by a more competent and stronger man, Mallory, revealing the misogynistic theme. Sévérine’s role was considered unimportant and disposable: she served only as an object for sexual fulfilment of the two men. Still, it must be acknowledged that some steps forward have been made, with the introduction of a female M, the fierce performance of Harries as Eve and the disintegration of the themes of heteronormativity and hypermasculinity, with the inclusion of Silva (Javier Bardem). In fact, there are homoerotic undertones in the scene in which he first meets Bond, and despite being hypothetical homosexual or bisexual, he is considered one of the best villains of the series.

             Mendes’ use of the camera in Skyfall is remarkable. In the fighting scene on the train, it is crucial for the audience’s engagement, prolonging the drama. The camera shot alternates between a close-up of Eve looking through the rifle, the actual view from the rifle’s scope, a medium camera shot of the fighting, and a shot of M giving orders. It is a constant and quick alternating of perspective. Throughout this scene, Mendes uses non-diegetic music to create a sense of action and excitement. When Bond is hit by the bullet, the music stops and there is silence, save for the sound of Eve breathing. As the film develops, we witness Bond’s physical decline, which is highlighted by the close-up shots of his craggy features, tired expression and wrinkles. Besides, Mendes plays with colours, contrasting between the different locations. In the skyscraper fight, the assassin looks out on a single yellow lit apartment, contrasting with the deep blues of the projections on the skyscraper. In the next scenes in Macau, the colours tend to be a yellow/orange/red palette, which beautifully contrasts with the previous scene’s colours in Shanghai.

             To conclude, in both analysed films a modernized view of femininity and masculinity unfolds. In Volver, Almodovar defied the fascist stereotype of the submissive woman, celebrating a new kind of fierce femininity. Mendes, aware of the gender disparities in the past portrayals of Bond, has acknowledged them and deconstructed the seemingly untouchable models that have been thoroughly enforced. Fleming may have started writing his version of the ideal(ised) man, but Bond has turned out to be much more than a stereotype.


Dr. No, dir. by Terence Young (Eon Productions, UK, 1962)

  • Skyfall, dir. by Sam Mendes (Eon Productions, UK, 2012)
  • Volver, dir. By Pedro Almodovar (Sony Pictures Classic, Spain, 2006)

[1] Todd, J. (1988). Women and film. New York: Holmes & Meier, p.10.

[2] Epps, B. and Kakoudaki, D. (2009). All about Almodóvar. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p.342.

[3] Nytimes.com. (2019). Pedro Almodóvar and His ‘Cinema of Women’. [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/02/movies/pedro-almodovar-and-his-cinema-of-women.html .

[4] Nytimes.com. (2019). Pedro Almodóvar and His ‘Cinema of Women’. [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/02/movies/pedro-almodovar-and-his-cinema-of-women.html.

[5] Nytimes.com. (2019). Pedro Almodóvar and His ‘Cinema of Women’. [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/02/movies/pedro-almodovar-and-his-cinema-of-women.html

[6] Nytimes.com. (2019). Pedro Almodóvar and His ‘Cinema of Women’. [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/02/movies/pedro-almodovar-and-his-cinema-of-women.html

[7] D’Lugo, M. (2006). Pedro Almodóvar. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, p.142.

[8] Mlinarevic, G. (2000).Mothers, gaze and rape : Almodóvar’s cinema and the construction of gender. Retrieved from https://ro.ecu.edu.au/theses_hons/535, p.1

[9] McAlister, L. L., (July 16, 1994) A film review by Linda Lopez McAlister on The

Women’s Show, p.1

[10] Brownmiller, S. (1975) Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape; Simon and Schuster, New York, pp.200-205.

[11] Spicer, A. (2003). Typical men. London: Tauris.p.? 

[12] 3 Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema Screen, 16 (1975) pp.6-18. 

[13] Lindner, C. (2003). The James Bond phenomenon. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p.211. 


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