Sometimes the small victories are bigger than they initially seem, as pointed out by the Independent Film Channel's In the Company of Women (March 18, 8 p.m.). Kicking off a three-day film festival, directors Lesli Klainberg and Gini Reticker's documentary examines the evolution of women in film with a timeline of movies that have helped create new roles for women beyond the hero's wife/girlfriend/love interest. As silly as any story starring Madonna may be, Susan Seidelman's Desperately Seeking Susan helped prove that two female protagonists could rake in box-office success. Sadly, it meant more films starring Madonna, but it also meant more films from women's perspectives. By the way, "women's perspective" doesn't always translate into "chick flick." Like Spike Lee's films aren't only for African-Americans and Woody Allen's films aren't only for New York Jews, Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry isn't just for lesbians secretly living as men.
Women filmmakers, although frequently lumped together in a nice, potpourri-lined basket, aren't all the same, and the documentary presents some of their differing opinions on sexuality. In 2002's Secretary, Maggie Gyllenhaal portrays a young secretary who embraces the submissive role in an S&M relationship with her boss. To film historian B. Ruby Rich, Gyllenhaal's role regressed to old female stereotypes of man pleasing. But to Gyllenhaal, her saddle-wearing, carrot-biting role asked a question: Are the feminist rules that once protected women now binding them?
The documentary also examines body image, using a scene from Nicole Holofcener's Lovely & Amazing. In the clip, a completely naked Emily Mortimer stands up and asks her male companion to tell her what's wrong with her appearance. He lists the flaws: one breast is bigger than the other, flabby upper arms, and so on. The scene mortifies me because I do that to myself in my mirror and have noticed others at the gym do the same thing.
Which leads me to UPN's "America's Next Top Model" (Tuesdays, 9 p.m.). These girls stand in front of a panel of judges that ruthlessly scrutinizes the women's bodies in front of the TV nation. Host and producer Tyra Banks insists that personality plays a role in the judging, but it's more along the line of cooperating with photographers. Anna, the token "plus-size model," was kicked off for refusing to get naked for a shoot. She was 4 inches taller than me, and weighed 5 pounds less than me. P.S. I'm a size 6. Several of the contestants have been eliminated for "flaws" that others view as positive traits: Bethany's boobs were too big, and Jenascia was too short at 5 feet 6 inches.
The other part of me, namely my hand, would like to smack the contestants over their heads. Take Yoanna, a very driven contestant who clearly has studied the fashion industry and lost 45 pounds to compete. But the judges tell her that her body is weird and she breaks down into tears. She's self-conscious because she's judging herself on fashion-industry beautiful. Why be the model when you could be the designer? Why cry over being a weird size 2 when you pick a runway of healthy, curvy people to model your clothes?