Tag Archives: gender

Review: Girl Most Likely

I decided to see Girl Most Likely on impulse earlier this week and caught a matinee by myself in a nearly empty theater.  Going to the movies alone in the middle of the day is actually, I’ve decided, really nice, but it also probably suggests that I’m about as close to this film’s target audience as you can possibly get.

Which is to say that Girl Most Likely, about a once-promising playwright who has a mental breakdown and is forced to move back home to New Jersey to live with her family, hit kind of close to home.  It’s not that Kristen Wiig’s Imogene and I are exactly the same person (thankfully, for instance, my mother is a lot more reliable than Imogene’s gambling addict mother, played with aplomb by Annette Bening), but there were definitely some similarities.

Perhaps most significant of these is that Imogene and I (along with a lot of other women of my generation), live in what Anne Helen Peterson calls the “postfeminist dystopia”: a world that recognizes the failure of the idea that women can “have it all” through consumption, self-objectification, and romantic coupling. In other words, the era of the romantic comedy “happy ending” has been tested and found wanting.

When the film begins, Imogene seems to be living the kind of life that is the light at the end of the average rom-com tunnel: she’s attending stylish Manhattan parties with her rich friends and her handsome husband.  Everything appears to be perfect.  She’s got the kind of cosmopolitan lifestyle that women who came of age with Sex in the City dream of.  But it’s all, ultimately, a fantasy.  Her husband doesn’t have time for her, and her friends shun her when she’s in crisis. Imogene’s dreams of living an intellectual life in the big city crumble, and she’s sent back to New Jersey with her mother after staging a suicide attempt so overtly performative that it can’t even be called a cry for help. (The scene, in which Imogene primps and puts on her sexiest lingerie and artfully positions herself on the bed beside a spilled bottle of pills, may be one of the most overt call-outs of dead-woman-as-sexualized-object I’ve seen in a while.)  Once Imogene is home, of course, she comes to realize that the life she’s built for herself is not a good fit for her (as she puts it, she was just an impersonator), and once she finally comes to terms with this, she’s freed up to write again — in her own voice.

One thing I especially appreciated about this story was that Imogene’s story isn’t resolved romantically.  She does have a love interest (the slightly-too-young-for-her Darren Criss, who is admirably charming in what may be the most cringe-inducingly awesome use of a Backstreet Boys song in contemporary cinema), but that isn’t the main problem Imogene has to deal with.  So often women’s problems in movies are resolved by hitching their wagon to some handsome man, but for Imogene, what’s much more important is coming to terms with herself, her sense of her own worth, and her relationship to her art.

Like Girls, Bridesmaids, Bachelorette, and Young Adult before it, Girl Most Likely explores the ways in which the narratives of feminine success encountered in the mainstream media are destructive to women living in the real world.  Is this film the most stringent critique of the post-feminist dystopia?  Probably not, no.  But it’s a charming, good-natured film about a woman who’s trying to figure out her place in the world on her own terms, and we can always use more of those.



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“Dance Apocalyptica”

Today I read:

You can spend your whole life being a story that happens to somebody else. You can twist and cram and shave down every aspect of your personality that doesn’t quite fit into the story boys have grown up expecting, but eventually, one day, you’ll wake up and want something else, and you’ll have to choose. 

Because the other thing about stories is that they end. The book closes, and you’re left with yourself, a grown fucking woman with no more pieces of cultural detritus from which to construct a personality. I tried and failed to be a character in a story somebody else had written for me. What concerns me now is the creation of new narratives, the opening of space in the collective imagination for women who have not been permitted such space before, for women who don’t exist to please, to delight, to attract men, for women who have more on our minds. Writing is a different kind of magic, and everyone knows what happens to women who do their own magic – but it’s a risk you have to take.

— Laurie Penny, “I was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl

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“A Simple Answer”

Linda Holmes’s “At The Movies, The Women Are Gone” (which I linked to yesterday) put me in mind of something I wanted to add to that post I made recently about gender parity in the media.

One of the consequences of a gender disparity like the one Holmes is describing is that stories about women simply aren’t readily available.  It’s easy to a man to find a movie about someone (more or less) like himself, but it’s much more difficult for a woman to do.  (We’ll say nothing of whether that movie, once found, is any good.)  In other words, men have to, to borrow Holmes’s turn of phrase, “go out of their way to see any kind of film that’s about people other than themselves”.

In other words, the experiences (and emotions and agency and personhood) of half of the population are all too easy to ignore.  Men don’t even have to work to get the impression that women aren’t real people.  Hell, if the movies are to be believed, only about 30% of women are even capable of speech. As far as most mainstream viewers are concerned, women exist only as as wives and girlfriends, as props, as window-dressing.

Meanwhile, women pretty much have to do the work of empathy, if they want to watch a movie (or read a book or watch a TV show, etc).  A woman might luck out and come across a story about someone a lot like her, but chances are when she sits down in front of the screen, she’ll be asked to identify with someone with whom she has next to nothing in common.

Is it any wonder, then, that studies suggest that women tend to have higher emotional intelligence than men?  How could we not, when we’re required to exercise it in a way men simply aren’t by the mainstream media.  This isn’t some nonsense about women’s intuition.  Women are trained to empathize — not only by our elders and peers, but by the stories we consume, from the very first — while men, largely, are not.

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Today I read:

You can apparently make an endless collection of high-priced action flops and everybody says “win some, lose some” and nobody decides that They Are Poison, but it feels like every “surprise success” about women is an anomaly and every failure is an abject lesson about how we really ought to just leave it all to The Rock.

— Linda Holmes, “At The Movies, The Women Are Gone

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I’ve been thinking recently about the issue of representation and gender equity in fiction.

I’ll be first in line to acknowledge what a serious imbalance there is in gender representation in the worlds of literature, film and TV, both in the media itself and behind the scenes.  VIDA perennially demonstrates how little the publishing world values the voices of women, and, as A.M. Homes put it after winning this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, “we still live in a world where the work of male writers dominates.”  A study out of the University of Southern California recently found that there’s 1 female film director for about every 15 men, and 2012 had the lowest number of speaking roles for women in five years.

I shouldn’t have to point out that this is straight-up bullshit.  Women make up half the population, but we are the actors of our own narratives surprisingly seldom. The reasons behind this are immensely complex, from institutionalized sexism in the publishing and film industries to the fact that many women wind up writing about men because stories about men are the only models they’ve really been exposed to.

Which is all to say, gender disparity is a serious problem in the creative arts and I’m all for any efforts to redress the issue.  But recently, I found myself wondering, do we really need to see people like ourselves in the media? Isn’t that what empathy is for?

Empathy is the central exercise of fiction, which asks the reader to identify with someone else’s experience.  By that definition, I should be seeing people like myself in fiction all the time, because what reading fiction requires me to do is put myself in another’s shoes. Or, to put it more precisely, I should be able to recognize the similarities between myself and characters regardless of our respective demographics.

But obviously it’s not that simple.  Sometimes we just can’t put those differences aside, no matter how hard we try to identify.  And we shouldn’t have to.  It’s not the reader’s responsibility to be the bigger woman and ‘just get along’ with characters in the face of extreme differences.

And, really, to say that we need to see more people like ourselves in fiction is oversimplifying the issue.  Rather, fiction should reflect the diversity of reality.  If women make up fifty percent of the world population, then it seems fair to say that probably around fifty percent of narratives should be about women.  Now, of course, that’s not to say that the demographics of reality need to dictate their representation in fiction.  I’m not suggesting that 10% of fictional characters — and not a jot more or less — should be left-handed simply because 10% of the population is left-handed.  This isn’t about filling a quota.

But the fact remains that being exposed to diversity makes us more comfortable with diversity. If so few of the books and movies we consume as a culture treat women as human beings possessed of agency and intellect, is it any wonder that so many men fail to treat women as real people?  It isn’t fiction’s job to teach us or subject us to exposure therapy (although it can certainly serve that purpose), but the world is a diverse place, and I think it’s only fair to expect the world of the imagination to be the same.

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“Break It Up”

So over on Salon, Christopher Wallace has a piece about English detectives and asexuality.  I’m reading along, going, ‘Yes, yes, OK’ — anyone with two wits to rub together could figure out that Holmes was probably asexual — until I came to this:

It is a tricky thing, making of an abstemious protagonist a vivid personality. It is usually in the so-called base passions, the Tolstoyian temperaments, that a character reveals himself.

And then I stomped around for a while like Godzilla, crushing small cities underfoot.

I can understand where Wallace is coming from, insofar as romance is often the source of conflict and tension in many narratives, but to imply that a character can’t be well developed without a romantic object is just plain stupid.

Maybe it’s just the approach of Valentine’s Day that’s got me all wound up, but I am so absurdly sick of the assumption that one is somehow not a full person without a romantic partner.  Particularly if you’re a woman, you must be unfulfilled unless you’re paired off with someone.  I’m pretty comfortable as I am at the moment, and I’d like to think that my character does a pretty good job of revealing itself — quite vividly, thank you — all on its own.

The comments on the Salon article do a pretty good job of roundly critiquing Wallace on every point from the Holmes canon to sexual politics, but good grief.


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Review: Mona Lisa & Drive

Today I watched two movies about drivers: Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa and Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive.

Both were pretty good, on the whole.  Mona Lisa is a sort of anti-Pretty Woman, and Drive is a slightly more realist answer to glamorous hyper-violent car-centric action films (I’m looking at you, Vin Diesel), but both still manage to suffer from many of the same flaws as the kinds of films they seem to be responding to.

Spoilers for both films behind the cut

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