Awesome and Not-So-Awesome Representations of Women in Contagion

I just couldn’t wait a whole week to talk about Contagion. This post will feature no major spoilers, so if you haven’t yet seen the film, don’t be afraid to read on. The comments section, however, will not be spoiler-free. If you have seen the film, I encourage you to click through to the comments to engage with me in a more thorough discussion of the film’s themes. 

I went into Contagion expecting a it to be a horror film, and the locus of horror to be the human body in all its gut-bursting grossness. I expected the contagious infection to cause people to vomit up their entrails or rip off their flesh. Nope, Contagion is not that kind of movie, not that kind of movie at all.

So, for anyone else who has only been exposed to Contation via posters on the sides of various buses, let me set the record straight: Contagion is a global pandemic thriller. Roger Ebert calls it “a movie about an invasion from inner space.” I call it a zombie apocalypse film without the zombies. It is a film about human panic.

Contagion is self-consciously realistic. In an interview with the film’s science adviser, Dr. W. Ian Lipkin (conducted by Maryn McKenna, author of Superbug), Lipkin calls the film “a work of fiction but…based on fact not fantasy.” Director Steven Soderbergh says of the film, “[I]t’s for real. It’s a very realistic, plausible fictional virus.”

This realism is reflected in the styling of the characters, who  – at least by Hollywood standards – are not glamorized. Kate Winslet (as Dr. Erin Mears) wears clothing that is is frumpily pragmatic. Jennifer Ehle (as Dr. Ally Hextall) spends much of her time onscreen in a giant red biohazard suit. Gwyneth Paltrow (as Beth Emhoff)  is pallid and foaming at the mouth.

Congation features three prominent lady doctors, and each is presented smart, strong, and extremely competent.

These are the kinds of representations of women I am looking for in popular culture. These women are heroes. They are not sexed up or hyper-feminized. They are strong without having to be sexy. And there are three of them! In one film! (Check back here for a forthcoming post on Steven Soderbergh’s next film, the sexy-lady-sexily-kicks-ass-but-is-the-only-woman-in-the-entire-cast movie Haywire.)

Unfortunately, the one woman of color in Contagion is the one lady character in the entire film who falls into the category of Male Protagonist’s Girlfriend.

Sanaa Lathan plays Aubrey, fiancée of Lawrence Fishburne’s Dr. Ellis Cheever. Hers is an important role thematically, but it is predicated on the centrality of her husband’s role. In a film with so many strong lady characters, this wouldn’t be so much of a problem if Lathan were not the only woman of color.

(Edited to add: I completely forgot about the completely forgettable character played by Monique Gabriela Curnen: The Pregnant Woman For Whom We Are Sad. So, Contagion features two women of color, neither of whom has an impact on the progression of the story.)

Though not without its flaws, Contagion is a stellar example of a film that features several awesome female characters, characters who are important not because of their relationships with male protagonists, but because they themselves are protagonists, because they themselves are heroes.

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Contagion is a film rife with fodder for conversations not just about representations of women, but about a whole slew of things. Hop on over to the comments and let’s get talking! WARNING: THAR BE SPOILERS AHEAD!

7 thoughts on “Awesome and Not-So-Awesome Representations of Women in Contagion

  1. So I have to ask: what do you think about Jude Law’s character, the unscrupulous blogger? Roger Ebert writes in his review: “The blogger subplot doesn’t interact clearly with the main story lines and functions mostly as an alarming but vague distraction.” But I find the idea of a blogger’s work (metaphorically) “going viral” to be extremely interesting in a movie about global panic about a (literal) virus. Thoughts?

  2. i was very very very pleasantly surprised at how normal and realistic the representations of all the characters were. Absolutely nothing and nobody was glamorized and it added to the ominously realistic feeling that Contagion had. Everyone seemed REAL.

      • BEWARE OF SPOILERS!
        Well in my mind they were still “Kate Winslet’s character” and “Jude Law’s character” so it was less realistic than if they had had actors who were brand new. But using A-list stars also helped with the shock factor of the disease. In the first 10 minutes Gwyneth Paltrow’s character and her son were dead. It was so shocking to see in the first ten minutes how merciless the virus was going to be, killing off what we thought would be a major character and a little boy. I also walked into the movie thinking that Matt Damon’s character was going to be some heroic character who was going to save the world and was surprised to see him as just another struggling character.

        • Yeah, this is one of those films where I substitute the actors’ names for the names of the characters — “then Kate Winslet calls Lawrence Fishburne…” etc. But I agree with you that killing Paltrow so quickly (and her son! kids very seldom die so abruptly) set a tone for the film; even A-listers aren’t immune. I recognize that in order for film like this to succeed, big names are required to market it. Still, I wish I could watch an alternate universe version of Contagion that features faces I don’t recognize, because I wonder how that would impact my experience of the story.

          And yeah, I totally thought Matt Damon was going to be THE GUY, the hero whose magical white man blood would save the world. It was such a pleasure to see him as a struggling single father instead.

  3. I thought it was interesting that they had a big name like Gywneth Paltrow (wow that is a hard name to spell) die so early in the film, and not only that, have her autopsied. That was the only gross out moment in the film for me was having to watch the skin flap of her cranium pulled over her vacant and dead face, still bearing meaty chunks! The film was bad-ass and had some bad-ass ladies who weren’t throwin’ their titties around. I thought the portrayal of Jude Law’s character was interesting, he sort of encapsulating the pseudo good/bad guy. You can’t tell if he is for or against the people. And interestingly enough they gave him a snaggle tooth amidst an otherwise blemish free cast….

    All in all it was a film that showed how UN-glamorous death and panic can be, male and female alike.

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