Ridley Scott: Sexism is real, take it seriously

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Maria Lewis

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The Martian: Ridley Scott makes a hopeful sci-fi

Director Ridley Scott says it was the humour in the Martian that made him want to make the film.

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When you look back at the almost 50-year career of iconic British filmmaker Sir Ridley Scott, it's not easy to discount his feminist vision.

Sure, he's in a privileged position as a rich, white, heterosexual male. Yet where so many others have sat idly by – or actively taken female representation back a few steps – Scott has gradually built a binder full of film's feminist icons.

There's Lt Ellen Ripley and her unflinching resolve in Alien, Demi Moore's determination in G.I. Jane, Clarice Starling and her intellectual strength in the face of institutional injustice in Hannibal, and Thelma & Louise flipping the bird to the patriarchy -- even if it's before casually driving off a cliff to their likely deaths.

Director Ridley Scott.

Director Ridley Scott. Photo: Cindy Ord

Scott is currently on the media circuit talking up his latest film The Martian, not that it needs talking up.

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The space survivalist story based on Andy Weir's best-selling novel of the same name is already being touted by critics as one of 2015's best films and – maybe, just maybe – the one that finally secures Scott an Oscar.

The 77-year-old filmmaker is the first to admit that space can be a very "bleak" place for storytelling, and perhaps one of the things that resonated with audiences about The Martian is its combination of humour and hope.

Director Ridley Scott with actress Sigourney Weaver during the filming of 'Alien'

Director Ridley Scott with actress Sigourney Weaver during the filming of 'Alien'

Comedy is a tool Scott has been wielding for a long time, most expertly – he says – in critiquing gender stereotypes in Thelma & Louise.

"I tried to make the movie funny, because making it funny meant maybe the men could laugh at themselves - which I think is important," he says.

It's been 24 years since the Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis' tale about the power of female friendship and personal liberation made waves, with the former having gone on to become an outspoken political activist and the latter founding the vitally important Geena Davis Institute On Gender In Media (which is constantly analysing and challenging female representation in Hollywood).

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in Thelma And Louise.

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in Thelma And Louise.

In that time, the discussion about female representation in front of and behind the camera has grown, along with a renewed focus on feminism.

When asked whether he considers himself to be a feminist ally, his answer was a definitive "yes". 

And his pro-women stance comes through. One of the most satisfying about Scott's cinematic heroines – which we must note, has not included a woman of colour yet ­– is that they don't fit the 'Strong Female Character' trope.

Ridley Scott:  "It's one of those things, I never really thought about it at the time but when we were doing Alien and ...

Ridley Scott: "It's one of those things, I never really thought about it at the time but when we were doing Alien and it came up - the idea of Ripley being a woman and not a bloke - I thought 'Great, yeah, let's do it.' Photo: Vera Anderson

Sure, some of them find their strength in their physical abilities like Ripley or G.I. Jane. But others – and arguably the most memorable – find it elsewhere, like the compassionate and emotional and flawed heroines of Scott's enduring classic Thelma & Louise.

A big supporter of women and women's stories, Scott credits his mother Elizabeth as his first feminist role model

"My mum brought three boys up: my dad was in the army and so he was frequently away.

"During the war (World War II) and post-war, we tended to travel following him around so my mum was the boss.

"She laid down the law and the law was God. We just said 'Yup, okay' - we didn't argue. I think that's where the respect has come from, because she was tough."

His closeness with "very strong women" like his mother helped craft in Scott an idea that there were more options, more complexities and more diversity for women on the silver screen.

It started with Alien's scientifically and survivalist minded Lt Ellen Ripley, a role that was originally written for a man before Scott and his small team began auditioning women less than a month out from shooting.

"It's one of those things, I never really thought about it at the time but when we were doing Alien and it came up - the idea of Ripley being a woman and not a bloke - I thought 'Great, yeah, let's do it.'

"We just did it. We were off and running, trying to find a leading woman and when I came across Sigourney Weaver it was a no brainer because she was six stocky feet, athletic, very, very sharp and I thought 'der, this is it'.

"For Thelma & Louise… I think, I hope, times have changed since then, haven't they?

Then, unexpectedly,  Scott directs the line of questions back at this reporter. 

"Or do you still experience, sometimes, male chauvinism?"

I tell him I do experience sexism -- like many women I know -- almost on a daily basis. An answer he takes in with a considered pause. 

With the new direction our conversation has taken, I ask him if he would have a particular message for men and women watching Thelma & Louise today.

"I would say take this seriously and watch carefully," he says.

"It's still there, sexism is still real: take it seriously."

With one of the most successful filmmakers of the past half-century calling out sexist bullshit on and off the camera, one wonders how long it will be before the rest of Hollywood catches up to Ridley Scott.

 

Maria Lewis is a journalist, pop culture commentator and author based in Sydney. Her debut novel Who's Afraid? is being released in Australia on January 12, 2016 and worldwide on July 14, 2016. You can find her on Twitter @MovieMazz or marialewis.com.au