“How old do you think I am?”: The Characterization of Female Characters in Warren Beatty’s Bulworth By Paola B. López Sauri
My name is Paola Beatriz López Sauri. I am in the Literature profile of the ALC program. Although I usually prefer to write creative works, I also enjoy writing analytical essays, for they give me an opportunity to focus on details that I might have initially overlooked in a particular work. When interpreting a film or a novel, I tend to keep an eye out for female characters, interesting metaphors and instances of symbolism; I believe these types of details often provide insight on the story being told, and the person behind it. I will continue my studies (and essay-writing) at Concordia, in the fall of 2019.
“How old do you think I am?”:
The Characterization of Female Characters in Warren Beatty’s Bulworth
By Paola B. López Sauri
The 1998 movie Bulworth, starring, written, and directed by Warren Beatty, “generated considerable controversy” when it was released (Dowell 6) as it directly addressed taboo topics such as political corruption. Despite addressing several different conflicts, Bulworth’s main purpose was to promote racial equality. The film aimed to create a world without color, even instructing its audience that “everybody just gotta keep fuckin’ everybody till they’re all the same color” (Beatty). Nevertheless, this call for racial equality and assimilation fails spectacularly. Bulworth is unable to reach its ultimate goal, constantly succumbing to the use of harmful racial stereotypes despite its insistence on doing otherwise. The fact that Warren Beatty falls short on this issue, which he seems to genuinely care about, raises questions about the other subjects touched upon in the film. As he also seems to be making a case about gender equality, suggesting that, because “the women in the world [are] mistreated and abused” (Beatty), something should be done to improve women’s position in society. However, when looked upon from a feminist perspective, it becomes clear that the portrayal of women, particularly that of women of colour, is quite disturbing. In fact, Bulworth fails to pass the Bechdel test, reduces its female characters to typical stereotypes, and confines them to outdated gender roles. In the film industry, there are certain tools that can be used to determine if a movie has a good representation of women or not. One of these tools is the Bechdel test. Popularized by Alison Bechdel, this test requires that a movie have at least two named female characters entertaining a conversation about something other than a man. Bulworth, despite having at least two named female characters, never shows them in actual conversation. Mimi, the reporter, never speaks to anyone besides her male co-worker. Constance Bulworth, the senator’s wife, is mostly silent throughout the entire movie. Halle Berry’s Nina, the only woman with something to say, speaks almost exclusively with Jay Bulworth. Cheryl and Tanya, Bulworth’s followers, could have easily passed the Bechdel test if Warren Beatty had put his mind to it; instead, Cheryl and Tanya are either always yelling at someone or simply echoing Bulworth’s words. The only instance in which they are shown to be having a real conversation, which happens near the end of the movie at the campaign center, shows them discussing the senator’s possible whereabouts, i.e. talking about a male character. Obviously, the Bechdel Test is not a foolproof method of figuring out if a movie is feminist or not–it is not always that simple. However, a film failing the Bechdel Test can demonstrate that it prioritizes male ideas and opinions over female ones. This type of inequality and limited perspective makes Warren Beatty seem neglectful of the female point of view and, in a way, mindful of the male gaze.
When a film makes use of the male gaze, it usually means that its female characters are objectified. Bulworth is no exception. However, Bulworth’s objectification of women is also influenced by race; while the two white women are almost always dressed in conservative, professional clothes, the black women are dressed promiscuously. This reinforces the idea that women of color are morally loose in comparison to other women, or that they are risky and alluring, which is a misguided generalization. Based on these ideas and the context of the film, Nina could easily be classified as an immoral and dangerous seductress. She is dangerous to Jay Bulworth as she is a young black woman who was hired to kill him. She is also a very clear seductress; when her character is introduced, “she is sucking a lollipop in church, making eyes at Bulworth” while wearing a sports bra as a top and low-waisted jeans that show her underwear (Dowell 11). This becomes even more concerning when, later on in the movie, Bulworth proudly admits that he likes “the pussy,” he likes “it really fine” and, as a senator, he “get[s] it all the time” (Beatty). All of these things put together makes it seem as if Nina’s character is being fetishized by Jay Bulworth, a rich old white man with strong sexual desires. Since Warren Beatty’s intention with this film was to promote racial equality, it is safe to assume that he did not intend to diminish Halle Berry’s character in that way, but that does not justify the result. In order to rectify its mistake, or so it seems, Bulworth tries to make Nina seem like a very educated and eloquent woman when she talks about the current societal problems. But what is meant to be “an unexpectedly poised assessment of current debates” ends up feeling shallow and unnatural (Dowell 7). Nina’s significant speech is not only rushed, but also dismissed by the casual setting; because she is telling it to only one person in the back of a limo, it does not get the recognition it deserves. On top of that, during his interview at the end of the movie, Jay Bulworth uses her words and ideas as his own without referencing her at all. As a result, Nina’s “only … riveting scene” feels less like an inspirational talk and more like an information dump that is supposed to make Bulworth seem like a feminist film (11).
As for the gender roles, Bulworth does not seem to have put much thought into them, and thus they come across as clichéd. Jay Bulworth’s wife, for example, is confined by the societal rules of this film. Throughout the movie, she is expected to be the perfect image of prestige and privilege while supporting her husband unconditionally. Because he decided to run for office, Constance is thrown into the spotlight and is expected to act appropriately. However, her husband constantly dismisses her and even cheats on her with a younger woman. Constance has an affair, too, which reinforces her portrayal as an unsatisfied housewife. The audience has to make their own assumptions about Constance’s affair and, having seen her only a handful of times (usually while she sits silently at Bulworth’s side), the audience is inclined to believe that she is unhappy and simply looking for a thrill, even though her husband’s affair is Bulworth’s main love story. All of this points out the fact that, even if men can run off, do as they please and get praise for it, women are still restrained to different standards. In Nina’s case, the gender role assigned to her is a motherly one. When she reveals to Bulworth that she was hired to kill him, Nina’s stereotype of the dangerous seductress is broken for just a second, only to reinforce a fallacious gender role. This instance, in which she is overtaken by the need to comfort him and cover him up when he falls asleep, seems to be making the point that any woman, even one as mysterious and promiscuous as Nina, has a motherly instinct to care and protect. That is not to say that Nina’s character could not have been motherly; the problem is not what kind of woman she is but the fact that she is a woman at all. If Nina’s character were male, would Bulworth still be the same movie? Absolutely not–it would start falling to pieces. As a heterosexual man, the senator would have never approached the male character hired to kill him; and even if, say, they got to that same scene, the male version of Nina probably would have ended up killing the senator anyway, rather than sympathizing with him. Thus, with that in mind, Bulworth seems to suggest that all women must inherently be warm and affectionate, thereby enclosing them in specific, gendered roles.
All this is to say that Warren Beatty’s Bulworth fails to do what it originally intended, instead reinforcing the very things it was meant to reject, like sexism. This can be seen in its portrayal of women, who are objectified, stereotypical caricatures. In fact, Bulworth is a perfect example of how not to depict female characters.
Beatty, Warren, director. Bulworth. Twentieth Century Fox, 1998.
Dowell, Pat, et al. “Warren Beatty’s Bulworth: Will the Real Bulworth Please Stand Up?”
Cinéaste, vol. 24, no. 1, 1998, pp. 6-11. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41689099.