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The Role of Women in the Films of Martin Scorsese

ByRosie Dunford Wood

Jan 31, 2018

There’s no denying that film director Martin Scorsese vividly celebrates a man’s world through the lens of male friendships and machismo. But what does this mean for his female characters?

As a consequence of Scorsese’s interest in the macho male protagonist, his female actors, more often than not, are sidelined to auxiliary roles which usually fluctuate between Madonna and whore. The celebrated director has been criticised for this often degrading, one-dimensional view of womanhood (notably, for his 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street), prompting actors of the likes of Meryl Streep and Juliette Binoche to criticise his inadequate portrayal of strong female leads.

Be that as it may, Scorsese honestly depicts worlds in which women live at the mercy of their dominating, aggressive partners – certainly in Raging Bull and Goodfellas – portraying a truthful rather than a derogatory personal vision of a particular story. Lest we forget, Scorsese will never leave his characters unpunished or without resolution (Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed…). In a Scorsese world, people, especially men, will always pay for their actions.

It is also important to remember that two of Scorsese’s early films, Boxcar Bertha and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, both incorporate strong feminist elements. Boxcar Bertha sees the autonomous Bertha lead a life of escape and criminality amidst the southern American plains. The maturity of Scorsese’s female character, its departure from the typical eye-candy companion of on-the-run criminals (at one point, she shrewdly uses her sexuality to her advantage to rescue her male companions from jail) lead Roger Ebert to write that Boxcar Bertha is ‘not really the sleazy exploitation film the ads promise.’

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore follows the liberation of Alice Hyatt following the death of her unloving husband, and sees her pursue a better life despite a continuous string of abusive relationships. And in defiance of Streep’s jibes at Scorsese, the role of Alice Hyatt was in fact substantial enough to have landed Ellen Burstyn an Academy Award, as did Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of actress Katharine Hepburn in Scorsese’s The Aviator.

Yes, these are two singular incidents that occur early on in Scorsese’s career. An evaluation of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street may suggest a different conclusion. While Scorsese explores the profane lifestyle of filthy rich stockbroker Jordan Belfort, the audience is confronted with a flock of naked sex workers. Indeed, to many it seemed that Scorsese was being lured into the very world he was trying to denounce in his over-sexualisation of female characters. Margot Robbie was characterised by her sexuality as Belfort’s wife, for whom his previous wife was ditched. But, in the end, she renounces his criminal behaviour and steers Belfort towards divorce, showing a certain dominance in the relationship. Ginger McKenna in Casino, wonderfully played by Sharon Stone to critical acclaim, exemplifies a stereotypically lustful, gold-digging wife and Goodfellas’ Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) serves as the beautiful trophy wife of mobster Jimmy Hoffa.

All in all, despite a few isolated incidents, Scorsese at large uses female characters as supplementaries to a male-driven story. Nonetheless, Scorsese continues to show an interest in the price of womanhood, affected particularly by a man’s violence, jealousy and machismo, perhaps pointing to his own concerns surrounding gender-specific tension.

Image: Peabody Awards / Gage Skidmore

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