Woman or Object: Selected Female Roles in the Films of Pedro Almodóvar

Pedro Almodóvar’s career as a director has been inextricably linked with his filmic portrayal of women almost right from the beginning. His representations of gender roles, in general, and women, in particular, have led to both accusations of misogyny and conversely, admiration of his understanding and celebration of women in his films. These two distinct labels have been applied to Almodóvar throughout his career and while seemingly at odds with one another, both hold some truth.

Almodóvar is best understood when taking into account a fuller historical context of film in a post-Franco Spain. Franco’s death in 1975 was a watershed moment for Spanish filmmakers. The end of his repressive regime marked not only an end to all the censorship limitations placed on filmmakers of the time, but also as an end to an especially repressive time for women. Under Franco, women were expected to conform to the traditional female roles of mother, faithful wife, and homemaker and the beginning of a new era was often reflected in depictions of women at the other extreme — highly sexualized femme fatales.

What many of the women in Almodóvar’s films do have in common, despite their characterization as victim or martyr or heroine, is that they are survivors. Almodóvar is interested in the ways in which women deal with and overcome tragedies and adversities. Frequently the crises that arise for these women involve the men in their lives and a betrayal of some kind. Almodóvar’s use of close female relationships and the power they have in women’s lives are especially important in considering his approach.

Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down (1990), Kika (1993), and Talk to Her (2002) are three films that depict women as sexualized victims, with one complicit and another unconscious. The problematic nature of these characters is at the heart of the criticism leveled at Almodóvar. In Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Marina, a former heroin addict and ex-porn star, is kidnapped by Ricky, a one-night stand recently released from a mental hospital who is obsessed with her. His kidnapping is an effort to make her fall in love with him, a ludicrous proposition, but Marina does in fact develop feelings for Ricky. Her feelings lead her to becoming an active part of her own imprisonment when she insists that Ricky keep her tied up so as to prevent her possible escape. Meanwhile, the lecherous director of Marina’s previous porn movies is searching for her with the help of Marina’s sister lending the film another level to Marina’s objectification.

Ricky’s obsession with Marina involves the use of physical violence as a way to make her understand the depth of his feelings for her. Almodóvar’s misogynistic tendencies are exemplified in the ways women around him become enamored of a character as clearly disturbed as Ricky. From the devoted hospital worker who breaks down in tears and gives him money upon his hospital release to Marina’s eventual falling in love with him, Ricky seems to achieve exactly what he sets out to do, regardless of the ways in which he does it. Despite Almodóvar’s attempts to inject levity into the story, its main theme cannot be ignored when considering his strong ties to women as a writer and director.

Kika courted controversy immediately upon its release in the United States, garnering an NC-17 rating (as did Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) on the basis of a graphic rape scene. The scene runs for eight minutes and is also videotaped and aired on a tabloid news television program in the film. Moreover, Paul, the rapist, is also physically and sexually abusive to his sister. Almodóvar’s light touch in dealing with this subject matter is revealed in Kika’s matter-of-fact acceptance of her rape in a throwaway line that essentially translates to: “Oh, and I was being raped” while mixing drinks. In presenting such an exploitative scene as an almost non-event, played for comic effect, Almodóvar earns his criticism as a misogynist filmmaker.

His more recent Talk to Her is a film that engages in more subversive sexual objectification, yet makes for an even more disturbing and uncomfortable story. Benigno is a nurse caring for a comatose dancer, Alicia, and like Ricky with Marina, he is obsessed with her and with their imagined relationship. Benigno’s obsession leads to his rape of an unconscious Alicia and her subsequent pregnancy. While he is fired and jailed for his actions, Almodóvar does not offer the viewer the same kind of explicit condemnation of Benigno. There is an ambiguity in Almodóvar’s depiction of the pregnancy and its eventual rousing of Alicia out of a comatose state that can be interpreted as a quasi justification of her rape.

While Almodóvar certainly has courted his fair share of controversy and attention, often because of the explicit and daring nature of his work, he is also quite adept at capturing the smaller, more intimate moments that are a part of female relationships. That is to say, that no matter how broad a stroke he uses in his visual style or in his outrageous characters and situations, he frequently exhibits a real understanding of women and the ways in which they relate to one another.

The Flower of My Secret (1995), a somewhat lesser known film in Almodóvar’s oeuvre and the one released after its almost polar opposite, Kika, has some of his best work when it comes to the subject of female relationships in family. The story revolves around a romance writer named Leo whose marriage to her husband Paco has fallen apart. In her despondence her professional career is also suffering as she is unable to write the frothy stories she is famous for and Leo eventually goes to stay with her mother and sister, Rosa. The easy rapport between the women clearly relates the roles they have always played in each others lives. Rosa is the long-suffering daughter with all the responsibility and little credit, while Leo is famous and the shining star of the family. The almost resigned ways in which they interact underline their family relationships and provide Leo with a support system in her time of crisis.

In fact, while Leo’s mother plays the traditional martyr figure, seemingly only concerned with how she is being mistreated or overlooked, she is the one who is finally able to lift Leo out of her depression. She tells Leo that when a woman is alone she must return to the place where she was born and be with other women – otherwise she is lost. This conversation with her mother gives Leo the strength to move on with her life, both personally and professionally. The Flower of My Secret stands as one of Almodóvar’s more mature films and marks a turning point in his more thoughtful portrayal of women.

Volver (2006), Almodóvar’s most recent release, is somewhat of a mystery ghost story, but again, at its core, is really a film about a family of women faced with strange and painful occurrences, with the support of one another. When it comes to the films of Almodóvar, his version of support is more focused on the more nuanced and difficult aspects of women helping each other, rather than a one-note cheerleading approach that often passes for female support in many films.

A film about secrets, death, and abuse, Volver is another complex story about women and the bonds they forge in crisis. Sexual abuse plays a prominent role in the film as a secret that keeps some of the female relationships at a distance. However, through the revelation of the various secrets, there is forgiveness and a coming to terms with difficult losses. The key to the story lies in the many roles played, often simultaneously, by the women – mother, sister, daughter, and friend – in their personal lives. These roles are at the core of Almodóvar’s later depictions of women and they reveal a deeper interest in the inner lives of women, regularly conveyed through the lens of female relationships.

Almodóvar’s challenging of gender roles is a major theme in many of his films, but it is especially complex and rich in All About My Mother (1999), a film that stands as his crowning achievement in his blend of melodrama, real emotion, and various overarching themes. There is no shortage of devastation in the lives of the characters at the center of All About My Mother, yet again, their innate personal strength and reliance on each other makes the women in this film a collective force to be reckoned with.

Manuela’s 17-year-old son, Esteban, is killed while chasing down an autograph from the actress Huma Rojo. The death of her prompts Manuela’s return to Barcelona in search of Esteban’s father, Lola, a transvestite. Along the way, she is reunited with her old friend, Agrado, also a transvestite, befriends a young pregnant nun, Rosa, and becomes the personal assistant of Huma Rojo. The unconventional nature of the story and the unlikely friendships that form are not the stuff of light, popular, female-centric Hollywood films, rather they emphasize the complicated bonds that women develop, particularly in the role of mother.

Manuela embodies the obvious titular mother, as well as the mother figure to a group of what are essentially orphaned women. Sister Rosa offers Manuela the most apparent opportunity to serve in the role of mother, both as it relates to her own life and eventually, in the life of her son. Her role as Huma Rojo’s personal assistant also provides Manuela another chance to play caretaker to another person in her life. In the end, her role as a mother is at the crux of what enables Manuela to move past her grief in dealing with the death of her child.

While Almodóvar is no stranger to challenging gender perceptions, All About My Mother’s almost complete focus on women (as all the men are either dead, transvestites, or in the case of Rosa’s father, suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s) demonstrates a real commitment to telling a full and complete story about women. Almodóvar is ambitious in creating a story around women and motherhood, while interweaving dynamics on the intersection of theater and film into real life, and challenging traditional gender roles along the way. The themes that are so integral to this film have been touched upon by Almodóvar in several of his other films. However, none have so seamlessly woven such large and complex issues into as well organized and expertly told a story as this one. As Manuela journeys from Madrid to Barcelona over and over again throughout her life, Almodóvar accentuates the larger journey of these different women, in different places in their lives, coming together to tell one story.

Almodóvar has certainly exhibited a problematic relationship with his depiction of women in some of his films. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Kika, and Talk to Her all speak to an uneasy and sometimes, misogynistic approach to women in his films. At times, his attempts to reverse or upend gender roles leads to the objectification and most frequently, the overt sexualization of women at the expense of a more complete picture. Much of his later work, however, has focused on a more mature and fully realized representation of women. His wonderful All About My Mother is his most accomplished work to date and he seems to say it all in his closing dedication of the film: “To all the women who have played actresses. To all women who act. To men who act and become women. To all the people who want to be mothers. To my mother.”

There is no doubt that Almodóvar is a true auteur, but the debate on his female characterizations continues to be a key component to understanding him as a filmmaker. For the most part, his more recent films have achieved truer, more complex, and less flashy representations of women and their most intimate relationships with one another.