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?

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The fact is that if a film starts with an image that looks like this, I’m probably going to like it. Even if the film originated on the ABC Family channel (I’m trying to repress the channel’s Pat Robertson connection).

Raven-in-Revenge-of-the-Bridesmaids

This is Abigail (Raven-Symoné), who shares a New York apartment with her lifelong best friend Parker (Joanna Garcia). They’re trying to make it — Abigail as a novelist, Parker as an actor. But as she poses for her police booking photo, Abigail tells us in voiceover:

Something you should know about me: I have a little problem with authority. In second grade I told our music teacher, Mrs. Quarantine, that if she wanted us to sing like birds, she should get some freakin’ birds.

Parker: I laughed so hard I peed.

They’re not the nice kinds of bridesmaids. “We’re more like the avenging angels who’re gonna give you what you have coming to you kinds of bridesmaids,” Parker explains. You see? This, from the Pat Robertson channel? I loved it.

7b5dcc7bThat’s the thing about Revenge of the Bridesmaids — it bucks up against virtually every taboo you might expect from a wholesome network like ABC Family (and yes, it’s streaming on Netflix). Young people have sex. They drink. They move away from their provincial, oppressive small hometown in Louisiana to go to New York, where they try improbable careers like actor and writer, even if they aren’t incredibly good at those careers.

While on a short trip back home, Parker and Abigail discover that their other great friend has had the love of her life stolen out from under her by the rich Mean Girl, Caitlyn (Virginia Williams), who literally lives in one of those creepy antebellum plantation manors. Naturally they plot revenge. Naturally we root for them, even though we know somehow they’re going to wind up at the police station getting booked.

14242.imgcacheTheir idea of revenge … well, let’s just say it’s convoluted enough that it involves

  • a plotline from An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
  • Parker developing a possible love interest with the local cop (handy, that)
  • Caitlyn’s evil-bitch mother, who is a lot smarter than her daughter, and demands that Abigail go on a diet
  • a chipper-shredder

Perhaps this is the moment to warn you of a few things. If you read the title Revenge of the Bridesmaids and thought, whew, that sounds like a lot of pink buttercream frosting, you have nailed it. No new feminist ground is forged here; maybe it’s best described as apt for fans of Drew Barrymore rom-coms. You will not finish this film and feel liberated, enlightened, or particularly intelligent. All I can say is that I watched the entire thing and enjoyed practically every minute, while my partner — whose appetite for rom-coms is usually far greater than mine — walked out. Too much frosting.

600full-revenge-of-the-bridesmaids-screenshotSo yeah, I’ve taken a perhaps overly rosy view of a film that would probably only score about 3 stars out of 5. But that’s the thing, you see. How often do I get to see a film in which two women get to love each other like this? Sure, their love for each other also gets framed by their shared hatred for Evil Caitlyn, but who doesn’t have an Evil Caitlyn in her life somewhere? Is it so wrong that us feminists want to have a little pink buttercream every now and then?

That’s the thing about female buddy pictures: they represent the sugary crumbs that women get in a world in which male buddy pictures outnumber female ones about 100 to 1.

hqdefaultJust as important, this show also reveals a few broader themes common to the female buddy picture genre.

  1. They point out how often women have to survive on high-sugar content films like this in order to see women who love each other and do things together — in short, films that pass the Bechdel Test.
  2. Creators of such films KISS [keep it simple, stupid] by selecting super-girlie themes. As much as I liked the avenging-angel bridesmaids, I want to see more films without weddings in them.
  3. These films just love to drop in plenty of male love interests. After all, let’s not go too far with that whole Bechdel Test thing, you can hear them saying.
  4. Why is it always the skinny one who gets the boyfriend in the end?

MV5BMTY0ODMzODg0N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjg3MTU2Mw@@._V1._SX640_SY427_In retrospect I realize one of the things I loved about Orange is the New Black is how much it messed with genre tropes like this. Gone was the pink frosting; in its place was women’s prison. Women were just as close to one another, but some of them also leapt over the big heterosexual wall erected in fluff like Revenge of the Bridesmaids.

Yes, I’m saying that OITNB might be the best female buddy picture I’ve seen all year.

raven-symone-revenge-bridesmaids-17Lest you cease to trust my judgment about film, I think it’s best that I pair this rosy view of Revenge of the Bridesmaids with a snarky feminist view of a very similar film, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997), which I’ll discuss tomorrow. Stay tuned for a rant.

But I’m going to stick with my endorsement of Revenge. Films like this may pit good girls against bad, reward them with love interests, and shower everyone in frothy clothing and only slightly off-color language and situations. Only to have someone like me say, “Hey, that was a lot more off-color than one might expect from the Pat Robertson channel!” But they also show women going all-in to help one another. When we can say that no feminists were harmed in the viewing of this film — well, sometimes that has to be enough.

I’m having one of those weeks. I’ll spare you the details, except that I somehow managed to orchestrate a perfect storm of incoming papers from students, crazy bad news about tenure decisions for important friends, and a long delay in getting reimbursed by my university for moving expenses. 

In response, I’d like to direct my rage at Slate.com. Why does this online journal feel it necessary to play such a major role in logrolling the new book, The End of Men, by its own editor-writer Hanna Rosin? Does it feel no conflict of interest considering that Rosin’s husband is the journal’s senior editor, David Plotz? Does this journal, owned by the Washington Post, have no journalistic credentials to uphold?

Here’s how it looks for the past 6 days:

  • Friday, Sept. 14: Alyssa Rosenberg (why, Alyssa?) writes “The End of Men, Fall TV Edition.”
  • Friday, Sept. 14: Rosin’s friend Emily Bazelon writes “Why Feminists Fear The End of Men,” an angry retort to a highly critical review of the book in the NY Times Book Review by historian Katherine Homans. (That’s right: let’s blame feminists, which is Slate’s bread and butter.)
  • Tuesday, Sept. 18: Rosin posts three separate pieces entitled, “What Happens When the Wife Earns More?” drawn from the book.
  • Wednesday, Sept. 19: Rosin appears on the Slate podcast, “The Slate Culture Gabfest,” to discuss the book with colleagues who, although ordinarily quite dependably intelligent and critical, refuse to ask hard questions.
  • Wednesday, Sept. 19: June Thomas writes “The End of Men, TV Titles Edition.”

That’s right: 6 days, 7 articles. (Two of which appeared before noon today.) If only the rest of us who write books had the ability to transform one’s professional journalistic job into an in-house publicity machine.

Let’s not even mention the many other times Rosin has received logrolling attention from its staff for the same material in the past, including plugs by her husband on the podcast “The Slate Political Gabfest,” plugs for her public talks including a TED talk, plugs for her original and controversial Atlantic Magazine article that earned her the book contract, and on and on.

I can barely stand to read her arguments, which all too often take some kind of anecdote — the story of a couple in Alabama who have seen the husband’s income decline as the wife’s grows — and then extrapolates this as some kind of world-historical shift. Even worse, she cherry-picks hard evidence such as employment figures and ignores other evidence in order to hammer it into the shape of her overall argument. And worst of all, her title: The End of Men, as reviewer Homans puts it, is not a title but a sound bite utterly misleading about her argument.

After spewing all my righteous bile about Slate’s failure to act professionally with regard to one of its own editor/ writers, perhaps I should add one tiny note of relief: at least Rosin is engaging in political-cultural criticism, unlike Monday’s article about how hard it is for women with small waists and big breasts to find a bra. Seriously. Slate: the online journal equivalent of listening to teenage girls’ conversation at the mall. Kill me now.

Why do female athletes become involved in prettifying themselves for cameras?

It’s one of those questions that dogs me. The tennis players who wear too-tight dresses. The gymnasts who wear exaggerated eye shadow and sparkly dust in their hair. Sometimes those prettifications get in the way of the athlete performing. Why do they acquiesce? In what way can this help their performance?

All the more reason for me to be riveted to the soccer player Caitlin Davis Fisher, who’s now a Fulbright fellow in Brazil where she has played professionally for years. Fisher’s TED talk analyzes the body image of female athletes, and in less than 7 minutes she explains how her fellow players went from being ignored by most of the public — and thereby feeling free to perform their femininity in whatever way they pleased — to prettifying themselves once the women’s sport began to accelerate in popularity over time.

To underline their new popularity, they were offered new uniforms — that is, uniforms that weren’t 6-yr-old hand-me-downs from the men’s team — but the tops were so tight “we couldn’t move our arms to run.”

The women players begin to believe that in order to maintain the sport’s popularity — to increase the acceptance of the women’s game — they ought to change their appearance to be friendlier to public preconceptions/ prejudices (preconceito) about female attractiveness.

What’s happening is the women’s game in Brazil is being feminized, wherein only a feminine version of the game is being accepted, and only only this female player is being allowed inside, if she re-creates her identity in this manner. So although the cultural stigma is starting to fade, the exclusion, the preconceito, is reconfiguring itself and imposing itself on the only place left: the female body. The body of the female athlete is being policed. It’s being shaped, regulated, and controlled by the intensification of feminine expectations.

Davis Fisher smartly probes the ways women athletes themselves get bound up with the promotion of their sport in such intelligent, articulate ways that I’m tempted to welcome her as one of us academics — except I hope she directs her work toward a broader audience than merely an academic one.

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.

The gorgeously non-naked Queen Underwood, Olympic boxer

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?

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.

Declaring inde-fem-dence

14 April 2012

Now this is a good idea. Public declarations of “I need feminism because…” — by smart young people, including Duke students, and during an election year. Sing it, brothers and sisters.