Women at the End of the World

Featured Image: Robert Koorenny

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Ever since I was young, I’ve been aware of the environment’s fragility and how acute disturbances could elicit monumental changes. I credit most of this consciousness to natural disaster flicks, as juvenile and nonsensical as it seems. To maintain suspense and entertainment, these movies often speed up the severity of threats and neglect emergency warning systems, breaking the constraints of reality. Regardless of their fictionality, I’ve always admired the tenacity, boldness, and — alright, I’ll say it — sheer luck that heroes are emboldened with. Growing up has made me a keener observer, and I’ve finally pinpointed one question that disaster movies fumble to answer: where are the women? It’s an inaccuracy these flicks commit and one that sends a harmful message in our worldwide fight against global warming.

Action movies — the broader genre that disaster flicks typically fall under — have long been infamous for being oversaturated with male leads. Upon analyzing 2019’s first hundred top-grossing films, only 28% of speaking characters in action films were women. Furthermore, women in disaster flicks have been portrayed as passive and useless, outrunning flash floods and escaping earthquake-ravaged buildings in perfectly-styled hair and faces globbed with contoured makeup. Dara Lane’s video “Deleted Scenes of Women in Disaster Movies Written by Men” even satirizes this, frankly pointing out the impracticality of women’s sleek appearances in disaster movies.

Nowadays, it’s disheartening to look back on disaster flicks and witness the minimal roles women played. The Day After Tomorrow’s Laura Chapman was gifted courage and quick thinking, yet her role was much overshadowed by the father-and-son dynamic that governed the movie — and the fact she reasonably endured blood poisoning while leading man Jack Hall heroically trudged through frozen-over tundras and emerged barely scathed. Rachel Wando of Dante’s Peak is the humble town’s mayor, yet this title fails to be realized once Harry Dalton comes into the picture and the nearby volcano erupts. In 2012, Kate is seemingly there to provide tension as the lead Jackson Curtis’ ex-wife, as they navigate a slew of disasters to climb onboard a life-saving ark. Granted, disaster movie heroes rise as leaders and capable survivors because of their scientific expertise, but women have been and continue to be formidable leaders in the field.

With 2011 to 2020 the hottest decade on record, the world has less than a decade left to resolve climate change’s irreversible effects. We are currently experiencing the undeniable proof of these measurements, manifested in recent detrimental disasters such as the Australian and American bushfires, Brazilian drought and lowering river levels in Argentina and Paraguay, and typhoons barraging the Philippines.

Seeing disaster movies become uncannily more relatable, it is vital and realistic for them to feature female leads — lest we continue perpetuating the notion that only men are capable of bravely facing and triumphantly surviving natural disasters.

Hurling towards a future of environmental uncertainty, the role of gender cannot be understated. Angie Dazé, the Senior Policy Advisor and Gender Equality Lead of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, succinctly writes: “Socially determined differences [in opportunities, responsibilities, and decision-making power] influence how vulnerable people are to climate change”. Dazé pushes for effective adaptation that thoroughly evaluates the specific needs of men and women — alongside minority groups — to be more equitable for investments in climate change resilience. Science journalist Ayesha Tandon of CarbonBrief echoes this sentiment, sharing: “In many countries, women are particularly disadvantaged by [income, occupation, and education] due to entrenched social norms and socio-economic structures” and therefore calling gender inequality a ‘crucial’ challenge to overcome to encourage better climate adaptation. Bustle writer JR Thorpe intertwines these realizations as part of an overarching, varietal movement called ecofeminism, which “sees a relationship between the serious environmental damage done to the earth and the repression of women”. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sums this all up in a realistic, terrifying prospect: “As women suffer disproportionably from poverty, they will also suffer the most [due to] erratic weather.” These thoughts similarly urge awareness and change, but where is the media to broadcast this when needed the most?

While there is an unfilled chasm of empirical evidence to support the impacts of environmental-centered documentaries and films, the unmeasurable impact of films, in general, is undeniable. From watching movies, we learn new perspectives and become driven to spark social change. In turn, when disaster films utilize emotional connection and ride the waves of established environmental campaigns, they have the unique opportunity to spark climate concern in their viewers. (I can attest to this as someone who watched the tornado epic Twister before the cult classic Mean Girls, both being excellent yet extremely different films.) Unfortunately, given the exclusive, homogenous nature of disaster movies’ protagonists, the genre paints a bleak picture of unlikely survival for anyone who isn’t a white, heterosexual, non-disabled male. Climate change certainly won’t go away once Hollywood churns out diverse disaster movies — the high cost and amount of resources that go into movies are another discussion entirely — but once women gain the starring roles, don realistic attires in the face of catastrophe, and have conversations that pass the Bechdel test, the genre has a better shot at truly conveying the terrors, vast scope, and inequality of climate change’s repercussions.