The women are not all right
24 August 2010
The movies are no place for angry women. And I’m not just speaking of characters onscreen; female writers and directors can’t be angry, either. We’re very clear on this: men can get angry and get even, but women can’t behave in any way that might stop us from thinking they’re sexy — and dang, girls, anger is a real buzzkill. Now and then one of them slips through in disguise, though. I’m thinking here about Nicole Holofcener’s “Friends With Money” (2006) and “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (1996), a great BBC adaptation of the Anne Brontë novel. Earlier this summer I overdosed on 19th-c. novels, but it’s hard to stay away when it comes to the Brontës, especially if one has watched this great YouTube video 23 times:
The Brontës were pissed off, and “Tenant” — which tells the story of a young mother who’s escaping her abusive husband by hiding in a remote Yorkshire village — might be the angriest of all their novels. The producers couldn’t have found a better lead than Tara Fitzgerald, whose fierce face and husky voice (and those severe 1850s up-dos) epitomized the character of Helen Graham. Her husband wasn’t just a philandering, drunken, abusive beast who despises her; he also tried to raise their son in his image. Her disillusionment with him makes her ever more willing to express her strong opinions when she’s chit-chatting with her clueless new neighbors, who find her child-rearing practices alarming:
Mrs. Markham: “He’s a boy, my dear. You don’t want to spoil his spirit — you’ll make a mere Miss Nancy of him.”
Rev. Millward: “True virtue, my dear lady, consists in a conscious resistance to temptation, not ignorance of it.”
Gilbert Markham: “Teach him to fight, Mrs. Graham, not run away. If you want him to walk honestly through the world you mustn’t try to clear all the stones from his path.”
Helen Graham: “I shall lead him by the hand till he has the strength to go alone. I cannot trust that he will be that one man in a thousand and have that strength and virtue as a birthright.”
Gilbert, teasing her: “You do not think very highly of us, then.”
Helen, growing exercised: “I know nothing about you. I speak of those I do know.”
Gilbert: “Is it not better to arm your hero than to weaken him with too much care?”
Helen, angrily: “Would you say the same of a girl? Must her virtue be tested in battle?”
Rev. Millward, pedantically: “I should say not. A woman’s virtue is her modesty; a man’s, his strength of will.”
Gilbert, more seriously: “I would wish a woman’s virtue to be shielded from temptation.”
Helen, furiously: “Why? You would have us encourage our sons to prove all things by their own experience, while our daughters remain in ignorance until it is too late?”
Gilbert, confused: “Too late?”
Helen, with finality: “I tell you, Mr. Markham, if I thought my son would grow up to be what you call a man of the world, I would rather that he died tomorrow.”
Not knowing Helen’s true situation — that her own ignorance led her into an impetuous marriage to a self-indulgent, selfish man — her neighbors first disapprove of her forthrightness, then gossip that she’s having an affair with her landlord.
So how did Anne Brontë sneak this one by her readers (and the BBC by its viewers)? By hiding the tale in the Trojan Horse of a romance. And damn, if you’re going to create a Trojan Horse, get the actor Toby Stephens to play the infatuated Gilbert Markham. He’s the son of Maggie Smith, eminently watchable as an actor, and so ridiculously pretty as to look almost cruel but for the auburn whiskers and freckles (and yes, he played Jane Eyre’s Rochester a few years ago). Lesson: if you’re angry and want to make a point about women’s subjection, it’ll go down easier if you create a hot, sensitive guy who’ll serve as our heroine’s reward when she comes out the other end of her miserable marriage.
Okay, that was the 19th century; what about the 21st? Sure, rape-and-revenge movies keep popping up (like Jennifer Lopez’s “Enough” of 2002), but I want to talk about a different kind of female anger. The question that’s rattled around my brain since seeing Holofcener’s “Friends With Money” — which I think of as a perverse retelling of “Sex and the City” — is why Jane (Frances McDormand) could direct her rage in the most petty ways at everyone around her, while the far more oppressed Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) couldn’t express it at all. Unlike their 19th-c. ancestors, these women don’t suffer from all-powerful husbands and fathers — in fact, they’re not entirely sure what they’re suffering from. Jane, a crazily wealthy clothing designer, gets mad at everything but none of it really matters, like when someone steals her parking place. She doesn’t stop to think why she feels so angry, but the most vivid symptom of this rage is that she stops washing her hair — making one of those Holofcener moments onscreen that remains on your frontal lobe for weeks afterward. In the evening she returns home to her husband and goes through the motions. Is the writer-director Holofcener trying to tell us that women can’t deal with their own anger? If so, why doesn’t she show us that women’s anger isn’t always directed at the mundane?
In contrast, Olivia has lots of reasons to be angry, but she opts for passivity. She quit her awful teaching job a while ago and now suffers the indignities of cleaning other people’s homes. As if that weren’t bad enough, she’s the only one of the four friends who isn’t married, leading the others to set her up with truly awful blind dates — like Mike (Scott Caan), a personal trainer, who not only dresses her up in a French maid’s outfit during one of her work days to spice up the sex they have in other people’s beds, but convinces her to share her income with him (because he “helped”). Her passivity is punctuated by the tiniest of rebellions — amassing dozens of samples of face cream from cosmetics counters, smoking a joint at night, and dialing the number of the married man who abruptly dumped her years ago. Why doesn’t Holofcener let Olivia express rage? Is this contrast of the two characters intended to show us the range of vague dissatisfactions in women’s lives? Or is it because Jennifer Aniston is such a totem, an actor who vacillates between the lachrymose and rom-coms, never tackling a more interesting range of complex emotion?
I wish I could say that Holofcener was even angrier than the Brontës when she made this film, because at times you sense it. But she, too, ultimately tries to tidy up the story by stifling their real problems inside the Trojan Horse of a tacked-on resolution at the end. Jane finally articulates her sense of futility and washes her hair, and Olivia goes on a pity date with an overweight, penny-pinching, unattractive client only to find him refreshingly kind, sweet … and rich! The weak, strange concluding scenes in the film — so eager to reassure us that the future will be better than the past we’ve witnessed — make for a modern twist on the Brontës’ use of romance to sugar-coat their messages.
What Holofcener has really put her finger on is a new Problem That Has No Name. But because she can’t name it, her slapdash resolution can’t work; Anne Brontë had the great benefit of being able to name her problem. Now that we proclaim women to be equal to men, feminism to be dead, and all our female characters to be mild-mannered, what happens to women’s anger? The four women in “Friends With Money” see their anger misdirected, turned into an strange kind of comedy, and diluted with the need for an ending to the story. I guess that Problem will just continue on undiagnosed, quietly eating away at women who don’t feel they have a good reason to be angry.