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Man As Competitor, Woman As Prize

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The underlying structure of most Hollywood drama is "man as competitor, woman as prize". Relate this statement to contemporary film.

One of the most basic and fundamental ideas of cinematic fiction is that of "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again"(Green:79). This illustration can be seen to penetrate many contemporary Hollywood films including Pretty Woman, The River Wild, Ghost and Sleepless in Seattle, all of which I aim to discuss in this essay. This element of the film discussed by Green often revolves around an inherent social problem at the core of the films narrative and is resolved indefinitely "by the coming together of two individuals in heterosexual love"(Green:79). In contemporary film it appears that social order is always resolved through the realization that love conquers all.

However, there has been made evident by many critics a deeper structure to this simple and idealistic formula, a structure rooted in inequality, patriarchy and repression. The clash and struggle between egalitarianism and hierarchial agenda is central to this illustration. In contemporary films, despite a period of progress in female liberation, Hollywood is striving to recuperate former established sex roles and hierarchies which are in the process of being eradicated. This apparent 'sex war' is a strong undercurrent in many films which is often implicitly, if not explicitly, implied. As Green determines, this formula "has become an inescapable subtext of every film and television genre" (Green:81).

In order to reaffirm and manifest the ideals of patriarchy the disavowal of female independence and success is rooted in a large proportion of contemporary Hollywood films. This disavowal is also a strong undercurrent of many films as female independence must first be eradicated if the man is to 'win' the woman as his prize. In contrast to this however, male solidarity and independence is rarely stated and then disavowed. It is the male figure that largely appears to come out on top, to appear as the hero, regardless of any unworthy actions he may have committed, his one act of heroism always compensates for these. His prize, as we can see in a vast majority of contemporary as well as dated films, is often the 'winning of the lady' who he has strived to attain for the duration of the films narrative. This idea relates directly to female disavowal as all the energy and work a female character may have exerted to achieve her success is taken away from her the moment she becomes a 'prize', a 'possession', at the close of the films narrative.

Looking first to The River Wild we see that this film contains both ideals of man as competitor, woman as prize and also female disavowal. At the onset of the film we receive the images of a somewhat masculine woman, played by Meryl Streep, and her feminised, alienated husband, played by David Strathairn. Soon we learn however, that this alienation is due to a fault in Streep's character, a fault central to the fact that she is a careerist and independent individual. This element of the storyline portrays the subliminal message to us that in being a female, having a career and a family do not mix, and that one or the other must be chosen. This directly reflects the societal expectations and stigmas with regard to female and male sex roles. The female's character is disavowed of her independent nature and success as it is these elements which appear as the sole contributors to her family's downfall. This career woman must be repudiated, denied and devalued so as the traditional patriarchal structure can be reaffirmed.

Throughout the film we see the characters slowly evolving and transforming to fit hierarchial societal requirements. The female character becomes more needy, dependent and desperate ie.more womanly, while the husband becomes stronger, clever and heroic ie.more masculine. As Green describes it "recuperation takes place through an unexpected reaffirmation of traditional gender roles" (Green:83). Throughout the films narrative the husband is seen to 'compete' with his wife's kidnappers in order to win her back. He evidently succeeds in becoming the hero, saving the lives of his wife and son, and so the prize is ultimately the retrieving and returning of the female character to the "newly heroized husband"(Green:83). In light of the husbands new found heroic nature, the female character's many heroic and brave acts in getting them single-handedly down the river is forgotten and inherently disavowed in order to abide by the societal reflection of the woman as the 'damsel in distress' and the man as the hero. At the close of the films narrative, though not explicitly presented, viewers are invited to acknowledge that the female character gives in to patriarchal dominance, in relenting to a large extent her career and independence, and choosing instead the normative structured family.

Likewise we find this similar formula in the 1990 film Pretty Woman, starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. Gere plays a ruthless businessman, Edward, who picks up Vivian (Roberts), a prostitute, one evening and subsequently begins to fall in love with. In a fairy tale style story Edward reforms and recreates Vivian while "slowly humanizing himself in the process" (Harwood: 214). We view him competing to 'win' Vivian despite the fact that she cannot allow herself to become attracted to or involved with a client, Edward is merely her job, a means of survival. However, Edward's competing takes the form of money, clothes and a lavish lifestyle which creates acceptance and respect from society, attributes which Vivian craves and hence cannot resist.

Vivian, like Meryl Streep in The River Wild, is unfeminised in her independent role and soon also relents this lifestyle to become a more traditional 'womanly' character. Vivian likewise gives in to patriarchal structures and agrees to marry Edward, a man who can economically and emotionally provide for her without her having to resort to prostitution (the only apparent option for her to achieve independence single handedly). Vivian learns and acknowledges the error of her ways, which are explicitly represented with being independent and unwomanly, and hence she is accepted back into society.

Edward is successful in competing and eventually wins the prize, which is Vivian. He becomes the heroic figure even though it is Vivian who has achieved a larger goal in overcoming prostitution. We receive the message once again of love conquering all, love as the resolution of some fundamental social problem, which in this case is prostitution.

Focusing now on the film Ghost (1990)we can largely identify

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