Tag Archives: femininity

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

Image

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)

WHCBB

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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