Monthly Archives: June 2013

13 Going On 30 (2004)

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Click image for trailer: Jenna (Jennifer Garner) hosts a sing-along sleepover in 13 Going On 30

Fair warning: contains references to the ending that may enable the canny rom com conosieurs out there to deduce spoilers

Plot

All Jenna (Christa B. Allen) really wants for her thirteenth birthday is to shed her geeky image, get in with the popular girls at school (known as the ‘Six Chicks’) and hopefully get a kiss from her crush. When she invites them all to her party, along with best friend and neighbour Matty (Sean Marquette), things don’t go well, and the girls leave her in the wardrobe to go and find some booze. Those wild eighties kids.

When Matty tries to help, Jenna is furious, pushing him away and wishing she was ‘thirty, flirty and thriving’ like the women in glamorous magazine Poise. Suddenly, thanks to some magic dust (no, that’s not a drug reference), she finds herself transported into the body and life of her thirty year old self (Jennifer Garner). Just go with it.

Once accustomed to novelties like mobile phones, boobs and cocktails, Jenna loves her stylish and fun new life as editor of Poise. It turns out that ‘Tom-Tom’, who was the leader of the Six Chicks when they were thirteen, has changed her name back to the far more sensible Lucy (Judy Greer), and is now Jenna’s best friend and co-editor. While Jenna is thrilled to find that she actually became a member of the group, upon tracking down Matt (Mark Ruffalo she learns that they fell out after her thirteenth birthday party, and that he is now engaged.

As time passes, Jenna realises that for all the perks that come with being an adult (such as limitless junk food and credit cards), she barely recognises the mean person she’s become, and that maybe her thirteen year old self’s priorities were somewhat out of whack. Behind the daft plot lies an endearing story about appreciating what you have, being yourself and not growing up too quickly.

Leading Ladies

Jennifer Garner shines as Jenna in her thirty-year-old form, nailing the mixture of naivety, blissful ignorance and sweetness that make the character so likeable in spite of her superficial teenage ambitions. Judy Greer is funny and hateable as sycophantic and conniving Lucy, while Kathy Baker appears as Jenna’s mother, dispensing support and pearls of wisdom from time to time.

How are women represented?

Fortunately, this film generally avoids the obvious problems that could accompany a plot where adults are interacting with a thirteen year old who appears to be a fully grown woman. Much of the joy of the film comes from Jenna’s wide-eyed and innocent perspective on adult life, which is a refreshing reminder of the fun and hard sides of being grown up. This young perspective makes for a rom com that is endearing rather than sleazy and which carries a strong message about personal growth and understanding.

However, the film’s portrayal of women draws on cultural ideas that offer some mixed messages. Furthermore, despite its moral of self-fulfilment and self-confidence, by the end it has given in to the usual trappings of the rom com genre, in that end the heroine’s romance is portrayed as the most important element of her life.

A quick look at how the female characters behave reveals some disturbing stereotypes. Lucy and the Six Chicks manipulate Jenna into doing their homework for them, and then humiliate her by tricking her into sitting alone and blindfolded in the wardrobe, waiting for her crush to kiss her. Let’s address how disturbing the concept of ‘Seven Minutes in Heaven’ is. The girl goes and waits, blindfolded, in a confined space, and then a boy she can’t see comes in and is ‘allowed to do anything he wants to you’. Not only is this incredibly creepy, but it defines women as the passive object in male-female relationships. To return to portrayal of women, Tom-Tom/Lucy grows up to be a conniving and two-faced double crosser, who tries to jeopardise the friendship between Jenna and Matt out of jealousy over Jenna’s career. Not such a great image of women. Then there’s Jenna’s initial response to her adult life, which is to go shopping, throw on a ton of make-up, moon over boys, and watch sappy films while eating junk food. There’s nothing innately wrong with any of this, but it is a revealing look at what popular culture believes teenage girls want and think about, and what they would do when put in charge of their own lives.

Despite Lucy’s dubious qualities as a friend, the film certainly portrays relationships between women as enriching and supportive. Although she already has Matt, young Jenna aspires to belong to a group of girls; although this is partly to do with their popularity, it recognises that there is something about female friendships that is particularly desirable. As a thirty year old, Jenna turns to Becky and her friends for support, and the sleepover scene where they dance together in their pyjamas while singing ‘Love is a Battlefield’ into hairbrushes (because that’s what girls do when we get together) again shows female friendships as places where individuals find affection, enjoyment and support. Jenna’s relationship with her mother, which appears sporadically throughout the film, also emphasises a particular understanding between women; having just arrived in her new older body, Jenna is desperate to speak to her mother, and she turns to her for advice after recognising that she’s royally screwed up.

This referential view of the bonds between women draws on a perspective that has replaced more traditional and outspoken notions of feminism among some women. While they are not comfortable with describing themselves as feminists, believing this to refer to man-hating, bra-burning spinsters, these women, including famous names like Jennifer Lopez, Charlene Spiterri and Janet Street Porter, identify their friendships with other women as integral sources of comfort and fulfilment. From this comes an understanding as to how to behave towards other women: Jenna is horrified when she finds that she has slept with a colleague’s husband because of the hurt she has done to another woman, even though she has no personal relationship (that she can remember) with the injured wife.

Although this message of female solidarity is ostensibly positive, since it recognises that women are capable of offering each other support and kindness, it is also reductive, prescribing all women with the stereotypical nurturing and emotive personality traits. Furthermore, it doesn’t suggest how a woman might behave and be seen in a relationship with a man, thereby permitting the continued promotion of stereotypical gender roles. It is therefore not surprising that the film ultimately reduces Jenna to the role of typical rom com heroine; she chooses Matty rather than the girls, suggesting that an audience should care more about how her romance fares than her friendship.

This dynamic also plays out in her professional life at Poise, which Jenna is shown to enjoy: we see her working long hours, trying to improve her skills, and giving a passionate presentation about her new ideas for the magazine. However, when the film reveals how Jenna’s life turned out, this element is totally ignored, and we are only shown the details of her love life, implying that this is all the audience really wants to know about. Despite the film’s emphasis on a young woman’s personal development, by the end it is identifying as a love story. While everyone loves a love story, and this is a particularly sincere and believable example, it’s a shame that a film which offered such an endearing and well-developed protagonist ultimately chooses to focus on her as a love interest rather than an interesting personality in her own right.

Verdict

Two

By examining the adult world from the perspective of a thirteen year old, 13 Going On 30 offers a fresh look at the dilemmas and perks that come with being a grown up. While this concept could have been disastrous, the plot generally avoids being creepy, and makes for a sweet romance and a memorable heroine. The emphasis on Jenna’s female relationships identifies women as a vital source of support, advice and friendship for each other. Jenna is portrayed throughout as someone who, despite some poor judgements, is caring and sensitive, but also capable, hard-working and intelligent. However, despite the initial focus on Jenna’s learning curve, the film ultimately centres on the romance plot. This is fine, but disappointing in a rom com that seemed to promise a personal development plot. Furthermore, the female friendships Jenna seeks turn out to be less fulfilling than her relationship with Matt, and Lucy becomes a jealous, back-stabbing stereotype. 13 Going On 30 offers a fresh new premise but fails to live up to its potential. Gather some friends, bring on the junk food and enjoy, but take the representation of women as a work in progress.

How did you perceive Jenna’s female friendships? What are your views on this new ‘alternative’ to feminism? Did you think women in the film were reduced to stereotypes? How badly did you want your own dream house? Seriously, the cotton wool bath bubbles blew my mind. If you have a response to these or any other points raised, don’t hesitate to let us know in the comments section.

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Jerry Maguire (1996)

Click picture for trailer: Tom Cruise and Renee Zellwegger complete each other in Jerry Maguire

Warning: contains spoilers, sarcasm and a healthy amount of indignation

Plot

Smarmy sports agent Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) undergoes a crisis of conscience when one of his clients is injured, leading him to write a heartfelt ‘mission statement’ calling for fewer clients, less money and more love. Fired by his horrified company, Jerry’s only remaining client is Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Junior), a skilled American football player who is often overlooked due to his melodramatic fits of rage. This lack of business is perhaps a blessing, given that the only one of his colleagues to follow him into unemployment is accountant Dorothy (Renee Zellwegger), a single mother who lives with her young son Ray (Jonathan Lipnicki) and straight-talking, man-mistrusting sister Laurel (Bonnie Hunt). Ditched by his fiancé Avery (Kelly Preston) and facing dire financial straits, Jerry attempts to make the best of things by starting an ill-advised relationship with Dorothy, which is ostensibly based on the fact he doesn’t like to let people down. Cue a lot of cheesy lines, predictable ‘twists’ and a totally ill-advised will-they-won’t-they plot.

Leading ladies

Renee Zellwegger, is accountant Dorothy, a woman naive enough to marry Maguire, smart enough to break up with him, and naive enough to take him back. The lucky lady who escapes this fate is Avery, Maguire’s kinky, slightly loopy ex-fiancée, played by Kelly Preston, who dares to disagree with his quitting his job without telling her, and to value her own career over massaging his ego. Oh these modern women. Speaking of whom, Bonnie Hunt plays Dorothy’s ‘disapproving sister Laurel’, the woman who dares to suggest that a late night visit from your new boss might be less than innocent.

Bechdel Test

Fails: although the film has four relatively prominent female characters, none of them manage to discuss anything other than a man.

How are women represented?

It is pretty hard to recall the name of anyone in this film that isn’t Jerry Maguire. This is another example of Hollywood’s favourite sort of tale, about the plights and problems that face a wealthy, straight, good-looking, well-educated white man. As such, any character who does not fit this role is cheerfully stereotyped and side-lined so we can focus on the real challenges of the world.

Main female lead Dorothy has no real substance beyond being a hopeless romantic. This is clear from the first time we see her, when she nearly falls out of her seat trying to overhear Maguire describing his proposal to Avery to another passenger on a plane, because a single woman, and particularly one with a small, irritating child in tow, has nothing else on her mind than marriage. She then quits her job at the sports agency to follow a man she doesn’t know into a new business with no money or clients, simply because he deigns to remember her name and the poster she has up in her cubicle. She also puts up with being repeatedly groped and grabbed by a drunken Maguire, because hey, he looks like a suspiciously taller version of Tom Cruise, so he can do whatever he likes, right?

Dorothy continues to overlook the fact she has to support herself and a young child, only choosing to leave her job when she realises that she is draining money from Maguire’s failing company. Having found herself a better (read: actually) paid job, she immediately gives up on this when her new boyfriend/former boss Maguire panics at the thought that the relationship might fizzle out, and proposes on her front lawn. Eventually, she catches up with what the audience realised thirty three minutes previously, namely that this relationship is totally implausible and based on mutual insecurities, and, in a rare moment of clarity, integrity and will power, breaks up with him. Then he bursts into her living room, says he misses her, and they get back together. Because a wildly romantic speech made by a desperate and lonely man solves all relationship problems. Of course, we know that rom coms are supposed to present an idealised view of romance, love and all that mush, but the real love story here is between Maguire and himself. Dorothy contains no substance, serving only as the martyred single mother and hopeless romantic desperately trying to snare Mr Right Now, however wrong he might be.

Surprisingly, Dorothy is one of the two woman that Jerry Maguire actually wants us to like, the other being Marcee Tidwell, Rod’s smart, cutting and supportive wife. The message Jerry Maguire sends to women is that you’re either a devoted wife, or you’re a bitter old hag who wants to be a devoted wife but is too untrusting and selfish to achieve this goal. The divorced women’s group, who dare to criticise men and suggest women might want to live without them, are played as a joke, a bunch of loud, gossipy women trying to hide their loneliness behind anger. Because all women really want is to just get married.

Avery is treated even more coarsely, becoming a petty, slightly manic backstabber when she refuses to sacrifice her career to support Jerry. The only really compelling character in the film is Laurel, who is blunt, thoughtful, practical and protective of her blindsided younger sister. However, because the film identifies these strong qualities as masculine, she is not perceived as a romantic interest but as a loyal supportive character for the typically feminine Dorothy. As Laurel’s steely traits identify her as disconnected from traditional notions of femininity, her suggestion that sleeping with your new boss might be a mistake is perceived as atypical of women, a slightly quirky character trait peculiar to her, because of course ‘proper’ women all want to sleep with men, however unwise the situation might make this. Despite being the only character with an obvious grasp on the stupidity of the situation, she is then shown smoking alone in the dark kitchen, looking wistful as she eats Dorothy’s restaurant leftovers while her sister has loud, giggly sex with a totally unsuitable man. She appears pleased to hear that Dorothy is having fun, stifling a chuckle and she roots through the cold food. From this scene we are can deduce that Laurel, despite her strong will, common sense and intelligence, ultimately accepts that she and Dorothy are incapable of being happy without a man, and that a totally unsuitable man is better than none at all.

Verdict

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As the title infers, there is really only one character that matters in this film, to the point that everyone not named Jerry is either there to support him or oppose him. We’re meant to identify with Dorothy’s whimsical quest for romance, and with Marcee’s devotion to her husband, and to criticise the divorced women’s group and Avery as selfish man-hating harpies, and the steely reserve of Laurel as masculine and therefore unappealing in a woman. Unusually for a film that can be categorised as, among other things, a rom com, Jerry Maguire focuses primarily on the directives and needs of a man, and through this focus reinforces a narrow and stereotypical view of women.

Do you agree that Jerry Maguire offers us a poor portrayal of women, or was it right on the money in your mind? Comment below, share your views on the Facebook page and tweet @LTTL15, and remember to follow the blog for more analysis, ranting and reviews. 

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Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken (1991)

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Click picture for trailer: Gabrielle Anwar plays feisty Sonora in Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken

A gutsy heroine aspires to join the dangerous horse diving profession in this true life Disney tale, but are we looking at a winner for women or just a ‘mare?

Plot

In the early years of the Depression orphaned teenager Sonora Webster (Gabrielle Anwar) is determined to see the world, or at least Atlantic City. When her aunt surrenders Sonora to the mercy of the state, she runs off to join Doc Carver’s (Cliff Robertson) diving horse act, headed by aspiring actress Marie (Kathleen York) and assisted by Doc’s handsome son Al (Michael Schoeffling). While Doc initially rejects Sonora as too young, her stubborn refusal to take no for an answer sees him hire her as a stable hand. As the act travels round the country, Al helps Sonora train a difficult horse in the hope of impressing Doc and earning her the chance to be a diving girl.

Bechdel Test

Passes: Marie and Sonora have a brief discussion about the importance of make-up, and Sonora’s aunt tells her she is nothing but trouble.

Leading Ladies

Gabrielle Anwar is bright and bold Sonora Webster, and Kathleen York is haughty wannabe starlet Marie. Lisa Norman also appears briefly as Sonora’s Aunt Helen.

How are women represented?

Sonora is the Disney heroine we have all been waiting for. She is resilient, driven, and defiant of those who would stop her from reaching her dream. She resolutely refuses to accept limitations inflicted on her by general life happenings or narrow-minded people, and she isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. I’m not saying that punching a classroom bully in the face is big or clever, but it’s pretty satisfying to see a girl let her fists do the talking in the same way a male character would. Warm and caring with those she likes, particularly horses, not only does Sonora have self-belief in bucket loads, and a no nonsense approach to haters, but she doesn’t blink at taking on slightly bizarre, death-defying stunts.

Teenager Sonora’s slightly disturbing romance with the obviously much older Al thankfully doesn’t dampen her spirit, since she continues to defy him in order to achieve her dream. Although the film is based on real events (yes, horse diving was apparently a thing), it would have been nice if they had veered off course in order to avoid marrying off a sixteen year old, and particularly one with such an independent spirit. The only redeeming point to note is that this information is tactlessly given out by an extremely curt ‘and they lived happily ever after’ type announcement right at the end, which at least goes to show that the totally unnecessary marriage plot was an afterthought rather than the main message.

Critics have pointed out that Sonora’s big dream apparently consists of living a glamorous life as defined by an advert for the Atlantic City pier, and that this superficial goal is what leads her to cut her hair, in an effort to live up to this image of femininity. However, this haircut is less about adhering to cultural expectations of women, and more about taking control of her life, refusing to give in to the limitations inflicted by the Depression, and defying people’s expectations of her. The bobbed hairstyle was all about rejecting traditional notions of how women should look, and marks her as a modern woman in charge of her own destiny. Sonora’s priorities, prizing her character over her appearance, are emphasised throughout the film, in which she remains almost entirely make-up free, particularly when compared with the eternally dolled up Marie.

However, although there’s a lot to love about Sonora, the film offers mixed messages about women. While Sonora benefits from instruction offered by male characters like Al and Doc, the women in the film are either stressed out, unfeeling nags, in the case of her aunt and her teacher, or superficial and vain, as with Marie, the other main female character. This seems to imply that Sonora is the exception that proves the rule, hence her affiliation with men rather than women. In this way, the film praises an extraordinary heroine by identifying her positive traits with men, thereby rejecting the notion that women can be feminine and also courageous, defiant and determined. This message is made particularly clear when you compare the characterisation of Marie and Sonora: bare-faced Sonora is lauded for her bold character, while heavily made-up Marie, who prides herself on her appearance, is a shallow, fickle airhead. On the one hand, you have to admire Disney for refusing to cover their leading lady in more than a dash of lipstick, and for celebrating her admirable personality instead. However, on another level, this implies that femininity is incompatible with the grit displayed by Sonora, and that in order to be respected, women must sacrifice typically ‘feminine’ traits.

Verdict

Three

This film grapples with social and cultural expectations of men and women, sometimes supporting them and sometimes undermining them. Sonora is one of those rare heroines who makes you want to throw your popcorn/film food of choice into the air and shout ‘YES!’ She goes to extreme lengths to take on a wildly dangerous job, refuses to give up when the going gets tough, and is unswerving in pursuit of her dream. However, the unflattering portrayals of Marie and the other women, and the fact that Sonora’s positive relationships are with men, implies that Sonora is an exceptional woman, and that most women are insensitive and unfeeling, while particularly ‘feminised’ women, who wear make-up and skirts, must also be shallow. Overall, this is a brilliant portrayal of a feisty female that nevertheless neglects to examine the place of femininity within empowerment.

Did you find Sonora’s refusal to adhere to traditional expectations of femininity refreshing or frustrating? Is she a role model? How do you perceive the women in the film? Spill your heart and go wild in the comments.

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Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Hillary Swank as boxer Maggie in Million Dollar Baby

Click to view trailer: Hilary Swank as boxer Maggie in Million Dollar Baby

It took home the Oscar for Best Picture, alongside another three for director Clint Eastwood, supporting actor Morgan Freeman and star Hilary Swank, but is Million Dollar Baby a knock out or down and out when it comes to representing women?

Plot

Hilary Swank plays Maggie Fitzgerald, a thirty-one-year-old waitress determined to leave her low-class past behind and become a boxing champion with the help of reluctant trainer Frankie (Clint Eastwood) and ex-boxer Scrap (Morgan Freeman). Despite his initial resistance to the idea of training a woman, Frankie sees Maggie’s fighting spirit through her inexperience, and together they plan to take her to the title fight.

Leading ladies

Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank), Earline Fitzgerald (Margo Martindale), Mardell Fitzgerald (Riki Lindhome)

Bechdel Test

Passes, thanks to a few brief but integral exchanges between Maggie and her mother and sister.

How are women represented?

Although the vast majority of the characters are men, for once this feels like a genuine concession to the nature of the sport. In spite of the lack of female characters, Million Dollar Baby is a compelling portrayal of a woman fighting for approval in a man’s world, who refuses to rise to sexist taunts cast at her by her peers, relying on her cutting tongue and resilience to silence her doubters.

The tough female boxers are portrayed in stark contrast to the girls parading the ring in their underwear, emphasising that women are not just silent sex objects, but are capable of battling hard, both physically and mentally, to achieve a goal. Speaking of which, those delicate souls who find women fighting each other distasteful might want to avoid this film: Baby pulls no punches when it comes to the boxing scenes between the women.

Eastwood’s Frankie and Morgan’s Scraps are both flawed and compelling, but Maggie is the most developed and engaging character, thanks in part to a powerful, astute performance from Swank. Maggie resists gender stereotypes, working as a warm, loyal and witty soul, who can light up the screen with an expertly-timed grin, but also as a resilient, determined and courageous fighter not afraid to roll with the punches and fight the odds stacked against her.

Refreshingly, Maggie never becomes a sex object or develops a romantic attachment, allowing the focus of her character and the story to be her aim of taking the title. Despite the initial struggles she faces against sexism, ultimately her gender becomes unimportant as we are engrossed in her against-the-odds rise to stardom. Baby proves that a female character can carry a story arc based on individualistic goals, and doesn’t need to be involved in a romance to be sympathetic or valid.

Verdict

Four

By sidestepping the romance plot, Million Dollar Baby provides a rare portrayal of a resilient and courageous female character, whose aim does not adhere to the expected female agenda of love and maybe marriage, but is instead to triumph in a violent sport for her own glory. Although she is supported by Frankie, this partnership is built on mutual respect and loyalty, and is touching without being condescending or creepy. Overall, this is one of the most thoughtful and inspiring representations of women that I’ve witnessed in a while, thanks to the absolute assertion that women can struggle for a non-traditional goal, and also to the multifaceted nature of Maggie.

What do you think? Did you see Maggie as a strong protagonist, or did you feel that Eastwood’s troubled trainer dominated the story? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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