Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 34
17 May 1999

K I N O E Y E:
Passive and Pubescent
Peculiar gender politics in
Central European cinema

Andrew J Horton

The different ways in which women are portrayed in recent Central European and Hollywood films make for an interesting contrast. What is more, the comparison provides a revealing insight into the values of both Central European males and contemporary society as a whole, not to mention the view it affords of male sexual fantasies in the region.

Cinema has long been a man's world. Even the supposed world center of political correctness, America, has failed to produce a significant body of film which addresses women and women's issues. After all, how many female Hollywood film directors can you name?

Admittedly, there is a genre of film supposedly aimed at women. These films have been sneeringly dubbed "chick-flicks" by male detractors who would rather their girlfriend or wife didn't emotionally blackmail them into having to see Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail (1998). "Chick-flicks," however, still generally have male lead characters with female support (Hanks gets higher billing than Ryan, for example) and on the whole address women's issues only in so far as they do not contain high-speed car chases, violent and bloody deaths, or football. All of this says much about American society and the way gender politics works in everyday reality, away from the bold and confident statements of those who maintain that the US represents equality in action.

Self-imposed sexism

Some recent Central European cinema makes equally revealing comments about post-Communist society. Female directors such as Poland's Agnieszka Holland (now one of the few female directors to work in Hollywood), the Czech Republic's Vera Chytilova and Hungary's Marta Meszaros have all made major contributions to the cinematographies of their respective countries and are internationally respected. Given this and the overall analytical and psychologizng trend in European film, one would think that Central European cinema would have more interesting reflections on the female condition than Hollywood can muster - all the more so since Chytilova and Meszaros have had the tag "feminist" applied to them, although Meszaros has resisted the labeling.

Recent films by Chytilova and Meszaros, however, are barely distinguishable from the lamentable sexism of their male colleagues. Chytilova's Pasti, pasti, pasticky (Traps, 1998) embraces a masculine form of toilet-humor to show two men learning to live with castration, while their castrator, a female hitch-hiker the two men conspired to rape, fails to keep a grip on sanity. Meszaros's A szerencse lanyai (Daughters of Luck, 1998) meanwhile glorifies prostitution and romantically depicts it as a way for its female protagonist to live a life of luxury and sexual fulfillment. Both women seem to have been influenced by male ideas of cinema, rather than the other way around.

Of course, the general domination of men and male ideas in the industry should not really be surprising in Central Europe. However, films from Central Europe develop a number of gender motifs and themes in a manner that would be unpalatable even to the most reactionary of marketing executives in the US film industry.

Some of these motifs and themes (or "tropes" as film theorists prefer to call them) also appear in Hollywood films but are pursued with far greater vigor in Central Europe. The tendency to concentrate on the experiences and perspectives of male characters and the habit of putting less thought into the development of female roles fall into this category. Other tropes are more peculiar to Central Europe. These are far more interesting, as they afford a window into both the workings of the minds of Central European males and the expectations of Central European society when it comes to gender issues.

Buddies over babes

It hardly needs to be pointed out that Hollywood films have a tendency to portray women as sexual trophies to be won by the hero through great deeds of masculinity. But this reduction to object-status for women can be taken further - with "the girl" only present as a reward for the most dashing man, Central European cinema has a habit of prioritizing male-male relationships over male-female ones. Thus, for example, in the recent Hungarian film Kalozok (Pirates, 1998) the story is driven not so much by the hero Max's quest to win the heart of an attractive flutist who moves in next door, but by his struggle to become reconciled with his male flatmate Pipi, whose material and sexual success jeopardizes the relationship of the two friends. The film ends with Pipi gallantly giving up his chance of fame and fortune and even romantic conquest so that the friendship may flourish again.

Women are also reduced to sexual objects in other ways than through thin, or comparatively thin, characterization. A popular Central European trope is to reduce women's mental capabilities. This may be done in a number of ways: women are commonly seen as animalized, infantalized or even mentally handicapped, in order to render them as purely physical and sexual beings. The classic example here is the career of the Czech actress Anna Geislerova, who specializes in playing young, sexually active girls, only just above the age of consent. In Jizda (The Ride, 1994), by Oscar-winner Jan Sverak, she plays a fun-loving sixteen-year-old girl temporarily on the run from a wild and erotic relationship she has been in since the age of fourteen. Vychova divek v Cechach (Bringing up Girls in Bohemia, 1997), again catches her in a similar role: half characterized by childhood innocence and half by unrestrained sexual abandon. Playing the sulky daughter of a millionaire, she embarks on an affair with her middle-aged and married creative writing tutor. For her latest film appearance, in Sasa Gedeon's Navrat idiota (Return of the Idiot, 1999), Geislerova has matured slightly, trading in her flowered sundress for black turtleneck and stylish tweeds, but she still plays up her image of the waif-like and pouty, inadvertent temptress. Just so one doesn't start getting too comfortable in the realm of consensual well-adjusted adults, however, Geislerova's spirit lives on in the role of her character's teenage sister, who sleeps with Geislerova's fiance.

Kiddie porn, Central European style

Children and sexuality, it seems, is ground which Central Europe is all too happy to cover, while Hollywood, fearful of charges of pedophilia, avoids the issue like the plague and tries its best to stick to same-age romantic couplings. There is no question that films such as Ambar tanar ur (Professor Albeit, Hungary, 1998) and Historie milosne (Love Stories, Poland, 1997), to give but two recent examples, would be impossible to make in a Hollywood context. Both portray love affairs between a late-middle-aged teacher and a vulnerable and naive - yet stunningly attractive - young student.

The former film ducks the central issue by never fully consummating the relationship and having the teacher absurdly sublimating his love for the girl by marrying her mother. The latter film, however, is somewhat bolder. Its message asserts that not only is it permissible for such relationships to occur, it is morally reprehensible to prevent them. In fact, the teacher is first scorned by a colleague for dumping his young love, with the admonition that he is not in America and such things are, therefore, acceptable; he is then sent to what would appear to be an up-dated version of hell.

Passive over passionate

The appeal, sexual and otherwise, of these reduced women is that they give men total control. Women who are not in some way reduced are to be avoided. Passionate women who can express their feelings freely and demand sexual attention are often rejected in favor of cooler women who may well enjoy sex but do not initiate it. The highly popular Slovak film Zahrada (The Garden, 1995) sees its protagonist distance himself from a sensuous woman who seduces him. Instead, he falls for a teenager, who is reduced through her lack of any form of education (although it could be argued that this actually empowers her, since it gives her mystical knowledge freed from everyday logic). Even a film like Jizda, with Geislerova in fine sluttish form, ends with the message that sexual passion is a game or a break from reality and that we must soon return to a life led on a less emotional level. For one of the characters in Jizda, this consists of married life.

Central European cinema, on the whole, indicates a lack of interest in communication between the sexes. Men come across as preferring to spend time with men rather than with women, and when they do associate with women, it should preferably be in a context devoid of emotion. Passion in a relationship is either a foolhardy and dangerous adventure for middle-aged men bored with married life or a manifestation of the whore in women. There are of course exceptions to this trend: the entire oeuvre of Krzysztof Kieslowski is filled with sympathetic portrayals of deeply characterized and passionate women and Jan Jakub Kolski's Jancio Wodnik (Johnny Waterman, 1993) berates the film's eponymous hero for his inability to direct his feelings toward his wife.

The overall trend, though, is clearly one of mistrust of passion, and a few films, however noteworthy, cannot erase this. The question all this raises, though, is whether the trends apparent in Central European cinema are peculiar to the region or whether they are indicative of worldwide male traits in an era when other countries have become remarkably good at preventing their society's latent misogyny from bubbling to the cinematic surface.

Andrew J Horton, 17 May 1999 (republished 29 November 1999)



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