Just so you know, spoilers abound.
Every time I saw the trailer for The Ugly Truth, I thought, “Oooh, I can’t wait to see that.” I love both Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler, and I love rom coms. I’ve already debunked any accusations of film snobbery, so that can hardly be surprising. Then, before seeing it with Becks, I read a review of the movie on NPR, knowing as I did so that the reviewer would hate it and it wouldn’t change my desire to see the movie one iota, as much as I adore NPR.
And Ella Taylor did seem to hate The Ugly Truth, as her review begins, “Sit up straight, girls, the he-men are back to instruct you in what women really want.” And while there were places where I physically winced or I just didn’t feel like the movie was all that great, I actually don’t agree with Taylor’s arguments about who this movie is for and what it’s saying. She’s addressing women alone, but we exist in a film market that has started (finally) making some blatant attempts to reach more of the audience quadrants than romantic comedies have traditionally expected to reach. Yeah, probably most of the men in the audience were still there with girlfriends or wives or really good gal pals. But I suspect The Ugly Truth was trying to entertain not only the boys once they were there, but also the women who loved The Hangover and Judd Apatow movies, who really dig the big blockbuster/comic book/fantasy movies that were traditionally the realm of boys [The newest EW has an article by Christine Spines called “Horror Films and the Women Who Love Them,” which I can’t seem to find online at the moment, but Diablo Cody (ahem, Juno) has a great quote, “Growing up, I was absolutely mesmerized by the horror section at the local video store. It wasn’t a particularly feminine compulsion, and my parents didn’t want me watching that crap.”]
So the problems I had with the movie was where it felt like it hadn’t really identified itself or its audience – because probably it wanted to be many things at once and reach as many of the quadrants as possible. With audiences gobbling up Borat (but not so much Bruno), Talladega Nights, Stepbrothers and Pineapple Express, the over-the-top-but-sadly-incredibly-realistic shock jockness of Gerard Butler’s character Mike Chadway, appeals. But in that stroke of classic romantic comedy convention (that works here, perhaps saves the movie), while both Abby and Mike both think that his he-man instructions are getting Abby what she wants – they aren’t. She gets exactly what she thought she wanted – her checklist boyfriend – using Mike’s techniques (which, if you’re honest with yourself, do work at least in a surface, introductory way even in real life, even if they are loathsome), but she realizes that the “perfect” candidate works on paper, but rarely in real life. The scene between Abby and her checklist boyfriend in the hotel room works for me because of Katherine Heigl’s gut-wrenching, “Who would love somebody like that?” realization. She sees herself for who she is, doesn’t entirely like herself and is frightened that nobody will love her for and despite that person – and that is an utterly true realization, whether you’re a woman or a man (a girl or a boy, a proud feminist or a “I’m not a feminist but” feminist or not a feminist at all). But the amazing thing for me is that, though she’s not sure she can be loved for who she is, she can’t close the deal with the checklist boyfriend while still pretending to be something she isn’t. And what could be more feminist (and enlightened) than that?
It’s not so much that Mike (the he-man) has the answers as he thinks he does and Abby’s so lost romantically (her assistant producer says, “This could be a good boyfriend for us!”), she can’t help but listen to someone who sounds like they know what they’re talking about. (He’s lost too, which Taylor seems to dismiss, but Mike’s brand of defensive humor does seem to exist and I find his utter terror when confronted with the vulnerability that love brings utterly honest). When they both learn something, that’s what I find fascinating. Though, I felt like the end was a bit forced into a rom-com box after what seemed to me a pretty daring, sometimes more subtle than appearances would have you think, illustration of the contradictions and fears of modern romance. Taylor calls it a “nasty little sex war,” and yes, it is. Because that’s how it feels sometimes – the truth is that power is an issue in relationships and it seems like the person who cares the least fares the best (see: Mike coaching Abby on manipulative, abusive telephone etiquette). But we all hope that we can find someone in the end with whom it’s okay to be vulnerable, who’ll put their own vulnerable hearts in our hands and that perhaps the power can go back and forth.
The line in Taylor’s review that kept giving me frustrated flashbacks was, “Alert, however, to the fact that they’re catering to the I’m-not-a-feminist-but … generation of women — ladies who want their career achievement and their happy-ever-after tied up together in a shiny pink bow — ”
Yes. My generation of feminists (thanks to the generations and waves before us) have learned that’s it’s alright to say, “We want it all. We want to be capable and successful human beings and we want marriage and kids too.” Or whatever you want, or don’t want, that’s okay too. If you want to be a stay at home mom, guess what, that’s okay. If you don’t want marriage and kids, also okay. And what the hell is wrong with that? Did our feminist foremothers fight so that we would have to choose between slices of a life? The apple or the peach? Why not the whole pie or several slices on one plate? Did they fight so that we would force EACH OTHER out of the home and refuse to acknowledge that’s where some of us what to be? I find myself a more well-rounded feminist when I acknowledge that, for me, a full life includes both writing/publishing my books and a happy family with a husband and children. Of course it’s hard to have everything you want and even harder to have it “tied up together in a shiny pink bow,” because it requires negotiation, communication and work. But my foreparents have taught me well – I’m not going to deny myself any aspect of a life that I feel compelled to have, because that would make me a less complete, fulfilled person.
Taylor lauds Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (and I’m not knocking it), but I think it’s a difficult thing to put His Girl Friday against most movies that accurately and emotionally reflect gender dynamics these days. I’m a feminist who can say that rigid gender roles are constricting and wrong – but as a girl dating in the aughts, I’m envious at times that there used to be expectations that were generally understood by all parties. This is an age where it’s not always possible to know you’re on a date because you have no idea what the other person’s expectations are, this is an age where people are avidly reading each other’s Facebook statuses to try to understand other people’s moods, where it may be ages before you actually have a voice-to-voice (let alone a face-to-face) because of the oh-so-common fondness for texting. Abby may actually be a pretty good example when it comes to modern dating and knowing how to be a lady (what does that mean these days?!?) and be happy and get what you want.
Taylor says about Abby that she’s a “tightly wound career woman, ripe for chopping up, tenderizing and ravishing by an alpha male who knows what’s good for her (no, it’s not a promotion) better than she does.” No, Abby doesn’t want a promotion. Because she’s already got that covered – she rocks at what she does. The parts of the movie where Abby was able to be confident were when she was doing her thang as a producer. But even then, something that struck me was the virulent invaldiation Abby suffers from her boss and the corporate honchos once Mike arrives on the scene – from the good ol’ boy dinner with the bikini twins to production choices being made for her, without her knowledge or approval. She’s good at her job (though perhaps the show did need a shake up, none of us are infallable), but consistently undermined in a way that’s not even addressed. Part of me likes that it’s so vivid in the movie without being addressed, because it’s inherent in our society and so rarely communicated. A woman is expected to act outside of a “womanly fashion” in order to be considered professional (here, I’m thinking of when Abby is hiding in her closet at work, etc.), but then is entirely unappreciated as both a woman, or a person doing a good job. The qualities that make Abby a good producer appear to make her a bad woman and I don’t blame the movie for this because this is an accurate reflection of the climate, what we’re still working for (“we” being feminist of every gender).
And until we see this “nasty little sex war,” depicted in all its nastiness in our modern media, how will we learn to communicate about it and then change it? Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday don’t reflect the men and women that are trying to figure out how to connect with each other today (and that’s not even scratching the surface, what about the spectrum of sexuality?). And if you doubt me, read this NPR piece called Sex Without Intimacy: No Dating, No Relationships.
A friend of mine recently told me how uncomfortable he was in “Women and Gender Studies” classes in college because he was a man and everything seemed to be his fault. I actually felt the same way in some of mine, uncomfortable. The idea is to be equal, to have equal rights and responsiblities and renumeration, right? But then I think of another friend of mine who has the “right” to work outside the house when she doesn’t want to and it’s still her responsibility to do almost a full percentage of the tasks at home. Her husband “helps” her take care of their home and family, as if this is still uniquely her task and when she is working outside the home as much as he does. I think of roommates and boyfriends I’ve had who seem to have been incapable of doing anything an adult does to take care of their home without expecting or waiting for me to tell them to do it and then coming to me to announce they’ve done it, seeking my approval. And you know what? It’s not just any of these individuals’ fault…it’s all of society’s fault that we still see things as belonging to one gender or another and then feeling guilty for it because we know we shouldn’t and then not achieving a well-balanced way of discussing and communicating these things in a way that creates healthy individuals.
And in that, I find The Ugly Truth to be a pretty fair illustration of the muddle we all find ourselves in these days, being women and being men and trying to figure out what the hell any of that means.
Fanboys was a lot of fun. I watched it, then watched it again with the commentary track, which was hysterical. I adore the last line of the movie (won’t spoil that for you) and I love the depiction of fandom and friendship. And it was just really funny. I have almost nothing to critique about the movie, I just loved it so much (especially all of Seth Rogan’s cameos), but of course there’s much I could say about gender politics here, too.
Are you groaning? 🙂 Well, just look at the title and that pretty much says it all. Fanboys. Who can deny how feminine and beautiful Kristen Bell is, yet her fangirl Zoe isn’t seen as a girl because she can “keep up” with the boys, because her amazing knowledge and passion is very fanboy-like, in the minds of her fellows. Yet, she keeps them all together and going. Even as she’s calling them “girls” in a derogatory fashion.
Well, in some cases, it’s not the movie that’s at fault just because it does a good job of depicting our screwy society. And I found both of these two movies very entertaining, in same cases really funny and always fascinating. Reviewing them soley for their quality as movies (trying to ignore content as much as possible, which isn’t possible), I’d give Fanboys an A and The Ugly Truth something like a B-.
[7.29.09: See this blogger’s discussion of “Horror Films and the Women Who Love Them,” since I’m still struggling to find EW‘s article online.]