Form Versus Content in Feminist Filmmaking: A Critique of Band Aid

In Current, Featured, Feminism, Intervention by

By Paula O’Donnell

Zoe Lister-Jones wrote, directed, co-produced, and starred in Band Aid, a film about the general dissonance of marriage, and romantic codependency undermined by tragedy. To have a female filmmaker wearing so many hats on a movie with a theatrical release is a feminist accomplishment in form within a profoundly male-dominated industry. A 2016 study from USC’s School of Communication and Journalism estimated that only 4.1% of popular films released from 2007 to 2015 were directed by women. The same study found that in 2015, roughly 22% of the films they sampled were produced by women and 11.8% were written by women. Women are also vastly underrepresented in technical positions, such as cinematography, sound design, and electrical or grip departments. A study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film for San Diego State found that for the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2016, only 5% of cinematographers were women. Another study back in 2009 by the same center found that for the 250 top grossing films, only 5% of sound designers, 1% of key grips, and 1% of gaffers were female. Well aware of this imbalance and endeavoring to counter it, Lister-Jones chose to hire an all-female crew for Band Aid. Everyone on set was female except for male cast members. By doing so Lister-Jones joined the ranks of feminist directors and producers who hope to increase the opportunities for women in film by giving preference to female hires. Despite the fact that all male or majority male film crews are still commonplace, decisions to hire all-female crews consistently encounter criticism, even from self-identified progressives and feminists. Proponents of such measures argue that once women and men are more equally represented in the film industry, such “sexist” hiring, aka: choosing women over men to expose them to job opportunities that are otherwise inaccessible to them, won’t be necessary. In the meantime female-only sets, or female-favoring sets, are important for leveling the playing field between genders in the film industry.  

Lister-Jones’ progressive feminism is evident in her fight for a female-only set, despite resistance from her financial backers, who scrutinized everyone she hired, and her department heads, who weren’t accustomed to hiring entirely female teams. In light of this formal accomplishment, it was surprising to discover that Band Aid’s story content and character development both lean heavily on genre clichés and gendered stereotypes. From the initial marital feuds between the characters Anna (played by Lister-Jones) and Ben (played by Adam Pally) to the third act where Ben is lectured on the emotional needs of all cis-gendered straight women, the film delivers a frustratingly old fashioned argument regarding why heterosexual marriages get rocky, why men have short attention spans, and why women need the dishes to be clean.

The initial feuds between Anna and Ben revolve around cleanliness. In the first scene, Anna gets angry at Ben for not cleaning the dishes, to which he retorts that she is a “dish Nazi,” deeply offending her on account of her Jewish heritage, at which point they scream “fuck you” at each other in unison. Shortly after, Ben is exhibited playing video games while dishes remain in the sink. Scenes like these inadvertently enforce a few common stereotypes: that men are messier than women and perpetually play video games instead of cleaning, that women are overly sensitive, and that women have to “mother” their husbands in order to have a functioning household.

Band Aid is praised for presenting a multidimensional character as its female protagonist. This is deserved praise, but the film fails to administer a similar treatment to the other women it portrays. Most named and speaking female characters in the film serve as static symbols of motherhood or sexual promiscuity, supporting, unintentionally perhaps,  a mythical Madonna/whore dichotomy. Anna’s female acquaintances either spend their screen time breastfeeding their infants in front of the protagonists or boasting about the oral sex their one-night-stand performed the night before (enforcing the sexual fantasies these married women ostensibly have about single life, as opposed to showing a realistic portrayal). Except for Ben’s mother, the  women in the film exclusively serve to make the protagonist feel inadequate, either for not being a mother or for not having enough sex.

The only female character that received some amount of depth in the film, besides Anna, is Anna’s best friend Grace (played by Hannah Simone). This character enables Band Aid to narrowly pass the Bechdel Test – which stipulates that two female characters in a film must discuss something other than a male character. However, even Grace is not adequately developed. Most of the conversations between the two women revolve around their marriages to men or feelings regarding having children with these men. The relationship between Grace and her husband (played by Ravi Patel) function to confirm some of the film’s gender stereotypes, such as that men need to be mothered and have bizarrely weak attention spans when addressed by their female partners. In one scene where they are hosting a birthday party for their child, Grace asks her husband to collect utensils and plates outside, upon which he spaces out and needs to be asked a second time. Grace wonders aloud, once her husband exits the room, “where” they [heterosexual men] “go” when their eyes glaze over. Later the audience is informed by Ben’s mother (played by Susie Essman) that men often shut their brains off (occasionally by playing video games) in a masculine endeavor to internalize their emotions.

As relationships between women go, Anna’s attitude toward her mother in law, Shirley, is stereotypically strained. Anna is visibly frustrated when Ben insists on calling his mother as the couple drive to their therapist’s office. Anna refuses to indicate her presence while the conversation takes place over speaker phone and has to listen silently as Shirley nags Ben to have children. After the phone call, Ben suggests that his mother is “crazy” as an excuse for not telling Shirley about the couple’s miscarriage. Meanwhile, Anna’s own parents are completely absent from the scope of the film. As a result, no one enacts a parental relationship with Anna, whereas her husband is mothered and nagged by both Anna and his actual mom.

In the final act of Band Aid, Ben finally confesses to his mother that he and Anna had a miscarriage. Shirley then lectures Ben on the emotional needs of cis-gendered straight women (because apparently a woman in grief over a traumatic event can still stand in for all women). Shirley explains that women are simply more emotional than men, and more so than they let on, partially because they have no physical outlet. Shirley’s monologue continues as voiceover for a montage of Anna screaming and running at pillows so as to visually demonstrate this lesson for the audience. Strangely, the film previously contradicted this generalization by showing Anna’s cool exterior while dealing with rude (all male) Uber clients and Ben’s emotional response to marital arguments. One of the best parts of the film is when Ben demands that Anna compliment him more, which she does awkwardly in a subsequent scene. This and a few other nods towards gender-progressive sentiments, such as Anna’s suggestion that Ben should wear a dress on stage or Shirley’s disclaimer at the end of her offensive speech that she could not comment on gay or transsexual relationships, don’t do enough to diffuse the predominant generalizations and gender norms asserted by the film.

In spite of Lister-Jones feminist victory in producing Band Aid with an all-female crew, the film’s plot leans disappointingly on gender norms and sexist generalizations. The initial feud between Anna and Ben enforces stereotypes regarding the cleanliness of men versus women; conversations between female characters revolve around men and motherhood; and, the final act imparts lofty generalizations regarding the emotional volatility of women, as illustrated by a woman grieving a traumatic experience. However, the film does some things extremely well. The dialogue often felt natural, as though the actors had improvised on set. And although some critics disliked the film’s pacing, I appreciated that the spectator could feel the emotional hills and valleys of codependency in an interesting way. Fred Armisen was hilarious as the eccentric neighbor who reveals that he is a recovering sex addict, and although his scenes mismatched the overall tone of the film, they provided a much-needed comedic release.

The best part of the film is that it was directed, written, and produced by a woman and it portrayed a well-rounded female protagonist. Despite my own displeasure with some elements of the plot and dialogue in Band Aid, I am ecstatic with the film’s critical success. Hopefully its positive reception will create space for more female filmmakers to undertake similar projects and for crew members of Band Aid to have more opportunities on other film sets. I also look forward to watching subsequent films by Zoe Lister-Jones; I just hope that her projects come to promote feminist ideas in form and content.