28 September 2012
We don’t know how old Rose (Andrea Riseborough) is, but we know she’s too young to marry without the permission of her parents. 15? 16? Young enough to be impossibly stupid. Young enough not to know better than to set awful, self-destructive patterns in her relationships with men. Of course she’s the sucker in Rowan Joffe’s Brighton Rock.
Those glasses, that mass of hair, those little fingers, that drab coat — Rose is accustomed to being invisible. Or worse: frozen out by the other girls at Snow’s, that tea shop on the boardwalk that pretends at gentility. The only kind of attention she gets is unwanted, like when hapless Freddie Hale (Sean Harris) tries to use her as a shield as the rival gang members descend on him to make him pay.
She doesn’t know why Pinkie (Sam Riley, doing a bad Leonardo DiCaprio impression) approaches her and pretends to like her. She lets him pretend.
You want to smack her while she’s on her “date” with Pinkie — and therein lies an insight to her essential weakness. She’s the kind of girl one wants to smack. She’s exasperatingly, willfully blind, even more so after Pinkie points to the St. Christopher medal around her neck and tells her he understands her because they’re both “Romans.”
In establishing their shared Catholicism, they also seem to agree that they represent the different ends of the spectrum: Rose is going to heaven, and Pinkie is most certainly not. Somehow that only makes her love him more. No wonder her boss at the tea shop, the blousy Ida (Helen Mirren), wants to set everything straight again — she sees Rose as a hapless early version of herself.
One feels oddly out of time in Brighton Rock — which is particularly odd because the film is actually quite chronologically specific. At first, watching these hoodlums chase one another through those gloomy streets, one guesses it’s a postwar film (like the original 1947 film, based on the 1938 Graham Greene novel). Neither do the clothes or the sets betray anything different. But when suddenly a lush Doris Day standard fills the corners of the rooms and the characters start talking about out-of-control youth, you feel disoriented (what year is this, anyway?); and when gangs of Mods and Rockers descend on Brighton you realize it’s set in 1964.
One could say a lot of things about that weird chronological uncertainty — that it reveals a lack of focus by the director, or a deliberate attempt to keep us disoriented. Setting aside its effect on the film overall, it has a fascinating impact on our view of Rose.
For Rose is also out of time — lost, left behind. She pilfers a tenner from Pinkie’s stash of bills to buy herself a great new outfit, yet she enjoys the exhilaration of la mode fashion for only a moment before the self-consciousness and guilt overwhelm her. Not to mention the fact that the pink dress and white tights only exaggerates her youth, undermining any glamour. Rose could never be a part of the zeitgeist, never stutter along to The Who’s “My Generation.”
Watching Andrea Riseborough inhabit this role, one would never guess she was 29 at the time of filming — 29, playing a 15-yr-old so completely. Rose doesn’t appear to be the protagonist of this film till quite far along, but she sneakily steals the story from the ridiculous Pinkie and Ida and all the other characters who seem to possess so much more self-assurance and self-direction.
And in the end, perhaps it’s her failures to grasp the big picture — her failure to understand or join her own time — that grant her grace, for they mirror her belief that God loves her despite all her foolish actions, despite her sins.
Brighton Rock can be strangely overwrought and kinetic, not quite a noir and not quite anything else, either; I quite enjoyed it but wouldn’t go far to trumpet its achievements. If you see it, watch it for Riseborough’s sake. This young actor has gone on to receive many nominations and prizes for her work, but this part is a small revelation. I’m keeping my eye on her.
2 July 2012
Michelle Williams’ mouth is the thing I stare at when I watch her. As an actress she can be a chameleon — I mean, Marilyn Monroe! — but in the end her mouth alone does so much to convey complicated emotions. Her mouth is what always makes her performance so distinctive.
Her mouth has gravity. Her mouth shows her disappointment, her struggles. Michelle Williams has the mouth that belies all her other beautiful attributes. Even when she enacts (very effectively) the lusciousness of Monroe, her mouth brings us back:
Whereas the real Monroe’s mouth only confirmed our mythos about her (tongue is in evidence):
Readers will know that I’ve always got my eyes open for actresses who break out of the ridiculously strict Hollywood standards when it comes to noses, mouths, body size, and other body parts so frequently adjusted by plastic surgeons. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m certainly not saying that Michelle Williams’ mouth is unattractive or shaped oddly — far from it. Williams is a beautiful woman in many, many conventional ways.
And yet. Her full cheeks and mouth do things that render Williams’ conventional beauty so much more interesting. Her mouth almost makes me think that she doesn’t truly know how beautiful she is.
Her mouth can do things that Monroe’s refused to do: be hard, express shame or blubbering lack of control, convey a lifetime of disappointment. Whereas it seems impossible for Monroe to appear plain, Williams is at her brilliant best when that mouth draws downward and all we can see is her bald emotions, her character’s true despair.
Think about her role in Brokeback Mountain (2005) as Alma, that ordinary little thing who marries Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) knowing they’ll have a hard life together. They’re both quiet (bordering on silent, really) and dirt-poor, and once the babies start coming they’ll be poorer. That’s okay with her. It’s not like she expected anything else; she knows they’ll get old and stiff long before they ought to. But then she sees her husband kissing his friend Jack with a passion, sheer hunger and the attention she’s never gotten from him, not even once:
That bottom lip of hers is so full, so heavy. At first she’s just registering all this new information — she’s so stunned she doesn’t know how she feels. Then she knows only that she’s hurt, and the mouth drops. She’s so close to becoming ugly, and she knows she’ll be ugly if she cries.
She lets herself be ugly when they fight. She’s too angry to care anymore. She doesn’t know whether to be afraid or dare to believe that she’s the one with the power now.
That’s Williams at her most extreme, the far end of the spectrum from her Interview Face. When she sits for interviews, she disguises her expressive mouth behind a lovely and enigmatic smile. She is very good at appearing so self-possessed as to be quite evasive, as if she’s an ideal 19th-century demure heroine.
Get it, people? She is just beautiful — a woman with spectacular cheekbones and an ability to pull off that pixie haircut. If this was all we ever saw, I’d have nothing much to say.
If I’m going to be honest, I’ll admit that what I find so great about her mouth is that it has the same natural droop as some of those older women in my family — you can see it in photos of my hardworking, stone-faced granny when she was middle-aged and saddled with an alcoholic husband. You can see it in the family photos of those other abuelas who picked cotton and had too many children and worked in canneries and stayed poor all their lives.
So maybe part of my love for that mouth is the fact that she can harness it in her acting to evoke other lives.
Williams is still too young (she is 31) and too sweet-cheeked to show the lines around the mouth that my granny had, of course. But with characters like Emily Tetherow in Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and even Cindy in Blue Valentine (2010) she shows that she can look far older than she is, far too aware of the dark side, caught in vise-like gender traps.
She has that capacity to look emotionally bruised, resigned, on the brink. She somehow encompasses both fragility and a growing hardness.
I never watched her first big role in Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003) as Jen, the city girl who grew up too fast and got sent down to live with her grandmother in a more restrained setting. From the photos I’ve seen, she appears as a far more glamorous pretty girl than I’ve seen her from her career as the darling of independent film. I prefer the latter-day Williams, discovered and used to such effect by Kelly Reichardt in Wendy and Lucy (2008) and later in Meek’s Cutoff. To find someone to inhabit the roles of these quiet women who wrangle with overwhelming problems, Reichardt needed someone with a face.
Reichardt needed someone with a face that could indicate a complicated personal history because her films don’t belabor those back stories. You need to be able to look at Wendy’s face (below) and know that, when things get complicated, she might not have the strength to face it all, partly because she’s had to face hard things before.
I’ve been marveling lately at an emotion you don’t often see on American actors’ faces, but which British actors in particular excel at: self-disgust. Nor is this emotion limited to character actors with funny faces. This emotion is most striking when it appears on the face of a strikingly attractive person. I think I first noticed it when I saw Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect (maybe even that first series, all the way back in 1991), but I’ve seen Tilda Swinton, Richard Armitage, Pierce Brosnan (of all people) and even Hugh Grant (when he’s not being a toothy douchebag) show us that they can be susceptible to the same private self-loathing as the rest of us. Mirren and Swinton are especially good at showing us that expression when they look at themselves in bathroom mirrors.
Michelle Williams hasn’t quite gotten all the way to self-disgust. Or at least I haven’t seen it yet. But we see other dark moods cross her face that aren’t quite so clear-cut. And when they do, that’s when her acting becomes most lyrical.
She’s so good at becoming that character who goes inside herself, who shuts herself off as in Blue Valentine, or who flits between her fear of uncertainty and her temptations to adultery in Take This Waltz (2011). She’s one of those actors who fosters an extraordinary relationship with her viewers (perhaps even most her female viewers, who recognize those facial expressions?) because of her seeming isolation, her impulse to make herself invisible, and the emotional gymnastics it takes for fragile people to deal with isolation.
Sometimes it just takes a small purse of the lips. To allow one’s eyes to get a bit more hooded.
Which brings me back to the odd choice of opting to portray Monroe. Why would an actress do that to herself? Why would an actress be persuaded to step into the shoes of a woman so iconic, so famed for her beauty and full-to-bursting sensuality?
For Michelle Williams to take on the role of Marilyn Monroe is not equivalent to Meryl Streep’s roles as real-life/ historic figures. Honestly: to me it sounds like a nightmare. Who among us could survive the inevitable comparisons, the naysayers who say she’s not beautiful enough to play Monroe?
Yet after thinking so extensively about Williams’ mouth and its frequent on-screen plunges downward, its gravity and its evocation of disappointment and pain, I have now determined that this must have seemed like the most extraordinary physical challenge for an actor. She has spoken extensively about gaining weight for the role and learning how to wiggle across a room with curves (whereas Williams is normally a tiny slip of a thing, like all actresses these days).
Yeah, whatever. Actors are always gaining/ losing weight and making a big noise about it, like they want to be congratulated for how hard it is. If you ask me, the real challenge was to use her mouth differently, and thereby the rest of her face. She had to loosen up her mouth, widen her eyes, adopt a new openness and insecurity to convey a wholly different breed of fragility.
In a Vogue interview, Williams said some fascinating things about stepping into this part by thinking about Monroe’s relationship to the world:
Someone once said that Marilyn spent her whole life looking for a missing person — herself. And so she cobbled together what people thought, felt, saw, and projected onto her and made a person out of it. She had no calm center inside herself that she could come home to and rest.
The challenge was to play a person so eager to please, so eager to be visible. Marilyn’s mouth always conveyed her availability; even 50 years after her death, a photo of her will make you want to run your tongue all over her beautiful open lips. What could be a better challenge for an actor like Williams — who’s prone to such a rigid private reserve — than to try to become that woman who “had no calm center inside herself”?
It’s too bad My Week With Marilyn wasn’t a better film. But that’s really beside my larger point. Someday soon I’m going to rent it again just to watch again how Williams loosens up the bottom half of her face for the role, and think again about how it contrasts with her versions of hard, disappointed, downtrodden women like Alma and Wendy.
Is there another actor out there whose mouth does so much of the heavy lifting in her acting? And in the meantime, have you gotten around to seeing her in Take This Waltz yet?
23 January 2012
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?)
7 March 2011
Helen Mirren is the exception. At 65 she’s getting a ton of work, is widely recognized as a top-notch actor (and “national treasure” in the UK), and has just as many online photos of her in a bikini as Mila Kunis. Moreover, she’s getting work that’s fantastic, and not just a bunch of queens. Julie Taymor converted one of Shakespeare’s canonical male roles into a woman, Prospera, for last December’s The Tempest; then there’s R.E.D.‘s Retired, Extremely Dangerous killer Victoria; Sofya Tolstoy in The Last Station (2009)…. Remember how the peevish Ellen in the wonderful show Slings and Arrows used to talk about an actress’s career as going from the ingénues to the queens to the “dreaded nurse” parts? Mirren has gone from queen to king — and people online call her a GILF. (People online are jackasses. But if I had my chance…) In contrast, I remember reading something about how Meryl Streep had “let herself go.” People online are jackasses.
But rather than simply hoover up all the best parts, pull up the ladder after herself, and show up in flattering gowns to awards events, Helen Mirren speaks openly, frankly, and eloquently on the complexities of age and gender onscreen. Here she appears truly exceptional: she acknowledges that she’s an exception to the rule. My favorite is her speech accepting the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award in December. But she’s appeared in many other interviews just recently now that The Tempest is due to appear in theaters in the UK; see here for an interview in The Guardian — many thanks for that link, JE — as well as on the Film Weekly podcast. In that latter interview she discusses the career problems faced by her young female co-star in The Tempest, Felicity Jones, who’s dying for a part in which she doesn’t have to cry prettily. That’s one problem for young actresses, Mirren opines: “you’re always sniveling in a corner somewhere” onscreen.
I have a colleague who’s a golden boy — he can’t seem to do anything wrong, according to my senior/important colleagues. I tried to talk to him one time about how white male privilege works in my department and he got angry, as if I’d implied he didn’t deserve the plaudits he’d received. No, all I mean is that if you’re the exception, you’ve got to be exceptional and not act as if it’s the very least you deserve.
11 December 2010
Has anyone else noticed that articles like this one in New York Magazine don’t get written about young female actors? “The Brainy Bunch” is about five young men (Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Fassbender, James Franco, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tom Hardy) who, according to the journalist, bust a bunch of stereotypes because they play twitchy, complicated, and most of all brilliant characters. The author marvels that these smart actors “bring the raw nerve of indie sensibility” to the screen; moreover, “in so doing, they are reimagining the mainstream.” Articles like this one are inevitably about men — not because actresses aren’t smart, but because they’re not playing smart onscreen. This has lathered me up into a rant because I think this is yet another example of the exceptionally disturbing moment we’re living in, during which women’s primary value is their hotness, not their smartness. Considering that I grew up in an age when the tomboy/ smartypants Jodie Foster was the pre-teen It Girl — a multilingual woman who graduated magna cum laude from Yale — I’m not prepared to let men be smart while women commit their energies to being hot.
Yet I’ve been putting some muscle into coming up with a similar list of remarkable young female actors who play smart onscreen and it’s really hard. Not hard for older women, mind you; as a culture we seem perfectly willing to grant brains to women over 35 (witness Helen Mirren, Holly Hunter, Tilda Swinton, Charlotte Rampling, Frances McDormand, Judy Davis …). The one vivid exeption to the rule is Mia Wasikowska (above), she of that remarkable 1st season of In Treatment, Alice in Wonderland, as the teenaged daughter in The Kids are All Right, and the upcoming Jane Eyre. Other than that? Can you think of a single young actor who plays smart onscreen from one role to the next?
I can’t. As much as I loved the fast-talking smarts of Carey Mulligan in An Education and Emma Stone in Easy A this year, there’s one thing that ruins those tales for me: ultimately these smart characters are shown to be dumb when it comes to men and sex (respectively). Get it? Smart girls aren’t smart about everything. I can think of a couple of one-off performances this year — Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone and Noomi Rapace in the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo franchise, but I have yet to be convinced that these actors can translate one excellent part into the kinds of careers that New York Magazine‘s favorite young men have achieved. Consider the career of Harvard grad Natalie Portman, who’s now getting close to 30 (and therefore into the age range wherein Hollywood allows women to be brilliant) — has she ever played smart onscreen? And don’t even get me started on the fact that the last time I saw a smart young Latina, Asian, Native American, or black woman onscreen was Shareeka Epps in Half Nelson (2006) — and where have the roles gone for Epps in the meantime?
If any of you doubts the perversity of this trend, consider one of the prevailing cultural anxieties appearing in major media of the past six months: the idea that boys are falling behind girls (or, in Hanna Rosin’s trademark hysterical terms, THE END OF MEN). At the same time that we watch smart boys and hot girls onscreen, we’re also supposed to feel anxious about the fact that girls do better in school and young women are going to college in vastly larger numbers than boys (they make up roughly 60% of college populations). This has prompted Rosin and her ilk to proclaim that women are “winning” some kind of battle against men. Thus, the fact that our films persist in peddling some kind of retro fantasy about boys’ smartness seems to reject our anxieties that girls might be pretty and smart, and reassures us that smart dudes will always bag the hotties.
If you need an explanation for my bleak mood, it’s because I just finished reading Gary Shteyngart’s incredibly disturbing dystopian novel, Super Sad True Love Story. In this America of the future, women wear clothes made by the JuicyPussy brand, Total Surrender panties (which pop off at the push of a little button), and have their hotness level perpetually broadcast to everyone around them via a version of a smartphone called an äpparät. It’s a brilliant characterization of the future (I cringed and laughed at the fact that the hero’s love interest, Eunice Park, majored in Images and minored in Assertiveness in college — we all know that’s where we’re heading) but ultimately one that reiterates that tired trope: shlubby, bookish, imperfect, aging hero falls for very beautiful, very young, very anti-intellectual woman — and wins her, at least for a while. You know what? I love shlubby men in real life (hi, honey!), but I have grown to despise their perpetual appearance in narratives.
So to cleanse my palate of the oily aftertaste of Super Sad, I’ve plunged myself into Muriel Barbery’s wonderful novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which moves back and forth between the interior monologues of two brilliant women: the autodidact Renée, who hides behind her mask as an unkempt, sullen concierge in an elegant Paris apartment building; and Paloma, the precociously intelligent 12-year-old who lives upstairs and despises the pretentions of her family, teachers, and classmates. They seem to be on a path to discover one another — but I’m at the point in the novel when I’m so enjoying just listening to them think out loud that I’m not sure I care whether the narrative goes anywhere (Paloma has a diatribe about why grammar is about accessing the beauty of language that’s so wonderful I’m thinking of plagiarizing it for use in my classes).
Here’s what it would take to cultivate a generation of young actresses known for their braininess:
- Just jettison the smart vs. hot binary for women onscreen already. If I see glasses used as the “smart” signifier one more time…
- Write some stories in which young women aren’t just interested in dudes all the time, but have wholly stand-alone loves of language, art, math, con artistry, biology, music, sports, comic books, religion, killing demons, other girls, or food — even drugs or booze, for gods’ sake — just like actual women.
- Stop resigning smart girls to the sidekick position in kids’ films like Harry Potter, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and TV shows like Buffy, etc.
- Show that smartness isn’t just a magical quality endowed by nature, but is something that takes work.
- Show that smartness can pose a problem beyond scaring off potential dudes — when young women face idiotic, paternalistic bosses, teachers too tired to teach to the top 1% of a class, or families in which no one has ever gone to college.
- Let girls play brilliant anti-heroes along the lines of Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Mark Zuckerberg — or, hell, just weird antisocial types like Lisbeth Salander.
- Let girls play funny.
- Let young female actors fail occasionally in a part the way we just keep forgiving failures by Jonah Hill, Zach Galifianakis, Ashton Kutcher, even Robert Downey, Jr. — the list goes on — without career consequences.
- Give me a central female character besides The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo who’s a computer whiz.
- Display explicitly feminist characters onscreen, and have them explain their opinions.
Maybe then we won’t experience that odd whiplash of suddenly having our actresses arrive at the age of 35 and suddenly become smart (does this read as unattractive and/or ball-busting to male viewers, I wonder?). I, for one, am looking forward to my movies looking a bit more like reality.
10 December 2010
Helen Mirren received the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award on Wednesday at the annual Hollywood Reporter Women in Entertainment breakfast, and used the opportunity to fiddle with her underpants (“hoik my spanx,” to the utter delight of the entire room) and speak the truth about women in film. “With all respect to you many brilliant and successful women in this room, really not much has changed in the canon of Hollywood filmmaking that continues to worship at the altar of the 18- to 25-year-old male … and his penis,” she explained when talking about the struggles of older women to get parts. As I noted in an email to my sister earlier today, I really must make a mental note to be more like Helen Mirren.
One cranky final word: why is it that these events so frequently take place as the “women’s breakfast”? I’ve attended many “women’s breakfasts” at professional conferences in my academic field and every time I wonder why it’s not a “women’s cocktail party.” Truly: there’s nothing particularly glamorous about dragging oneself to a 6:30am bowl of fruit with weak coffee in one of those bleak conference hotel ballrooms. (Of course, we don’t have Helen Mirren types giving rousing speeches. Maybe that’s my true complaint.)