12 Oct 2015

Trainwrecks, woman-children and expectations of feminist gratitude

If there's anything more likely to prompt a display of wilful ingratitude, it's being told that you should be grateful for something. The meal that the seven year-old was happily eating a minute ago gets shoved to one side as soon as their parents point out that they that should be thankful for it because kids in the developing world are starving. Someone says "well, at least you have your health," when you're bitching about some other aspect of your life, and you want to say "FUCK MY HEALTH, I'M TRYING TO HAVE A GOOD OLD COMPLAIN HERE!" And of course, there's the enraging response to any woman who dares to suggest that feminism in the first world still has a way to go: "At least you're not in Saudi Arabia/Sudan/DRC/Iran, women there have it much worse."

Sometimes I feel like these expectations of gratitude (which often are really saying "Be grateful, even though the bar is set so low for what you should be grateful for that it's frankly insulting" or "Be grateful, because I'm just not interested in hearing anything else") come from inside the feminist community. Every so often a woman or TV programme or other media artefact will come along that will have everyone buzzing about what a game-changer it is. Case in point: Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that managed to feature a strong, non-sexualised female lead, pass the Bechdel test with flying colours, and feature enough guns, explosions and fast vehicles to please action movie buffs too. Yet, great as it was to see such a film emerge, it was depressing that its success was even worthy of comment. It's 2015, for fuck's sake - why should a female lead in an action movie still be noteworthy? Why should we have to be pleased that Charlize Theron's character didn't prance around in a catsuit, and that women with actual wrinkles and grey hair got some decent airtime during the movie? These things should be the very damn least we can expect from a movie, not something we should feel grateful for, and the fact we're still expected to speaks volumes to me about how feminism still has to go.

I was reminded of this reading a friend's status on Facebook this morning. Heather Carper, who amongst various talents is a social justice activist (and someone who provided some invaluable input to my book) wrote:
I officially don't get the point of Amy Schumer. I understand that being "fat by Hollywood standards" is a thing, and being blunt about being sexually voracious is potentially an anti-slut-shaming/ fat-shaming thing. But ultimately it mostly feels like things that should have been scandalous/gross/ funny when we were in Junior High. . .
This echoes my own thoughts on the matter. Now, granted, just because we're all women/feminists doesn't mean every woman's work is going to be our taste. Perhaps Schumer's comedy is just not the type my friend and I enjoy. That doesn't make it bad, or anti-feminist, and she has every right to be putting it out there and enjoying her success. But the fact that Schumer is being held up by the media, and by many feminists (she was Ms. magazine's cover star this summer) as a trailblazer for women is the part that really doesn't sit right with me. 

I went to see Trainwreck, the Judd Apatow film starring Schumer, a few months ago, and let's just say it's a good thing it was a free screening because I thought it was such a poor film that I would have been angry had I spent any money on it. It wasn't funny. It wasn't feminist. It centred around a fairly dislikeable, one-dimensional, self-absorbed white woman who happened to be slightly chunkier than the average Hollywood actress. The latter aspect was about as feminist or trailblazing as the film got, because otherwise it seemed like an attempt to shoehorn every possible cliche about sad spinsters into 120 minutes. It showed Amy being desperate for love, having various unfunny sexual mishaps, and eventually changing herself (and dressing up in a "sexy" cheerleader's outfit - WTAF?) to try and please a man. Oh, and it was kind of homophobic too, Paging Emma Goldman, I think we lost our feminism somewhere...

Now the defence of this is that, if we've truly achieved equality, films should show women as equally flawed and capable of making mistakes as men. But that's not really what was going on here. Rather than suggesting that women can be imperfect and still be OK, the film actually just reinforced a load of conservative cliches about women and relationships: as Nicholas Barber pointed out in The Independent, 
Amy’s hedonistic streak must be erased so she can end up with her Prince Charming, Bill Hader’s clean-cut doctor. Transformed and reformed, she ultimately gives away all her alcohol and drug paraphernalia and confesses her envious admiration for the married-with-children sister she once mocked. . .Yuck. For a film that spends so much time subverting romcom conventions, it’s amazing how lovingly it ends up embracing them.
Women still aren't allowed to be imperfect without them ending up "fixed" in some way - via a makeover or a man. While it'd be a great start to see more body shapes like Schumer's on screen, the behaviour of her character doesn't seem particularly rebellious, any more than say, Hannah Horvath, Lena Dunham's character in Girls, whose main flaw is her mind-boggling self-absorption.

This, as Heather pointed out on her status today, is a privilege only afforded to some women, namely white, middle-class women. Being inefficient and immature is not a risk many women can take. Writing about the new trope of "woman-child" as embodied by characters such as Hannah, Amy and Annie from Bridesmaids in the current issue of Bitch magazine, Sarah Sahim says  
In Western society, people of color must often work several times as hard for the same amount of success and recognition as a white person, often at the price of cultural assimilation. (And then watch while white mediocrity is hailed as an edgy new stereotype). . .If a woman of color was presented as a woman-child [in a TV show], all-too-familiar racist rhetoric would start to play out. A young woman of color who slacks off at work and smokes pot would be dismissed as lazy and ungrateful.
Heather wrote something similar on her status today, pointing out that the risks are simply different; Amy Schumer may still run the risk of being slut-shamed for talking graphically about sex, but she won't be "presumed a wanton babymaker that must be controlled because of your skin colour." I also agree that the individualistic philosophy that interprets one woman having the platform to publicly caricature her sex life as somehow sex-positive progress for all women needs taking down. How exactly is an awkward sex scene between Schumer's character and her dim boyfriend (who is apparently closeted gay - someone explain to me why that's meant to be funny rather than just horrible?) a step forward for womankind?

This brings me to a point I think can never be made enough - because there is still such a dearth of films where women are the default characters, not just helpmeets for the male characters, not just a romantic mirror for the male lead to see himself in, not completely absent and not just a token Smurfette (Yo, Sicario!), there is still such a big fuss made when films like Trainwreck and comedians like Schumer come along. We fall over ourselves to call them feminist and progressive when, judged against any objective standards, they're actually pretty poor. No one looks at Mad Men's lead character Don Draper in all his conflicted, repressed, cowardly, philandering glory and says "He's such a complex and flawed man - what a great MALE character," because they don't need to - male characters are considered the default. No one holds Jon Hamm up as a fantastic role model and ground breaker for men for playing such a character. Men aren't expected to be grateful that such an actor or role exists. Because it's just presumed that they will exist. Of course male actors will get to play complicated and richly painted roles. And of course their characters won't be held up as something all men should be grateful for. Wow, Seth Rogen and Zach Galifanakis have done SO MUCH for the right of men to be chubby and bearded and still appear in movies, haven't they? Yet no one tells men to be grateful for that. Because  actually, they kinda had that right all along.

So, good luck to Amy, Lena, Sarah Silverman and all the other female writer and comedians out there putting their energies into depicting women who don't have their shit together. But don't confuse the fact that they're able to get their work out there (which does spell progress) with their work being progressive (which it generally really isn't). And don't tell me to be grateful for their success. I'll be grateful when the bar isn't set so low any more that I stop being expected to fawn over any successful woman just because she's a woman, rather than having the luxury to stop consider whether her work is any good and whether it uplifts other women, or just her own self-image and bank balance.

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