Bereft for “Slings & Arrows,” I turned to the only thing on TV that looked watchable:  “Justified,” the new Elmore Leonard-based show on FX — it had been getting a lot of good press, and after watching Timothy Olyphant play Seth Bullock in “Deadwood” for three seasons, I was prepared to watch anything in which he dons a cowboy hat again. 

But let’s make no mistake about the gender politics of the show.  Set in eastern Kentucky most of the time, “Justified” takes advantage of what Hollywood sees as a back-assward locale to trot out tried-and-true stereotypes about rural Southern women and the men who protect them.  Olyphant’s character seems mighty courtly, to be sure, but that quality mostly allows him to be an enlightened sexist.  That is, they pay some lip service to the idea that gender roles aren’t locked in prehistoric times, but only long enough to allow the characters to go Neanderthal again.  It’s plain old sexism — dressed up in slightly more knowing clothes, as Susan Douglas shows us.

Olyphant plays Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal who’s managed to shoot a few too many of the fugitives and renegade prisoners he was hired to oversee, so they transfer him back to Kentucky as punishment.  Although it’s awful close to his hometown, he’s too stoic to talk much about his misgivings about going back home again (instead, we see him suffer silently when he runs across his ex-wife, now happily remarried).  Luckily, Raylan’s views of cowboy justice — and his frequent refrain that his shootings were justified because those other guys drew first — fits right in with Kentucky lawmakers. 

Olyphant gets a lot less actorly exercise here than he did in “Deadwood,” but it’s hard to separate the two characters. Both make great use of the actor’s skill in speaking softly, as if he might be a modern-day Gary Cooper, but his dark, beady eyes show him to be a closet sociopath.  In short, he’s an absolute pleasure to watch.

If only the show had decided to give him any other three-dimensional character to work with.  Instead, he plays with the usual suspects:  comically fat white supremacists (because…being overweight and racist go together?), a sassy black woman co-worker, a bunch of hillbilly drug runners, and — for love interest — a hot, blonde, rifle totin’ missy, Ava, who’s had a crush on Raylan since she was twelve, and who just shot her abusive husband to death. 

In Episode 4, the show indulges in enlightened sexism to try to assuage haters like me — it’s a textbook scene.  Although Raylan was supposed to cede control of a job to Rachel (sassy black woman co-worker, played by Erica Tazel), he’s gone and taken charge.  He brings this up in the car as they leave.

Raylan:  “I’m sorry if I crossed a line with you at the office.  If I shouldered my way to the front of the line it wasn’t intentional.  I can only imagine how hard it’s been for you to get where you are in the marshal service.”

Rachel, smiling wryly:  “Because I’m black, or because I’m a woman?”  …

Raylan:  “Look, I understand I’m the low man on the totem pole—I understand that.  But Rolly and I have a long history and I should be walking point.”

Rachel:  “This isn’t just about this case. You did walk to the front of the line.  And I don’t know if it’s because you know the chief from Glenco but you walked in and you went right to the front.”

Raylan:  “Yeah. You ever consider I happen to be good at the job?”

Rachel:  “And you being a tall good-looking white man with a shitload of swagger?  That has nothing to do with it? You get away with just about anything.”

Raylan:  “What do I get away with?”

Rachel:  “Look in the mirror! How’d you think it’d go over if I came in to work one day wearing a cowboy hat?”  (Raylan smirks.  Rachel persists.)  “You think I’d get away with that?”

Raylan:  “Go on, try it on.”  (Rachel looks at him curiously, as if she might.  End of scene.)

See?  It’s really Rachel’s fault that she’s not more assertive.  Not only did she fail to take control in her own case, but in this very conversation she permits the subject of the white man’s aggression to drop.  After this scene, the episode spends zero more time fretting about the fact that Raylan has completely taken control.  He continues to use the same tall, good-looking white man with a shitload of swagger persona, and he wins.  Now that we’ve had a moment to take feminism into account, we can go back to appreciating a 1950s version of gender/race relations, where the white guy is always in charge.

And what happens at the end of the episode?  Rachel does try on the cowboy hat.  But it doesn’t fit.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my mini-marathon of female buddy movies, it’s that these films are not inherently feminist (I’m looking at you, Romy and Michele) except insofar as they feature women at the center. But the best ones offer both feminist critiques of male domination and a vision of what happens when you push women to the edge.

Set it off3If F. Gary Gray’s Set It Off doesn’t quite rise to high filmic art, it makes for perfect marathon material, especially after seeing Thelma and Louise. The themes in both films match up — these films show women who’ve been jerked around by men, bosses, the police, and the system — but become even more critical when they treat Black women rather than white. Their rage is all the more justified because they’ve been fighting two battles, not just one.

MV5BMjA1NjgzODM0MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzYxNzU0NA@@._V1_SX640_SY720_If any of them who should have made it out of their housing project, it’s Frankie (Vivica A. Fox), whose immaculate straight hair, professional wardrobe, and talents as a bank clerk have won her raises and promotions at her job. But when one of the guys from the neighborhood shows up at her teller’s window and initiates a bank robbery, she tries to talk him out of it — a conversation that the police and the bank manager see on the security video later. How can they know she wasn’t involved as an inside man? Of course they fire her, and refuse to offer her a reference.

Just like that, all those years of professionalism go down the drain. Worse, she’s reduced to working alongside her lifelong friends cleaning office buildings in downtown LA during the night shift.

setitoff

Each of them has a story like this one. T.T. (Kimberly Elise) struggles as a single mother to pay for childcare on her lean income. Cleo (Queen Latifah) is openly gay and has developed the tough persona of one who deals with homophobia on a regular basis. And then there’s Stoney (Jada Pinkett). It’s bad enough that she’s willing to do anything to find the money to fund her brother’s entry to UCLA. But then he gets shot and killed by police, mistaken for one of the project’s bank robbers, and all the police can do is apologize weakly.

In other words, the film’s setup follows that of Thelma and Louise: it highlights the ways that women get beaten down by men — sexually, economically, psychologically — and have so much of their potential taken out from under them. But there are marked differences between those earlier white women and Set It Off‘s Black women. Whereas Louise is able to get thousands of dollars from her own bank account, these four have nothing. When you add racial discrimination to gender bias, the women’s rage is all the more infectious.

tumblr_mdz3s45add1qhovk4o1_500Frankie knows exactly how to respond: rob a bank. She knows how banks work; she knows how to avoid the mistakes made by the guys in the project who got Stoney’s brother killed. Most of all, she’s clearheaded about the morality of it. “We’re just taking away from the system that’s fucking us all anyway, y’know?” The main question, after their first hit goes fast and furious and they escape with thousands of dollars, is how many more banks to rob.

In the meantime, Stoney gets hit on by a slick banker (Blair Underwood) while casing the joint. Keith is tall, rich, educated, and good-looking. A Harvard grad. With a glamorous apartment. She struggles on their dates to hold him at arm’s length — why? Is it because the attraction is so one-sided? because she’s worried he’ll learn about the grittiness of her life and her job as a cleaner, or about her sideline as a bank robber?

Blair and Jada2I’m not sure, but I’d like to say Stoney’s hesitation springs from Keith’s patronizing tones — his “I’ve got the wind at my back” cockiness, his overly slippery eagerness to transform her into Pretty Woman, to “take her away from all that.” No one can convey that kind of motivational ambivalence better than Underwood, who could win a nationwide contest for Guy I’d Most Like To Date Who’s Most Likely To Have An Evil Side. At one point he even takes a detour on their way out so he can buy her a glamorous dress and shoes. On their dates, he asks Stoney loaded questions like, “Do you feel free?” “I don’t feel free,” she replies. “I feel very much caged.” And clearly her dates with him don’t help.

But to be fair, the bank jobs don’t help, either. They start fighting amongst themselves, allowing them to reference Thelma and Louise and The Godfather and thereby raise questions about how it will all end.

set-it-off-1I’ve already mentioned that Set It Off doesn’t climb to high art, but what it does achieve is a far more powerful indictment of racial & gender discrimination than in Thelma and Louise, and a conclusion that (like its predecessor) goes places you wouldn’t expect. In fact, I began to realize that the film’s weaknesses reflect the same kind of low expectations from Hollywood that are turned into themes in the film. For all those reasons I urge you to hunt down a copy (not easy! I had to inter-library loan mine) and watch it as a double bill with T&L to get another glimpse of the female rage made possible by feminism in the 1990s.

In retrospect, Set It Off and Thelma and Louise reflects that great, pre-ironic feminist moment in film when narratives could evoke the enraging, impossible constraints placed on everyday women. It reminds me of the most disturbing aspects of Susan Douglas’ Enlightened Sexism, which describe how media began to undermine the feminism with ironic winks at the audience while peddling old-fashioned sexism. Can I just say, again, that I miss the old-fashioned female rage?

Charlize Theron’s clothes are awesome. Like the silver-coated small-animal bones strung together in a headdress than hangs down onto her forehead:

Also, the Dark Forest is really cool, and the dwarfs are excellent.

Otherwise, Snow White and the Huntsman is a big mess of over-writing and confused themes that looks great (terrific CGI, creative ideas behind it) but feels incredibly shallow.

Now, I could complain about all manner of things, like Kristen Stewart’s acting (my friend M mused wryly as we walked out of the theater: “I sure hope Kristen Stewart never gets stuck in a paper bag”) or the preposterous notion that she is “fairer” than Charlize Theron’s evil queen Ravenna.

But let’s not be small.

Instead, let’s complain about the writing, because this film is confused (not unlike Stewart, above). What is this film about?

The original tale, as it comes to us from the Brothers Grimm, is a pretty simple catfight faceoff between an evil queen who wants to be the prettiest and a good, innocent girl whom everyone loves, especially the dwarfs. Queen puts girl to sleep with poisoned apple. Girl gets kissed by prince, and their marriage ends the evil queen’s reign. (In one particularly horrific version I still remember from my childhood, the queen gets punished by having to wear a bewitched pair of iron shoes that force her to dance until she dies. I always wanted to know why, if Snow White was so nice and all, did she permit that punishment?)

In short, the original doesn’t really leave much room for a feminist reading unless you are prone to wishful thinking, or if you are a clever writer of fan-fic. Mostly it’s a tale of men taking care of the delicate Snow White — various dwarfs and princes and whatnot — while she talks to fawns and bluebirds and perhaps sings a song. Feminist it’s not.

Snow White and the Huntsman wants to turn Snow White into an action hero. Or perhaps I should say that at some point in the writing process someone said, “What would happen in she kicked some ass?”

The writers didn’t really follow through, however. Except for that one scene in which Snow White makes a very nice running & sliding move down a drainpipe to escape from Ravenna’s castle.

Mostly she’s dragged unwillingly toward bravery, leadership, and violence by helpful men. When the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth, aka Thor except with a Scottish accent and darker hair this time) helps her slog through the awesome Dark Forest, he slices off her ridiculously long gown to miniskirt/ thigh level to help her move.

So helpful to have those men around for their quick thinking, because no way would that have ever occurred to this Snow White.

It’s not that vestiges of a feminist vision behind the film aren’t still in evidence, but they mostly emerge from Ravenna’s mouth and/or her backstory, which are actually kind of interesting. “I was ruined by a king like you, my Lord. Men use women,” she tells Snow White’s father on their wedding night. If that seems like a kinky thing to tell your new husband, she follows it up by offing him in short order. Later, when she meets the Huntsman, Ravenna says ominously, “There was a time when I would have lost my heart to a face like yours. And you, no doubt, would have broken it.”

Of course, beyond this level of man-hating there isn’t much sisterhood. Mostly Ravenna spends her time sucking the youth out of pretty young girls … because the youth-and-beauty theme still predominates.

Helpful information: the film was co-written by three men with all-over-the-place resumés: John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, A Perfect World), Hossein Amini (Wings of the Dove, Killshot, Drive), and Evan Daugherty, who has no films under his belt at all.

Now, I’m not a robot: like anybody else, I’m perfectly willing to watch Chris Hemsworth affect a Scottish accent and get sweaty and dirty as he protects Snow White.

I just had a hard time when the Huntsman tells Snow White that she needs to take on leadership in raising an army to fight the queen, and she demurs … until that magical kiss raises her from the dead and she finally assumes the role of leader —

— only to give the Worst. St. Crispin’s. Day. Speech. Ever. Let’s just say that Kenneth Branagh will not be looking to Stewart to star in any forthcoming interpretations of fiery Shakespearean heroines, at least any characters that have lines that don’t need to be mumbled.

There’s also a very confusing plotline in which Snow White is proclaimed to be “life itself” despite the fact that she brings death and destruction wherever she goes. Oy vey.

In other words, whatever impulse motivated the writing of this film (that is, beyond the impulse to create narrative set pieces in which the CGI experts could make shit look cool) ultimately falls apart because the whole thing is a mess.

What I realized after witnessing so many potentially feminist plotlines dissolve into anti-feminist helpless girl and/or catfight scenarios was that this is the quintessential statement of what media critic Susan Douglas calls “enlightened sexism” — the film makes gestures to feminism to calm us down, to remind us that it’s not a retrograde tale like the original fairy tale, but it makes those gestures merely to brush them aside and assert the same old sexism as ever. Indeed, it sells sexism to women under the guise that this sexism is somehow feminist.

In the end, it doesn’t matter that Hemsworth is a hunky bit of all right, nor that the dwarfs are enacted by an utterly delightful assortment of great actors (Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost,  Ray Winstone, Johnny Harris), nor that Charlize Theron makes the best bad guy ever, nor that her clothes are so great, nor that the CGI is so watchable.

What matters is that we’ve been sold another bill of goods in the form of that red apple, people. And once you take a bite, you drop into such a deep sleep that you’ll be mistaken for dead.

Feminéma's new La Jefita statuette for those women bosses of film

I know what you’re thinking: at last! An unabashedly subjective set of awards given by an anonymous blogger to her favorite women on and off screen — as a protest against a sexist and male-dominated film industry! Awards that feature a statuette based on genuine Cycladic art of the early Bronze Age! And now handily divided into two parts for ease of reading!

The raves are pouring in, from humans and spam-bots alike: “I’ve waited months for this handy list, and I can hardly wait to visit my video store.”

“Could you choose a few more obscure films, already?”

“I take excellent pleasure in reading articles with quality content material. This write-up is 1 such writing that I can appreciate. Maintain up the excellent function. 560942.”

Yup, it’s La Jefita time here at Themyscira/Paradise Island, where our crack team of snarky feminist film fans has been scouring our many lists of favorite films and great scenes to boil it all down to a carefully-calibrated list of winners. (Winners: contact us to receive your awards, which you must receive in person.)

First, a few bookkeeping points: Our one rule is that no single person or film could win in two separate categories, although a winner can receive an honorable mention in a different category. (This is why we choose categories like Best Role for a Veteran Actress Who Is Not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep, which will be awarded during Part 2). We are good small-d democrats here at Feminéma — “spread the love around” is our guiding raison d’être.

A related note: we at Feminéma want to express our distress at the contrast between, on the one hand, the omnipresence of blonde white girls like Jessica Chastain, Chloë Moretz, and Elle Fanning — they’re great and all, but they’re everywhere — and the virtual invisibility of people of color in top-notch film. It is a central aspect of our feminism that we call for greater diversity in casting, directing, writing, and producing overall. We can only hope that 2012’s Best Director nominees might have non-white faces as well as women among them.

Finally, you’ll remember that our Best Actress La Jefita prize has already been awarded to Joyce McKinney of Errol Morris’s Tabloid. In mentioning this again, we fully intend to list our Honorable Mentions as soon as we’ve seen two more films.

And now, on to what you’ve all been waiting for!

Feminéma’s Film of the Year (Which Also Happens to Be a Female-Oriented Film):

Poetry, by Lee Chang-dong (Korea). I wrote extensively about this immediately after seeing it, so here I’ll only add two comments. First, this film has stuck with me, poking at my conscious mind, in the intervening months in a way that some of the year’s “big” films did not. Second, this was a terrific year for film, especially “important” films like The Tree of Life and Take Shelter that deal with the biggest of themes (existence, forgiveness, apocalypse…). I will argue that, even alongside those audacious films, Poetry deals with even more relevant matters — responsibility — and that given the state of our world, this is the film we need right now. It’s ostensibly a more quiet film, but will shake you to the core.

Go out of your way to see Poetry. Let its leisurely pace and surprising plot turns wash over you, and the sense of mutual responsibility grow. It’s truly one of the best film I’ve seen in years — and if the members of these Awards committees bothered to see more films with subtitles and non-white faces it’d outpace The Tree of Life and The Artist in prizes.

Most Feminist Period Drama that Avoids Anachronism:

A tricky category — it’s so hard to get the balance right. After much hemming and hawing, and after composing many pro and con lists, we have determined that only Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre can be the winner. Mia Wasikowska’s perfect portrayal of Jane was matched by a beautiful script by Moira Buffini that carefully uses Brontë’s own language to tell a tale that underlines how much Jane wants not just true love, but a true equality with Rochester. (Add to that the fact that the film fassbendered me to a bubbling mass of goo, and we have the perfect feminist period drama.)

Mmmm. Muttonchop sideburns.

Honorable Mentions: La Princesse de Montpensier by Bertrand Tavernier and Cracks by Jordan Scott (yes, Ridley Scott’s daughter). Sadly, there’s a lot of anachronism out there: even if I stretched the category to include miniseries, I just couldn’t nominate Downton Abbey, The Hour, or South Riding because of their overly idealistic portrayals of women’s rights; while as historically spot-on as Mildred Pierce was, it’s no feminist tale.

I still haven’t seen The Mysteries of Lisbon but will make a note during Part II of the La Jefitas if it deserves a prize, too.

Sexiest Scene in which a Woman Eats Food (aka the Tom Jones Prize):

Another tricky category. Because I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, when you get a typical actress into a scene in which she’s expected to eat, she instantly reveals how little she likes/is allowed to eat food. Every single time I see such a scene, I become hyper aware of the fact that she’s looking at that food thinking, “This is the ninth take of this scene, and there are 50 calories per bite. That means I’ve eaten 450 calories in the last two hours.” Most don’t eat at all onscreen; all those scenes at dinner tables consist of no one putting food in their mouths. Thus, when I see an actress devouring food with gusto, I feel an instant sexual charge.

Thus, the best I can do is Sara Forestier from The Names of Love (Le nom des gens), a film in which her character, Bahia, wears her all her many passions on her sleeve, eating among others. When, that is, she’s wearing clothes at all. One might complain that Bahia is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl On Steroids — in fact, a central concept in the film is that she’s such a good leftist that she sleeps with conservative men to convert them away from their fascistic politics. (What can I say? it works for me; I was ready for a supremely fluffy French comedy.) Even if the manic pixie trope sets your teeth on edge, you’ll find yourself drawn to Forestier. The film won’t win any feminist prizes from me, but I quite enjoyed it nevertheless and would watch her again in anything.

(A brief pause to remember last year’s winner with a big sigh: Tilda Swinton in I Am Love. Now that was sexy eating.) Sadly, there are no honorable mentions for this prize. But I’m watching carefully as we begin a new year of film.

Most Realistic Portrayal of Teen Girls (also known as: Shameless Plug of a Little-Known Great Film That Needs a La Jefita Award):

Claire Sloma and Amanda Bauer in The Myth of the American Sleepover. There’s something a bit magical about this film, which I’ve already written about at length — a film that up-ends the typical teen dramedy and makes some lovely points that I wish had seemed possible for me back in high school. I loved this film for its frontloading of real teen girls and the real situations they get themselves into; I loved it for that weird combination of leisureliness and urgency that infused real summer nights in high school; and I loved it that it didn’t devolve into a pregnancy melodrama or a story about cliques. And just look at Sloma’s face; it makes me want to cry.

After seeing it, you’ll wonder whether you’ve ever seen a film that showed teen girls like this. And you’ll join my Sloma fan club.

Best uncelebrated supporting-supporting actress in a comic role: 

Nina Arianda only has a few lines in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris as Carol, the insecure wife of Paul, the overbearing, pedantic professor (Michael Sheen), but she almost steals each one of those scenes. She struggles to please and to pronounce her French words properly. She fawns over Paul in a way that makes you realize quickly how futile it is — taking photos of him as he holds forth annoyingly, for example, in the scene below. I don’t know how many of you readers are also academics, but Sheen’s portrayal of that professor was hilariously, perfectly accurate — and Carol is just as recognizable a type, that younger woman who married her former professor a while back and is still trying to make it work. (Skin: crawls.)

Arianda also had nice, slightly larger parts in Win Win and Higher Ground, although nothing that let her express her gift for wit that she displayed in Midnight in Paris. Let’s hope that with these three 2011 films, Arianda is getting more attention — and that she’s got a good agent.

Most Depressingly Anti-Feminist Theme for Female-Oriented Film: Fairy Tales.

C’mon, people. I couldn’t bear to see Catherine Hardwicke’s vomit-inducing Red Riding Hood (highest rating on Feminéma’s Vomit-O-Meter® yet, and I only saw the trailer!). Nor did I see Julia Leigh’s poorly rated Sleeping Beauty, though I’m likely to see it sometime soon. I did see Catherine Breillat’s weak effort, The Sleeping Beauty — such a disappointment after I quite liked her Bluebeard (Le barbe bleue of 2009). I was also less impressed with Tangled than most critics.

I like fairy tales and think they offer all manner of feminist possibilities for retelling. (Why, I even tried to write one myself.) Problem is, they seem to offer anti-feminists just one more chance to trot out their enlightened sexism.  Filmmakers have not yet realized that fairy tales have become a site for critique rather than retrograde confirmation of sexism. (Please, read Malinda Lo’s Huntress or A. S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.)

And this is only Part 1 of the La Jefitas! Stay tuned for the final roster of winners and honorable mentions — in such categories as:

  • 2011’s Most Feminist Film! (Such an important category that it might be divided into three categories for clarity, and because I’m having trouble choosing a single winner!)
  • Most Realistic Dialogue that Women Might Actually Say, and Which Passes the Bechdel Test!
  • Best Fight Scene in which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass!
  • Best Veteran Actress who is not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep!
  • And Best Female-Directed Film! (This one is turning out to be a scorcher — can it be that I’ll divide this into separate categories, too?)

When I checked the showtimes online for Bridesmaids, here’s what the theater website told me:

This spring, producer Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad) and director Paul Feig (creator of Freaks and Geeks) invite you to experience Bridesmaids

And to think I was going to see it because it’s a movie written by women (Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo) and stars six of them. Hollywood has just discovered that not only are women funny, but audiences will flock to see them (the movie took in $7.8 million yesterday alone, coming in a close second to Thor 3D) — so, to smooth the way, it puts up a lot of male boldface names in the movie’s ads.

Yet I left the theater with the realization that, in terms of tone at least, this film has Judd Apatow all over it. In fact, if one fed the scripts for The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad into a supercomputer, one would find there’s an Apatow formula that strikes a balance between poop jokes, awkward sex scenes, eccentric secondary figures, and genuinely affecting sentimental moments between the main characters. Am I saying that Bridesmaids is just warmed-over Apatow? Not at all: this film is in many ways a total delight. Placing those elements into a film about the biggest chestnut of all female-oriented plots — the run-up to your best friend’s wedding — seems, to me at least, much better than just a female version of Apatow’s own clichéd plots (high school boys on a quest for alcohol and girls, etc.).

Maybe I’ve just been reading too many articles about Hollywood’s slow acknowledgement that audiences want to see women being funny, but it was hard for me to see it without that topic in mind, as if the film was trying to make a point. (Remember when Hollywood discovered, via American Pie in 1999, that women liked sex? Gee, thanks for small favors.) Previously, Hollywood has tended to hold to a three-part philosophy concerning female humor, as Tad Friend notes in his piece about the comedian Anna Faris in The New Yorker:

  • Women don’t have to be funny.
  • Also, women aren’t funny.
  • Really, they’re not.

If nothing else, Bridesmaids blows those concepts out of the water. The women in this film use every comic trick in the book — they run the gamut from subtle to broad and display great gifts for physical comedy when it’s required. Plus, the film wins prizes from me for taking apart the wedding industrial complex fairly handily, especially considering I’d just spent an hour on the phone with a friend suggesting plausible-sounding excuses for skipping a bridal shower.

But I also don’t want to oversell this movie. It’s exactly what you think it’s going to be, not much more. As with last year’s Easy A, this movie is funny, alternately gross and sweet, and features some surprisingly touching moments; Kristen Wiig in the lead role knows when to trot out her Saturday Night Live absurdities and when to rein them in; and the other leads (Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne) are terrific, while Wendi McLendon-Covey (the blousy blonde from Reno: 911) doesn’t get quite enough screen time for my liking. For two much more diametrical responses, read the smart back-and-forth about this film on the Bitch website between Kjerstin Johnson and Kelsey Wallace.

My strongest criticism boils down to the fat jokes. I love the actress Melissa McCarthy — she played the best friend on The Gilmore Girls and more recently had a brief and celebrated run on Mike & Molly, a show I never saw but which got a lot of love from people whose opinion I respect. Those same writers have been divided on her appearance here. Melissa Silverstein of Women & Hollywood loved the film and especially McCarthy, saying “she shows a woman who is fun and sexual and raunchy and real and ready to beat the crap out of you on a moment’s notice. That’s what was so great about her character, you had no idea what was coming next.” On the other hand, Bitch‘s Johnson and Wallace decried the “lazy” jokes levied at the “unrefined fat woman” who burps out loud, waddles through a couple of scenes (har, har!), and comes across as butch. (McCarthy has explained in interviews that she modeled her character on the abrasive, loud, yet oddly appealing Food Channel star, Guy Fieri — a decision I find brilliant.)

I’m going to take for granted that readers of this blog are enlightened enough to be aware of fat phobia, unlike the 20-something woman jackass in the theater next to me who squeaked, “Gross!” at the sight of one of McCarthy’s big ankles. Obviously none of us wants to see a movie that gets cheap laughs from the sight of a fat woman. But equally obviously none of us would say that fat women should be kept out of comedies, or that they’re not allowed to be funny, or that they’re not allowed to use physical humor. Silverstein puts it nicely: “Fat women never have fun in films. They might laugh but always when people are laughing at them” — whereas in this one McCarthy’s character is having a blast, moving forward with that Fieri-like assuredness that renders impossible a simplistic reading of her character. It’s important to note that at a crucial moment in the film, McCarthy’s character steps forward to show a truly heroic self-awareness, competence, sensitivity, and dedication to her friends (in fact, it sounds as if McCarthy herself is responsible for that plot development). So I return to the question: do I forgive the few bad fat jokes because overall we laugh with McCarthy and appreciate her character so much?

In the end, I remain divided on whether the fat jokes ruin Bridesmaids. I’m still persuaded enough by a Silverstein-like appreciation for McCarthy’s character and performance to refrain from a full-throated complaint. Perhaps this is Hollywood’s first experiment with enlightened fat phobia, pace Susan Douglas’s enlightened sexism: that is, the film tries to tell us that it’s okay to regress back to fat jokes because the fat woman is a successful and comparatively three-dimensional character. Let’s face it: I laugh at some of those enlightened sexist ads on TV — first and foremost the Old Spice dude who says, “Look again! It’s an oyster with two tickets to that thing you love!” That extra layer of irony seems to excuse the fat jokes because they’re not the old, unenlightened fat jokes. It’s a fat phobia that seems to accept — even celebrate — the fat woman on the surface, but in reality it repudiates fat people and keeps them in their place as the comic sidekicks. Maybe.

Normally I like fall semester.  Students are enthused and hopeful (even the seniors, before their sad descent into apathy during the spring), the nights start to get cold after a long hot summer, I make unrealistic plans to focus on my research even though the teaching gets overwhelming.  But this semester’s tough.  It started with a student in true emotional crisis, continued when I frantically pulled together a public talk in three mad days, and now that I’m in the middle of an exceptionally bureaucratic period of paperwork, I feel buried alive.  No, it’s worse than that:  especially after a long, whiney, cranky dinner conversation in which my poor best friend listened to me patiently, I feel as if I’ve become some kind of demon zombie.

How poetic, then, that I’ve been watching “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” for the first time.  And let me ask:  how did I never watch this show before?  I think I’ve made it clear how much I love films/TV with strong women; love scary stuff; love to immerse myself in long-running TV shows; love to look at pretty men, etc.  This one has it all, yet somehow during the late 90s when it was on, I was distracted (and had a TV with only one channel, as I remember it).  No, this one has MORE than it all, for there’s an entire academic sub-discipline of Buffy Studies including the peer-edited (!) online journal, Slayage: The Online Journal of Whedon Studies, which apparently branched out due to the show’s creator’s subsequent projects.  (Disclaimer:  I’m being facetious, honestly, and don’t really think there’s enough to this fun show to spark much academic blah-blah-blahing, so I won’t be spending much time with Buffy Studies.  I’d much rather keep watching the show than reading quasi-academic prose about it.  And with that I promise to keep my big words to a minimum.)

It took me a few episodes, but I really get it now why people raved about this show all that time.  What a brilliant analogy for high school, what a brilliant quasi-feminist show.  Even my hero, Susan Douglas, raves about it in her terrific book, Enlightened Sexism:  The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done.  For Douglas, “Buffy” was that crystalline example of a female-centered moment of 90s media and popular culture that held up women as powerful and kick-ass.  It might not have been a feminist dream, but it wasn’t the horrors that we have now, like “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”  “Buffy” takes all the things that are horrible about high school and characterizes them as demonic, which must have been crazily therapeutic for people who were actually in high school at the time.  Let me just describe the first episode that clicked for me:  “The Pack,” in which a group of high school kids already prone to petty cruelty and mockery becomes inhabited by the evil spirits of hyaenas.  Not only do they continue to prey on the weak, but they might actually eat you if they get you alone in a room.  They won’t prey on Buffy, because they sense she’s too strong for them; they focus, instead, on the shy and small.  “Buffy” would have helped to explain a lot about high school for me.  (My new favorite character is the town’s mayor — an okily dokily, Ned Flanders type who makes plans to end the world in the same sentence as reminding you to get more calcium.  OF COURSE such a man is a demon.)

But that’s the thing, isn’t it?  Old people like me like “Buffy”  because it’s a metaphor for our lives, too.  I’ve entertained myself for hours with the fantasy of stocking my office with wooden stakes and kicking a certain colleague in the head with Sarah Michelle Gellar’s taekwondo finesse.  That’s why Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series appealed to me so much this summer, too — these tales of a world turned upside down and the necessity for extreme female action in a time of crisis are inherently attractive when one works for large, bureaucratic institutions and deals with soulless bureaucrats (and senior colleagues!).  And they’re healthy reminders to me to keep the demons at bay lest I be turned to the side of evil.  (And yeah, I’m fairly certain that the dude who plays Angel was created in some kind of test tube designed to infect the dreams of viewers.  Not that I’m complaining.) 

I’ve got papers to grade and letters of recommendation to write and applications to fill out and lectures to finish, and my department is at each other’s throats more than usual.  I’m beat.  Thank god I can explain all this by understanding that my department sits atop a new Hellmouth.

I’d never seen “Glee” before — and let me say, it’s utterly delightful — but stumbled across its “The Power of Madonna,” that is, its very special episode on feminism.  And then I found hundreds of posts online, treating it as if it were an important intervention on feminism because the words misogyny, sexist, and objectification were used on a mainstream TV show. 

I’m tempted to suggest that a perky TV comedy can treat the topic of women’s feminist anger BECAUSE it’s perky comedy.  I’m tempted to trot out Susan Douglas’s notion of enlightened sexism again (Susan, perhaps I should receive commission?); point out that “girl power” is a fundamentally hobbled form of feminism; and remind us that Madonna is hardly an ideal feminist.  All of this is true.  But frankly, it’s just a pleasure to see a storyline in which high school girls get mad and seek a way to articulate a feminist identity (and then sing!).  At this point, us brow-beaten feminists will be thrilled with anything. 

The show starts with the girls in the glee club having a powwow about dating, a conversation that can be summed up by one character’s resigned assessment that “we have to accept that guys just don’t care about our feelings.”  When a well-meaning male teacher tries to intervene, an even more resigned girl pushes him back. “The fact is that women still earn 70 cents to every dollar that a man does for doing the same job.  That attitude starts in high school.”  (Wow. Count me happy on hearing this in prime time.)  Slowly the girls start to fight back and express themselves verbally as well as in song.  My favorite is when the “they just don’t care about our feelings” Asian girl takes a sexist boy’s head off:  “My growing feminism will cut you in half like a righteous blade of equality!”

They build up tension and resolve it by singing a lot of Madonna songs and gradually convincing the reluctant boys that this music shouldn’t make them feel uncomfortable.  There are some tedious side stories about various women asserting themselves sexually (to say no or otherwise).  (JEEZUS, people, does feminism always have to be exactly equivalent to sex?)  Best of all is a transfixing number with the cheerleaders doing a routine on stilts to “Ray of Light.”  Throughout, Jane Lynch is great as the unhinged director of the “cheerios” who idolizes Madonna. 

Please, let’s just stop calling this feminism.  I enjoyed this show perfectly well without having to engage it on those terms.  Feminism can’t be made palatable to a reluctant public by dressing it in a Madonna pop song for one episode; nor is it reducible to The Power of Madonna.  Let’s get happy about some feminist stuff coming up, and some women with powerful lungs belting out terrific Madonna covers.  But let’s just call this what it is:  “Glee” is just its own thing.  We can all be happy that these girls articulate a version of anger and empowerment, and hope that more TV shows engage with those subjects — hope, indeed, that more actual girls get angry and empowered.  Hell, at this point I’d take the Spice Girls’ version of girl power again.

MANifestos & manthems

9 March 2010

When Kathryn Bigelow won her Oscar, the orchestra burst into a rendition of “I am Woman, Hear Me Roar.” My friends and I thrust our hands high in the sky from our position on the couch, thrilled that she’d won. And then I thought, “Wait.”

First, there’s the obvious fact that I now know the Helen Reddy song less for its 1970s feel-goodness than for the ironic 2006 Burger King version, which they call the “Manthem”:

Enlightened sexism, anyone? As Susan Douglas brilliantly defines it, this ethos follows the argument that “women have made plenty of progress because of feminism — ideed, full equality has allegedly been achieved. So now it’s okay, even amusing, to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women.” Even better to resurrect funny caveman stereotypes of men who need hamburgers, Dockers, Old Spice, and Axe Body Spray to clarify their über-manliness and ironic sensibility. “Now that they ‘have it all,'” Douglas explains in the voice of the enlightened sexist, women and girls “should focus the bulk of their time and energy on being hot, pleasing men, competing with other women, and shopping.” Meanwhile, men can go primal — ironically, of course, but the effect is the same. As Kjerstin Johnson shows in a Bitch blog post, there’s even a fake-umentary about plummeting testosterone levels and the emasculinization of men in America. Ha ha!

I’m thrilled by Bigelow’s Oscar win. But in this cultural environment of enlightened sexism, it’s hardly a feminist triumph, as Helen Reddy might have desired. It’s all well and good for so many commentators to trumpet the fact that “The Hurt Locker” is a really good dude film (see? women can even direct good films that dudes want to see, not like chick flicks at all!) and that Bigelow has a knack not just for putting together great action scenes but finely-wrought interactions between men.

It’s all about the guys. Who can blame them, in this stifling environment of feminist control, for issuing such a long series of MANifestos and manthems? In the meantime, ladies, get back to the gym!

Poor Timothy Olyphant.  While he’s wallowing about as the big fish in the very small pond that is “Justified,” his former “Deadwood” co-stars Garret Dillahunt (who played the psychopathic Mr. W.) and John Hawkes (Sol Starr) have found much richer material in Debra Granik’s wonderful rural thriller, “Winter’s Bone,” based on the Daniel Woodrell novel.  Moreover, these actors have delightfully reversed their earlier characters; while Dillahunt now appears as the ineffective but earnest cop, Hawkes no longer offers us his wide blue eyes as in “Deadwood,” but uses his hollow cheeks, broken nose, enormous (and beautiful) hands, and perpetual cigarette to become the terrifying meth-cooking Teardrop, who isn’t quite sure whether he cares enough about his brother’s family to help them escape starvation.

But I digress.  This movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence in the major role of 17-year-old Ree Dolly, whose sole concern is to find a way to keep her family alive.  Lawrence appears in virtually every scene — teaching her two younger siblings how to shoot and skin a squirrel, hunting down her father whose disappearance makes it likely they’ll lose their home, hanging laundry, frying potatoes.  This is a story about a very young, very smart woman who’s taken on the unenviable job of ensuring that her family survive (not unlike another one of my all-time favorite films, “Fresh”) in the Missouri Ozarks.  Moreover, she’s got to accomplish this job amidst the complicated, competing logics of family loyalty and disloyalty, pride in the midst of poverty, and the rules of law and outlaws; it doesn’t occur to her or anyone else that she is a child and shouldn’t have such heavy responsibility.  Lawrence plays her role with an extraordinary sureness, even when she’s surrounded by experienced actors like Hawkes whose parts give them the chance to appear more vividly creepy.  I fear she’s too subtle an actor to receive the recognition she deserves, as awards so often seem to go to the grandstanders; but she’s sure to add many more nominations to the Best Actress Prize she won at the Seattle Film Festival this year.  When she’s getting in a car with someone very scary, she turns to her younger brother and says, “Fry the potatoes till they’re brown and then turn off the stove,” exactly like a big sister would do.  She’s multi-tasking — frantically trying to teach her little siblings how they might feed themselves in case things get worse than they already are, at the same time that she’s afraid she really might not come back.

It’s about time we had a film that showed us true Southern poverty without turning its inhabitants into simplistic rubes or romantic Hollywood versions of “authentic.”  I even found myself entering into their own ways of thinking.  The characters speak of certain men in the Dolly family with a terrified reverence that verges on myth-making; but slowly one begins to realize that the women possess an equal if not superior capacity for brutality all the scarier because no such reverence for them exists.  Family pride is one place where they glean this power.  “I’m a Dolly, bred and buttered,” Ree spits at a bail bondsman looking to collect on the debt — and that pride is genuine, even if her family is the heart and soul of her problems.  There is no local color, and Lawrence never prettifies herself to ensure a career as the next Lindsay Lohan.  This film feels truer than that — and depending on its popularity, might well curb tourist traffic to the Ozarks for years to come.

And then there’s the music, which Granik uses throughout to jar us.  Acid metal blurts out of the house of her best friend, now married to a petty patriarch.  In another house, a group of old-timey bluegrass musicians play a couple of heartbreakingly lovely classic tunes — but by this time, that music seems so awfully out of touch with the grim realities of life in the Missouri mountains that we’re mostly struck by the disjuncture.  Even when Teardrop picks up a banjo and strums it with expert, if rusty, fingers (again, those beautiful hands of Hawkes’), the music comes from left field, always making you realize you don’t know what’s coming next.  (Apparently Hawkes has contributed to the forthcoming soundtrack with an instrumental called “Bred and Buttered.)  Best of all is a terrific sequence shot at a cattle auction, where Ree is overwhelmed by the sound of the cattle lowing, the auctioneer babbling, animals banging into metal cages.  It’s one of those extraordinary true moments onscreen — you have no idea how perfectly such sounds might capture her mood until you see it.

If there’s one thing that motivates everyone equally in Ree’s world, it’s talk.  Worse than Ree’s walkabout through the back woods to successively higher-ranked crystal meth dealers as she looks for her father is the resulting gossip about it.  At first Ree hopes that word will get around to her father so he’ll come back to help save the house, but it ends up serving the purpose of shaking the bad guys’ trees.  Her world hangs on the delicate balance of silence and reputation; thus, talk becomes a weapon far more effective than any other, and Dillahunt’s Sheriff Baskin knows this as well as any of the macho meth kingpins.  Not talking is a point of pride for Ree, but this is a political position that only makes sense in an environment where talk can destroy.

Granik keeps her eye on the ball.  Another director might pause for a romantic view of the hills or a charmingly dilapidated house, or insist that her characters voice those Southernisms that make a show like “Justified” so obviously designed for outsiders.  In contrast, Granik knows this is a film about focusing on the trees — the interpersonal politics and rules of a real community; even the characters’ accents aren’t overdone.  When the story really begins to cook into a thriller, you realize how fully you’ve begun to make sense of things on their terms.  This is her real accomplishment as a director: to avoid all the pitfalls of Southern stereotypes and Hollywood glamorizing of the rural.  Like Lawrence’s tight, perfect performance, Granik’s directing is unembellished while still jolting her viewers as she gradually reveals the truth of the tale.  The proof is in the storytelling, and Granik gets it.

Great film.  Go see it to get more attention for this little gem.