“Don’t look up” and the stereotyping of female characters

By Verbena Córdula


The film “Don’t Look Up”, which presents a series of criticisms of current American society (which can be extended to capitalist societies in general) unfortunately also brings with it the disqualification of the figure of women, present in all the female characters. And its ratings success indicates, among other things, that we are still in our infancy when it comes to demanding respect for diversity.

In addition to showing social disorientation and alienation in terms of communication, oblivious to the issues that really matter, and also questioning capitalist values and their intertwining with current political systems – which is nothing new to those who see two fingers in front of their own nose – in my opinion, the aforementioned film is unfortunate in many ways, but here I will stick to the representation of the figure of women, which reproduces a series of stereotypes.

Historical obfuscation
From the outset, one can see how the young scientist Kate Dibiasky is discredited. Played by the actress Jennifer Lawrence, this character, who aspires to a doctorate, discovers the comet that will destroy the Earth. However, the credit goes to Dr. Randall Mindy, the most experienced scientist she works with, a character played by actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

There are several scenes in which Kate is ignored, such as at the TV station and in the White House. On television, Kate is portrayed as a hysterical young woman who cannot accept the indifference of journalists to the problem she has been reporting on (the destruction of the Earth by the comet she discovered) and expresses her outrage in an explosive manner. In the White House, the President’s advisor is constantly belittling her through countless attempts at mockery, in total disrespect.

These behaviours directed at the person in question are a continuation of the gender-based violence that also occurs in the scientific world, and which has been fought intensely by women scientists all over the world. Many of these oversights and obfuscations of women in science can be seen throughout history, such as the example of the mathematician Mileva Maric, colleague and first wife of Albert Einstein, little or never remembered as a professional partner of the man who is considered one of the greatest scientists of all time.

But the matter does not stop there. In addition to Kate, who suffers from this gender discrimination, another character is also subject to gender stereotypes. She is the journalist Brie Evantee, played by the actress Cate Blachett, characterised as a “femme fatale”, a “home wrecker”, who does not respect other people’s marriages, as she is portrayed as the lover of several married men, including Dr. Mindy, but also two former presidents of the United States, whose references are made by the character in one of the dialogues she has in bed with her scientist lover.

The “good wife
From a professional point of view, no credit is given to journalist Brie Evantee. On the contrary. In the first scene in which she appears, she rushes in to present the news and is subtly “scolded” by her colleague, who reveals Brie’s fondness for alcoholic beverages. But the character is basically constructed as a “hunter” of men, even highlighting her “lack of professionalism”, as in one scene she appears interviewing Dr. Mindy and caresses him under the bench.

The faithful representation of patriarchy continues in the film with the character of June Mindy, Dr. Mindy’s wife, played by actress Melanie Lynskey. While her husband is presented as a scientist working for the good of humanity, she is a mere “housewife”, wife and mother. All the appearances of this character are linked to these three roles, which not infrequently mark the performances of female characters in many fictions throughout history.

June has no profession, no friends and only appears inside the house where she lives with her husband and two children. The only time she is portrayed outside the family sphere, the character goes in search of her husband in a hotel room and discovers that he is cheating on her with the journalist Brie Evantee. To make matters worse, betrayed by her husband, “the good wife” merely expresses a little indignation at the adulterer’s attitude and returns home. To top it all off, at the end of the film, June forgives him and the two “live happily ever after” (in this case, they die happily).

The power of symbolic power
But the macho representation is completed by the character of Janie Orlean, played by actress Meryl Streep. Although the United States has not yet elected a woman as Chief Executive, in the film the country is governed by a woman. However, what could be an interesting quirk has turned into a repugnant representation, as the character is portrayed as a “useless woman” and a ruler oblivious to the important affairs of the country.

This characterisation of a female president of the most powerful country in the world demonstrates, most emphatically, how the film’s author and director, Adam McKay, does not respect gender diversity and ignores the need for fictional representations more aligned with the struggle against oppressions.

Of course, I understood that the intention with this film is to satirise society, to satirise political leadership. But why, in a situation where the outcome is so catastrophic, is a woman placed as the main responsible for the catastrophe? I find it rather suggestive.

And I am not arguing that women as political leaders are better than men. Margaret Thatcher was at the helm of the UK government to prove that gender does not determine actions. During her three terms in office (from 1979 to 1990) she implemented measures that were highly damaging to the working class, as well as being at the centre of the Falklands War, which left a huge trauma on Argentine society.

Nor can we say that the current vice-president of the United States, Kamala Harris, is much of a politician. Although she is black and the daughter of immigrants, a background that places her in the “wing of the oppressed groups”, she has not made the slightest effort to mitigate oppression, especially on issues concerning US immigration policy, which would make life easier for millions of people who, like her parents, sought a better life in the United States.

What I am trying to express with my critique of the film “Don’t Look Up” is the lack of a less prejudiced and stereotypical representation of women, considering all the efforts that movements and individuals fighting for gender equality have historically undertaken.

This is because, although fictional representation is symbolic, we know that symbolic power has a very strong force in the social imaginary; and that it can contribute significantly, both in the process of reproduction and deconstruction of the prejudices and discriminations present in social structures, which in turn reverberate in politics, the economy, culture and other spheres.

What is most intriguing about this scenario is that “Don’t Look Up” is receiving positive reviews even from left-wing sectors, which shows that they are also “overlooking” crucial issues, such as the conservative representation of the female gender, something which in my view shows that there is still a long way to go, before we can make our societies aware of the importance of respect for otherness.