In our previous installment I had a lot of fun discussing the ladies of Batman, but this time I want to kick things up a notch and discuss unlikable or unsympathetic leading ladies. It’s hard out there for a female protagonist. If you’re too perfect and too sympathetic, you run the risk of being labeled artificial and shallow, but if you make too many “bad decisions,” regardless of the lessons you learn by the end of the film, you’re cast into the fire and ridiculed as a poor representation of women in film.
Just what is it that denotes poor representations of women in film? When I think of the worst filmic female depictions, I often think of mediocre romantic comedies like HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU, or the neutered revenge films of Ashley Judd, most of Kate Hudson’s oeuvre, or Katherine Heigl’s for that matter since she’s essentially Kate Hudson 2.0. These are women who are written with such a narrow field of vision; they are one-sided, clueless jerks whose entire narrative drive comes from a man.
However, it’s absolutely, positively ridiculous to place so much importance on the depictions of women in cinema, particularly given that most of what we would perceive to be poor representations are almost always written that way purposely (even HOW TO LOSE A GUY IN 10 DAYS isn’t promoting such manipulative, absurd behavior, but please don’t think for a moment I am excusing that garbage). It’s preposterous to think that anyone would watch rubbish like SOMETHING BORROWED and automatically presume the worst of our gender; those who do are obviously foolish and I’d question why you associate yourself with such willful ignorance. There are, however, exceptions where we should be angry at how we’re portrayed on screen.
When you look to film to define any group of people, be that a specific gender or sexual orientation or race, there’s a line between being genuinely offended by a caricature (see how women are portrayed in any NATIONAL LAMPOON or AMERICAN PIE film – like brain-dead, sexualized set decorations, really) and being offended by a character’s poor decision-making skills. There’s a clear delineation between a film that is making rash generalizations of an entire gender and one that uses what we perceive to be negative characteristics in ways that are funny or touching, and in ways that ultimately serve the character or the plot in a manner that is rewarding and not condescending.
Additionally, a character who makes poor decisions is not indicative of a filmmaker’s personal feelings or intentions. They have a story to tell, and a film with a poorly written woman (or human, for that matter) who makes poor decisions and is rewarded for doing such is more of an indicator of Hollywood playing it safe with lazy, generic stories and protagonists. And of course this promotes further depictions of sloppily constructed women, but what are we scared of? An irrational fear that a despicable representation of a woman in a movie is going to herald the fall of our entire gender? “What if people see this movie? They’ll think all women are harpy shrews who live for men and chocolate and clearance sales!” No, blame Cathy comics for that.
The most thoughtful argument is one that demands strong female characters, those that represent us fairly and are written intelligently. Not all female characters should be smart (because not all women are smart, just like not all men are; let’s be fair here), but they should be written smartly.
For Your Consideration:
Kristen Wiig, BRIDESMAIDS
There’s been some back and forth over just how well Wiig represents her gender in the Wiig/Annie Mumolo co-written, Paul Feig directed film about a woman-child embedded in competition with a woman who she perceives to be a threat to the very fabric of her being: her relationship with her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph). In the film, Annie (Wiig) has stagnated – her boyfriend dumped her, her business crumbled and all she has left is her best friend. When a more put together, successful woman (Helen, played by Rose Byrne) challenges her for the title of maid of honor and the role of best friend, Annie completely unravels. She’s wildly irrational and immature, acting to sabotage Helen’s efforts and ultimately distressing her BFF instead.
Is she unsympathetic due to her poor, misguided decisions? Yes, absolutely. Is she a horrible representation of women everywhere? No. Annie, much like an addict, must hit rock bottom before she can dust herself off and move on. If she were acting like a fool just to act a fool, didn’t learn any valuable lessons or new life skills and had somehow been rewarded for her obnoxious behavior, I might take issue with the sort of message that sends (as if we should be learning lessons from movies anyway – ahem, MPAA, can you hear me now?) or the sort of woman the film were applauding.
But Annie does learn lessons. In the end she gets her act together and realizes that she needs to grow up; she realizes that she’s been incredibly selfish in all the worst ways and has become her own worst enemy and saboteur.
BRIDESMAIDS gives its characters complexity, and women like Annie and Helen who act and react poorly are ultimately sympathetic because, while it is a heightened version of reality, they do reflect some legitimate real life behavior. Who hasn’t been worried about losing their best friend to someone else? Who hasn’t been an eager over-achiever trying to win everyone over because they haven’t always been very likable? Annie’s situation is a relatable one: dumped, dreams crushed, teetering precariously on the edge of growth but unable to remove herself from her comfortable, lethargic place in the amber, suspended between slackerhood and adulthood.
I think there’s also an argument about Helen’s character and how she’s ultimately being a generous, thoughtful woman, but she too is given a certain depth and complexity because her characterization isn’t completely one-sided. Part of Helen’s depiction is in how Annie perceives her, and since this is Annie’s story we innately side with her. Annie sees her as successful and put-together, but really Helen just had the literal good fortune of marrying up. As the audience we are able to see how Annie sees, but we are also granted the good sight to understand that Helen isn’t a horrible monster. The film is written so well by Wiig and Mumolo that even when a character is presented negatively, they are given such endearing traits and human qualities that we feel like we know them; in some cases, we are them.
Are they guilty of woman-on-woman crimes? Sure. Are they guilty of making horrible decisions? Yes. Does this make them bad representations of women? No; in fact, I’ll argue this makes them perfect representations of not only women, but human beings. Relatable people with relatable problems who grow and learn from their mistakes. In the end they set aside their differences for the greater good: a friend.
Cameron Diaz, BAD TEACHER
In BAD TEACHER, Diaz plays the foul-mouthed, alcohol-soaked, gold-digging teacher Elizabeth Halsey. When her fiancé dumps her, she returns to work even more apathetic than before. She refuses to teach using a curriculum, instead using movies about teaching to dull her students’ senses while she naps.
When an over-achieving artificial teacher by the name of Miss Squirrel (Lucy Punch) interferes with her plans to land a dreamy substitute teacher (Justin Timberlake), all bets are off and the two begin a catty, juvenile and manipulative game to win his affections.
Elizabeth is the perfect example of an unsympathetic protagonist whom we shouldn’t rely on to represent an entire gender, but who unequivocally becomes a better person by film’s end. The one difference here, and the element that runs counter to my initial argument, is that Elizabeth is sort of rewarded for her poor behavior. Through her manipulation and scheming she comes awfully close to landing in hot water, but she manages to slyly maneuver her way out of it.
The reason Elizabeth makes a good exhibit in this case is this: it’s due to her avoidance of traditional consequences that she’s forced to face herself, her own worst enemy, and she learns that perhaps all the things she’s idealized in life (a rich, successful and traditionally handsome man) aren’t things she really wants at all. She doesn’t learn this lesson until she’s attained those things. With the things she desires most resting comfortably in the palm of her hand, there is no more struggle and without the struggle and the drama, everything crystallizes. Maybe she does care about those students after all. And maybe she should just quit pretending to be something she’s not.
BRIDESMAIDS and BAD TEACHER both exemplify self-destructive, selfish female characters who make unsympathetic choices but who are thoroughly and wholly sympathetic as human beings. If these are women representing my gender in film, I’m proud to say so. If we’re truly worried that people are looking to film to make judgment calls on women as a whole, then I’m glad to point those people in the direction of these two characters. No one is perfect, we all falter; what matters is that we learn lessons from our mistakes, and the aforementioned women do just that.