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.
As I wrote about Nine to Five a couple of days ago I kept thinking about all the categories within the genre of female buddy movies — the road movie, the wedding/bridesmaid comedy, etc. — but this one doesn’t fit into any category, except camp. It’s a retelling of Some Like It Hot (1958), except in this case Connie (Nia Vardalos) and Carla (Toni Collette) are already women, so when they go on the lam to escape the bad guys, they disguise themselves as drag queens.
Maybe I wouldn’t have liked Connie and Carla so much if I hadn’t been searching for female buddy comedies amongst such gems as Britney Spears’ Crossroads (rating = 3.1 on IMDB), Bratz: The Movie (2.4 on IMDB), or The House Bunny, in which a Playboy bunny finds a place to live in a sorority house (kill me now). Maybe. Still: I loved it.
To start, they throw themselves into their dinner theater act at the Chicago airport with ridiculous energy, no matter their audiences’ lack of interest. They ricochet through their medley of wildly incongruous show tunes and on-stage costume changes, from “Oklahoma!” to “Jesus Christ Superstar” to “Papa Can You Hear Me?” (from Yentl) to “Memories” (from Cats), all with the self-seriousness of two women who have had the same dream since they were kids.
Just because they witnessed a murder doesn’t mean they have any intention of finding a new dream.
Racing away from the bad guys, knowing that they’ll be hunted down, the two performers know one thing: “We gotta go some place where we can just blend in. Somewhere where they’d never look for us, because there’s no theater, no musical theater, no dinner theater, no culture at all.” They pause, and Carla comes up with the solution: “Los Angeles!”
It’s no surprise, then, that when they audition at the Handlebar in full drag — and actually sing their own songs rather than lip-sync like all the other contestants (Collette and Vardalos have great voices, and harmonize gorgeously and loudly together) — they’re embraced by the other queens as having real talent. It doesn’t hurt that both women look like queens without hamming it up, especially Collette, whose crazily big eyes and mouth are so perfectly suited for drag makeup that she actually scales back the broadness of her comedy because to be less subtle would go over the top. Soon they’ve created a popular new show they call “It’s A Drag (Pun Intended!)” which I would march out to see this minute.
I figure that a tale as silly as this one needs to skirt a couple of rocks and hard places: first, it needs to avoid appearing to simply use drag culture for cheap laughs; and second, it needs to avoid using drag culture as an opportunity for teaching a Very Special Lesson About Acceptance. It achieves the first better than the second, because a major subplot reveals that their beloved upstairs neighbor Peaches (Stephen Spinella) broke all ties long ago with his intolerant family, but his little brother Jeff (David Duchovny, who’s perfectly cute but zzzzzzzz) now wants to rebuild their relationship even though he feels an obvious distaste for Peaches’ feminine side and everything associated with the Handlebar’s drag culture.
For the most part the film keeps this subplot relatively light, since it’s also an opportunity for Connie to fall for Jeff and to find it difficult to maintain her drag persona around him. Can she get him to fall for her, even if he thinks she’s a man? Eat your heart out, Shakespeare and As You Like It.
More important than these narrative/casting missteps is the fact that Connie and Carla is a love letter to drag culture and the outré world of dinner theater, and it slips in some blowsy female self-empowerment along the way, too. As the performers start to build increasingly adoring audiences at the Handlebar, they start to pepper their act with banter that celebrates femininity and self-acceptance while also getting delivered with a knowing wink from these women-disguised-as-men-who-dress-as-women.
In fact, when Connie wonders aloud at an odd moment backstage whether they ought to go on diets, Carla whips her huge, makeuped face around and sets her straight: “All these women come to our show and idolize us because as men we have better self-esteem than they do!” (The diet gets nixed.)
What can I say? With great singing, all those show tunes, pretty terrific acting from Vardalos and Collette, and a goofily madcap gender-bending storyline written by Vardalos (as her follow-up to My Big Fat Greek Wedding), Connie and Carla is ridiculous but entirely enjoyable. Don’t believe those snarky reviews written by the critics when it came out — assholes! — trust the people at Logo TV who’ve got it on regular rotation. Maybe it won’t win any prizes (except one for wigs and makeup from the Canadian Network of Makeup Artists) but I’m going to put this on my shortlist of movies to watch when I’m feeling a little blue. Because Connie and Carla know how to sing through the pain — and I’ve got a drag queen buried deep inside me just itching to get out. If only I could sing like C&C.
If this film’s three wildly divergent titles have you scratching your head, that’s because all three are terrible titles for a really pretty great feminist comedy. I wouldn’t have known it at all but for Wikipedia’s list of female buddy films.
The trick to Sarah Kemochan’s loosely autobiographical film is that it hides its feminism for a while behind all the usual clichés of girls’ boarding school films … particularly those set in 1963, as this one is. But when the feminism comes, it hits you in the head and the story takes a really interesting turn … and then does it again at about the 80-minute mark. (Can you just stop reading right now, watch the film on YouTube, and get back to me when you’re done?)
Every boarding school film appears contractually obligated to begin with a reluctant new student whose parents have shipped her/him off due to behavioral problems. In this case, Odette (Gaby Hoffman, center) has been caught preparing to lose her virginity to her boyfriend Dennis. Off to Miss Godard’s School she goes, destined to share a room with Verena (Kirsten Dunst) and Tinka (Monica Keena), who have reputations for being a troublemaker and, well, a slut, respectively. Adding to the usual suspects are the ravenously bulimic Tweety (Heather Matarazzo), and the studious, ambitious Momo (Merritt Wever). First cliché: once she falls in with the troublemakers, Odette starts to love her life at Miss Godard’s.
Sure, it’s not all roses. The school features a group of rules-oriented monitors, the most officious of whom is Abby (Rachael Leigh Cook, above center) who roams the halls looking for miscreants and tattling on her peers. “Miss Godard believed the girls should govern themselves, so we learn to take responsibility for our actions,” Abby chirps with those all-too-familiar evil eyes. Cliché #2: oh, those stooopid rules!
But be not afraid: things start to get more interesting. Odette finds that her four new best friends share not just a disdain for Miss Godard’s rules, but also for the trap such obedience has prepared for them: they are determined not to fall for the usual future of a husband, two children, a Colonial, and a collie. “No more white gloves!” they proclaim, dedicating themselves to far more wild and unpredictable futures: Verena wants to spearhead an international fashion magazine; Tinka plans to be an “actress/folk singer/slut,” Momo a biologist, and Tweety a child psychologist. What does Odette want? Short term: sex; long term: to be a politician.
The films takes its time getting underway, for it feels the need to introduce us to a wide array of supporting characters, not least of whom are the slightly feral town boys — the leader of whom, Snake (!), played by a very young (but no less oily) Vincent Kartheiser, immediately falls in love with the luscious Tinka. So you’d be forgiven if you arrived at this point thinking that the film would continue to take the one-adventure-at-a-time narrative path, something like the wonderful boarding school film Outside Providence (1999) — and like that film, stay focused on problems like whether Snake and Tinka will make out, and how Odette will find a way to have sex, finally, with Dennis.
That would be the wrong assumption, for it’s at this point that the No More White Gloves girls discover that the school’s board of directors wants to solve its financial problems by merging with a nearby boys’ school. And the narrative starts to cook.
When they meet to assess the situation, they find themselves deeply divided — because unlike their friends, Momo and Verena hate the idea of a co-ed school. At the most basic level for Momo it’s simply a question of logic: she knows full well she won’t get into MIT if she has to compete with boys from the same school. But she and Verena agree that the real problem is the inevitable en-stoopiding of the female students. “This is a school! we’re supposed to be getting smarter!” If the schools merge, Momo warns, “we’ll all be killing ourselves to be cute!” and all for the “hairy bird,” which is their description of boys’ genitals.
Verena’s assessment is even more damning. All the attention to cuteness and personal care will make Miss Godard’s girls too tired to think. “But that’s okay, because the teachers, they won’t call on you anyway. Also, you don’t wanna be smarter than the boys — they don’t like that.” Going co-ed will trick everyone into falling for the white gloves and the full constricted future that goes with them. When Tinka protests that “real life is boy-girl, boy-girl,” Verena screams, “No. Real life is boy on top of girl.“
Transcribing this scene doesn’t capture how much I was taken aback by this exchange, by its sudden clarity and perfect articulation of why single-sex schools are so spectacularly good for girls. The clichés didn’t fall away completely, but I became waaaayyyy more interested … and the film ratchets things up again later with the same dramatic skill.
If the film’s central plot now turns around the question of whether — and how — our No White Gloves heroines can prevent the school from going co-ed, it might sound corny. Rather, I should say it is corny, but in a way fully in keeping with some of the overall rules of the boarding-school film genre (illicit sex, alcohol, secret passageways, revenge on evil teachers, etc.). Nor is it perfect; the film ultimately sacrifices Verena in a bizarrely implausible plot turn. But it also gains back Odette as a leader-orator in a way that made me so happy that I’m almost willing to let Verena get toasted.
As I’ve discussed already with this marathon (especially re: the tragically disappointing Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion), female buddy movies often sneak in a boatload of anti-feminist crap as they throw us the bone of female friendship. The Hairy Bird tries something entirely different. This film throws us the bone of a little hairy bird in order to make a powerful, feminist argument for female friendship, ambition, single-sex educational excellence, and collective action.
In fact, I was so happy with this film that I now fret that no other female buddy picture can measure up. The only film I can imagine following up with is Thelma and Louise. Join me, won’t you — in about a week, when I’ve had the chance to watch it again for the first time since 1992. Let’s see how it measures up to its reputation as the great female buddy picture of American film history, shall we? (It certainly has a better title than this poor film.)
Female buddy pictures: “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” (1997); or, the dark side of girls onscreen
23 November 2013
In writing about Revenge of the Bridesmaids yesterday I enumerated some of the ways the broader genre of female buddy pictures might keep their stories simple (and very, very pink), but still manage to show women who love each other and say funny things during funny situations. “When we can say that no feminists were harmed in the viewing of this film — well, sometimes that has to be enough,” I concluded about a film I truly liked.
Sadly, this is not always the case. Today, the darker side of very pink female buddy pictures.
- The women are gorgeous, and one might be even a little bit more gorgeous than the other one (or so we are taught to perceive).
- Dieting and body size are far more crucial to the narrative than I can bear (i.e., one of our heroines used to be fat).
- They are not rich or successful, and are somewhat insecure about their overall failures; but as the story unfolds they are handed incredible opportunities for success on a platter.
- In fact, their shared insecurity forms one of the important aspects of their love for each other.
- They are not incredibly bright, so that we can have wacky adventures with them springing from their ditziness.
- They are united in their hatred of The Mean Girl(s) who torments them and inevitably becomes central to the story; The Mean Girl(s) is portrayed as a natural part of the landscape, whereas we are to understand that good female buddies are a rare and wonderful thing.
Perhaps as you read the above you think, “That’s exactly why I hate these goddamn female buddy pictures! The only possible feminism there consists of their friendship for one another, and just look at how contingent that is—contingent on their gorgeousness, dieting, insecurity, shared poverty, and nuttiness!”
With that laid out, shall we discuss Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion?
To start, let’s be clear: Lisa Kudrow is a comic genius, even if here she mostly reprises her role on the otherwise execrable show Friends. As the bubbly Michele, she’s unemployed but ever since high school has thrown her very best talents into designing and sewing up the fantastic going-out wardrobe she shares with Romy (Mira Sorvino) in their teensy little seaside LA apartment, where they’ve lived for ten years—ever since graduating from high school. The slightly-less dopey Romy works as a cashier for the service department of a Jaguar dealership by day so they can go out dancing every night. In short, their lives are awesome.
But when they hear about the imminent ten-year reunion for their high school back in Tucson and the two women sit down and go through their yearbook (flashback!) and imagine attending, Romy arrives at a single, disturbing conclusion: their lives are not nearly as awesome once you start looking at them through other people’s eyes. She gazes vaguely into the distance, gets a determined look on her face, and pronounces that they will spend the next two weeks losing weight, scoring boyfriends, and finding a job for Michele.
It might take an extraordinarily long time for them to realize the futility of their plans – these are not smart women – but they ultimately land on a new plan: they will pretend to be successful businesswomen and impress the hell out of all the people who tormented them in high school for being weird and not terribly bright. The flashback assists in showing them at the senior prom, sans dates, dressed (awesomely, below) as two different incarnations of Madonna, mocked by evil A-list meanies.
Now: do I have a problem with our heroines looking like Madonna? Hellz to the no. Nor do I take issue with the “let’s prove the meanies wrong about us!” impulse. But ugh, the stupidity … and the dieting.
Romy and Michele has plenty of virtues, and they don’t end with the clothes. The ultimate message here — about what a neat-o bond the two women have always had — is lovely, even if the film portrays that friendship as exceptional in the world of women. Nor do I object to Mira Sorvino’s stilted, oddly deep voice for the role, which I found sort of adorable. Also: Janeane Garofalo, who lifts up even the crappiest of material (and she got a lot of crappy material there for a while) even when she’s limited to playing the kohl-eyed, chain-smoking naysayer … again.
I also feel as if I could have forgiven the film if it hadn’t cooked up a phony conflict between Romy and Michele in the middle — a conflict springing directly out of their invented story about themselves. With this single plot device, the film brings up every one of the worst aspects of female buddy pictures: who’s smarter? who’s prettier? who’s less of a loser? who’s going to wind up with money? who’s going to be the winner in the battle for the one slightly worthy guy?
Not to mention that the film asks us to buy the concept that two women who look like this might have been losers in high school, even if one of them wore a scoliosis brace and the other hadn’t yet dyed her hair blonde.
Thus, even though the film ultimately confirms the enduring value of their friendship, it does so by reminding us of their shared ditziness/insecurity/need to unite against Mean Girl(s). It hands them a happy ending on a plate — via the largess of a rich guy. We walk away laughing, again, at how bad they are at math.
So yeah. Was my feminism harmed in the viewing of this film? Yes. Yes, it was.
But do I have a pathway out of this morass? Natch! Stay tuned for a feminism-confirming adventure into the world of girls’ boarding schools in 1963 with the film All I Wanna Do (1998), also released under the separate titles Strike! and The Hairy Bird. Even better, a copy of this one has been uploaded to YouTube — not great quality, and it’s segmented, but you watch all 97 minutes in the comfort of your own laptop. Keep up your strength, my feminist friends.
25 September 2013
So I’m already deep into the semester with a new lecture class, which means I spend most of my time prepping, grading, and hyperventilating. This makes it all the more important that I can watch an episode of Orange is the New Black on Netflix every couple of days to decompress. Because if there’s ever a show that overturned every hoary teevee trope, it’s the way this one has told a new story about women’s prison.
This show is amazing, and I’m pretty sure it was created because someone read my blog and said, “Let’s throw this bitch a bone: a show about women’s prison with a whole bunch of unknown actors of various races, sizes, and sexual orientations. This blogger will lose her shit.”
Which is pretty much what has happened. I only wish I had time to sit down and watch it all in a single popcorn and martini-fueled binge weekend. From the opening credits all the way through every single 60-minute rich episode, I’m in heaven.
If this seems at first like yet another story of a blonde girl who finds herself in strange and comical circumstances, you haven’t watched what’s really happening here. Sure, our protagonist is a WASPy blonde upper-middle class woman named Piper (Taylor Schilling) who enters the prison because a while back she transported drug money for a girlfriend — and the show gets a lot of its early raison d’être from Piper’s wide-eyed introduction to prison realities. Whoa, a Black woman they call Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) forms a crush on Piper! What will she do? Whoa, everyone in prison huddles in groups by race! Will Piper hang out with only white women?
But it doesn’t take long before you realize that this is only partly a show about Piper, especially as successive episodes dedicate themselves to complex backstories for each of the key inmates. In fact, we should have anticipated this from the beginning, for the opening credits — featuring a montage of the faces of real and former female inmates — gives us intimate images of the eyes and freckles and piercings and wrinkles of real, non-WASPy faces.
While Piper tries to maintain a relationship with her risk-averse fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) — who goes on living a spectacularly comfortable New York life — her fellow inmates’ lives and intrigues become far more compelling. There’s the post-op trans Sophia (Laverne Cox), the prison’s hair stylist, whose estrogen pills are curtailed during budget cuts, and who forms a prickly, unlikely relationship with the incarcerated nun with the hope that she can persuade the nun to hand over her post-menopausal hormones. Cox plays this role with an extraordinary delicacy, particularly in scenes with Sophia’s family back home — the wife and son who remain supportive, despite the fact that she failed them when she used stolen credit cards to pay for the sex reassignment surgery.
Even the vindictive, whisper-tiny Bible-thumping redneck and former meth addict, Tiffany (Tamryn Manning), who gets played as more of a heavy than most of the characters, proves to have a method to her madness.
Question: will Tamryn Manning ever get another role after this besides as Bible-thumping crazies with rotted teeth and strong Southern accents?
Among my Facebook friends there has been nothing but expressions of fast-burning love for Alex (Laura Prepon, formerly of the unwatchable That 70s Show and one of the very few recognizable faces here). Alex isn’t just tall, dark, and blessed with those eyebrows. Nor is she merely a woman who knows how to throw her shoulders back, how to level a heavy-lidded direct gaze at a gal, and how to choose a great pair of specs.
She’s also Piper’s former lover — the one who ran the drug cartel operations, the one who asked Piper to carry the money, and maybe the one who gave Piper’s name to the Feds … felicitously tossed into the same prison. She’s that one — The One? — with whom Piper carried on a long, passionate relationship charged in part by the riskiness of their work and the glamour of all that money. One look at Alex and I dare you not to start fantasizing. We know immediately that poor Larry, the hapless fiancé, has got himself a problem.
Yes, Alex is one of those perfect fantasy objects, for whom no stint in prison is going to alter her impeccable eyebrow maintenance or lipstick choices. Yes, perhaps not all of us would run into such a vision while in prison. Yes, this feels a lot like one of those “let’s tempt our viewers to want Piper to go gay again!” kinds of teevee moments.
But although her character is used to forward the plot in particular ways (and to send my Facebook friends into orgasms of thrill), Alex is not the story here. Nor is Piper the story. The real story is the new narratives of possibility opened up by focusing on women.
This goes so far beyond the famous Bechdel Test — that incredibly low standard for gauging how much a film gives a single thought to women — that you wonder whether you can ever go back to stomaching the rest. Let me just focus on one tiny thing here: women of different races in conversation with each other, in proximity to one another, fighting with/ hating/ distrusting/ accommodating/ getting to know one another.
Think about it. Can you think of any show, ever, in which this happened?
So yes, creators of Orange is the New Black: my mind is officially blown. And best of all, Piper gradually becomes something very different than that wide-eyed woman who was immediately the favorite of the seemingly soft-hearted counsellor Healy. I can hardly wait for Season 2.
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?
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 watched the opening minutes of Cathryne Czubek’s documentary — the credit fall over close-ups of red-polished fingernails loading, cocking, and shooting all manner of guns, jacked up with music that sounds appropriate for a spaghetti western of of the 1960s — I fretted that this film would turn out lite. Unserious. Uninformative. Jean-Luc Godard once said that “all you need for a film is a girl and a gun.” This is not a quote that reassures me that I’m about to see an important doc on women and gun culture.
But my mood shifted during the course of this film. I’m still not convinced that Czubek displayed the best editorial choices in selecting her subjects and her material. Yet what I’ve found is that A Girl and a Gun amounts to more than the sum of its parts, and that the subjects it raises still rattle around in my head during our current debates on guns. In the end I feel that even though it’s far from perfect, this doc gets at something crucial about American gun culture.
Let me just speak from my own perspective here — as a politically progressive advocate of gun-control who is also a feminist and film lover. Because seeing this film forced me to wrangle with the many conflicting and contradictory views I have regarding women and guns.
Just take the spate of women interviewed for this film who bought guns after being abused or stalked. Each of them spoke about what we know: that there’s very little comfort in a restraining order if your ex is willing to ignore it, and that there’s very little help from the police until he’s already gotten caught ignoring it. Lots of women live in terror in their own homes.
We all know this. We all know that women are caught in a big gap between the law and actual security. And, I think, we probably all agree that it’s kind of great that women in this situation arm themselves.
Certainly the wider culture has taught us to appreciate this figure of the woman who, wronged by men, finds her own ways of protecting herself. My god, I enjoy this narrative so much that I have an entire category on this site entitled “women with guns.” Indeed, I would go so far as to say that this is the only inherently feminist theme permitted in mainstream pop culture.
You see? I rationalize my appreciation for Women With Guns in film by calling it feminist. But having had this pointed out to be so baldly, I’m not sure I’m willing to stick with that characterization. Moreover, A Girl and a Gun shows that this is not the only reason actual women wield guns, nor is it a new or uncomplicated issue.
There are plenty of reasons to feel uncomfortable with female gun culture, starting with how it’s marketed to women. The pink guns — lots of pink guns. The long & fascinating history of selling guns to women during the 20th century, as unfolded by the historian Laura Browder (who might be the most camera-ready and beautiful historian I’ve ever seen, although perhaps that’s not saying a lot). The consistently condescending tone industry leaders use for addressing female customers. The way the customers buy into that condescension.
“In many ways the history of women and guns is the history of American women,” Browder offers persuasively over a raft of early 20th-c. images of women with guns — a forgotten history indeed.
If anything, Czubek could have done more to clarify the ways that gun consumer culture is eager to pigeonhole women as a group. This, and the documentary’s rambling and anecdotal style, draw away from its effectiveness as a film.
Perhaps the most illustrative moment emerges in the dynamic between a Stephanie Alexander and her daughter Aishia, who was permanently disabled by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting in New Jersey. Aishia speaks openly about feeling vulnerable in her wheelchair, and her reasons for purchasing a handgun to protect herself. Her mother, however, has gone a different route: her avenue to healing after her daughter’s trauma has led her to become a victims’ rights activist, speaking eloquently at public meetings for gun control and community activism.
But Stephanie also has a more complicated history with guns herself as a drug dealer and addict back in the 70s who owned a gun — par for the course for dealers. The filmmaker asks her whether she had a gun when her daughter was shot. “No,” she says — and explains that if she had, she would have sought out the shooter’s mother and “shot her in the face” because “that mother had to feel my pain.” It’s one of the most chilling moments in the film.
I finished this film with two thoughts in mind: that my own thoughts and feelings about guns ranged all over the map (almost as much as Stephanie Alexander’s) and that I wish Czubek had done more to clarify the problems raised by these topics. My recommendation of the film is based on the sense that it evokes the right questions — and that more work needs to be done to articulate the morass of conflicting positions on women and guns.