The “Gender” Side of Holiday Movies: The Good, The Bad, and The Complicated

For many of us, the December holidays offer a chance to break from constant news and analysis and spend time at the movies! Instead, it's been spent at the movies. So how did this year's crop of movies stack up, feminist-wise?

If any of you readers are like
me, the holiday period involved a bit of a break from the world of news and
analysis. Instead, it’s been spent at the movies. Yes, the recession has sent
us all running into Hollywood’s arms, but unfortunately those arms are
historically sexist, racist, and everything else-ist. So how did this year’s
crop of movies stack up, feminist-wise?


Perhaps the biggest movie, and the biggest subject of debate, is Jame’s
Cameron’s 3-D sci-fi extravaganza, "Avatar," about American
profit-seekers on a distant planet, Pandora. The movie is visually thrilling,
and it has Cameron’s trademarks: a soaring, epic feel and a cringe-worthy
script. But "Avatar" is also a parable: the humans are colonizers,
the aliens, Na’avi, who worship the earth and celebrate their connection to all
biology, are a thinly-veiled allegory for the Native Americans. The film also
features a record number of feisty, skilled, funny heroines who are neither
empty love-interests nor tokens. While calling the film feminist goes too far,
it’s certainly delightful to enjoy a silly action movie without groaning over
the flat, unoriginal use of the female characters. Furthermore, the movie’s
hokey earth-mother sensibility definitely keeps it on the right side of the
macho spectrum.

Ultimately, though, the movie’s hero is the soldier who goes native, a white
guy with a gun. Annalee Newitz complained that "Avatar" is an exercise in white guilt, and she’s right. It’s far from a problem-free movie, but on the other hand, for a rather mindless
blockbuster that’s already raked in a billion dollars one might feel pretty
satisfied to see feminist/matriarchal, anti-colonialist, pro-environment and
anti-monotheist messages sprinkled liberally throughout, even if they’re
sprinkled ham-handedly, unsubtly and conventionally.

"It’s Complicated

Nancy Meyer, who wrote and directed this grown-up chick-flick, has a lot going
for her. Her dialogue is snappy, her female characters have a frenetic quality
that while predictable, is appropriate for the "have it all" era. She
knows how to milk an awkward situation for laughs, and creates palpable
chemistry between her leads. In that sense, "It’s Complicated"
doesn’t disappoint. Meryl Streep and Alec Balwdin are absolutely perfect as
Jane and Jake Adler, mid-life divorcees who unexpectedly fall back into an
affair, and several scenes–one in which Streep’s Jane confronts her therapist
and demands that he tell her what to do,
and another which all the older folks smoke pot and act silly in front of their
unknowing offspring–are comic gold. Furthermore, although Meyers shows the
emotional toll of Jane and Jake’s cavorting, she doesn’t chastise the
characters for their hanky-panky. The affair, ill-advised though it is, helps
Streep’s Jane reinvigorate her life and her sense of self as sexy and still youthful.
The motto at the end is "no regrets," despite the heartache.

So what’s the problem with Meyers? Well, she never knows quite how to wrap up
the messy situations she sets up so well and her movies drag on, for one. But
more importantly, her characters are singularly white and operate in a rootless
world of beautiful, light-filled houses and fancy cars. It’s not just the white
wealth of her milieu that’s bizarre,
but the fact that these characters that look like poster-children for the Aryan
nation tend to have no extended families, no ethnicity beyond white-bread
blandness; you can’t even tell if they are WASPs or Catholic. They exist
suspended in time and place, and while that’s perhaps a safe choice, it keeps
Meyers’s movies from being first-rate comedies. 

"The Young Victoria" and "An Education"

Speaking of no-regrets affairs, from our friends across the pond come two very
different movies about young women’s romantic and sexual awakenings. "An
Education" concerns a young girl from a small middle-class English town
who has a love affair with an older man. The heroine, Jenny, is precocious and
clever and longs for glamor and excitement, and her family’s sole goal is to
get her into Oxford so that she can move up in the world. Enter David Goldman,
a worldly sophisticate twice Jenny’s age, who takes Jenny to jazz clubs and
Oxford pubs and eventually deflowers her on her 17th birthday. He thoroughly
charms Jenny and her whole family to the point that they allow her to drop out
of school when David proposes.

But of course, David ends up being far from what he seems, even worse than
indicated by the warning signs of shadiness Jenny saw but refused to
acknowledge. Her pivotal challenge becomes is whether she can pick up the path
of studying she once declared so humdrum.

The fact that David is a somewhat anti-Semitic caricature and ends up having
such a treasure trove of absurd and icky secrets put a serious damper on this
film’s potential. But it’s worth seeing for Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of
Jenny. It’s not a totally flattering portrait of a young woman realizing her
sexual power, but it’s an undeniably real one: the teenage-girl moments are the
film’s finest. And perhaps most importantly, the film doesn’t blame Jenny for
her affair or for losing her virginity, but instead views the episode through
the lens of the title, as an education.

"The Young Victoria" is a look at the early years of England’s Queen
Victoria, played by Emily Blunt, whom most of us think of as a stout matronly
figure but who ascended to the throne at only 18.  The film is at its best
in the first hour, when it follows the girlish Victoria through the intrigues
and scandals of the court and shows how, after being used as a political
football, she was eager to embrace her newfound power when she became queen.
If, like many progressives, you can suspend your skepticism and enjoy lush
films about British royalty even while knowing they were unforgivable tyrants
who ruled over a nasty empire, this film is extremely entertaining and even touching,
as Victoria falls for Prince Albert, a true love match.

Bonus: "Fantastic Mr. Fox

Who would have thought that an animated puppet-movie about foxes based on a
children’s novel would be a playful interrogation of conventional masculinity?
This Wes Anderson film features a fox who, far from being fantastic, is so
obsessed with proving his manhood by being a thief that he plunges the entire
animal community into near doom. It’s very funny, and the puppets render it
more palatable than some of Anderson’s more self-indulgent films.