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?
24 November 2012
I watched the BBC’s recent 3-hour version of Great Expectations (2011) last night and was left with one thought: why hasn’t anyone told Estella’s story? She’s waaayyyy more interesting than Pip.
Nota bene: while this version is fine — and Gillian Anderson does indeed make an eery Miss Havisham — who can take seriously the notion that this Pip (Douglas Booth) hasn’t been kidnapped for use as a male prostitute?
Pip is a nice kid, to be sure, but he’s also self-pitying, predictable, and somewhat delusional re: Estella. In contrast, Estella is riveting. Adopted as a tiny child by Miss Havisham, the only life she has ever known has been within the weird world of Satis House, where her benefactress teaches her to destroy the hearts of men.
The “great expectations” people have for Pip consist of the notion that he might become something other than a blacksmith. Yawn. Whereas Miss Havisham expects Estella to enact revenge on men. Now that’s interesting.
The BBC’s most recent Estella (Vanessa Kirby, above) is very beautiful and conflicted indeed, but I liked the child version (Izzy Meikle-Small, left) even better — she’s got a set to her jaw and a cock to her eyebrow that indicate a relish for the lessons she receives from her adopted mother. It appears quite realistic that a 12 yr-old girl would enact such a persona con gusto, particularly if she has allowed herself to believe that she is beautiful and that there is no reality outside Satis House.
But she doesn’t, does she?
And thus begins their complicated relationship.
Seen from Pip’s point of view, Satis House and its awful, decades-old decaying wedding decorations constitute a bizarre, topsy-turvy world, and he mixes his growing love for Estella with his fascination with this world of books and wealth and objects … as well as with his interest in saving her from its corruptions. Seen purely through his eyes, Estella has been led astray by Miss Havisham’s madness but retains an essential goodness in her soul.
Or so he believes. But then, these are the beliefs of an essentially boring person. What might it look like through her eyes?
Estella is both better educated and smarter than Pip is, and has a strong sense of irony. When he asks about the house’s odd name, she explains that it means enough. “It meant, when it was given, that whoever had this house, could want nothing else. They must have been easily satisfied in those days, I should think,” she adds with a lovely bit of acidic implied commentary on how things have changed since it was named. Pip just stands there with his mouth open.
How might the story look if she were fleshed out, if we explored that odd life she lives inside Miss Havisham’s mausoleum? Rather than merely see her through Pip’s eyes — Pip, who loves her stupidly and believes she is truly good inside that heartless exterior (yawn, again) — how might she describe her own life?
Such a tale could say a very great deal about the prisons inhabited by 19th-century women, in which their sole purpose as young, lovely things is to prepare themselves for marriage. Miss Havisham has sought to undermine this only insofar as she wants Estella to make herself as cold as ice, impervious to love and capable of destroying the hearts of that sex who ruined her all those years earlier.
Of course, we know Estella has a mind of her own. When Pip punches the pompous little Herbert Pocket in the eye, she lets him kiss her. She’s smart enough to know that Miss Havisham is not all wrong. What does love gain a woman? The deployment of her heart is the only way she might have a degree of power in society. It should not be seen as merely a “natural” sign of woman’s weakness.
And yet, what does her lovelessness get her? She marries the cruel Drummle — for what? He has no heart, either, so in exchange for her coldness she gets abused. All those years of building a heart of ice, simply to learn that it has achieved nothing. The book tells us virtually nothing about their marriage, which is precisely why we need a retelling of this tale.
Such a tale would also have something to say about relationships between mothers and daughters. Later in life, when Estella returns from gaining her European education, Miss Havisham learns that she has done far too good a job with her adopted daughter, who lacks love so utterly that she can barely stand to be in her mother’s presence. We are supposed to receive this news as yet more irony for the bitter old woman — but how different might that scene appear if we knew that Estella was exacting revenge on Miss Havisham even more than on the entire male sex?
Even better, it would illuminate that divide between a woman’s exterior appearance — and all the baggage piled on top of the question of a woman’s beauty — and her inner life, a life and intellect she learns to conceal from view.
And finally there’s the rich vein of subject matter concerning Estella’s mysterious parentage. Considering Dickens’ near-obsession with lineage and family, Estella’s story could be far more interesting if one of her major goals in life is to find her true parents and the story of her adoption, rather than have them hidden from her forever.
I’m telling you, there’s meat on these here bones. Estella beats out every other character in the book for great character potential; in any reasonable person’s retelling, Pip would be reduced to a secondary or tertiary character. C’mon, creative friends: who’s going to take on this job of giving us The Girl of Satis House?
24 February 2012
Richmond, VA: The Virginia personhood bill has been tabled by the state senate. Don’t worry, folks! It’s only been tabled until next year. Because the real con game here isn’t about personhood or abortion, it’s shaming women! (BTW: the unnecessary ultrasound bill is ready for the VA governor’s signature, even though it’s no longer a trans-vaginal probe ultrasound!)
Ever disliked a woman? A female boss, an ex-girlfriend, Nancy Pelosi, that mean girl in high school, that woman who got into a college that rejected you? Weeellll. This game shames all women, and that’s gotta be good for all of us!
This game is a lot like chess, except with blunt instruments. This is the long con, the game that stretches out for years. This game is not for the faint of heart.
Step #1 has already been accomplished: Making the abortion issue solely about women’s shame. When was the last time you saw a woman in one of those t-shirts that says, “I had an abortion”? Ha! All that screaming outside of women’s health clinics = success!
Step #2: Shift those glasses you’re wearing to black and white. Don’t be fooled by talk of “incest exceptions,” “women’s health,” “rape,” or “Republicans favor small government.” There is right and there is wrong, folks! Never the twain shall meet! And what is right is that men get to have patriarchal control over everything, and that women be shamed into silence and sexual submission.
Step #3: There is no hyperbole too outrageous. Propose a bill that requires all women seeking birth control to undergo religious counselling. A bill that requires female circumcision of all girls starting at the age of 10. Nothing is too extreme if you’re draped in the righteousness of Christianity!
Addendum to Step #3: Don’t worry if you lose these small battles — that’s not the point! The point is that we win the war, and the war is about shaming women and requiring female silence! In fact, the more hyperbolic the bill, the more we make all women think, “Hang on, am I supposed to be ashamed that I need birth control pills to manage my fibroid condition?”
Step #4: Shame all women in the public sphere who might offer up a counter-argument to female shame and silence. Let’s take the story of Quanitta “Queen” Underwood, the female boxer who’s likely to be the US’s best Olympic hope for the lightweight belt. Just recently she revealed something she had never told her closest friends: that between the ages of 10 and 13, Queen’s father raped her and her older sister on a regular basis. At first, he raped her older sister while Queen lay next to her in bed, pretending to be asleep. Eventually they told their (absent) mother, and he was imprisoned. This kind of coming-through-slaughter story is exactly what we need to squelch!
Solution: Propose that female boxers be forced to wear skirts when they compete. See how wearing a skirt reminds women athletes that the only important thing about their skill is their lady-business and/or how pretty they are? Get everyone distracted by the skirts question such that they ignore the Queen’s tale of survival — it doesn’t matter that you lose this campaign, because we’ll just propose skirts again for the next sport!
Our favorite part of this proposal: the perversion of the notion of choice. The outcome of this battle is that now, female boxers get to “choose” between shorts or a skirt.
And that leads to our last Step, #5: Rewrite the notion of choice. Bombard the airwaves with new definitions of the “right to choose” in a campaign so intense that everyone forgets that this terminology once had anything to do with abortion.
Example: Michelle Bachmann calls herself a feminist and speaks of the right to choose to raise 23 foster children. See how that muddies the water about choice, narrowing it down to the issue of how to be a mother?
Example: Sarah Palin calls herself a feminist and speaks of the right to choose between using a vacuum cleaner or crawling around the house on one’s hands and knees with a sponge and a bucket of water. You gotta leave room open for the fundamentalists who decry vacuum cleaners, after all.
Example: Lawmakers decide to end what some feminists call “rape culture” by urging Americans to “choose femininity, not rape.” This will mean nothing aside from shutting up those ugly women who want to break the silence. “Why do you choose rape?” we can ask in response. “Why talk about such nasty things as infections, diseases, humiliation, injury? Why not choose femininity?”
The shame game is one we will win, provided we all commit to it for the long haul. Down side: your daughters will grow up stupid, hunchbacked, and will cringe annoyingly whenever they’re spoken to. Up side: you won’t have to pay for college! and when you get bored with your alternately pregnant/breast-feeding wife, you can sleep with whomever you like, free of consequences.
Men = winners!
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.
19 May 2010
I really hoped this one would go away, but of course Lisa Belkin had to join in with a New York Times Magazine piece this week, which in turn seemed to cue Maureen Dowd, who was already all over the gay question. Sometimes it just makes my head hurt really bad.
If we pay attention to the news, there’s lots of things wrong with Elena Kagan, and the media is looking for more every day. So imagine their delight when some journalists started suggesting it’s her lack of children. It’s the perfect argument, for it seems to have no clear partisan, anti-Semitic, or homophobic bent (like most of the others), AND we get to trash her life choices! Anti-feminism activated!
It started with Peter Beinart at the Daily Beast explaining there are two reasons we should appoint women to the Supreme Court (oh, the desire to call this mansplaining): 1) “female justices, on average, will be more sensitive to the problems women face” and possibly those faced by other disadvantaged groups; and 2) they can help alleviate gender bias by being role models. Is that it? I wonder why we need so darn many if those are the only reasons.
His main point was to note that a majority of the women appointed to cabinet positions during the last three presidential administrations were childless; only six of the sixteen women in those positions have had children. If Kagan is appointed, only two of the four female Supreme Court justices in American history will have been mothers — and that’s just not fair.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with appointing childless women (or men, for that matter) to high office. But our government is actually doing a pretty good job of providing role models for the 20 percent of American women who don’t want kids. Where it’s failing is in providing role models for the 80 percent that do.
If we want to talk about “failing,” maybe it would help if we remember that of the 111 justices in US history, 106 have been white men, 2 African American, 2 white women, and 1 Latina. Maybe it would help if we had more than 4 women in Obama’s 15-person cabinet. Maybe it would help if people like Beinart, Belkin, and others remembered that simply having more women in positions of power is inspiring to women; not everyone asks first & foremost whether a woman is a mother. A quick note: only 4 of the Supreme Court justices in American history were bachelors, and I can’t find any information on how many were fathers. But we do know that all of the men currently sitting on the Court are fathers. (And look how that’s worked out, sensitivity-wise. Apparently women have special feeling powers!) To complain that Kagan isn’t a mother is to draw attention away from the fact that even now, the Supreme Court really looks nothing like the rest of America. Yes, more women on the Court is a small step in the right direction for women; but let’s not be reductionist about the complicated issues presidents weigh as they make their choices. Obama may have wanted to find a woman this time, but that probably wasn’t the only thing on his mind.
Beinart argues that Obama should have chosen mom Diane Wood instead, and although he probably wouldn’t go as far as Hilary Shenfeld at iVillage that Wood would have brought “some unique ‘mom-spertise’ to the Supreme Court,” he probably should have guessed that this was whither his argument was tending:
With the addition of Wood, a jurist with a mama bear lurking inside, the Supreme Court would have a member who’s lived through the toughest job on earth and came out better for it. She’s wiped away dirt and tears, helped with homework and heartache, made as many decisions as dinners, really listened and really heard. She’s had years of experience settling squabbles and determining who’s right and who’s wrong. She would have come to the job not only with legal smarts, but also the real-world wisdom picked up from the day-in, day-out joys, frustrations and plain hard work of being a mother and raising a family.
Um, what are we talking about again? Oh yeah, whether we should appoint mothers to the court because then the Court will look more like America and inspire women to be mothers and jurists. Lisa Belkin in the New York Times quotes Shenfeld, but avoids the maudlin in order to reiterate Beinart’s argument: we’re sending the wrong message to women by appointing so many childless women to positions of high power. Women learn from these choices that bearing children is risky for career-minded women:
Expectation brings obligation, and Sotomayór and Kagan were of the generation facing new tradeoffs. Pursue the career and sacrifice the family. Have the family and ratchet back the career. True, the stigma of not marrying or having children waned for this younger generation, making it more of a deliberate choice for some. But still, roads had to be chosen. There would be no taking five years off to stay home with your children if you hoped for a seat on the Supreme Court.
That’s just how we childless women operate, you see. We sit down when we’re 10 years old and “choose” to study and work so hard that we will have no lives, ever, because we’re plotting out our paths to seats on the Supreme Court; the people we’ve got to knock out of our way are those super-feeling mommies. When Belkin lays out these “new tradeoffs,” she makes enormous assumptions not just about Sotomayór’s and Kagan’s “choices” (not everyone “chooses” to be childless, stay unmarried, or get divorced, as in Sotomayór’s case), but also about what most Americans admire about female leaders. (And excuse me, but who exactly gets to choose to take “five years off to stay home with your children,” anyway?) This, of course, led to Maureen Dowd’s piece today on the difference between being “single” and “unmarried.”
But my real gripe here is the constant parsing the lives of exceptional women for details that are irrelevant to their nomination — thereby permitting, yet again, women to be treated differently than male candidates for the same job. She’s the wrong kind of woman, these comments tell us. Some women make the wrong kinds of choices, they imply; we should feel sorry for her because she’s unmarried and childless. And it allows everyone to get distracted by the illusion that this is a zero-sum game in which women are fighting it out amongst themselves.
13 May 2010
We all know someone like her. Delphine (Marie Rivière) always seems vaguely dissatisfied, depressed, adrift. She’s so pretty and romantic, yet she can turn something like the question of where to go for summer vacation into a drama. Her friends harangue her, frustrated by her languid helplessness. She bursts into tears a little too frequently — and then there’s the magical thinking. She believes that the universe sends her portents via the color green (it is her “color for the year”). She’s the protagonist of “Summer” (or “Le Rayon Vert,” 1986, one of director Eric Rohmer’s talky “Comedies and Proverbs” films), but she’s hard to like. Is she merely an object of fun, or is Rohmer using her to advance a larger statement?
If this were a 2010 film Delphine would see a life coach, pop SSRIs, and weep upon reading books like Lori Gottlieb’s that advises women to settle for Mr. Good Enough. But the problem would still be there, and it would still have no name. She’s lonely and seems to realize she’s nearly a cliché; yet she’s not willing to adopt the bright-sidedness her friends insist will resolve her malaise. “I don’t know,” she offers weakly to a friend. “I’m not very operational in life, I’m not functional.”
Delphine’s general problems are magnified when her best friend bails out on their summer vacation plans. She doesn’t want to travel alone, but neither does she want to travel to Ireland (not warm enough) with her sister’s family (it will only accentuate Delphine’s loneliness). She spends a few days with a group of acquaintances in Cherbourg, but doesn’t fit in and finds herself insinuating that she might still be dating her long-gone boyfriend. It gets worse when she feels the need to defend her vegetarianism to a largely unsympathetic group: it’s as if she’s defending her whole life, not simply her food politics. Isn’t picking a lettuce the same as killing an animal, asks one of the other guests? “I don’t see it that way,” she says uncertainly, trying to convince them that her food choices exemplify her capacity for feeling, caring. She knows she’s not being logically consistent, but she won’t let the conversation move on — and as everyone else digs into their pork chops, she bumbles on. “To me, a lettuce … a lettuce is a friend, it’s lighter … vegetables are airier. I don’t know….”
She accepts the offer of an apartment in the Alps, but after going on a single hike simply grabs her bags and returns to Paris. Finally she makes a half-hearted trip to Biarritz where it’s hot and crowded — but before she bails out on that too, she meets another woman on her own: a gregarious Swede named Lena who appears to be a godsend, at least at first.
Lena loves traveling alone and flirting with men. She’s openminded and optimistic, a go-getter. “A guy won’t come to you,” she says matter-of-factly, before revealing her thrust-and-parry philosophy of flirtation:
Lena: “You mustn’t reveal your own feelings right away. …It’s like a card game: you can’t reveal what’s in your hand right away.”
Delphine, looking downcast: “My hand is empty.”
Lena: “You must have something!”
Delphine, beginning to cry: “I don’t have anything.”
Lena: “Delphine! It’s really not sad!” …
Delphine, distraught: “If I had something to show, people would soon see it, that’s all!”
Delphine doesn’t play games, yet she yearns for magical transformation like that described in Jules Verne’s Le Rayon Vert: the notion that if one is lucky enough to see the rare meteorological phenomenon called the “green flash” — a ray of green light that appears at the final moment before the sun sets completely on the horizon — one will experience a full understanding of one’s own feelings, and perhaps intuit the feelings of others as well. Her yearning for such heightened self-knowledge is so strong that when she meets a sweet man in the train station and uncharacteristically agrees to spends a late afternoon with him, she finds herself placing all her hopes — for herself, for him — on the appearance of the green flash at sunset.
Now, I harbor a true hatred for the hapless spinster trope — so you must believe me when I say I watched much of “Summer” moving between recognizing and recoiling at Delphine’s most annoying traits and feeling a surprising fascination with her determination to be the heroine of her own life. This film is certainly more comedy than proverb — we are intended to laugh at her follies, but this is no broad farce nor an example of winking misygyny. The film demands that we begin to experience her crazy hopes — such that when she finds a green playing card on the beach and flips it over to find the jack of hearts, we feel that perhaps that boy in the train station will prove to be more than just Mr. Good Enough.
It’s now been more than sixty years since the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe (now out in a brilliant new translation), yet women are still being told they ought to feel things in the same way men do, and that they need to make themselves happy. I think as much as “Summer” wants us to laugh at Delphine, it also wants us to inhabit her desire for the green flash, the self-understanding that won’t come if she acquiesces to the advice her friends offer. As we wait for the sun to set and tears of hope and dread run down Delphine’s face (again), we are stopped short by something beyond comedy or cliché. Lolly Willowes, anyone?