Fey, Hanna and Action Flicks: The Male-Skewing Myth

A few weeks ago, when flying from LA to NY, I was trapped with my daughter in the airport for six hours. We wandered aimlessly through stores, in a comatose state, until something grabbed our attention. There, on the cover of her new book, "Bossypants," was a photo of Tina Fey. Or was it? It was certainly Tina Fey's head and torso. But, connected to these recognizable body parts were a pair of hairy, burly, male arms that might easily belong to a lumberjack. Suddenly, I was wide awake.

As an avid viewer of Ms. Fey's unfailingly funny, politically astute, topnotch TV show, "Thirty Rock," I am very familiar with her character, Liz Lemon -- the TV producer/head writer at NBC whose personal life is a disaster. Loosely based on Ms. Fey's experiences as a female producer/head writer in the predominantly male world of comedy, she struggles in ways that a man in her position wouldn't. That, in a nutshell, is what the show is about.

The striking image on the book cover of a Tina Fey who is part female, part male seems to embody what Liz Lemon often feels on the show. Is she really a woman? Is she more masculine than the majority of other women out there?

Lemon dresses in what used to be called 'androgynous' clothes -- unisex jeans, flat shoes, button-down shirts, glasses, no make-up or "feminine" accessories. At the beginning of the series, her boss and mentor, played by Alec Baldwin, assumes that she is a lesbian and tries to set her up with a woman. (Clearly, Baldwin's character has never watched "The L Word" or wandered the Sapphic watering holes of LA, where there are more high heels and feminine accessories than you can shake a stick at). But, after giving her same-sex date the old college try, Liz Lemon reaffirms what she already knew about herself, that she, like her creator, is solidly heterosexual despite her gender difference.

So what is she exactly? An unusual woman? An exception to the rule? A female man? A male woman? A third sex? I ask these questions, not as an abstract exercise in intellectualization, but because, I, too, sometimes feel like a third sex -- especially when I read movie reviews in the Hollywood trade papers surmising, in advance of a movie's opening, who will go to see them, to whom they will be most appealing, how they are expected by studios (and reviewers) to skew.

Here's an example. When "Hannah" opened on Friday, April 8th, "Variety" informed its readers that it was "expected to play best to male audiences." Why? Because it is an action flick? A fast-paced thriller with fighting and violence?

I found this pronouncement decidedly at odds with my own feelings. Ever since I'd seen a trailer for the film, I'd been bursting at the seams with impatience for it to open. Everyone at my house -- all female, felt the same. Here's what I remember from the preview: a 14-year-old girl, dressed head-to-toe in animal skins, kills an enormous antlered caribou. Out of the blue, a man attacks her. Immediately, she springs to action, overpowers him and tackles him to the ground. She walks off with the beast slung over her shoulders. Later, she is interrogated by a woman in a government facility. The girl, pretending to hug the agent, breaks her neck, fights off a slew of armed men and escapes, while Cate Blanchett's character observes in steely silence. Bring it on.
I am hooked. What woman wouldn't be?

The world is saturated with male action heroes whose passive female love interests can't throw a punch in their own defense. How often do we see a father training his teenage daughter to be an assassin? I wouldn't have been nearly as intrigued to watch "Hannah," if it had been "Harry." Why shouldn't other women and girls be just as excited as I was to see a film with not just one, but two female characters trained to be physically tough as nails? Not so very long ago, rumor had it that women could identify (mostly out of necessity) with male characters (in every genre), but men could only identify with other men on the screen. Is it a form of progress to wager that a movie called "Hannah," with two female assassin leads -- not in tight-fitting bodices -- will be mostly seen by men? Perhaps.

On the other hand, why do studio execs and movie reviewers persist in believing that, when it comes to selecting movies, girls don't venture an opinion, but are dragged silently to the movies of choice of their male dates? (They surely don't know my teenage daughter and her friends, or my adult female friends either, for that matter). And if the girls and women could choose, prevailing wisdom dictates that they will almost always select romantic comedies (despite the fact that these are often the most gender-conforming of all the genres out there).

Maybe the girls are dragging their dates to see "Hannah." Or maybe the girls and the boys, the men and the women all want to go. Willingly. During its six season run, viewers of "Xena Warrior Princess" skewed fairly evenly male and female, young and old. Everyone wanted to see Xena fight hordes of warlords, armies and gods alongside her trusty sidekick, friend, lover, Gabrielle. Ditto for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

Studios and marketers are convinced that girls can only relate to stories about feelings and romance. They forget that teenage girls also live in a world where 75% of them get bullied, generally in the form of sexual harassment. When a teenage boy grabs Buffy's butt in the hallways of her high school, she immediately knocks him flat on his butt. Cheering by female teenage viewers was deafening. Hence the continued popularity of the series for seven, solid seasons.

Disney is abandoning its princess story-telling. Something will have to fill the void. Perhaps more girls and women than ever will flock to the action-thrillers. Especially, if they are filled to the brim with female characters thrilling us with their action.

"Awesome Alice"

"Alice in Wonderland" has earned almost a billion dollars! It is the highest grossing film of the year (as of May 2nd) and the 17th highest of all time. And, it is not only female-driven, but feminist to boot. Which only adds fuel to what I have asserted for years: feminist fare is marketable. Or, more alliteratively, feminist fare is a financial force not to be frittered away...

I mention this, not because marketability is what matters most to me, but because it is at the top of the list for the executives in charge of making (big studio) movies. I repeat the message twice, not because I like to fool around with consonants, but, because, in one maddening respect, suits with the power to greenlight, remind me of my daughter. They all seem to require endless repetition. I may have reminded my daughter to do something two thousand times, but, somehow, the very next day, she manages to forget, once more. (And she acts surprised that the reminder is coming, yet again!) So it is with the guys on top. Saying it once is never enough. They need reminding over and over that films like "Alice" are profitable, before they get made as a matter of course. Curiouser and curiouser.

The current movie version of "Alice" (based on the novels, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," and "Through the Looking-Glass" by Lewis Carroll) is adapted by Linda Woolverton (a credited writer on "Mulan," another surprisingly feminist Disney film). I saw "Alice" in 2D and in 3D and both times found little to quibble with script-wise. Woolverton's adaptation kept the tone and spirit of Carroll's old-fashioned tales, while embracing modern values, when needed. For example, the slayer of the beast in Carroll's poem, "Jabberwocky," written in 1872, was decidedly male. In Woolverton's version, the slaying is appropriately accomplished by Alice, the movie's hero.

In fact, I'd go so far as to venture that the movie was a success because Woolverton created a more empowered protagonist. And audiences of all four quadrants --young and old, male and female-- seem to agree. Parents with sons as well as daughters (a rare phenomenon in films with female main characters) twenty somethings on dates, and people of all permutations of gender and age have flocked to and loved "Alice. "

Although I was initially skeptical about Alice as a 19-year-old rather than a child, I believe this change (and others) improved upon the orginial 19th century stories.

In the current version, directed by Tim Burton, the movie begins with Alice (played formidably by Mia Wasikowska) about to be married against her will. Early on, we see her mother carting Alice off to her own engagement party, an engagement Alice knows nothing about. A bit of the heroine's feistiness is foreshadowed when, on the carriage ride over, Alice refuses to wear a corset (much to her mother's horror).

Just before she is proposed to, Alice experiences a glimpse of the compromises and hypocrisies of the adult world. Her older sister counsels her to accept the proposal so that she will be "as happily married as she" and quickly, before her beauty fades. A few minutes later, Alice encounters her sister's husband snogging another woman in the garden. Alice's would-be groom is not unlike a squashed cabbage -- dull, averse to anything quirky or imaginary, suffering from a number of digestive ailments -- in short, already a stodgy old soul in a young person's body.

What to do? With this permanently life-altering proposition thickening the air, Alice makes a most sensible decision. She take five minutes to think it over. Fortunately for her, during this interlude, she finds and pursues a white rabbit in a blue waist-coat, and winds up falling down a very deep hole into Wonderland. Or, as we later learn, it is really (and more aptly) called, "Underland."

While in Underland, Alice gradually realizes that the dreams that have haunted her for as long as she can recall, were actually memories of her earlier voyage below, more than ten years before. All the people and creatures who knew her then are shocked to witness the change that has befallen her with her transition from child to teenager (something to which many parents can, no doubt, relate). Echoing a common trend described in late 20th century literature (see Peggy Orenstein's 1994 tome, "School Girls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap"), the vibrant, plucky girl they remembered has lost her "muchness."

When the Mad Hatter (played by the inimitable Johnny Depp) informs Alice that she must don armor and slay the fire-spewing jabberwocky with a vorpal blade --she politely declines. The Red Queen (played by the sumptuous Helena Bonham Carter with a bulbous and over-inflated head) may be the cruelest of despots, but Alice is unwilling to kill anything, no matter whose lives are at stake. Unaquainted with post-feminist theories about life's cruel massacring of girls' innate spiritedness -- the creatures of Underland are perplexed and then, impatient. It is foretold in the Oraculum that Alice becomes their champion, and with her bravery in battle, liberates the land from the reign of Red. Why doesn't Alice get with the program?

"Alice," may evoke fond memories of Chesire cats with disappearing smiles and blue caterpillars smoking hookahs, but what it's really about is tyranny. Tyranny by unrestrained political rulers and tyranny by unchecked gender constraints. In this movie, the need to overthrow both types aligns. The creatures rebelling against the Red Queen need Alice to cast off the shackles of mind and society to regain her self-confidence, so she can take up arms against the taloned beast. In an awe-inspiring scene: Alice does just that. She reclaims her courage (and identity) by recounting a number of impossible things that happen each day.

Why not become a champion too?

Happily, when Alice returns to the "real" world above (weeks have passed in Underland but in England, only five minutes-- a concept that has proved endlessly fascinating to my daughter, who has seen the movie 3 times!), her transformation travels with her. Although severely limited by the options available to women in Victorian society, Alice has just made mincemeat of the jabberwocky and is no longer to be trifled with. She declines the offer of marriage. She warns her brother-in-law that he'd better shape up or have to reckon with her. And, to the father of her almost-groom, Alice makes a business proposal he cannot refuse. The movie ends with Alice embarking on a sea-faring voyage as explorer and apprentice -- destined for a life above-ground, as richly adventurous as the one below.


The third season of Damages, the FX drama about high-powered lawyers, starring Glen Close and Rose Byrne, came to an end this April. It is unclear whether this will be the series finale as well.

Although I initially loved the show, it's characters and premise, I came to like it less over time. I was particularly disppointed by the final episode. It's almost as if the writers forgot what was most compelling: the complexity and power of Patty Hewes (Glen Close) and her relationship with her young, mentee, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne). By the conclusion, Hewes is reduced to an evil character --no shades of gray-- in the most misogynistic manner.

Briefly, I recap.

From the get-go, Patty Hewes is a powerful, successful, formidable and rightfully feared attorney at the top of her game. She takes on large class action lawsuits to fight for the little guys -- men and women by the hundreds who are screwed by seemingly impenetrable companies run by murderous, corrupt, but untouchable men.

Into her life comes a brilliant, ambitious, young associate, Ellen Parsons, eager to learn at the feet of the master. As the episodes unfold, Ellen becomes increasingly beholden to and disillusioned by her mentor. Patty is fascinating but incredibly flawed -- she advises Ellen to assuage her fiance's ego at her own expense, as she does her husband's -- or she will lose him. (Later on, Patty loses her husband, a philanderer, anyway. Perhaps her advice to Ellen was less than sound.) Patty's relationship with her son is among the most atrocious depicted on TV. She relies on questionably legal tactics to win cases -- the question always lingering: do the ends justify the means?

We are never exactly sure who Patty Hewes is, other than the show's chief asset --atypical, never a floundering victim, always five steps ahead of everyone else. She may have routinely broken the law but she could be extremely loyal. And most important, she had what it took to deliver justice to the hundreds of people damaged by her unscrupulous opponents. From time to time, it was also hinted, that she harbored a terrible heart-ache -- but this was only revealed in the last episode.

Ellen's alacrity and growing ability to match Patty's wily ways is fascinating to witness. We never knew whether Ellen is upright or corrupt, ultimately on Patty's side or plotting against her.

But, inexplicably, in the final episode, Patty's entire life and career are abjectly condemned, in black and white, unambiguous terms. Gone is the nuance -- her fortitude side by side with her compromises. In the opinion of the show's creators, Patty is by far the most atrocious monster imaginable. What could be worse, you might wonder, than her malevolent opponents -- men who knowingly poisoned the water of entire communities -- murdering children for profit? Or Lewis Tobin (a stand-in for Bernie Madoff) who destroyed the lives of millions of middle-class people. Or Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson) who had Ellen's fiance murdered in a particularly cold-blooded and brutal way?

What did Patty do to earn first place in the Monster's Hall of Fame? When she was 19 or 20, with her whole life ahead of her, she went for a walk against her doctor's orders. Her advanced pregnancy miscarried. Patty left it all behind and went to the big city toward her future.

Ellen asks Patty, in the final moments of the show, if it was all worth it.
Patty's response? Silence.
The summation of this woman's exceptional life reduced to one thing only: unborn baby-killer.
The unflappable, unsinkable lawyer -- after a lifetime of defending others, unwilling or unable to defend herself.

If ever there were evidence of a double standard, this is it.

Had I known at the outset where the show was heading, I would never have tuned in.

Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Oscars

Presidential races and Oscar races for Best Director may not seem similar, but in at least two respects, they are.

Presidents are not unlike movie directors --we place our faith in their leadership; we look to both of them to run the show.

It's been 224 years since the United States became an independent nation and 81 years of Academy Awards ceremonies. It cannot be a coincidence that, in all those years, Americans have never elected a female president and Academy members have never chosen a woman for the Best Director Oscar.

We are fast approaching the 82nd Academy Awards show. The nominations for the Oscars will be announced in a matter of days. This year, not one, but, two women directors stand a chance to be nominated: Lone Scherfig for "An Education" and Kathryn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker." The former is a long shot. The latter might actually be the first woman to win.

Ironically, the director with the greatest odds of beating Bigelow, is James Cameron for "Avator." I say "ironic," not because he is her former husband, but because no other director has done more to positively portray female characters than he. "Avatar," with its global box office cum of nearly 2 billion dollars and much of his previous work ("Aliens," "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" "Dark Angel" and "The Abyss") have helped transform the forces that work against women's achieving anything close to equity -- in film, and, more importantly, in the world-at-large.

[Non-sexist directors, I should add, do come in all genders -- although, inexplicably, male directors of this ilk tend to have first names that begin with "J" (besides James, J.J. Abrams ("Alias," "Fringe") and Joss Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer"). But, not all of them; Quentin Tarantino ("Kill Bill" and "Inglorious Basterds") also belongs on the list.]

Because of its sheer global reach, "Avatar" bears closer inspection. Cameron, whether he creates a female protagonist (as in "Dark Angel," "Aliens," or "Terminator 2") or a male protagonist, as in "Avatar," always treats his female characters well. Lead characters, main characters, supporting characters -- all of them. By "well," I mean that they are not victimized or otherwise gender stereotyped; they have a point of view which they express freely; they are quite racially diverse, comparatively speaking, and they are unusually powerful in a physical sense -- in fact, they often out-tough and out-power the male characters.

In "Avatar," Sigourney Weaver plays a sardonic, fearless scientist who is in charge with a capital "c." She knows the indigenous population of Pandora better than anyone else. She yells at the corporate sleezebag (Giovanni Ribisi) who pays for her research; she trades barbs with the villainous, wall-to-wall muscled, almost indefeatable Colonel Quaritch; and she treads easily in the lands of Pandora despite its endless supply of deadly flora and fauna. Then, there is Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez), a bad-ass helicopter pilot who out-machos the other military folks and heroically defies the evil colonel.

There are similar characters in other Cameron flicks. We are introduced to Private Vasquez ("Aliens"), as she does an impressive number of pull-ups; she is also the toughest person, male or female, on screen, and carries the biggest gun. In "The Abyss," One-Night is a black woman who drives machinery on an underwater oil rig -- she is strong, funny and one-of-the boys. No sexual harassment in Cameron's worlds -- the women in non-traditional jobs with gender-bending body language are well-liked and respected.

The most important female character in "Avatar" is Zoe Saldana's Neytiri -- a 10-foot, blue warrior from Pandora. She teaches the protagonist, Jake Sully, (Sam Worthington) how not to be "a baby," as she calls him in their first encounter, when she opts not to kill him. For much of the film, she trains Jake in the ways of the warrior. And she is formidable -- fierce, protective, not to be trifled with -- or betrayed. Even when Jake begins to equal her skill, she is never bested by him --as she would be by the leading man in 99% of the film world.

Jake conquers the fiercest dragon-bird of the land. Neytiri tames the most savage dinosaur beast. He fights the evil colonel -- she shoots the final arrows that kill the colonel. Jake helps lead Neytiri's people to victory. Neytiri rescues Jake, carrying his dying and limp body out of harm's way.

To top it off, the people of Pandora are ruled by a man and a woman. And they worship a female deity, Eywa. Much has been made of the environmental message of the film. Some have spoken about its anti-corporate/anti-imperialist/anti-military message. Not too many write about the radical nature of having, not only a class of male and female warriors, but also a living, breathing goddess who helps the indigenous peoples oust the destructive outsiders.

But, what no one is saying is this: For years, Hollywood has proclaimed that sexism sells. Especially, we are told, in the foreign markets. In "Avatar," I would contend, there is not one sexist moment -- gratuitous or otherwise. And the film has made more money than any other movie since the beginning of motion pictures. In 2D or 3D, despite the less-than-scintiallating dialogue, people all over the world continue to buy "Avatar" tickets in droves. In fact, one could argue that audiences are hungry for a movie that doesn't give us more of the same --especially the same, tired stereotypes.

If Bigelow doesn't win the Oscar for Best Director, it will bite. But, if she loses to Cameron, at least it won't sting quite as much.


"An Education" is a rare gem of a film. Catch it if you can! Directed by Lone Scherfig, a Danish woman who also helmed the highly engaging "Italian for Beginners," it is rightfully generating Oscar buzz, but too few people are seeking it out. Starring Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina and Olivia Williams (Dollhouse), it is based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby ("About a Boy").

Not only did I thoroughly love the movie, but, after viewing it, I felt as if I'd just emerged from a great battle. When I left the darkened theatre, I was exhausted, scarred, exhilarated, terrified and grateful to be alive. How vital to be able to experience something so piercingly truthful, at a time when such truths are virtually extinct, but more needed than ever.

The action takes place in the early 1960's. Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a 16 year-old girl from a working class family in London, is being primed by her family to go to Oxford. Her life is tedious, but safely ordered -- she seems to be marching inexorably toward the goal. She gets straight A's in English (and, we assume, in most of the other subjects). She dutifully plays the cello in the orchestra, not because she's passionate about music, but because her father (Alfred Molina) believes it will weigh favorably on her application.

At first glance, it appears as if Jenny's parents, in wishing their daughter so highly educated, are ahead of their time. But, in the course of the film, we discover that they are very much with the times, after all. They aren't interested in encouraging Jenny to fulfill her highest potential, but rather to help Jenny find a husband from a potentially higher class.

Into our protagonist's dull, predictable routine appears the dashing stranger, (Peter Sarsgaard) more than twice her age, driving a flashy car. Little by little, he charms his way into the girl's heart and her parents' as well -- their sheltered, narrow existence and their enormous ambitions for their daughter make them extremely gullible and easily deceived. They unexpectedly find themselves allowing Jenny to go to concerts at venues just across town, places that they have never dared to explore. They extend her curfew (it's educational!) and even permit Jenny to visit Oxford overnight, with little but the word of this honey-tongued interloper to suggest that their daughter will be safe.

What transpires is predictable, but the heroine's transformation is not. At first, she is dazzled and delighted by the music, the art she recognizes from her studies and is now encouraged to bid for at auctions, the fancy restaurants and fine wine. When the smoke clears, she becomes aware that all is not as it seems, but she can't pull herself away and return to her former life. She starts burning bridges. Her grades slip. She is rude to her beloved English teacher (Olivia Williams) and the headmistress (Emma Thompson). Because of the mores of the era, when the headmistress learns that Jenny has been "indiscreet" with an older man (running off to Paris with him for the weekend, for example), she is forbidden from finishing her school term. The dream of Oxford is smashed to smithereens.

Or is it? In a pivotal scene, Jenny is still hooked by the promise of a flashier life, but more aware of its pitfalls (thievery, quasi-prostitution, gallivanting with a woman in her new life who is dumber than a doornail and aspires to nothing). Confused, but still defiant, Jenny shows up at school desperately seeking answers from the only two adult women she knows who have careers and university degrees. Are the hard work, struggle and sacrifice worthwhile? And why does everyone seem so unfulfilled?

The headmistress is ignorant, narrow-minded and anti-Semitic to boot. She plainly tells Jenny that, short of teaching, the only positions open to her are with the civil service. Her English teacher complains about the pony essays she must contend with. Other than voicing her disapproval of Jenny's choices, she is silent. She offers Jenny no life preserver to latch onto. And she was Jenny's best bet.

The other women surrounding Jenny fare far worse. Her mother, a proper housewife, hints at a life before marriage, but since then rarely speaks. Then, there is the mother with a young son 'round the corner whose philandering husband cheats on her with underage girls, Jenny being the latest of these.

Fortunately, Jenny's affair ends before she is saddled with an unwanted pregnancy. Jenny is smart enough to seek help persistently, until the right person -- her English teacher -- is able to offer it. Once again, Jenny's eyes are opened. Instead of the insipid life Jenny has imagined, her teacher's existence is more than adequate -- an apartment of her own furnished with intriguing items from the teacher's sojourns, economic independence, freedom, the life of the mind. With her help, Jenny does eventually enter Oxford, less innocent than she was, but infinitely wiser.

And the script? In a virutally flawless viewing experience, I do have one complaint. Jenny's mother and English teacher should have been more fully developed and given a greater voice. I wanted to know more about their past lives and what had led them toward their current paths. The mother is unduly silent. What had she done before she met her husband? What regrets does she have, if any? She seems to be sleep-walking through life, matching her timidity to that of her husband, who admits his life has been greatly diminished by his fearfulness. What does she think of the opportunities her daughter has that were denied to her? What does she think when all of these come crashing to a halt, partly because she and her husband turned a blind eye?

I wanted to know much more about the English teacher as well. Why has she never married? Does she feel she would have been forced to give up too much? Is she a lesbian? Who are her friends? What does she do on her off-hours? Why doesn't she help Jenny the first time Jenny approaches her?

Like "Revolutionary Road," this movie admirably portrays the stranglehold of sexism on women's lives, 40 years ago. Unfortunately, women (and men) are not yet free of all of these constraints, in the present. If "An Education" makes it easier for us to see the myriad ways in which this blight continues to affect us, it might also contribute to our creative and determined efforts to transform it and ourselves. Perhaps, the much-needed education is offered not only to the characters in the film, but to its audience, as well.



THE DOCTOR IS IN: Ruminations on Romance

It’s a conundrum. The modern romantic comedy targets primarily women moviegoers. Why then is it (arguably) the most sexist of all the movie genres? Sure there is sexism and worse in all categories of film. But there are also the exceptions to balance this out. (See “Resident Evil” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (horror/supernatural/action); “The Brave One,” (thriller/action); “Lara Croft,” (action/video-game-into-movie); “Whale Rider,” (drama).

In the modern, romantic comedy, I can find few exceptions. Perhaps, “Baby Boom,” starring Diane Keaton. But that movie was made way back in 1987 and was mostly a comedy. The romance was icing on the cake, not the sole purpose of the film. (Ditto with “Legally Blonde.” More comedy than romance, Reese Witherspoon got her man, only after she proved to herself and everyone else, that she was as smart as they come, and not to be trifled with.)

Why do so many women continue to flock to romantic comedies? Would the most homophobic genre hook the greatest number of gay people? Or the most racist movies entice the highest percentage of people of color? I don’t think so. To be fair, romantic comedies weren’t always what they’ve come to be. Perhaps, audiences are nostalgic for the way they were in their heyday, 60-70 years ago.

If you haven’t seen the comedies from the 1930’s and 1940’s, you may not know what you’re missing. Years before the modern women’s movement, the female protagonists in these films fared far better than their modern day counterparts. To illustrate this point, let’s compare Katharine Hepburn, the lead in “Bringing up Baby,” which opened in 1938, to Sandra Bullock’s character in this summer’s hit, “The Proposal.”

In “Bringing Up Baby,” the sex roles of the two main characters are actually reversed from the norm. Cary Grant’s David is a paleontologist who is bossed around by his fiancée. He can’t remember to remove his lab coat or even the names of the people he works with. He is distracted and weak. We first see Katharine Hepburn’s Susan on the golf course – gorgeous, regal and athletic. She makes an impressive shot or two. She bosses David around as well. He perks up and starts to get angry. He argues with her. She gets angry and argues right back. She takes his car (perhaps accidentally, perhaps not) and he jumps on the running board. She drives off with him holding on for dear life.

The next time they meet, they each accidentally tear the other’s clothing. She flattens his top hat; he crashes to the floor. She leaves him holding her purse; he gets accused of stealing. She drives him around in her car in the moonlight. She throws a rock and conks a guy on the head. She is in the driver’s seat; he continues to allow himself to be humiliated. This pattern continues throughout most of the film.

Susan lures David to her apartment, by pretending that she is being mauled by a leopard. When he arrives, she is perfectly fine, calm and collected. Disbelieving her tale of the leopard (and who can blame him?), he opens the bathroom door and shrieks in dismay. Sure enough, there is a leopard, standing on the sink. David stands on a chair, afraid, even when Susan reassures him that Baby (that’s the leopard) is perfectly tame. Susan is, once again, the brave one.

Susan next tricks David into accompanying her to Connecticut with the leopard, hours before he’s supposed to get married in New York. Again, she drives the car. She crashes and doesn’t apologize. She sends David to buy raw meat and he is, once more, humiliated. She steals his clothes, forcing him to wander around in an ultra-feminine women’s bathrobe.

Dressed in the bathrobe, he first meets Susan’s aunt, not realizing that she is the person who potentially will donate a million dollars to his museum so he can complete his giant brontosaurus skeleton. He fights back once – stepping hard on Susan’s foot to get her to stop arguing with her aunt. One point: the guy. 99 points: the woman.

Immediately after, David, wearing still another absurd outfit (pants and shoes that are too small and from another era) is seen chasing after a yapping terrier. To be fair, the dog did steal and bury David’s precious brontosaurus bone on Susan’s vast, 22-acre property. But Susan’s aunt doesn’t know this, as she watches him duck under branches, circle trees and litter the grounds with holes. Susan tells her aunt that David is a big game hunter who had a nervous breakdown. All the aunt sees is a grown man chasing a dog, as if his life depended on it. And what is he searching for? His bone. Subtext anyone?

Susan openly admits that she is in love with David and plans to marry him, whether he realizes it or not. She is clearly in the aggressor mode during the movie. As they roam around Connecticut, letting a second, more dangerous leopard loose without realizing it’s not Baby, and searching for the first leopard and the dog, David does get mad again and send Susan packing. But, he changes his mind the minute she cries. Even in this scene, she doesn’t appear weak. She cries to let him know that she feels remorse for all of the horrible things she’s done to him. We, the audience, learn she has a conscience after all.

Everyone – Susan, David, the aunt, the fiancée-- all wind up in jail. Only Susan figures out a way to escape. The men who own the second leopard come to the jail and announce that their leopard is a killer. David laments that, “poor, darling Susan is out trying to catch the wrong leopard, and she’s helpless without me.”

None of us are fooled. Susan helpless? Not for a second. True to character, Susan returns, triumphantly dragging the killer leopard behind her. David leaps out, in his one moment of bravery, and, with Susan by his side, uses a chair to shunt the leopard into a jail cell. When Susan praises his heroism, not letting him get a word in edge-wise, he FAINTS and SHE CATCHES HIM in her very strong arms.

At the end of the movie, Susan’s aunt gives Susan the million dollars and Susan goes to the museum to tell David that she’s found the bone and plans to give him the money. As soon as she arrives, he bounds up a very tall ladder to a platform where he has been constructing his brontosaurus. He admits that he’s afraid of her. In the most minimal of love declarations – he also admits that he’s had the best day in his life with her and that he loves her, he THINKS. She tells him she loves him right back (and that she did all of those crazy things to keep him near her).

All this time, she's been rocking from side to side on the ladder, in ever increasing arcs. Suddenly, she is about to lose all control and die. In her only moment of weakness, she hangs from one arm and he hoists her up onto the platform before the ladder crashes. The next minute, his entire brontosaurus, representing 4 year’s hard work, is destroyed. He forgives her. They kiss. Fade out.

Some might contend that “Bringing Up Baby,” is more of a screwball comedy than a pure romance. Whatever you call it, it is still about two people falling in love, or about how two people change when they do fall in love. Susan gets less self-centered and more generous. David realizes he had fun gallivanting with her and that, even if it is more chaotic, he’s never felt more alive.

At a recent screenwriting expo, I was told in a seminar on romantic comedies that the man (and only the man) always makes the declaration of love. This struck me as odd. Not only does it preclude any romantic comedies between two men or two women, but why must it always be the man who professes his love? The answer to this is simple, I was told. Women are dragging their boyfriends or husbands to these movies and, it is either a hint or a fantasy to hear these words spoken on screen.

It’s simply not romantic somehow if the woman proposes, holds open the door or declares her love. Some men and some women might beg to differ. It certainly wasn’t the case in “Bringing Up Baby,” where the man falls in love with the woman (and vice versa) despite their unorthodox behaviors and personas.

I really wanted to like “The Proposal,” starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. I love Sandra Bullock who, like Katharine Hepburn, has tended to play gender-bending roles (“Miss Congeniality,” “The Net,” “Speed”), is athletic and possesses impeccable comic timing. When she says she turns down numerous roles – a common refrain for women in Hollywood—I believe her. When she said, in a recent interview, that she liked the role in “The Proposal” because she had the "guy" part, I was intrigued and predisposed to like the movie.

Sadly, this promise was not fulfilled. Yes, Sandra Bullock has the "guy" part, for about ten minutes. Her Margaret is the mean boss who calls the shots, earns the big bucks and forces her underlings to scurry around like scared mice. Ryan Reynolds’ Andrew not only gets the coffee (like the typical female assistant), but he gets the same coffee drink as his boss, just in case he spills hers on the way in. Like the typical male boss, Margaret winds up coercing her much younger employee into an inappropriate situation as a quid pro quo for keeping his job. But, it’s not sexual favors this time around. Instead, she forces him to marry her so she won’t get deported to Canada.

All of this occurs in about the first 10 minutes. After that, the characters completely switch places. Margaret no longer calls the shots, nor is she in the driver’s seat. Andrew is. He forces her to propose on her knees. He negotiates for what he wants in exchange. And the rest of the movie is about humiliating Margaret. She teeters around in such high heels that she is incapable of normal movement. She can’t go down a ladder (compare this to Katharine Hepburn who can scale any height and does). She can’t jump aboard a boat. She can’t swim. She must be rescued by Andrew (of course) when she falls in the water. And this time around, it’s not the woman who is rich. Andrew, we learn, isn’t a poor, scruffy schmoe, but the richest guy in town.

There is one moment where the two battle as equals –when they try to relay to his family and friends just how the proposal was made. She tries to effeminize him; he tries to put her on the spot. But the gist of it, the core message, is this: if a man and a woman are really in love, the man must offer up all the romance. If the woman is strong, she must be knocked down and shown to be a complete softie, at heart. You can argue that Margaret wasn’t just strong, but was awful and made everyone miserable. You can argue that everyone can relate to bringing down the mean boss.

I’m not buying it. Susan, in “Bringing Up Baby,” did horribly mean things too and wasn’t punished and certainly not diminished nearly as much. Not convinced?

Compare “The Proposal” to “His Girl Friday,” which opened in 1940, starring Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant. Cary’s Walter Burns heads a grimy, macho newsroom. His best reporter is his wife, Hildy (Russell). Walter wants her to keep being the great newspaperwoman that she is. Hildy is leaving him. She thinks that her life would be infinitely better in a “traditional” romance and marriage living as a housewife in the suburbs, with a picket fence, and her mother-in-law in tow.

This is clearly conveyed as the wrong, supremely UNAPPEALING choice. Who could turn down gorgeous Cary and the excitement of covering an escaped death row inmate who holds you at gunpoint? Of course, Hildy goes where the true romance lies. Not in the far reaches of upstate New York, but in the newsroom, where her talents are appreciated, not extinguished.

In romance, we’ve only gone backwards, since the 1930’s and 1940’s. It’s high-time we brought this genre into the 21st Century where it belongs.


How Sexism Hurts Scripts AND is Bad for Business

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

It’s high time there was a blog written from the vantage point of a script doctor. With all the blogs about Hollywood, you’d think there would be several about movies and screenplays penned by the writers who work to improve these projects. Surprisingly, there aren’t.

Moreover, if you’re looking for a blog that goes beyond the standard repertoire of story, character and pacing (which you’ll see in every book on how to write a screenplay), I can guarantee that you won’t find it. Especially if you’re seeking a script doctor’s take on how sexism hurts scripts AND is bad for business. 

For years, corporate executives have realized that retaining a diverse workforce is not counter to good business, but in its best interest.  It’s no different with movies. Time and again, when my clients excise the unnecessary, gratuitous, (often) unintentional sexism from their screenplays, we inevitably make the scripts better -- more consistent, compelling and even more marketable.  

As a script doctor, who crafts her own screenplays and helps clients rewrite theirs, and who is unusually attuned to the insidious sexism lurking in our midst, I’ve applied for the job and been hired. In this blog, I will furnish concrete examples from scripts I have worked on and from movies that are playing in your local Cineplex. I can’t change the latter, if I wasn’t asked to doctor the script, but I can weigh in on what might have made some of these films better.  


“The Brothers Bloom,” a movie that recently opened in LA and NY, is a good place to start. Written and directed by Rian Johnson and starring Rachel Weisz, Adrian Brody and Mark Ruffalo, I’d been looking forward to seeing it since I first got wind of it in the trade papers.  

Whimsical, entertaining and fast-paced, it’s about two orphaned brothers who grow up to be conmen. The older brother, Stephen (Ruffalo) designs the cons as if scripting a play, intricately devising character arcs, plots and twists for major dramatic impact. He is particularly suited for this line of business.

The younger brother, Bloom (Brody) doesn’t like the life of the con-artist. He yearns for true love, not subterfuge. Most of all, he yearns to create the script of his own life, if only he were brave enough to do so. Instead, Bloom alternates between reluctant acquiescence to his brother’s cons and escaping them in a haze of drunken torpor.

Stephen’s enigmatic partner in love and work is a Japanese woman he calls Bang-Bang, because of her expertise with explosives. She shows up one day out of the blue, participates in all the cons, and never utters a word (though she conveys great range of emotion, nonetheless).  

The movie really takes off with the introduction of Rachel Weisz’s character. Her Penelope is a rich, eccentric who lives alone in a mansion and amasses skills by reading books. She races Lamborghinis, is an expert martial artist, makes cameras out of watermelons and juggles chain saws while riding a unicycle. She plays every instrument imaginable, from harps to banjos. She is also incredibly smart and well-read.  

Stephen chooses Penelope as the final mark in an intricate series of cons. (Spoiler Alert.)  She opts to go along, because she needs an adventure and to get out of the mansion. She performs admirably well, but never figures out she’s being duped. Then, she falls in love with Bloom. Bloom fights it, but falls in love also, just as Stephen had hoped. Stephen pulls off his greatest con – sacrificing his own life, for the sake of his brother, without his brother’s figuring it out. 

If Mr. Johnson had brought the script to me, I would have said the following. 

Why set us up with this magnificent character of Penelope, who is smart, uber-skilled, funny, brave – and not utilize her skills? It is not enough to introduce quirkiness, simply for the sake of a laugh. I understand that this is a hybrid film – a cross between a caper and a romance. But, when the “girl” becomes a potential romantic partner, her role is reduced to wide-eyed, innocent, relatively ineffectual mark, instead of full-fledged, complex person, equal to the people who are trying to dupe her. Big mistake.

Bloom is bored and unhappy playing the conman. His brother is rarely challenged.  When Bloom first insinuates himself into her life, Penelope is not quick to make chitchat. And it puts Bloom off his guard. Why not use this? Penelope could have been eager for an adventure, but also suspicious of Bloom’s intentions. And because of this, she could have had an agenda and a plan of her own. For the audience, the fun would have been in seeing the two sides pit their wits against each other, never knowing who would win.  

I wanted to see Penelope using her myriad skills during the cons. As soon as she joins up with the brothers, she is intimidated by a dark character that approaches her (all part of the con, of course). Where is her spinning back kick?  Later, she is swindled out of huge sums of money. Where are her detective abilities?  She immediately grasps the literary connection between the name of the boat and the name of one of the characters in the con – making the audience think she is on the verge of putting two and two together. No such luck.  As soon as this angle is dropped, my interest waned.

Penelope bravely enters a heavily guarded building to steal a valuable antique book, after the con goes awry. With no help from her cohorts, she exits the building unharmed, with the loot, and is arrested by a dozen police. A few seconds later, she is set free with the book. How did she convince the chief of police to let her go? We never find out. I am still miffed at being kept in the dark. Such negotiating skills would come in handy. I want to use them in my next pitch meeting. 

The brothers professed an awful lot of love for each other – some of this should have been cut and Penelope’s role expanded. She needed to be a greater part of the action and, quick-study that she was, equal to or even better than the conmen. Bloom would have found her more interesting, not less, and, more importantly, so would the audience.  Hell, Bloom might have been inspired by Penelope’s courage and finally found his own.

In this post-Buffy, post Xena, post Laura Croft age, male AND female movie-goers are looking for a little umph in our heroines. (Film-makers want both demographics to show up and both have proven that they will, when given the right characters and stories.) Instead, Penelope is forced to cut off the parts of herself that are most engaging, in the name of love. That relationship is so doomed. 

Two final notes. 

A priceless opportunity is wasted by not developing in greater depth, the incipient friendship between Penelope and Bang-Bang. Not only is it a captivating connection, but it is rich with potential for plot twists, drama, action and comedy. What an interesting character is Bang-bang. Yet she remains, throughout, an enigma.  

Which brings me to my final point.

In this day and age, a silent Asian female character is highly suspect. Bang-Bang may have been unusually good with explosives, but she is literally voiceless. No wonder she wants to blow things up! This type of stereotype is bound to alienate Asians, Asian women and thinking women and men of all races and ethnicities.  When combined with the diminution of the other female lead, it isn’t the wisest way to go. Time to rewrite. That’s what the doctor would have ordered, had she seen the script.