1 February 2014
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.
If 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.
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.
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.
Frankie 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?
I’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.
I’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?
8 January 2014
I’ll admit, I clicked through … only to find that the real story (set at the National Board of Review ceremony last night, at which Meryl presented an award to Emma) is not Meryl’s “attack” on Disney, her line about Emma as a man-eating feminist, or even Emma’s line about how getting a perm for the role of P. L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks “meant no sex, of course, for months on end. And then only with animal noises accompanying it.” (Also: yes, we three are now on a first-name basis.)
The real story here is that these two women displayed something we almost never see in the media: true affection and huge respect for each other, expressed eloquently (and tartly) and underlined by the pleasure of seeing one another get roles despite the pervasive sexism of Hollywood.
So you see: the story is about two amazing women, and the headline writers still manage to get a dude in there.
If you’re going for a whoa! did Meryl Streep say something she shouldn’t have? response, well then write a headline that mentions her disdain for Disney. But that’s not the real story. In fact, Disney’s only the tip of the iceberg. Their speeches (click on the first link above for a full transcript of both, which are absolute must-reads) are great pleasures to read in part because they’re so full of the very best little zingers. When Emma thanks writer Kelly Marcel for creating a lead character “who’s so relentlessly unpleasant,” for example, she speaks of how delightful it was to torture her fellow male actors, including Tom Hanks. “He’s always looked like he needed a good smack,” she explains.
So write your stupid headlines that miss the point if you insist. But let’s not miss the lead, which is that it’s way more entertaining to listen to women when they’re singing each other’s praises, when they’re showing off their verbal talents at the height of their powers, and when they’re telling it like it is. You know what I want? To be at a dinner party with M & Em. Yes please.
1 September 2013
You sit down in the theater. The lights dim a bit while they spool up the previews, and a deep voice comes up over the black screen, as images begin to fade in. “In a world that time forgot, a new figure emerges” (or something like it), the voice intones.
99% of the time the voice is male. Until Lake Bell’s delicious romantic comedy In a World…, most viewers have never considered the the ways that this pattern that we unconsciously accept in movie theaters has ripple effects across gender behavior and expectations in our society. Nor is it just the film previews. Advertising that “counts” — i.e., airlines and cars, not laundry detergent or yogurt — pays its voiceover artists better and is virtually always a male domain.
The film pivots around the real-life fact that the “in a world…” opener cliché was retired after the death of legendary voiceover artist Don LaFontaine. In fact, the world depicted in In a World… is of the cutthroat competition for voiceover work in Don’s wake. Bell writes, directs, and stars as Carol Solomon, a wannabe voiceover artist who primarily works as a voice and accent coach and whose narcissistic father, Sam (real-life voiceover artist Fred Melamed), openly discourages her — believing he’s telling her the hard truth. “Dad, you’ve made me painfully aware of that my whole life,” she replies. “I’m not being sexist, that’s just the truth,” he pronounces.
The comedy moves at breakneck pace through a bunch of subplots including Carol’s lovelorn producer (the ever adorable Demetri Martin), who desperately wants to date her; Carol’s sister Dani (Michaela Watkins), whose marriage to Moe (Rob Corddry) is floundering on the rocks of boredom and routine; competition and old-boy networks within the voiceover industry, particularly circulating around a sleazy upcoming voiceover star named Gustav (Dan Marino); and Carol’s ongoing quest to tape the interesting voices and accents she hears in the world around her.
Indeed, the film moves so briskly and features such an array of favorite comedic actors — including Nick Offerman, Geena Davis, and Jeff Garlin among the many I’ve already listed — that you get a lot more punch per minute than most comedies. Just taking the scenes in which voiceover artists exercise their mouths and tongues, or sit in steam rooms to keep the chords moist gives you a nicely weird and textured view of the lives of these people.
You should go to this film for the comedy — it’s just a funny, tight film — but you’ll stay for the feminism. The central problem depicted in In a World… is not merely thwarted female ambition or a failed father-daughter relationship, even as both of those problems matter to Carol. Rather, it’s that female voices get stuck in a vicious circle: women never learn to sound authoritative because there are no models for sounding that way. Worse, women learn patterns of speech like uptalk (ending words or sentences on an up-note as if asking questions), silly filler (the surfeit of “likes”), and high-pitched sexy baby voices, all of which detract from what women say, and therefore demean women’s authority overall.
When Carol rolls her eyes at the sexy baby voices, I wanted to kiss her on the lips. It helps that she’s so gorgeous in a normal-woman way — no discernible makeup, no nose job, no caps on her teeth.
Some critics have accused Bell of “dissing women’s voices” by mocking what women cannot help: that their voices can sometimes be naturally high-pitched. I don’t see it. Bell criticizes nurture, not nature — the cultivated Valley Girl tics, falsely high sexy-baby pitches, and girlie in-talk that women learn strategically or unconsciously as part of socialization. She also indicates, correctly, that these patterns can be unlearned.
Nor is this one of those movies in which the woman realizes her ambition by being better and more hardworking than all the men in sight. Remember G.I. Jane (1997)? Demi Moore showed us there that women can be Navy SEALS, but the plot seemed to indicate that it could only be true if they could actually out-push-up every man in sight.
In a World…, in contrast, doesn’t say that Carol ought to succeed because she’s the best voice out there. Rather, it says something more profound: that we need more female voiceover artists because it will directly and subconsciously change how people think about women.
I admit, I’m probably more hyper-conscious about people’s voices than most, so may have found this film all the more enjoyable (those who know me will laugh at the understatement here). My mother has a beautiful voice. I’ve written academic pieces about voice. I form unnatural attachments to certain radio or podcast voices and regional accents — Slate’s Dana Stevens, Christiane Amanpour (now with CNN), NPR’s Wade Goodwyn, PBS/NPR’s Charlayne Hunter-Gault, singer Steve Earle, and many others.
And on a personal note, can I just say that simply in casting Demetri Martin as the smitten producer, In a World… has given me a gift? Because there’s something about his sweet goofiness, helmet of hair, and fantastic schnozz that says LOVE INTEREST to me.
So what’s not to like? This is basically Feminéma’s wet dream of a film: a female-directed, female-written, feminist film about voice that stars a gorgeous but not cookie-cutter actor with a real-looking nose — AND Demetri Martin is chasing her. Maybe I need to see it again. You should see it too, even if you just like breezy rom-coms. And then tell me what you think.
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?
5 July 2013
This new(ish) film about magical thieves has three posters in circulation. Note the gender math:
Doesn’t this capture our summer movie fare? Women comprise something between 1/6 to 1/3 of characters in summer blockbusters; they never win a central role; and in large ensemble casts they have to have the long hair and long bare legs of Isla Fisher to be discerned (otherwise they’ll be eliminated, like poor Mélanie Laurent).
Good thing I have such great things to say about Julie Delpy’s amazing work in Before Midnight, which I’ll save for tomorrow. It might not be a summer blockbuster — and it’s all talk, no magical thieves — but it’s a brilliant film. (And hello, that’ll make 4 days in a row of posts! It’s the summer of Feminéma!)
I know, I know … lots of radio silence from my end. Hey, it’s been a busy summer, after a busy school year.
But holy crap, the Paula Deen story has brought me out of my writing-and-watching-tennis malaise. Maybe you’ve heard about Deen’s racism, her frequent use of the N word to her employees and her poor treatment of Blacks in her several businesses. In focusing so intently on her use of the N word, however, journalists have ignored the vast bulk of the story which deals with sexual harassment, misogyny, racial and sexual violence, and over five years of ignored complaints about all of the above.
Don’t want to read the full formal court complaint? Let me offer some crucial details as I ask: What’s wrong with our culture that we can’t see this is a case of BOTH racism and sexism?
It would be easy to attack Deen’s public persona, the syrupy-accented Food Channel cook who naughtily put more butter into everything while winking at her viewers. But no matter how you feel about that persona, you have to admit she’s a canny and spectacularly successful businesswoman — a woman who has used gender to her advantage in every way. She has built a multi-million dollar empire on food and her self-portrayal as “The Lady” — her restaurant in Savannah is called The Lady and Sons, for example.
The problem is not just that behind the scenes Deen is a racist. It’s also that she maligns, under-pays, and permits sexual harrassment and violence toward her female employees. Old South, indeed.
Mainstream coverage of the case has focused on racial slurs used by Deen or implicitly condoned by her when her managers or business partner/brother used them. But Deen and her partners were equal-opportunity bigots. They referred to the litigant as “almost Jewish” because of her business acumen — in fact, Deen’s brother Bubba (sigh) called her his “little Jew girl” — while they insisted on a strict policy of paying women far less than men, and refused to promote women to positions that might pay more.
“Women are stupid because they think they can work and have babies and get everything done,” was one such (alleged) pronouncement by Karl Schumacher, the douchebag who oversaw compensation for Deen’s empire of companies. Schumacher was also responsible for taking away the litigant’s annual bonus when she got divorced, because he disapproved of divorce. (Hm. Deen herself was divorced at the age of 23. Oh well, never mind.)
Meanwhile, the court documents reveal that brother Bubba sexually harassed the litigant with sexual and misogynistic jokes, pornography, insulting comments about female employees’ weight or physical attractiveness — all the while skimming profits off the top and wallowing about in a drunken stupor.
All in all — by my eyeballing of the 33-pg court document — the specific cases of gender bias and sexual harassment total about three times the amount of evidence of racial discrimination and violence. This should not surprise us, as the litigant is a white woman and has launched the case based on her own experiences as a manager within Deen’s empire; doubtless a Black employee would have far more evidence of racial crap. Nevertheless, I’m stunned by the fact that the vast majority of misogyny is ignored by the mainstream press in order to focus most of all on the racial slurs used by Deen, Bubba Hiers, and her managers.
The racism is stunning and awful — but why can’t we see that it is of a piece with Deen’s and Hiers’ overall plantation mentality? Why can’t journalists demonstrate that this is not a case of simple racism, but a corporate culture in which white men and a single plantation “lady” reign supreme, all the while insisting on the subjection of all black and female others?
I’m sorry, but I think the American public can grasp that the Old South exemplified in the Deen corporate empire is not simply racist. Leaving the female employees’ stories out of the mainstream coverage is a crime, for it points out the kinds of experiences that millions of women encounter every day in their jobs as well.
Racism and sexism aren’t separate problems in the workplace; nor do they fall in a hierarchy in which one or the other is more important. Racism and sexism intersect in myriad ways, all of which become clear in the court documents in the Deen case. The public is smart enough to recognize that — and smart enough to know that when mainstream media coverage ignores 3/4 of the damning evidence against the Deen empire, it represents an implicit message: “Ladies, your workplace complaints are not important.”
It may be that Deen getting fired from the Food Channel and losing her corporate sponsors results entirely from those accounts of her using the N word to her employees. That would be too bad. I venture to guess that a huge percentage of her support comes from women — women who see her story of a young divorcée building success in a classically American way (bootstraps, gumption, self-made woman) as inspiring and worthy of support. That‘s the public that needs to hear how women of all races were treated behind the scenes. Because Deen’s claim to be “The Lady” has a long history in the United States — a history rooted more in the Plantation Mistress than the Self-Made Man. We need to know this.
After agonizing a while about yesterday’s angry/ desperate post on a guerrilla response to rape culture, I opened up a new novel last night.
After reading the first five pages of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, I want to kiss her on the lips. Here’s how it begins on p. 1:
How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.
I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents’ shit and my brother’s shit, and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over forty fucking years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids and I held my mother’s hand when she died, after four years of holding her hand while she was dying, and I speak to my father ever day on the telephone –every day, mind you, and what kind of weather do you have on your side of the river, because here it’s pretty gray and a bit muggy too? It was supposed to say “Great Artist” on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say “such a good teacher/ daughter/ friend” instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.
Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We’re all furies, except the ones who are too damned foolish.
And with that, I’m now 5 pages in and feel as if I have a new best friend who’s also a Betty Friedan version of those visionary doomsayers of days of old, who looks a little disheveled perhaps but then lapses into otherworldly trances like Sybill Trelawney in Harry Potter and scares the shit out of you. Just wait till you read (on pp. 4-5) what she means by The Woman Upstairs (and those of us whose first thought was Madwoman in the Attic are on the right track).
This is going to be scary and awesome, like having to run through a house on fire. I feel like I’m being tugged by the hand by my new unfiltered visionary friend, and I might have to dedicate the afternoon to her.