October 19, 2021

Chloé Zhao directed The Eternals & I went From being a Feminist to a Misogynist.

The best part of being in 2021 is how proudly women own up to being feminists.

We are woke. We won’t stand for discrimination. We won’t tolerate misogyny—casual or otherwise. Frankly, we can’t afford not to be woke anymore. A friend once told me, “If women won’t join hands for our own cause, who else will? Men?”

That’s the good news. It’s unclear whether it’s because they genuinely don’t believe in feminism, or because they associate being feminist as hating men.

But the bad news is, circa 2021, there are still women who blanch at the thought of referring to themselves as feminists. They’re okay being exploited, overlooked, and paid less money than men, but they’re not okay referring to themselves as feminists.

All this is to say that misogyny is deeply ingrained in our world and in our society.

Last Oscar season I found out—to my utter horror and shock—that I was as culpable, and as capable of casual misogyny as the ones who I point fingers at. I, who have proudly carried the banner of feminist (hell—embarrassed, angered, and made eye rolls at by people for thumping the feminist drumroll), realized that I could be a misogynist myself.

And that made me realize that, given the right circumstance, all of us could be one.

I’m writing this piece not just to take ownership publicly of what I’m now thoroughly ashamed of, but also to caution my fellow feminist sisters to watch out for those many overt and subliminal messages out there that make us think this way.

It happened during the lead-up to the Oscars in February 2020. I was beyond thrilled when I heard the buzz surrounding “Nomadland” and Chloé Zhao’s direction, and how she was the frontrunner to win an Oscar for the movie (which she eventually did). Not only is Zhao a woman, she is also a woman of color. That means a lot in today’s world. And it means a lot to me, a fellow person of color.

And then I saw the film and while I didn’t love it, I can understand why others did. The film was more like a low-budget docudrama and touched people’s hearts. It was around that buzzy time that Zhao was tapped to direct the next big Marvel superhero movie, “The Eternals”with Angelina Jolie heading up a mega star cast of Hollywood power players. The first woman director in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the big budgets, the big costumes, the big superstars, and the legacy of “The Avengers,” “Ironman,” and “Thor”what a magnificent day it was for Zhao, women, and the BIPOC community.

And then…

I hate saying this—you cannot hate me more than I hate myself: once the euphoria died down, my first thought was, “Nomadland” and her previous two films were small budget films; can Zhao handle a big-budget film with all the big special effects and big cameras?

The thing is, we’re conditioned to believe that people have their strengths and can do only one thing right:

>> Men can do big-budget action thrillers. Women are better for smaller, intimate films.

>> Small-budget filmmakers cannot handle big-budget movie extravaganzas.

I remembered a similar scenario in Bollywood a few years back. Two directors signed Bollywood superstar Ranbir Kapoor for their forthcoming films—Anurag Kashyap’s “Bombay Velvet,” and Anurag Basu’s “Jagga Jasoos.” Both Anurags are considered brilliant auteurs in India, albeit, for making small-budget, intimate films. Then, they were both given obscene amounts of money to make films with Ranbir Kapoor and both these big-budget monsters bombed at the box office.

Soon after, Ranbir’s father, Rishi Kapoor, himself a Bollywood legend from the 80s and 90s, lashed out at these two directors and said:

“You know when they are good enough to work on certain budget and suddenly they are given huge budgets in hand so, he goes absolutely berserk. So I think that’s what actually happened with both these guys. They were given budgets they could not handle.”

When Zhao was handed the keys to the MCU, this comment by Rishi Kapoor is what first came to my mind. And then I remembered back to when Ana Du Vernay was hailed for directing a small budget film, “Selma.” But when she transitioned to directing Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time” with Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey, and Mindy Kaling, the blogosphere was full of snarky comments about how Du Vernay, a woman, and a woman of color, could not hand a 100 million dollar budget film.

The implication was clear: Du Vernay was fine to direct smaller movies but not big-budget films. Even the reviews were passive-aggressive and personal against Du Vernay, which is never the case when it’s a male director.

The Ringer said:

“Ava DuVernay’s new Disney movie, ‘A Wrinkle in Time,’ is an empowerment seminar in disguise, a sleepaway emotional retreat where the prize for convincing Oprah Winfrey that you love and believe in yourself is getting to call Chris Pine ‘Dad’ for two hours.”

In an interview for The Guardian, Du Vernay pointed out:

“I don’t get offered a lot, and what I do get offered is usually historical or something to do with women and black people. Like, I’m not getting ‘John Wick 3,’ even though I’d love to make it.”

I remember being incensed reading those reviews and interviews.

But cut to when Zhao was offered “The Eternals“—I would never have questioned it if Zhao were a man. And I didn’t when Colin Trevorrow went from directing a small-budget, “Safety Not Guaranteed in 2012 to being given the keys to superstardom (and millions of dollars) with the chance to kickstart the “Jurassic World franchise in 2015. When I heard about Trevorrow and “Jurassic World,” I literally shrugged my shoulders and moved on with my life.

But with Zhao, I agonized and worried about how and if she could handle the weight of the expectations that comes with directing big-budget movies, wondered if she shouldn’t simply stick to small-budget movies, and was scared for her and how she would handle the fallout when the movie failed.

Yes, I had f*cking decided that “The Eternals would fail—if not at the box office, then I was sure that there would be passive-aggressive reviews that would go through every minor error in the movie and pick Zhao apart. Zhao had just started shooting “The Eternals and I’d already held a funeral for her future career. I know better now.

Zhao’s “The Eternals releases on November fifth and I hope it shatters all box office records and wins over every critic on the planet.

But if you’re thinking, “too little, too late, Roopa.” I agree. If you’re thinking, “shame on you, Roopa.” Yes, shame on me. Please think it loud and say it even louder. Trust me when I say, “No one is more ashamed of my behavior than I am.” This is what pervasive misogyny looks like.

In-your-face gender discrimination is like a bull to a ragged red cloth. It’s big. It’s bold. It’s overt. It’s in your face. Since we can clearly see, feel, and fear the bull, we are clearly aware of the threat—and we deal with it. But deep-rooted casual gender discrimination that even a self-professed feminist like me is capable of? That’s worrisome and it’s what we all need to really look out for, and be careful it doesn’t take over us.

We all need to do better.

Hell, I need to do better.

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