The Fem Spot

Falling in love with your inner Betty/Leslie/Eleanor

Posted in Film and Television, Humor, Politics, Sexuality by femspotter on November 29, 2009

November 29, 2009

Thursday night on NBC should really be renamed from “Must See TV” or “Comedy Night Done Right” to “Ladies’ Night.” The staple show for me is The Office at 9 p.m. EST. As I have mentioned in other posts, on this show, office lovers Jim and Pam have gotten married and own a house together with a private art studio for Pam in the rear yard – wouldn’t Edna Pontellier of The Awakening be jealous!, and “matronly” Phyllis is happily married rather than – as some might expect it – withering away as an “old maid,” her unattractiveness to the opposite sex limiting her romantic prospects. At 9:30 p.m., on 30 Rock, we get to witness the career exploits of  successful female Television Writer-Producer and Third Wave Feminist Liz Lemon.  But before all of that begins, we can spend 30 minutes with Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department in Pawnee, Indiana. Parks and Recreation, a picaresque show, features the industrious Knope trying desperately to claim abandoned Lot 48 for a new park, which, as she envisions it, will be “a perfect park with state of the art swing sets, basketball courts and, off to the side, a lovely sitting area for kids with asthma to watch the other kids play.”

She really has thought of everything.

Leslie Knope: a Betty?

Deputy Director Leslie Knope

I love Leslie! She is completely earnest but not always politically savvy, much like myself. She challenges established authority, often makes a fool of herself when drinking too much and almost always says “the wrong” thing thinking it’s the right thing. Her office is full of portraits of her political heroes (Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright to name a couple) and she dreams of being the first woman President. (I let that dream go when I was 10 or 11.) Wouldn’t Knope’s election to Mayor, State Senate, Governor, Congress or even President be a fine ending to this empowering story?

When it comes to protecting her department’s claim to the former construction site turned abandoned pit, Leslie runs into certain obstacles: lack of funding, public disapproval and the “diabolical, ruthless bunch of bureaucrats” known as the Library Department. “They’re like a biker gang; but instead of shotguns and crystal meth(amphetamines), they use political savvy and shushing… The library is the worst group of people ever assembled,” she tells us, the viewers. “They’re conniving, rude, and extremely well-read, which makes them very dangerous.”

I had no idea that librarians could be that nefarious. (No wonder I’ve always stammered when asking for help with the Dewey Decimal System.) When led by Tammy, Leslie’s boss Ron’s ex-wife (Megan Mullally), that’s exactly what they become. Tammy is smart and pleasing to men. In other words, she’s Veronica to Leslie Knope’s Betty. And everybody knows that, in the world of classic comics, Veronica always gets her way.

Best Friends or Worst Enemies?In Betty and Veronica, an Archie Comic circa 1950, two high school girls, best friends and simultaneously worst enemies, fight over one boy, namely Archie, and other things like clothes and popularity. And it always comes down to somebody winning out: on the material side, Veronica Lodge finds herself happy in her enviable position as a wealthy teen; but on the side of morality, Betty Cooper wins as the girl who will always do the right thing. In theory, every girl would like to be Veronica with pretty clothes and tangent high school boys fawning over her. But in reality, even if we want this kind of material wealth and attention, only some of us will have it. And the rest of us will have to settle, as “Bettys,” for whatever is left over.  In the comic’s 600th issue, Archie proposed to Veronica. Poor, poor Betty.

Of course, it’s all relative. There are many Veronicas I see that make me feel like a Betty. But I’m sure I’m probably Veronica to somebody.

It’s not that Veronica is all bad – or that Betty is all good, for that matter, it’s that Veronica is in possession of the things we validate as achievements in our culture, especially for women: money and good looks. Veronica therefore exhibits a sense of entitlement to all things within her grasp, where as Betty is prepared to fight for the things she wants in life. And of course, classifying women by “types” – such as how some men have done over the years thinking of us as either Madonnas or whores – is reductive. But this Betty/Veronica invocation is theoretical hyperbole used to examine our actions and how they affect the women in our lives.

Pawnee’s own Betty and Veronica, Leslie and Tammy, find this age old conundrum to be true: will Veronica or Betty get the thing they both covet? At first, Leslie thinks that she’ll be able to talk Tammy out of “stealing” Lot 48 to build a new branch of the library. She optimistically enters Tammy’s office, confesses her true passion for the park and finds that Tammy is strangely accommodating, agreeing to drop her crusade to rule the lot. “We government gals have got to watch each other’s backs, right?” Tammy remarks. And even though Leslie suspects that something about Tammy isn’t completely sincere, she shakes hands with Tammy. “Government Gals,” to our Betty, sounds like a wonderful and empowering organization. For shouldn’t women really want only the best for other women? (Yes, I have fallen for that trick too.)

Wanting to return the favor, Leslie tries to help her boss and his ex become friends again, which works and the two engage in an exaggerated and humorous series of sexual encounters. “I truly believe everyone should be friends with their exes,” Leslie tells us. “I can’t even tell you how many of my ex’s weddings I’ve been to.”

Leslie feels quite satisfied with her actions until she realizes that the sexual activities between Veronica and Archie – uh Tammy and Ron – are part of Tammy’s plot to seize control of the lot. “That woman really knows her way around a penis,” Ron confesses, adding that sex with Tammy is “like doing peyote and sneezing slowly for six hours.” Then he admits something quite controversial. Tammy and he have arranged a trade: sex for the land.

Leslie confronts Tammy:

I know what you’re doing. You don’t care about Ron. You’re just using him to get Lot 48 for your library.

Leslie, that’s crazy; and correct.

Why are you doing this?

Les, there are two kinds of women in this world. There are women who work hard and stress out about doing the right thing. And then there are women who are cool. You could either be a Cleopatra or you could be an Eleanor Roosevelt. I’d rather be Cleopatra.

Cut to: Leslie, direct-to-camera interview

What kinda lunatic would rather be Cleopatra over Eleanor Roosevelt!?

Cut to: Leslie and Tammy at the elevator

Haven’t you ever messed with a man’s head to see what you could get him to do for you? We do it all the time in the Library Department. You should come join us some time.

I would never work at the Library Department… We’re no longer Government Gals!

And that was the end of female political unity in Pawnee.

Well, not really; but this scenario does take us right back to the classic love triangle featuring two women and something they both love: giant pits of dirt. And it also stirs up a lot of moral murkiness. For instance, is trading sex for something acceptable in the political arena or anywhere else? There are theorists like me who would argue that trading sex for money as a service (prostitution) is morally acceptable and consistent with feminism provided that all ground rules are met: participants are safe and the money that is agreed to in advance is exchanged. However, I take issue with trading sex in this case because the sex represents an unfair advantage of one woman over another. Ron tells us that he likes pretty brunettes and breakfast food, and that Tammy made him breakfast while naked earlier that morning. He doesn’t want breakfast food (sex) from blond Leslie. Therefore, Leslie does not have the means to compete with Tammy.

Furthermore, in a professional environment where sex is restricted from being a commodity, Leslie and other women shouldn’t have to compete on a sexual turf for Lot 48 or any other resource. They should be able to make their best arguments for the use of the land and let an impartial leader, who isn’t sleeping with either of them, make an impartial decision. (I know: when does that ever really happen? Like Leslie, I’m optimistic that fairness is possible.)

The other issue I take with this type of sexual maneuvering is that it’s really bad for our feminist cause. It isn’t that Tammy is physically or emotionally hurt in the process – though Ron sustains some emotional scars, it’s that Tammy will damage her reputation and the potential for herself and other women to advance in their careers. Ever heard a man or woman around the workplace refer to another woman as requiring knee pads to do her job? This kind of cynicism makes it very difficult for women to get ahead because of their intellectual merit. In other words, the Veronicas of the world owe us Bettys some fair dealing when it comes to peddling sexuality lest we all will be undermined in our careers. Just because Tammy sleeps her way to the top, doesn’t mean the rest of us do. And just because a woman sleeps with her boss doesn’t mean she isn’t good at her job.

These are real paradoxes that exist for some women. I am really anxious to find out what will happen in the careers of David Letterman’s co-workers and simultaneous sexual “partners.” While our culture hasn’t been very hard on Letterman, human resource departments will struggle over whether Letterman’s ladies are Veronicas or Bettys: women who took advantage of male sexual desire to get ahead in business or women who were taken advantage of. Their ethics will be questioned even if his aren’t. Were they actually good at their jobs or just good in the sack? And what about why they did it: did they think they had to sleep with the boss lest they be excused from employment at The Late Show? It’s really muddy water over there at CBS…and everywhere in puritanical America where sex is concerned, I’m afraid.

This episode would probably have ceased to be funny if Leslie had done what I would have done: file a report with human resources the minute Ron told me he was participating in a sex trade. I’ll cut her some slack in the name of sitcom frivolity. (Shame on Ron, however!) But I do want to mention the opposing argument that I met with many times in graduate English seminars when talking about women in Victorian literature. Let’s take The Wings of the Dove, for instance, wherein a woman schemes to marry a poor man by asking him to seduce a dying woman so that, once she dies, all of her money will go to him and he’ll be free to marry the schemer. I remember a classmate explaining to me that I couldn’t be mad at the schemer because she’s a woman and she has to operate within the boundaries of the period and culture she lives in. The only way she can marry the man she loves is if they have some money, and the way she’s found she can get that money is to con an innocent out of her fortune.

That’s tragic. I’ve never been able to agree with this viewpoint, however, because I think a woman hurting another woman is counterproductive. This is why we have an expression “kicking someone when they’re down.” Women historically have been the underdog, so why would we kick each other? That same sympathetic logic applied to the Pawnee triangle would mean that Tammy’s actions are acceptable, even though Leslie gets hurt, because the limitations of Tammy’s circumstances make it difficult for her to get the lot any other way than by sexual means. Leslie was first to claim Lot 48 and she’s been working on her park idea for months. She is an obstacle for Tammy that can be overcome through sex. So, for me, the sex is just the means to a horrible end: Leslie loses her park. Is the sex wrong? Yes, because Leslie gets hurt and not because it’s sex. Bribery with any commodity like money or a promotion or food, etc. would also be wrong…because Leslie gets hurt.

Which is the prevailing feminism? It probably isn’t mine. In my experience, many feminists aren’t critical of women in these types of hypothetical scenarios. The tendency is to blame the man: it’s Ron’s fault, he’s in charge and he’s letting what he wants get in the way of doing his job, he’s using Tammy for sex and nothing more, etc. But in my book, I think that, while Ron is contemptible, so is Tammy. Tammy also should know better. Tammy should be kinder to a female comrade, a fellow “Government Gal.” Tammy should play fair and pose her argument for the lot to higher powers based on practical concerns for the community. (Where will the children with asthma sit in her library, for instance?)

And I agree with Leslie: only a “lunatic” would rather be a conniving, manipulative person over a bona fide hero.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt: Another Betty?

Eleanor Roosevelt was the First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945, married to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Her legacy includes such democratic feats as: co-founding Freedom House to evaluate the level of human rights consideration in government, supporting the creation of the United Nations and even serving as a delegate, as well as proving instrumental in launching the “Second Wave”  of the Feminist Movement.

Perhaps she too was a Betty. Nothing like a conventional beauty, she often sacrificed personal satisfaction, adoration and comfort for a life of public service. And she had her own Veronica: Lucy Mercer Rutherford, her former social secretary. Informed and angry about the affair between her husband and her former employee, Eleanor reportedly threatened him with divorce, also known as political murder/suicide. She arrived at his deathbed to find Lucy by his side, which is really a tragic end to an unsatisfying romance.

However, Roosevelt’s unhappiness in love did not infect her political, feminist and humanist triumphs.  Betty she may have been, but she was no less than the Betty I want to be.

Good news for the women of television

Posted in Feminist Theory, Film and Television by femspotter on March 30, 2009

March 30, 2009

Their stories are getting very interesting! (Apparently, the writers got my memo.)

It may seem as though I do nothing but watch television and movies. There’s a lot to write about because – I am pleased to say – women are being written rather well, in some cases. They’re increasingly dynamic. Unlike “chick” shows where several characters add up to one “real” woman, each character embodying a facet of the female psyche (think: Sex and the City, Designing Women and The Golden Girls, to name a few), some of today’s women have a little more in the mix: they’re allowed to be sexy and smart and confused and confident…all at the same time. What a novel idea!

Over the years, I’ve generally stuck to the programs on Showtime and HBO: Sex and the CityDeadwood, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, The L Word, which I wrote about two weeks ago, and Big Love, which I’ll probably write about in upcoming weeks. I generally avoid network television (I watch DamagesThe Office and 30 Rock right now) because commercials are annoying and the content doesn’t usually interest me. Believe it or not, the lack of sex, violence and profanity that you might expect me to applaud given my reaction to Watchmen coincides with a reduction in substance. Unless the television show is about flying nuns, there should be a modicum of each to keep it real. (Think: Watership Down – bunnies with blood and guts…and fascism. Very interesting!)

I estimate that I watch between six and eight  hours of television per week; and in that six or eight hours, I try to keep my feminist perspective honed. It might surprise you that The Office – very funny though generally devoid of topics for intense discussion – contained a golden nugget of feminist historical significance several episodes ago. I highly doubt that the writers were aware they’d created this landmark occurrence unless one of them was attending a college English literature seminar at the time… I just became aware of it during a second viewing of the episode last night.

Jim bought a house for his new life with fiance Pam, and he reserved for her the stand-alone garage as an art studio. When he surprised her with the house, he’d already set up the garage. He gave her just what every woman needs: creative independence. According to Virginia Woolf, every person should have “a room of one’s own.” And this space must have a door with a lock and key. It must be hers and hers alone, Woolf advocated, apart from the spaces of home and work or home/work united.

Because Jim has given Pam this space for her unique liberty, she has no need to abscond with her creative ideas later on, the way that Edna Pontellier does in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, a landmark feminist text. Edna – the quintessential oppressed wife and mother – recedes to the cottage behind her middle class American home to express herself through art after she meets a mysterious single women named Mademoiselle Reisz. Reisz plays the piano hauntingly, casting a kind of spell over Edna who subsequently becomes inspired to create the separation between herself and her family. She wants to make her own music, so to speak.

In the case of Pam, as a wife and mother, she’ll feel little or no need to assert her independence. All she has to do – in order to feel herself again – is step out her back door and cross the lawn to her makeshift art studio in the garage. “It gets great light,” Jim announced when he presented it to her, canvases, easel and necessary art utensils already in place.

Meanwhile, “over the hill,” and unarguably overweight office chum Phyllis is happily married to Bob Vance, Vance Refrigeration. (In case you missed it, he does own his own business!) Phyllis is perhaps my favorite character on the show because her narrative arc shows that romantic dreams really do come true for nice women who aren’t the aesthetic ideal, but who wait their turn with thoughts optimistic. Bob once paid $1,000 for a hug from his wife at a charity auction (the top moneymaker)…and in a later episode, the happy couple abandoned their dinner guests (Jim and Pam, no less) for a sexscapade in the handicapped restroom. (Pam ate some of Bob’s French fries, and helped herself to a bite of his steak too! It just goes to show you that there are two kinds of couples in this world: those who enjoy sex in public bathrooms, and those who wish they did!)

These characters and their antics make me laugh so much that I re-watch episodes, often three or four times. But sometimes I need a little intrigue and that’s when I turn to Damages, starring the incomparable Glenn Close. Her character, Patty Hewes, is wicked to the core and a firecracker of an attorney to boot: in other words, she’s Snow White’s evil stepmother crossed with Alan Dershowitz.

It seems that all the shows I like are wrapping up their seasons – or even going off the air permanently – right now: The L Word (cancelled), Big Love (hiatus), Damages (hiatus), etc. But the one I’ll miss the most – the most revolutionary program in television history, which I just finished watching on DVD in rapid fire succession with the final episodes purchased on Apple TV: Battlestar Galactica. Though it has no mainstream accolades to show for itself, CNN reports that the cast and writers of the show executed one final diplomatic operation at the United Nations before fading into the past. It seems that the struggle for the survival of the human race after its near-anihalation at the hands of renegade cylons (machines, or “toasters”) really struck a chord with post-9/11 political leaders. Like their 1978 shortlived predecessors, Battlestar Galacticans utilized their own expletives (“Frack!” “Mother Fracker!” “Gods dammit!”) but found a way to stay human(e) in the face of near extinction. What can we learn from them?

Captain Kara Thrace and President Laura Roslin

Captain Kara Thrace and President Laura Roslin

For starters, we can learn that women have just as large a role to play in preventing the Apocalypse as do men. So there! The original series portrayed an ill-equipped elected civilian leader who led the human race to ruin with the help of a corrupt count, both male. In the 2003-9 re-imagined series, the civilian leader is transformed from a one-dimensional character into a force to be reckoned with: former Education Secretary turned “dying leader,” President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell). Though suffering from breast cancer for the greater part of the show’s four mammoth seasons, Roslin rarely lets her authority slide. She’s tough when it’s warranted and warm-hearted when she can afford to be. And her winter romance with Admiral Adama is one of the most thoroughly convincing love stories ever to air on television, despite Roslin’s failing health. (I think the original President Adar would have stayed in bed.)

The re-envisioned show also transformed the swashbuckling, womanizing Captain Starbuck (played by pretty boy Dirk Benedict) into the swashbuckling, seductress (I hate the word “slut!”) Captain (Kara Thrace) Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff). I’ve read comments by some women who don’t like this re-imagining because Kara Thrace is rarely feminine and mostly a hard-drinking, hard-punching sex instigator. “Why can’t she be a tough girl who is still a girl?” they wonder.

What do you want her to do? Put on make-up and knit a sweater? She’s a pilot who’s bunk mates with a bunch of other (male) pilots. She’s bound to be a little crass. She smokes cigars, drinks liquor and plays cards with the rest of the pilots…of either sex. It’s how they unwind after a long day of heroics and it sounds good to me!

I like Kara. I like both of these women because I think they work hard and make sacrifices without self-pity, proving that they have the right to be where they are. In the first few episodes, the qualifications that they bring to the table are questioned, first by a cylon skin job (one disguised as a human) and then by the Admiral, among others. I don’t remember anyone ever saying “because she’s a woman” – the show is too subtle for that. It was implied that the question arose as to how much of the burden these women can carry because of their sex.  The answer: all of it! Kara Thrace could pilot a colonial viper after a few rounds of whiskey and Laura Roslin led the survivors of the twelve colonies to “Earth” after a few treatments of chemotherapy.

Even though Battlestar Galactica has ended, there may be an evil cylon or two left in the universe. I guess it will be up to Patty Hewes to…hire a contract killer to assassinate them…or sue them – whichever angle works out best in her favor.

Fem’s “Top Ten” (American narrative feature films)

Posted in Film and Television by femspotter on January 18, 2009

January 18, 2009

I’m not thrilled about the lineup of 2008 motion pictures contending for the coveted Oscar statuette this year. I haven’t seen most of them: that’s how thrilled I’m not. Last year marked the first year I ever walked out of a movie in progress (Pride and Glory) owing to its abysmal condition.

That’s not to say I anticipate that the prestige films will be terrible. After all, even last year’s duds, per audiences and critics alike – such as The Women and The Happening – weren’t really that bad. I’m sure there’s good stuff out there. I am looking forward to Mickey Rourke’s comeback in The Wrestler, as well as the always intriguing Marisa Tomei. And I owe it to my proposed dissertation topic (“New England Suburban Macabre”) to endure the angst of Revolutionary Road – though I think it is prudent for me to read the acclaimed source novel first.

Positive standouts in 2008 – for me – include Pixar’s WALL-E and Werner Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World; neither of which should be mistaken for any kind of fluff filmmaking. In both cases, non-English-speaking creatures capture the viewers’ imaginations; but don’t think for a second that either of these films limits itself to cutesy storytelling devices. Both films contain severe, critical analysis of human behavior. Both examine our human propensity for self-destruction.

But where did all of the interesting women go? Where are the classic heroines like Jane Eyre? Where’s Elizabeth Bennet? Lily Bart?

This past year, I can think of only two films I’ve seen that have posed interesting fuel for discussion about women’s issues: Appaloosa and The Duchess. In the former, a western, a female drifter (Renee Zellweger) arrives in town by train with a single suitcase and finds a way to survive via the gun slinging roughnecks that exist in her path. She emotionally abuses men by telling them she loves them, and then, while they’re not looking, arranges other romantic alliances that will advance her social standing – not to mention her means for survival. Men fall for her because she is elegantly manicured, sweet-smelling and flattering. What an interesting paradox: a woman who works for a living, but doesn’t work for a living. She’s a glorified prostitute…but what other options would a woman in her position have?

For my reaction to The Duchess, check out https://femspotter.wordpress.com/2008/10/11/no-sympathy-for-the-duchess-of-discontent/.

When I can’t come up with an annual “top ten” movies, I start thinking about a larger list: top American narrative feature films of all time. The American Film Institute (AFI) has a comprehensive list, often referred to as the “definitive” list, circa 1998 and revamped in 2007. I would charge myself with writing a feminist rebuttal, but there certainly aren’t 100 female-centered films of sufficient calibre to make for a serious argument. That – in and of itself – is the argument. Many of the films AFI lists do not contain fully realized female characters at all, and yet – they are “great” American movies. And many of the films that have struck me as “feminist” over the years lack the production value or general appeal necessary to convince readers that they should be counted among the great American films – not to mention that so many of them aren’t American in the first place.

So here’s my list of the top ten narrative feature films – made in America – that offer up feminist food for thought; or, at the very least, involve female characters in significant ways. Alas, none were directed by women – neither were any of the AFI films.

Sophia Coppola

Sofia Coppola

As Liz Lemon (Tina Fey – 30 Rock) said in 2008: No one has it harder in this country today than women. It turns out we can’t be President, we can’t be network news anchors, Madonna’s arms look crazy. . .

Apparently, we can’t direct major motion pictures either! Only three women have ever been nominated for the Oscar in the directing category, and of those, one was American (Sofia Coppola – 2004). Since AFI accounts for awards recognition as one criterion for its list, naturally, women directors and their films have been excluded. My criteria are as follows: 1)American made, 2) something “fem” to talk about and 3) you won’t laugh at me…much!

  1. All About Eve (1950) – AFI #28
  2. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – AFI #67, moved off the list in 2007
  3. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
  4. Bambi (1942)
  5. In the Bedroom (2001)
  6. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
  7. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
  8. Sling Blade (1996)
  9. Terms of Endearment (1983)
  10. Fargo (1996) – AFI #84, moved off the list in 2007

Sticking to American masterworks, I have excluded some of my personal feminist favorites, like foreign gems The Piano and Muriel’s Wedding; as well as three American female-centered films The Dead Girl, Waitress and Secretary, ironically liberating despite their titles. But the list includes films I could use to launch discussion in a college class about women as the subject of narrative film, even though, in many cases, the women are peripheral to the central male figures.

Some films that you might consider to be obviously missing – like Another Woman, Boys Don’t Cry, The Color Purple, The Miracle Worker and Sophie’s Choice (AFI #91) – contain great performances, even though they aren’t great films. But that’s a blog for another day.

It really is a man’s business: making movies!

1. All About Eve (1950)

The title suggests that this story will be “all about Eve” Harrington (Anne Baxter); but the truth of the matter is that this witty and enduring film set in the New York stage scene of the 1940’s is all about Margo Channing, the aging actress. In a culture that validates mainly youth and beauty in women, Channing – fabulously portrayed by the aging Bette Davis (age 42), in her comeback role, with every relevant chuckle and sneer – forgets, that while she’s reaping the benefits of fame and fortune, there’s always someone younger and hungrier waiting in the wings to usurp the throne. There’s perhaps not a more relevant topic to women in every walk of life in every era: the feeling of becoming obsolete as we age and lose the sparkle of our youth. Men don’t get older…they become distinguished. Sean Connery will never be “old;” he’s “noble,” “stately” and “refined.” Men don’t age as much as they accrue wisdom and experience.

Apparently, women just get old…or they get fake. Just ask plastic surgery casualty Joan Rivers!

Anne Baxter and Bette Davis

Anne Baxter and Bette Davis

2. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Speaking of age, Angela Lansbury was 36 years-old when she played the proverbial corruption of motherhood in this taut thriller, just three years older than Laurence Harvey who played her son. Mrs. Iselin – the brain behind her oaf of a husband, Senator Iselin, as he makes a bid for President – is one of the most ruthless, yet memorable women of American cinema history. While most parents of our literary and cinematic tradition wish the quality of life of their children to exceed their own, Iselin uses and abuses her son for her own advancement. Power-hungry and stealthy (a traditionally masculine combination), Iselin is as delicious as she is appalling. We applaud the woman who makes her own rules, and hate the mother who makes a mess of her son’s psyche. Iselin has many layers to her personality, while other female characters have few or only just one.

Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey

Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey

3. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

The pleasure derived from any serious courtroom drama that delights in analyzing women’s undergarments is immeasurably increased by George C. Scott acrimoniously shouting the word “panties” through clenched teeth; and that’s just what happens in this Otto Preminger classic. The reason for designating the word is so that the court of law – all male and held in great esteem – can determine whether or not the premeditated murder of an alleged rapist was warranted. The rape victim, wife to the murderer, is known for her sexual promiscuity, and so the film broaches the additional question: was the rape warranted?

Sexuality is tricky and has historically been suspect in women. Men often fear women who exhibit a desire for physical love. Can this desire be controlled? Will it unleash the unfathomable male appetite for sensual sin? I’m sure we can all agree that women have the right to safety…even when their attire is less than modest. Well…all of us, except Barney Quill who raped a flirtatious woman and now lies dead in his grave.

George C. Scott and Kathryn Grant

George C. Scott and Kathryn Grant

4. Bambi (1942)

“Your mother can’t be with you anymore.” This is unarguably one of the most crushing statements ever uttered on film. Often, in the animal kingdom, motherhood is an all-inclusive parenthood. This is the case with most mammals that engage in polygamous unions. The male often lives alone, fathering offspring as the occasion arises. The female nurtures her babies until they are able to forge their own lives equipped with the knowledge of how best to survive. Mom did it this way, so they do it the same way. Father was nowhere to be found.

“The Great Prince of the Forest” – also known as the stag who knocked up Bambi’s nameless mother – levies this heavy verdict upon Bambi after his mother is shot by hunters. She (“Mother”) represents the bravest and most self-sacrificing maternal figure on this list. We have: corrupt mother (2), jilted mother (5), betrayed mother (6), pathetic mother (7), helpless mother (8), insecure, overbearing mother (9), and hardworking expectant mother (10). But Bambi’s mother transcends mundane maternity and reaches iconic status as one of the first of many murdered (or just plain dead) mothers in family cinema history. Experts tell us that little children feel more secure in their home environments when they’re exposed to a little scary fiction. There’s nothing scarier than a dead mother to a 3, 4, 5 or 6 year-old. That’s why Disney repeated this same motif again – hesitantly at first, and why classic short stories are full of wicked stepmothers. If mother is everything (both parents and all hope for survival), then the fear that she could cease to be entirely is overwhelming to viewers. In the case of Bambi, mother is all or nothing: she exists as the perfect model of female evolution in her species, or she is dead. And that’s what makes the other mothers on this list so interesting: they will never be perfect mothers. Neither will we…there’s no such person!

"Mother" and Bambi

"Mother" and Bambi

5. In the Bedroom (2001)

Indulge me on this one. I originally had it placed in the number 1 spot because I think it is the greatest American drama ever made. I’m fascinated by contemporary stories of New England families and how these stories are rooted in – and often times retelling – the great American literary classics that were spawned during more primitive stages of the American lifespan in geographic areas where this county found its genesis. This film takes a look at an American family identity (military identity; New England identity; affluent, white, educated identity). When it comes to women and our issues, In the Bedroom shows us how difficult it is for an educated, working mother (Sissy Spacek) to relax her influence over her only child as he grows into adulthood. She is rigid and has designed a list of unspoken rules for him. She shuts him out emotionally, rarely showing him love through words or gestures. Women who share this pathology with Spacek’s character might know that such underhanded manipulation often backfires. The son – in what Freud would deem an Oedipal tendency – lusts after an altogether different matriarchal figure (Marisa Tomei), one who doesn’t seek to control or pressure but instead encourages and listens to her own children. I don’t want to betray every plot detail, but I will say that I appreciate the scrutiny that the film employs to examine the way such a manipulative woman is able to control her malleable husband. This is not a caricature but a sharply observed and evenly rendered character study.

I know real women just like this one.

Sissy Spacek

Sissy Spacek

6. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

In the last five films, motherhood is repeatedly examined. Unlike the case of the villainous mother in The Manchurian Candidate, these mothers are well-intentioned, if somewhat flawed, human beings (aren’t we all?). They are (respectively) duped, weak, helpless, competitive and critical, and finally distracted. In the case of Rosemary, viewers adopt her perspective because director Roman Polanski’s makes clever use of sound. Being inside Rosemary’s apartment in New York City is like being inside her head, with “Fur Elise” playing in one corner of her mind and doorbells ringing in another. The film also stages two disorienting dream sequences shown from her perspective. Viewers are appalled by the betrayal made by her self-centered, fame-hungry husband because we have looked through Rosemary’s eyes when he (as the hairy incarnation of Satan) rapes her. Were we not manipulated to take on Rosemary’s perspective, we might not experience such a visceral reaction to the things that she endures.

Mia Farrow

Mia Farrow

7. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

This film also places a naïve young woman at the feet of a despicable male character, and it is a difficult challenge for this woman to build a barrier between this vile man (the murderer of wealthy widows) and her unsuspecting mother. In fact, this Alfred Hitchcock classic presents quite the opposite of a feminist perspective and, in doing so, forces viewers to argue back. The killer’s rationale for killing women is as follows:

The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands, dead, husbands who’ve spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. And then they die and leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money, proud of their jewelry but of nothing else, horrible, faded, fat, greedy women… Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?

The young female protagonist points out that these women he resents are human beings. We, the audience, nod. “Are they?” he asks us. Yes!

Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright

Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright

8. Sling Blade (1996)

Sling Blade gives us the male perspective of a mentally handicapped drifter named Karl, who, as a child, had murdered his mother because she was having sex with someone other than his father, but who learns to appreciate the pitiable position of another mother and subsequently rescinds his earlier insistence that the murder was warranted. Why? He changes his mind because he realizes that in the cases of both women, angry men control (or controlled) their lives and they have few, if any, alternatives to breaking propriety.

The portrait of a working class mother in this film demonstrates her limitations (mental, emotional, financial, etc.) while exposing her grace and kindness. In fact, this entire film is a celebration of kindness; and the aforementioned mother is heroically kind in the face of her own personal tragedy (the suicide of her husband) and the violence of her hateful new beau. She even makes Karl biscuits from scratch in the middle of the night, with less than a few hours to sleep before going to work as a clerk in a dollar store. Additionally, she is the only person in this rural Southern (United States) town to befriend homosexuals.

Billy Bob Thornton and Natalie Canerday

Billy Bob Thornton and Natalie Canerday

9. Terms of Endearment (1983)

Terms of Endearment is an accurate portrait of the relationship between a controlling mother and her daughter, who consistently falls beneath her mother’s expectations. Aurora wants Emma to be happy and successful, but not for Emma’s own happiness’ sake, for her mother’s. Aurora measures her own success, as a woman and mother, by the success of her daughter. I believe this type of competitive relationship, where a mother resents her daughter’s limitations as reflections on her lack of maternal competency, to be common in our American culture, which validates success in sports and beauty in strictly pass/fail or win/lose terms. American cinema has yet to fully reflect this dynamic in women much beyond Terms of Endearment. Classic American works like Death of a Salesman, might have you believe that parents only want the best for their children for their children’s sake. In truth, parents often want the best for their children to measure their own success as parents. Aurora questions and critiques every one of Emma’s choices because they are less than the best in Aurora’s estimation.

Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine

Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine

10. Fargo (1996)

Motherhood is a pervasive theme to examine in my ten, but it is Frances McDormand’s portrayal of pregnant Police Chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo that makes a great cap to this list and finds feminists divided on the issue of motherhood and whether or not it should be a self-sacrificing pursuit. Some might argue that Marge is the pinnacle of what feminists should aspire to: a strong, working woman in a professional position of authority. And she can have it all, they say: a career, a loving husband, a comfortable home and a child to call her own. Other feminists who view motherhood as a pursuit worthy of total focus might argue that Marge is selfish in her professional function where she may be shot and killed, her baby along with her, at any moment. The issue is polarizing. If you’re a feminist like me, you have yet to side with either group. Whatever you believe, Fargo is a great film to see if – for no other reason – you want to bask in one of the great cinematic performances by an American actress.

Frances McDormand and John Carroll Lynch

Frances McDormand and John Carroll Lynch

—–

The reason for compiling a list of this type is to encourage people to view and discuss these works. (There’s certainly more that can be written about each one of these films.) AFI wants you to watch and consider Citizen Kane and Raging Bull, etc. As a feminist film critic, I want you to see these and other motion pictures with an open mind. With so few feminist film critics working in the mainstream media, you may not have considered these and other films in this way before. Maybe you have and perhaps you even have ideas about other films that warrant a fresh look at the way they too challenge phallocentrism in cinema. The more we watch and the more we raise our voices in forums like this, the greater the chance becomes to change the way Hollywood understands and portrays women, and the more plentiful the opportunities for women as creators of cinema will become.

Dinner with Tina Fey

Posted in Film and Television, Humor, Personal Essays by femspotter on November 8, 2008

November 8, 2008

Over the past couple of months – as I have let the frequency of my posting slide some owing to a hefty workload at my new job and a stressful PhD application process – I have spent my leisure time observing the antics of one delightful Tina Fey. A fan of 30 Rock and Mean Girls, I usually think of her as Liz Lemon, feminist television writer/producer extraordinaire, or the encouraging high school math teacher with a second job as a button-wearing bartender at the local mall; but in the last few weeks, I have gotten to know her as an Emmy winner, a Sarah Palin dead ringer, and as a pair of sexy legs sprawled out on the “Weekend Update” desk on the Saturday Night Live television set.

Tina Fey CU

Tina Fey WS

Those are great legs! But what we all really love about Fey is her shtick: a wry and bold sense of humor that appeals to everybody: from 10-year-old boys who love fart jokes, to girly girls who laugh at pop culture satire. She is beloved for her brain in the way, historically, so few women have been – and that’s what makes her special.

If I went to a party and we decided to play the game in which everybody announces the five people, living or dead, they’d invite to dinner, I would definitely choose Tina Fey as one of my guests. True, she’s alive and the possibility does exist that our paths might cross and I would get to ask her a thing or two about how she started her career as a writer and eventually became a renowned film and television personality. But I don’t want to risk it: so she’d be my living guest sitting next to other famous women who lived and achieved notoriety in an earlier time.

During this game, somebody would of course say “Jesus.” “I would invite Jesus for sure,” he or she would announce. Then, the rest of us would sigh because our choices are less noble.

“Hitler,” one would shout. I’d frown. “Abraham Lincoln!” Hmmm…okay. “Julius Caesar.” I like that last one to be sure.

But alas, my choices would be: Lizzie Borden, Joan of Arc, Edith Wharton and Heloise, wife of Peter Abelard and brilliant scholar by her own merit. Having dispensed with the delicious appetizer (fried mozzarella or an insalata caprese – whatever has cheese), we’d get right down to business. “Ms. Borden, did you really kill your father and stepmother with a hatchet?” I ask.

“And Joan, was it hot under that armor as you marched into battle, driving the English out of France?”

“Ms. Wharton, do tell me whether or not you intended readers to derive a moral from the story of Ethan Frome?”

“Heloise, was the sex with Abelard really that good?”

Yes. Yes. No. Yes. But what I really want to talk about is Tina Fey and her rise to stardom: “How were you able to cultivate a successful Hollywood career and be mother to a beautiful female toddler at precisely the same time?”

“What do you really think of Sarah Palin?”

“Describe for me your take on feminism: are we beyond needing it or is there still a reason to stand up and fight for equal rights, equal pay and control over our own bodies? Do you think women are our own worst enemies?”

“And do you really hate flip flops (because if I had my way, I’d wear flip flops all the time)?”

When I think of Tina Fey carrying that cardboard tray of hot dogs in the series opener of 30 Rock, I can’t help but grin. I remind myself by a handwritten post-it stuck on my computer screen: “Don’t buy all the hot dogs,” it reads.

See, Liz Lemon was standing in line to buy a hot dog from a street vendor one day when somebody cut in front of her and she got so mad that she bought the entire cart of hot dogs just to maintain the integrity of the principle of the thing. That’s something I want to do everyday – more or less – but I don’t because I have the post-it. “Don’t buy all the hot dogs”…even if you really, really, really want to.

So, once I pay due attention to my favorite serial killer, warrior, author and romantic, I want nothing more than to split the warm, flour-less chocolate cake with the woman who has broken almost every barrier and every mold. (Perhaps I should have asked Hillary Clinton instead of Joan.) But no, I’m talking about Tina Fey and her wonderful, crooked grin that seems to say, “R*****, I know exactly who you are, because I’m just like you…and nobody understands you better than me.”

Then, we have a good Scotch, a good cry and a good hug. And I thank her for giving little girls somebody warm, strong and funny to look up to. Because, when you think about it, there really is noone else who doesn’t make them feel fat or stupid if they let them. Tina Fey helps us feel comfortable in our own skin.

%d bloggers like this: