The Fem Spot

Fem’s “Top Ten” (English language narrative feature films of 2009)

Posted in Film and Television by femspotter on January 3, 2010

January 3, 2010

Last year, 2009, was a great year for women’s issues in English language cinema. Though mainstream critics may have missed the boat on most of them, I hereby take it upon myself to rate 10 films on two scales: 1. relevance to contemporary feminism and 2. cinematic achievement. Each scale allows me to designate films 1 – 10 and then add the two numbers together for a final total, which determines placement on the list. With this system in play, I present a “Top Ten” ranking that includes fair to outstanding movies that American audiences witnessed in 2009. An asterisk (*) denotes a film that would appear on a “Top Ten” list based solely on criterion 2.  I’d like to point out that I am not a real film critic – as in, even though I’ve studied film, nobody pays me to see and write about movies, for shame! – so I’ve seen movies on my budget. If I’ve missed any that you think belong here, let me know and I’ll look for them on DVD or consider amending the list.

Keep an open mind and enjoy!

10.  The Proposal (1:5, 2:2 = 7)

Crazy am I? I did not thoroughly enjoy this silly film when I sat through it with two new girlfriends last spring; however, I did stop and think about something the moment the film’s protagonist (Sandra Bullock) admits to crying in the bathroom after a messy, public argument with a subordinate colleague. That sounded to me like something I might have done. To avoid showing any signs of weakness, I would have hightailed it to the ladies’ room where I’d be free to be…well, a lady. Let’s face it: sometimes women do need a good cry. Crying relieves tension and stress and helps to clear emotions from our minds so that we can be more like…well, men. Bullock’s character is no exception. She’s a woman trying to adapt to a “male model of careerism,” the model that predates the Second Wave of Feminism. But the question that I pondered during the latter half of this movie, chuckling here or there, I admit: why are women adapting to male careerism rather than working to make the workplace adapt to us?

This isn’t always the case, at least not in the United States. We have achieved maternity leave and pay. In some if not most cases, we’ve worked toward equality of treatment and pay on the job. But that still leaves the crying: every working girl knows that she can’t cry at work either because she once did (guilty!) and then found herself subsequently ostracized for it, or because she’s seen it happen to somebody else.

The bathroom is for doing things we hide from public view and crying is something that we believe belongs out of sight and out of mind. But if you’re used to work bathrooms with rusty sinks, musty smells and nowhere but the toilet to relax, why should your temporary moment of emotional relief be sequestered to a 3 by 5-foot area that faces a sign reading “If you sprinkle when you tinkle…”? Some offices now have nap rooms. Perhaps they should also have cry rooms.

9.  Observe and Report (1:6, 2:2 = 8)

Moderately humorous at times, but overall a painful examination of naked male insecurity, I point to this film solely for the “date rape” dilemma that ensued following its release into theaters. (For clarity, I don’t think this instance counts as a date rape – which is an ambiguity intended by the filmmakers, I suppose – because the man involved is clearly not able to distinguish that the woman is under the influence of drugs and alcohol and not consenting to their sex for two reasons: 1. he’s deranged and 2. she yells, “Why are you stopping, motherfucker?!” in the middle of it all. It’s a disgusting scene nonetheless and certainly NOT funny.) Here’s the setup: a woman agrees to go on a date with a man she barely knows and while having dinner consumes much alcohol and some of his prescription anxiety medication, of her own volition. She subsequently vomits and he, reacting to this ugly display, affectionately kisses her and tells her he accepts her just as she is. Cut to: he’s humping her while she’s passed out, he pauses when there’s no reaction, she awakens and insists he keep going and…the scene ends. Yuck!

Do I detesteth too much? I think not. While this scene would be more compelling as a date rape admonition with one of two additional factors – he’s cognisant that she’s in no condition to give consent or she tries to fight him off – it still serves to warn viewers against the dangers of abusing drugs and alcohol at all, let alone in close proximity to somebody you don’t know well enough to trust with your safety. Take heed, ladies. Avoid this scenario at all costs. We have to try and protect ourselves from idiotic men and would-be rapists. We owe ourselves that much and more.

On the one hand, I recommend women see this film/scene for its sobering ugliness; but on the other hand, I think these filmmakers should be forced to clean toilets with toothbrushes for trivializing an issue that IS a serious problem in the U.S. AND EVERYWHERE ELSE!

8. Away We Go (1:5, 2:5 = 10)

Maya Rudolph, John Krasinski and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Away We Go

This is a film about parenthood and more specifically, motherhood. It is primarily a woman’s story and one that involves the searching for home and identity before the birth of one’s child. As seen through the eyes of its unconventional lead (Saturday Night Live alum Maya Rudolph – charming!), existing mothers are either disinterested in their children, detached from reality, obsessive-compulsive or long-suffering. She doesn’t want to be any of these mothers and searches for a way to balance self and motherhood. This is a must-see for any woman grappling with the idea of who we women become as we become mothers and what are the most important things we take with us as components of our identities as we travel through life.

7. Sunshine Cleaning (1:7, 2:5 = 12)

For this touching odyssey of two underachieving sisters going into business for themselves, filmmakers interviewed two real-life women business owners about the realities of crime scene cleanup…and those women confirm that Sunshine Cleaning got it just right. The biggest battle women face in life is perhaps the one we face when looking at ourselves, honestly, and accounting for our choices or lack thereof. Does the former cheerleader turned single mom and maid (Amy Adams) want to rely on the approval of a married man, her lover, as the sole support for her fragile ego? Does her pothead, deadbeat sister (Emily Blunt) want to always cower in the shadow of their dead mother? No and no. And the way out is to stand up tall, dig their heals in and make lemonade from some very sour lemons.

True, crime scene cleanup is not the most glamorous profession – in fact, it may be the least glamorous profession there is. But this film reminds us feminists that good business practices and a strong work ethic can help us distinguish ourselves as conquerors of our American Capitalist economy. Remember to support women owned and operated businesses whenever possible to help empower the women in your immediate locale.

6.  *Inglourious Basterds (1:5, 2:8  = 13)

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to create an epic poem of a movie about Nazi Germany. I loved nearly every moment of this witty, at times intentionally campy and spirited tribute to…well, itself: epic cinema! While female director Kathryn Bigelow turned out a more conventional war narrative in 2009 that has people talking “Best Director” Oscar for the first woman ever (The Hurt Locker),  it is the unconventional spirit of this war narrative that forces me to think about the way our culture glorifies and skews violence. And speaking of unconventionality, get a load of the women in Inglourious Basterds: they are forces to be reckoned with! At once full of sly vengeance and a commitment to ending violence, these women in disguise (adeptly portrayed by Melanie Laurent and Diane Kruger) are essential players in a cruel and gratuitous game, in much the same way their warrior predecessors like Boudica and Joan of Arc were before them. In short: never underestimate a woman’s ability to fight for a (noble) cause.

Melanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds

5.  *Avatar (1:6, 2:8 = 14)

Also on the subject of women and the war/peace effort, this bold and visually hypnotic fairytale focuses on a fictional alien goddess-worshiping, spiritually matriarchal culture where men and women fight, hunt, harvest and pray together as equals. It’s beautiful! And as for the human world that Director James Cameron presents: women may not be calling all the shots there, but they do harness their own moral agency in science and diplomacy.

This trend of exploring female agency is not new for Cameron, who brought us the adventurous heroics of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Lindsey Brigman in The Abyss (1989), and Jamie Lee Curis’ Helen Tasker in True Lies (1994). In fact, when I think of these movies, I don’t think of Arnold Schwarzenegger saying “I’ll be back;” in fact, I don’t think of men at all. I think of Hamilton doing pull-ups, Mastrantonio volunteering to drown in an aquatic vessel filling with freezing water, and Curtis doing a wacky strip tease thinking she’s a spy. These are fantasies I enjoy participating in: I’d love to save the world, save the man I love or at least spend 24 hours thinking I’m clever enough to master international espionage. And in real life, I take this fantasy, this agency, and apply it to the things I can change: the lives of the people I know and love. Kudos to Cameron for injecting feminism into the action film genre that’s generally devoid of interesting women.

As for female agency in Avatar, let us not forget that Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine and Michelle Rodriguez’s Trudy Chacon say “No” to the carnage of this alien culture and fight to preserve it. And on the side of the Na ‘vi, Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri adopts a foreign soldier and teaches him to respect life rather than destroy it. And he, in turn, respects her life and her choices. She tells him he can choose a woman as a lifelong mate, and he responds, “But she must also choose me.” If only this were the way all men looked at women’s choices…

4. *Bright Star (1:6 2:9 = 15)

Edie Martin and Abbie Cornish in Bright Star

Of course, not every film can be a landmark feminist achievement like Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993). But Campion has done again and again what so few filmmakers can: understand and visualize the female condition. Bright Star is no exception. Rather than telling a straightforward narrative of revered poet John Keats, Campion tells the story – or rather maps the emotional landscape – of Keats’ great love, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish in a breathtaking performance). This isn’t your typical love story; this is instead a flight of fancy wherein a passionate girl designs and wears elaborate fashions that depict her sense of self, and secludes butterflies in her bedroom, where she daydreams and cries and pines the days away. What teenage girl didn’t endure this experience…or what felt like this experience? And Keats almost becomes irrelevant…he might as well be David Bowie (to me) or Justin Timberlake (to somebody else), etc. At once, Bright Star is a romance AND an exclusive journey into the soul of a prurient teenage girl. Nobody visualizes female sexuality like Campion!

3. *Julie & Julia (1:10, 2:7 = 17)

Further proof that he needs to retire, Roger Ebert chastised the characterizations of the husbands of Jule Powell and Julia Child in his review of this film.  “Both husbands are, frankly, a little boring,” he wrote. “They’ve been assigned their supporting roles in their marriages and are reluctant to question the singlemindedness of their wives…if the men had been portrayed as more high-spirited, (the film) might have taken on intriguing dimensions.”

Well, Mr. Ebert, I (respectfully) disagree with you on several points. The husbands aren’t boring; they’re just NOT in a movie ABOUT THEM. Quelle suprise! This is a movie, as the title clearly states, about Julie and Julia. This is a movie about women finding their identities from what you so patronizingly refer to as their “singlemindedness.” And yet, to Director Nora Ephron’s credit, I do know what each husband does for a living and what he is passionate about. She didn’t even have to give us that. We female film audiences have sat through many a good movie with poorly (under)written female characters. We’re entitled to a movie about real women now and again, don’t you agree?

And you can’t ask for a better, more sensitive, more nuanced portrayal of a supportive husband than that given by the great Stanley Tucci as Diplomat Paul Child! I hope he gets the Oscar. So there: the Oscar winner I’d like to see come out of this movie is one of your “boring” husbands!

Julie & Julia is about two women who discover their strengths and generate feelings of self-worth, ironically, in the kitchen. Julia Child can’t have children – that is her great sadness – but she leaves her mark on us in other ways. We love her joy, her bliss: her loves of food, wine and sex! And Julie Powell’s sadness comes from feeling like she’s a 30-year-old failure. “Will I be a writer?” she asks herself. “You are a writer.”

Just because nobody pays me for this blog, doesn’t mean I’m not a writer. I am a writer. This is the identity I create for myself.

2.  *Precious (1:10, 2:8 = 18)

The very fact that Director Lee Daniels had to go outside of traditional casting methods to find the right actress (Gabby Sidibe, a bright, shining beacon of realism) to portray a morbidly obese black teenager, pregnant with her own father’s second child, goes to show you that Hollywood has it all backwards when it comes to women. Not only could I not get enough of peering into Sidibe’s stunning yet stoic face, but I left the theater wishing there was another movie playing that could move me in the same way: force me to look at real women squarely in the eyes and accept us. For that’s what Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones does: she goes from looking in a mirror and seeing a white, skinny, conventionally beautiful teenager (her fantasy self) to looking in the mirror and seeing a strong, black, finally literate teenager (her real self). This film took my breath away!

The film also demonstrates how misogyny and racism often work hand in hand to hurt women. There are truths about the black, Harlem culture revealed in this story and the way the women therein are taught to (de)value themselves (i.e. the number of children you have denotes self-worth, there’s no possibility for survival/advancement beyond the welfare office, etc.) that form the backbone for a formidable thesis: illiteracy, poverty and self-hatred form a cultural cycle that is nearly impossible to break. Just look at the shocking, albeit beautiful, posters for the film:

The first image shows how the sexual identity of Precious has fallen prey to a violent man, her own father – as well as her own jealous mother. The second image invokes thoughts of pre-Civil War southern (U.S.) black domesticity. And finally, the third image sets us, the viewers, free. Precious will grow; she will change; she will fly. And we get to go on this journey with her. (Note: Precious is the film adaptation of the novel Push by Sapphire, which may be worth reading for additional thematic material not found in the film.)

1.  *Coraline (1:10, 2:9 = 19)

When I was a girl, I was sometimes unhappy. I was not unlike Coraline, but it wasn’t just my name that people misunderstood: it was my frustration at being born with a perception that didn’t match those in my immediate locale. That’s why, when I went to see Coraline in theaters last February, I wept like a baby when a little girl, not unlike me, crossed into a (dream) world where women are as beautiful as they imagine themselves to be and parents seem interested in the life of their child, only to find out that in order to stay in this fantasy place, she has to sew buttons over her eyes. In other words, she has to blind herself to the fantasy in order to live it. There’s nothing like showing somebody a wonderful world of options and then taking all options away except one! That’s cruel and unusual punishment.

Coraline is adapted from a novella for youth by Neil Gaiman, but much of the visual artistry is the brain child of the filmmakers who rendered stop-motion animation flawlessly to create a female-identified real world and a female-identified, even vaginal, alternate universe. In the former, Coraline and her parents rent an apartment in a grand, pink Victorian house. There’s a black cat (a pussycat) always watching her, two old ladies, hard of hearing, living in the basement, a talkative boy whom Coraline detests, and a circus performer with a collection of mice living in the attic.  These creatures are present in the alternate world but, like Coraline’s father, the men are rendered dumb, even absent, while the women reach their former glory as vivacious Vaudevillian starlets and the mother, “the Belle Dame,” rules with an iron fist.

You're a long way from home, Coraline Jones.

You're a long way from home, Coraline Jones.

At first Coraline is tempted to travel the vaginal tunnel to eat the tasty food prepared by her “other mother,” to wander the ovarian gardens with her “other father” who gives her the time of day… But once the buttons come out, she knows something is wrong and she decides that disinterested parents and gray clothes are better than a fate of self-induced blindness, when one can’t see the things one wishes were true when they ARE true and right before one’s eyes.

This story hit me like a ton of bricks. What we women want are choices. What we NEED are choices. Coraline represents what girls have historically suffered: knowing there’s more to life than what they’re offered, but feeling powerless to achieve the more. Coraline is the reason we founded feminism and she’s the reason why feminist empowerment, the agency to find and seize our choices, is the most important thing that we can inspire in our daughters and the women we know who aren’t already empowered to choose the things they want in life.

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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.

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