So I woke up this morning to find it was 1° F outside. (That’s -17° C. Can we say “yikes!”?) Naturally, two things crossed my mind:

  1. (Sarcastically.) It’s really too bad the gym is closed and I’ll have to stay inside all day in my pyjamas.
  2. (Seriously.) Why is everyone calling Meryl Streep’s performance in The Iron Lady an “impersonation” of Margaret Thatcher?

I know, you’re thinking:

  1. What a geek.
  2. Yeah, why “impersonation”? Please tell me, Feminéma!
  3. It’s just a little cold — put on a few layers and go for a walk already, wimp.

Blogger JustMeMike pointed it out in his review of the film, noting the term’s appearance in virtually every review (just google it and you’ll see). “How come no one referred to Leonardo DiCaprioimpersonating’ J. Edgar (Hoover) in the same way?” he asks. Exactly!

Impersonation. It’s one of those terms that skirts between flattery (“an eerie job of inhabiting that real-life personage”) and a backhanded slam against such close attention to accent, appearance, and personal tics as less than true acting (“it’s only a parlor trick”).

It reminds me of the problem of the “uncanny valley” in modern 3D animation (I’m looking at you, Tintin) whereby audiences find themselves revulsed and disturbed when an animated character looks too realistic. Impersonators, after all, are the kinds of low-level entertainers who appear in Vegas or on Saturday Night Live. Impersonators emphasize exactitude rather than artistry. A great impersonation gets all the details right — but can’t go further to impress with real acting skill.

Let’s also remember that there are female impersonators — that category of campy performer who dresses as Liza Minnelli or Dolly Parton in order to get a lot of whoops from a drunken audience. These performers are not associated with manly acting talent.

As near as I can tell, those critics who are also good writers have used the term impersonation not to complain about Streep, but to contrast her strong performance with the utterly disappointing film. Roger Ebert writes, “Streep creates an uncanny impersonation of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but in this film she’s all dressed up with nowhere to go.” A. O. Scott likewise uses his flattery of Streep’s work as a rhetorical pivot to detail the film’s shortcomings. “Ms. Streep provides, once again, a technically flawless impersonation that also seems to reveal the inner essence of a well-known person,” he explains, before complaining about “the film’s vague and cursory treatment of her political career.” In other words, these writers seek to make it clear that Streep did what she could with a lame script.

Since then, however, critics who are less aware of their vocabulary’s connotations have jumped on the impersonation wagon to use it all the time in describing her role. “Meryl Streep’s performance as/ impersonation of Margaret Thatcher had Oscar written all over it,” writes Roger Moore. John O’Sullivan also admiringly notes that Streep’s “uncanny accuracy … goes beyond brilliant impersonation” in his piece for Radio Free Europe. These pieces blur the boundaries between impersonation and acting; yet my actor friends bristle at the notion that they are equivalent or that performing in the role of a real-life person demands impersonation. After all, numerous flattering reviews of My Week With Marilyn state something to the effect of, “Michelle Williams doesn’t so much impersonate Marilyn Monroe as suggest her.” None of these statements seem overtly to associate impersonation with acting that leaves something out. I truly don’t think these writers use the term to complain about Streep (or Williams, right), at least not consciously.

But this returns us to JMM’s question: why don’t these writers use the term impersonation when they discuss Leonardo DiCaprio’s J. Edgar (or, for that matter, his Howard Hughes from The Aviator)? Why wasn’t Michael Fassbender “impersonating” Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method, or Colin Firth “impersonating” King George V in The King’s Speech, or Jesse Eisenberg “impersonating” Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network?

Here I can only speculate, as I don’t know the inner souls of all these film critics, but I want to suggest that it can be attributed to an unconscious bias in favor of the superlative acting skills of male actors. An enormous percentage of published film critics in the US are male. Combine this with an industry seriously tilted toward male success and you have conditions within which even the most female-friendly critics are less inclined to celebrate an actress’s accomplishment without using terms with complex connotations. (Would a male critic really associate a male actor with the term impersonation so long as there are “female impersonators” out there?) This bias may be unconscious and not intended to express sexism, but we can see its effects nevertheless.

Until I started this blog and educated myself on the issues, I was unaware of the extent to which men dominate filmmaking and film criticism. It’s not just the fact that women appear onscreen less, behind the camera less, as producers less, as writers less — and that they get paid less overall. It’s also the more subtle things — the ways a woman’s subtle performance will get overlooked as male critics fall over themselves to praise her male co-star. The ways that female actors inhabit such a severely limited range of body types — I dare you to come up with the female equivalent of Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti, much less Cedric The Entertainer or Gérard Depardieu.

These critics may not be consciously demeaning Streep’s performance. But the term impersonation is not a wholly flattering description of what she does — if it were, we’d have seen it appear in reviews of men’s biopics.

Now, off for a walk while it’s still a balmy 11° F (-11.6° C).

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Here’s what I’ll take for granted for the rest of this piece:  this is a tight, fascinating film about a Citizen Kane-type character capable of extraordinary brilliance, caustic wit, and whiplash-inducing revenge.  As anti-heroes go, Jesse Eisenberg’s rendition of Mark Zuckerberg ranks up at the very top with Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley, Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, and Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth II.  You’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard already that the writing is vintage-crisp Aaron Sorkin, the directing is vintage-creepy David Fincher, and (less discussed) the editing by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall makes it feel like an action movie rather than what might otherwise have been a ponderous, “Rashomon”-like multiple-viewpoint meditation.  It’s great — a really good movie.  But I want to talk about its depictions of manliness and women, which are alternately profound and utterly tossed off.  Guess who gets tossed off?  To cut to the chase:  I think it’s more useful to think about this as a love story between men.

In his interview last week with Aaron Sorkin Stephen Colbert commended him on the opening scene, in which Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) and Erica (Rooney Mara), who is breaking up with him, have a conversation that’s more like a boxing match than a typical film conversation:  they’re two exceptionally sharp and flinty characters, and she can’t stand him anymore.  Yet, as Colbert noted with the kind of forthrightness we wish we’d see elsewhere, “The other ladies in the movie don’t have as much to say because they’re high or drunk or [bleep]ing guys in the bathroom.  Why are there no other women of any substance in the movie?”  In response, Sorkin hawed for a moment, then copped to it:  “The other women are prizes.”

Colbert and Sorkin weren’t joking.  As much as this breakup matters to the story, women in general are utterly objectified by these Harvard men, primarily serving to propel the story forward only when they prove to be crazy, underage, or appearing briefly to utter something true, as Rashida Jones’ character does near the end.  (Sidebar:  I maintain that last is more an example of the Magical Negro trope [as Spike Lee and Dave Chappelle have most brilliantly laid it out]; it’s no accident that Jones’ character is not just sexually unavailable to Zuckerberg but, famously, mixed-race:  her real-life father is Quincy Jones.)  To be clear, none of the objectification of women is criticized by the film; the fact that beautiful women throw themselves in the way of powerful men is portrayed as one of the natural by-products of a man’s arrival to popularity or status.  The way the film treats women of Asian descent is especially abhorrent, using the cheapest stereotypes in the book.  Women are forgettable, throwaway prizes, like a ribbon or a certificate or a trophy-ette one puts on a shelf.  Granted, these are prizes one can [bleep] in the bathroom; the point is, what matters is the competition between men to get those prizes.

And that’s what I love about Fincher’s movies:  as much as he often finesses his female characters, he’s brilliant when it comes to subtly tracing the alternately loving, eerie, homoerotic, or twisted aspects of men’s relationships with one another.  I still think Fincher’s “Fight Club” (1999) remains one of the best analyses of 20th-century manhood we’ve got.  Okay, an easy criticism here would be, “Great — yet another elaboration of manhood.  We sure didn’t have enough of those.”  Don’t worry:  I’ll advance that criticism of a lot of those other films, but not this one.  As much as I throw up my hands at its treatment of women, “The Social Network” is punctuated with moments that reveal Zuckerberg’s complex relationships with men, relationships that could appear in Eve Sedgwick’s formative, brilliant academic work, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, published back in the early 90s.  Men’s relationships with each other are perhaps of primary importance, Sedgwick suggested, as it is there that men find their most likely access to both financial reward and prestige — but also to fraternal bonds that may matter just as much as material advancement.  For part of the film, the main affective relationship is between Zuckerberg and his wealthy best friend from Harvard, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield); yet when Zuckerberg meets the power-prettyboy-Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, in a terrific casting decision), he falls just a little bit in love, and the chips fall from there.  Tenured Radical calls Parker Zuckerberg’s “soul mate,” an utterly accurate depiction.

It’s no surprise that Zuckerberg struggles with a social life, as he seems inherently antisocial in an Asperger’s way.  He wants more than anything to be “punched” to be a prospective member of one of Harvard’s prestigious final clubs; too bad he’s so unattractive on so many levels.  (“Punched”!  honestly.  No one could invent material this apt.)  Saverin, however, does get punched — prompting Zuckerberg to respond with an almost manic, nasty combination of derision and predictions of his ultimate failure to make the final cut.  Those ugly personal qualities beg the question whether Zuckerberg is driven at least partly by revenge when, asked by an elite group of finals club men to create a social network website for them, Zuckerberg steals the idea and creates what he calls at first TheFacebook.  He basically treats everyone as falling on a spectrum from stupid to objectionable; but when TheFacebook proves to be wildly popular and he’s getting pressured to find ways to make it profitable, Sean Parker appears to offer advice and direction for the young startup.  Parker is eminently cool and easy with women, both things that Zuckerberg can envy from his lonely perch; more important, Parker articulates with exceptional clarity the college kid’s vague thoughts that hadn’t yet cohered into a game plan.  It’s like a classic love story:  Saverin hates the new guy, but Zuckerberg is willing to listen to every word, even when it leads to pushing Saverin out, and it’s that breakup that ultimately becomes the central tale in this story.

So it comes down to this:  why does a film that says so many smart things about manliness and power have to rely on debasing women?  Women are never irrelevant to the dramas between men; they help to remind love stories like this one that we’re not talking about homosexuality per se, or even a homoeroticism that any of its characters would recognize as such.  “Fight Club” was much more explicit about the erotic bond between Jack (Edward Norton) and Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt).  Here, the erotic tones are covered over with triumphal uses of women as objects — affirmations of heterosexuality, yes, but affirmations that help to confirm emotional bonds between men.

On a different note, I asked my students this week if they were planning to see “The Social Network,” and one of whom exploded and said, “No way!  There’s no way I’m giving that guy any more money!”  He continued to insist, despite mild protests by his peers, that Zuckerberg would find a way to reap millions from it.  I think he’s right.