The African Queen: 6 STARS

* In this week’s feminist film news we see Maggie Gyllenhaal turned down for a role as the love interest of a 55 year old man because she was deemed to have spent too many years on this earth (37 to be exact). Maggie may be able to laugh at the ridiculousness of this, I, however, am still very much in the angry stage. Please join me in my anger and read the below for full details http://www.thewrap.com/maggie-gyllenhaal-on-hollywood-ageism-i-was-told-37-is-too-old-for-a-55-year-old-love-interest/*

(SPOILERS. I mean watching The African Queen has probably been an option for your whole life but as I only watched it for the first time this week I cannot judge you for not taking that opportunity. CN for threat of hanging, no one is hanged in the end but there is quite a lot of hanging related fuss. Also there are crocodiles so if you, like Sterling Archer, fear crocodiles you should watch out)

“Fancy, me, a heroine” – Rose

I really did not have high hopes for this film in the beginning. Any film called The African Queen made in 1951 suggests many chasms of potential horror. However as the vast majority of the film is just 2 people on a boat it steers clear of quite a lot of these horror chasms, much as Humphrey and Katharine steer masterfully through the rapids of ‘German East Africa’ one might say. Really what this film is is 90 minutes of jolly fun. Two quite weird looking people get to know one another, form a believable relationship and have an adventure. An adventure which they enjoy so much! Watching a man and a woman have fun together should not be such an odd thing but I have rarely been so surprised and refreshed. Let us follow them on their adventure and see how they got on.

The Bechdel Test

– Developed female relationships

(Ok so not a great start. This is however a case of where the actual events being filmed mean that there aren’t two female characters. There isn’t a large cast of women ignoring one another/obsessively discussing men there is just one woman who lives in a genuinely isolated situation and thus has no lady friends because she actually wouldn’t have, rather than because the film’s creators have decided that female relationships are boring. So as positive as a failed star can be really)

STAR: Non- stereotyped Female Characters

– STAR: Developed, prominent female characters

(Yes. A thousand times yes. Rose, played by the fabulous Katharine Hepburn, is wonderful. You think she’s just going to be ‘a straight laced missionary’, as the Wikipedia page describes her, but in fact she’s an adrenaline junkie. This is a woman who devoted herself to her brother’s mission and then, when he dies, realises that she is capable of so much more. Sure the mission she sets herself is artificially simple but her zeal, determination  and good humour are real and really admirable. She is a heroine with that legitimate bravery which is the conquering of fear rather than its absence. In other words she is wonderful)

STAR: No excessive air of misogyny

–  No rigid adherence to gender norms

(A lovely thing about this film is the way it deals with the problem of chivalry, and problem it is. Humphrey starts off treating Katharine like a lady, letting her sleep in his bed, keeping her away from menial tasks but the practicalities of their journey quickly render this impossible. They have to accept that they’re both people with different skills and abilities but equally capable in their own ways. Katharine steering while Humphrey mans the engine is a beautiful show of genuine partnership and compromise. No one has to win because they work together, each defeating their personal demons rather than trying to fight one another. This isn’t a world where everyone pretends the patriarchy isn’t a thing, Humphrey calls Katharine a dried up old maid and she throws away all his gin because women are nice and clean and sober and men are dogs, but together one feels they attempt to overcome it rather than just go along with it. There isn’t anything radical about Katharine’s femininity or Humphrey’s masculinity, they fit basically conventional gender roles, although she is more active and into speed boating than one might expect, but what there is is a pleasant and continual pointing out of the limits of these roles and how they need to be overcome in order to have real relationships/run a real boat)

STAR: No Excessive Female Exposure or Sexualisation

– STAR: No objectification of the female body

(There is a wonderful scene in this film where Katharine has been having a swim in the river and finds she can’t climb back into the boat. Watching her try and climb the side of the boat like a spider is just one of many scenes where it is revealed that she actually has a body and that it is used for something. Obviously the age of this film is part of why there’s no nudity/sexualisation but I would argue that it’s not just that, it’s the personhood of its heroine. She’s a real person with physical capabilities, always a presence in the boat rather than a pretty ornament sitting on a nice bench. Rose is a woman who can do things, another surprisingly refreshing fact)

STAR: No Gratuitous or Trivialising Scenes of Rape or Male Violence Against Women

– No threat of male violence against women

(So, as previously mentioned, there is some danger that Rose will be hanged at the end of the film, also potentially shot, or eaten by a crocodile. So there is a threat of male violence (although the gender of the crocodiles was unclear) but that violence is not sexualised, it is shared absolutely equally with her male co-star and  and it is not lingered over. Again this is violence because when you go on a dangerous mission to undermine the German army there will be violence, not because the film’s creators felt women are funner when they’re under threat, which seems to be all too often the case. Another happy fail)

6 stars, and 3 Bonus Points. 1 for the women of German East Africa, Tanzania/Burundi/Rwanda as it now is. I think the politics of this opening scene could be debated. Depicting missionaries as bumbling and well intentioned is not necessarily great given the real harm that they did as a whole to many countries in Africa and laughing, as we presumably are meant to, at the native people of German East Africa failing to sing hymns does not feel entirely comfortable. However I think the humour is pretty squarely directed at the missionary trying to teach people who cannot speak English to sing along to insipid hymns which have no relevance to their lives. Having the congregation shout sounds of their own choosing to the accompaniment of Katharine’s piano playing doesn’t make me think they are being ridiculed but rather that they are doing the ridiculing. As I said, up for debate. 1 for ‘unglamorous’ women because Katharine, while having the cheekbones of a goddess, was 44 when this film was made and she doesn’t wear makeup and she looks genuinely sun worn. She’s still a babe obviously but she is far from airbrushed perfection. And 1 for women in masculine roles, because Katharine pulls her weight on that boat and she deserves some credit for it. This isn’t a film about women, or about feminism, but it does show that even a film with only one female character can tackle feminist issues in an unobtrusive but persistent manner. The fun that Humphrey and Katharine have could never have happened if they each continued to be the caricatures of masculinity and femininity that they began as. To get anything done and to have any fun they have to fight against patriarchal strictures, because they’re real people and that’s what real people have to do. Refreshing and wonderful.

*A note on Katharine Hepburn. I didn’t realise what a badass Katharine was, her mum was a suffragette, she won 4 Oscars (not that I respect the Academy but still 4 is a lot), and she bought the rights to various films to orchestrate her own comeback. That’s pretty sick. I will definitely be checking her out some more and I suggest you do the same. If anyone knows any other good films she’s in please do let me know*

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One thought on “The African Queen: 6 STARS

  1. Pingback: STAR LEAGUE | Feminist Film Stars

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