In the comments on my last column, one reader questioned my request for "less Ephron and more Taymor and Bigelow" in Hollywood. We cleared the confusion pretty quickly, but a good point was brought up -- the importance and challenge of being a feminist ally, of praising female achievements.
There's not much that hurts an argument for equality more than a self-proclaimed feminist or champion of women's rights making over-generalizations about women and judgments on certain female experiences. It irks me to no end when I see women say that they are steadfast feminists and then talk about how women are irrational, manipulative, etc., like one woman's impropriety is indicative of an entire sex. And while the second aspect -- not invalidating a myriad of experiences -- is just as important, this is the one I struggle with, especially as a writer of women's issues in cinema.
Hollywood loves its cliches. Whether we're talking women or any other group or characterization, Tinseltown clings to the oft-used tropes desperately. If you're a female moviegoer, you learn to forgive a lot in order to enjoy movies. There's always something to ignore in the whole, whether it's the shocking and unhinged burst of emotion, an over-the-top love of fashion, or an unhealthy addiction to romance and men. If you don't fit into that usual "girls like pink, clothes, crying, boys, bling, and gossip," it's a necessity.
While it's perfectly valid to have romcoms and sparkly vamps and fashion fests -- especially considering the box office take -- there is a part of me that wants to shut it all down for the time being. I'd love to irrationally demand it all come to a stop so that other characterizations of women can take the forefront. It's not right to silence that section of the female movie-going public, but it's also hard not to wish for it ... not to get tired of seeing the same characterizations over and over again, and then see them get praised by my peers.
The Alliance of Women Film Journalists wasn't the only women's group to name 2009 awards recently. The Women Film Critics Circle weighed in as well. While there were some stellar picks on the list -- especially the posthumous Lifetime Achievement award for Gertrude Berg and recognizing Isabella Rossellini's Courage in Acting for her work on Green Porno -- the same group also listed Julia & Julia as the Best Movie by a Woman (Nora Ephron) and the Best Equality of the Sexes.
The film is decent. The parts focusing on Julia Child are refreshing, but it's balanced with a caricature of Julie Powell, where the woman is shrill and self-centered, often complaining about their space and cleanliness, not taking her partner's opinions to heart, and often falling to fits of tears and temper tantrums. And yes, Julie did have a bit of a panic attack about lobsters that required her husband's help, but she's also a woman who got through that, and a grisly lobster beheading, and later dealt with brains. Rather than situating it as a learning experience, getting over food phobias and the North American cultural barrier between the animal and the meat, the scene just comes off as the emotional woman needing her level-headed, manly husband's help.
And I'm not saying that I hate the film. I don't, and I'll probably pick it up one day. But it is one where I have to forgive and ignore certain grating aspects to enjoy it.
It saddens me to think that a film with this sort of characterization would lead any group of critics, let alone women, to say it's the best equality of the sexes. Being inundated with these stereotypes and the subsequent praise, it makes me want to call an irrational moratorium on the theme and genres. Instead of being proud and happy when a female filmmaker gets praise, financial success, and notoriety, I worry that it will just bring more of the same if the fame is found through ridiculous fluff.
To me it seems like I should divide my praise and appreciation. I can appreciate and be happy when female filmmakers become more successful and make recognizable names for themselves, but I don't have to praise it. Manohla Dargis seems to have made a similar distinction. Over the weekend, Dargis wrote about the lack of female directors, and said: "New Moon and The Blind Side might not make a lot of critics' Top 10 lists, but their popularity with audiences is good for women in film - and might be too great for even Hollywood to ignore." Subsequently, she ranted to Jezebel and told the site: "I am an equal opportunity critic. I will pan women as hard as men. I've had testy people imply that I should go easier on women's movies. I find that incredibly insulting. Are you kidding me? I don't want to be graded on a curve."
And then, as Dargis also writes, there's the issue of lack of choice: "There's a reason that women go to movies like Mamma Mia. It's a terrible movie... but women are starved for representation of themselves. I go back to Spike Lee and She's Gotta Have It. I remember going to see it at the Quad in New York, surrounded by a black audience. People are starved for representations of themselves."
Maybe most of that audience that made Sex and the City and other romcoms a hit were just hungry for something. I remember talking to my friend about SatC. She said she really liked it. I pointed out the film's many problems, and she agreed, saying that she forgave it for the rest ... and what was the rest, after I ranted about the film's flaws? A film centered on women. I had done the same with the preceding series, it was just that my threshold for forgiveness was lower than hers.
So where's the line between fighting for diverse representations, feeling anger over stereotypical crap, rebelling against bubbleheaded fluffdom, and being a supporter of female achievement? That's not something I can quite figure out yet.