The TV series Louie (2010-present) does a better job of showing us the uncomfortable, complicated aspects of dating (that amazing episode in which he sort of falls for the guy in Miami!) than almost anything else I’ve seen. But no matter Louis CK’s shlubbyness, he dates women who look like Parker Posey:
So consider me interested in this episode, “So Did the Fat Lady,” when a funny fat woman flirts with him and asks him out, and Louis turns her down. Nota bene: he spent the first part of the episode with a buddy on a “bang-bang” — that is, they ate a full meal together at one restaurant, then departed to another restaurant for another full meal. It is the nadir of self-destructiveness by a couple of fat guys; they hardly speak as they eat themselves stupid during this bang-bang; they’re not doing it for “fun.”
Yet when Louis and Vanessa (Sarah Baker) walk along the riverfront and he offers her a half-hearted, “You’re not fat …”, she lights into him.
“On behalf of all the fat girls, I’m making you represent all the guys,” Vanessa says. “Why do you hate us so much?” And for an amazing seven minutes, she lets him have it. You should watch the full episode for the whole setup, but the scene is available here.
Louie loves to make its viewers uncomfortable; the whole series puts its protagonist in the middle of the strangest, most cringe-making scenes it can cook up. This one is no exception. Vanessa doesn’t let up, phrasing her complaints in a way that make us confrontation-averse types watch our sympathies ricochet between her and Louie. She lets him have it, but not without forcing you to see her perspective. It’s a genius rant.
One could complain (and they have) that the show’s creator, Louis CK, wrote the whole thing. But I’m not sure that line of attack is worthwhile. In fact, I have an abiding fascination with other moments in history when male writers recount amazing moments when they found themselves absolutely bawled out by a woman. One of my favorites is Captain John Smith’s account of meeting Pocahontas in London in 1617 and having her rip him a new one for failing to observe the rules of kinship cemented during their time in Virginia. Smith recounts her speech in full, which ends condemning the English for their propensity to lie.
At first she seems like she’s going to be just another part of the kitschy Minnesota social landscape as created by the writers of Fargo — a series that uses the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film as a jumping-off point (and visual touchstone) for a different story, which they assert is true. The show tricks you: at first, the character of Molly Solverson seems neither as central nor as astute a detective as she becomes by episode 2 or 3. But by that time, you’ve sort of fallen in love with her.
Tolman is heavier than most TV actresses — by which, god knows, she probably wears a women’s size 10 (gasp!) — and prone to opening her gorgeous blue eyes just about as wide as they’ll go. She alternates observing a scene with an open mouth, and pursing that mouth in thought and perhaps a little judgment. All of which means that as you start to fall in love with her, her modesty, and her obsessive, perceptive views of the people and crimes around her, you realize that Tolman is not playing this for laughs even as she is trained as a comedian. Rather, we enter into the series via those beautiful eyes and connect to it through her combination of shyness, naïveté, and determination. She brings a soft persuasion to all her scenes, which is hard to do in a room full of Big Actors. The show is getting attention for all its male stars — Billy Bob Thornton as the riveting, mercurial hit man (really: he’s wonderful here); Martin Freeman hamming it up with an implausible Minnesota accent as the hapless Lester Nygaard; the terrific Bob Odenkirk as the dense new chief of police; Colin Hanks as a singularly unlucky Duluth police officer; and Adam Goldberg as a competing hit man who memorably delivers half his lines in American Sign Language.
What I’m saying is that our attention is — and should be — directed at Tolman, who is the real reason why the series works. Freeman’s acting is starting to grow on me, even though I still think he overacts his way through every scene; I don’t understand why Colin Hanks gets so many great roles (well, maybe I do understand); and I feel slightly peeved at the show’s insistence on getting so many yuks from Minnesota lingo and way too many characters with low IQs. But I’ll keep watching for Allison Tolman alone. She is a major discovery, and a major talent. Damn.
I loved Miss Congeniality even with the secretly awful “I can be a feminist and love beauty pageants!” storyline and the makeover in which the shlubby FBI agent turns into a stone-cold babe. Chalk it up to the appeal of Sandra Bullock, madcap writing, and the supporting cast (Michael Caine, Benjamin Bratt, and Candice Bergen as the fussy cum psychotic pageant-show director). But after reading Susan Douglas’ Enlightened Feminism it got harder to watch, as it told women, “It’s okay not to be a feminist! It’s okay to want to be pretty and have girlfriends instead! Once you get rid of your frizzy hair and scary eyebrows, that superhot guy will like you!”
The Heat may not be perfect, but it dumps everything that’s objectionable about that earlier film and offers something slyly feminist while still feeling unthreatening.
Taking into account that this film will win no prizes, I kind of loved it — and even better, it feels like the kind of movie I’ll keep enjoying when it makes its inevitable appearance on basic cable in 9 months or so. The writing is tight and smart and (I think) will wear well with age. Bullock plays an older, more effective, un-made-over version of her Miss Congeniality character, except she doesn’t actually seem lonely. And Melissa McCarthy is just so good to watch — she shows that she can deliver a sly line as well as she can do physical humor. Best of all, unlike Bridesmaids, this film shows that McCarthy’s physical humor doesn’t have to descend to fat jokes. Oh, excuse me — I meant enlightened fat jokes.
The tepid reviews meant that it took me a long time to see The Heat, directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and written by Katie Dippold (Parks and Recreation) — so long that I was surprised to see it still in theaters after 5 weeks here, considering how quickly films get yanked these days. Yet my theater had lots of people in it, and we all laughed throughout — even the 80-something couple behind me, who were unperturbed by the language, etc.
Let me repeat: it’s not perfect. The comedy is broad and often crude. The movie gets put on hold at the end of the 2nd act while the two leads bond by getting drunk in a bar together (right: never seen that one before). I loved the writing, but you can tell it was written for the small screen, even if it comes from a writer on one of teevee’s best shows. The Heat sometimes feels like the female comedy film is still in its awkward tween phase, with occasional disconnects between writing, acting, plot, and tropes.
But to focus on its awkward tween-ness is to miss what’s really enjoyable about this film — and that has to do with how the story of a partnership between two 40-something women is different than between men.
Some of the snarkiest comments about the film come from critics who overstate its feminist elements. “Nothing quite says female empowerment like violating the civil rights of criminal suspects, am I right?” asks Andrew O’Hehir of Salon in a review that makes me want to use a blunt instrument to take some air out of his self-inflated balloon. But then, he thought the derivative male buddy movie Two Guns was completely “enjoyable trash,” so perhaps pity is the more appropriate response.
Anyway. Is The Heat overtly feminist? No, not really, aside from a few comments about how hard it is to be a woman in law enforcement. Rather, it’s a secret, sly feminism that emerges in the way the story refuses to play by the old rules.
First is the way the film up-ends virtually every trope about female cops, as Ashley Fetters details in The Atlantic. Movies have taught us that women are the newest and least experienced cops on the force; that they hunt serial killers from a distance or in ways that don’t require mano-a-mano exchange with perps; that they don’t use violence; and that they just wanna be loved. In each respect, The Heat acts as if those assumptions never existed.
Bullock’s and McCarthy’s characters don’t care how they look. Not only are they not looking for love, they seem to take for granted the fact that men are interested in them (and they are): McCarthy has a whole string of lovelorn former hookups who haunt the bars of Boston, hoping to run into her.
Best of all, this film was not about The Pretty One and The Fat One. Bullock’s character gets a lot of shit for her mannish looks and heavy jawline — in fact, I wonder whether I’ll ever be able to look at her again without thinking of the whipsaw barrage of questions thrown at her by McCarthy’s obnoxious Boston family. There are no fat jokes. They’re both smart and capable and competitive and capable of violence and somewhat isolated. The way they find friendship with one another is sweet without being cloying.
I also noticed the actorly generosity between the two women. There’s no doubt that McCarthy gets the better lines, but that’s in keeping with the way that Bullock’s straight-laced character has to play catch-up. “That’s a misrepresentation of my vagina,” she says lamely (and very funnily) after one string of verbal abuse. I’ve never seen either woman share the limelight so effectively.
So yeah, the movie is occasionally crude and won’t pass any authenticity tests with police-show aficionados. I’m mostly uninterested in those complaints. I want to see The Heat 2, with a more experienced Dippold doing the writing and these two growing into their characters — simply because for the female comedy film to flower as a beautiful teenager, we need plenty of funny, watchable, and well-written films to pave the way. Because in the meantime, awkward tweens can still make for damn good viewing. And what else do you want to do on a Saturday afternoon other than guffaw at a lot of goof, with women (for once) doing the goofing?
19 July 2013
Just received my annual royalty check: paltry, as expected. Thus I’m happy to announce that I’ve turned away from academic writing altogether, and have been studying the NY Times Book Review bestsellers lists for advice on future writing. Clearly the time has come to write diet books. Here are a few titles you can expect from me in the near future:
Slim Down by Street Address. A diet regimen tailored for you, based on the last two digits of your house number. Did you know that if your street address ends in 19, you should avoid corn and corn products? If your last two numbers are 83, you need to eat ketchup every day. That’s just the beginning!
The Zombie Diet. Think about it: zombies do nothing but eat, yet never seem to gain weight. Read on to learn this diet trick.
The “Breaking Bad” Binge-Watcher’s Cookbook. A series of lightning-fast, microwaveable recipes for foods utilizing only ingredients already found in your cupboard. The dieting part sets in when you fail to eat anything because the show makes you feel so existentially uncomfortable. Might also be used for binge-watching Battlestar Galactica but the weight loss promises are less foolproof.
All of this planning makes me pretty excited for next year’s royalty check. Maybe then it’ll amount to a little more than knowing I’ll be able to pay next month’s cable bill.
16 July 2013
We all know how it goes when a friend compliments you and you deflect the compliment back:
Thanks, Servetus, for the heads-up about this awesome clip!
I haven’t watched Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer — have you? do you like it? This hits that great sweet spot of being both brutally funny and eerily accurate. Maybe I need to look into it….
When I was in college I briefly shared a house with a bunch of swimmers who walked around naked, or mostly naked, most of the time. Far from being exhibitionists, they were simply used to being un-self-consciously naked around both men and women. At first I found the sight of their hard bodies disconcerting, but within a few days I joined in.
Even for me, a 19-yr-old used to walking around naked in high school sports-teams locker rooms, that transition in thinking about naked bodies in mixed-sex settings blew my mind, and changed me. So why do I feel so ambivalent about US soccer star Abby Wambach appearing in ESPN The Magazine‘s Body Issue, which features artistic naked shots of male and female Olympians?
My sister sent me this great video in which Wambach talks about her decision to do so in the same matter-of-fact terms that my college swimmer roommates would have. “I’m very comfortable with my body anyway,” she explains. “Most importantly, I want the shot to represent what we all are trying to capture here, and that’s just powerful, strong, athletic …. You don’t have to have the most cut up body to be a pro athlete. Bodies come in all different shapes. Bodies come in all different sizes. And my body is very different than most females’.” She continues to speak in feminist terms about beauty and empowerment — all of which I’m in 100% agreement.
Except. Aside from Paralympian rower Oksana Masters, whose lower legs were amputated when she was a child, the bodies represented in the magazine don’t represent different shapes and sizes. I mean, Abby, didn’t it occur to you that no matter how you feel about the feminist and empowering aspects of such a photo spread, the magazine is constructed by media moguls who only care about a very slightly expanded spectrum of one kind of body — which is lithe, gorgeous, and glossy-haired?
Where is Olympic weightlifter Holley Mangold? (who’s gorgeous and glossy-haired, BTW?)
Where’s Olympic marathoner Desiree Davila, who’s too busy running the pants off the rest of us to get all prettified and fake-suntanned for an ESPN photo shoot?
Where is Olympic shot put star Tia Brooks? Or the female boxers in the upper weight classes, whose upper-body strength might not be as impressive as Tia’s or Holley’s but still places them outside most magazine readers’ comfort zones when it comes to female beauty?
Lord knows I’m not ambivalent about Abby, or anything about the idea of looking at her naked. When she speaks so eloquently about her own physical difference and about the fact that she weighs 175 pounds, I believe she really does have the potential to change hearts and minds when it comes to what is “beautiful.”
But Abby, as much as my offer of marriage still stands, I’m so disappointed that you’re not more savvy about how your own views of your body don’t mitigate the ways that ESPN The Magazine uses your nakedness as a cheap gambit to sell issues (and ad time for the Olympics, which are largely being shown on the cable channel). The only differences between this issue and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is a) there are no swimsuits, and b) the magazine shows pictures of naked men, too.
In short, this is really just a more gender-equitable, yet still narrow view of what our society deems attractive.
To repeat Abby’s words: “You don’t have to have the most cut up body to be a pro athlete. Bodies come in all different shapes. Bodies come in all different sizes.” Amen to that. But let’s not pretend that ESPN The Magazine has any interest in that mantra, nor that flanking Abby’s long, masculine muscularity with the bodies of long-haired surfer girls or blonde golfers will alter their readers’ willingness to express disgust with women who step outside the norms.
Tell me, readers, am I being too cynical about this issue? Is there a radical potential to The Body Issue that I’m missing? Or (gasp: is it possible?) am I not being cynical enough?
30 December 2011
Ever since hearing that the 1971 documentary Growing Up Female (dir. Jim Klein and Julia Reichert) was selected for the National Film Registry, I’ve been trying to find a copy. (The closest I’ve come is this fabulous 5-min. clip, which you should watch too and beware of too easily thinking, “We’ve come a long way, baby!”).
Here’s my pitch to documentarians: we need an updated version. You know who else wants an updated version? Riley, our future president:
Riley’s right to start in toy stores, just the way the 1971 film starts in a day care. Here are some other hot spots I hope the documentarians will visit:
- “breast-araunts” like Twin Peaks and Hooters
- girls’ sports: the good (confidence, strength, great role models) and the bad (the pressure to appear straight straight straight; the dismal sports opportunities for women beyond college)
- abortion politics: talk to a young woman who’s going to give birth to her rapist’s baby because of the law or access issues (or, frankly, because of brainwashing)
- girls who come out as gay or trans (or, alternately, choose not to come out)
- religious and church messages to girls about gender roles and sex
- girls’ clothing choices and body pressures to be both whisper-thin AND have a hot badunkadonk
- children’s TV programming (talk to Geena Davis about this)
- the pressure to get into college
- messages about gender and sex in pop music
- the assholes at Lego who claim that “months of anthropological testing” tell them that girls want pastel-colored Legos despite years of girls wanting regular Legos
- college sororities and college feminist organizations (and college anti-racist or ethnic organizations, which can have retrograde gender or sexual dynamics)
- mother-daughter relationships; domestic chores meted out to daughters and sons
- the effect on girls of presidential candidates who want to outlaw The Pill in their eagerness to “protect life” (that is, everyone running for the GOP nomination) and Pres. Obama, whose commitment to women’s reproductive health seems, well, changeable
- teenagers growing up in quiverfull or fundamentalist Mormon environments
PLEASE. Not just because it could be an amazing document for the future. For all of us feminists who need to see what’s going on now. For everyone who forgets their own little protected bubble of a world is not a reflection of the whole.