14 Women

14 Women

14 Women is one of those uplifting, bland, “safe for children,” documentaries you’d expect to see in high school. It lauds the dramatic increase in female U.S. Senators from one as recently as heading into the 1992 elections, to fourteen as of when the film was made in 2007, and it optimistically points toward a future where that trend continues.

Its message is of the “Rah rah USA, we’re great and getting better!” type. As opposed to other approaches one could imagine to this topic, such as an emphasis on what a struggle it’s been and will continue to be to contest the evil and ignorance of patriarchal systems and attitudes. Or even that of giving significant time to the opposing view that women aren’t suited to governing and it’s quite natural and appropriate that they fill less than 50% of the leadership positions in a society.

The film steers clear of any potential controversy or conflict of that kind. Indeed, this “safety first” approach applies not just to the central issue of the increasing number of women in the Senate, but to, for instance, what Senators actually do. This is the mainstream civics class version of how things work, a world where Senators are motivated purely by wanting to serve their constituents and make the world a better place, where their disagreements are always sincere and without rancor. There’s some talk of the difficulties of juggling a political career and family life (tough, but an enjoyable and fulfilling challenge that, gosh darn it, we just know you girls out there watching this will prove equal to when you grow up), but no indication that politicians lie frequently and brazenly to further their careers, that they’re tools to varying degrees of lobbyists and campaign donors and such, or really anything negative like that.

Clearly I’m less than fully satisfied with this approach. I would have liked to see the film take some chances and tell some uncomfortable truths. But beyond that, this is mostly a worthwhile documentary.

It’s straightforward in style and easy to follow, which I like. The majority of the film consists of hearing from the fourteen female Senators themselves, as they talk about their inspirations, their goals, what their day-to-day life as a Senator is like, etc. (The filmmakers seem to really try to even out the time allotted to each of them. I’m sure they weren’t all equally available and cooperative—Senators Klobuchar and McCaskill are barely in it if at all—but no one is allowed to dominate. Nor is either party favored, nor liberal, conservative, or any particular philosophy overrepresented. And if anything, the biggest name—Hillary Clinton—gets less than the average amount of screen time, possibly the third least ahead of only Klobuchar and McCaskill.)

There’s also a little—very little—from other political figures such as Joe Biden and Bill Clinton, and we hear a bit from family members of the Senators.

In addition, there are occasional clips of young girls—maybe eight to ten years old?—answering questions about women in the Senate. This is in keeping with the evident point of the film, which is to educate girls that they should aim for anything they want in life, including being a Senator.

What this put me in mind of, though, is another direction the film could have gone in but didn’t. It would be interesting to see a serious discussion about children’s attitudes about gender—how they’ve changed over the years, how much they’re affected by the religion of their household, etc. But this is more light, anecdotal, cutesy “Oh look, they don’t even know Senators are elected!” kind of stuff.

One thing I was just a little uneasy about was the seeming endorsement when anyone, especially the children, claims superiority for women, e.g., women are better at compromise, they’re better able to focus on the future rather than just the present, they’re more interested in things getting done than in getting the credit, they’re more caring toward others, etc., etc. Yeah, that’s great for the self-esteem of little girls and such, but if you allow that generalizations like that are true and relevant, it’s going to be hard to exclude claims that men are stronger willed, and they’re more courageous, and they’re tougher fighters, and they’re better able to think rationally, and so on.

I think some generalizations like that are true, but only as rules of thumb. In very, very few circumstances would you want to make decisions or judgments based on such generalizations instead of looking at individuals as individuals.

If it’s good for people to be rational or nurturing or whatever, let’s encourage everyone to be those things, rather than guessing a person is slightly more likely to have some such trait due to their group membership, and for that reason steering them toward a path where that trait is especially valuable.

All else being equal, I’d like to see more women Senators for at least a couple of reasons. One, diversity has some value in and of itself to provide different perspectives and such, so any group that is numerically underrepresented should have more Senators. And two, no one should have less of a right or be less accepted or encouraged to be a Senator because of gender, and if there is a major imbalance, there’s a good chance that’s because it’s been wrongfully made harder for one gender than the other.

The one I’m dubious about, which is raised in the movie but certainly not argued for at length, relates to my earlier point about being uneasy with the little girls gigglingly making their “women are better because…” claims. That is that women are naturally better at things that make for being a better Senator—working well with others, having empathy, whatever. I think Hillary Clinton mentions “studies” supporting this.

Maybe. But I’ll reserve judgment on that until I see better evidence of it.

I feel like I’m coming across as mostly knocking this movie, when in fact I mostly like it and agree with it. Maybe it’s just that some of the main messages it’s putting forth are so obviously true to me that I don’t bother mentioning them.

For example, the movie references the “bad old days” when a lot more people had the attitude that a woman shouldn’t be running for office in the first place since her natural duty is to be home tending to her family. Sexist attitudes like that are a hot button issue with me; I hate that kind of shit. And those attitudes are far from dead. Just recently I spoke with a friend who has a pretty revolting stance on gender issues—think “Promise Keepers” without the Christian rhetoric—having to do with evolution hard wiring males to be natural leaders and protectors who are suited for venturing out into the world to do battle to provide for their family, while women are naturally nurturing and supportive and suited to (the equally important) domestic tasks back home. Listening to him explain how feminism upsets that natural order was an unpleasant reminder to me that the struggle against ugly sexist attitudes will continue to meet plenty of resistance for the foreseeable future.

One technical note: In filmmaking you’re generally supposed to avoid the kind of jump cut where you eliminate material from the middle of a shot, and so it stops and starts from the same camera position. Better to have multiple cameras shooting a person, so you can cut back and forth to different shots, or to have cutaway shots of other things for the breaks (like a shot of the interviewer or maybe a still photo or video insertion that illustrates what the person’s talking about). I certainly try to not have such cuts in my films. (I still do once in a blue moon, but only when there’s just no way to avoid it and I really want to use the material.) I’ve noticed, though, that it seems to be less frowned on nowadays. In this movie, there are numerous times when interviews are broken up with jump cuts like that.

I guess I’m a traditionalist in that respect, because I find it jarring and amateurish.

In conclusion, I wasn’t engrossed by 14 Women from start to finish, and I don’t a hundred percent agree with the style that was chosen or with every claim made or implied, but the bottom line is the movie is on the right side of a very important issue, and that matters as much or more than anything else in my assessment of it. I hope a lot of people see it, and I hope female schoolchildren who see it are more likely to achieve their dreams because of it, including in “traditional male” roles in society. Or more generally, I hope it encourages people of both genders away from sexist attitudes and practices.

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