Rage meets the rom-com
by Jenny Friedler, editor; illustration by Annie de Mayo, staff artist
Here’s the thing about being a feminist: sometimes, it really kills your buzz.
Despite this fact, I’ve never questioned whether I am one. It’s not a soapbox I stand on, or a role I perform as a blogger or a student; it’s part of who I am. For me, feminism is a way of making sense of the world and questioning my role in it. It is an awareness equally accessible to women and men, a willingness to consider fundamental cultural structures and recognize how they shape quotidian reality. There are other perspectives that fulfill this same function, but I was raised a feminist, by feminists, so this is often my critical angle of choice.
Now, time for a confession: I love (and I mean love) romantic comedies. As someone with a passion for the art of film, and at least a few film classes under my belt, there’s certainly no lack of shame in my admitting this. I’m talking about those trite, glossy, dime-a-dozen movies that were at their best in the late eighties and early nineties, and pander to the chickiest of chicks. I am a sucker for Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan, Hugh Grant and Patrick Dempsey; no matter how much I worship Scorcese and Renoir, nothing soothes me like watching the camera pan out as two bickering lovers finally make up and make out while surrounded by cheering onlookers. These movies are an excuse to go out at 10 p.m. with my sisters and my mom, eat a nauseating amount of Junior Mints and popcorn, and float away into another, prettier universe for an hour and a half.
I spent many nights this summer at the movies; (500) Days of Summer and Away We Go, two sweet and vaguely funky indie love stories, almost satisfied my need for romance. Both told modern stories about couples I actually felt I knew, and while gender roles weren’t necessarily turned on their heads, they were at least a little flexible.
But the characters and plots of these movies didn’t boast the superficial, formulaic glow of The Proposal and The Ugly Truth, so of course I had to go see those, too. As rom-coms go, The Proposal was almost perfect; some parts were actually funny enough to merit laughing aloud, and it was nothing if not cute (the key word for this genre, of course), but instead of leaving the theater feeling chipper, I was just frustrated.
I’ll give you a recap: Maggie (rom-com queen Sandra Bullock) is a high-powered executive at a book publishing company, which means she wears disturbingly tight suits and high heels, but has no friends, no sex, and gets called “the witch” by everyone in her office. When some neglected paperwork leaves Maggie facing the threat of deportation to Canada, she bribes her secretary Andrew (Ryan Reynolds, the one man so hot he actually gets to marry Scarlett Johansson) into a green card marriage.
The scam brings them to his Alaskan hometown, where Andrew turns out to be (surprise, surprise!) heir to a massive fortune, and Maggie turns out to be a complete and total basket case outside the office. Once she reveals that she is, in fact, a vulnerable, lonely, irrational sap who cries all the time (I knew it!), Andrew falls in love.
As in all rom-coms, the final kiss seals the deal: Maggie is packing up her office when Andrew suddenly shows up. As his Big Winning Gesture, Andrew makes a dramatic scene in front of their cowering co-workers, promptly reveals every embarrassingly personal secret Maggie shared with him to all those who had once feared (respected?) her, and liberates them from her reign of terror. When she begins to protest his advances, he suddenly yells at her to “shut up.” As he forcefully kisses her, a co-worker yells “You show her who’s boss, Andrew!” Fade to black.
Now, I am trying, really trying, to enjoy this movie. I will gawk at your flawlessly Botox-ed skin, your impossibly chiseled abs, and never question how you could possibly look like that first thing in the morning, so can’t you at least return the favor by making a movie I’m not ashamed to watch? The Proposal instead goes old school and returns to the choice sexist story of the 1970s: working woman gains power by being a cold hard bitch, and can only find love after admitting that she was weak all along, and that her successful career was really just a sad substitute for a husband and kids. Why can Andrew only love her when he’s the boss? Why can’t Maggie have more money than he has, more power? I get that power and emotions don’t always mix and it’s good to remember the latter, but if this had been a story about a male CEO falling in love with his secretary, I doubt it would have played out the same way.
Leaving the theater that night, I couldn’t get these thoughts out of my head. After wondering whether anyone else in the theater had shared my discomfort, I decided to bring up the issue with my younger sisters, if only to ensure that their laughter was not tinged with blissful ignorance. I figured that in this case, the sexism would be obvious to them; after all, our mother is the only female partner at a major law firm, and all three of her sisters are equally powerful corporate women, all of whom manage to love their jobs and families simultaneously. Each has faced and fought against these stereotypes in her own career.
And yet, I made a point not to bring up my grievances with my sisters right away, knowing that they would immediately deem me an “angry feminist.” Not wanting to scare away people who, while sharing my “hear-me-roar” mentality in their daily lives, would never sacrifice the joy of a mind-number like this one to chat about discrimination, I cooed over Ryan Reynolds and recalled every pratfall. And then, tentatively, I brought it up:
“I have to say, though, the movie was a little sexist. I mean, she couldn’t keep at least a little of her professional dignity and get the man?” Despite my oh-so-gentle approach to a mini feminist dialogue, my sisters’ reactions were immediate: both rolled their eyes. Why did I have to come in and kill all the fun with my intellectual babble? Couldn’t I just enjoy a damn movie? I wish I could, but how can I ignore what feels to me like a glaring, offensive use of a played-out stereotype?
The most disturbing part is that this film isn’t even simplifying women for the sake of men—these films are marketed primarily to other women. Rom-coms are all about escapism; they take place in the ideal, not the real. But apparently the ideal of a woman having love and power at the same time is one step too far in the direction of the ridiculous, even for women themselves.
A month later, The Ugly Truth came out, and I’ll admit, I set myself up for this one. After all, the title graphic includes a bathroom-sign female with a heart in her head on the left, and a male sign with his heart on his crotch on the right. So, perhaps the subtext of this film was not so… well… sub.
Katherine Heigl, a woman whose teeth are so white it’s impossible to see anything else on screen, plays the producer of a network news show. Once again, she’s the boss; once again, she’s wound too tight. She can’t get men because when she dates them, she prints out talking points, does background checks, and tells them how many of her “criteria” they fit (for marriage, of course – why else would she want to date?).
Luckily, chunky hunk Gerard Butler comes along to tell her that if she doesn’t show off a little T&A, not to mention give more frequent blow jobs, she’s never going to get any man. When she follows his advice, she miraculously gets two, including him!
Once again, I tried to restrain myself, knowing what the reactions of my sisters would be. But once again, I felt it was too important, too glaringly offensive to ignore. This time, my sisters half-joked that maybe I should stop coming to the movies with them at all.
Here’s the real ugly truth: sometimes, being a feminist actually does make you angry. When you become aware of the subtle (and not so subtle) ways that the same old gender stereotypes are perpetuated, when you realize that you, like millions of other women, pay money in support of your own oppression, it’s frustrating. But only when I faced the indifference of my sisters, whose own lofty aspirations are only plausible because of the feminist movement, do I become angry.
My sisters, and millions of young women like them, have grown up believing that they can be anything that they want, that their gender will never be an obstacle. To them, analyzing something as trivial as a romantic comedy seems irrelevant, because they have the luxury of believing that sexism is a thing of the past. But, knowing my sisters, they will both become powerful women in the workplace. And unless these stereotypes change, they too will eventually be called “bitches” for using whatever power they’ve earned.
It’s difficult to tell people that feminism still matters, especially when they would rather fall into the shining abyss of Katherine Heigl’s pearly whites. No one wants to evaluate their entertainment on moral grounds, including me. But our entertainment does not exist in a vacuum; it is the product of our culture, and in turn it changes the culture itself. The roots of inequality spread far and deep, and once you recognize them, they’re hard to ignore.
Often, the oppression of women feels like a distant problem: women forced to wear burkas and women raped during wars need the help of feminists, but if a woman can make it into a high-paying job, she ought to be able to fend for herself. But our culture has deep roots in (here comes the scary word) patriarchy, and those roots cause both the mildest incidents of sexism—and the most egregious.
The archetypal angry feminist has long terrorized the American unconscious. But there is a middle ground between constant outrage and willful ignorance. Feminism does not require anger; it requires awareness. Perhaps if we stopped trying to tune out the evidence of inequality all around us and started openly, honestly talking about what it means, we could actually change our culture. I know that this idea is crazier than the thought of a woman keeping a job and a boyfriend simultaneously, but it just might work. ~