Saturday, August 7, 2010

Thank you for calling me out

Last night, I went to see Salt, a super fun action movie about Angelina Jolie kicking butt. And my friend pointed out that one of the coolest things about it is that she doesn't show any skin -- less than a male action hero would usually show. For a lot of the movie, she looks completely androgynous, and not in a sexy way. (Can't find any screen shots of her dressed that way to support my point -- no big surprise.)

The only time she shows her body is when she's covered in blood and being tortured, which is shot mostly at a distance and in low light -- it makes her vulnerable, and it's disturbing as it should be. There's no sense of the camera fetishizing her body -- contrast that with Daniel Craig's naked torture scene in his first Bond movie.

Then there's all this talk about how the role was originally written for a man, and kudos to Jolie for scooping up a script she liked. But when the guy next to me in the theater turned to his girlfriend and told her that fact, there was this glee in his voice, a kind of marvel . . . he was excited to be at an action movie starring a hot woman AND he got the added bonus of knowing that the story was fit for a man.


And then, upon leaving the theater, my friend and I are joking about how empowered we feel and how we're going to use all our new spy moves to beat up guys, and we see this giant ad for Eat, Pray, Love, and I've never read the book, but my immediate reaction is contempt. My friend called me out. She'd had the same knee-jerk contemptuous reaction, and someone showed her Melissa Silverstein's post on Women and Hollywood with the same title as Entertainment Weekly's interview with Elizabeth Gilbert: If Women Like It, It Must Be Stupid.

And I felt mad with myself -- not for failing to be excited about that movie. That movie's not made for me and my friend. Neither one of us is going to get super excited about a rich lady's spiritual holiday starring Julia Roberts -- although I've got friends who love that book, and I should maybe read it and see why.

I felt mad with myself because I had that built-in reaction that because this movie's popular with women, it deserves my contempt -- that it deserves it more than a similarly pop-hit movie starring oh-how-bout Hugh Grant? About a Boy is the story of a rich man on a journey of self-discovery. That book is loved by both men and women and is not hyper-literary, but there's not really a male equivalent to "chick lit," is there? And so it's popular fiction.

So where does this contempt come from? There's the widespread contempt for stories that fall into the "chick" category. But part of my contempt comes from something else that Silverstein's blog post touches on . . . for a movie about a woman to get made, it needs the built-in audience of an Eat, Pray, Love and a Julia Roberts. And so, part of my contempt comes from the fact that I don't see myself in the story of this woman, and yet, this is one of the few stories about women offered. I'm mad at it because it has to represent all women, and that's not a fair burden to place on any movie.

Two of my favorite movies are Garden State and Rushmore. I'd like to see more small, quirky movies starring women, and I don't doubt the stories are out there, but it's even harder for them to get made, and when they do get made they're almost always deemed "chick flicks." The lady characters in the man-movies aren't enough. I do like Olivia Williams' character in Rushmore -- she has some complexity and a larger share in the story than a lot of love objects get, but I don't love her or get her point of view the way I do with the guys. The teen girl in Rushmore has it all figured out, and Natalie Portman's just a manic pixie dream girl.

I have friends who fell all over themselves for 500 Days of Summer, and that one just makes me so angry. Zooey Deschanel's character is a mess. She works as an assistant in this retro-styled company in a much crappier job than what's-his-face's and yet, she gets to be the guiding light who tells him to follow his purpose? Her purpose is apparently getting married to someone hotter than him, making origami, and wearing lots of Anthropologie.

I'm not sure what the answer is -- it's not rushing out to see Eat, Pray, Love. And it's not forcing boyfriends to sit through it as the end of Silverstein's post seems to suggest -- yes, as one of my male friends pointed out, she gets a little ranty.

Recognizing and fighting the bias though, I think that is part of the answer. So, thank you, my friend, for calling me out on mine. I will try to pass it along.


Halena said...

Nice one, well put. Now I'm going to go kill a man with a broken bottle right after I read all the books I made fun of because they looked girlie.

DinaBear said...

Great post Rachel, and thanks for linking to that article on the manic pixie dream girl--she runs rampant in film and I think that although I was aware of her constant presence in film, I never took the time to examine it.

david elzey said...

Gilbert's book (and the movie by extension) is a horrible case of woe is me, my life sucks, i'm going to abandon my current life and travel around the world rather than deal with things the way other, non-privileged people do. and i'll pitch my 'adventure' as a book so i can use the advance to travel. oh, and since i've already had one of my stories turned into a movie ("coyote ugly") i'll be sure that movies rights are sold at the same time. can i get julia roberts to play me?

yes, hollywood in all its charms is still very much an old school boys network, with all the crap that comes with it, and if they can see a cash cow to be milked by dumping julia roberts (yawn) into a "women's picture" well, that's not news. what i cannot for the life of me understand is how so many strong, educated women could read and propel a book like eat pray love onto the bestseller list and make it the focus of so many fawning book groups.

if hollywood is guilty of making a movie for a built-in audience, and that audience has willfully hoisted a questionable representative like gilbert (via sales and popularity), how much can hollywood be blamed?

that aside, if SALT had starred tom cruise as originally planned, neither my wife or i would have wanted to see it. it would be nice if hollywood got the hint that audiences will accept strong female characters in traditionally male roles, and that it will make more interesting films if it does so, but i won't hold my breath.

now, want to talk about the bechdel test for a bit?

Rachel Wilson said...

Yeah, I haven't read it, so I've got no desire to defend its inherent worth. I was more interested in my certainty that it just couldn't be good when I really knew nothing about it. I expect it will make a ton of money, and that's all that matters to a lot of Hollywood.

Experience has taught me to be cynical about this kind of movie. Maybe there's nothing wrong with being cynical and trusting to experience where Hollywood is concerned.

A male friend gave me a great example yesterday of his expectations about a movie being wrong -- with Rachel Getting Married. With Anne Hathaway and the title it sounds like it's a chick flick, but definitely isn't. But I don't think that that movie ever fit the "a bunch of women like it" mold either, so it's kind of beside the point.

And yes! I want to talk about the Bechdel test! I've been thinking about it a lot in relation to this post.

Salt would have real boring with a Tom Cruise. Hollywood's underestimating men and women if it thinks we don't want to see good stories with strong female characters. If the movie had been written for Jolie, it would have been a whole different animal, so I don't mean to suggest that the dude in the theater was wrong to be excited that it was written for a man. I was excited too, because I had more faith that the story wouldn't be all about this spy's relationship to men, and how hot she was, and how she had to save a kid and get all weepy over it, and ick . . .

As far as Bechdel goes, if a man had played Salt, I guess he would have had a girlfriend, which would have still meant only one adult female in the movie. I don't think the little girl neighbor who talks for a few seconds is enough to make it pass.

david elzey said...

so bechdel says: there needs to be more than one named female character, they have to talk to each other, and it has to be about something other than obtaining a man. Salt's very masculine world of espionage would have needed for all the leads to be female in order to work. hollywood isn't there yet.

but you know another recent film that could have used more than one token woman in it? Inception. There isn't anything about ANY of the seven main roles in that film that couldn't have been played by women. that was a story that was all ideas and action, and you're telling me the only characters who could handle that are all male but one?

and as for gut instincts, i think we'd all be better off if we listened to our gut more and didn't talk ourselves out of those instinctive feelings. it's no way to run a factory or a military, but it's perfectly serviceable to trust you got and not wind up seeing crap movies you regret later.

Rachel Wilson said...

Well said, David, well said.


I still think one more of those CIA or Russian spy types could have been a lady. I started to get really amused at how she kept meeting guys from her childhood spy days, and how she wouldn't immediately recognize them,but they would know her right away, because she was THE ONLY GIRL, but I kind of suspect Angelina doesn't mind being the only girl in the room, and that's a whole other topic. Totally with you on Inception.