brave-1024list of filmsThis is ultimately a glass-20%-full question.

I have now re-read A.O. Scott’s NY Times Magazine piece, “Topsy Turvy,” several times — a piece that leads with the subtitle, “this year, the traditional Hollywood hierarchy was overturned. Heroines ruled.” I want to know exactly how he came up with that subtitle, because I don’t think the article supports it. Nor does the evidence.

Now, I have seen a lot of really good films this year — films that feature terrific female leads, stress women’s experience in fresh ways, highlight gay/trans characters, and are sometimes directed by women. Just scanning over this list makes me feel encouraged. Scott particularly mentions some of these: Brave, The Hunger Games, and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Let us not forget, too, the box office success of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II and Snow White and the Huntsman, two films that give me less encouragement but which nevertheless get women into the equation.

Four of those movies — four! — were among the 15 highest-grossing films of 2012. This is very good, for when Hollywood sees female-oriented or -directed films earning big bucks, it’s more likely to fund future projects.

But let’s not forget those other top-grossing films: the endless stream of supremely dudely fare like Ted, The Hobbit, and the superhero business in which women play the most conventional roles of all: The Avengers, Skyfall, Amazing Spider-Man, and so on. I give Anne Hathaway props for her role in The Dark Knight Rises but she remains only an interesting twist on the usual female suspects in such vehicles.

If I say this was a good year for women onscreen (and behind the camera), is that impression based solely on a perceived slight uptick from the usual — which is that women get fewer leads, fewer lines, a smaller range of interesting parts, and far less opportunities to write and direct than men? Is this glass 20% full, or 80% empty?botsw-image-3

When I look back at 2012 I see new levels of schizophrenia about women in public life. When Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls was released, she was attacked on all sides. Jennifer Lawrence was termed too fleshy for the role in The Hunger Games. But movies & TV were only the tip of the iceberg. Let’s not forget the public schizophrenia outside the world of film. Sandra Fluke’s public flogging at the hands of Rush Limbaugh; the massive troll campaign against cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, who sought to scrutinize gender in video games; the revival of anti-birth control measures; unnecessary trans-vaginal ultrasounds required of women seeking abortions in Texas and (almost) Virginia; the crazy anti-woman, anti-gay GOP platform during the 2012 election; the public whack-job discussion of rape by prominent Republicans running for office.

Of course, those two politicians lost. But ladies, you’re wrong if you think this is the end of efforts to ban abortion altogether or to humiliate women who seek sexual and political equality. Let’s not kid ourselves by thinking that Hollywood doesn’t reflect that schizophrenia, at least on some level.

Was this year better than last year for women in film? Tough call. Last year had Bridesmaids, The Help, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Bad Teacher (oh yeah, and another Twilight) all near the top of the list of highest-grossing films, plus all those amazing foreign and independent films that delighted me during my La Jefita Awards. And hello, The Iron Lady. Maybe I can say 2011 and 2012 were equally interesting years for those of us willing to seek out and draw attention to the topic.Hunger-Games_13

Most important is the question, do these two strong years indicate a change in emphasis in Hollywood? Well, no. Sure, Pixar finally gave us a female lead in Brave. Does that mean they’ll have another one soon? I doubt it. We’ll get more Hunger Games, but we’ll also get more superhero fare in which women are negligible and/or tokens. Will Cannes allow even one single female director into competition? It’s a crap shoot; that film festival didn’t have a single female director in 2012. It looks good that Kathryn Bigelow will get nominated for Best Director at this year’s Oscars. But is that really a sign of a shift?

The best I can hope for is that we have a third good year for women in a row. But when I say good, I don’t mean that opportunities for women/ gay/ trans peoples are improving in big ways. It’s a fragile thing, this good year designation. The ever reliable Stacy L. Smith of USC’s Annenberg School, who crunches these numbers all the time, simply terms women onscreen “sidelined, sexy, and subordinate” and doesn’t dicker with minute distinctions.

Let’s just say that we have little evidence to trumpet a “Hollywood hierarchy was overturned” narrative, Mr. Scott. But I’m hoping for a good year in 2013 anyway — and by good, I mean that it’ll look a teensy bit better than 2012.

Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself: she’s watching films like Magic Mike and Ted? Mainstream comedies in regular theaters oriented to general audiences?! Has this blog been hijacked by an evil-minded imposter?

(I admit: in retrospect it appears that watching Ted at the theater goes against all my principles. All I can say is that my friends chose it.)

But I must defend my anticipation of Magic Mike — because it’s being eagerly anticipated by so many of my favorite gay and/or female film critics, including Louis Virtel’s videos The Weeklings:

[Sidebar: I’m relatively new to The Weeklings, but I have now scanned about one-third of these 2- to 4-minute videos and they’re so quick-witted that sometimes you have to watch the videos 2 or 3 times to absorb everything. To wit: the episode in which Louis Virtel takes issue with moron Adam Carolla’s views on whether women are funny. Or when he proposes to do a proper interview with Anderson Cooper about coming out — his list of questions is genius! “How do you feel about forcing straight kids to come out as uninteresting?” Or when he joins the rest of his troupe, The Gay Beatles — oh, the episode in which they explain which Beatle they would be … which leads them to explain which member of Sex and the City they would be, or which Cosby Kid, or which Fanta Girl….]

But back to the issue at hand: Magic Mike. Because I believe it is my duty as a woman — nay, as a human being — to hand over my money to see a film about male strippers. I fully expect that within a few days’ time, I will be back reporting that Magic Mike is, indeed, the Citizen Kane of male stripper films.

I confess: that is not my line. It really belongs to film critic extraordinaire, Libby Gelman-Waxner.

My most secret and powerful desire might be to get paid to write film reviews not just with a nom de plume, but an entirely made-up persona like hers. When I was in college I discovered Gilman-Waxner’s genius reviews in Premiere magazine. She is a middle-aged wife of a dentist, mother, suburban New Yorker, and buyer for the juniors department (also: “she” is secretly screenwriter/ humorist Paul Rudnick). She’s always spot-on with her criticism, like when she describes Daniel Craig in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: “He wore reading glasses, which on a dreamy guy like Daniel are the male equivalent of a nurse’s uniform or a schoolgirl kilt.” In short, Libby is the perfectly melded combination of gay man and straight woman.

Tanning salon-driven dramatic tension in the dressing room between Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey — but over what? I can hardly wait!

That’s the real secret, you see: Magic Mike represents the sweet spot where the interests of people like Libby Gelman-Waxner, The Weeklings, and Feminéma converge. Libby and I agree that there’s basically zero chance I will not enjoy this movie. Moreover, it is SO much fun to anticipate seeing it. I mean, just listen to her imagine the possible plot points:

And I’m praying that one guy is stripping his way through medical school, and that another guy gets drunk and falls off the runway, and that finally all of the strippers pull together and become a family and strip to rebuild a local orphanage, and that someone declares, “We’re gonna help those kids because, dammit, that’s what male strippers do.”

I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? I walk out and say, “The dancing was awesome, but it wasn’t gay enough.”

Want to know what I concluded after seeing it? Here’s the answer!

I think the feeling is mutual.

The problem is not that writer-director MacFarlane’s show Family Guy is unwatchable; nor is his film début Ted, for that matter. It’s that 90% of McFarlane’s humor belongs to a 13-yr-old, and 90% of that is about pushing at your boundaries. Jokes about gays, trashy white women, Asians, more gays, prostitutes, fat kids, Jews, and gays — and all with the gleeful “will you let me get away with this?” spew that I have only witnessed from unreconstructed frat guys who don’t know they’re being overheard.

To which I suppose MacFarlane would respond, “Hey, I know all about feminism and how wrong it is to make homophobic cracks or racist jokes about an Asian guy with a duck — I’m doing it ironically!” Thus, you’re the asshole if you complain.

So the whole audience will laugh at the gay jokes because no one wants to be an asshole, but the jokes are actually not funny even if you’re not a humorless feminazi like me.

The remaining 10% of jokes are better, and the film sports an incidental moment or two in the dialogue that are so good they make me want to weep for all the time this writer-director wastes on the other shit. There’s one particularly perfect reference to Flash Gordon (1980) that was so crystalline and throwaway it almost felt like something I’d hear from a friend of mine. MacFarlane’s scattershot references to other films are clever and enjoyable.

But … the rest of it? It’s Mark Wahlberg. Who has a life history (and criminal record) of thinking homophobic/ racist jokes like this are funny. (And who, BTW, cannot pass as a 35-yr-old. Sorry.)

Mila Kunis is charming as always, yet this material reminds me that a hefty chunk of her acting career is with material like this (That 70s Show, Meg Griffin on Family Guy). I’m not sure whether this is a problem of typecasting, craven career decisions, or that she actually thinks this stuff is funny.

And oh, did I mention? The story is about a boy who has no friends other than his teddy bear, a boy who grows up to become a man who has no friends other than his teddy bear. Autobiographical? You be the judge.