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Saviours, Inspirations and Our Own Self-Discovery

Two things came to my attention this weekend. First, the trailer for the upcoming movie Everything Must Go (2011):

And the second, a quote attributed to Deb Caletti, author of The Secret Life of Prince Charming:

It starts so young, and I’m angry about that. The garbage we’re taught. About love, about what’s “˜romantic.’ Look at so many of the so-called romantic figures in books and movies. Do we ever stop and think how many of them would cause serious and drastic unhappiness after The End? Why are sick and dangerous personality types so often shown a passionate and tragic and something to be longed for when those are the very ones you should run for your life from? Think about it. Heathcliff. Romeo. Don Juan. Jay Gatsby. Rochester. Mr. Darcy. From the rigid control freak in The Sound of Music to all the bad boys some woman goes running to the airport to catch in the last minute of every romantic comedy. She should let him leave. Your time is so valuable, and look at these guys–depressive and moody and violent and immature and self-centered. And what about the big daddy of them all, Prince Charming? What was his secret life? We don’t know anything about him, other then he looks good and comes to the rescue.

My initial reaction to the trailer was, shall we say, passionate.

If I see one more fucking movie about a pathetic, ugly middle-aged man whose pathetic, ugly life gets magically “saved” by a drop-dead gorgeous, sweet and kind ingénue despite him doing absolutely nothing to warrant it, I’m going to fucking scream.

But frankly, even in hindsight, I stand by my reaction. I’m really pissed off! Because we can’t win. On one end of the spectrum, women in movies are bitches and whores and high-strung harpies. And on the other end? Well, we become what Rebecca Hall (who is a wonderful actress deserving of far better roles than this) plays here: the caretaker; the attention-giver; the lighter-of-the-way. She’s a grown-up version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a term A.V. Club critic Nathan Rabin coined to describe Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown. She serves the same function, but for a different demographic. Instead of the lost, uninspired twenty-something, Will Ferrell is the lost, uninspired forty-something. And there she is: the gorgeous, kind, unassuming neighbour – never too concerned with looks (she can’t be shallow!) or career success (she can’t be stressed out!) – whose only function is to lift him up. To help him discover his true self. To show him his full potential.

I haven’t seen the film. So I cannot say for certain that her character is drawn so thinly. But I have seen a neverending stream of films where women play these roles. I’m tired of stories with male protagonists who seem to have no redeemable personalities, who feel like their lack of success – in life, in love, in their career – is due not to their own actions and choices, but to the world keeping them down. And I’m tired of these men finding salvation in women whose only purpose seems to be spelling it out for them.

As Deb Caletti’s quote illustrates, this is not a recent phenomenon, nor one reserved for delightful, quirky, indie rom-coms. She points to hundreds of years worth of examples of this character, all with their requisite woman, yearning to save them.

The thing that truly strikes me about the phenomenon, however, is imagining it in reverse. What if Everything Must Go was about a middle-aged woman? Recently fired. Her husband has left her. She’s a little “out of shape” and altogether unremarkable looking. She starts living on her lawn and drinking in public. Inexplicably, a gorgeous, kind, younger male neighbour starts taking an interest in her, and shows her how to rebuild her life again. The fact is, this idea would get laughed out of a pitch meeting faster than you could say recast-it-with-Charlize-Theron-and-then-maybe-we’ll-talk. Because normal-looking women are not main characters, they are sardonic best-friends. Because women who defy convention are not delightfully strange, they are crazy. Because women don’t get propped up by gorgeous supporting characters. They just don’t.

So I’m tired. I’m tired of women playing the supporting roles, both in terms of screen time, and in terms of function. It’s high time these ladies stop pushing these pathetic boy-men towards their “door of self-discovery” (as the insipid indie-pop song throughout the trailer insists) and march on through themselves.

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