Why Only Letting Women Watch 'Austenland' Is Not Empowering
Only women are allowed in Austenland.
Based on the novel by Shannon Hale, there will be no men in the audience as the film premieres on Friday New York City and Los Angeles. This is part of a strategic marketing move by Sony Pictures Classics (SPC) which also includes sending Austenland calendars to female journalists. SPC co-president Tom Bernard told The Hollywood Reporter that "at Sundance, women loved the movie, but we found that the few reviews that we did get from male critics were vicious. We just said, 'Fine, it's not for you. Don't see it. Can't come.'"
Bernard specified that they wouldn't have anyone ensuring that no men found their way in, rather than the invitations were only extended to women. However, his gendered assumption seems to have failed him: The film is currently only at 37% on Rotten Tomatoes, with more male than female reviewers giving Austenland favorable reviews (6 to 1, respectively). The reverse is true as well; more female than male reviewers declared the film "rotten."
Austenland producer Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight books, told The Hollywood Reporter that "this film is very uniquely female. There can't be many movies in the marketplace that are based on a novel by a woman, scripted by women, directed by a woman and starring a woman. There are beginning to be more female-centric, female-created movies in the marketplace, but they're still vastly the minority."
Making a film focused on women, regardless of whether men like it, is progress. It is also common sense, considering that women last year accounted for 50% of U.S. filmgoers and 52% of revenue.
Unfortunately, most filmmakers seem oblivious to these numbers, as only 11% of the characters in last year's top 100 grossing film's were female. The reason behind this discrepancy is that filmmakers still believe that while women will see a film about a man, no men would want to see a film about a woman. The label of chick flick is one even Bernard distanced himself from, describing Austenland as "not a typical 'chick flick'" presumably in hopes of attracting more viewers, despite their women-only marketing campaign.
This is where Austenland's marketing strategy becomes problematic (in addition to simply being inaccurate). While their recognition of female purchasing power is refreshing, by rejecting men from the theater, they are still reinforcing this mistaken belief. Instead of focusing on women and acknowledging that men are interested in feminine or romantic narratives as well - and there are plenty of male Jane Austen fans - this targeted exclusion of men instead reinforces tired and inaccurate gender norms.
In other words, Austenland's women-only screenings simply reinforce the belief that men are not interested in films about women. By leaving out half the population, any empowering or feminist messages the film may contain have only half the impact.
As Chris Kilmartin, author of The Masculine Self, was paraphrased by the New York Times as saying, "It's not DNA we're up against; it's movies, manners and a set of mores ... that assign different roles and different worth to men and women. Fix that culture and we can keep women a whole lot safer."
In other words, to improve our culture as a whole we need to have movies that showcase men and women as equals. Keeping men out of the theater fails in this regard, because while it doesn't imply that women are lesser, it continues to "assign different roles" to men and women.
As Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film, told the Guardian, "Marketing a film as women-only was a self-fulfilling prophecy which bolstered the idea of women comprising a niche market" despite being half the population. "It reflects a world view that is very myopic."
Even Austenland star Jennifer Coolidge believes "the modern man can learn from Jane Austen." So why won't the movie marketers let him?