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, intern, or student; it’s a 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 question fundamental cultural structures and recognizing how they shape the reality that we experience every day. There are other perspectives that fulfill this same function, but I was raised a feminist, by feminists, so this is often my critical angle.
Now, time for a confession: I love (and I mean LOVE) romantic comedies. As someone who really loves the art of film and tries to be knowledgeable about it, there’s certainly no lack of shame in my admitting this. But no matter how much I love Kubrick and Renoir, there’s nothing that comforts me like watching two people kiss and make up and live happily ever after.
I’m not even talking about the great screwball comedies of the studio era, where ladies like Claudette Colbert, Rosalind Russell, and Katherine Hepburn showed up with moxie and smarts and wound up in the arms of Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart. No, I’m talking about the trite, glossy, dime-a-dozen movies that perhaps 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 Colin Firth.
These movies are an excuse to go out at 10 PM 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. But lately, something keeps dragging me back to the reality of the dingy movie theater even while I try to live vicariously through the glowing people on the screen.
I’ve seen a lot of movies this summer: (500) Days of Summer and Away We Go, two sweet and vaguely funky indie love stories, almost satisfied by need for romance. Both told modern stories about couples that I actually felt like I knew, and while gender roles weren’t necessarily turned on their heads, they weren’t set in stone either.
But these movies didn’t boast the superficial glow of The Proposal and The Ugly Truth, so of course I had to go see those too. I can always watch Sandra Bullock, and Ryan Reynolds isn’t hard to look at either. Parts of the movie were kind of funny, and it was nothing if not cute (the key word when it comes to rom-coms, of course), but instead of leaving the theater feeling chipper, I was just frustrated.
Here’s a quick version of the film: Maggie (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. She spends most of her time picking on her lowly assistant Andrew, played by Reynolds, but the tables turn when she suddenly needs him to marry her in order to avoid deportation.
The two wind up in his hometown in Alaska, where Andrew turns out to be (surprise, surprise!) heir to a massive fortune. He also finally gains control over his demanding boss, and when Maggie can no longer intimidate Andrew, she unravels. Once she reveals that she is, in fact, vulnerable and lonely and cries all the time, Andrew starts falling in love. But it’s the final kiss that puts it all together: just as Maggie’s about to leave her job and return to Canada (having called off their sham wedding), Andrew shows up at the office, where everyone is cowering in their cubicles to hide from the witch. He comes in and makes a dramatic scene in front of their co-workers, promptly reveals every embarrassing secret she shared with him to all those who had once feared her, liberates them from her reign of terror, and when she begins to protest his advances, he suddenly yells at her to “shut up.” As he kisses her, a co-worker yells “You show her who’s boss, Andrew!” Fade to black.
Why, Sandra? Why, Ryan? Why does it have to be like this? I mean, I am trying, really trying, to enjoy this movie. I will gawk at your pretty clothes and flawlessly Botox-ed skin and impossibly chiseled abs, and never question how you could possibly look like that first thing in the morning… but why that story? The story where the powerful working women can only gain power through fear, 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 he only love her when he’s the boss? Why can’t she have more money than him, more power than him? If this had been a story about a high-powered man falling in love with his secretary, I doubt things would have played out the same way.
When I came out of the theater with my two younger sisters, one a college sophomore and the other an eighth grader, I made a point not to bring up these grievances right away, knowing that they had surely loved the movie and would be unsympathetic. Not wanting to be the stereotypical “angry feminist,” not wanting to scare away people who, while being just as strong-willed and feminist in their living as I, would never sacrifice the joy of a mind-number like this one, I cooed over Ryan Reynolds and recalled every pratfall. And then, tentatively, I brought it up:
“It kind of sucks that the movie had to have the same ‘working women can’t love’ storyline. I mean, she couldn’t keep at least a little of her professional dignity and get the man?” Immediately, both of my sisters 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 worst part is that this film isn’t simplifying women for the sake of men; it’s for other women. Rom-coms are all about escapism; they take place in the ideal, not the real. But apparently the idea of a woman having power and love at the same time is just one step too far in the direction of the ridiculous.
So, The Proposal was, as escape goes, a failure; try, try again. So I saw The Ugly Truth. Abby (played by Katherine Heigl, a woman who’s teeth are so white that it’s impossible to see anything else on screen) is a 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, Mike (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!
I’ll admit, I set myself up for this one; after all, the title graphic for the film includes a white bathroom-sign female with a heart in her head on the left, while on the right is a male sign with his heart on his crotch. So, perhaps the subtext of this film was not so… well… sub.
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 perhaps 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 still perpetuated, when you realize that you, like millions of other women, paid money in support of your own oppression, it’s irritating. But only when I face the indifference of my own sisters, whose own aspirations can soar so high only because of the feminist movement, do I become angry.
My sisters, and millions of young women like them, have grown up believing that they could be anything that they want, that their gender would 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 be called eventually be called “bitches” for using whatever power they’ve earned.
It’s difficult to tell people that feminism still matters, especially when they’re just looking to be hypnotized by Katherine Heigl’s pearly whites. No one wants to evaluate their entertainment on moral grounds. But 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 vision: women forced to wear burkas or raped during wars need the help of feminists; if a woman can make it into a high-paying job, she ought to be able to fend for herself. But these larger injustices are the products of a fundamentally sexist culture. It’s time we stopped trying to tune out the evidence all around us and started openly, honestly talking about what it means, and how to change it.