Feminism is having a wardrobe malfunction.
Does your brand of feminism remove barriers for women, or simply move them around? Does is expand options for women, or does it just shift them? You don’t liberate women by forcing them to choose option B instead of option A. What is comfortable for you might not be comfortable for someone else, and it’s entirely possible that what you see as oppressive, other women find comfortable or even downright liberating.
Before you think the girl in the middle is a strawman, let me tell you I used to be her, back in my misguided youth. I considered myself the standard to which other people should adhere. But that was stupid. It’s not up to me to tell people how to dress, and it’s much nicer to let everyone choose for themselves.
Some women would feel naked without a veil. Some women would find it restrictive. Some women would feel restricted by a bra. Some women would feel naked without one. Some women would feel restricted by a tight corset. Others love them. Some wear lots of clothes with a corset. Some only wear the corset and nothing else. What makes any article of clothing oppressive is someone forcing you to wear it. And it’s just as oppressive to force someone not to wear something that they want to wear.
|—||Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf|
|—||Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf|
The tunnel is narrow and dark but he sees, at the end, a shimmer of light.
The mother pushes, willing her baby boy into being. He is an idea growing inside her these past nine months and somewhere deep inside her she knows he will not be real until she hears his first wailing breath.
The wife watches helplessly as the paramedic applies the paddles to her husband’s chest. The idea of losing him terrifies her and she will not feel relieved until she again hears his breath rattling through his lungs.
Once the baby is born, there will be people for the mother to call. There will be grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews and friends to come wonder at who this boy will become.
Once her husband dies, there will be people for the wife to call. There are sons, daughters, grandchildren, siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews to come mourn who this man had been.
The mother cries out in determination and pushes. The wife silently prays and hovers.
The boy is blue. The doctor cuts the cord. The man is blue. The paramedic administers one last volt.
He takes a breath.
|—||Jennifer Michael Hecht, Stay|
|—||David Foster Wallace|
Nice guys finish last
Now I lay me down to sleep
Beautiful, I know I am
Tell me what it’s like to be with you
L’amour d’un garcon (the love of a boy)
Boys wear overcoats in heat like this to keep themselves from showing
Nothing changes cause it‘s all the same
If you’re never sorry, then you can’t be forgiven
You came to me in seamless sleep
Well I’d like to tell you all about my dream, it’s a place
It’s almost magical to me that it ended up being this coherent poem about love and sleep. I thought it ended abruptly and the eleventh song was Lady Marmalade by Christina Aguilera with the first line “Where’s all mah soul sistas?” which I think would’ve been a detraction from the piece. (Confession: I did skip two songs, but the first one was Epilogue by Enya that has no lyrics and the other was a Christmas song and I’d already decided beforehand that Christmas songs did not count.)
1. Nice Guys Finish Last—Green Day
2. Do It With a Rockstar—Amanda Palmer
3. Make Me Cum—Mindless Self Indulgence
4. Tell Me—Goldfinger
5. L’Amour d’un Garcon—Françoise Hardy
6. Dear Jenny—Dresden Dolls
7. Way Down the Line—Offspring
8. Pound of Flesh—Regina Spektor
9. Don’t Wake Me Up—The Hush Sound
Twitter is abuzz with Love, Actually (Warning: spoilers ahead). Is it the newest Christmas tradition? I was going to ignore the headlines— I watched it twice, once when it came out ten years ago and again a year later— but then my childhood best friend brought up Love, Actually the other day, reminding me that we saw it together in the theater together with her sister. This was one of several movies we watched together and I couldn’t remember the details, but she remembered bursting out of the theater, “I loved that movie!” while her sister and I both hated it. She was asking me if I still hated it, but I could no longer remember anything about it.
“I know why you didn’t like it,” she told me. “It’s because it’s not a cookie cutter romance where everything works out perfectly in the end.”
This surprised me since I have never liked the stereotypical, forced, unrealistic romance movie. Tragedies are typically more my speed— give me Moulin Rouge or Romeo & Juliet or Titanic or Kill Bill or Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. (I will admit only to a handful of happy alliances, but that’s generally DESPITE the romantic ending: Dirty Dancing (I would’ve gone with the guy who carried the melon), The Nightmare Before Christmas (Jack does not deserve Sally’s help or adoration, but I love the music, his curiosity and the overall story.), Amelie (French romance movies are quirky and therefore entertaining… plus, they’re French), The Corpse Bride (I was rooting for the Corpse Bride), and Cat Balou (who wouldn’t be in love with Jane Fonda?). When I reminded her of my cinematic tastes she amended her analysis.
“Well, then, it must have been too realistic for you. I think you’d like it now, but back then you didn’t like realistic movies that really show what love is like.”
This rankled me, as I suppose it would anyone who doesn’t enjoy insults, but since I couldn’t even remember the movie I could not dispute her conjecture. I suppose my favorite movies generally aren’t realistic— for one thing, they’re generally musicals such as Chicago or Repo Man: The Genetic Opera or they are perhaps beat-you-over-the-head gritty like Pulp Fiction or Fight Club or American Hustle— but I don’t want to be so narrow-minded that I dislike a film because it is realistic. I was determined to watch Love, Actually again with as much of an open-mind as I could muster.
In addition to all this, it almost seemed symbolic. My husband and I have had a tumultuous year relationship-wise and we watched Love, Actually with his family the first year we were together, nine years ago. We watched it tonight, which was especially interesting since I just watched a documentary a few days ago called Miss Representation about how women are treated poorly in the media and in entertainment (and therefore life as art imitates life and life imitates art) and another documentary today, Tough Guise, about how the representation of men in popular culture promotes a tough guy act, to wear a mask covering any vulnerability. With both documentaries fresh in my mind, here’s how I saw Love, Actually.
Love, Actually opens at the airport with people embracing one another, with a voice over talking about how if you look for it, “love actually is all around.” Perhaps I’ve never been at an airport at the right time, although I’ve been to the Heathrow airport and have flown around Christmas, but I have never witnessed the love and affection that the narrator has seen each time he begins doubting the existence of love. Generally I see a variety of people, mostly smartly dressed business people or families or students, but they’re generally bored, rushed, haggard and generally look like they’d rather be anywhere else. Loved ones circle the airport, waiting for travelers to grab their luggage from the baggage claim so they can pack into their vehicles and zoom off to their homes where they can do any sort of celebration in privacy. Right out of the gate, and already realism has flown out of town.
The aged musician Billy Mack is the familiar cliché but provides comic relief. He’s enjoyed a life of money, fame and drug addiction but it’s been hell on his love life. He spends Christmas with his manager, who he bestows his confession of love. After a moment of hugging, Billy reasserts their masculinity and heterosexuality by suggesting to “get pissed and watch porn.” If there’s any doubt left, the movie ends with him having a stunning supermodel girlfriend, mistakenly identified by the manager as Billy’s previous and presumably interchangeable girlfriend.
Colin Firth’s character, Jamie, gets a very cliché start when he discovers his girlfriend is shagging his brother. He flies off to France to write his novel and a kind neighbor provides a pretty housekeeper to bring him tea, scramble to help him find ringing cell phones and strip to her underwear to salvage his manuscript from the lake. Not only is she subservient, any criticism she gives him is never understood because she only speaks Portuguese. Perhaps this is what my friend meant by realistic— men don’t really listen to what women say, but hear what they want to. I understand that it’s supposed to be terribly romantic and to be interpreted that love exists beyond language, but anyone who has been married knows that communication is vital. I have to wonder how long it lasts once they can actually understand one another. My other trouble with this storyline is the unnecessary visit to the father’s house where he tries to pawn off his overweight daughter (“Miss Dunkin Donut 2003”). Just once I want the sister to be drop-dead gorgeous and for the “hero” to remain in love with the initial love interest. Here a message is reinforced to women that being overweight equals being ineligible for love and marriage.
Overweight women seems to be something of a fear for the director since Natalie’s primary trait seems to be her large thighs (her boyfriend dumps her for being too fat, another office worker calls her chubby, her own father calls her “Plumpy” and David complains about how heavy she is when he picks her up— all of this not only absurdly over the top but the actress is not even remotely fat) and inability to be appropriate (cussing and flirting with the American president—she needs to pick which powerful man she wants to seduce). Hugh Grant plays the prime minister, David, who does not seem to take his appointment seriously as he looks down Natalie’s low-cut sweaters and blouses. In a meeting he loudly asks who he has to screw to get some tea and biscuits— and Natalie appears like magic. Again, it’s the sexy, subservient woman and the bumbling man. Once he stands up for himself in a press conference (which seems terribly unrealistic and is later criticized by his sister Karen, who I’ll go over in detail later) against the American president, the heroic music swells and the camera zooms in on Natalie’s face— now that David’s acting like a “real man” by publicly shaming the American president, she realizes he’s the right man to go after so she sends him a Christmas card saying she’s a “prize idiot” and “actually yours”. Since they’ve barely spoken beyond finding out she lives in the dodgy end of town, it’s difficult to believe that it’s love that fuels either her to write this card or David to— in Hollywood ending fashion— immediately order a car so he can go door-to-door searching for her. It’s frightening to think their government is lead by a man who can’t even call HR or use a online directory to find her address.
After his wife dies, Daniel attempts to connect with his step-son Sam who is in love with an American girl, Joanna. In a moment of weakness, Daniel breaks down in front of his sister, Karen, who tells him to stop being a sissy and that no one will shag him if he cries all the time. Since Daniel’s just come from the funeral, it’s completely understandable that he’s still grieving the loss of his wife, but instead of being able to receive emotional support, the cultural norm that a real man doesn’t cry is reinforced. Instead, he tries to be there emotionally for Sam, but he’s already moved on from his mother’s death and onto his “love” for Joanna. Daniel and Sam’s relationship is one of the most endearing of the set, but it still comes at a price. Even when they watch Titanic, they must pause the movie to wrestle, reasserting masculine stereotypes. Love, Actually allows men to drop the tough guy act temporarily, but never long enough to make this movie truly progressive. At the end, a romance between Daniel and one of Sam’s classmate’s mother, Carol, is tacked on. Perhaps I’m too much of a romantic and this is terribly realistic, in the worst way, but I want him to grieve his dead wife longer than a month or two before moving on.
Karen, the sister who criticizes her two brothers, is punished when she discovers her curmudgeon of a husband, Harry, is cheating on her with his secretary, Mia. (Another cliché— all secretaries want to seduce their old, married, depressed bosses. Mia is an over-the-top classic fear-fantasy objectified sexual object— she even wears devil horns for some reason (no one else is in costume) when she dances with Harry, basically telling him he can have her at any time. What is in it for her? Well, in the next scene, we find out she wants him to buy her something pretty.) Karen finds the necklace intended for the shallow secretary, thinks it’s for herself and is disappointed to unwrap a Joni Mitchell CD for the “continuation of her emotional education.” Even without the sneaking around, it’s a hurtful gift. Karen goes off to sob by herself and later asks Harry what he would do if their roles were reversed. “I’ve been a classic fool,” he says. She says he’s made a fool out of her and made the life she leads foolish before running after her children. If she can’t be a wife, she can be a mother. She clearly feels reduced by these roles— she notes earlier that her life seems so unimportant compared to that of her brother David’s now that he was the prime minister. The betrayed wife— this is the realistic storyline we see over and over both in real life and in art (which imitates which again?) and Karen is the only female character that could almost become fully developed, but this storyline has always left me unfulfilled because I’ve never understood the end. Where did Harry go? Why is he coming back? Did he go have a fling with Mia and is returning to the marriage (and she’s just accepting this) or is he just visiting the kids? Or did he go on a platonic business trip? Regardless, neither looks in love or even pleased to see the other but resigned to be in on another’s company for the children’s sake.
In a very condescending meeting, Harry tells his employee Sarah that the entire office has known for the two years, seven months, etc that she’s worked there that she’s wanted to have sex, marry and be impregnated by their coworker Karl— and that everyone in the office, including Karl, has known this. Sarah is, understandably, mortified and says she’s done nothing because Karl’s too good for her. The way Karl treats her makes me doubt this. He knows about her infatuation with him for all this time, but never asks her to coffee? Then, she has one opportunity to have sex with him after a party? Does she have baggage? Yes—primarily that she’s playing out her stereotypical feminine role as caretaker to her mentally ill brother. It seems unreasonable that she cannot have both a lover and be a caretaker to her brother.
The love triangle between Peter, Juliet and Mark has always struck me as odd. Instead of focusing on the couple actually getting married, we follow Mark’s projection of perfection onto Juliet— and we know it’s a projection because he’s never spoken with her, besides the fact that no one is perfect. It’s not only shitty to his best friend that he comes to her flat, has her lie so he can tell her about her perfection and then she rewards him with a kiss, but very little is learned about Juliet except that she has a beautiful smile.
Jack and Judy, extras for the sex scenes in a movie, awkwardly make small talk before going for coffee. The obvious irony is that they’ve been in so many sexual positions but end the film married without yet having sex, although Jack’s hoping. This seems thrown in for novelty and a sort of “there’s someone for everyone” storyline.
I saved the most irritating, unrealistic storyline for last. Colin has no game, but it’s not his fault. English girls are “stuck up” and in America, girls are “cooler” and will be dying to sleep with him for his accent. His friend Tony tells him he’s full of shit— but after having an orgy with at least four different women on his first night in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Colin returns triumphant with the sexiest one, Harriet. She’s brought her “friendly” sister with her, who greets Tony by kissing him. To call this storyline either “love” or “realistic” is a stretch.
With ten different story lines, I would personally want more variety. For the most part, these were all middle-class or affluent people, primarily white and all heterosexual. Aside from the few bromances, all I see is lust, actually.
I cannot believe how many hours of my life I have devoted to watching this movie, but at least I have this reminder of why I do not need to see it a fourth time. It makes me worry about society that this is what passes as “love” in our society. I am going to take this third viewing as a valuable life lesson— I need to trust myself and even my previous self’s forgotten judgements better. If I dislike something, I don’t need to doubt myself later on unless there is new evidence to consider. It would be far more productive if I spent my time rewatching the films and rereading the books that I really loved. Anyone can be a critic, but to extract the positive— to see what is working in a piece of artwork— that’s what is going to have the most important, inspiring, life-changing characters, scenes, situations, symbolism, etc to dissect, examine, comprehend and hopefully emulate in my own life and writing. Some of the movies I love satire our society, but most are about women who want something passionately and will go to great lengths to achieve their desires— dancing, revenge, freedom, etc. They inspire me to be strong and to keep being true to myself. Everyone has to find the songs, movies and books that speak to his or her own individual journey and perhaps someone else can mine the gems from Love, Actually but for me it is only a distraction from the things that really matter.