If you haven’t indulged in this film yet, please be aware that this post contains more spoilers than half an avocado left out on a countertop in the middle of a heatwave. (But it’s much more enjoyable.)
Here’s a confession. I thought this film was going to be like one of those pre-packaged cakes with a shelf life of 10 years: sweet enough to satisfy my craving for a sugary treat, but mostly fluff, air, and artificial preservatives. But it’s more like a really good homemade cake: sweet and light but substantial, decorated with flourish, with care baked into every mouthful, and a gentle lingering taste after you’ve finished the last bite.
It’s written and directed by Nora ‘Queen of Actually Smart Movies About Women’ Ephron, so I should have had more faith. I enjoyed it much more than I thought: but can a movie that’s mostly about women staying in the kitchen deliver from a feminist point of view?
What happens in this movie?
This film is based on not one but two true stories. The first one chronologically is that of Julia Child (Meryl Streep), whom we first meet in the 1950s when she and husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) arrive in Paris from America for his Important American Government Job. Looking for something to fill her days, she hustles her way into Le Cordon Bleu (that’s a super fancy French cooking school, for those of us who mostly survive on tinned soup and frozen peas.) Thanks to her resilience, warmth and strong wrist action, she’s soon doing better than the other (all male) students. While living up that expat life in Paris, she meets two French women who are writing a French cookbook for American housewives, and through various twists and turns, Julia ends up editing it: cue a long process trying to get the book published.
Meanwhile, in not-quite-present-day New York City, Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is a failed novelist and discontented cubicle drone for the development company in charge of rebuilding Lower Manhattan after the 9/11 attacks, which means taking sad and angry telephone calls from victims, their families, and random members of the public in various stages of grief one year on. Meanwhile, her frenemies are all selling real estate for millions of dollars, getting important promotions, and writing bitchy articles for print magazines (those were a thing in 2002.)
To escape the drudgery and give herself a project to focus on, Julie decides to take one year to cook every recipe in that cookbook Julia worked so hard to get published, now called Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and write about it on this newfangled thing called a blog. This sparks joy, fights with her husband Eric (Chris Messina), a pearl necklace (no, not that kind, the real fake kind) and eventually a publishing deal to write the book that became one of the books this film is based on, Julie & Julia. The other is Julia Child’s memoir My Life in France.
Does it pass the Bechdel test?
Yes, multiple times!
For instance, Julia and her collaborators talk about their book; Julie whines to her friend Sarah (Mary Lynn Rajskub) about how everyone else is more successful than her; she and her friends discuss their jobs; and she waxes lyrical to the food writer about how much she loves Julia.
What are the female characters like?
Julia Child (Meryl Streep)
The Julia Child of the movie is both a wonderfully odd outsider and the kind of person who makes (nearly) everyone feel instantly happier in her presence. In many ways she defies conventions women in the ‘50s were expected to live up to: she was 6’2”, so not your small and dainty girdled housewife; she didn’t get married (or have sex, apparently) until she was in her 40s; she muscles her way into an all-male cooking course; she publishes a book with two other women; she very much enjoys having sex with her husband; oh, and she was a spy, but that’s hush hush.
At the same time as she seems to accept and embrace her differences, she also desires that conventional lifestyle: she wants children but can’t have them; she wants to live in one place instead of having to move around for Paul’s job; she is a housewife; and the kind of cooking she focuses on is home cooking, not the kind you sell in tiny portions in restaurants with no prices on the menu. Oh, and she hates swearing. All of which makes her an enjoyably realistic character (probably because she was real!) And Meryl Streep is fantastic at nailing her extremely unique way of talking, her awkward hand gestures, and her excitable facial expressions, because she is Meryl Streep.
Julie Powell (Amy Adams)
Where Julia is confident and warm and ready to take on any challenge, Julie is hesitant and down on herself, at least at the beginning. She gets totally wrapped up in her project — the cooking itself and the blog where she records her progress — which brings her more self confidence and joy and professional pride, but also frustration and a dose of narcissism. If she wasn’t played by Amy Adams, who always finds a way to make her characters charming, she would get frustrating much sooner.
How does it represent women?
1) It shows that women are as complex as a perfectly executed curry… sort of.
Having two such different women as main characters does a nice job of reminding everyone that women don’t have to just fit one mold — even when they both enjoy something as stereotypically feminine as cooking. This might be down to the fact this movie is based on two real women’s stories: they are as different as two total strangers living half a century apart really would be.
That said, some of the side characters feel a little reductive, especially Julie’s circle of bitchy ‘friends.’ Her mother is also the typical ‘nagging’ Texas mom who doesn’t understand why she can’t just, like, focus on her husband instead of a big blog project that brings her fulfillment. Julie’s friend Sarah is more sympathetic, and lukewarm supportive, but overall this part of the story feels like it returns to that idea that there are certain ‘types’ of women — the super successful New York career woman, versus the shy, thoughtful, artsy woman — which creates a Mean Girls vibe but without any of the irony.
2) Julia’s storyline celebrates women supporting women… sort of.
Julia’s friendships are a mixed bag too. On the one hand, she’s someone who gets on with anyone and everyone she meets (but without being a doormat.) The notable exception is the woman in charge of Le Cordon Bleu, who is like a cartoon of the snooty French bitch: her hair is pulled back very tight, she purses her lips a lot, and she’s suspiciously slender for someone who runs a cookery school (must be those tiny portions.) She has no redeeming traits, or a reason to dislike Julia other than the fact Julia isn’t behaving how one would expect a housewife in the ‘50s to behave.
The other two women who work on the cookbook — Simone ‘Simca’ (Linda Emond) and Louisette (Helen Carey) — don’t get a lot of airtime but at least they are treated as individuals — partially thanks to the fact they were real people. Julia and Simca are forced to kick Louisette out of the trio because she isn’t pulling her weight, but even this doesn’t make them seem bitchy so much as practical. Julia also has a warm relationship with her equally tall sister Dorothy (Jane Lynch), even when she finds out that Dorothy has managed to get pregnant just months after marrying, which unintentionally rubs Julia’s inability to conceive in her face. Julia’s other BFF is Avis (Deborah Rush), a pen pal she writes to but doesn’t meet for eight years, and it’s probably the warmest friendship of the whole film. So on balance, the Julie portion of the film tries to sort women into rival types, while the Julia section resorts to a few stereotypes but does a better job of showing that women can support each other, even when their personalities are different.
3) Female ambition is only allowed in very specific areas.
The biggest problem I have with this film from a feminist perspective is its critique of female ambition. It seems to want women to stay only in certain roles, while any woman who dares to harbour ambition in more male-dominated industries is subtly shamed for it. We’re meant to root for Julia and Simca as they struggle to find a publisher for this cookbook they’ve spent years writing; but when Julie’s friend announces that she’s just closed a real estate deal for millions of dollars, she’s portrayed as a cold corporate bitch. Ditto for the one who just got a big promotion. If a woman is aiming high in a traditionally female field — i.e. writing cookbooks for housewives — that’s to be applauded, as is trying to get a book deal from your home cooking blog. But just wanting to make a lot of money — or, say, run a high end French cooking school — is unfeminine and a sign that you’re not to be trusted.
Even Julie is criticized for getting ‘too into’ the project she set up for herself. When Julia Child’s publisher cancels their dinner last-minute, Julie is devastated, partly because she thought she might finally get the publishing deal she’s wanted for years, but also because she’d told her readers that there was going to be a big surprise. Instead of empathising, her husband basically tells her no one really cares what she’s doing and she should get over herself, and then storms out and makes her think he’s left her — all for being passionate and committed to a project that makes her happy while also challenging her. Look, movie version of Eric, the whole obsession with Julia Child would get old, I grant you; but at least she’s happy and you’re getting fancy French dinners cooked for you every night, so maybe you should just shut up and eat the damn butter.
4) It shows women can enjoy cooking purely for themselves.
One of my favourite things about this movie is that it reminds us that women can enjoy cooking for their own pleasure. Cooking — home cooking in particular — is usually seen either as something women are supposed to want to do to make other people happy, or as a chore that women are forced to do. In this movie, it’s something they choose to do because it makes them feel challenged and fulfilled.
Julia signs herself up for cooking lessons because she wants to, not because Paul (who is something of a total babe, by the way, much better than Julie’s ungrateful husband) wants or expects her to. Similarly, Julie sees cooking as her escape from her career frustrations, and sets herself the challenge because she wants to. Throughout the film we watch the women’s delight as they master each meal; notably it’s their own delight and enjoyment of the food — the way it looks as well as the way it tastes — and not others’ that makes them happiest. For example, when Julie pulls her duck pie thing out of the oven at the end, and calls Paul over to show him what she calls the most perfect pie in the world; or when Julia chops her onions faster than everyone else; or when Julie takes a bite of the food she’s prepared for the critics and ‘Mmms…’ at her own dish.
While I am frustrated by the implication that women should be satisfied being home cooks rather than chefs, and that reaching beyond that counts as unfeminine ambition, I also love how the movie uplifts the image of home cooking as a creative and fun process that can be worthwhile purely because it makes the cook happy, rather than because they have an obligation or desire to please the people who eat it.
Overall, this movie does a beautiful job of showing two women challenging themselves purely because they have decided that they want to. The line the movies draws between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ female ambition leaves a bitter taste, as do the reductive been-there-over-it bitchy female friendships in Julie’s storyline, and the head of the French cooking school. Fortunately Julia’s part of the plot goes some way towards showing the potential for positive relationships between women, and ultimately, both of the characters find success in something they are passionate about and challenged by, not because it makes other people happy but because they want to do it.