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Rethinking our Gaze: ACMI’s Goddess Emerges to Expose Biases in How Women are Viewed on Screen


The most fascinating aspect of the new exhibition of fencing museum ACMI Goddess: power, glamour, rebellionand the main contribution it makes is the way it generates new insights about women on screen, including in relation to Australia.

Goddess has been in preparation for five years and celebrates 120 years of women and the moving image. Curated in Australia by Bethan Johnson for ACMI, the museum will eventually travel the world.

Geena Davis and her institute op Gender in the media are the perfect partners for the new show; not only because Davis is a movie goddess herself, but also because of her leadership. Gender in the Media is a research and advocacy organization that looks at the representation of gender and sexuality, race, disability, age and body types on screen.

“You Can’t Be What You Can’t See” not only frames Davis’s institute’s mission statement, but also references the show’s core message: the power and importance of representation.

The exhibition features cinematic moments, iconic costumes, sketches, posters, photos, magazines and interactive experiences. You can even make a goddess statue of yourself to take home.

Stars we usually think of as goddesses are showcased, such as Marilyn Monroe, Pam Grier and Davis in clips and costumes of their iconic roles.

But the show also asks the audience to rethink what a “goddess” could be, do and mean.

Read more: Where are the female scientists, tech gurus and engineers in our films?

Australian goddesses

Curators get their inspiration and vision from the culture in which they operate. The exhibition therefore has something to say about – or about – this country and its talent.

The Australian lens that shapes the selection, presentation and commentary about characters, stories and experiences is initially evoked by the soundscapes created by Melbourne-based composer, DJ and musician Chiara Kickdrum.

This continues inside, in a darkened room where the audience sees a montage of clips of stars speaking at awards and events about ageism, sexism, racism, women’s advocacy and female bravery in the industry. First Nations filmmaker Leah Purcell, in full dress at the AACTA awards, says:

It’s the truth this country needs to hear (so that) we can move into the future with a better understanding of who we are as a nation.

Elsewhere in the exhibition is ‘Fearless Nadia’ (Mary Ann Evans), an Australian actor who became Bollywood’s leading stuntwoman in the 1930s. She swung from chandeliers, jumped from speeding trains and tamed lions. She was one of the first female leads in Hindi cinema.

Australian Hollywood costume designer Orry Kelly won three Academy Awards and the show features the iconic costume he made for Marilyn Monroe for Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959).

In the book accompanying the exhibit, a quote from Monroe provides insight into how her body typifies her:

I’m tired of the same old gender roles. I want to do better things. People have space, you know.

The body of the goddess

An important part of this exhibition is the spectacular display of the body of the film goddess – from classic Hollywood to contemporary popular culture.

ACMI frames the goddess not just through the tired “starlet” and “bombshell” tropes, but as a woman who pushes boundaries, questions norms and stereotypes.

At the start of the exhibition we meet fashion model Winnie Harlow in Monroe’s iconic pink dress Diamonds are a woman’s best friendan appearance in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

The beautiful Harlow is a spokesperson for the skin condition vitiligo (where her skin has lost color in parts). Her look is confident: she in turn invites our gaze and challenges notions of perfection. Her flesh becomes costume, and I’m thinking of the idea “it’s not what you wear, it’s how you wear it” – a kind of mantra for individualism (although what she wears also has its own meanings and legacy). We are all unique, but her skin conveys this idea.

Winni Harlow.
Photo: Albert Sanchez

In clips, we see the pressure on female actors to achieve an impossible standard of beauty.

Olivia Colman makes the case for the messy, imperfect body:

I’m an actor, not a model and I think you should be able to look terrible (…) that’s what I like to do.

A young Helen Mirren asks a journalist if he means “serious actors can’t have big bosoms?”

Over the decades, Audrey Hepburn, Kate Winslet, Michelle Yeoh, and Ellen DeGeneres have all commented on how their aging bodies have affected their personalities and careers.

A youthful Jane Fonda alludes to her experience of being a body and not a spirit:

people seem to think that if you are a girl you should behave in a way that is not militant or political, especially if you are an actress (…) how dare an actress think or be political!

Gender fluidity, women of color, queer women, culturally diverse goddesses, and high-kicking action heroines all have something to say about the myriad ways we can understand a goddess in 2023.

As this exhibit says, the goddess can be anything she wants: not just swinging from chandeliers, jumping from speeding trains, or the backs of lions (while she’s dazzlingly beautiful).

In the struggle to be represented, she has been seen, she has offered a feminine gaze – a gaze in which they are individuals rather than ideals or icons. Goddess asks us to rethink our own gaze, and the bias it contains, to see the ways identities are constructed in media, according to the belief systems of the culture that created them. The exhibition succeeds in this admirably.

Goddess: Power, Glamour, Rebellion runs until October 1 at ACMI, Melbourne.

Read more: Changing the portrayal of women in film means getting more women behind the lens

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