Why is Nolan’s portrayal of female characters so consistently terrible?
A central criticism of Christopher Nolan’s films regards his representation of women, which consistently takes the form of a male character’s dead wife, thus perpetuating the “stuffed into the fridge” trope. This is such a virulent feature in TV and film that it has created its own verb: to “fridge”. This refers to lazy screenwriting that shows a female character’s murder, or at least brutal assault, as the motivating spark for the fire of self-discovery and fulfilment of potential that the male protagonist subsequently experiences. This would maybe be tolerable if the woman was an autonomous and dynamic individual when living, but that is never the case; at every stage, the woman has no agency and then dies a helpless victim. The YouTube channel The Take prudently observed that this hackneyed plot-advancing device is so reductive that in recent years the woman has even been interchangeable with a dog or car (à la John Wick trilogy).
The late summer release of Tenet marked many people’s grand return to the cinema after Miss Rona’s reign. Audiences only took issue with a couple of things in the action thriller: the booming sound mixing and, oh yeah, the total absence of any nuance in Elizabeth Debicki’s character. She is in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship with an oligarch intent on decimating planet earth. This genocide-sympathiser holds her hostage and shoots her dead in one of the film’s many time-continuums. Her only moment of empowerment is in the final 20 minutes of the movie. Contrastingly, Elizabeth Debicki’s character in Steve McQueen’s Widows (a masterclass in what a male director can do for his female cast in a crime thriller when he wants to) steals the whole show as a dynamic badass.
Nolan’s most celebrated works — Inception, The Dark Knight Trilogy, The Prestige, and Momento — all include the main man’s number one gal either being exploited as bait in a showdown, dead and gone before the film even begins, or appearing in ghostly flashes to offer him counsel. It’s worth noting that where other filmmakers would at least (out of a tokenistic attempt to feature women at all) have their leading ladies be the object of a man’s lust, Nolan stays away from properly exploring romance altogether. His primary focus is gadgets and the greater good. His work is famously sexless — it’s all jargon and no jiggy. In Dunkirk he affirmed the importance of having no token subplot of love; THE VOLUME OF LADS INSIDE OF THIS VESSEL IS ASTRONOMICAL. To my knowledge, the only divergence from (White) men in the Operation Dynamo depiction was the momentary appearance of a kind-faced lady handing out toast and jam to soldiers in a boat that was torpedoed immediately after. You have to laugh.
The graphic demise of a woman occurs most frequently in action, crime, or comic book films. However, it speaks to the broader issue of men generally not knowing how to write or direct complex female character arcs. When we think of the pantheon of directing legends, a select group of old White men spring to mind. In their films, the multifaceted leading parts are permanently reserved for men. The minimum effort is employed by the Coen Brothers, who seem to view Frances McDormand and chameleon Tilda Swinton as representative of the entire intersectional female population. Frequently in mafia flicks there is a side-lined, distressed mob wife (think Diane Keaton being reduced to a caretaker by the final Godfather film). Martin Scorsese is much more evolved when it comes to establishing nuanced women on-screen, giving his own mother a cameo in Goodfellas — cooking them dinner! As for Steven Spielberg, the mere presence of the mighty Meryl in a recent feature cannot absolve him of his decade-spanning sins. On a less highbrow note, the Judd Apatow canon only includes ditsy, nagging women, and Michael Bay has shamelessly saluted to the male gaze flag for years (the loitering zoom upon Megan Fox’s waist in Transformers comes to mind). Then we have the chronically creepy quintet: Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, George Lucas, Luc Besson, and Roman Polanski. Allen has shown his acute addiction for constructing naive ingenue characters specifically for Scarlett Johansson, and Tarantino provided less than fifty lines for Margot Robbie in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Crucially, they have their penchant for overt hyper-sexualisation, from George Lucas’ objectification of Carrie Fisher in the Star Wars saga to Luc Besson and Polanski’s disturbing fixation on showing little girls in a suggestive light.
The designated Antigone to battle this Creon convention has long been The Goddaughter, Sofia Coppola. However, she is instead judged for ostensibly showing too girly a female experience. Only a small pool of truly celebrated female directors exist: Ava DuVernay, Katherine Bigelow, Agnès Varda, Lynne Ramsay, Nancy Meyers, Melina Matsoukas, Alma Har’el, and Greta Gerwig.
Hot take: when it comes to writing, women are funnier.
The scripts of recent films such as Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, Karen Maine’s Yes, God, Yes and Natalie Krinsky’s The Broken Hearts Gallery thoroughly entertained me, as they were replete with sharp dialogue and Gen-Z humour — a refreshing departure from Adam Sandler’s fart jokes that have dominated uncreative comedy for nearly two decades. Although, I do observe the power of male/female collaboration. The simple truth is that when the story is, at least in part, crafted by a woman, the whole film is elevated: for example Noah Baumbach’s cooperative effort on Frances Ha with his real-life partner Greta Gerwig. Also, Gillian Flynn penned the penetrating screenplay for David Fincher’s adaptation of her probing novel Gone Girl — although with Fincher exposing toxic masculinity since 1999’s Fight Club, maybe he’s been our only feminist ally all along? Moreover, I find it curious that Nolan, who works with his producer wife Emma Thomas on every film, is still composing one-dimensional women. It’s just disappointing and draining at this point.
Conversely, TV has long been the only real vehicle for complicated female characters to rise and grow. HBO especially has always championed women-centred narratives that give audiences very different examples of what womanhood can look like (Sex and The City, Insecure, Girls and I May Destroy You).
I would say that I hope Debicki’s next role does not end in a fatality, but since she is set to play Princess Diana in season four of The Crown I cannot commit to that. I guess to hope for female characters not to be killed is to have tunnel-vision. So, while Nolan makes undeniably gripping movies, his failure to show some layered ladies is deeply detrimental and damaging, not only to the damsel but to the whole story. But, perhaps I am mistaken. Perhaps, Nolan is living in a dream, inside of a dream, in an environment where what he is doing is so meta, it’s actually progressive…